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Fighting the Last War

February 6, 2009

It is a commonplace of analysis–historical and otherwise–to suggest that militaries fight the last war. So commonplace, that it has trickled into analyses of non-military matters, such as Investment banking. The truism is, unfortunately, not particularly true. Rather, militaries prepare to fight the last war that they want to fight. Generals and Admirals are actually fairly selective in their models, and they usually chose the model that seems to them congenial. In many cases, they simply create an imaginary war to fight, one which fits with their ideas, preconceptions, and prejudices. Sometimes this mythic war resembles an actual war. More often, it resembles an amalgamation of wars, with bits and pieces chosen from different conflicts. In other words, it is not the last war that militaries prepare to fight, it is the preferential war.

Thus, the canonical model for fighting the last war–World War I–did not come about because the militaries of Europe prepared merely to fight the last war, but because the generals chose the war they imagined they would fight. In 1914’s case, the military leadership of Europe looked more to the wars of the past that they found congenial–the Franco-Prussian War, the Russo-Japanese War–than the one that they didn’t–the American Civil War.

The point of this for today’s world is that the Pentagon is not locked into the last war (whether it be the Gulf War, the Cold War, or Vietnam). Instead, each service, to a varying degree, has remained enamored of World War II and the conventional warfare that dominated that conflict. Thus the Navy focuses on buying large aircraft carriers, escort ships, amphibious landing ships, and submarines, an almost perfect mirror of the Navy that fought Japan from 1941-45. The Air Force aims for air superiority fighters, attack planes, and long range bombers, even as the Army Air Force did against Germany in World War II. The Army buys itself heavy main battle tanks, infantry carriers, and the accoutrements of conventional warfare, looking much like a 21st century version of American forces at Normandy in 1944. The Marine Corps buys amphibious landing craft and tilt-rotor aircraft to be ready for amphibious assaults like the ones at Tarawa and Iwo Jima.

There are exceptions within all these services. The Navy and the Air Force have developed and used unmanned vehicles to great purpose in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army has adopted some of the hard-won lessons of counterinsurgency and begun equipping itself to match.

There are obvious problems with this pattern. One problem is that the military has to justify these new systems in the 21st century, not in WWII. The U.S. is no longer at war with Japan and Germany. As a result, the services look for potential threats that will account for the need to spend billions of dollars. There is no country in the world that can match the Air Force’s current fleet of air superiority fighters, so the Air Force points to China and Russia as impending threats. There is no fleet that can match the ships of the Navy, so the the service points to a potential threat from China. This leads to the next problem which is, in the process of preparing for potential wars, the Pentagon neglects the wars that America is actually fighting. Thus, during the war in Iraq, the Army was funding the Future Combat System, an expensive array of technologies for the soldier of the 21st century, while unarmored Humvees were being sent to a combat zone. Finally, when the technologies are sent to the actual conflicts, they often prove not to be optimized for that kind of war. The Stryker armored vehicle had to have steel cages attached to detonate the warheads of insurgent anti-tank weapons in Iraq.

The new administration can best deal with this focus on preferential wars is to force the Pentagon and each service to think long and hard about the wars that the U.S. is currently fighting. The last administration did not do this. In fact, President Bush’s policies actively militated against such a way of thinking by separating the funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the “normal” military budget and putting them in supplementals. The signal was hard to miss. President Obama should ensure that the same thing does not happen in this administration, lest we discover that our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan become a long-term incapacity.

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