By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense future of war entry
The there are two great truths about the future of war.
The first is that it will consist of identifying and killing the enemy and either prevailing or not. We can surmise all sorts of new bells and whistles and technologies yet unknown, but, ultimately, it comes down to killing people. It doesn't always have to happen, but you always have to prepare to make it happen, and have the other guy know that.
The other great truth is that whatever we think today regarding the form, type, and location of our next conflict, will be wrong. Our history demonstrates this with great clarity.
Well then, how do we appropriately organize for the next conflict if both these things are true? There are a number of historical verities that should serve as guides for both our resourcing and our management. In no particular order, but with the whole in mind, here are some key points to consider that have proven historically very valuable in times of war. The historic degree of support for any one or all within the service structures usually indicated the strengths and shortfalls of our prior leadership vision, preparation, and battlefield successes or failures at the time.
TECHNOLOGY. This should be heavily invested so our military is on the leading, not trailing edge of warfare and its tools. It is a given that bad people and bad nations look to new and unknown elements to provide a leading edge. It was only because of FDR's instincts that we got a nuclear program ahead of the Germans. Conversely, had they made earlier investments in jets and long-range submarines, we may never have had a chance to use our newfound technology. Research & Development is often shorted for budgetary reasons and is largely unseen and unappreciated until the other guy's R&D work is demonstrated on the battlefield against our people. Think IED and cyberwarfare.
INTELLIGENCE. There can never be enough in enough different ways. Enough is never enough in this area. This is especially true now with so many bright people, bright ways, and asymmetric environments. Crucial to all this is HUMINT -- often a dirty word because it involves risk and judgment -- but usually the only really truly confirming data point a field commander has. The Iran rescue attempt would probably have had a far different outcome had quality HUMINT been available.
QUALITY PEOPLE. From the lowest to the highest grade, quality or lack thereof emerges with great visibility in the opening period of any conflict. Ineffective organizations from squad to corps and ships and planes are usually the result of a disinterest in the stocking, training and education of those personnel and things. In times of peace, military organizations tend to rest, be selective in the workloads and if pinched for people, lower entrance standards or excuse poor performance. People, especially quality people with societal options, cost money. Within our system, cutting personnel and their costs is usually the quickest way to achieve savings and the least politically dangerous. It is always a proven false economy when warfare begins.
ECCENTRIC THOUGHT. Military institutions traditionally abhor the eccentric. But in times of war, it is the eccentric that shows the light to seemingly insurmountable problems and provides field elements a priceless edge. Consider the World War II Higgins Boat and ULTRA programs -- both were the brainchildren of people thought beyond the pale by the conventional military of the time. All the services have schools and "future think" programs that could harbor the unusual mind. There are people within the population that seem to be in another universe and viewed as distasteful by the system. But they may also hold the only flashlight for a dark room problem besetting a combat zone. The services should create a small place in their structure for these people and encourage their play. It has always paid dividends.
LANGUAGE & CULTURE. It's more than likely that our next war will be fought in a place we don't now know where there is a language and culture we may not fully understand. We will lose people because of that. There is also a distinct possibility that the nature of that future fight will encompass civilians and the necessity of convincing them as to our quality. The services need to encourage and build on an internal knowledge base of great diversity, expertise, and cultural flexibility. Some small node of that base will be priceless at a critical moment. The crucial need is always at the cutting edge of human interface -- a place where this sort of education is historically not taught in favor of rote tactics. How much money did DOD have to spend to allow small units to effectively work in our latest wars for translators and cultural support personnel?
DEPLOYABILITY. The most effective unit in our inventory is irrelevant if it can't get someplace in time to make a difference. Historically, this is an area beset with specific service agendas and is non-glamorous from a funding perspective. Amphibious lift and air deployability have been traditional tail-end budget items for services enamored with big ships and fast planes. It is highly likely that wherever our next conflict is, it won't be in the United States. Getting there will be important. Consider the heroic and somewhat amusing efforts it took to get land combat units to Kuwait -- think Liberty Ships. If Saddam had been more aggressive, our initial elements would have been speed bumps and their members memorialized. We can do a lot better but it takes visionary discipline and resources.
LEADERSHIP. Someone will always be "in charge" at all levels. This is an oft-used phrase within the military but not often truly defined or nurtured. Whatever the state of quality our forces have at a moment of conflict, the existing leadership will make the decisions and we will live with the results. McClellan or Marshall -- you get what you got with what you developed. Truly defining this quality, determining how to select quality and educating quality will be crucial. Leadership puts all the above aspects into qualitative action -- or doesn't. Our success or lack thereof will be determined by the quality of leadership at all levels at the moment of commitment. Even without desired resources, future quality leaders at all levels and tasks can have the vision and mindset to effectively overcome issues, determine the most effective solutions, and inspire success. This is the one area, above all, that cannot be neglected. Nor should we be dependent on a momentary find of a personality that "doesn't fit the mold." Quality will be demanded at all levels -- especially at the very top and bottom.
Leading in peace has always been the greatest challenge for the services. The usual lodestones for success do not exist. Proving the necessity for existence is always a major budgetary challenge. The senior leadership is constantly trying to find the Philosopher's Stone that turns a little into a lot. Leadership is further hampered by both internal service pet rocks as well as congressional proclivities. History indicates that the successful military Philosopher's Stone can rarely be identified in the whole, but we do know some of the parts.
Col. (Ret.) Keith Nightingale commanded Airborne and Ranger/SOF infantry forces from company through brigade. He participated in the combat spectrum from the Dominican Republic through the Iran rescue attempt to Afghanistan, as well as in drug interdiction operations in Latin America. He annually conducts Normandy terrain walks for U.S. military participants in the anniversary period.
Tom note: Got your own list o f long-held truths about the future of war? Consider submitting an essay. The contest ends soon. Try to keep it short -- no more than 750 words, if possible. And please! no footnotes or recycled war college papers.