The War over Future War: Repelling a Ground Assault on AirSea Battle


You know you’re making progress in bureaucratic struggles when you start attracting serious criticism. That’s why proponents of AirSea Battle, and associated broader efforts to ensure America retains its decades-long lead in military technology in the air, on the seas, and in space and cyberspace, should take heart from Army Colonel Scott Gerber’s guns-blazing, all-fronts assault on these initiatives, recently published at Foreign Policy. Colonel Gerber, a veteran of three tours in Iraq, argues that efforts to shift our emphasis away from the costly and frustrating ground campaigns of the last decade are not only mistaken but dangerous. Instead of placing our bets on high-end capabilities typified by AirSea Battle, Gerber argues we need to keep our focus on our ground forces, which, he contends, are the only forces that can attain the objectives we want to pursue in future wars.

What are we to make of Colonel Gerber’s assault? Would it be a mistake for the United States to focus on shoring up its advantages at the high-end of warfare (mostly the responsibility of what he calls “the technical services” – the Air Force, Navy, and other parts of the Department of Defense such as Strategic, Space, and Cyber Commands) rather than on maintaining and improving our ground forces? Is Colonel Gerber right that such a focus would represent a prostration to a fantastical belief that “easy wars” are possible, that technological advantage can allow us to make our enemies bend to our every will? And is he right to counsel that we should concentrate on ground forces because only they can fulfill the kinds of missions that our political interests and global commitments require?

The answer to these questions is uniformly no.

Now let’s be clear about one thing up front. Colonel Gerber is absolutely right to admonish us not to fall prey to hopes for “easy wars.” It is true that short and decisive wars are possible (which is why we should be careful to maintain a strong military deterrent – so that others don’t start to believe in such a possibility). Observe Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait (minus our response, of course), the Six-Day War of 1967, or the Prussian Wars against Denmark, Austria, and France in the 1860s and 1870s. The reasons not to be seduced by the prospect of “easy wars” are, however, moral and prudential. Wars are by their nature malign things and thus should only be undertaken for grave and necessary reasons by a country, such as ours, that aspires to be moral in our dealings abroad. And, when wars do prove necessary, we should undertake them with the prudent expectation that things will not go as we expect and will often go considerably worse than we anticipate. In simpler terms, it is both right and wise to view wars as basically bad and unpredictable things, only to be entered into for the most compelling reasons.

But Colonel Gerber is wrong to tie the dangerous and often mistaken expectation that wars can be “easy” only to the higher-technology end of the military spectrum. He is certainly right that high-tech capabilities can feed such hopes; we need only recall that some partisans of what used to be commonly referred to as “military transformation” (more colloquially, the ability to exploit cutting-edge technology for military advantage) vested far too much hope in the ability of the United States to use such technologies to work its will against more or less whomever it chose. But the vain expectation that wars will be “easy” is hardly the private property of those focused on high-tech military capabilities. To the contrary, it is an affliction that cuts across the services and across attitudes about military strategies. Paladins of old-fashioned ground combat can and often have been partisans of quick and easy war. One simply need refer back to the expectations of certain influential Germans in the first part of the twentieth century, such as Helmuth von Moltke and Heinz Guderian, to be reminded that ground forces provide just as workable fodder for such hopes. The old canard that “the troops will be home by Christmas” usually referred to ground forces, after all. Conversely, stout defenders of high-tech forces, like (President) Dwight Eisenhower, can and often have been the firmest opponents of such notions.

Of course, Colonel Gerber is thinking of more recent examples, and in particular of our unhappy experience in Iraq, when he makes these points. In the case of Iraq, where he comes by his credibility the hard way, Gerber is certainly correct that some advocates of high-tech warfare drastically miscalculated what we would be able to accomplish there beyond unseating Saddam Hussein. As he rightly asserts, high-tech “shock and awe” most definitively did not achieve all that the United States wanted or expected it to there.

But Gerber draws a strange lesson from that fact. Rather than seeing Iraq as a crystal clear example of the limited value of military power of all kinds for achieving inordinately ambitious projects such as attempting to pacify and transform a profoundly complex country, he wants to pin responsibility for our travails there on an excessive focus on high-end warfare. But while there is no question that air strikes and satellite imagery didn’t prevent or crush the insurgency or transform a recalcitrant population into a pliant one, one must ask: Did our ground forces accomplish those things? Does Gerber suggest that the right lesson of Iraq is that we should have kept doing lots more of the same thing (pouring resources into a large ground occupation) in pursuit of the same goals? Aren’t the real lessons of the war that such occupations can spur nasty rebellions and that efforts at revolutionary transformation are unpredictable in consequence, exceedingly difficult to implement successfully, and excruciatingly resistant to resolution?

More broadly, isn’t the right lesson of Iraq not to get involved in that kind of thing unless you really, really have to and, when you do, to aim your aspirations more modestly?

These points lead to a set of broader questions that Colonel Gerber’s article compel us to think through. How precisely do we decide what wars we need to be prepared to get into? And what should we seek to achieve in the wars that we do decide we need to fight? Gerber argues that we need ground forces because land wars are a lasting feature of the international environment, and that there are contingencies in which only major land forces would be able to achieve our objectives.

Now, there is no question that the potential for land wars will endure; and we can certainly devise scenarios in which the United States could productively use ground forces on a large scale. These things are indisputably possible. But Colonel Gerber does not show why it would be necessary or even sensible or worthwhile for the United States to get involved in these land wars in the first place. We can of course come up with contingencies in which the United States might theoretically want or even need certain types of forces – but these might well be for scenarios which we wouldn’t want to get embroiled in in the first place, or at least embroiled in with large ground forces. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wisely reminded us towards the end of his tenure, anyone who proposes we get enmeshed in major land campaigns in Asia, the Middle East, or Africa should “have his head examined.”

Furthermore, Gerber is wrong that only ground forces can achieve the objectives we want to pursue when we do find it necessary to go to war. Bear in mind that our strategic interests are basically defensive and limited and mostly what we’re looking to our military forces to do in the world is defend against and deter attacks on our interests and those of our allies. Ground forces are best for tasks like defending, taking, and occupying territory, and ultimately bringing other countries to heel, while air, sea, and other high-tech forces are better-suited to tasks like controlling the seas and the air, enabling our own power projection while stopping others’, and coercion and deterrence. So though Gerber is certainly right that air and sea forces are limited in what they can do – they can’t bend countries to our every will – is that really a problem? Do we need our forces to be able to conquer and hold territory? Or can we happily get by with forces that are, on the whole, better for control of the “global commons” and for defense of and deterrence on behalf of ourselves and our allies?

Let’s step back a bit to try to answer these questions. The reality is that the United States is, from a military-strategic point of view, a status quo power. The basic – and quite successful – U.S. strategy across every administration since 1945 and, with some updating after the Cold War, since 1991 has been to bring together and protect a network of like-minded allies and partners in order to maintain a strong grouping of powerful nations favoring our kinds of policies, thereby (during the Cold War) containing hostile powers like the Soviet Union and (in recent years) attempting to channel the growth of rising powers like China and check revisionist ones like Iran. Since we’re happy with our own lucky country and our alliances, we’re not interested in conquest or expansion through military force. What Ronald Reagan said about the Soviet leadership’s fears of American invasion holds more broadly: “What the h*&^ do they have that we would want?”

In the Cold War struggle against the USSR and its enormous Red Army and nuclear force, this strategy was seen to necessitate a huge nuclear arsenal, strong ground and air forces in Europe, and powerful naval and air forces in the Pacific. But what does our strategy entail today, in a much changed environment? Today the primary military threats we face come from China’s growing and Russia’s advancing high-end military capabilities, from North Korean and Iranian nuclear and missile programs, and from the proliferation of advanced military capabilities to other small states and non-state actors like Hezbollah. But, with the exception of South Korea, no ally of ours faces a major land threat in the near term – and, even there, the ROK Army is quite a match for the DPRK’s.

So where on the world map is there is a serious, plausible threat to the United States, its allies, or its partners requiring that we field the kind of army that can achieve the sort of decisive military victory (like marching into Berlin or Tokyo in 1945) that Gerber says we need to be prepared to pursue? Which meaningful threats cannot be defeated or deterred through the limited but still, for our purposes, decisive things that air, sea, and other high-tech capabilities can do? With superior high-tech forces, can’t we defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan – even if we can’t march to Beijing? Or crush an Iranian incursion against the Gulf states – even if we decide not to overthrow the Islamic regime? Or repel a Russian grab against NATO – even without unseating Vladimir Putin?

In other words, don’t our limited, status quo strategic goals necessitate only limited – albeit superlatively good – military means? And isn’t it vital to tailor our ability to fight wars so that we can limit them, so that we don’t face an impossible choice between starting World War III or doing nothing? Clausewitz observed that nothing is more important than understanding rightly the kind of war you are getting into and setting your aims accordingly – and in this context it means we need to be prepared to fight limited wars with limited means for limited objectives. High-tech capabilities give us the better – if still invariably imperfect – ability to do this.

To be fair, though, it must be noted that Colonel Gerber does provide several scenarios that he argues show how we might need big ground forces. So let’s unpack his three suggested examples: the possibility of a regime collapse in North Korea, the boiling conflict in Syria, and preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Now, there is no question that our air, sea, and other high-tech capabilities wouldn’t be very effective at solving any of these problems – and might well exacerbate them. But from that it definitely does not follow that ground forces would be any better; in fact, they might well make things a lot worse.

It is certainly true that the continuing threat from North Korea justifies a significant U.S. ground presence on the Korean Peninsula but, if North Korea collapses, does Colonel Gerber propose that the best idea would be to deploy a massive U.S. army across the DMZ? How did that work out in 1950 – and with a far weaker China? In the event of a collapse of the North Korean regime, wouldn’t the far better idea be to rely on (South) Koreans, perhaps aided by international and U.S. forces, to pacify and administer a dissolved North Korea? As for Syria, what does Colonel Gerber suggest we do with ground forces there? Our neighboring allies in Israel and Turkey have no need of our help to defend against conventional invasion from Syria, so what is he recommending our land forces do in that fractured country? Is he suggesting that an attempt to occupy and/or pacify Syria would be a good idea? Iraq would seem to provide more than sufficient evidence of the inadvisability of that course of action. And while Gerber is correct to point to the limits of airpower in dealing with the Iranian nuclear question, what use are ground forces in addressing that challenge? Is he suggesting that invading and occupying the country to deal with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is the right approach? Not even the most ardent proponents of attacking Iran propose that.

Colonel Gerber’s scenarios remind us that it is as important, if not more so, to understand what our strategic interests do not require as much as what they do. Just as there are commitments we should stick to so there are also things we don’t need to do and shouldn’t do, including many things that would justify a focus on maintaining big land forces. And this logic applies as much to objectives we should forebear pursuing in the event of war as it does to wars we should avoid getting into the first place. For instance, even if do we get into a war with Russia or China, it wouldn’t make sense to invade them, as this would be to court national destruction. Nor would it make sense, if we got in a fight with Iran, to occupy the country and attempt to transform it into a model democracy. Our experience with Iraq should disabuse us of the notion that that would be a good idea. Similarly, it would be foolish to try to pacify the Congo, as we are compelled to acknowledge that our resources aren’t limitless, our capabilities are imperfect for achieving even righteous aspirations, and that our interests must always provide a control for our benevolence.

In other words, merely pointing out the limitations of high-tech forces for dealing with some of our knottiest international challenges does not logically lead to the conclusion that having, let alone using, lots of ground forces would be better. Rather, the right deduction is that there are some geopolitical problems out there that our military forces in general just can’t solve – quite a few, actually. This means we should be careful about the wars we get ourselves into and that we should be equally careful about setting our objectives appropriately – namely, by limiting them – when we do find ourselves at war.

But let’s be clear. There should be little doubt that the U.S. should want strong military forces. We and our like-minded nations will be a lot safer and better off to the extent that we maintain an unquestionably strong military. As Clausewitz (again) aptly and memorably put it, “The best strategy is always to be very strong.” And so Colonel Gerber is right to say that excessively small forces invite war – he’s just wrong that a necessary characteristic of these forces is that they be on the ground and be – since he is so keen to attack “high-tech” – lower-tech. Rather, the United States needs a military that is adapted to the strategic landscape of the present and especially the future, and that military is one that dominates or at least holds a solid lead in the realm of high technology and its exploitation.

And this can’t just be taken for granted. As Gerber himself points out, there are growing challenges to the high-end supremacy of the U.S. military – from China, of course, but also from Russia and from the spread of high-technology capabilities to countries like Iran and North Korea and to non-state actors like Hezbollah. The United States would be very ill-advised to rest on its laurels in an era of rapid and disruptive technological change. Instead, we should be focusing like a laser – so to speak – on maintaining and extending our invaluable lead in the application of high technology to the military arena.

Now there shouldn’t be any confusion: Such an American military has a vital role for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The United States does and will continue to need highly capable ground forces. But these forces should be adapted to the kinds of strategic challenges our country will face: for instance, we should want ground forces that are mobile and effective in responding to unforeseen contingencies, that can plug in to improve the ground capabilities of allies such as South Korea; and that can field increasingly effective missile defense and shorter-range strike capabilities. We still need forces that can take, occupy, and defend ground, but that can do so in the context of the high-technology environment in which our military will have to operate.

Of course, prudence mandates that we acknowledge that it is always possible that this prognosis is wrong, and that the United States may in fact end up needing large ground forces for deployment. Still, even if Colonel Gerber turns out to be right, rejecting his advice means that we risk being under-prepared for the next Iraq or Afghanistan or, at worst (since we would certainly have strategic warning of the growth of a more serious land threat posed by the likes of China or Russia), the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But being unprepared in this way would not threaten our nation’s fundamental security or that of our allies.

Conversely, if we take his advice and he is wrong, then we will have surrendered our lead in the high frontier of warfare, the lead in technology that has been central to our ability to deter major war for decades. If we abandon the competition for mastery of military high technology – and, make no mistake, if we do not compete strenuously enough, that is exactly the future we court – then we may well find ourselves able to deal with an insurgent with a rifle but not with a nation-state armed with precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles, an integrated strike reconnaissance-strike complex, and nuclear weapons. The insurgent is a problem; the nation-state is a threat to our way of life. Given that we probably can’t do both very well, doesn’t it make more sense to be sure we can deal with the latter?


Elbridge Colby is a defense analyst in Washington, D.C. and a War on the Rocks contributor.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army