The Irrelevance of Traditional Warfare?

January 27, 2015

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A senior government official recently posed the provocative question: “Is land warfare dead?”

While his premise was primarily directed at the Army and Marines, the broader question is relevant to all of the military services: Are all forms of traditional warfare – land, sea, and air – dead?

This question might seem flippant, given the enormous challenges of dealing with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Russians in eastern Ukraine, and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Traditional forms of warfare – which one of us has described as “Wars of Iron” – are not dead. But they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the average American.

Allies and adversaries alike have learned a key lesson from all U.S. wars since the 1991 Gulf War: fighting the United States in a conventional, force-on-force battle is a recipe for failure. Instead, fighting the United States successfully requires an asymmetric approach that extends beyond military means.

In the coming years, the key national security challenges facing the United States will be centered less and less on states or other actors who employ traditional forms of military power to accomplish their objectives. Perhaps even more importantly, individual Americans will increasingly experience threats to their security not from enemy tanks, bombers, or submarines, but through indirect, asymmetrical means.

Other than the potential risk of a nuclear terrorist attack, the most disruptive of these will be delivered through the cyber domain. The United States is arguably more vulnerable to asymmetric threats from the digital domain than any other nation on earth – our entire society now relies almost entirely upon the cyber realm simply to function every day.

The recent attacks on Sony in response to their wicked film spoof of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un are an overdue wakeup call, but only one example. In 2014, there were publicly reported hacker attacks against financial services company J.P. Morgan Chase, retailers Neiman Marcus and eBay, and communications firms AT&T, Yahoo, and Google. Criminal attacks targeting credit data at stores like Target and Home Depot are now almost commonplace. And these are just the events we hear about. While attributing the source of these attacks – and estimating the damage they have caused – remains difficult, their impact and growing frequency cannot be dismissed. A Justice Department indictment of five Chinese People’s Liberation Army officers for cyber-theft of intellectual property last year was a strong harbinger of this mounting threat to Americans.

Yet the larger threat is the wholesale disruption of the very digital fabric that allows American society to function – such as the networks that undergird the financial system, power grids, the air traffic control system, and energy flows. A sophisticated attacker could severely damage a number of these vital webs simultaneously. And the sustained damage may far exceed any immediate disruption. Such a massive attack could quickly erode citizen confidence in our entire system of trade, records, and transport – the intricate symphony of interrelated events we take for granted every day, but upon which our society depends. This central nervous system of the nation is now at catastrophic risk.

Yet the United States continues to spend a staggeringly large part of its national security budget on traditional threats. The 2015 Department of Defense (DOD) budget tops $500 billion, but most of its capabilities investments are still squarely aimed at building more effective conventional warfare tool sets – bigger and better bombers, fighters, armored vehicles, and warships. The F-35 fifth generation jet fighter program alone has an expected lifetime cost of nearly $1 trillion, an unprecedented investment in high-end warfighting hardware. DOD cyber spending has increased in recent years, but even defense experts often fail to realize that these efforts focus primarily on DOD networks and cyber warfare. They are not designed to address the broad societal vulnerability to digital threats.

In 1999, two colonels in China’s People’s Liberation Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, published a little-noticed volume called “Unrestricted Warfare.” They argued that a rising power like China would have little chance of competing militarily with an established dominant military power like the United States. They recognized that China could only prevail in a conflict with the United States by thinking and acting asymmetrically – fundamentally bypassing American strengths and striking at U.S. vulnerabilities.

Qiao and Wang listed a number of areas where concerted action against the United States would be immensely more effective in achieving China’s political objectives than military attacks would be. These included economic warfare, financial warfare, telecommunications and network warfare, resource warfare, information and media warfare, and international law warfare, to name but a few. Some of these ideas have already been incorporated into official Chinese military thinking. In 2015, it takes little imagination to see how many of these domains embody the core strengths and profound vulnerabilities of the United States. And yet the Department of Defense has at best a peripheral role in protecting Americans from the disruption and the collapse of vital functions should even one of these areas be successfully attacked and effectively upended – and the coercion such painful attacks could enable.

In the next few years, a catastrophic asymmetric attack on the United States is most likely to emanate from the cyber domain – and DOD would almost certainly be quickly mobilized to respond. If the response to the 9-11 attacks is any guide, the government might task DOD to deal with this critical vulnerability. In a world where decentralized access to hacking skills and entree to global networks is simple, and where attribution for attacks is maddeningly difficult, this would be the wrong answer. The militarization of cyber defense directed across the infinite array of cyber users would likely be fruitless, ineffective, and fought with stubborn resistance by businesses and individuals alike.

DOD should clearly not be the lead agency responsible for shielding American citizens, industry, and public utilities from this growing threat. That responsibility is shared widely with other U.S. government agencies, state and local governments, the private sector, and individual citizens (to practice what DOD and others call “cyber hygiene”). But DOD does have a role, and one that can begin now to better protect the nation.

Rather than mobilizing more and more active duty manpower and building new organizations to exploit cyber operations, DOD should leverage its own asymmetric options – it should turn to its reserve components. The ranks of the National Guard and reserves are filled with members who have civilian pursuits that equip them with diverse skills often far beyond their military specialties. A number of these patriotic Americans work in the technology and cyber domains, and many more could be recruited.

Even more importantly, the National Guard has a unique dual role. Its primary domestic mission is to respond to civil crises at the state level, whenever requested by the governor. Furthermore, it has authorities and responsibilities that lend themselves well to ongoing cyber vigilance and partnering with private industry to better grasp the scope of this pervasive and compelling problem. Guardsmen and women would be among the first called to respond to a widespread disaster resulting from the physical disruption of a massive cyber attack. Their role before the attack must now expand to leverage their unique, dual state and federal responsibilities for prevention, as well as response.

DOD must continue to invest in conventional war capabilities, to deter potential adversaries from concluding that the age of U.S. military superiority is over. But in many ways, the United States continues to overinvest in those capabilities compared to the increasingly urgent – and potentially existential – threat posed by today’s massive societal vulnerability to asymmetric attacks. DOD needs to rethink its current priorities to stay relevant to the core security threats now facing individual Americans, and find innovative ways to use the full range of talents in its active and reserve components to better protect the nation’s security in this new, uncharted space.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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11 thoughts on “The Irrelevance of Traditional Warfare?

  1. The US, unsurprisingly, owns the internet. And the router switches that can cut off the mainland from other countries. Even US resident bot networks would be hamstrung without foreign instructions. Almost complete cyber security can be obtained by simply “throwing a switch”, so to speak.

    The reserves perhaps are the absolute worst possible force to stand in the way of a cyber attack. Boots on the ground are irrelevant in cyber space. Worthless. There are perhaps less than a thousand true cyber security experts in the world. I would bet that none of them are in the DOD reserves.

    Absolute control of the internet is actually a potent offensive weapon. What would happen if the non US DNS (Domain Name Services) were scrambled? It would take a few days to propagate, but in a majority of countries the internet would cease to function. Just for sh*ts and grins connect Chinese military sites to Russian banks. Countries could fix the problem slowly, provided they had even considered the threat.

  2. Does anyone else realise the immense irony of the author essentially stating that our conventional deterrence is so effective that we need to start spending less on it?

    Reality check. The reason why we haven’t fought a conventional war in so long is because we put a great deal of money and effort into our conventional capabilities, not in spite of it. I assure the author that conventional “wars of iron” are alive and well literally anywhere and everywhere else but the US and Western Europe.

    1. True that deterrence is a very effective strategy, however like all strategies, it’s extended use deteriorates its effectiveness with time. A nod to Napoleon – “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war”.

      In plainspeak. The US and its close allies vastly outspend China, Russia and whatever other potential adversary combined, however they are fully aware of this proposition. Their militaries are relatively weak, underfunded and generally corrupt (which exacerbates the weakness and lack of funding) in comparison. However, what the author identifies is that due to their self-awareness, they have been building capabilities that they believe outflank the deterrence value of our large military expenditure – namely asymmetric warfare.

      They’ve seen the impact that small insurgent groups can have on both our combat effectiveness but more importantly, our will to fight. Remember that we are democracies where the voter can change government policy (which includes withdrawing from combat) e.g. Spain and its hasty withdrawal from Iraq after the Madrid bombing wasn’t based upon the loss of morale amongst its soldiers or losing a battle on the ground – just the loss of faith by members of the voting public in extending the deployment. So, the will to fight is actually more important in our general public than the soldiers who fight.

      Asymmetric warfare is all about sapping the will to win. From my (limited) experience, I doubt the public today could sustain the martial spirit in the face of a coordinated loss of internet (cyber war), inability to obtain a luxury item (resource wars), loss of jobs (economic warfare), etc.

      Anyway, interesting article and a little thought-provoking. How do we harden not only our military networks, but the softer systems like public morale?

  3. The most dangerous scenario includes both traditional capabilities and asymetric capabilities. We cannot lose that fight should it ever occur. The most likely scenarios includes more asymetric characteristics. We can use traditional capabilities in those scenarios without losing, but they don’t guarantee winning. Using Iraq and Afghanistan, we have not “mastered” the asymetric, low end of the ROMO scenarios and they are getting more complex. We need to balance spending more to “master” the asymetric scenarios without compromising a losing scenario at the high end.

  4. This article was a disappointment. It reads as if the authors have read too much Tom Clancy and Richard Clarke, and too little Thomas Rid and Bruce Schneier. Strategic Service got it right: conventional “wars of iron” are happening around the world, Colin Gray makes a strong case in “Another Bloody Century” that those wars will revisit Europe in the foreseeable future, and the fact that sub-state actors are employing irregular/guerrilla tactics is nothing new.

  5. Among students of strategic studies, Unrestricted Warfare was hardly little noticed. Indeed, I cannot think of another work from China in the past 40 years that has received as much attention. As the Colonels note, cyber is but one of many avenues of approach. We cannot defend against all. This is why maintenance of a robust offensive threat – both nuclear and conventional – is so important. As the article notes, the US is more vulnerable to cyber attacks than anyone else, so offensive cyber capabilities have less deterrent effect than traditional kinetics. The key is developing the political will to use these capabilities to defend our interests. Unfortunately, this element of Clausewitz’s trinity is our weakest point, and one which no amount of budgetary reprogramming will fix.

    1. I think there are two problems with your response. Even with the offensive capabilities that we have – they do little good if we don’t know who the enemy actually is. This problem is difficult enough to deal with in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms, but even more so on the Internet where the enemy doesn’t physically exist.
      The second issue is “political will”. As we all know there is plenty of political will to support military hardware – the more expensive and sexy the better (a la F35 pie in the sky vs. A10 proven technology), but its much more difficult to gin up support for something as ethereal as cyber. It will only become important to ordinary folks when they can’t get cash at the ATM and can’t even get into their on-line bank accounts.
      That is why it is imperative for those of us who DO think about these things to get involved politically.

  6. General Barno and Dr Bensahel raise an important point, but possibly not one my fellow-co-respondents have pointed to. They underscore threats to the US’s ‘national security’ and point to distant swathes of the planetary space, underscoring the global nature of America’s perceived ‘national’ security interests. They write about ‘adversaries’ such as Russia and China, whose problems with their immediate neighbours are seen as threats to America’s ‘national’ security. It is difficult, from this perspective, to differentiate the ‘national’ from the ‘international.’ While any threats to the US-led order is clearly a threat to US ‘national’ security, any threats perceived by America’s detractors, say, for instance, Russia, China, Iran, Syria and North Korea, can only be applauded, in this view, as positive developments.

    So, the unstated but unambiguous message in this sophisticated commentary is: only those threats, however geospatially located, perceived by the US national security elite as ‘national’, are legitimate threats, to be countered with all sinews of American and allied capabilities; any threats perceived by the national security elites of states which are neither US allies nor its ‘strategic partners’, do not count. At least two inferences flow from this presumption.

    Firstly, until the entire planet is subsumed under the US-led systemic order, any assertion of the national interest (irrespective of their legitimacy or otherwise) by actors beyond the US-led global coalition would pose a threat to the US-led order. This would, by definition, precipitate a perpetually precarious primacy which would need to be defended from all possible, probable, putative and hypothetical challenges. Dependence on massive application of lethal force would render the order reliant on constant warfare. At some stage the drain on the national substance and erosion of global respect would force a rethink, until the cycle turned again. Strategic equilibrium would remain an unattainable chimera.

    Secondly, given the accelerated globalised flows of capital, information, technology and production-consumption linkages over the past quarter century, it is difficult to insulate the political from the economic. While symbiosis might be too strong a word for it, interdependence has grown so strong that Western sanctions CAN cripple a Russia or an Iran. Let’s not even talk about the planetary economic consequences of a Sino-Japanese-US war.

    So, yes, the authors are right to raise questions about the locus of conventional bloodletting in the policy toolkit of nations, but by ignoring systemic and structural contextual frameworks shaping the discourse, they may be allowing the trees to obscure the woods.

  7. I believe Mr Ali’s comment is revelatory. Perhaps something fundamental about our context, or operating environment, is changing before our eyes. It may be not so much that one capability or another is to be accentuated, but rather an entire strategic approach (for example, overuse of the military in place of alternative instruments of national power. Or the complexity and ambiguity of the operating environment may require a truly integrated and comprehensive strategic approach, requiring the consideration of all instruments of national power. In either case, the US does not have an existing, effective command and control system to apply such power (the National Security Council could very loosely be considered a CCS, as some elements of it tried to be during the Reagan years – not particularly successfully.)

  8. It would be a grave error for this country to presume it does not face a potential threat to its strategic national interests such as the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. One successful torpedo attack or one bomber based attack on a tanker passing through that area would have enormous negative effects on the Western Economy.

    Napoleon may have used the same tactical methods and America’s enemies may well have devised cultural based approaches to ground warfare nullifying the superiority posed by the weapons carried by our ground forces or applied in support of their operations. I’I’ll leave that assessment and conclusion to the experts in that area.

    It however does not apply to the potential threats commercial shipping or air traffic could face from a country investing in (for example) the newer quieter Diesel Electric Submarines.

    We must continue to develop ever newer technical methods and systems to deal with that class of threat. The nature of the threats faced by our ground forces (based on your expert commentary) are not comparable to those faced by the Nation’s Sea and Air Forces.

    We succeed when a potential enemy is unwilling to challenge our technical superiority and capabilities. Ours (in the Navy) is by necessity a preventative approach, hopefully not a responsive aporoach. The latter would for us be a sign of failure.

    The branches of the U.S. Military do not operate and face challenges in operating environments which provide for a one size (type) solution approach that fits all.