war on the rocks

Preparing for the Next Big War

January 26, 2016

“For almost twenty years we had all of the time and almost none of the money; today we have all of the money and no time.”

Those words were spoken by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall in 1940 as he was facing the imminent entry of the United States into World War II. He was lamenting the fact that when large conflicts suddenly arrive, all the money in the world cannot magically fix military shortfalls overnight. It is not hard to imagine a future Army chief of staff uttering those same words on the eve of a truly big war.

Between 1945 and 1989, the looming threat of global war between the United States and the Soviet Union informed every aspect of U.S. military preparations, from doctrine to organization to weaponry. But since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has not been sized, organized, and globally postured to fight a large-scale and bloody war.

Today, virtually no one serving below the rank of colonel or enlisted senior chief has ever served in a military facing a powerful peer competitor, nor have they faced a realistic prospect of fighting a global war to protect the nation’s most vital interests and perhaps even its survival. Yes, the United States has been at war for the past decade and a half. But even at their peak, U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan included no more than 171,000 troops and 100,000 troops respectively. Compare that with the more than 537,000 troops deployed at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 — which was considered a small and limited conflict at the time.

The likelihood that the United States will have to fight a really big war — one that requires many hundreds of thousands of troops, with high levels of destructiveness and casualties — remains low, but the consequences would be enormous. And in a world threatened increasingly by disorder, violent extremism, and more aggressive large states, those low odds may be increasing.

What could trigger a big war? A massive, direct attack on the United States certainly would, but other lesser crises could also escalate unpredictably. Imagine, for example, a Russian invasion of another eastern European state; a territorial miscalculation between the United States, China, or a treaty ally in the South China Sea; an explosive Sunni–Shia conflict spilling beyond the Middle East; a regional conflict in South Asia or on the Korean peninsula; or a large deadly terrorist attack in the United States. An initial U.S. military response to any of these scenarios could escalate into a greater, and potentially even global, conflict. The requirements of such a war would greatly exceed current contingency plans for Iraq, Afghanistan, or even the Korean peninsula.

The potentially devastating consequences of the next big war demands that the U.S. military (and the nation as a whole) prepare as much for this scenario as for the range of lesser challenges demanding attention today. Today’s wars, likely contingencies, and simply running the Defense Department all require time, energy, and resources. Choices and tradeoffs must be made. Nevertheless, the Pentagon must identify the gaps that would put the United States at the biggest risk in a large, prolonged conflict against a highly capable adversary, and mitigate those risks to the greatest extent possible.

We believe that there are at least five big gaps that the United States must try to fill — and a sixth that cannot be fixed even though it may be the area of greatest U.S. vulnerability.

1. Precision Munitions and Advanced Weaponry. A large-scale conflict could consume vast quantities of U.S. and allied precision munitions in the opening weeks. Many of these weapons have been bought in limited quantities and would require immediate replenishment. Munitions production lines should be stocked with critical sub-assemblies and parts, and precious scarce materials warehoused to rapidly churn out more of these essential tools of war. Precision munitions will be consumed quickly even in medium size conflicts; upgrading this capability would yield high payoffs across most potential scenarios. Moreover, the Department of Defense and industry must be able to rapidly accelerate and combat test advanced weapons that are still in development (such as rail guns and laser weapons), so they can get into the hands of fighting troops quickly.

2. Platforms. Fighter planes, drones, bombers, even submarines and surface warships could see heavy losses in the first days and weeks of a big war. Other hardware may prove obsolete or vulnerable to enemy action and require immediate replacement or abandonment. Most of these complex platforms require months or years to produce. Warm production lines with readily available manufacturing materials must be available to accelerate production quickly. There may be some lessons to be learned from the rapid production of MRAPs at the height of the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, the services should inventory their boneyards to identify what systems could be rapidly reconfigured for combat use with some advanced preparation.

3. Troops. Defending the United States against potential homeland threats while deploying hundreds of thousands of troops overseas would require a significantly larger U.S. military, even after the National Guard and Reserves are mobilized. A new and massive effort to build, train, lead, and equip new forces may be necessary to generate sufficient combat power quickly and to sustain it over multiple months and even years of combat. All of the services need plans to expand rapidly if required, though this is particularly urgent for the Army and Marines. Since conscription might well be required, U.S. political leaders should ensure that the Selective Service System remains strong (and, as we have written, includes women), and think through what manpower requirements would require instating a draft.

4. Planning and Adaptability. Planning for a big war requires carefully examining vulnerabilities, making sober estimates of casualties and attrition, and realistically appraising how many men and women will be needed. Broad questions need to be asked about how the force might fight, where, and against what adversary; what new equipment and capabilities might be needed; and what current assumptions or constraints (such as relying on a volunteer force) might need to be discarded. Once a big war starts, the services will need to rapidly adapt to unanticipated battlefield conditions. They may need to invent new units and capabilities, either as physical formations or virtual capabilities — think space attack brigades, civilian chem-bio advisory teams, or micro-drone defense units.

5. Technology. Additive printing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies all have important military applications — and every combatant will be racing to exploit them first in battle. The U.S. military must therefore maintain its technological superiority, and also find ways to rapidly find wartime applications for non-military technologies. However, the United States is likely to be far more vulnerable to cyber attack than almost any imaginable adversary, since its military, government, and business functions rely so heavily on the cyber realm. The U.S. government may need to mobilize key parts of the nation’s cyber workforce in an online version of the Civil Air Patrol to counter large-scale cyber attacks and defend U.S. public and private networks against hostile disruptions and direct attacks.

6. Stamina. This is a major strategic gap that may not be able to be filled before a big war starts, because it is psychological in nature. The military and the nation must both be mentally and emotionally prepared for large numbers of dead and wounded troops — and possibly civilians, too. Big wars tend to be bloodily indiscriminate toward both. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of killed and wounded may be incurred in hours and days rather than months and years; generals may no longer be able to carry slim packets of index cards with their names and stories as has become common practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Bloody mindedness” among fighting generals and admirals may once again become a necessary war-winning attribute — in stark contrast to recent limited wars. The willingness of the nation to endure a big war is a potentially large vulnerability, especially if the war does not involve a direct attack on the United States. Making the nation and military psychologically more resilient in the face of potential heavy casualties is a challenge that both civilian and military leaders should begin thinking about now.

U.S. political and military leaders face many constraints in addressing these gaps, including limited time, resources, and attention. Nevertheless, one of the most important things they (and their staffs) can do is to foster truly creative thinking in each of these six areas. That can be a very difficult challenge, since a big war would have a much different character and different requirements than the wars and challenges of today. That’s why, for example, we included the novel Ghost Fleet on our professional reading list for the incoming Joint Chiefs of Staff last year. It imagines a big war with China, and shows both the challenges and creative solutions that emerged as the United States filled its considerable pre-war gaps. (No plot spoilers here, but one example is Mentor Crew, which assigns retired military officers throughout the fleet to advise the many brand new crews that had to be formed.)

The United States cannot afford to enter an increasingly dangerous future without a sober look at the most demanding, even existential, military contingencies. The return of aggressive great powers, the diminishment of some allied military capabilities, and the rise of transnational threats all suggest a world in which a large, dangerous, and deadly war could arise unexpectedly. Creative thinking and problem solving must remain a very important part of how the Department of Defense and the services prepare now. As the U.S. military continues to reshape itself for an uncertain future, imagining the unimaginable next big war must become an essential part of its planning for a dangerous future.


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. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence, U.S. Air Force