Preparing for the Next Big War

January 26, 2016

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“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

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15 thoughts on “Preparing for the Next Big War

  1. Interesting viewpoints.One problem absent a major war almost none of these proposals would get beyond the blueprint stage.For example preparing the military for major war could easily lead to accusations of ignoring current day threats.Talking about quick expansion of munitions production would inevitably lead to statements like “The US spends more than the next x countries combined and now they want contingenty planning for even more?”.Add to that accusations of Russia is a paper tiger what’s the point of preparing for a major war with them or China has no combat experience and they would be foolish to start a war with their main trade partners.Add to this its not the kind of thing that politicians like to talk about in an election year.After 10+ years of War on terror talking about a trully big war with conscription brought back is not something any polician facing re-election wants to bring up especially if he/she is in a diverse constituency with many liberal minded folks.Finally in an economically uncertain world with mounting debt talking about spending trillions of dollars in an upcoming potentially final war sounds a bit fatalistic for people.Plus you can never be trully prepared for the next big war since you have no frame of reference.For your typical officer aged 28 rank of lieutenant maybe captain his immediate frame of reference would be Irak or Afghanistan he would barely remember the Cold War if at all.Some older officers could have as frame of reference Vietnam even if they didn’t fight in it they would have had commanders who did.The frame of reference would actually have to be WW2 the youngest officers who remember that war are aged 91 as of 2016 assuming they got their commission aged 19 in 1944 and served at the tail end of combat in 1945.For better or worse the situation is not that different from were the french or english officer corp was in 1913.Many were experienced veterans of fighting in the colonies but none had any memory of a trully major war save for a few old french officers who fought in 1870-71.

  2. Several things… Firstly the United States Armed forces has made a deliberate shift, mostly under the leadership of SECDEF Robert Gates, away from the Two Conventional War paradigm toward one that enables it to fight a broad spectrum of conflict. While we can not ignore the possibility of a future, large-scale conventional war, recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that we must be prepared to fight more than just that. Secondly the pace of technological development and acquisition can be rapidly accelerated in wartime. The training of modern military personnel, which requires more technical expertise than any previous time in history, can not be accelerated. The US has a behemoth of a military-industrial complex that is rabidly defended by the parochial interests of its home state congressmen. If anything the military should focus its limited resources of developing human capital by training better leaders as that is the one timetable that can not be moves to the left.

  3. A very good piece. We would be well served by many more like it–the thinking public does need to pay attention. The article visits several themes that are most relevant to out ever developing security situation. Some themes stated and suggested address the moral will of the American People to be sufficiently “steeled” in a war event to persevere. Another is warfighting capability that is competitive when needed. Yet another is sustainability of all critical systems–and not so critical. Others are addressed.

    But most disturbing is the self talk and political wisdom of the realm that indicates that any war scenario is off the table of probability. While no state can plan and be prepared for all probabilities, wisdom indicates we prepare for those that have greatest likelihood but keep a weather eye on everything else–and if the situation thought less likely develops, have the mental and moral will to do what has to be done, and where possible with some preparatory work. In a reactive pinch, a state in survival mode can still form battalions as long as there are bodies, and throw them at the fight. But will the battalions be able to and have the collective will to fight? Will operational and strategic command and control levels have the competence needed to prevail and overwhelm the enemy at those levels?

    Again, nothing is off the table of possibility, even mass warfare. The “prepared” and “strongest of will” are most likely to prevail in the event. Who will we be? Answer, TBD. Yes, this is a very good article and worth reading–and reflecting on.

  4. This whole article can be summarized as, “prepare for more mayhem in less time.” In that case, the WWII-inspired plans for manpower and industrial mobilization will still be too slow. Large-scale, modern combat will consume people and material far more rapidly than training pipelines and industry can replace them. Even the large training establishment created during WWII didn’t catch up with demand until nearly the end of the war — Marshall was stripping new units forming in training to replace losses in already-deployed units into late 1944. If it doesn’t already exist — trained Reserve units and individual augmentees, stockpiles of munitions, equipment, and supplies — then it’s not going to show up in time for the fight. At some point, negotiation or mutual exhaustion will take over.

    1. The best way to solve this Big War problem – See what your potential / Possible adversaries are presently doing. At least that will give you some sort of yard stick to follow. I think the ”Scare-Tactics” being thrown at the Europeans …are working as most of them are suddenly reversing their Demilitarizing that have been taking place over last 10plus years. Suddenly just about every country in Europe and even Asia plus Middle East are on a MAJOR Military spending spree that has not been seen for a very long time.

    2. The United States will not be able to make the necessary changes for protracted war. Our civilian population( myself included) is in no way prepared for mass conscription. Our weapons may be ready for mass production but our platforms are not. Most of the production lines are barely open. If we lose 1000 tanks in Eastern Europe there is only one tank plant that can make new ones. The U.S has, for a while only been set up to produce tanks and planes on the assumption that we will not take significant losses in a potential conflict. Weapons too (see the our plan for tomahawk production) are assumed to be used at a relativity constant rate.Our military industrial complex very much built on these assumptions . take the F-22 for example. Yes, if a missile barrage hit an airbase in Japan and destroyed 20 F-22s we could build more. However it was assumed that we would not need to make more so urgently. We would spend months trying to reopen the production line and training Pilot training would take even longer. Weapons have changed. Ford is not going to start turning Abrams tanks like its 1942.

  5. General Barno and Dr Bensahel raise several significant issues confronting US strategists, in so far as conventional conflict with such potential rivals as Russia and China – as they specify, is concerned. A conventional major war with Russia in Europe, and a similar conflagration with China in East Asia, as they acknowledge, would surely be demanding and challenging.

    I wonder whether the authors consider such a war, in which, as they describe it, both sides deploy substantial lethal force against each other over extended periods of time, inflicting mass casualties on both sides, to be containable below the nuclear threshold, whether they are convinced that an escalation beyond is both impractical and impossible for both combatants and if they feel certain, therefore, that planning for large-scale, possibly global, and purely conventionally fought (with combat in such newer domains as space and cyber added on) warfare with other major powers is an essential approach to the pursuit of the national interest.

    It is possible that nuclear (or thermonuclear) deterrence has lost all meaning and purpose, that major-power warfare of massive proportions can be contained within the realm of conventional combat, and that when threatened by the presumed overwhelming US dominance in all the aspects of conflict which the authors underscore, adversaries will voluntarily circumscribe their responses to non-asymmetric and linear, thus predictable and beatable, metrics. In short, the authors appear to suggest that preparing for large-scale and bloody but totally ‘conventional’ warfare with Russia and China is not only essential for pursuing planetary peace, but is also eminently effective for securing America’s strategic- and grand-strategic objectives.

    If that inferred assumption is indeed the premise on which this argument is built, it would perhaps ease a reasoned debate on the theme if the authors explicitly said so.

  6. Yes but the biggest issue is troops. We can certainly get more troops ready in advance then we have now. When Reagan was President the services had close to 3M (virtually all male). We have only 35% that number if you discount females, which or course we can’t as women are in the service equal to men in jobs. Whether or not Selective Service remains (the courts are close to forcing the issue and Congress may get rid of it) is not really an issue. While having the names is important, it does not expedite the issue. Those names could be replicated within a month via a query (SQL) against already existing DBs and keep in mind the credit rating agencies, Equifax, Transunion, Experian already have those names in their systems. The biggest issue is what laws will govern the exemption process now that ADA, FMLA and other laws will make it hard to force anyone. Also, contract law has changed since 1973. Today all those in the service singed legally binding documents stating that they will adhere to the UCMJ (military law) and those documents are agreed to by free will and not coerced. What would happen if a conscript walks out of basic and claims he/she signed under duress. A liberal judge (plenty of them) may rule the enlistment paper coerced and throw it out, forcing the military to prosecute with a civilian jury in public.
    Time is an issue. The director of selective service stated in 2011 that it would take a minimum of 340 days to get the 100,000 conscripts inducted, not the 193 days the law (and website) states. The reason, the law was based on draft boards being opened within two years of the law’s passage (1980). None have been opened. The law calls for 11,000 staff. He estimated that they would need at least 35,000 due to population growth and shift (the original number was based on the 1970 census) and of course women being added would have a factor. The US can not get a army together via a draft in a hurry unless the draft is implemented at least a year in advance of its need, total draft, not just a census gathering without a viable plan. The US enacted two peace time conscriptions, Sept. 1940, June 1948. It is highly unlikely the US will do it again, Vietnam ended the idea of conscription.

  7. Nice article. Oddly like you said the psychological stamina aspect of this is actually first. If the USA is 100% committed anything is possible given some minimal effort on our part to make sure we have the resources. The problem is it is hard to see any event barring invasion of either the homeland or REAL (Western Europe, SK, Japan, Australia, etc.) ally that would meet this criteria. The other big issue is the composition of the enemy if it is a standing army (Iran, Russia, China) I think we would be in a position to win those wars since we have planned for them and have a really good idea of the treat. The thing most people don’t understand is that depending on the spark that causes this war victory could very well be going back to status quo with a regime change. The treaty to end any war would probably NOT include unconditional surrender given that means we now have a country to run.

    The hardest war would be an asymmetrical war fought by a coalition of small threats that would attack the homeland and terrorize us abroad and include daily physical and cyber attacks from an enemy without a standing army or command and control network that is the thing that has to really have leaders worried and keep them up at night.

  8. America is crumbling from the inside. Poverty, Racism, the uncontrolled theft of wealth from the middle classes up to the ruling elites.

    add into this heady mix of Anglo Saxons innate hatred of Slavs, whom they consider to be sub-human, and would sooner burn the earth to a cinder before every considering them their social, political or cultural equals.

    war with Russia is inevitable, its not lost on them that Western designs are to turn them into animals who should roll over and beg.

    How the great unwashed and downtrodden of the american heartlands will react to their sons and daughters ( because this is where the majority of your armed forces come from) being eviscerated on Russian bayonets remains to be seen.

  9. There is some truth in this but America already spends more on its military than the next 10-12 countries combined, it has a sequestered budget that BOTH political parties are signed up to with modest cuts coming for the next few years and it is faced with the ENORMOUS COST of similtaneously replacing the Trident SSBN fleet, and producing a new ICBM, and designing and building a new bomber.

    Planning for unlikely scenarios is important but spending significant money on it is not going to be allowed.

    In terms of your specific issues, producing lots and lots more precision guided bombs or having the ability to would be a good thing, but why shouldn’t the manufacturers invest in some larger stocks and sell on demand. In the Libyan operation several European airforces needed rapid resupply, they got it from US stocks, if a company had stock they would have bought it and the company would have made money. However we have transferred the risk to the US so the forign partner gets them from US stocks, the US then replaces them, and the company makes more in its own sweet time, carrying no risk.

    In terms of casualties, you are right, in the face of a truly uniting moment of absolute commitment the nation will be willing to face real casualties. However what was 9/11 if not that and how long did the notion of bear any burden last, we very quickly got to complaints about stop-loss, tours of 12 months becoming 18 months, poor anti IED equipment etc etc.

    It soon became clear this was not a united national commitment to commit whatever it takes to win, as most of the nation went shopping and played the stocks on Wall Street, so the fraction of the nation that was involved was entitled to complain. Then politics joined in Iraq war bad, Afghan war good, Benghazzi a small incident with 4 casualties is endlessly investigated but other bigger actions ignored.

    The Brits were the same the PM read out the names of those who dies one week in Parliament and then found himself having to do the same the following week, and so through the Afghan campaign it became a tradition. The nation mourned every single returning warrior but at the peak it was just over 100 dead in a year, in WW1, the peak in 1st day of the Somme and 57,000 casualties that day or 100 every few minutes.

    D-Day 1944 I have seen figures of 10,000 casualties including 2,500 dead or more recent research suggesting as many as 4,500 dead, in the days of 24/7 rolling news a discrepancy of more than 1-2 named casualties would be seen as a scandel, imagine a discrepancy 1-2,000 and the families being interviewed every night on TV.

    The nation is just never going to be prepared for that sort of commitment again because long before we get there the cry will go up to nuke the SOB’s if we have the bomb why not use it? The reality is any nation that level of effort will also be a nuclear power and will be having the same internal debate.

    Can you envisage clashes between US and China or Russia without it going nuclear, yes. Can you envisage a major war on an ongoing basis at the level we are going to run out of equipment and ammunition without going nuclear and the answer is no.

  10. With all due respect, do you really think–given your support for the enterprise–the introduction of women into combat arms and SOF will *really* make us better prepared for a brutal, high-casualty slaughter fest that would be war w/Russia, China, or even NK? Will USA infantry, tank, arty BNs really & truly be more effective? Will the American people continue to support the war effort when hundreds, if not thousands, of teenage girls have been shredded by modern weapons?

    You make many a solid point as both you, GEN, and you, Dr. Bensahel, are great scholars and great patriots. But the idea that we, honestly, will be stronger with women in ground combat (which will INEVITABLY require “gender-norming” PT standards) is fantasy. The myth that the IDF employs such an approach is just that–pure myth. They have one co-ed infantry BN–created more or less as a compromise–that does border patrol type duty along the Egyptian and Jordanian borders (you know, the two countries Israel is at peace with).Reference

    1. I think most Americans would be equally bothered by men being killed in great numbers to end any future conflict as a dead man bothers as much as a dead woman. Vietnam ended because of this attitude, America was happier with pulling out and letting the country fall to the Communists then sending our boys (men only) over there.
      Israel does some gender norm, but they do it more for the type of units. The reason the Caracal Unit (70% female) is coed is that there are not enough men to go around. That unit has much lower standards then the main army, armor, infantry, special forces. The men who fail the standards for basic infantry are then assigned to Caracal along with the approximately 10% of women who pass. However, most women in the IDF (they have the total right) choose non strenuous (office type jobs). In the IDF the top 15% of women correspond to the bottom 25% of men, it is just there are not enough men. Also, the Caracal unit is in practice the same as the USA INS/DEA which patrols the US/Mexico border so by default the US has female combat, both the INS and DEA use female agents. It is just that those are civilian agencies and in Israel law enforcement is mainly done by the IDF.

  11. I wish more Generals here in Europe would think and speak that like you Sir. If you think that the US needs to prepare more and better, think of your NATO Partners who squandered their capabilities and sacrificed a lot on the altar of “stabilization” ops. If it would come to a major conflict in relatively short time (lets say several weeks or month to prepare) we would go down the drain without the US. We don’t have enough hardware to engage in serious HIW and even if we would empty all our museums, we wouldn’t have the personnel to man it, and if we had the personnel we would run out of ammunition in a few days…just in case that our land forces would survive an all-out bombardment…among others, we lost most of our GBAD because Taliban have no planes, right?? I hope that the Summit in Warsaw will pressure the Europeans into getting more serious and start bringing assets to the table….I mean real assets, not something they plan to acquire by 2035.
    Hope dies last, but if this is the case, nobody will be around to witness it.