Mirages of War: Six Illusions From our Recent Conflicts


More than 15 years of continuous combat has profoundly shaped the ways in which the U.S. military thinks about war. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have deeply colored the ways in which those who have served there now think about the very character of war — especially among the Army, Marine, and special operations forces that have borne the brunt of the fighting. Combat experience is invaluable for leaders who are responsible for fighting wars and advising policymakers on the use of force. But it also produces subconscious biases and blind spots, which may prevent them from thinking clearly and creatively about the types of wars they will fight in the future.

Predicting the future — including the character of future wars — is an incredibly difficult and often unsuccessful endeavor because there is always too much uncertainty and too little information. As Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have extensively documented, systemic and unconscious biases affect how people process information, especially when trying to make sense of complexity. One of the most important biases is called (jargon alert!) the availability heuristic: The more easily an example comes to mind, the more likely we are to think it will represent the future. Since we typically remember recent experiences more clearly than past ones — especially very intense experiences like combat — we often subconsciously assume that the future will resemble a linear extension of those past.

As this wartime generation continues to ascend to the most senior ranks of the U.S. military, they will have two major responsibilities: to provide military advice to policymakers and to make strategic choices about weapons and force structure that will determine how the United States will fight its future wars. However, their view of the future may be deeply affected by their past experiences in ways that they may not even be aware of. We believe that there are at least six illusions drawn from the recent wars that may seriously distort how these combat-experienced leaders think about and plan for future conflicts.

Illusion 1: Warfare is Land-Centric. Because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have focused on winning control of large land masses and their populations, the Army and the Marine Corps have been the center of the U.S. military universe since 2001. Though the Air Force and the Navy have provided lots of help, an entire generation of military leaders has now grown up seeing war through one lens: land warfare with the ground troops in the lead. In military parlance, the Army and Marines (often along with special operations forces) have been the supported services, with the Air Force and Navy as the supporting services. For some, that now seems like the natural order of things. Recently, a mid-grade Army officer asked one of us if the other services were prepared to support the Army, not just in counter-insurgency missions, but in high intensity joint operations as well. This is a valid question, but it implicitly assumes that the Army will remain the supported service in the future — and there’s no guarantee that will be the case. A war against China, for example, might be largely fought in the air and at sea, with operations on land as peripheral skirmishes. Beyond providing key theater logistics, is the Army prepared for a substantial combat role to support naval and air forces? That could require it to develop new combat capabilities such as land-based long-range anti-ship missiles, or to repurpose its missile-armed attack helicopters and drones for anti-ship or anti-submarine missions. The Army is now examining many such capabilities as part of the new multidomain battle concept, but that initiative is still in its earliest phases and it is far from clear if or how it will be implemented.

Illusion 2: There Will Be Adequate Time to Adapt. The wars of 9/11 are by far the longest wars in American history, and they show no signs of reaching a conclusion. For better or worse, this has given the U.S. military a substantial amount of time to adapt on the battlefield and correct its mistakes. By way of comparison, the United States entered, fought, and won World War II in less time than it took for U.S. leaders to recognize that their strategy in Iraq was failing and adopt a dramatically different — and more effective — counterinsurgency approach. In future wars against a major power, battlefield actions and strategic moves and counter-moves are likely to unfold at lightning speed, with immediate and catastrophic consequences for failure. Continuous and, at times, near-instantaneous adaptation may be required to avert disastrous defeat. Nothing in our recent wartime experience has prepared our military leaders for this new reality of wars fought at a stunningly fast pace. Time will not be on America’s side.

Illusion 3: American Technology Rules. U.S. forces today cannot conduct operations without highly advanced technologies such as GPS, night vision capabilities, precision strike weapons, satellite communications, computers, and the internet — all supported behind the scenes by intricate software. These technologies provide unmatched global capabilities for the U.S. military, which largely took them for granted in the recent wars because they were never seriously threatened. America’s dependence on these technologies also presents a serious vulnerability. Any capable future adversary will be almost certain to attack and disrupt as many of these capabilities as possible. Widespread computer network attacks, spoofing of command and control networks, disruption or destruction of key satellites, and kinetic attacks on drones and other unmanned systems would quickly degrade these essential U.S. capabilities. Despite these dangers, U.S. forces have grown digitally complacent — and have largely lost their ability to operate in an analog world of maps, compasses, inertial navigation, FM and HF radios, dumb bombs, and paper operations orders. In the next major war, U.S. bombs may miss, computer data may be corrupted, aircraft may wander off course, and no one will know why — nor will they be prepared to quickly adapt to a war without reliable digits.

Illusion 4: U.S. Supplies Runneth Over. American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been by far the best-supplied U.S. troops ever to go to war. They have operated at the end of a massive logistics pipeline that delivers all manner of provisions daily, directly from the United States and around the world. Fresh fruit and vegetables (as well as steak and the occasional lobster) are delivered to nearly all bases in combat zones. Even troops at remote outposts can typically e-mail, call, or Skype with families at home. Future wars, by contrast, are likely to be fought in ways that make it impossible to establish or maintain such an immense logistics backbone, because fixed sites such as logistics bases (not to mention massed troops) will be vulnerable. In high-intensity operations, fixed sites like logistics bases (not to mention massed troops) will be vulnerable to long-range precision rocket fires and air-launched missiles. U.S. forces, especially land forces, may be required to operate without adequate supplies, and fight and win in conditions of extreme austerity. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has told soldiers to expect little support in future battles beyond water, food, ammunition, fuel, maintenance, and medical treatment. Never one to mince words, Milley warned that “learning to be comfortable with being seriously miserable every single minute of every single day will have to become a way of life for an Army on the battlefield that I see coming.”

Illusion 5. There Will Be Plenty of High Tech Munitions.  The recent wars did not seriously strain U.S. supplies of ammunition because most individual battles were relatively small and short (if sharp) engagements against low-tech enemies. Yet in a major future war against a far more capable adversary, ammunition — especially advanced precision munitions — will likely be consumed at a ferocious pace. In a war with Russia or China, or even against North Korea or Iran, the United States would unquestionably expend thousands (if not tens of thousands) of its most sophisticated rockets, missiles, and guided bombs in the first few days. Stockpiles of these weapons are limited, and it will be difficult if not impossible to suddenly expand factory production lines to rapidly produce more in a crisis. As a result, as little as a few days into a major war, U.S. forces may face shortages of advanced missiles, guided bombs, and other hard-to-replace ordnance — and it is not at all clear that they would be able to continue fighting effectively without them. As a hedge against this foreseeable challenge, the services should ensure that they develop doctrine for fighting and winning in such degraded conditions.

Illusion 6: The United States Will Never Need a Draft. The fact that the United States has been able to prosecute two long, open-ended conflicts with an all-volunteer force has made the prospect of a future draft increasingly unthinkable to those in the military and in the civilian population alike. The recent debate about requiring women to register for the Selective Service led to many arguments (and even proposed legislation) that men shouldn’t have to register for compulsory service either. One editorial even argued, “It’s hard to imagine a conflict in today’s world in which this nation could not rely on its volunteer forces.” But that is precisely what we need to imagine. As we’ve written, the United States needs to prepare for the next big war — the kind of war that could require as many as hundreds of thousands of troops, with potentially staggering levels of destructiveness and casualties. In such a war, the notion that the U.S. military will always have a sufficient number of qualified volunteers might quickly become wishful thinking. In World War I, for example, only 300,000 people volunteered to enlist in the Army. Another 2.7 million were conscripted into service. In World War II, draftees constituted more than 60 percent of the almost 18 million people who served in the U.S. armed forces. Future big wars could see a similar lack of volunteers, especially if high casualties were sustained in the opening battles. That’s why the United States still needs the draft, no matter how remote the possibility of fighting a war with conscription may seem. Though the draft remains deeply unpopular, public opinion could shift dramatically after an attack on the United States that kills tens or even hundreds of thousands of Americans (let alone millions).

U.S. military leaders must always balance the needs of today’s fights with the possible conflicts of tomorrow. Yet more than 15 years of fighting in low-level, irregular conflicts has inevitably — and often subconsciously — affected the ability of U.S. military leaders to think clearly about future battlefields, especially for high intensity operations against very capable adversaries. Such wars are likely to be big, dangerous and highly destructive — and fought on a furiously accelerated timeline that requires the U.S. military to rapidly adapt. They may quickly disprove many deeply-held assumptions about which services will be in the lead, what technologies and capabilities will be available, and the sustainability of the all-volunteer force. Dispelling these illusions of war is a very important step towards ensuring that the U.S. military is prepared to fight and win the wars of the future.


Lt. Gen. 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 third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Tarr