For Landpower, Picking the Right Battles is More and More Essential


Editor’s Note: As 2018 comes to a close, War on the Rocks is publishing a series of year-end reflections on what our editors and contributors learned from the publication’s coverage of various national security topics. These reflections will examine how War on the Rocks coverage evolved over the year, what it taught us about the issue in question, and what questions remain to be answered in 2019 and beyond. Enjoy, and see you next year!


Where did American landpower go this year? As David Johnson explained earlier this year in War on the Rocks, the Army has been re-orienting itself towards great power competition. Among the “constellation of challenges” he describes for the United States in the future are threats from rogue states, from Russia and China, and from hybrid actors using high-end technology in more irregular ways. Johnson asserts that the nation could very well “lose the next first battle — and perhaps the next war,” unless the Department of Defense and the Army in particular shift and expand their focus in all elements of the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms Policy.

The American military is again seriously reconsidering the possibility of state-on-state conflict, with resulting large-scale combat operations very different from persistent limited contingency operations in the Middle East or Southwest Asia. In the forward to a recent seven volume series on large-scale combat operations published by Army University Press, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Lundy cautions that recent combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq “does not fully square with the exponential lethality, hyperactive chaos, and accelerated tempo of the multi-domain battlefield when facing a peer or near-peer adversary.” However, it is worth questioning whether a future U.S. Army that has limited, if any, regeneration capacity also squares with the potential high attrition of that new battlefield. In such a dangerous environment, leaders will have to be extremely careful to make sure significant losses are justified by significant results. The nation may not be able to afford losing that first battle — or any others for that matter.

The most common source for case studies in the new Army University Press series is World War II. I recently participated in the annual International Conference on World War II organized by the magnificent National World War II Museum in New Orleans. The gathering features the best speakers in the world about that great conflict and an extremely knowledgeable audience. Sir Anthony Beevor delivered the keynote address, which focused on his new book on Operation Market-Garden, “an epic cock-up,” as one British major described it, which cost the Allies at least 17,000 casualties in nine days and completely destroyed the British First Airborne Division. I had the honor to chair a following panel on “Battles Not to Fight,” which featured Rick Atkinson analyzing the Battle of the Huertgen Forest — which chewed up more than six U.S. divisions in futile combat (we only have 10 in the active U.S. Army today) — and Richard Frank covering the bloody landings on Peleliu, an unnecessary operation that cost almost 10,000 US casualties and decimated the 1st Marine Division (we have three active in the Marine Corps today).

At the conclusion of their grim narratives I felt obligated to remind the audience that the resilient Allies had indeed eventually won the war, the debacles described by the three renowned historians. Later in the program, Cathal Nolan gave a presentation on his provocative book The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost. He argued that in most wars victory is never swift, and conflict is never brief. Major wars almost always devolve into a long and bloody process of attrition. And that is the very sort of war the American military, with complex and expensive equipment along with highly trained personnel, is not prepared to fight.

I have previously written in these virtual pages about my participation in a Unified Quest wargame at the Army War College that looked at the operating environment in 2050. The exercise scenario featured the “exponential lethality, hyperactive chaos, and accelerated tempo” mentioned by Lt. Gen. Lundy in a scenario that eventually had us engaging a force from the fictional Redland. Losses were indeed projected to be very high. I was struck by the fact that the big winner in such a confrontation was not going to be either of the main combatants, but instead would be the overwatching forces from fictional Blueland, close to the theater of war but not a direct participant, and therefore able to exploit the postwar vulnerabilities of the battered belligerents. Modern state-on-state conventional warfare with such projected lethality approaches a version of the deterrent concept of nuclear mutual assured destruction, with the major difference that the damage would be more localized in a conventional confrontation.

Historians will recognize that this scenario is nothing new. Anyone who has read Thucydides’ classic work on the Peloponnesian War will recognize it. After that long contest of attrition between Athens and Sparta, the real winner was initially Persia and later Macedonia. Neither primary belligerent could ever really recover from the losses they suffered.

One of the findings of the National Commission on the Future of the Army was that the service was not prepared to mobilize or expand for an extended conflict. The United States no longer has the draft to draw in large numbers of recruits, nor does it have the training base or industrial base to build new organizations. Heavy casualties would require the substitution of new units; America does not have a replacement system or even the mortuary affairs capability to handle such a situation. I find discussions about the potential to fight in megacities particularly troubling. The Soviets had a whole army fighting in Stalingrad, and the Germans lost much of their 6th Army in its streets. And Stalingrad was far from the size of a megacity. In a recent presentation here at the Army War College, futurist John Schaus noted that to conduct a Fallujah-style battle in the maze of a city the size of Tokyo would require almost two million troops. Despite the view of retired Gen. Bob Scales, Lt. Col. Scott Cuomo, and Maj. Jeff Cummings, initiatives to create better troops for close combat, to include more training in urban terrain, cannot overcome the demands of scale or the defensive advantages of built-up areas. While these voices have valuable insights about improving national capabilities for fighting in such situations, just because you can does not mean that you should. The best way to insure “no more fair fights” in megacities is to avoid close combat in megacities.

My point is not to highlight all these shortcomings as much as it is to emphasize that in future wars with peers or near-peers we will not be able to afford wasted effort from another Market-Garden, Huertgen Forest, or Peleliu. We will have to be very efficient in our choice of battles, if that is even possible. Because we must remember, as the Athenian envoys warned the Spartans who were weighing the decision to launch the Peloponnesian conflagration, to “…consider the vast influence of accident in war, before you are engaged in it. As it continues, it generally becomes an affair of chances, chances from which neither of us is exempt, and whose event we must risk in the dark.”


Dr. Conrad Crane is Chief of Historical Services for the US Army Heritage and Education Center. His most recent book is Cassandra in Oz: Counterinsurgency and Future War, published by Naval Institute Press.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Amy Picard