Too Fragile to Fight: Could the U.S. Military Withstand a War of Attrition?
At the turn of the 20th century, Polish Jewish banker Ivan Bloch compiled a detailed analysis of the potential effects of war between major powers. He saw a world of interconnected economies with vast industrial power and large armies. He thought future great-power war would be too costly to contemplate, as bloody wars of attrition would bankrupt participants without worthwhile results. For him, a clash of arms between major powers would “ruin both belligerents, financially and economically, long before the end would come in sight.” As we know now, he was right about the course future wars would take, and the inability of the participants to end them before suffering bankrupting costs. He was wrong, however, in predicting that war was impossible, and decision-makers rational enough to avoid it.
It has been a long time since the United States fought a high-intensity war of attrition, and the Pentagon, despite its renewed focus on large-scale combat operations, is not ready for it. Over the last half-century, the U.S. military has secured relatively bloodless conventional successes in Grenada, Panama, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Then it fought two long-running but low-intensity wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The National Defense Strategy remains concentrated on building a “more lethal” joint force, while the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance asserts that the United States will no longer engage in “forever wars.” As a result, current war plans still imagine relatively quick military actions with low casualties that remain within current capabilities. The resources for a longer and more brutal conflict have atrophied or been forgotten.
However, both history and the ongoing war in Ukraine suggest that such a possibility is more likely than we think. In a magisterial analysis of warfare from the Romans to World War II, Cathal Nolan argues that wars between peers or near-peers almost always become bloody contests of attrition, and these have gotten worse over time. In The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, he writes that “modern industrial and mobilization realities” have “helped bring about wars in which mass death and destruction, on scales hardly foreseen at their outset, become the ultimate means of reaching a lasting decision in quarrels among nations and empires.”
Preparing for such a conflict will require a different mindset within the joint force, accompanied by structural and doctrinal reforms. The war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of having competent soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines — one of America’s great strengths. But how a country fights is more important than what it fights with. While the services maintain quality personnel, they should be prepared to continue the fight as more sophisticated technologies are destroyed or depleted. The Pentagon should also be more restrained in how it deploys precision weaponry. Javelins should not be wasted on thin-skinned vehicles. Perhaps artillery or dumb bombs will suffice for some targets instead of precision-guided munitions. The joint force, and the nation that supports it, should prepare to deal with significant losses of both personnel and equipment, and relearn how to regenerate combat power, perhaps in a multi-theater fight.
The recuperative powers of modern states make it increasingly difficult to achieve victory in a few decisive engagements. We are watching this happen again on our TV screens. Russian ineptitude and overconfidence combined with Ukrainian tenacity and Western military technology has turned what on paper seemed a David versus Goliath match into a near-peer fight. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley just testified before Congress that be believes this will be “a very protracted conflict, and I think it’s at least measured in years. I don’t know about a decade, but at least years for sure.”
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, with its images of ravaged cities festooned with wrecked Russian armored vehicles, highlights the destructiveness of modern war and the lethality of the contemporary battlefield. But it also indicates the fragility of modern high-technology militaries. Many of the destroyed tanks are old T-72s. The Russian use of so many “dumb bombs” may be because they are running short of more expensive precision munitions. They are obviously suffering many logistical difficulties. As of April 12, the war bulletin from the Ukrainian Embassy claimed their armed forces had killed almost 20,000 Russians and had also destroyed 732 tanks, 1,946 armored personnel carriers, 140 helicopters, and 157 aircraft.
The American military can scoff and swear that nothing like that could ever happen to them. When I walk the halls of the Pentagon today, I still hear discussions about the importance of winning the first battle decisively. Indeed, this is also a point reinforced by classic books like America’s First Battles, which has been a standard of professional military education. In the Army wargames I attended early in the millennium, Gen. Shinseki’s proposed Objective Force always swept to victory. Air Force wargames have also produced glowing recommendations for the F-35, which claim that it will destroy 20 enemy aircraft for every loss that it takes because of its ability to exploit its stealth and network capabilities.
But what if these optimistic assumptions are wrong? In a rare example of official pessimism, the 2018 bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission concluded that the United States “might struggle to win, or perhaps lose” a war against either Russia or China, suffering “unacceptably high casualties” in the process. What if technology like the F-35 doesn’t perform as well as expected, or we suffer another case of technological surprise? In nine days of fighting over the Dunkirk beachhead, the Royal Air Force lost at least 106 air superiority fighters, Hurricanes and Spitfires. That’s almost as many F-22 Raptors as there are in the whole U.S. Air Force. How fast could the Pentagon replace losses of expensive high-technology aircraft?
This would be merely one of the challenges facing Washington in a high-intensity war of attritions. Air operations during Operation Inherent Resolve considerably depleted American stocks of precision-guided munitions, expending more than 2,000 in the first year alone. Estimates are, with current production rates, it will take three to four years to replace the Javelin missiles sent to Ukraine. Delivery time for a new weapon is 32 months, but at least they are on an active production line. Washington has not purchased any new Stingers since 2003. It could take as long as five years to make up for those shipments. Moreover, that all assumes no further similar assistance for Ukraine.
The damage Ukraine has inflicted on invading Russian forces with Javelins and Stingers brings back memories of the carnage of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Overconfident from its overwhelming 1967 victory and surprised by Arab anti-tank missiles and air defenses, the Israeli military lost a third of its air force in the early days of the conflict and over 400 tanks by the end. As in Ukraine, America was forced to expend its own stocks to resupply a proxy by airlifting tanks, helicopters, and missiles. F-4 Phantoms were even stripped from aircraft carriers and squadrons in California. American observers in postwar Israel were shocked by the lethality and demands of the modern conventional battlefield. And that war only lasted 19 days.
This raises the question of how robust America’s defense industry would be in a major war today. How fast can the United States produce precision munitions or cruise and air-defense missiles? And how about the capacity of American industry to transition to building tanks and other weapon systems? In World War II, Westinghouse converted factories from producing household appliances to making items like aircraft parts and ammunition. Would Samsung and LG do the same? The American automobile industry produced one fifth of all the military equipment the nation required for World War II. The General Motors Corporation alone furnished one tenth of all American war production. The Ford company produced more army equipment than the whole nation of Italy — their aircraft factory at Willow Run rolled out a new bomber every 63 63 minutes. Could Toyota or Hyundai match that? Would they even try? Today’s high-technology platforms would likely take much longer to build. International supply chains will complicate this further. Even the Russians have run into difficulties because some of the key parts for their tanks have been cut off by Western sanctions.
Problems with growing the force in any timely manner also abound. Prodded by the National Commission on the Future of the Army, which expressed concern about the preparedness of land forces for national mobilization, the Army in particular has begun considering how it would mobilize and expand for a major conflict involving large-scale ground combat operations. Much analysis is being done about restoring corps and division level capacities that were reduced or eliminated in the brigade-based modular force. One study of the Army’s plans to expand cited the demise of the draft and significant reductions in both the training and industrial bases in arguing that “the capacity for [past] growth was based upon institutions and practices that no longer exist or are extremely degraded.” As a result, the report concluded that the whole concept of rapid expansion has now been called into question.
Already, the military is facing difficulties just meeting current requirements for the various combatant commands, a challenge that will be exacerbated if there are simultaneous crises in multiple theaters. Realizing the potential imbalances between theater demands and force capabilities, the final report of the National Commission on the Future of the Army recommended much closer coordination between the Army and the combatant commands with their associated Army service component commands. Specifically, it called for updating “all war plans with current and programmed force structure and doctrine.” Discussions about NATO wargames in War on the Rocks have highlighted the importance of robust forward presence for effective defense or deterrence, but is there enough force structure to accomplish that in all the key hotspots?
Finally, the military is not ready to handle the casualties of a major war. The Army is only slowly relearning and rebuilding theater replacement systems, which have atrophied along with a lot of other service component command capacities. Army medical doctrine has shifted to cut close capacity in favor of evacuation to hospitals out of theater. Not only does this policy assume uncontested airspace to ensure quick and easy transport, it also reduces the possibility for “Wounded Returned to Duty,” which was a key replacement method in past conflicts. The Army only has two active mortuary affairs companies. Each is officially prepared to handle up to 400 remains per day at full strength, but even with added reserve capacity that number could be significantly less. They will be severely taxed in any conflict with the level of lethality exhibited in Ukraine.
It is small consolation that our major potential adversaries are no better prepared for a lengthy war of attrition than we are. Russian shortcomings have become evident. If the Russians do achieve success in their new campaign in eastern Ukraine, it will be based much more on traditional vast expenditures of cheap artillery than any reliance on modern precision munitions or sophisticated maneuvers. Many commentators imagine a war over Taiwan would be won or lost quickly – after too much Maotai, a Chinese general once told me that because of one-child policies he had an army of “only sons” whom he could not risk in serious combat. However, as Ivan Bloch discovered, just because there are logical reasons wars should not occur does not mean they won’t.
The good news is that some in the American military are finally starting to come to grips with the challenges of mobilizing for a major war. Army wargames have highlighted many challenges, including in basing, transportation, and command and control. All the services need to look hard at their theater replacement policies and regeneration capacities, as well as at institutional training facilities. The Pentagon should also begin coordinating with defense industries to prepare for possible expansion, with a particular focus on munitions. Surge capabilities should be developed, along with practices to conserve sophisticated technologies on the battlefield. The U.S. military should be prepared to make full use of prepositioned prepositioned stocks, while retaining all older systems, such as M1 tanks, that have been replaced by newer models. A number of America’s friends and allies still have M60s, for example, which they clearly believe to be adequate for modern combat. The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group of the Air Force Material Command is responsible for thousands of retired aircraft parked at Davis-Monthan Air Force base in Arizona. They should be prepared to refurbish these older airframes if necessary to replace losses that industry cannot. Replacing destroyed or damaged naval assets will be an even thornier problem. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has pointed out that Navy logistics in the Pacific are too small and vulnerable to support a major war there, even before any attrition occurs.
In short, the whole joint force should seriously consider how it can continue to keep up the fight if it finds itself in an extended and costly war with a major power, or, worse, multiple adversaries. Winning the first battle will be important, but not as much as winning the last one.
Conrad Crane, Ph.D., is a research historian at the Army War College. He has written widely on airpower and land-power issues. His two latest books are American Airpower Strategy in World War II, published by University Press of Kansas, and Cassandra in Oz: Counterinsurgency and Future War, from Naval Institute Press.
The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. The author also has no special access to intelligence or any operational matters that are not otherwise available to the general public.
Image courtesy of General Motors 2017