An Alternative History of AirLand Battle, Part II
Editor’s Note: Do not miss the first part of this essay.
We hope, to paraphrase Santayana, that we are not doomed to repeat our alternative histories. That is our purpose as an answer to those who might ask why we engaged in this exercise when we know what really happened. The first part of our story about how the Army might have modernized as the final drawdown began during the Vietnam War shows the inclination of vested interests, wittingly or unwittingly, to draw lessons that support that they are on the right track. We believe that this fictional step back provides a useful, and perhaps cautionary, lens through which to view how the U.S. military might approach identifying and assessing lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War.
In some ways, the alternative history we pose is where we find ourselves today. The ongoing modernization efforts in the U.S. military began in response to a policy change — the pivot to Asia — or to aggression without any direct threat to the United States — the 2014 Russian takeover of Crimea and its encroachment into Eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless, they served an important institutional purpose in shifting the mindset of the force from its near-total focus on counterinsurgency to peer warfare as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were clearly winding down.
Furthermore, U.S. capabilities and preparations during the Afghan and Iraq Wars focused on, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insisted, “current war demands, even if it means straining the U.S. armed forces and devoting less time and money to future threats.” The Defense Department, particularly the Army, found itself in a circumstance similar to that of the Army at the end of the Vietnam War, in that they “had lost a generation’s worth of technical modernization there while gaining a generation of nearly irrelevant combat experience.” The U.S. military realized that it had to look to the future.
Our alternative history just pushes the timeline back from 1973 to 1970. It assumes that the Army realized that it had to do something to demonstrate relevance as the United States began withdrawing from Vietnam and in the face of a new national strategy with less demand for the Army. The 1967 Six-Day War was the perfect case study, for similar reasons that the later 1973 conflict offered: preparation for the defense of NATO. The clear difference is that the 1967 war was an Israeli triumph that never called into significant question U.S. capabilities. Consequently, it did not create the demand for introspection and the sense of urgency that an Israeli near-defeat did in 1973.
In the face of the 1973 war, the Army would have had two choices: view it through an unobstructed lens in an attempt to understand what might be wrong with its new approach, or utilize the conflict to validate the decisions it had already made. The validation approach is simultaneously more satisfying and less risky than seeing one’s own errors in the mistakes of either side in the war. First, validation shows all the hard work has been paying off. We are on the right track. Second, findings that question the current path put the credibility of the institutions and senior leaders who determined that course at risk. They can also challenge the significant investments made in programs that might be deemed irrelevant to the war’s lessons.
Now, we turn our attention to the allure of validation in the case of Ukraine. Additionally, we offer recommendations on how to analyze the war in Ukraine in a way that incorporates service perspectives to achieve a joint solution that puts the Department of Defense clearly in the lead.
What Has Any of This Got to Do with the War in Ukraine?
The creation of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command in 1970 would have created strong biases that could have skewed the key lessons from the 1973 War. The reputation of the Army as an institution, not to mention those of its most senior leaders, was at stake. This is not to say that their behavior was disingenuous. It was not. It is, however, a warning that well-meaning leaders who deeply believe in the results of their hard work are hard to convince that their efforts are wrong, even in the face of new evidence. This is particularly true if the new reality could upend hard-won gains in the budget battles or service relevance.
With the war in Ukraine ongoing, the services now find themselves in a 1973 moment again. One option, as alternative history, uses the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to validate its ongoing efforts to prove its relevance in a large-scale war and justify its investments. The Army is heavily invested in the lessons of 2014, modeling itself, it believes, on the service’s approach during the 1970s. In 2018, it created a new four-star headquarters — U.S. Army Futures Command — assuming from U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command the responsibility for concept development, organizational design, and materiel modernization.
U.S. Army Futures Command notes with justifiable pride what it has accomplished since its inception in July 2018:
The Army is nearly four years into the biggest transformational change since the early 1980s, modernizing and building a multi-domain-capable force that delivers speed, range, and convergence of emerging technologies.
What has resulted is a new concept — multi-domain operations and several large materiel development efforts that span the key deficiencies the Army believes it needs to correct for large-scale combat operations. All of these initiatives began years before the current war in Ukraine. Indeed, the multi-domain operations concept, now being turned into doctrine, predates U.S. Army Futures Command itself, having first been published by U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command in 2017 as Multi-Domain Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century, 2025-2040.
The unique challenge the Army faces in its current effort at transformation is that it must now prepare for two very different peer competitors: China and Russia. Russia, a land power, is seemingly right up the Army’s alley. China, however, is a harder case in which to demonstrate Army relevance. This is the key difference between now and the 1970s: The United States faces two very different peer competitors in widely separated theaters. The last time such a reality faced the United States was during World War II, with operations against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. It is an open question whether or not multi-domain operations and related materiel development efforts are equally suited against Russia and China.
This is particularly important to the Army because the clear policy of the United States is that China is the greatest long-term threat to American security and the nation’s most difficult military challenge. Furthermore, the prevailing and deep belief in the Army is that you cannot have two different armies at the same time. Apparently, this remains the belief even in the face of the radically different military problems posed by Russia and China based on their place, the specific adversary, and that adversary’s capabilities. We believe that the Army can play an important combat role in the Pacific if it looks beyond its current preconceptions while also taking a long view of what might be possible in the deeper future.
We believe that it is too early to draw “lessons learned” from Ukraine or, for that matter, the earlier Nagorno-Karabakh War that received so much attention before Ukraine. A clear example of why rigorous analysis is necessary before jumping to premature conclusions was the rush during both of those conflicts to proclaim the end of the role of the tank on future battlefields. A representative article asserted that “the annihilation of Russian mechanized formations in Ukraine where the power of the defense and the lethality of light infantry armed with modern anti-tank weapons [e.g., Javelins and Switchblades] defeated Russia’s assaults.”
Ironically, this is not dissimilar to what happened in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the Sagger anti-tank guided missile was widely touted as signaling the death knell of the tank. In this case, the obituary was premature. The Israelis and other armies fielded better armor and improved their combined arms tactics, thus providing technical and tactical solutions to guarantee tank survivability.
In the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Kornet anti-tank guided missile with its dual-warhead wreaked havoc on Israeli tanks. Once again, this was the end of tank warfare. However, just like after the 1973 war, the solutions were technical and tactical. The Israelis fielded the Trophy active protection system to protect against the weapons. They also reemphasized combined arms tactics and high-intensity warfighting skills, after years of focusing on irregular warfare, to improve their ability to suppress Hezbollah weapons and fighters.
There are likely similar solutions for the lessons about tank survivability in the face of drones and light anti-tank weapons. A technical solution would be the extension of a Trophy-like system to defeat top attack weapons. Tactically, competent execution of combined arms to suppress drone and anti-tank guided missile locations and defeat enemy light infantry enhance tank survivability and utility. This was something the Israeli forces were not trained for in 2006 and, as we are seeing in Ukraine, nor are Russian forces.
Investments in tank survivability were made because only the manned tank at this point in time provides mobile, protected lethality to enable maneuver on the battlefield. That may not be true in the future, but it is now. It is not yet the age of drones and light anti-tank weapons.
This case regarding a single weapon system highlights the importance of actually “learning lessons” from a war. The aforementioned article that argued the vulnerability of tanks in Ukraine was made to buttress the already-made decision to rid the Marines of their tanks. That decision was made before the war, based on the reality that the modernized Army M1 Abrams tanks the Marines had employed had become too heavy to be of use in Marine concepts.
Finally, learning lessons effectively includes attending to what really happened, especially from the perspective of Ukraine. A senior advisor to Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, emphasized that although “anti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down … what killed them was our artillery. That was what broke their units.” Ongoing operations in Eastern Ukraine buttress this observation about the significant role of artillery.
One should not impute any malice to conclusions about the value of anti-tank weapons and the possible end of the tank, but this case shows that one has to be aware that there is a strong proclivity to look for lessons that support already-made decisions. For example, senior Army leaders were confidently noting as early as May that “its massive modernization effort, which predated the Russian invasion and ranges from helicopters to secure communications, has been validated by the conflict.”
Initial assessments about drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh, which seemingly foreshadowed a revolution in military affairs, become less dire in the face of deeper analysis as well, as seen in an article by Israeli analyst Edo Hecht:
For decades the Israeli army has been used to fighting without looking up to see whose aircraft was rumbling overhead, knowing with virtually 100% certainty it was Israeli. It can no longer be certain of that and must prepare to operate under unfriendly skies … air defence [sic] forces and ground forces, even of armies that have advanced air forces, must take into account and prepare to meet a new threat that enables poorer and even primitive military forces to create an aerial threat that did not exist before.
What lessons have been observed so far still await objective, rigorous analysis to understand their significance. This will be difficult if the institutional imperative is to look for lessons that support and validate, rather than challenge current efforts. These decisions, based on premature, faulty assessments, can become baked in and not reexamined, given that they were “proven” in combat and are supportive of the current path.
Consequently, the Russo-Ukrainian war lessons-collection process is important enough that it should be a priority of the Department of Defense to get it right. The services will understandably look at the war from their own perspectives. That is to be expected and reasonable, because warfighting expertise in the various domains resides within the individual services. But the Department must also recognize that the services will apply filters, either wittingly or unwittingly, to many of their individual observations.
Indeed, at its extreme, a conflict may elicit very different conclusions and recommended solutions, depending on the service making the assessment. Here, another Army case is instructive.
During the interwar period, the branch chiefs held great authority over their branch’s doctrine, personnel, and materiel requirements. The Air Force had not yet gained its independence and was a branch of the Army. In February 1942, Maj. Gen. John Herr, the U.S. Army chief of cavalry, met with Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall. He truly believed what he told Marshall: “In the interest of National Defense in this crisis, I urge upon you the necessity of an immediate increase in horse cavalry.” From his perch, and with the experience of a full and successful career, Herr viewed horse cavalry as a key reason for German successes in Poland and France. He honestly believed what he told Marshall, and Germany did have cavalry formations. Thus, if you looked for validating observations, you could find them and laud their importance.
The other Army branches also searched for supportive lessons from these early German successes. The chief of infantry highlighted the contributions of German infantry, while the Army Air Corps contended that the strategic bombing of Warsaw had been central to the German victory over Poland. Finally, the chief of the newly formed Armored Force, who was basing his concepts largely on the cavalry tactics he had developed in the 7th Cavalry Brigade (Mechanized), saw the use of tanks by the Germans as a validation of his approach.
They all missed the reality of the blitzkrieg because it combined armor and air power. Indeed, the Armored Force doctrinal manuals did not require air support for operations. Consequently, the Army, less the disbanded horse cavalry, took its existing concepts and weapons into the war where they suffered unnecessarily for their parochial decisions. However, it is important to understand that all of these senior officers believed their validating observations. It would be difficult to expect them to see and believe something that conflicted with what they had spent their careers mastering.
There is also a positive lesson to be drawn from how the Army dealt with the lessons of the Yom Kippur War, in that it is a good model of how to ensure interservice collaboration on assessing and institutionalizing lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War. In 1973, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command began a decade-long process to reach an agreement on how to collaborate and eliminate redundancies in key service programs.
The resulting agreements between the two service chiefs were a recognition that neither service could independently solve the challenges the Soviets posed to NATO. Eventually, they agreed to 31 initiatives that permitted the fuller integration of air and land capabilities and concepts into AirLand battle. However, the 31 Initiatives effort was about much more than service capabilities integration or interdependence. Henceforth, each service would rely on the other for capabilities, and each eliminated programs for capabilities that they agreed the other service could better execute. Unfortunately, with the end of the Cold War, this interservice agreement dissolved and the Army and Air Force again went their own ways in the absence of the shared problem.
Given the scope of the challenges posed by China and Russia, we believe that a truly joint approach must be taken to ensure their resolution. The rationalization of service approaches into a joint warfighting concept is no longer sufficient. What is required is an overarching joint concept that serves as the blueprint for service contributions. Furthermore, this concept should respond to the unique needs of the combatant commands.
The 31 Initiatives effort, albeit important, was a bi-service effort completed before the passage of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act in 1986. Since then, the Joint Staff and the Joint Requirements Oversight Council have been statutorily charged with executing what was a voluntary, ad hoc collaboration between the Army and Air Force on the 31 Initiatives. This is ostensibly where joint concepts and capabilities are developed in support of the regional combatant commanders’ requirements. It is also the venue where service concepts and capabilities are supposed to be vetted to ensure they support the overall direction of the joint force.
In the absence of compelling national security threats, there has not been a forcing function to demand focused collaboration. Regrettably, what passed for “jointness” during operations in the aftermath of 9/11 against completely overmatched adversaries prompted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to deactivate the Joint Forces Command, which was essentially a joint U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Since the dissolution of the Joint Forces Command, the services have dominated the development of concepts and capabilities. They are ostensibly exercising their Title 10 authorities to train, organize, and equip the forces that they will provide to the combatant commanders to meet their operational requirements. As a result of the existing practice, the overall joint warfighting concept is an amalgamation of service concepts and capabilities, rather than a foundational concept that drives and integrates the services’ efforts.
This shortfall has been obvious in the wars the United States has fought since the demise of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the joint plan executed in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom could be simply characterized as: “Army, stay on the left of the Euphrates; Marines, stay on the right; and Air Force, go where the Army and Marines allow.” Each service exercised its own concept within its area of operations. Such a campaign plan was possible because a U.S. military designed and trained to fight the Soviet Union completely overmatched the Iraqis. In the case of Desert Storm, the resounding victory validated all the hard work done since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. There was little to be learned and it did not particularly matter given the reality that with the demise of the Soviet Union the U.S. military was without even a near-peer competitor.
Any inclination to understand the lessons of the lopsided defeat of the Iraqis in Operation Iraqi Freedom vanished with the onset of the post-victory insurgency. Consequently, the U.S. military has not thoroughly examined a large-scale conventional war between two closely matched adversaries since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. And the last time it analyzed its own combat against peer competitors that could challenge it in all the domains was in the aftermath of World War II.
The war in Ukraine, as a harbinger of the potential realities of large-scale combat operations against a nuclear-armed state competitor, should serve as a catalyst to rejuvenate the role of the Secretary of Defense, the combatant commanders, and the joint staff.
We are generally averse to creating blue-ribbon panels or other committees to examine issues. That said, the United States is clearly at an inflection point. The war in Ukraine has shown that competition and conflict between major states are not theoretical or, unfortunately, unlikely. We should model the analysis and response to the war in Ukraine on the spirit embodied in the 9/11 commission’s charter. The commission to study the Russo-Ukrainian war should be intergovernmental and directed under the auspices of the National Security Council.
The Department of Defense should clearly have representation on this commission. There is a unique military dimension to this war that demands introspection and analysis by the Pentagon. Accordingly, the secretary should establish an independent commission to examine the Russo-Ukrainian war in detail. It should be co-chaired by the deputy secretary of defense and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Its composition is extremely important. The commission must have hand-picked and thoroughly vetted senior-level representation from all the services as well as individuals extremely familiar with current service doctrine, concepts, and existing and envisioned capabilities. Only with this kind of representation can the commission view the war through the multiple lenses it will take to understand its implications for the entire, integrated joint force. One should expect that each lens will distill many of the observations in very different ways and often reflect a bias towards showing how each service believes it can uniquely solve the problem. This should be encouraged. The resolution of these varied perspectives will yield a better joint solution.
The question before the Department of Defense as it grapples with the implications of the Russo-Ukrainian War is whether it will treat that conflict as it would have in 1973, based on an assessment of the 1967 Six-Day War as postulated in this alternative history? Or will it react to the war as a conflict similar in consequence to what spurred its actual response to the 1973 war? If the former path is taken, one could reasonably expect military service leaders to mine any “lessons” to support and validate the hard work that is been done since the pivot to Asia and the initial 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea in Ukraine. If the latter, the Department of Defense can assess what needs to be done against a peer competitor to prevail in the future. The question before us is which path will be taken?
The stakes are high. To be sure, China and Russia are studying the war in Ukraine, as they did perhaps more rigorously than the United States did in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. While the United States took a victory lap, the Chinese and the Russian militaries looked at the war to understand our capabilities to not only close the gaps but to eventually surpass us. In short, the United States viewed post-Cold War conflicts as validation of existing concepts and capabilities, while our adversaries saw them as a crisis and a call for action.
One should recall that our assessment of Chinese and Russian forces in 2000 dismissed them as significant threats. This can be seen in the fact that they were not even one of the two major theater wars that served as the basis of the U.S. force-sizing construct. For those that believe that the Russo-Ukrainian War shows the rank incompetence of Russian forces, we should remember that the Russian Army that was annihilated in the initial stages of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 was occupying Berlin in the spring of 1945. More recently, the 1994 First Chechen War was a disaster: In 2000 Russian forces occupied Grozny. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine is not over and could yet upend the varied predictions of its outcome. Russian forces are still in it and neither they nor Ukrainian forces show any signs of capitulation.
In our own history, we might recall that the American military that had its share of defeats at the beginning of World War II, learned from those defeats, and was occupying Germany and Japan as victors in 1945. The United States and Russia both learned hard lessons during World War II out of necessity: it was a war of survival.
Our sense is that great attention needs to be paid to understanding how Russia and China will learn from this war and matching ourselves up against what they have the potential to be in the future. Whatever emerging concepts and programmed capabilities are up to the challenge should be accelerated. Those that are not must be ruthlessly identified and modified or eliminated. Finally, if the Russo-Ukrainian War shows that we are not fully prepared for future competition and conflict with China and Russia, then we should be learning from it with the sense of urgency it deserves.
Our concern is that the policymakers, given the abysmal Russian performance, will see little to learn from the war beyond minor adjustments to existing concepts and capabilities. Furthermore, the American public may lose interest in the war and perhaps believe it less consequential than its effects on the important issues of inflation and the world food supply. Thus, our goal with this essay is to provide a warning not just about the present but about the future.
Moscow will learn from this war, as will Beijing. Washington needs to get ahead of them in grasping the gravity of this war, understanding the challenges preconceived notions pose to the U.S. understanding of its implications, and finally, to providing a path forward for its rigorous assessment to identify and correct deficiencies.
David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 and Learning Large Lessons: The Evolving Roles of Ground Power and Air Power in the Post-Cold War Era. From 2012-2014 he founded and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for General Raymond T. Odierno.
Zach Alessi-Friedlander is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, having served in tactical, operational, and strategic assignments in light infantry and armored cavalry units. He was a member of General Odierno’s inaugural Strategic Studies Group and participated in the Art of War Scholars program at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is currently a Ph.D. student in History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.