Ending the Ideology of the Offense, Part I

Army tanks in Poland 2022

We have already stated what defense is — simply the more effective form of war: a means to win a victory that enables one to take the offensive after superiority has been gained; that is, to proceed to the active object of the war.
-Carl von Clausewitz

 “Would you rather be Ukraine and be on the defense, or Russia and on the offense?” “I would always rather be on the offense.”
-A conversation with a U.S. Army infantry officer shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine


In the aftermath of America’s crushing victory over Iraq, President George H.W. Bush declared, “The ghosts of Vietnam have been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.” The capabilities and concepts developed to fight the Soviet Union had performed brilliantly.

The party, however, was short-lived, as the post-Cold War downsizing that had temporarily been deferred when Iraq attacked Kuwait continued. For the first time since the 1940s, the United States did not face a threat from a powerful country. Consequently, the three main factors that frame a military problem — a place, an adversary, and the adversary’s capabilities — were in flux. The key questions were: What would the U.S. military be and do after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Absent a clear threat, the U.S. Department of Defense adopted capabilities-based planning in the aftermath of the Cold War. Given the absence of any peer adversary in the foreseeable future, this was unavoidable. This is no longer the case. With presidential guidance to deter China and Russia, and to prevail in conflict if deterrence fails, the Department of Defense now has threats against which to plan. It is time for change.

The U.S. military, designed as it is for offensive expeditionary operations, is ill-prepared for its principal mission of deterrence. Indeed, against nuclear-armed adversaries, several aspects of U.S. warfighting concepts have a high risk of escalation. Further, information and precision strike technologies have progressed to the point where the defense has become ascendant. This is now being displayed in Ukraine and should change U.S. approaches to deterrence. Such a reorientation will be difficult, because of the strong institutional and cultural preferences in the U.S. military for offensive operations.

Building the Force Absent a Significant Military Problem

In preparation for the February 1990 Department of Defense budget submission Chairman  of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell had been working within the Bush administration to gain consensus on what became known as the “Base Force.” That plan essentially cut the existing structure by 25 percent and called for “armed forces capable of fighting two major regional conflicts ‘near simultaneously’” as the force sizing construct to determine service end strengths. In aggregate, Powell believed that the base force was sufficient for the challenges of the foreseeable future. This seemed logical at the time with the end of the Cold War. As Powell wrote in his memoir, “our old nemesis [is] not only down but out.” At the time that he penned these words, Powell, and most of the world, believed them.

Although the joint force would still need capabilities, they would be for different purposes than during the Cold War. For example, Powell noted, “we might no longer have a specific airlift requirement to move X million tons of matériel to Europe to meet a potential Soviet invasion. But we still needed the capability to move huge stores to unpredictable trouble spots around the world.” It would, however, be more difficult justify new combat capabilities because any foreseeable contingency could be met with existing and programmed systems. If they could defeat Iraq so handily, they were fit for purpose against lesser adversaries who were the only ones on the horizon.

With the significant reductions planned for the Europe-based force, the joint force was steadily becoming more continental U.S-based. The “place” was anywhere and everywhere. Importantly, aside from the defense of South Korea, combat missions required this force to execute offensive operations, generally to compel an adversary to change its behavior, e.g., end Serbia’s persecution of its ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo.

These were the days of the Weinberger and Powell doctrines that called for clear objectives, the use of force as a last resort for clear policy objectives, and the employment of overwhelming force in the application of military power. In the 1991 National Security Strategy, Bush made a statement that reflected the view that although challenges were looming, “We cannot be the world’s policeman with responsibility for solving all the world’s security problems.”

The World’s Policeman

The incoming Clinton administration had a different view of military sufficiency and its utility. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin’s views of the Base Force given in a speech to the Atlantic Council in January 1992 showed that more cuts were coming. He viewed the Base Force as “less of the same,” essentially a smaller version of the Cold War structure. Aspin mandated what became known as the “Bottom-Up Review,” asserting that “American concern about economic threats means that the new American force must be a less expensive one.” What followed were a series of significant budget cuts — the so-called “Peace Dividend” — that persisted throughout the Clinton administration. There were significant personnel cuts, reductions in the number of forces based overseas, particularly in Europe, and the deactivation of units and naval vessels. The goal was a military sized and designed for a very different world than that of the Cold War.

These decisions were, at the time, logical. After decades of significant investments to deter and contain the Soviet Union, that principal threat was gone. Aside from realizing an opportunity to invest in domestic priorities, the Clinton administration was determined to reduce the deficit to better the U.S. economic position. Unfortunately, the peaceful world predicted by many was not a reality. Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were not a coda to the Cold War; problems that had simmered below the surface of the Soviet threat were now suddenly surfacing.

The Clinton administration soon found itself acting as the world’s policeman in contingencies in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere. These operations included war, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and providing humanitarian assistance around the globe. It was stretching the military thin, but despite Powell’s reluctance, views like those of Secretary of State Madeline Albright held sway: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

Although the two major regional conflicts, renamed major theater wars, were still the basic construct, demands on the force steadily increased. This created a perfect storm: a military designed for conventional combat, frequently deployed to irregular contingencies with unpredictable frequency, operating on a declining budget. The billpayer became research and development for future capabilities, a particularly easy choice to cut absent a competitive threat. Thus, the legacy systems from the Cold War era remained in the field — and were envisioned to be there indefinitely — with little in the pipeline to replace them.

Finally, given the post-Cold War force posture, military interventions were principally offense-based operations designed to compel opponents to change behaviors, such as stopping the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, or what at the time were termed military operations other than war, such as stability operations in Bosnia. Concepts began to mirror practice, and the rapid deployment of sufficient forces from the continental United States or the remaining overseas bases became the norm.

Modernizing Without a Military Problem

The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review instituted capabilities-based planning as the new approach to modernization. This decision would have a significant influence on future U.S. warfighting concepts and their supporting capabilities. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the specifics of the decades-old military problem of a given place, adversary, and an adversary’s capabilities were gone. Something had to replace it. That something was at the core of capabilities-based planning.

As Michael Pietrucha wrote, the decision meant that “no more would DOD plan to fight an actual enemy.” Thus, the critical context of the military problem was replaced by an approach that “would plan to deal with a collection of enemy capabilities. … A strategy oriented on a potential enemy was out.”

Pietrucha disagreed with the approach because it “ignore[d] the necessity of accounting for cultural, geographic and strategy aspects of any given opponent and concentrate[d] on technology instead.” Pietrucha criticized capabilities-based planning as “a defense procurement strategy” and “intellectually lazy” as a warfighting approach. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Sharon Burke noted: “We didn’t know who the enemy was anymore but wanted really big weapons programs, anyway.”

In retrospect, these criticisms may ring true but at the time they were irrelevant. The adversaries the U.S. military faced were even less capable than the Iraqi military that had been trounced during Operation Desert Storm. The United States already vastly overmatched the best in class. But would that be the case in the future? This was the conundrum facing the U.S. military, due to the long lead times involved in advanced weapons system development and fielding.

Capable for Whom with What?

In capabilities-based planning, there is little or no constraining of a technology whose imperative is to defeat the “best in class” of all potential adversaries in the deep future. This is important because the timeframes driving development are generally decades in the future. For example, one of the key documents driving joint modernization was Joint Vision 2020, published in 2000. At these time horizons, the specifics of any competing technologies are largely unknowable.

This has two consequences in capabilities-based planning. First, U.S. capabilities must be continually improved because no weapon is ever “good enough.” Second, because anything is possible in the future, concepts posit the use of borderline-theoretical technologies, essentially betting that they will mature in time and that the adversary will also be striving to acquire them. Most recently this is embodied in claims about the future revolution in military affairs that will result from the military application of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous systems.

Thus, a cycle was created where the possible capabilities of a nonspecific enemy created a demand for better capabilities; the concept then incorporated these capabilities and created a demand for further capability development. The centrality of the imagined capability results in what Benjamin Jensen and Michael Rountree characterize as a fundamental flaw in our processes:

defense strategy too often is reduced to my widget is lethal, lethality wins war, my widget will win the next war. Context, obstacles, and competition are wished away. Complex historical cases are reduced to mythmaking and trends divined into simplistic scenarios to justify predictions derived from deduction.

As Michael Kofman observed, this can lead to “techno-romanticism, believing that new sensors, networks, and integration will solve real and enduring problems in war.”

Concepts proliferated, but perhaps the one that best captured U.S. military ambitions was Rapid Decisive Operations, the enabling concept for goals of “full spectrum dominance,” as outlined in Joint Vision 2020. This concept held that, in order to meet national security objectives, the joint force of the future would employ “the ability of U.S. forces, operating unilaterally or in combination with multinational and interagency partners, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the full range of military operations.”

Joint Forces Command was responsible for developing joint concepts until its disestablishment by Secretary Robert Gates in 2011. Its operational concept for Full Spectrum Dominance was Rapid Decisive Operations which articulated the lofty expectations the U.S. military had for what it then believed were its singular capabilities. The concept stated that it would “provide the capability to rapidly and decisively coerce, compel, or defeat the enemy in order to accomplish our strategic objectives without a lengthy campaign or an extensive buildup of forces.” As historian Williamson Murray noted, the concept portended “a warfighting concept so powerful that the U.S. armed forces can win a war in one blow.”

“Rapid decisive operations” thus promised short, decisive, low-casualty wars from U.S. offensive operations employing overmatching technologies. In short, Napoleonic results with Frederick-the-Great-sized forces.

In my view, capabilities-based planning has three fundamental problems. First, it is biased toward technology-centric approaches and solutions that ignore the will of the adversary to resist: Defeat their systems and they will quit. This ignores the possibility of protracted attrition warfare or insurgency. Second, expensive precision weapons and sensor systems, which are not procured in large quantities given their costs and expectations of a short decisive war, may not be a substitute for the large volume of dumb munitions needed in a protracted war of attrition. Third, a concept based on being able to defeat an amalgamation of the best technologies anywhere seemingly promises that it can beat any adversary with lesser combinations of weapons. Ironically, this was apparently the perspective of those who believed that the superbly equipped, modernized Russian army would quickly defeat Ukraine. Until it did not.

Again, capabilities-based planning was necessary given the absence of a significant military problem on the order of that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was an important bridge from the Cold War until now. Despite its shortcomings, it did provide the impetus for research and development whose results are in many cases relevant to current and future challenges. However, the approach persists even though the peer threats the United States faces — China and Russia — are known. Ogden Nash’s comment, “Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long” is a fitting epitaph, and it is time to move on.

The Department of Defense needs to return to a threat-based approach that focuses on the military problem of deterring peer nuclear-armed adversaries. Again, the three components of the problem must be the place, the adversary, and the adversaries’ capabilities.

The “Place” Component of the Military Problem

For the first time since the 1940s, the United States faces competition and conflict with state adversaries in the Pacific and Europe that can contest operations in all the domains of land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. The geography of the two theaters is radically different and each will demand different concepts and capabilities.

Here, emerging service concepts have a key weakness: insufficient forces in place prior to the war to assure their execution. All the advantages of position are ceded to the adversary.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has shown that indications and warnings are a risky gauge on which to base decisions about the flow of forces into a theater. For Russia, whose deployment distance is stepping across a border, while the United States must cross an ocean and all of Western Europe, it is especially fraught. The Chinese advantage of proximity similarly creates challenges in defending Taiwan and elsewhere in the region. These realities, coupled with the ever-growing threat to air bases and seaports from long-range precision fires, only complicate the getting-to-the-fight challenge. Even if there is sufficient warning, as there was in Ukraine this February, deployment could be stalled because of trepidations over fears of escalation or provoking enemy aggression.

What is needed as a first step in establishing regional deterrence in the Pacific and Europe is an assessment of what bare minimum has to be in place before a crisis to assure partners and allies that the coalition can credibly deter. This will include allied contributions, so the demand on U.S. forces will be less than shouldering the entire burden. If what is in place is not sufficient for the plan, it will likely not get there before the onset of hostilities.

The “Adversary” Component of the Military Problem

China and Russia are different. Nevertheless, U.S. military concepts frequently treat them as if they are essentially the same. I believe this is a result of the capabilities-based planning assumption that war is a contest between systems, not peoples. If you defeat the enemy’s systems, they will not be able to resist, and the war will end favorably. If this were so, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would have been over in weeks, with favorable outcomes.

What is apparent in Ukraine — on both sides — is not just an ability to continue to resist, but an astonishing ability to persist. In what has become a grinding war of attrition with high numbers of casualties on both sides, neither combatant appears ready to throw in the towel.

One could imagine Russia would have the same will to fight against NATO. China, although it would almost surely behave differently than Russia, would, I believe, also have a strong will to fight. Furthermore, there is the unavoidable reality that both have nuclear arsenals.

It is time to actually act on what has been quoted from Sun Tzu in countless military classrooms over the decades: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Russia and China are different, and defeating their will to resist — and persist — will surely require understanding them each in detail.

The “Adversary’s Capabilities” Component of the Military Problem

The earlier discussion of capabilities-based planning is not intended to be dismissive of the importance of overmatching the adversary. What a specific place and adversary do is give context — an understanding of in what geography which specific capabilities, wielded by whom, must be defeated or countered. The ongoing war in Ukraine is affording an excellent opportunity to assess Russian capabilities and the concepts for their employment. This is particularly important if, as recent assessments have noted, the Russians are not as formidable as many believed them to be before the war.

Absent a specific problem to match up against, there are no gaps to analyze that could provide data about, for example, how much range is adequate for a new missile. In the case of ground-based long-range fires, a missile with a thousand-mile range can hit Moscow from NATO territory. Unintended or not, such a weapon would likely be perceived as a strategic threat to the Russians and potentially escalatory. Furthermore, Moscow will assume the missile, like theirs of similar range, is nuclear-capable, thus increasing their perception of risk. On the other hand, if launched from Guam, the same missile weapon would fall into the Pacific Ocean before reaching China.

An assessment of specific adversary capabilities would yield data that might create the demand for two systems of different ranges. The data would also provide a gap analysis to show how many of each would be required in each theater. Absent this context, “longer range” and “more weapons” are the only answer possible.

Ironically, all the technologies that have been and are being developed for rapid, decisive offensive operations turn out to be even more formidable in the defense. They deny our adversaries surprise and enable us to dispose our forces where they can most effectively defend against attack. Consequently, as Alex Vershinin notes: “Emerging technologies in the fields of network, artificial intelligence, and space are shifting the balance back to defenses.” He continues by stating that the United States may have missed this shift and that the consequences are significant: “Unable to fight a short decapitation campaign, the United States may be forced into a prolonged attrition campaign, at unacceptable political costs.”

In the next part of this essay, I will turn to how the war in Ukraine can help the Department of Defense better understand the ascendance of the defense, so it can better prepare for the military problems it faces now and in the future.



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, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, 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.

Image: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Hedil Hernández