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The Evolving Art of War

And Gates's task to adapt.

8:00 AM, May 5, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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Since assuming his post during the Bush administration, Robert Gates has operated with a simple philosophy: win the war. But execution of that guiding objective has proven complicated. During World War II, America's armed forces were transformed from a sleepy, mostly domestic border guard into a massive military juggernaut, which swiftly dismantled both the Nazi and Japanese empires in under four years. General George C. Marshall led that military industrial revolution, procuring the right weapons in the right numbers.

The Evolving Art of War

But Marshall's task was simple: cripple the Axis. During World War II, the bad guys fought according to an established order of things -- tanks, planes, ships, and a host of varied war machines fought to control the battlespace. When you could stand a rifleman unopposed on a chunk of territory, you owned it. Rules of war were (mostly) followed. Logistical lines stemmed from predictable centers of gravity, enveloped by established and recognized boundaries. The craft of warfighting and the utility of force were logical and symmetrical, making the art of military force shaping simple. 

Gates doesn't enjoy that stability. He can't afford to configure the U.S. military into an infantry-based heavy occupation force, ideal for holding territory and prosecuting an insurgency, without somewhat compromising the military's mission of deterring potential aggressor nations. 21st century technology hyper-empowers the individual and decentralizes force, which renders traditional means of conventional deterrence nearly obsolete. So when Iran counterbalances the hulking carriers and cruisers of the U.S. Navy with legions of small, fast missile boats, or China starts targeting our ships with non-nuclear ballistic missiles, the established order of sea power is thrown out the window. The same can be said for land and sea operations -- rapidly evolving asymmetrical tactics means America's armed forces must adjust or become obsolete. 

The problem is that our armed forces must still be shaped in such a way that discourages aggression along traditional axes. Advanced fighters like the F-22 are still needed to deter the massive PLA Air Force from swooping down on Taiwan, but provide little help to grunts pounding turf in the Hindu Kush. Large, capable tank formations don't really fit into a population-centric COIN strategy, but were still necessary in a variety of small wars fought since 1945. Warfare has metamorphosed so rapidly in the past 10 years, it is nearly impossible to properly evaluate, predict, and plan for future contingencies. Building a military force around such a quick evolution, particularly one so deeply encumbered by a suffocating bureaucracy, is an equally daunting task.

So we frequently see micro civil wars throughout the DoD hierarchy, mostly centered around acquisition strategies. The days of deciding on the Jeep as a common land transport, then purchasing thousands of units, are over. Today's defense procurement world more resembles the infamous carriers vs. battleships debate prior to World War II. Old admirals wanted their august destroyers and surface combatants, while innovative young officers correctly predicted that sea battles would be mostly fought over-the-horizon with sea based air power. 

Yesterday, Secretary Gates raised some eyebrows when he mentioned that the U.S. Navy might have to do without 11 powerful, but cumbersome, carrier strike groups. The destroyers vs. carrier debate may be entering its next evolution, morphing into carriers vs. unmanned aerial vehicles. Citing the Navy's unquestioned dominance of the world's oceans, Gates hinted that the proud fleet of CVNs may be joining the F-22 Raptor on the chopping block. But, if 21st century warfare is as fluid as the secretary says, it seems as if carriers would be even more valuable today as they were during the simpler Cold War epoch. Nuclear carriers, aside from the wow-factor ability to park a dominant air force right off the coast of a potential aggressor, are unmatched in their flexibility. They have been used as messengers when diplomacy fails, such as the sailing of two carrier strike groups through the Straits of Taiwan or upping their presence in the Persian Gulf. They can act as support bases for natural disasters, with ample nuclear power, fresh water, and helicopters for search and rescue. And they are critical in their ability to rapidly adapt to unpredictable changes in geopolitical events, whether that be running close air support sorties over Afghanistan or hammering Serbia's military and war-supporting infrastructure. 

A battleship's flexibility is limited. It exists to hammer targets on land and sea. But a carrier's is limitless, supporting both America's overarching strategic deterrence objectives as well as the individual warfighter in remote outposts like Iraq and Afghanistan. We should be jealously protecting weapon systems that capably fill multi-role mission demands, and resist temptations to evolve too rapidly. All terrorists are bad guys, but not all bad guys are terrorists. There is still, and likely always will be, a need to wield fearsome levels of violence against peer adversaries. Flexibility is important, but shouldn't come at the expense of capability. 

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