Latest posts by George H. Wittman (see all)
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There is a belief among U.S. military leaders that it is essential to maintain seriously strong units in forward positions around the world. This certainly was a useful conception in the past. It reigns true in regard to the sense of presence in foreign policy terms. It is not necessarily true any longer in military terms. In Vietnam the defeat was political rather than military in spite of an extensive conventional military commitment. Nonetheless, Washington has continued and even extended the concept of what is an outdated and technically outmoded defensive strategy in the nuclear age.
In truth, the capability of projection of conventional military force for intervention in a non-nuclear armed region, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, still might have a logic to it. Even that, however, depends on whether an external power is interested and willing to become involved in contesting a given side’s ambition or commitment. The fact is that there are few places in the world that are not, or could not be, on the strategic military and political list of some nuclear capable power. This does not mean that outside nuclear capable powers would automatically go towards a nuclear option to intervene in every situation in which they might have an interest. On the contrary, that option may exist, but it would be a counterproductive escalation unless there was a major strategic justification.
There is a serious shortfall, however, where there is a strong strategic interest relying on deterrence of strictly conventional weapons. Perhaps the best example of this technologically outdated strategy is found in the perceived importance of the large U.S. military establishment in Japan supposedly structured to deter Chinese aggression in support of the Pyongyang regime. Obviously, American political and military leaders do not want to admit that the only real deterrent to major power (China, Russia) offensive action is the threat of nuclear weapons. In truth, that is also the fact with such emerging nuclear “bad guys” as Iran and any of its ilk that come into being. Bad actors such as North Korea do not fear conventional attack. That’s why they think they have to have their own nuclear counter.
It does not mean that conventional force, as such, is no longer useful. However, in the end the person on the ground is no longer the backbone of defense in major conflict. This means a conflict of the scope of previous wars involving complete national mobilization of the major countries. Ultimately, the only place conventional military force is appropriate is where the opposing side is only similarly armed – or has no potentiality of being armed either with nuclear or large scale chemical weapons.
The only place warfare now can be limited is where there is no possibility of advanced weaponry being introduced by the antagonist – or being provided by other parties. It is a terrifying truth to realize these wars such as in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have caused thousands of casualties as well as destruction of large urban and rural areas. Syria, unfortunately, is an excellent example where traditional weapons were aided in a few but important instances with the use of poison gas.
It is important to note, that neither Russia nor China maintain large scale force structures beyond their borders, though major Russian troop concentrations do exist on the border areas with Ukraine. China maintains heavy troop deployments in portions of northwestern China where internal dissidence thrives among the Uighur tribal areas. Both countries have missiles in large number that can be armed in both nuclear and non-nuclear manner. In addition they have considerable satellites in orbit and development to aid them. It already has been proven by the United States that new non-nuclear missile warheads can be developed that will have the effect of massive destruction – to say nothing of similar airborne capability using their same MOAB concept.
The role of aircraft carriers in future conflicts must be questioned. It may be hard to accept for some, but the vulnerability of carriers to long range land-based missiles, satellite directed, brings into question Navy aircraft carriers in a major war. Admittedly the American carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and its supporting vessels were active recently in force projection in the Mediterranean enforcing U.S. interests in the Middle East. That this could be done in the course of a major power international conflict is highly questionable, to say the least. In point of fact, because of the relative limited potential of maneuverability in the “Med,” the FDR would have been a sitting duck in a future missile era. Missile defense even in contemporary times is not impenetrable – as the Israelis recognize with their “Iron Dome” program.
It must be recognized that even in the future countering any missile defense structure always will be high priority. Isn’t this one of the aims of the projected “Space Force?” To enlarge on this issue in future considerations one must recognize that the entire concept of “ruling the waves” using major surface fleets is clearly endangered in an advanced era of missile development and employment. The future of the Navy is with its underwater fleet of long range, less easy–to-detect nuclear-powered and missile-armed submarines.
In spite of all the foregoing, the actual conflicts today still require very basic capabilities. In the combat areas of the Middle East the military skills necessary lean more on the basic elements of earlier wars. Special unit actions in urban and open traditional warfare are predominating. Airstrikes are limited to those who actually have the trained personnel and appropriate aircraft, such as the U.S. Air Force that drove their Syrian counterparts from the sky and now continue to pound ISIS and akin terrorist strongpoints wherever they are found. Russian operations in the Ukraine and Crimea were more reminiscent of World War II with a little modern “Spetznatz” updates to add a bit of what might be more ancient than special forces around the world would be willing to admit. However, none of this olde “tyme” stuff can be counted on in a major future conflict except in special cases. It certainly has to be off-putting for those of us from the earlier wars, but time and war fighting waits for no one!