US Foreign Policy

Matching Forces to an Uncertain Future

in Program

By Cameron Trainer: 

In nature, mismatch diseases occur when an organism is poorly suited to the environment in which it lives. Adapting this concept to the military yields what could be called ‘mismatch forces,’ military forces that are improperly trained or equipped to best confront the challenges that face them. In the United States, which plans to spend roughly $583 billion on its military in FY2017, failure to forestall the mismatch between military forces and their operational environments cannot be credited to insufficient resources, but rather to a demonstrated inability to accurately envision both the origin and form of future threats. To avoid the creation of such mismatch forces, military acquisition and procurement processes must facilitate the maintenance of forces adaptable to future threats.

This issue was acknowledged in a 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who claimed that the military has a ‘perfect’ 0% success rate predicting future conflicts. When it comes down to fighting these conflicts, the U.S.’ track record does not fare much better. The War in Iraq (2003-2011), for example, exposed serious shortcomings in the equipment priorities of U.S. forces. Reliance on the Humvee exposed soldiers to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) whose damage could have been mitigated had the military possessed greater numbers of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Similarly, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) refused to invest in counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft through much of the Iraq war and attempted to retire the single-mission A-10, believing that large investments in multi-role aircraft such as the F-35 would better prepare the United States for future conflicts.

This view, in light of continued counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East, appears to have been erroneous. The ongoing conflict versus the Islamic State has demonstrated the need for a robust COIN option, as evidenced by the military’s renewed interest in light-attack planes. Furthermore, Russia and China—countries against which the United States could theoretically fight a high-intensity conventional conflict—have adopted Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) technologies. Such technological advancement could negate the very superiorities that the U.S. military has spent so much to achieve and doctrines of warfare that hinge on avoiding the full-scale conflict that American armed forces are prepared to fight.[1]

This isn’t to say that the military is uniquely to blame for failing to predict the future of warfare. Even the predictions of such futurists as H.G. Wells, whose 1902 Anticipations foresaw the military application of both airplanes and tanks, are of limited utility. Case in point, CFR’s Micah Zenko has rebutted Wells’ prediction that states would increasingly “be willing to seek terms as a whole, and bring the war to a formal close” by referencing the increasing rate with which resolved conflicts reignite. Indeed, the American experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan has suggested that, if anything, today’s wars are less likely to have a formal and effective resolution.

Failures to accurately anticipate the future of war, however, pose a remarkable challenge to those tasked with assuring that the U.S. possesses the capability — both in terms of equipment and operational flexibility — to address a range of constantly shifting threats. To date, the U.S. has attempted to address this challenge through the construction of a military force that spends almost three times the amount of its nearest competitor. This force would, theoretically and somewhat arbitrarily, allow the U.S. to fight two simultaneous wars against two regional powers. Even in the age of sequestration and shrinking budgets, one iteration of this policy has survived in the form of ‘strategic agility,’ a phrase coined in a Stimson Center report to describe how the U.S. could prepare for future conflicts in a budget-constrained environment.

Strategic agility offers a framework for dealing with the unexpected. The proposed doctrine would have the United States choose to fight only limited engagements that could be won swiftly and decisively. However, it would also recommend the U.S. maintain a robust reserve component to cope with situations which proposed active duty forces would be ill-suited for. In essence, this contingency acknowledges that the U.S. may fight neither the wars we wish to fight nor even the ones we might anticipate, and must maintain the capacity to do so. For this reason, neither the United States nor any other country should assume that it can predict the future. This is particularly pertinent with regards to the U.S. military’s acquisition and procurement system, which Senator John McCain called both ‘broken’ and ‘a national security crisis’ due to its ‘complex regulation and stifling bureaucracy.’

Even under this archaic system, with a stagnant budget, there are hints of what healthier acquisition and procurement policies might look like. The Army’s newly-created Rapid Capabilities Office — announced by Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning on August 31, 2016 — expedites the development of critical technologies to combat emerging threats, addressing the capability gaps created by an archaic acquisition and procurement process. Similarly, at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus detailed the Navy’s use of pilot programs to skirt the acquisition process and quickly test and deploy emerging technologies such as the Laser Weapon System equipped by the USS Ponce. These programs — and others like them — foster innovation and expedite the deployment of the means necessary to confront both existing and future threats. As such, they are an integral component of the existing acquisition and procurement process, since they allow the military to keep pace with the challenges it faces.

These same programs, however, work against or around our current system, not through it. U.S. acquisition and procurement processes are in dire need of modernization. It will be the responsibility of our next commander-in-chief to lead that effort. Failure to do so would not only allow potential adversaries to narrow the gap between their capabilities and our own, but would make it even more likely that American forces, underequipped and undertrained for an unanticipated mission, will suffer a harsh learning experience akin to that of Iraq. For this reason, it is crucial to prioritize flexibility and innovation in revamping the acquisition and procurement process so as to avoid further institutionalizing the maintenance of a mismatch force.

Cameron Trainer is a research intern at the Stimson Center.

[1] A prime example here being Russian-style non-linear war as is currently being waged in Ukraine that, through farcical deniability on the Russian part, prohibits the use of high-intensity armed force as a legitimate response.

Photo credit: U.S. Government via Flickr
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