US military must develop radically new ideas to win the next big war
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As we remember the euphoria of Operation Desert Storm 30 years ago, it’s easy to forget how broken the U.S. military was just 15 years before Desert Storm, at the end of the Vietnam War.

Although many fought with courage and valor in Vietnam, they suffered from disastrous shortcomings: a strategy-tactics mismatch, insufficient training, unsuitable equipment, leadership failures and poor morale. Additionally, the American people were deeply divided over the war and the military’s role.

It’s often been said that people, and institutions, learn more from defeat than victory. That was certainly the case after America left Southeast Asia. It was the starting point for a 20-year effort to rebuild the U.S. military, led by many young officers who had personally experienced failure. Vietnam provided urgency for a diverse team — including military leaders, scientists, business leaders, and especially Congress — to think differently about future wars.

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Many of us share a similar sense of urgency today. To be sure, our situation is not as dire as it was in the mid-1970s, but the stark reality is that change is badly needed or we will experience a crisis that similarly exposes our shortcomings. In the past two decades, we have seen the rise of formidable rivals and the erosion of the technology advantage that emerged in Desert Storm. It’s not hard to foresee scenarios where we might lose, or worse, become irrelevant. Just as we did after Vietnam, it’s time to bring together a diverse team to re-think and rebuild national defense.

After Vietnam, U.S. grand strategy focused on confronting the Soviet Union, and the military’s role was to deter and, if necessary, to lead the NATO Alliance to defeat Soviet aggression. Today, we need clear focus so that our military can prioritize what’s most important. There are many threats to our national security and military force is not well-suited for all of them. Our forces are best suited for deterring and defeating destructive attacks on our homeland and working with friends to defend themselves in a dangerous world. Our most capable and aggressive competitors are China and Russia, and we have friends in Asia and Europe who are willing to work in common interest. This must be our priority.

With clear goals and urgency, good things happen. After Vietnam, military leaders realized the imperative for providing realistic training, and they worked with Congress to establish advanced training at the National Training Center in California and Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. As James Kitfield wrote in “Prodigal Soldiers,” this allowed young leaders to fight “bloodless battles” where they could make mistakes — including potentially fatal ones — and learn. They quickly realized that old tactics were insufficient against Soviet equipment, doctrine, and numbers, so they reinvented how they fought. The shared urgency led to a revolution in operational concepts. Despite their differences, the Army and Air Force found common ground to create the concept known as AirLand Battle, which allowed the services to focus training and force development on the right priorities.

In developing these concepts, service leaders understood that better equipment would be required, so they worked with Congress and industry to build advanced aircraft, vehicles, ships, and other weapons. Advents such as stealth, “smart bombs”, and networking — including a groundbreaking effort by DARPA known as “Assault Breaker” — allowed for further refinements of the operational concepts, and the result was a leap forward in capability. The Soviets noticed. By the mid-80s, Soviet commentators wrote about a “quiet revolution” that would make conventional force as effective as nuclear weapons.

The combination of effective conventional forces with a reliable nuclear deterrent kept the Cold War from becoming hot. Furthermore, it gave President George H.W. Bush options below the nuclear threshold in Desert Storm. In the years since, this combination ensured an unprecedented period of military superiority, deterring wars between great powers. 

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Today, we will need to work with industry to incorporate a number of new technologies such as multiple generations of low-cost, disposable aircraft, designed using digital tools. We will need to develop methods to fight as a seamless team with our friends against aggressive enemies with deadly long-range missiles. And, while we are doing this, we will need to modernize our nuclear forces.

Perhaps most importantly, we need help from Congress. This does not mean unchecked budget authorities. Instead, we need Congress’ help in creating solutions and adequate funding. This begins with a shared sense of the problems — and a shared urgency to solve them. The bipartisan Future of Defense Task Force recently released its report with clear recommendations, and we will be in a better place as these recommendations become a reality. Some of these choices are hard, and they will challenge us. As Christian Brose writes in his book “The Kill Chain,” “For the future to win, senior leaders in the Pentagon and Congress must forge a relationship of closeness and transparency to a degree that could make each other deeply uncomfortable.”

It’s time for us to embrace that discomfort. It’s better than losing.

Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote is the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration and Requirements.