The Future Battlefield: The Advantage Has Now Swung Back in the Defender’s Favor

I thought the best panel at CNAS’s annual conference on national security last week, videos can be found here, featured SOCOM commander Adm. Eric Olson, CSBA’s Jim Thomas, CNAS’ John Nagl and Brookings’ Peter Singer discussing a future force for future wars.

CSBA’s Thomas, who authored the 2006 QDR, said the ongoing debate over the future force between those arguing for a labor intensive, irregular warfare force and those who contend that a capital intensive, big war force is the way to go is a false dichotomy. As precision targeting and weapons proliferate, both high-end and low-end wars will unfold in a far less “permissive” operating environment than the U.S. is accustomed.

Battlefield advantage has swung back in favor of the defender (see southern Lebanon, 2006; Route Irish, Baghdad, 2004-?), which is, after all, the historical norm. With the further maturation and proliferation of long-range precision guided weaponry and attendant open-source battle command networks, warfare may be entering the “post-power projection era.”

The Pentagon continues to buy the wrong weapons, Thomas said, systems that are too short-ranged and high-signature, designed for a permissive operating environment that simply won’t exist. The future battlefield will demand highly distributed, small teams operating with far lower signatures.

Adm. Olson talked briefly about the transition of SOF from a raiding force in the 1940s-50s to a counterinsurgency force in the 1960s-70s and then expanded to include counterterrorism in the 1980s. He said he was a COIN advocate and any media reports that he opposed population-centric COIN were wrong; but he does believe COIN must be tailored to the “micro-region,” on a “village-by-village, valley-by-valley basis.”

SOF does have a different style of COIN than general purposes forces, he said, smaller units with a much smaller footprint leveraging local forces; the traditional green beret foreign internal defense mission.

Nagl picked up on that point and said the large general purpose forces footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan is definitely not the way the U.S. will want to do COIN in the future. The Army and Marines simply don’t know how to do foreign internal defense as well as SOF does.

Brooking’s Singer said drones and robots will proliferate into our enemy’s arsenals. DOD is too focused on fielding flashy new drones and sensors to suck up vast amounts of battlefield data, he said, without addressing the growing problem that at some point humans must analyze and interpret all that data.

Thomas added that with robotics, the acquisition choice is either to go cheap and disposable, with drones and robots that can be thrown at an enemy’s missile magazines without much regret, or ultra-costly, high-end and stealthy.

— Greg Grant

  • Mark O’Connell

    Sounds like an argument for the XM25 Rife.

  • holyland

    Jim Thomas is the author of 2001 QDR with Michelle Flornoy, not 2006 QDR.

  • Greg Grant…

  • bburn

    “The Army and Marines simply don’t know how to do foreign internal defense as well as SOF does.”

    I guess the simple reply is that if they are so good at it then why are conventional units having to do it.

    • SGT

      well.. not enough sof is the answer to that question my freind.

  • roland

    I think we need a modern space reconnaissance sattelite that can look at the location of the enemy before they will trigger an attack to our boys on the ground. We already have the hubble telescope technology that can zoom to see the vast universe, why not the land in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the location of Taliban and Osama Bin Ladin were hiding? I do believe its a good avantage to have a reconnassance sattelite to protect our men in uniform on the field and win the war against the tererorist in Afghanistan.

    • E_Khun

      And that, my dear sir, is exactly what Singer means when he says:

      “flashy new drones and sensors to suck up vast amounts of battlefield data without addressing the growing problem that at some point humans must analyze and interpret all that data.”

  • LeoC

    These “unmanned” drones can require a squad of humans on the ground for maintenance, control, data analysis, etc. That logistical footprint must be considered every time another batch is ordered from the manufacturer.

  • Dick

    We shouldn’t be looking at COIN in terms of conventional forces and SOF. COIN has 3 broad lines of operations:
    1. External operations to isolate and contain the AO, which generally require conventional ISR, maritime, ground, and air forces for awareness, show of force, and interdictions.
    2. Building Partner Capacity, which generally requires SOF as the main effort.
    3. Internal operations, which includes both SOF and conventional forces to suppress violence and give the partner an opportunity to succeed with interal raids, precision strikes, special reconnaissance…etc.

    Fighting IW and COIN in the future should not be seen as a choice between one or the other, SOF or GPF. Commanders need to determine the priorities though. Where are we weak? Do we have enough fighters for deterence and show of force? I’d say yes off hand, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need better technology? Do we have enough infantry and SOF to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan? I’d say no, but that doesn’t mean we need more.

  • Dick

    We need a national security strategy that gets us to an acceptable end state for OIF and OEF-A, and doctrine that will prevent us from repeating these unilateral occupations (that are only sprinkled lightly with multi-lateral participants). See ADM Mullen’s 1,000-ship navy concept through multi-lateralism.

    Just in case you defense enthusiasts haven’t noticed, the US government is not rolling in cash. If we’re not careful, we’ll let the flag officers drive us into a financial black hole like the Soviets.

    • LeeRet Army

      To bad we just can’t go back to the old adage “To the Victors go the spoils”. But that isn’t the way in this PC world we have to beat them then spend our resources rebuilding them

      • E_Khun

        Look at the world wars, the first time the Allies claimed the spoils of war from Germany, the second time the US helped to rebuild Germany (and most of Europe of course, thanks for that by the way).

        The Treaty of Versailles created Hitler. The Marshall Plan created a market and a NATO partner.

      • Dick

        Is today a PC world or a Correct world. I don’t think there’s anything political about an army of mature professionals trying to responsibly transition the Afghans to stability. What I do think was political was the incompetent cowboy’s with-us-or-against-us arrogance that got us into this mess.

        • William C.

          That cowboy attitude towards America was far better than our current president had little choice but to strike Afghanistan. I don’t think any leader would let them get away with that.

  • John In Jacksonville

    Our declining economic strength needs to be matched by a downsizing of our willingness to liberate and rebuild other countries. Of course as part of the Executive Branch, the military must implement the President’s policy. Hopefully the near-collapse of the economy in the last couple years while we were heavily engaged overseas will demonstrate to future presidents that national security is not necessarily served by ordering troops into action. We nearly achieved our enemies’ aims for them through our own national overextension. (Or “imperial overreach” as the fans of history are calling it.)

  • Sarge

    how about we give reason to make every unit have sof capabilities… and take a look at what sof is capable of doing and mix n match a little better then we are.. and how about some serious redisighn of the combat infantry mans ensamble.. fighting with a little plate on your chest isnt as comforting as some might think.. how about some exo’s I know id be more inclined to stick around if I personally had better survivability and a more “comfortable” work enviroment.. after all were all human, its just be nice to be able to be a human with a ******** of armour and better weapons..

  • Alex

    If the U.S. wants to survive we must end this war on terror and put up an iron curtain of defense and secure our borders. We must then focus on education reform and build and improve our infrastructure. Create a guerrilla army by training willing civilians in basic irregular warfare. Have all factories vital in creating weaponry be moved underground with a dedicated power plant. Also cut any unnecessary spending and begin to pay off the national debt. Create clean power alternatives to stop us from buying foreign oil. Legalize drugs such as marijuana in regulated THC potency’s and slap tobacco taxes on it which would make drug cartels obsolete and dry up their money flow. Create cheap affordable decent quality products to compete with China. If any thing should be implemented and put into effect in my rant than it would be education reform. Knowledge is power!!!! CHINA CAN KISS MY ASS!!!!

    • t gr

      how did that iron curtain work for the Soviets?

      • Close The Borders

        Excellently. The number of “illegal immigrants” into the Soviet Empire was as low as you could ever ask.