Our Asymmetric World: Optimizing the Force

The future of American military power is up for grabs. Between the myriad military strategies being debated and the ever-present uncertainty over the future budget, no one in the Department of Defense has any idea what our military will look like five years from now, much less ten. Every school of thought has its champion and listening to him or her will lead us to a finely tuned military — a world class institution that is unbeatable, within a set of finely marked boundaries. This would be an acceptable position if our country knew what our armed forces would be up to next. But we don’t.

A nation with a clear military threat or objective has the luxury of examining its opponent and planning a campaign to exploit weaknesses and vulnerabilities in their pursuit of victory. America’s view is global and our goal is largely to maintain the status quo. This means that while potential adversaries only have to be right once we have to be right all the time. If this sounds like a lecture on defending against terrorism there’s a reason for that. It is called asymmetry; since the fall of the Berlin Wall the world has been asymmetric. We cannot optimize to fight insurgencies because it leaves us vulnerable to large conventional fights. If we optimize against conventional fights, which type do we optimize for? Tank battles through the Fulda Gap? Naval battles off the coast of China? Regardless of which we choose, we then become vulnerable to unconventional tactics. We think that just because we aren’t planning on fighting an insurgency we are done fighting asymmetrically. This is a mistake. Asymmetry is what leads to innovations like Anti-Access/Area Denial. Why build a massive fleet to take on ours when you can just mine the waters? IEDs are not going to disappear when we leave Afghanistan; every military in the world has watched and learned our vulnerabilities for the last 13 years. Asymmetry is here to stay and we need to embrace it, because it is the only certainty we have.

What we need is to be competitive in a variety of events. We need our military to be a decathlete.

What then does a military geared towards asymmetry look like? To indulge in the often overly-used “military as sports” analogy, peer on peer conflict is like the shot-put. To be competitive, an athlete needs to be strong and capable of throwing large weight around with the potential to do a tremendous amount of damage. Insurgents would be 1,500 meter runners, fast and agile but still a grueling distance requiring endurance. A 1,500 meter runner would get crushed in a shot-put competition, but would run circles around a shot-putter in his own race. Each school of thought bouncing around the military establishment today would have us winning the world championship in any number of events. But we don’t need that, what we need is to be competitive in a variety of events. We need our military to be a decathlete.

The US military is faced with the need to balance several sports at once. Simultaneously heavy enough that other shot putters don’t come gunning for us, but nimble enough to pursue medium-distance runners. We have to be able to be competitive in the 100m sprint of special operations raids, good enough at the long jump to conduct amphibious assaults, maintain our nuclear javelin throw, perfect our anti-submarine discus technique, and preserve our pole vaulting air assault capabilities. In short, we need to be just as versatile and adaptive, just as flexible and creative as the millions of different ways other nations can try to defeat us. Invest too much in one “sport” and we will create vulnerabilities in another.

To a large degree the fighting men and women of the US military are intimately familiar with being decathletes. Not a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine exists that hasn’t been told at some point to suck it up and make it work with what they have. Our service men and women are incredibly flexible, creative, and capable of great endurance. It is our bureaucracy and institutional leadership that are not. Thirteen years into a war that faced insurgencies on two fronts, and formal training in the soft skills necessary to mentor foreign forces and persuade local populaces is either haphazard or non-existent. Our fighting men and women endure hardship willingly and gladly while our leadership builds massive bases or insists on force protection levels that isolate us from the very people with which we are supposed to be connecting. Credit is given toward promotions for having deployed, not for being successful while deployed. The institutions of the US military have shown an unwillingness to acknowledge that we had stopped preparing for a war and had started fighting one.

What then does a decathlete Department of Defense look like? What would our institutions have to do? First, our officer corps needs to be made up of generalists. They will be asked to do things wildly outside of their career field; they must be ready for it. Secondly, we must develop a mechanism for shifting the force makeup rapidly to suit whatever conflict we find ourselves in. This means training and equipping men and women for new jobs quickly and efficiently while using those who have trained for that specialty as a cadre to build the expanded units around. This way of fighting our future wars will look messy to some. But if done correctly and often it will allow us to adapt faster than our adversaries allowing us to dictate the pace of the battle and forcing them to respond to us. Organizationally a decathlete DoD might mean:

  1. A Navy that considers moving away from large carriers which provide a single point of failure. Small carriers allow us to cover more ground, creating options, but can still converge and deliver the same amount of combat power. Our naval power must be capable of controlling the sea, which means addressing the proliferation of submarines and other A2/AD technologies. Ships that are truly good at these operations are not big and glamorous; they are not the kind of ships that most Naval officers grow up dreaming of commanding. A fleet centered on impossible to replace capital ships and possessing sub-optimal ships to deal with the majority of future threats could find itself more vulnerable than imagined. The rest of the country counts on the Navy, and the Air Force, to keep the door unlocked and open for the rest of us.
  2. An Army consisting of small, easily deployed forces that push control and initiative to the platoon and company level. Higher echelons become little more than coordinating bodies that trust the young men and women whose lives are on the line to adapt to the reality that they see instead of what the command insists must be there. These young men and women will tell the commanders above them what is there and the Army as an institution must be ready to either transition heavier units to what is needed or to drop a hammer as rapidly as possible if those light forces determine they need it. Dropping that hammer means that the Air Force and Navy have to continue taking seriously the need to move large amounts of heavy equipment around the world rapidly. Operating in this way means that our young platoon and company commanders as well as the NCOs around them need to understand societies, politics, religions, and most importantly strategy. It is based on their assessment of the nature of the conflict that will determine what direction the rest of the Army jumps. Like the initial assessment in Iraq of the insurgents as little more than criminals, the initial strategic judgment, in this case done by our most junior officers and NCOs, would be the most important contribution of the conflict.
  3. The United States has enjoyed unprecedented air superiority in every conflict it has chosen to engage in since 1953. The Air Force must keep it that way. But few opponents will call for a protracted air war, so while the Air Force needs the capability to launch air superiority and strategic bombing missions to clear the skies, it also needs the ability to sustain potentially lengthy ground support operations. Charged with operating in a rapidly changing technological domain the leadership of the Air Force has an unenviable task: balancing long development and procurement times with the uncertainty of which opposing Air Force they will be asked to combat or how substantial the ground combat they will be asked to support will be. The leadership of the Air Force cannot lose sight of the fact that if they orient too much towards establishing air superiority the Air Force may find itself spending long times conducting support operations with sub-optimal equipment and training. As already noted, the Air Force is a critical component in enabling the Army’s rapid deployment.
  4. The Marine Corps’ role lies in crisis responses and option generation. By restructuring around the MEU the Marine Corps can put six 2,500 Marine self-contained fighting forces around the world constantly. This allows us to partner with nations, establish a baseline of trust and relationships, and build their capacity to fight on their own, while also allowing us to respond to a variety of combat and humanitarian contingencies. Like the Navy, the MEUs can converge for a heavier response force, all six providing the two regiment assault force needed for an amphibious landing. Getting there first the Marine Corps would have the vital task of assessing the fight and handing long term operations off to the Army.

I know that critics will say that we won’t be prepared to fight the ________ military. And they may well be right. But bankrupting the country building a military that our adversaries can merely sidestep doesn’t prepare to fight them either. Our leaders do not know what the next fight will be and let’s be honest neither do we. What we need is a military that generates options and can adapt rapidly once the battle is joined. We no longer face a fixed enemy that we can analyze and prepare to fight ad nauseum, we face an asymmetric world that demands that we become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. We have since the 1990s, so let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Aaron Haubert is a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and graduate of King’s College London. The views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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