The Return of Limited War

Limited war is a topic covered heavily in military discussions since World War II. It is often touted as the diametric opposite of total war, where a nation or society dedicates all of their resources to defeat an enemy.[1] However, the world has changed, and so has limited war. In the modern era, combat systems from ships to planes have become so expensive that they are pushing states to a form of limited war that has not been the norm since before Napoleon. It is these financial costs, more so than the toll in lives, that will dictate future warfare.

The concepts of limited and total war took on new meaning with the advent of the nuclear age...

Limited wars have always existed and states have often applied a portion of their full effort to achieve a goal that was less important than the state’s survival. For example, the survival of the Roman Empire under Augustus did not rely on the conquering of Germania, but the legions fought and died there none-the-less.[2] The concepts of limited and total war took on new meaning with the advent of the nuclear age, because total war in the modern era meant an unacceptable level of destruction in all but the biggest conflicts.

The Korean War is considered a limited war because Truman and later Eisenhower refused to allow the conflict to escalate with direct conventional or nuclear attacks on Chinese soil. They limited U.S. involvement to a level they considered acceptable.[3] The remainder of the 20th century saw a series of limited wars fought by the United States from Vietnam to Iraq. The concept has become a valid manner in which to view wars with goals that are less than the total destruction of the enemy. Objectives and outcomes were limited, particularly in Vietnam, in part because the human toll of a total war were considered too high.[4]

However, historians use the term in another vein as well, and apply it to an era much older than the Cold War. In Makers of Modern Strategy, historian R. R. Palmer explains how and why Europeans fought limited wars prior to Napoleon. The French Emperor lifted the continent to a new height of warfare when he influenced France to mobilize its entire society for war. Palmer explains, “The constitution of armies strongly affected their utilization. For governments of the Old Regime, with their limited resources, the professional armies were expensive. Each soldier represented a heavy investment in time and money. Trained troops lost in action could not easily be replaced.”[5] Due to the cost of individual soldiers, Palmer noted that “… many factors combined before the French Revolution to produce a limited warfare, fought with limited means for limited objectives. Wars were long, but not intense; battles were destructive (for the battalion volleys were deadly), but for that reason not eagerly sought.”[6]

The inordinate monetary cost of doing battle is the key to this older concept of limited war, more so than limited objectives. Today we wage limited wars because the human toll of total wars is astounding and horrifying, especially if they involve nuclear weapons. But modern leaders may soon favor this older version of limited war because states cannot accept the potential loss of even some of their military hardware. This form of limited war is the type of warfare Congress and senior defense officials are pushing on the United States, whether they know it or not. In some ways, Afghanistan and Iraq were harbingers of this concept. Simply look at the Air Force’s reluctance to field new manned and unmanned ISR platforms, because senior leaders thought those systems would take away from more important projects such as the advanced F-22 fighter.[7] It is a clear example of not wanting to engage in a limited conflict due to budgetary reasons.

USS Coronado (LCS-4) conducts operations during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016 in July. (U.S. Navy Photo)

The examples of the U.S. spending its way to a point requiring limited war are numerous. The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the jack-of-all-trades vessel comes in at a price-reduced $345 million.[8] In FY15 the Navy allocated $1.053B for 3 vessels, representing 36% of the Navy’s budget for weapons procurement.[9] An even more extreme example of Navy hardware that can hardly be risked in war is any of its 10 nuclear powered aircraft carriers. The current Nimitz class carriers cost $8.5B each, and the new Gerald R. Ford is under construction for the staggering sum of $12.9B.[10] Can the U.S. afford to risk any of these in combat? Perhaps the highest profile weapons program today is the F-35, a system that according to some is breaking the U.S. defense budget with only a minimal return in battlefield capabilities.[11] Costing up to $337M each, according to one analyst, what would the loss of even one or two of these aircraft cost the U.S.?[12] They certainly cannot be quickly and easily replaced, so therefore at what point are these assets worth risking?

The exact dollar cost of weapons programs is often difficult to pinpoint, and critics may argue against these numbers. However, even if one only considers the scale of these procurement costs versus how many platforms can be fielded, it is clear that the U.S. will go to war with significantly fewer, higher price pieces of hardware than ever before.

The F-35 is expected to replace the F-16, among other aircraft types. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

To be fair, one must consider the counter-argument that highly priced systems are more effective than earlier generation systems. The F-35 is supposed to replace several aircraft in the U.S. inventory, and is touted as having advanced capabilities.[13] This may someday prove true, despite current issues with its development. But these advancements do not guarantee survivability in any conflict, and if potential losses cannot be replaced quickly even advanced capabilities may not entirely offset lower numbers. The cost of modern military systems, along with their complexity, will not allow quick replacement. Leaders already face replacement issues. Simply look at the U.S. Marines plan to replace the 6 AV-8B Harriers destroyed by the Taliban in 2012, where the service will wait 6 years for F-35Bs to back-fill that particular combat loss.[14]

The echoes of limited war are resounding. The princes of the 17th and 18th centuries feared the loss of expensively trained soldiers (the combat “systems” of their day). Modern soldiers are also expensive, but the dollar cost of a single soldier pales in comparison to those of ships, tanks, and planes.[15] Present day militaries must fear the loss of a few aircraft or a single ship in a manner not seen since in at least a century.

Crash site of the Black Hawk helicopter shot down in the First Battle of Mogadishu, October 1993 (Mustafa Abdi | AFP | Getty Images)

The loss of one or a few of these systems would be cataclysmic to the U.S., not least because budgets simply will not allow replacement. Therefore, elected officials and military commanders will be forced to weigh potential losses against any possible battlefield and political success. Leaders have faced similar contemplation in terms of individual lives lost in limited conflicts, such as the soldiers lost in Mogadishu in 1993 forcing a U.S. withdrawal, but now the calculations will revolve primarily around systems lost.[16] The bar for entering conflicts will most certainly be raised. The days when the U.S. Air Force could afford to lose 1599 combat aircraft in a limited conflict such as Vietnam are past.[17] It is possible that the determinations for entering limited conflicts such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya would have been different if the latest generation aircraft were the only ones available. A single F-15E was lost in Libya due to mechanical failure at a cost of approximately $30M.[18] Would leaders have risked the $337M F-35 to mechanical failure in a combat zone or hostile fire for the same objective? Although it impossible to know for sure, the answer may be no.

Whether for better or worse, we are all returning to an older understanding of limited war, one driven more by costs than objectives.

Of course, the increased dollar costs of combat systems will not end limited wars. Leaders will always consider some limited objectives worthy of the most sophisticated (and expensive) assets. The U.S. raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound utilized “stealth” helicopters that are almost certainly more expensive than standard UH-60 Blackhawks demonstrates this.[19] The loss of one of those helicopters shows that among other factors, political and military leaders decided that the terrorist’s capture or death was worth the potential dollar loss involved in the operation. Increased dollar costs certainly will not be the only consideration, but it is rapidly escalating in comparison to all others.

Still the raising of the bar for limited war may include a silver lining. If the cost of losing a LCS or F-35 in a military adventure that is only tangential to the welfare of the U.S. is too high, maybe the U.S. will involve itself in fewer conflicts around the world. This scenario certainly appeals to a war-weary public and to elected officials.[20] The question a nation needs to answer is if it wants to be forced into this state of limited war making abilities, or would it rather have sufficient, capable, and available forces to meet any contingency, and then choose whether or not to enter a conflict. Or will modern states be happy to have their actions dictated by fear of any loss in conflict? Some states will take advantage of this calculus, and have used a similar equation against the U.S. in places like Somalia. Only in future conflicts it will not be the loss of human life that limits involvement, but the loss of expensive hardware. Whether for better or worse, we are all returning to an older understanding of limited war, one driven more by costs than objectives.

Ian Bertram is an active duty Air Force helicopter pilot with operational experience in nuclear defense and as an Air Advisor deployed to Afghanistan. He graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a B.S. in History and holds an M.A. in Military History from Norwich University. His work has previously appeared in Air and Space Power Journal, Small Wars Journal, and Task and Purpose. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Napoleon ordering the II Corps of the Grande Armée into action. The resources available to national armies after the Revolution moved states away from limited war. (Pierre Gautherot | Public Domain


[1] Stephen Morillo, Jeremy Black, Paul Lococo, War in World History: Society, Technology, and War from Ancient Times to the Present, Vol 2 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2009), 442-443.

[2] Tacitus, Annals, Book 1.

[3] Morillo, War in World History, 576.

[4] Nina Tannenwald, “Nuclear Weapons and the Vietnam War,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol 29, no 4, 675-722 (Aug 2006) 718. Successive American Presidents feared the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam that could have escalated the conflict beyond its limited nature.

[5] R. R. Palmer, “Frederick, Guibert, Bulow,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Peter Paret, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 94.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 130.

[8] Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “LCS: Production Surges, Prices Drop,” Breaking Defense (July 16, 2015)

[9] Dan Parsons, “Navy 2015 Budget Nearly Halves LCS, F-35 Buys,” National Defense (March 4, 2014); Office of the Chief of Information, “Department of Navy Releases Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Proposal,” Navy News Service (March 4, 2014) Percentage derived from dividing cost of single LCS from expected Navy procurement budget of $38.4B.

[10] “Aircraft Carriers, CVN,” Navy News Service ( January 12, 2016); United States Government Accountability Office, Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapons Programs (March 2015), 95

[11] David Axe, “Pentagon’s Big Budget F-35 Fighter ‘Can’t Turn, Can’t Climb, Can’t Run’,” Reuters (July 14, 2014),

[12] Winslow Wheeler, “How Much Does an F-35 Actually Cost?: Up to $337 Million - Apiece - For the Navy Version,” War is Boring (July 27, 2014),

[13] Axe, “Pentagon’s Big Budget F-35.”

[14] Hope Hodge Seck, “F-35s to Replace Marine Harriers Destroyed in Bastion Attack,” Marine Corps Times (August 12, 2015),

[15] David L. Thomas II, “The U.S. Army: A Business? Return on Investment?” (December 3, 2004),,13190,120304_ArmyBusiness-P1,00.html. Lt Col Thomas estimated from U.S. Army sources in 2004 that the cost to train an individual soldier at $35,000 to $50,000.

[16] Mark Bowden, Blackhawk Down: A Story of Modern War (New York: Atlantic Montly Press, 1999), 358.

[17] “Aircraft Losses During the Vietnam War,” Vietnam War Blog, Combat aircraft were considered any with an A/B/F designation (e.g., A-1, B-52, F-4).

[18] Associciated Press, “U.S. F-15 Fighter Jet Down in Libya, Crew ‘Safe,’” CBS News (March 22, 2011),; U.S. Air Force, “F-15 Eagle,” (March 14, 2005),

[19] Brian Ross, et al, “Top Secret Stealth Helicopter Program Revealed in Osama Bin Laden Raid: Experts,” ABC News (May 4, 2011),

[20] Shibley Telhami, “Are Americans Ready to Go to War With ISIL?” Politico (January 8, 2015),