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

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