By Byron King Posted July 29, 2021
I have a friend who teaches at the university level — at a U.S. service academy, no less.
The other day he was running a class and posed a short (but profound) question to a group of students. Namely, what was the most recent strategic disaster suffered by the U.S. military?
“Blank expressions,” noted my friend.
After a period of time, one student offered an answer… “Afghanistan?” (And yes, the student’s answer was in the form of a question.)
Dutifully, my professor-friend led the students in a discussion of what happened in a war that began before they were born and whose outcomes will affect them for the rest of their lives.
There’s a Whiskey tale to tell just based on this anecdote alone. But wait, there’s more!
Because America’s loss in Afghanistan has already been overshadowed.
Indeed, the U.S. military has suffered an even greater strategic disaster than Afghanistan: an epic military defeat that already occurred, and you likely don’t know a thing about it.
I’ll skip to the takeaway here. The U.S. should refrain from fighting the next war because we’ve already lost, long before even one shot has been fired.
The source for this ultra-defeatist news is not just a teacher at a sailor’s college, sited on a salty bay. No, the source is no less than a serving, 4-star general whose job title is Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Let’s dig in…
Here’s the long and short. The U.S. military conducted a major wargame last fall and “it failed miserably,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten earlier this week.
Hyten spoke at a conference sponsored by the Emerging Technologies Institute. It’s a think tank run by the National Defense Industrial Association, an industry group focused on military modernization. (You can watch it on YouTube here, about an hour and 18 minutes.)
“An aggressive red team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us,” he said. “They knew exactly what we’re going to do before we did it.”
According to a Pentagon spokesperson, one key scenario of this wargame involved U.S. forces battling with China over Taiwan. From Hyten’s summary, U.S. forces became sitting ducks and were destroyed piecemeal and systematically.
The overarching problem was, basically, everything.
That is, the problem for the U.S. was far beyond the shortcomings of any particular piece of equipment, or ship or airplane, let alone the willingness of U.S. and allied troops to fight. No, the issue was the very essence of how the U.S. military forms strategic concepts and conducts operations.
In other words, the problem was the entire belief system, architecture and construction of the Pentagon way of doing things — and certainly of waging war. By extension, it’s a political problem too, as we’ll address below.
“We always aggregate to fight, and aggregate to survive,” said Hyten.
That is, the U.S. military is built around massing people, equipment and munitions. Build up a huge complex of firepower. Then add massive levels of intelligence information, command and control, and targeting data to, as the saying goes, “take it downrange.”
This has been the U.S. approach to warfighting since World War II, with many of the roots extending back to the Civil War.
Per Hyten, in last fall’s war game, “We basically attempted an information-dominance structure, where information was ubiquitous to our forces. Just like it was in the first Gulf War, just like it has been for the last 20 years, just like everybody in the world, including China and Russia, have watched us do for the last 30 years.”
But the so-called “blue team” (meaning U.S. and allied forces) lost access to communications and data networks almost immediately. Satellites went away. Seafloor cables were cut. Bandwidth died. In general, it was impossible to utilize the electromagnetic environment, and within moments nobody could talk with anybody.
And “what happens if right from the beginning that information is not available?” asked Hyten, rhetorically. “That’s the big problem that we faced.”
According to Hyten, “in today’s world, with hypersonic missiles, with significant long-range fires coming at us from all domains, if you’re aggregated and everybody knows where you are, you’re vulnerable.”
And with an entire concept of operations poked in the proverbial eyes, red team easily defeated the blue side.
Based on Hyten’s description, this wargame was not just another table-top exercise. No, this was a test of the all-up game plan for the “next” conflict, largely based on concepts of operations that have guided the American military process for three decades or more. And the outcome was a total disaster.
U.S. doctrine focuses on creating what is called a “kill box” for the opponent. But in this particular expedition, from the outset U.S. and allied forces walked into their own zones of destruction. They laid down in their own coffins, so to speak.
Opposing forces wrecked the entire complex of U.S. logistics. Rear bases came under fire, while aircraft and ships at sea were targeted by long-range missiles. There’s just no hiding anymore from people with sufficient technology to find you.
Even worse, most U.S. weapons were outranged by new systems recently deployed by China, much of it based on advanced Russian designs. It’s a long-term U.S. failure in research, development and procurement.
When the balloon went up, most U.S. forces near-immediately lost the ability to coordinate attacks and/or return fire. Much of the targeting data was worthless in any event, while systems used for aiming and guiding munitions also failed.
To the extent that communications worked at all, much of the data were corrupted or hacked.
It’s not overstating to say that, in this one wargame, far from home the U.S. lost vast numbers of people and equipment. In real world terms, think of casualty numbers in the tens of thousands. Of entire bases obliterated. Of hundreds of airplanes lost. Of dozens of ships sunk. And that’s just in the first few days.
The wargame ended with American forces defeated and devastated. U.S. allies were similarly shredded. And U.S. interests in the Western Pacific and Asia were annihilated.
To mix a couple of metaphors, the U.S. suffered defeats in a nature that mirror a modern version of Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore and a saltwater Stalingrad.
And it gets worse. Because the devil is in the details, many of which have little or nothing to do with purely military matters. The downfall of American power begins at home, not far overseas.
Return to Gen. Hyten’s comment that potential adversaries have spent 30 years watching and learning from U.S. operations. Well, yes. Obviously.
Any reasonably intelligent counterparty — anyone, any country, anywhere on the face of this planet — would pay attention to what the U.S. has been doing and then figure out what to expect and how to deal with it.
Over three decades, people everywhere watched, learned, and totally went to school on the U.S. military. And it’s all because the America made a foolish political and economic choice, namely, to engage in so-called “long wars.”
And that has never been a good idea, going back to the days of Sun Tzu and before.
“Wars cost much silver,” wrote Sun Tzu in his classic book, “On War.” And of course, he meant money. But the subtleties of Sun Tzu’s writing also delve into how war affects both people and culture. Wars drive a certain negative ethic within a political system, and the longer any war lasts, the more negative is the tendency.
Meanwhile, it’s not as if America’s 30 years of war were battles of necessity. Certainly, it’s not as if the country was being invaded and overrun.
No, the three decades of war (Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Trump-Biden) were an era of forward presence coupled with routine military belligerence, oft to the ring of political trumpets at home.
The named wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) speak for themselves. Then there are other levels of warfare, like with Serbia, Libya and Syria, where the gunslinging showed up in a different manner, but still as destructive to entire societies.
In this sense — that sense of reaching out to bomb people far from U.S. shores — America’s long wars are not just a military issue, easily dismissed by civilians as some sort of niche problem for the Pentagon.
No, because closer to home, the long wars reveal seismic flaws in the very nature and character of U.S. governance. The long wars reveal a deep weakness in the American form of government itself.
Indeed, we’re a long way from the sage advice of President John Quincy Adams, that “Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of spreading democracy.”
And look at it this way. It’s not as if the U.S. ever had a series of national referenda on 30 years of continuous warfare. In fact, the past three decades of war overseas were based on the geopolitical ideas of a relatively small, self-perpetuating cabal of elite elected players and policy wonks, in Washington and various brain-tanks. Many familiar names, to be sure.
Through it all, as well, Congress (and the courts too) showed abysmal strategic ignorance and lack of conscience. Because evidently, the country’s voters place many truly wrong people into important positions.
Consider one key episode, the 9/11 attacks and attendant national outrage.
No doubt, for America 9/11 was the source of a widespread, limbic-level sense of wanting to go somewhere and totally smash things up. That’s entirely understandable. And in that sense, America’s attacks on Afghanistan in late 2001 should have been, at most, a punitive expedition concerning Osama bin Laden.
Instead, Afghanistan alone morphed and mission-crept into a foolish effort of so-called “nation building.” And not even the Chinese method of Belt-and-Road nation-building, with highways and power lines, etc.
No, America in Afghanistan was more of a Vietnam-redux. The idea was somehow to pacify people who didn’t want us to be there, and if that didn’t work then destroy the place in order to rebuild it. Meanwhile, one can almost hear the echoes of at least one old bromide from the 1960s, that, “If we don’t fight ‘em over there, we’ll have to fight ‘em here.”
Through it all, and again in a Vietnam-like manner, Afghanistan was not so much a 20-year war for America, as a one-year war fought 20 times by a corps of officers, senior non-commissioned officers and civilian government personnel and contractors who made careers out of it.
At the end of the day, is anyone really surprised that smart, well-resourced adversaries paid attention and came up with an entire spectrum of methods to confront U.S. warfighting?
Come the next real war, U.S. forces won’t own space or the skies. Won’t run the electromagnetic spectrum. Won’t have unfettered communications. Won’t control logistics. Won’t have good targeting data. Won’t have air supremacy, let alone sea supremacy or undersea dominance. And many of the expensive weapon systems simply won’t work in the degraded environment.
Apparently though, it took an internal wargame in the Department of Defense to drive home the point. Or at least, to illustrate the problem such that no less than one of the most senior generals in the military came out of the closet to admit that America’s super-expensive military complex can’t win the next big war.
On the bright side, perhaps it’s a true wakeup call that translates to progress.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Byron W. King
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