In the 21st century, U.S. policymakers, spearheaded by Donald Rumsfeld during his momentous six year reign as secretary of defense, have been convinced that the advent of precision weapons, reconnaissance and communications means that the United States will remain militarily supreme around the world without needing hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of ground troops to fight large-scale wars.
Republicans, raised in the age of Tom Clancy novels, have lived in a world where this seemed to be true for the past quarter-century. Democrats don't buy into the vision of electronic super-weapons rendering huge masses of less well-equipped troops, cannon and armored vehicles obsolete as enthusiastically as Republicans do, but they still think that the age of massive land confrontations has passed.
That is also the wisdom in every major nation of the European Union, and it's especially the case among European Commission policymakers in Brussels.
The only trouble is that a lot of other major powers around the world do not believe it is true -- and are planning on very different assumptions.
The Russian army is currently upgrading its equipment on a more massive scale than at any time in at least the past 30 years. It can afford to do this because of the soaring global price of oil and gas, and Russia is the world's largest exporter and revenue earner of those energy sources.
Russia is moving energetically to modernize its army with the latest T-90S Main Battle Tanks, Black Shark tactical support attack helicopters, BMP-90 armored personnel carriers and Multiple Launch Rocket Vehicles and many other systems.
Also, Russia's military leaders, spearheaded by tough, politically correct, plain speaking old four-star Chief of the General Staff Gen. Yury Baluyevsky have been warning over the past 18 months that future full-scale wars, even including the use of nuclear weapons, are certainly not regarded as inconceivable by their planners.
The conventional wisdom in the West, especially in the United States, is that the Soviet and then the Russian army's extremely poor showing in first Afghanistan from 1979 to 1987 and then in the two Chechen wars of 1994-96 and 2001-2004 means Russia can be eliminated as a serious factor in land power on the Eurasian land mass.
As a consequence of the collapse of communism, and of this widespread view, U.S. and European nations' military forces in NATO have long been operating at a fraction of the levels they were maintained at in order to deter aggression during the Cold War.
But this means that even if the Russian army is as ineffective as it appeared to be, especially during the first Chechen war, it may still be vastly more powerful in conventional military terms than any forces the Europeans and the United States would have to oppose it.
Second, the bottom line of the second Chechen war is that the Russians won it. The Chechen separatist guerrillas were repressed after a long, tactically inelegant, brutal, often bungled but determined and eventually victorious campaign. The Chechen separatists also lost the moral battle by their appalling terrorist outrages, most notably the massacre of hundreds of schoolchildren in Beslan.
In the long term, however, the ongoing military operations in Chechnya appear to have served the same purpose for the Russian army as the small-scale, but long and tenacious struggle of the British army against the guerrillas of the Irish Republican Army did in Northern Ireland from 1968 to the IRA cease-fire of 1994.
The continuing tactical excellence of the British army in every kind of operation from full-scale war against Argentina in 1982 to peacekeeping in Kosovo after 1999 has always been attributed by senior British officers to the "school room" for tactical operations and combat experience provided by the Northern Irish conflict for so many years. The Russian army has been able to learn the same kind of lessons on a far larger scale in Chechnya.
Nor is Russia alone in planning for the possible contingencies of having to fight land wars on a very large scale in different parts of the Eurasian land mass. India and China have come to the same conclusion.
Next: Indian and Chinese preparations for large-scale war