Is the U.S. military ready for war?

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Sept. 4, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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Is the U.S. military ready for war?

After 16 years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, this may seem a silly question. By all accounts, the U.S. military has performed admirably under very difficult conditions fighting an often invisible enemy lacking a navy and air force, unconstrained by Geneva Conventions or limits on using terror and violence against innocent civilians as powerful weapons.

Yet, the four naval mishaps in the Pacific this year surely raise the question that if the Navy cannot avoid groundings and collisions, how ready is it to fight a major war against a peer or a modern military? Similarly, the same question pertains to our ground and air forces. For decades, our forces have operated in situations in which we enjoyed uncontested control of the air, seas, space and electromagnetic spectrum. Further, the United States has been able to bring to bear when needed overwhelming firepower. And our forces have gained huge experience in fighting the post-Sept. 11 wars.

But when was the last time an American fighter jet was shot down either by enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft weapon or a Navy warship sunk? When was the last battle fought between tanks and with artillery duels between competing armies? The answer was the second Iraq War in 2003 in which our losses were minimal.

The U.S. military senior leadership fully understands the effects of these long wars. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the service chiefs are beginning to reorient their forces toward dealing with a peer competitor. Korea is a case in point. However, fighting what has been described as "immaculate" warfare with standoff weapons in which quite frankly American casualties have fortuitously been kept relatively small in number compared with past wars, is not the same as the carnage of Kasserine Pass, Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima or Khe Sanh.

When Donald Rumsfeld became secretary of defense for the second time, before Sept. 11 changed our lives, he spent many hours reviewing and analyzing the war plans of the various four-star combatant commanders. He also ordered a review of the nation's overseas posture and basing structure to determine where it could be reduced or where it needed change.

The law requires the Department of Defense to conduct a quadrennial review that will be delivered next to Congress in 2018. To that end, a National Defense Panel was empowered to conduct a parallel study. These are huge bureaucratic efforts and it is not clear what each has achieved in the past. Rumsfeld's review was due to Congress on Sept. 11, 2001 and obviously underwent profound change and rewriting after the attacks on the Pentagon and Twin Towers in New York.

Perhaps what is needed more today is a thorough and demanding inspection and examination of how well our forces are ready and prepared for a major war against a nominal comparable enemy. As individuals are strongly advised to have annual physicals as part of practicing wise healthcare, ought not the same argument apply to the military?

Last spring, the service chiefs and vice chiefs gave blistering testimony to Congress about the deficiencies in training, readiness and maintenance arising from the destructive consequences of funding defense under continuing resolutions, as well as the madness of sequestration. Drawing on the Rumsfeld efforts and the wisdom of annual physical examinations, each of the services should conduct extensive readiness inspections to determine how well- or ill-prepared its forces are to conduct an array of missions from humanitarian rescue and relief to fighting a major war in which nuclear and other mass destruction weapons might be used.

Then the results can be used to set priorities for funding and remedial action, as well as imposing system of triage in which certain missions may have to be deferred or eliminated. When he was Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey recognized the flaw in the argument that by being prepared to fight a major conventional war, the U.S. Army could carry out all lesser contingencies. Realizing that was not the case, the general moved to correct that false assumption.

Today, the reverse may be correct. After 16 years of waging a different form of warfare, we need to ensure our military is prepared for the next one and one that may be far more taxing. These naval mishaps may not be symptoms or precursors of larger failings. But we cannot take that chance.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America has Lost Every War it Starts," will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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