The Death of American Conventional Warfare

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December 18, 2017 | Originally published by Date Line: December 18 on

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

In this article, they present one of the essays selected for honorable mention, from Jahara Matisek of Northwestern University and Ian Bertram of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College.

Conventional warfare is officially dead. This has become an obvious trend with innumerable adversaries engaging the American military and its allies in unconventional ways with unconventional means. The long-held notion of the decisive battle that brings the combat power of two nations against each other for a winner-take-all slugfest lies in the next grave. Even wars of attrition, in the model of the American Civil War, First and Second World Wars, and Korea are gone. If America hopes to remain strategically significant, its political and military leadership must adapt to the new reality that no adversary wants to fight the United States in a symmetrically conventional fashion.

Admitting the passing of America’s dear friend conventional war is proving difficult for the U.S. military, but there finally appears to be an awakening. The Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart (U.S. Marine Corps), recently lamented the demise of American military might to the Senate Armed Forces Committee:

“Adversaries have studied the American way of conflict and have developed, and will continue to develop, capabilities to mitigate or directly challenge longstanding U.S. military dominance in all war fighting domains…Competitor states will employ all diplomatic, economic, political, and covert mechanisms of influence and coercion available to them in advancing regional agendas, with the implied or actual use of military force acting as the amplifier that allows these whole-of-state efforts to resonate.”

General Stewart’s explicit omission of  the military from the mechanisms available to influence and coerce in pursuit of regional agendas is illustrative of the fact that foes no longer use military power first. Instead, adversaries utilize military force merely as an amplifier to whole-of-state efforts. Translated into laymans terms, adversaries no longer rely on conventional military force—solely, firstly, or bluntly—to pursue narrow political objectives in their region of influence. Thus, no near-peer country is openly challenging America’s globally constructed world order of norms, rules, and institutions created through decades of American blood, sweat, and tears. Such adversaries are operating in a peripheral and indirect fashion, however, to secure limited gains helpful to their own interests. These efforts chip away at American strategic interests in such a way that it is difficult for political and military leaders to justify the mobilization of American political willpower and military resources to prevent and/or reverse adversary gains…