This is Part 3 of a 3-part
conversation between Michael Vlahos, who has taught war and strategy at the Naval War College since 1980, and Col. Douglas McGregor, retired from the US Army and author of Margin of Victory.
A transcription of Part 1 can be found here and a
summary of Part 2 can be found here.
The questions are "What is to be done?" and "Where do we go from here?" This excerpt from Col. McGregor's recent book, Margin of Victory provides a starting point:
"When the tables turn, as they did (referring to the five battles that constitute the book), bad policies, failed tactics and dysfunctional command structures have to be abandoned. Policymakers and commanders whose ideas were wrong must be discarded and replaced with new policymakers and new commanders, as well as new strategic and operational concepts.
"The first order questions in national military strategy have to be posed anew within the strategic and operational framework of purpose, method and end state. Yet, if culture and leadership obstruct this process of adaptation and change in war, the margin of victory is permanently lost."
Russia has shown itself capable of adapting, capable of reaching back to historical antecedents, like the Brusilov offensive, like the entirety of the Great Patriotic War. And they have adapted, in ways the Americans cannot bring themselves to understand.
In stark, 180-degree contrast, the US military and its political leaders have not only not adapted, they've consistently extended and extruded a delusionary understanding of what is actually happening.
It's very difficult to persuade people who have not grasped the shift in the way things are being done and the way things should be done. Sometimes that shift is cultural, sometimes it's political, sometimes it's economic - what can we actually afford versus what we want - and you don't get the necessary change. It's Thomas Kuhn's paradigm shift.
And the principal paradigm shift today, that we can sit across from each other and know virtually everything about the other side. We can strike everything with a stand-off attack system and there's no way to hide from it; there's ways to defeat it. So what you can see you can destroy. Okay, fine, but we're way beyond that at this
And that paradigm shift is this ISR-strike coupling (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaisance). We tend on the ground to think in terms of, "well, we're the maneuver force, and where we go is going to win the battle." The problem today is that unless you have mastered the ISR-strike dimension, you're never going to get there, you're never going to have a chance to maneuver, it's going to be destroyed.
Obviously, we're not thinking intelligently about it or we would not even consider something as utterly crazy as the "coalition of the willing" - unless the coaliltion is close to a million men and consists of a very different composition from the forces we have today.
We have historically never been a land power on a global basis. We're really a land power only in the Western Hemisphere. We were an expeditionary power even at our height in WW2 with 90 divisions deployed. We came out of that war with the delusion that we're a global land power but we're preeminently maritime and aerospace
So we've got to get back to basics and understand that our ability to influence things is really confined more than ever in history to the periphery. On the Eurasian periphery we can influence things but we cannot strike deep into the Eurasian land mass. It's essentially what Bob Gates, Secretary of Defense, said, "Anyone who talks about a land war in Asia should have his head examined." Well, thank you, Bob. What did you to stop that?
The thing is, we don't understand now with this ISR-strike paradigm shift, that the notion of occupying little islands all over the Pacific is a prescription for immediate strategic failure and destruction, it has no purpose whatsoever. And the notion that you can act with impunity as we did in the past with large surface fleets. And how many armies can we transport overseas? I think those days are over.
So then, what are we doing with all these regional unified commands? How many do we really need? Today communications are vastly improved over what they were 40-50 years ago. Things have changed since then. So you could conceivably have two regional unified commands, East-West, and maybe two more, North-South, and they could manage everything. And then you could treat your forces as a pool of forces that can be deployed on short notice in any direction. But only on a limited basis, not deploying 100,000 to Country X in Central Asia or South Africa.
We don't think in those terms because, once again, there's no long-term perspective. I think that's because until now we never thought we needed it. When we have failed miserably, and I think you're right, since 1965 where's the evidence for success?
Well, Desert Storm. Fine, what did Desert Storm do? For a short time it convinced everyone in the world we were invincible and invulnerable. But it did not fundamentally change the strategic situation in the region because we didn't think about what we wanted when the war ended.
We celebrated ourselves and went home. The generals were happy to have it over because they really didn't want to fight to begin with, they were afraid that nothing would work right because these were largely traumatized Vietnam veterans and the various services fought their own wars. And when it was over there was no effort to deal with the service-centric war funding doctrines, no effort to produce true unity of effort, no effort to create unified military command structures.
The first thing we want to do is stop re-fighting WW2. We talk about this but never do it. It means you have to treat the 1942 force structure as something to be broken and reassembled in a new form.
Then you start at the top and work your way down. Right now you have a unified command, the theater commander, which is effectively what he is. And he has his joint staff. But beneath him he has all these single service headquarters. We can't afford them, they're too expensive, there's too many of them, we need to get rid of them, restructure them into standing joint force commands. And I would organize these around ISR-strike, maneuver and sustainment.
That's the way the naval forces and air forces are effectively organized now and we are preeminently naval and aerospace power. So really what you're talking about taking something which is already experiential and embedded in the thinking of the aerospace and naval community, and pushing it into the ground force.
So then you set up these joint force headquarters so they're designed to take in these modules of combat power, whatever they are, and employ them productively. We could do these things. We could set up these joint force commands, put them under the theater command, we could determine what needs to go into them and then we could experiment with the right mission-focused
capability packages, whatever that is.
I suggested that on the ground you have a 1-star who commands between 5 and 6 thousand troops, all organized around ISR-strike-maneuver-sustainment. That's a good place to start.
The problem is that when you talk to the people in the military, they say, "prove to me in advance before I do this that it will work because we know this worked in 1945." Well, how well did it work in 1969? Then they point to 1991 but the truth is we weren't faced with a very capable or determined enemy, certainly not on the scale of the Waffen SS or the Imperial Japanese Army.
(Vlahos) There's something I'm not optimistic about that's been at the spiritual knowledge core of our predicament for the past 60 years. And that is the ability to do real net assessment. It's led me to believe it simply can't happen within the iron-clad contours of the American ethos - in American exceptionalism, if you're the divine agent, what you believe about yourself is ground truth.
Presidents all come to office with experience in domestic politics. Some may have some knowledge of economics but there are two other categories about which they know almost nothing - one is military affairs or defense and the other is foreign affairs, and that's a problem. The last president who had an understanding of military affairs and foreign affairs and some understanding of
economics was Eisenhower.
The problem is we haven't had any of this in decades, there's been no accountability. Well, there is accountability but unfortunately it tends to be disproportionate focus on things that don't count and no focus on things that do.
This comes back to "who are we as a nation? what do we want to do as a nation? Do we want to be an English-speaking nation with a free market that trades with everybody and tries to avoid wars but will defend our interests and defend our population with all at our disposal? Or do we want to be the global hegemon?"
How do we get the people we need to lead us get to that level of insight about themselves and America in terms of what needs to be done? Looking at this from a different angle, the Russians throughout their history have had a military narrative of endless travail but ultimate victory. Those grave defeats they've suffered have all served them well because it took the defeat to create the
awakening, to create the necessity.
All America's defeats since WW2, say since the mid-60s, have not required any reckoning and have all been written off as overhead and then actually forgotten. So the big question here, which isn't something anyone can answer, is would such a grand shock to the leadership of the US, its elites and courtiers and military break through to them? Because that could be what's about to happen.
Clausewitz talked about two kinds of war, wars of decision which involved existential questions for the nation-state, and what he called wars of observation, which I normally refer to as low-intensity conflicts or lesser contingencies. We've been involved in the latter (since the 60s).
Now we're dealing with Ukraine and what we don't understand is that for Russia, it's an existential conflict, a war of decision. It didn't begin as that because the Russians didn't anticipate it, but now they've got it and they understand it and they're going to fight it as a war of decision. We haven't had a war of decision since 1945.
The nuclear dimension that came out of that war stayed our hands for decades. But the most pernicious consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union was arguably that it took away that countervailing force that was effectively the existential hand staying our course.
Obviously Putin agrees with you and he's made these statements repeatedly. Our existential questions are not overseas, they're here at home. And that's where we're headed. But in the meantime I think we have another problem that you haven't really touched on, and that is, where do we draw the talent from that governs us?
Where are the institutions that produce this special breed of people? Historically, we turned to the Ivy Leagues and the service academies. But if we look at the faculty and teaching at these now, that's a frightening prospect.
You ask where we get our leaders. We traditionally got them from elites but they were often local elites, they had connections to communities. It was a network, it was a mesh. And now increasingly you have these separate, mostly blue but some red, elite communities that essentially own the process from start to finish. They own the universities, the media, the non-profits. And they have the money, and they have the organization and
structure and institutional authority of the two parties.
So they're building what amounts to a hermetic, separate political system, something far less sensitive to people even than British society in the mid-18th century, which no one would argue was a democracy. Increasingly you have a stern, unforgiving, what Orwell would call the Inner Party. The entire prime directive of this elite is to preserve and extend its power and control. We saw that during the pandemic, we see it now with the war in Ukraine which is a wholly owned franchise of the Washington elite.
You're totally right when you say the war of decision is at home. Because you can't permanently marginalize and reduce to a kind of serfdom a majority of Americans, and I include there all of the blue constiuencies that have essentially been marginalized as well. They form the majority of Americans and there is no pathway for the voice of this majority to be heard in America today.
Unless the current elites are replaced by a different elite that emerges from a different milieu. And that's all tied up with what happens next. What happens when this narrative for Ukraine collapses? That's part of it.
This is a great final point, the connection between the domestic conflict and the foregin conflict is indissoluble. And just as has happened so many times, the foreign conflict can prize open, turn over the barrel and let it all spill out. I think that's where we're headed.
there doesn't seem to be anything here