Technology Alone Cannot Win Future Wars, Senior Military Leaders Say

By Dan Parsons

Modern military technology can unleash enormously destructive offensive power, but wars are still fought and won by personnel on the ground, according to a group of top Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command officers.

Service leaders agreed Oct. 22 that current standoff weapons have obvious advantages in providing deterrence against attack and delivering punishing blows to enemies, but long-range weapons alone cannot win wars. Dominance of enemy populations by controlling terrain is the key to victory, they said.

“There are many people who believe that through tech advancement we can solve all the issues of warfare,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said at the Association of the United States Army’s annual exposition in Washington, D.C.

“I absolutely reject that concept. I do agree that technological advances can support us in attaining our goals. Ultimately it requires … human interaction on the ground. We have to be careful about assuming we can solve all our problems through technology. I like technology, but it doesn’t replace having soldiers, Marines and Navy SEALs on the ground.”

Gen. John Paxton Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said technology has made small units more capable, but has created new mobility, sustainment and resupply challenges.

“Now we are doing things with a platoon that 10 years ago you would have to go to a brigade to do in terms of maneuver and multiple lines of communication and things,” Paxton said. “The corollary is you now have power problems, and logistics sustainment problems, lift problems that are endemic to a platoon and company size units that you would used to not even worry about.”

Warfare at its core is a human endeavor, said Gen. Robert W. Cone, commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command. Failures to recognize this and prepare sufficiently resulted in the initially successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and their slogging devolution to insurgency, he said.

“Oftentimes in recent years we have been mesmerized by technology,” Cone said. “We have to understand that at the end of the day, war is a fundamentally human clash of wills. When one capability is taken away from the enemy, he will regroup and come back with a new form of resistance or force.”

In the opening salvos of the Iraq War in 2003, the U.S. military took out air defense systems, command-and-control systems and major military capabilities from afar. Confident in the destructive power of the bombs fired at Baghdad and other “strategic nodes,” U.S. commanders had units rehearse for an immediate surrender of Iraqi forces, Cone said.

“We found out something different,” he said. “We executed a brilliant campaign against those critical nodes. We achieved all of the objectives except number one … the capitulation of the enemy.”
Odierno agreed with Cone’s assessment and warned against allowing those mistakes to reoccur.  To win wars against the sort of enemy the U.S. has faced and is likely to face in the future — one that is embedded within indigenous populations and does not fight with conventional methods — U.S. land forces must have superior land power and dominate the human and cyberdomains, he said.

“We went to war without understanding the human dimension of what was going on ... in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Odierno said. “We don’t want to make that mistake again.”

For years, Army Special Forces has specialized in understanding indigenous populations. Failing in that regard can result in wasteful spending in both treasure and lives, said Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

“How many schools did we build in Afghanistan that ended up being on tribal fault lines?” McRaven asked. “How many times did we build combat outposts along a ridgeline that ended up being insignificant terrain?”

The Marine Corps, Army and Special Operations Command were designed for  widely divergent purposes, but they must come together where three things intersect: land power, the human domain and cyber-operations, Odierno said.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it was initially a Special Operations show that grew to include the Army and Marines. Iraq began with all three land-based components present for the invasion, but coordination was spotty at best, Odierno said.

“We were not linked in 2001,” he said of conventional and special operations forces. “We were not linked in 2003. We are linked now.”

McRaven backed up that point and agreed that in most conflicts, laying siege from afar without following through with a land-based campaign is rarely successful. But the strategic objective of that campaign must have a goal that is relative to the region and its people.

“Geography [and] terrain matters,” McRaven said. “People have to live somewhere and that somewhere, to them, is important. … The coastal regions, the valleys, the mountaintops, the land has historical and cultural significance and strategic value … and if we forget that, geography will have its revenge.”

“We can launch 1,000 [Tomahawk missiles] and I’m not sure that’s going to fundamentally change the enemy’s will,” he added. “If we’ve learned anything from the past 12 years, we have to understand what terrain to dominate, what terrain is important to the enemy.”

The Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations must cooperate to dominate both terrain and local populations, Odierno said.

McRaven sees special operations forces as the “connective tissue between the populations and conventional forces” in future fights. The Marine Corps specializes in forcible entry from the sea. The Army can then flood and hold terrain with a force sized based on cultural intelligence and battlefield reconnaissance provided by SOF, he said.

“Understanding and dominating the terrain is just as important now as it was 5,000 years ago and it will be just as important 5,000 years from now,” McRaven said.

Topics: Defense Department, War Planning, Human Systems, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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