By Jacob Siegel
There’s an old saying in the military that we’re always training for the last war, so fixated on the lessons of our most recent conflict that we’re blind to the emerging threat.
For years, that last war was the Cold War, and the emerging threat was the insurgents of Iraq and Afghanistan. Slowly, painfully, eventually, the military reoriented itself. The result? After more than two decades of post Cold War re-alignment, the military is less prepared than it has been in generations for a confrontation with Russia.
No one in Washington is calling for the U.S. to go to war over Crimea and there are plenty of reasons why, at this point, military intervention could be a dangerous and foolhardy course. But if circumstances change and political leaders start looking to the military or the bargaining power that comes from a credible threat of force, they will find their options severely limited.
Over the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq soldiers and marines have trained for maneuvering and fighting in small units over the landscape of the Middle East. Counter-insurgency (“COIN”) doctrine, which stresses engagement with local civilian populations and tactics for fighting loosely organized forces employing light weapons, has become the military’s new bible. It’s about as far away as you can get from the principles used in the Cold War.
According to retired General David Deptula, who served as the Air Force’s top intelligence officer, “we’ve been focused on the far left end of the spectrum of operations,” by which he means the protracted, low-intensity conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he says, “if we want to maintain superpower status we need to be prepared to succeed across the full range of operations, not just the left end of it.”
Even the few strategists that weren’t pre-occupied by Iraq and Afghanistan were planning for the much-touted Asia pivot, envisioning a future, one they’d argue is still looming, defined by Chinese hegemony. Russia, meanwhile, was considered by many to be an historical relic; still big enough to wield real power but no longer capable of threatening U.S. vital interests and a second or third order afterthought when evaluating threats the military needed to plan for.
“For years there have been only a handful of people consistently talking about Russia and China building highly advanced systems for use against our ‘Cold-War era’ aircraft, missiles and ships,” Deptula says.
He’s talking about himself and some of his closest confidants at the Air Force, who pushed for continued production of high-end weaponry like the F-22 stealth fighter—right when the Iraq insurgency was at its peak. It made Deptula and his gang seem like they were fantasizing about an imaginary enemy while the real bad guys were blowing up Marines in Fallujah. Understandably, Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary of the time, wanted the military to focus on the wars America was actually fighting at the moment. And so eventually, many of Deptula’s colleagues—including Gen. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, the Air Force’s top officer—were shown the door when they opposed Gates once too often. According to Deptula, “those people were ignored by [former Defense Secretary] Gates, and some were fired because they had the courage to speak truth to power.”
As the White House and Pentagon planners consider what to do if Russia invades Eastern Ukraine or deploys its forces elsewhere in the region, the limited choices available reveal just how profoundly the military has changed since the Cold War.
For half a century, Cold War military strategy focused on containing Russia and winning in clashes between large conventional forces. On the ground, that strategy called for mass formations organized around tanks and heavy weaponry. In the skies it relied on dominance in Top Gun style style air-to-air fighting prowess, radar evading stealth technology, and powerful bombers that could drop massive munitions to destroy enemy armor and fortified installations.
Since the end of the Cold War, that strategy has been completely overhauled. Training and doctrine have focused on small unit tactics while new weapons and vehicles have been designed with squads in mind rather than divisions. Super-sophisticated dogfighters, like the $187 million-a-pop F-22, suddenly seemed too fancy to actually use. Instead, drones costing less than a tenth the price littered the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq.
But those drones are useless against any military with a half-decent system for shooting down enemy aircraft. And Russian has one of the best air defenses on the planet.
“Hopefully the situation with Russia and Ukraine will be a bucket of cold water on those who believe all we need to be able to do is counter-insurgency operations,” Deptula told The Daily Beast.
And now, there are signs that the U.S. Air Force’s long-held technological advantage may be eroding.http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/20/the-pentagon-isn-t-ready-for-a-new-cold-war.html