Will The Next War Be Like The Last One?
SUBJECT AREA Warfighting
Title: WILL THE NEXT WAR BE LIKE THE LAST ONE?
Author: Major Drew A. Bennett, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: There are several unique aspects of the Gulf
campaign that may not hold true for the next conflict, and
if we base our doctrine on these unique aspects we will be
making incorrect assumptions and learning the wrong things,
the false lessons.
Background: The lessons of Desert Shield and Desert Storm
will be used to develop our tactics, design our eguipment,
structure our organization and shape our strategy.
However, we must not make the mistake of fighting the last
war. The lessons of the Gulf campaign must apply to our
fighting capability in general and not only in a Desert
Storm scenario. Six areas are examined: allies,
preparation time, conflict duration, casualties, air
superiority, and power projection. Each area is evaluated
in the context of the Southwest Asian campaign and then in
terms of how the situation may be different in a future
conflict. Historical data and information concerning budget
cuts and proposed force structure are used in the
evaluations. In the next war we can not assume that we will
be surrounded by allies, have six months preparation time
to project our power ashore under ideal conditions and with
the same amount of military assets. There is no guarantee
that we will be able to fight a short conflict with limited
casualties while controlling the skies. Our future enemies
are also learning from Desert Shield and Desert Storm and
they will surely work to shape the battlefield into one
that favors them, not us.
Recommendation: Four recommendations are offered to assist
in evaluating lessons learned for future conflicts. First,
don't fight the last battle. We must stress innovation and
initiative. Second, evaluate possible conflicts in terms of
the most likely and the most dangerous. We must be prepared
for both. Third, concentrate on facts not perceptions. We
must focus on our true strengths, weaknesses, capabilities,
and needs. We must have a doctrine that fights and wins
with what we have, not with what we have had in the past,
nor with what we would like to have. The final
recommendation is that when planning future conflicts we
should expect the unexpected.
WILL THE NEXT WAR BE LIKE THE LAST ONE?
Thesis Statement: There are several unique aspects of the
Gulf campaign that may not hold true for the next conflict,
and if we base our doctrine on these unique aspects we will
be making incorrect assumptions and learning the wrong
things, the false lessons.
I. False lesson # 1 -- We will always have allies
A. US allies in the Gulf War
B. Lack of US allies in recent conflicts
C. US can not always depend on allies
II. False lesson # 2 -- We can act without preparation time
A. Lack of US readiness
B. Preparation time needed for Panama
C. Need to consider preparation requirement
III. False lesson # 3 -- Wars are going to be short
A. Historical miscalculations
B. Possibility of lengthy conflict
C. Factors indicating the US is not ready for a
IV. False lesson # 4 -- We can always keep casualties down
A. Low casualty numbers in Desert Storm
B. Consequences of overly optimistic casualty estimates
C. Historical casualty numbers
V. False lesson # 5 -- We will have air superiority
A. Factors concerning air superiority in Desert Storm
B. Characteristics of a successful air campaign
C. Factors concerning air superiority in the future
VI. False lesson # 6 -- This war proved our power projection ability
A. Power projection in Desert Shield
B. Favorable conditions experienced
C. Combat power vs. troops on the ground
D. Erosion of power projection ability
A. Military performance during Desert Storm
B. There will be many lessons from Desert Storm
C. Our enemies will learn from Desert Storm
A. Don't fight the last battle
B. Evaluate conflicts in terms of the most likely and
the most dangerous
C. Concentrate on facts not perceptions
D. Expect the unexpected
WILL THE NEXT WAR BE LIKE THE LAST ONE?
"It is not often that nations learn from the past,
even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions
from it." -- Henry Kissinger (20:127)
After action reports containing lessons learned are
designed to keep us from making the same mistakes twice.
They concentrate on fighting in the future. We will use
lessons learned from the Gulf War to develop our tactics,
design our equipment, structure our organization, and shape
our strategy for the next war. However, how many times have
military and political leaders fought the last war instead
of the conflict at hand? What happens if the next war is
completely different from the Gulf War? There are several
unique aspects of the Gulf campaign that may not hold true
for the next conflict, and if we base our doctrine on these
unique aspects we will be making incorrect assumptions and
learning the wrong things, the false lessons. The following
analysis focuses on what could easily become the false
lessons of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and
then offers some recommendations for evaluating lessons
FALSE LESSON # 1 -- WE WILL ALWAYS HAVE ALLIES
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990 he
threatened the entire world's oil supply, uniting the world
against him. The United Nations Security Council voted 14
to 0, with only Yemen abstaining, to condemn him. (9:567)
Subsequently, during the build up numerous countries
promised economic aid totaling 54.5 billion dollars.
(10:183) Combat aircraft or troops were sent to Southwest
Asia by 18 different countries. (5:22-24) Saddam Hussein's
political miscalculations and mishandling of the media
continued to alienate Iraq from the rest of the world and
helped to consolidate the coalition forces aligned against
him. Saddam Hussein was compared with Adolph Hitler as a
world menace. (15:23) Yet, even Germany had major allies
and sympathizers in World War II while almost no one wanted
to be associated with Iraq during the Gulf War.
During the next conflict can the United States expect
to have the same level of support that existed in the Gulf
War? A look at some of our other recent conflicts
indicates the answer is a definite NO. Operation Urgent
Fury, Grenada, October 1983: British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher deplores the violation of Grenada's
sovereignty; the United Nations General Assembly votes 108
to 9 to denounce the United States' move. (13:22, 18:829)
Operation El Dorado Canyon, Libya, April 1986: the French
and Spanish governments prohibit the United States from
flying over their air space; anti-American demonstrations
are held at United States bases in Great Britain. (19:290)
Operation Just Cause, Panama, December 1989: the United
Nations General Assembly votes 75 to 20, with 39
abstentions, to strongly deplore the invasion by the United
States; the American Organization of States, consisting of
32 countries, condemns the actions of the United States.
The interests of the United States will not always
coincide with world interests and the United Nations will
not always support our actions. The united effort of many
countries against a common foe is the exception, not the
rule. While Desert Shield and Desert Storm helped promote
a certain harmony among the participants, let us not assume
that we will be surrounded by friends in the next war.
Even today many "friendly" nations are hesitant to allow
the United States to launch attacks against terrorism from
within their borders, are reluctant to fight drug
exportation from their countries, are moving to force the
United States to close bases in their countries, and are
continuing to deny the United States port access with
nuclear capable ships.
FALSE LESSON # 2 -- WE CAN REACT WITHOUT PREPARATION TIME
In record time the United States moved an enormous
amount of combat power half way around the world. The
perception is that we can do it; the question is, can we
really? How much preparation time do we need? How much
preparation time will we have?
In early August 1990 Saddam Hussein had 140,000 men and
several tank divisions poised inside Kuwait. (22:33) What
would have happened if he had not given the United States
six months to get ready? Initial units arrived in Saudi
Arabia without tactical level maps or the call signs,
frequencies, and control measures needed to call in close
air support. It took the United States military 45 days and
three C-5 Galaxy aircraft to put into effect the Joint
Communications-Electronics Operating Instructions (Joint
CEOI), the communications plan crucial to our command and
control. (17:10) Some units of the American forces were
described as being neither "logistically mature" nor
"offensively capable" during the fifth month of the build
up. At that time Lieutenant General Calvin Waller, the
Deputy Commander in Chief of the United States Central
Command, emphatically stated that enough troops were not
combat ready to justify postponement of any January
Part of our tendency to dismiss the need for
preparatory time comes from some of our recent military
actions where the United States reacted on seemingly short
notice. Our most recent example is the invasion of Panama.
Yet, even our lightning move into Panama belied the use of
preparatory time. Panama housed permanent United States
bases where 8,500 American troops were stationed. The bases
in Panama possessed an established command and control
structure. Additionally, we needed months of military build
up to add important equipment and 4,500 more troops. (14:24)
This reinforcement was easy because of the relatively short
and well established lines of logistics and communications
between the United States and Panama.
We must not let the successes of the Desert Shield
build up prevent us from addressing the important issues
concerning the preparatory time needed for military
operations. We need to continue our efforts in rapid
planning. The Marine Corps is fairly skilled at deploying
as a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and fighting at the
low-intensity end of the conflict spectrum. However,
deploying as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) or a
Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) and fighting at the high-
intensity end of the spectrum of conflict is more difficult.
The larger the forces and the higher the level of conflict,
the more time needed. We should take another look at how
long we, as Marines, need to be able to operate
independently before a credible combat force can relieve us.
FALSE LESSON # 3 -- WARS ARE GOING TO BE SHORT
The Gulf War has become known as the 100 hour war.
This is consistent with the desire of the American people to
keep the horrors of war to a minimum and our belief that we
can do so. A general tendency in America is to believe that
because of our might, strength of will, or technology we can
determine where and when we will fight and push any military
issue to a quick conclusion. Although this perception is
false, it exists at the highest levels. At the start of the
Civil War President Abraham Lincoln enlisted an army for six
weeks to fight a war that, far beyond his expectations,
lasted four years. In 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson
gave a speech in which he said there were no interests of
strategic importance to the United States worth fighting for
in Korea; yet, six months later we were fighting a "police
action" in Korea that would last three years. After Korea
many senior military and political officials believed we
would never fight another lengthy ground campaign in Asia:
yet, we fought a very costly conflict in Viet Nam for almost
What would have happened if the Republican Guard had
escaped the flanking maneuver now popularly referred to as
the "Hail Mary/End Run" and the Iraqi forces had fought to
the last man instead of surrendering by the tens of
thousands? Would the war have been extended if the Iraqi
people, along with the Palestinian populace in Kuwait,
fought a partisan campaign? The potential for a lengthy
military conflict definitely existed. The United States can
not count on a short war but must be prepared for the long
Are we ready or focused for a protracted conflict?
Consider the following three issues: reduction of the
United States military, reduction of the United States
industrial capability, and reduction of the United States
economic capability. Additionally, consider the extended
length of time necessary to produce major, complex weapon
systems. During World War II the United States produced
15,485 P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft, an average of over
250 a month. (11:7.4) Today we produce seven F/A-18 Hornets
per month, each one taking close to a year to complete.
(4:-) However, unlike before World War II, we have a
severely limited ability to expand production. Finally, are
we mentally prepared for a long war or emotionally tied to a
short action? Our current doctrine calls for a short,
violent, decisive action. Obviously winning this way is
preferred over a long war, but is it always possible? Can
we win a guerrilla war this way? Operation Desert Storm
reinforces the trend established during military operations
in Grenada and Panama. However, a trend is not a guarantee.
FALSE LESSON # 4 -- WE CAN ALWAYS KEEP CASUALTIES DOWN
While the loss of even one service member is a tragedy,
the United States' casualties during the Gulf War were
miraculously light. Experts predicted far more deaths than
the 148 Americans killed in combat. (23:376, 3:53) Although
military and political leaders made an effort to prepare the
American people for high numbers of casualties, this is not
what many will remember about Desert Storm. Many Americans,
possibly including some political and military leaders, will
only remember the fact that the military was able to defeat
the fourth largest army in the world with an extremely
limited loss of coalition military personnel.
This perception can have disastrous results on manning
levels, replacement plans, estimations of needed medical
facilities, command and control capabilities, and force
ratios. An overly optimistic estimate of potential
casualties can adversely influence the decision to commit
forces. Decision makers will always question whether the
ends justify the means. However, they must understand the
true potential cost of those means. Beirut is an excellent
example of a failure to accurately estimate potential cost
when evaluating the ends and means. Some senior leaders
falsely believed the Marine's peace keeping mission would
not result in substantial casualties.
Consider the approximate numbers of United States
deaths for the following wars: World War II -- 400,000,
Korea -- 50,000, Viet Nam -- 60,000. (12:756) America is
grateful numbers like these were not repeated during the
Gulf War. However, we must not allow Desert Storm to cloud
our judgment in evaluating potential future conflicts
where large casualty numbers like these could be repeated.
FALSE LESSON # 5 -- WE WILL HAVE AIR SUPERIORITY
From the first day of Desert Storm we believed that
the United States had taken control of the skies. This is
misleading for two reasons. First, control of the sky was
not taken, it was given to us. Out of 1,800 aircraft the
United States had only 33 combat losses, all due to ground
fire. (3:56) For the most part, Iraq's air forces, out
numbered by more than 3 to 1, chose to sit on the ground or
flee to Iran and never really contested our air, ground, or
naval forces. (6:16) Second, almost one third of the
aircraft in theater opposing Iraq came from our allies.
(4:23) The assumption is that had the Iraqi air forces
fought in earnest, and even with one third less aircraft,
we would have shot them down before they inflicted any
serious damage. Maybe, maybe not, and certainly maybe not
in the future.
The air war favors the side that strikes first against
an unsuspecting foe. The Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor in
1941 and the Israeli attack of Egyptian airfields in 1967
are classic examples. While Iraq may have suspected an
attack, it certainly underestimated the coalition effort
which took and kept the initiative. What about next time?
The assumption that the United States will immediately
achieve and maIntain air superiority is erroneous and
dangerous. Future adversaries in the air may be stronger
and more capable than those of Iraq. They may strike first
before United States military forces can build up,
consolidate, coordinate, and rehearse. The conflict may
take place in an area that does not provide us with
numerous airfields and support facilities. Finally, we may
not have a vast number of aircraft immediately available in
FALSE LESSON # 6 -- THIS WAR PROVED OUR POWER PROJECTION
As we move into the 21st century, military power
projection is key to successful implementation of a
stability strategy. Many people think that moving over
half a million troops 7,000 miles during Desert Shield
validates our power projection capability, and that our
current capability will remain strong for some time to
come. This view fails to consider the favorable conditions
encountered during Desert Shield, to understand the
difference between troops on the ground and combat power,
and to realize the rapid erosion of our power projection
capability in the near future.
Desert Shield was executed under almost ideal
conditions. During the operation troops and equipment moved
unopposed by the enemy and aided by our allies. We used
modern port and airfield facilities with the complete
support of a secure host nation. The major problem
encountered was not knowing how much time Saddam Hussein
would give the United States. Because of this an enormous
effort took place to move forces as quickly as possible.
While power projection does not have to be an amphibious
assault across an opposed beach, it would not demean the
effort of those involved to say that the Desert Shield build
up was more toward the logistical end of the spectrum.
Conditions will not always be this favorable.
Power projection requires the correct balance between
forces that are light enough to move expeditiously, heavy
enough to win upon arrival, and logistically self-sufficient
enough to hold until follow-on forces arrive. Marine Air-
Ground Task Forces are specifically designed for this.
Airborne units, however, are neither heavy enough nor
logistically self sufficient. Lieutenant Colonel
Hayden discusses this topic in a recent issue of the
Marine Corps Gazette. (7:47-49) Initial airborne
units deployed to Saudi Arabia were extremely limited
in combat power and quickly ran short of supplies
becoming dependent on the host nation for a
significant amount of their support.
Finally, our current ability to project power is
diminishing. The Navy plans to retire 24 amphibious ships
over the next six years. (16:77) Most of the amphibious
Tank Landing Ships (LST's) will reach the end of their
service life in the next decade. Production of amphibious
ships is not keeping up with losses. A similar situation
exists with the mine sweepers. A related problem is the
rapidly approaching end of the service life of the Marine
Corps' medium assault transport helicopter, the CH-46 Sea
Knight. The Department of Defense has not decided on a
replacement aircraft, and even if the decision were made
today, a replacement aircraft could not be fielded for
several years. Compounding this issue is the closure of
overseas bases. In the future we will have to project power
further using fewer assets.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
After the war President George Bush said: "This is not
a time of euphoria, certainly not a time to gloat. But it
is a time of pride. . ." (2:86) The military and especially
the Marine Corps can be proud of their performance during
Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The professionalism and
courage of America's uniformed personnel led to the victory
in Southwest Asia.
We did many, many things right during the Persian Gulf
War, and we will capitalize on them and learn from them. We
did some things wrong during the war, and we must search for
solutions for those problems and learn from them as well.
However, Brigadier General Paul Van Riper, who served in
Southwest Asia and published his observations on the Gulf
War, said, "we must avoid a race to conclusions." (6:54)
The Gulf War was a unique conflict and the lessons we learn
must apply to our fighting capability in general and not
only in a Desert Storm scenario.
We must realize that our enemies are also studying the
lessons of Desert Storm. Future adversaries will surely
attempt to use their elements of power to shape the next
conflict Into one that favors them, not us. Next time we
may not be surrounded by allies, have six months preparation
time to project our power ashore under ideal conditions, and
then fight a short conflict with limited casualties while
controlling the skies.
There are a few things we can do to protect us from the
false lessons of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. First,
don't fight the last battle. It is only human nature to
draw from our experience, therefore one must avoid the
temptation to use only what is comfortable. Be open minded
and forward looking. We must continue to stress innovation
and, as stated in FMFM-1, "exploit human traits such as
boldness, initiative, personality, strength of will, and
Second, evaluate possible conflicts in terms of the
most likely and the most dangerous. Desert Storm was a mid-
to high-intensity conflict fought with air and armor. Yet,
for the Marine Corps, our most likely scenario for future
conflicts is probably a non-combatant evacuation operation
(NEO) or actions in the low-intensity end of the spectrum.
However, one of our most dangerous missions would be to
conduct an opposed amphibious landing. We must be prepared
Third, concentrate on facts not perceptions. It is
folly to believe that the Marine Corps will be able to fight
the same way or have the same capabilities if some of the
proposed budget cuts are passed. We stand to lose
significant amounts of personnel and equipment, as well as
much needed improvements to systems which are rapidly
becoming obsolete. We must educate the American people on
our true strengths, weaknesses, capabilities, and needs. We
must have a doctrine that fights and wins with what we have,
not with what we have had in the past, nor with what we
would like to have.
Finally, if the Gulf War taught us nothing else it
taught us to expect the unexpected. This is one undeniable
lesson from the last war that we can use in preparing for
the next one.
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