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America's Army in Transition: Preparing for War in the Precision Age

Authored by Major General Robert H. Scales.

September 1999

29 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The following two articles were written during and immediately after the war in Kosovo. The first is an adaptation of an earlier work written after a trip to Asia in 1998. In that essay, I suggested that foreign militaries were beginning to perceive our fixation on a firepower-centered way of war as an exploitable weakness. In fact, some states, armed with experience gained against us in real war, had already begun to evolve a doctrine to counter our superiority in precision. These potential adversaries concluded that dispersion, deception, patience and a willingness to absorb punishment offered them the means to endure precision strike long enough to outlast a technologically superior foe. Subsequent practical experience in Kosovo caused me to modify this thesis somewhat, but not much.

The "From Korea to Kosovo" article was written after a visit to Albania in May 1999. There I developed the central thesis for this essay: In wars of limited liability, success must be gained with a limited expenditure of means. A brief review of recent history tells us that we have been practically learning this lesson in real wars for half a century, beginning with Korea. The imperative to prepare for a full-scale war against the Soviets, however, has effectively impeded our ability to embed this lesson into our warfighting doctrine. Kosovo is a wake-up call. This article concludes with a maneuver warfare concept for this new era of limited liability wars in the Precision Age.


Once the dogs of war are unleashed, and the shooting begins in earnest, conflicts tend to follow unpredictable courses. As Clausewitz warned many times in his military classic, wars are contests between two active, willing opponents both of whom expect to win. Thus an action by one side to gain advantage precipitates a response by the opponent to counter it. Once begun, war with its neatly crafted plans and comforting expectations quickly devolves into a series of stratagems and counter stratagems by both sides as each seeks to retain advantage on the battlefield long enough to gain a decisive end by collapsing the enemy's will to resist.

In spite of its video game image, NATO's war against the Serbs proved to be no exception to the classic Clausewitzian construct. The Serbs sought to overcome a tremendous materiel and technological disadvantage by capitalizing on their own strengths: the ability to gain operational objectives quickly and then disperse in order to avoid the inevitable aerial assault they knew would follow. The Serbs trusted that patience, tenacity, guile and the ability to sequester ground forces throughout the countryside would give them the interval they needed to out wait the resolve of the NATO coalition. This plan, however, did not work. The political will of the NATO coalition proved to be stronger in the end than that of the Serbs. But the skill and perseverance of the Serbian army, in the face of an overwhelming onslaught by a thousand or more NATO aircraft armed with precision weapons, present us with a compelling demonstration of a thinking, creative, and adaptive opponent who can foil the best prepared plans of a superior opponent simply by capitalizing on his own inherent strengths while minimizing those of the opposition.

For the last fifty years the militaries of the Western powers, and particularly the United States, have been remarkably consistent in how they have chosen to go to war. We have inherited the remarkable ability to translate technological innovation, industrial capacity and national wealth into effective battlefield advantages because of our enormous defense expenditures during the Cold War. However, in this new era of limited wars, our commitment to limited ends now demands the use of limited means. Therefore, the lives of our soldiers have become our most precious resource and we increasingly seek to develop a method of war that will replace manpower expenditures with an ever multiplying expenditure of firepower.

But as we have seen in Kosovo, our future enemies are watching. They understand our preoccupation with firepower. Therefore, we should not be surprised when we encounter a future opponent who has learned how to nullify our firepower advantage. We have consistently been slow to perceive the growing effectiveness of the opposition in part because of a characteristic Western arrogance that presumes that, to be a challenge, non-Western militaries must either symmetrically challenge us or mimic Western ways of war. As a result, the growing skill among non-Western militaries at countering our firepower centered method of war has remained shrouded in the shadows of unfamiliar military cultures. Thus, U.S. military analysts have missed much of the discourse and experimentation occurring among thinking military institutions outside the West due in part to the cultural schism that divides the world's advanced industrial democracies from the other four-fifths of the planet.

The Serbs were certainly not the first opponent to demonstrate adaptive strategies against our Western way of war. More than five decades ago, the Japanese demonstrated their analytical ability to survive America's firepower intensive attacks during the closing months of the Pacific campaign in World War II. During the battles of 1943 and 1944, the Americans won a series of quick and decisive victories by using the mobility and firepower of their amphibious forces. But the Japanese carefully observed this method of attack and by the end of 1944 they had entirely revamped their defensive plans for the islands that guarded the approaches to their Homeland.

In Okinawa, the Japanese abandoned their failed doctrine of beach defense and buried their force under a vast array of pillboxes, switch lines, and deep bunkers to carry out an extended defensive scheme centered in the southern portion of Okinawa. The Japanese recognized that they could never match American firepower, but they maximized what little firepower they had by using mortars and artillery in sufficient numbers and with enough deadly effect so as not to completely cede the firepower advantage to the Americans. Fighting their way through deep defensive lines, the Marines and Soldiers eventually took the island and destroyed the Japanese Tenth Army—with approximately 70,000 Japanese soldiers and 70,000 Japanese civilians killed. But the U.S. casualty bill for the island fighting was horrendous: 65,631 killed or wounded.

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