The Future of War and American Military Strategy
April 1, 2009
The outcome of ongoing debates over the future of American military strategy will play a critical role in shaping the foreign and military policies of the United States over the next decade. Traditionalists worry about the shift towards emphasizing counterinsurgency (COIN) operations and irregular warfare, believing that the use of force is often ineffective in COIN situations and the American military should concentrate on planning for conventional war. In contrast, COIN advocates argue that the United States must focus its efforts on preparing for the wars it is most likely to fight, irregular wars. However, both schools of thought rely on assumptions about the future security environment that may reveal another path forward. First, although it seems intuitive to view irregular warfare as the dominant future concern, it is exceedingly difficult to predict accurately the future security environment, as the last 20 years have clearly shown. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the character of emergent threats will depend on how the United States focuses its resources. Paradoxically, no matter what it emphasizes, the military threats the United States is or will be most capable of defeating are the ones it is least likely to face, since potential adversaries will be deterred and seek other ways of confrontation. However, with some smart and careful investments, including the recognition that not all parts of the military have to be optimized for the same task, the United States military can both lock in its conventional dominance and continue to improve its ability to succeed in the irregular wars most likely to dominate the landscape in the short to medium term.