Pentagon Shifts Combat Training, Signaling Preparations for War With China, Russia, Major Powers

pentagon shift combat training
The U.S. Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, it feels like it was just yesterday that I was in Afghanistan for the last time, watching my unit draw down, already feeling as though my sacrifices were for naught years before watching the eventual botched withdrawal on television. Other times, it feels as though it could’ve been a lifetime ago, probably because so many like me gave lifetimes in service to their country in a war with no real objective, that was destined to fail.

Now that we are done in Afghanistan – for now, that is – and have shifted our foreign policy towards the proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, many in the Beltway are posturing and preparing for the next war. But the war that may be on the horizon is one we haven’t fought in many generations.

I spent 20 years fighting the war on terrorism, which is vastly different than fighting a war with a fixed nation, let alone a fellow superpower, and the Pentagon knows it. That’s why the suits in the five-sided building have shifted priorities on training and doctrine in an attempt to be ready for not just the next war but the next World War. 

A great shift

It is generally believed that the next great conflict the United States will face will not be with a relatively nebulous enemy like terrorism but with one of, if not possibly both, our near-peer adversaries: China and Russia.

Recently, United States Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall stated:

“The war we need to be most ready for, if we want to optimize our readiness to deter or respond to the pacing challenge, is not the type of conflict we have been focused on for many years.”

My generation’s war against terrorism was mainly based on guerrilla warfare and sociological tactics. Veterans like myself sat through countless trainings on how to build relationships with tribal leaders, ‘read’ a village, and utilize cross-cultural competencies to weed out the bad guys and help remake these faraway places in our image.

We all know how well that went. A war with China or Russia would not be of this same flavor.

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Some think it will be much more reminiscent of our grandfather’s wars with troops living daily in trenches with their rucks, focused on killing the enemy instead of wooing them, all with face paint and twigs in helmets. As Austrian Army officer Franz-Stefan Gady, who is helping the Pentagon workshop a combat training shift, told Vanity Fair, this change:

“…could be as big of a change as going from frontier soldiers chasing Comanches to the Civil War.”

That’s quite the comparison, one that doesn’t consider that back in the frontier and Civil War days, military bigwigs fought and died alongside their troops. These days, they make their decisions in air-conditioned offices in relative safety away from the smell of war.

Too little too late?

Secretary Kendall went on to explain that:

“China has been reoptimizing its forces for great power competition and to prevail against the U.S. in the Western Pacific for over 20 years.”

While we poured resources and blood into the Middle East over the last two decades, China has been quietly and steadily preparing for the long game – conflict with the United States. Case in point, they have created two new military branches.

The first is designed to specifically counter attacks from aircraft carriers, and the second is to focus on information dominance in space and cyber. The Secretary went on to explain that the United States must be ready:

“…for a kind of war we have no modern experience with.”

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But even with the adjustments in combat training, is it possible for us to ever be fully ready for a war with China? In the aforementioned Vanity Fair piece titled ‘The US Military’s Grave New Frontier: Training for Conflict – Theoretically – With Another Superpower’ the author Phil Klay rightly points out:

“If a truly hot war with a nuclear-armed adversary comes, we have already lost – “we” meaning not just America but the whole human race.”

Mr. Klay goes on to warn that:

“…even in a limited war, where both sides keep their nukes in reserve, the losses will quickly become staggering.”

It doesn’t take a foreign policy expert to know this; highly paid analysts have proven it.

Games without frontiers

War games between the US and China have been tirelessly played out in DC with increasing fervor since we engaged with Ukraine. The results have been less than optimistic.

While the war games result in a victorious US and free Taiwan, the spoils of the hypothetical war are rotten. A war game conducted earlier this year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that a war with China would result in about 5,000 dead American service members.

To put that into perspective, retired Marine Colonel Mark Cancian of the CSIS explained:

“We lose about half as many in three weeks as we did in 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Additionally, in a report written by CSIS Senior Vice President Seth Jones, the defense contracting machine isn’t up to the task of a World War:

“The bottom line is the defense industrial base, in my judgment, is not prepared for the security environment that now exists.”

Mr. Jones explains that due to outdated contracting procedures coupled with a bulky bureaucracy:

“These shortfalls would make it extremely difficult for the United States to sustain a protracted conflict. They also highlight that the U.S. defense industrial base lacks adequate surge capacity for a major war.”

While these are all valid points, these analysts ignore a critical component that is arguably a more significant indicator of our ability to weather a conflict with China or Russia – our culture.

Not our grandfather’s war

A Gallup poll from earlier this year found that only 39% of Americans are “extremely proud” to be American, with only 18% of those feeling the same in the 18 to 34-year-old age range. It’s no wonder military recruitment is low, with the prime age for troops lacking pride in their country.

This year, a Wall Street Journal poll found that less than 40% of Americans value patriotism and religion, with numbers also plummeting for those who value having children and being involved in their communities. Why do these numbers matter?

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Suppose you don’t have a love of country, a belief in something greater than yourself, a desire to carry on your familial name, and an obligation to contribute positively to your community. In that case, you don’t have what it takes to fight a rigorous, hellish war on behalf of that country.

Another Gallup poll from just two months ago found that only 60% of Americans have confidence in the military, the lowest in 25 years. Who can blame them?

With what appears to be rampant sexual assaults, increasing suicide rates, apparent politicization, and reports of toxic unethical leadership, it’s no wonder confidence is low. Add to that the epic failure in Afghanistan that resulted in zero accountability for military leaders.

Why should young Americans raise their right hand to die for men and women who care little for them and more for their post-retirement gigs on defense boards or advising shady foreign governments for six figures? All of that aside, the truth is there is no way to train for this possible inevitable World War because it won’t be like our grandfather’s wars even if we had the best cultural and societal fortitude.

We’ve become adept at killing one another much more efficiently than ever before, the news is real-time now, and the world has become much smaller than it was during World War II and the Korean War. I’m glad the military is finally adjusting its training tactics, but I fear it is too late.

Let’s hope that the war hounds in DC can temper their appetite for destruction in the meantime.

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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