The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

A New Era Of Mass Armies Approaches

The army, or a part of it at the war college, has perked up and noticed some of the lessons of the Ukraine war, and that it’s a war that the US military could not fight. They’ve missed a lot of things, or felt they couldn’t/shouldn’t write about them, but they’ve figured some stuff out and written about them in a new report, “A Call to Action: Lessons from Ukraine for the Future Force” by Lieutenant Colonel Katie Crombe, and Professor John A. Nagle.

The entire thing is worth reading, but I’m going to pull out three of the main points. The first is that a volunteer US military can’t fight a real war.

The Russia-Ukraine War is exposing significant vulnerabilities in the Army’s strategic personnel depth and ability to withstand and replace casualties.11 Army theater medical planners may anticipate a sustained rate of roughly 3,600 casualties per day, ranging from those killed in action to those wounded in action or suffering disease or other non-battle injuries. With a 25 percent predicted replacement rate, the personnel system will require 800 new personnel each day. For context, the United States sustained about 50,000 casualties in two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In large-scale combat operations, the United States could experience that same number of casualties in two weeks. (emphasis mine)

Huh. Yeah, that seems bad. And it comes just as the US military is having trouble with volunteer recruitment, though even if wasn’t volunteer recruitment couldn’t keep up with the meat grinder of a real war.

The US Army is facing a dire combination of a recruiting shortfall and a shrinking Individual Ready Reserve. This recruiting shortfall, nearly 50 percent in the combat arms career management fields, is a longitudinal problem. Every infantry and armor soldier we do not recruit today is a strategic mobilization asset we will not have in 2031. The Individual Ready Reserve, which stood at 700,000 in 1973 and 450,000 in 1994, now stands at 76,000. These numbers cannot fill the existing gaps in the active force, let alone any casualty replacement or expansion during a large-scale combat operation. The implication is that the 1970s concept of an all-volunteer force has outlived its shelf life and does not align with the current operating environment. The technological revolution described below suggests this force has reached obsolescence. Large-scale combat operations troop requirements may well require a reconceptualization of the 1970s and 1980s volunteer force and a move toward partial conscription. (emphasis mine).

If the US expects to fight Russia, China, or even Iran, they’re going to face a real war.

The US has spent 20 years fighting with air, artillery and surveillance supremacy, with clear communications. American veterans who went to Ukraine were unprepared for a war where the other side has, if not supremacy, air and artillery superiority, and the Ukraine war has been a meatgrinder. Plus, the current command methods the army use don’t work in an environment like the Ukraine:

Twenty years of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operationsin the Middle East, largely enabled by air, signals, and electromagnetic dominance, generated chains of command reliant on perfect, uncontested communication lines and an extraordinary and accurate common operating picture of the battlefield broadcast in real time to co-located staff in large Joint Operations Centers. The Russia-Ukraine War makes it clear that the electromagnetic signature emitted from the command posts of the past 20 years cannot survive against the pace and precision of an adversary who possesses sensor-based technologies, electronic warfare, and unmanned aerial systems or has access to satellite imagery; this includes nearly every state or nonstate actor the United States might find itself fighting in the near future

Back in 2012 I wrote an article titled “Drones are not weapons of the powerful.” I posited that they’re cheap, easy to make and everyone would eventually get them. We’re pretty much there, in terms of large group actors (the step after that is individuals, leading to an era where even a single person or small group can launch significant attacks.).

The authors of the article agree:

These systems, coupled with emerging artificial intelligence platforms, dramatically accelerate the pace of modern war. Tools and tactics that were viewed as niche capabilities in previous conflicts are becoming primary weapons systems that require education and training to understand, exploit, and counter. Nonstate actors and less capable nation-states can now acquire and capitalize on technologies that bring David’s powers closer to Goliath’s.

There are issues the authors don’t deal with, the main one is “designed in California, built in China.” The US’s weapon building capacity is massively degraded. As one example, the Chinese can build 3 ships per one the US builds, and the ships are probably better.

Since WWII, in every war the US has fought, they’ve had air superiority or supremacy and more advanced weapons than the enemy. They’ve also had more “stuff”. But the WWII “arsenal of democracy” is dead, it doesn’t exist any more.

Another issue is that the US military has outsourced too much of its capabilities. The corporate mantra of “outsource everything except your core competency” doesn’t work in a real war. All support functions should be run by the military and soldiers. (I may write an article on that in the future.) Contractors are too expensive and unwilling to really risk their necks, and outsourcing maintainance to non-army technicians is a disaster.

The US retains one huge advantage, however, its continental position makes it hard to attack the mainland. But this is also a disadvantage if the US loses air and naval supremacy. America’s enemies can only be reached by air and sea, after all.

Anyway, one takeaway is that conscription is likely to come back. I assume they’ll first make a huge push to recruit immigrants, undocumented or not, but that isn’t going to be enough. Get ready and remember, Empires rarely fade, they go down in huge conflagarations. The British Empire’s end involved two world wars.

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Trump Has Been A Fraudster All His Career, So What’s Changed?


Open Thread


  1. Chipper

    The Vietnam War had about 50K American deaths in two decades. Shouldn’t they be comparing the number/rate of casualties in Ukraine to the number/rate of US casualties in Vietnam, not to the number/rate of US deaths? Or do they figure that people who are merely wounded or sick will (mostly) be returned to combat in the long run?

  2. Mark Pontin

    I dunno, Ian. It’s unclear to me that human soldiers en masse necessarily have any future on the battlefield in real wars.

    Yes, the Ukraine meatgrinder has produced, or reproduced, some battlefield conditions that at least superficially resemble some of those of WWI. That may be only temporary. Wars accelerate technological development and by next year it may already be clear that the future of war looks like Stanislaw Lem* predicted more than a half-century ago —
    “Russian media reports a 3x increase in Lancet kamikaze drone production. The evolved model, Izdelie 53, operates in swarms for coordinated attacks. When one drone identifies armored targets, it communicates to the swarm for a collective strike.”

    And so on. Swarms can be jammed by electronic warfare, of course, and the US will chase after Russia — the current EW champs — and disrupt Russian networks to some extent . The inevitable outcome will be all sides building more autonomy and AI into military drones and robot weapons. God help us.

    * See forex Lem’s “Weapon Systems of The Twenty First Century or The Upside-down Evolution” in ONE HUMAN MINUTE, his earlier novel THE INVINCIBLE, or his late one PEACE ON EARTH.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Yeah Mark, that’s a fair point. My guess is that the era of mass armies, if it exists, will not last that long.

    Agreed, drones are going to move heavily to autonomous because of the jamming issue.

    EMP of various varieties (I read about prototype emp bullets) will be the counter.

  4. Tallifer

    It seems to me that the Ukrainian army very much the motivated, broad-based and open-to-talent armies of the French revolutionary levee-en-masse. Also, that the continuous front, grinding pace and far-reaching timeline require such a democratic mass army.

  5. Daniel Lynch

    I have always found the study of war interesting, and agree with all Ian said, but at the same time, I question why the U.S. needs a military, other than to put down domestic insurrections. I mean, who is going to invade us? What do we have that they want?

  6. different clue

    A major ” second-order” lesson in all this is that America should avoid having any wars with mass-army-capable countries. The current civilian rulership in America is not lesson-learning-capable. It would have to be replaced. But how? With a mass casualty civil war?

    At the national level, “democracy” is a velcro-decoy tarbaby, designed to trick people into sticking themselves to it in years of sterile engagement and running to nowhere in the electoral politics hamster wheel. Yet I myself continue to pay undeserved attention to it and will even vote out of decades of ingrained habit. Perhaps I will put more effort and attention into state, regional, and local politics and electoralics where self-government has not been all the way hollowed-out and jokeified.

    Perhaps we need a new political satire national party, to have some serious fun amid the political battlespace pre-shaped for us by our social class enemies in command of national government. I would suggest that serious fun begins with a seriously funny name for such a party. I offer the name Green America Survival Party, which has a catchy acronym which political performance satirists could play with in a serious spirit and a serious way.

  7. different clue

    @Daniel Lynch,

    ” What do we have that they want?”

    Well . . . what did the Indians have that we wanted? And still want to keep?

  8. KT Chong

    This could actually a very good thing.

    The reason why Americans have tolerated and ignored the forever foreign wars by the US government is because the US military stopped the conscription and draft. Nowadays, very few Americans have family members or friends that are deployed overseas to fight a war, even fewer Americans are personally impacted by or have a personal stake in any of the American wars. So nobody cares about any of the US foreign wars.

    If and when conscription is re-instituted, when every American knows a family member, friend or relative fighting and dying overseas, when every American is at risk of being drafted and sent overseas to fight and die in a war to enrich the military industry complex, when every American has a personal stake in every foreign war by the US government, then Americans will become anti-war again, and that is when America will have mass anti-war protests and riots again.

  9. responseTwo

    “Anyway, one takeaway is that conscription is likely to come back. I assume they’ll first make a huge push to recruit immigrants, undocumented or not, but that isn’t going to be enough.”

    When the draft comes back we will see how patriotic the pro-war crowd really is. How many generations since Vietnam have lived in a country that is in perpetual war that has no draft. I think it will be one hell of a shock. The wealthy and connected will buy their way out. The rest will raise one hell of stink.

  10. Mark Pontin

    Besides drone swarms and such, a less speculative objection to the US managing a new draft and mass-conscripted army is the practicality of it as ….

    ‘A new study from the Pentagon shows that 77% of young Americans would not qualify for military service … due to being overweight, using drugs or having mental and physical health problems ….

    ‘”When considering youth disqualified for one reason alone, the most prevalent disqualification rates are overweight (11%), drug and alcohol abuse (8%), and medical/physical health (7%),” the study, which examined Americans between the ages of 17 and 24, read. ‘

    Of course, as Ian writes, maybe “they’ll first make a huge push to recruit immigrants, undocumented or not.”

    He notes, probably “that isn’t going to be enough.” Still, it does suggest an amusing scenario where history repeats and a US army of disgruntled GIs of Hispanic and South American origin eventually invade and sack Washington, the new Rome, much as Alaric and his Goths, disgruntled after serving in Rome’s legions, invaded and sacked the old Rome.

  11. Joan

    I was in high school when 9/11 happened and remember the next morning seeing the huge line of young men outside the military recruitment office at my school. There was patriotism and fervor after 9/11 but that duty to one’s country became betrayal. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a total sham and a lot of people know it. I’m too young, but it seems like anything post WW2 was a joke and you’d be a fool to get caught up in it.

    My friend’s older brother was a firefighter and in the National Guard because we lived in an area with a lot of natural disasters. The National Guard was trained for helping us locally when Mother Nature came for us. After 9/11 our National Guard was sent to Afghanistan and he immediately quit. It’s not why he was serving.

    I have no children but if I wind up with nephews in the future I will help get them out of the country if necessary.

  12. Jorge

    A draft provides the gummint with a last chance to teach people literacy. This could be a factor national revival.

  13. StewartM

    This blog reinforces what I’ve long suspected, that the Casper Weinberger high-tech “shock and awe” low-manpower military was far more about ‘showing the flag’ in wars for oil and United Fruit against hapless adversaries (hapless at least in terms of conventional warfare) rather than fighting a real conventional war against a competent foe. And moreover, ‘showing the flag’ in a fashion that won’t bring home a lot of body bags (what movement conservatives thought was wrong with our Vietnam adventure).

    Andrew Cockburn, in his book The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine, though dated (early 80s) and though I think Cockburn exaggerates the Soviet military’s weaknesses, did make what I think is a valid point. The problem isn’t just manpower. Complex, high-tech weaponry is more likely to break down in such a ‘real war’. Cockburn argued (again, in the 80s) that a NATO/Warsaw Pact conventional war would result in such high attrition rates in high-tech weaponry due to not only combat, but wear and breakdown, which would not be replaceable in any reasonable time frame (it’s not made to be mass-produced). This in turn would led both sides to start pulling simpler tanks and aircraft designed and built in the 1950s, equipment that WAS designed for mass production, out of storage and into combat. The Cap Weinberger military model wasn’t sustainable in a real war.

    And lo and behold, Ukraine–the most protracted war fought with conventional arms for decades–may be proving this very point.

    The other thing is, as KT Chong said–maybe this would be a good thing domestically, as the government would once again need the proles, and moreover need them to be educated and healthy. Sad to say that more noble purposes than war can’t seem to motivate our elites to such actions.

  14. Carborundum

    A couple of comments:

    1) More than anything, this strikes me as a political document. The Army is very cognizant of the fact that every major land system they have is a more evolved version of what came out of TRADOC in the early 70’s while the costs for other services procurement have escalated significantly. Hold on to your wallet.

    2) Near-peer adversaries aren’t for fighting. They’re for IR, doctrine, politics, procurement and budget (see above regarding wallets, importance of maintaining a firm grasp thereof).

    3) I’m old enough I remember quite a number of these types of study groups. Overall, the record of them is not great. War is extraordinarily dynamic and really smart people get it wrong pretty much constantly – particularly when trying to predict the future.

    Good to see that Nagl’s where he belongs rather than running a prep school.

  15. Dan

    I am a former US Army Signal Officer who deployed to Iraq in 2011. I’ll share my own views, from what I saw during my time in the service.

    > “Twenty years of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in the Middle East, largely enabled by air, signals, and electromagnetic dominance, generated chains of command reliant on perfect, uncontested communication lines and an extraordinary and accurate common operating picture of the battlefield broadcast in real time to co-located staff in large Joint Operations Centers.”

    Ironically, in that twenty years, no one in the armed forces actually got _good_ at counterinsurgency, and when TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) switched its focus back to more conventional warfare scenarios after the GWOT (Global War on Terror) started winding down, all the senior officers seemed visibly relieved!

    But as the authors of that paper pointed out, and as I noticed in my career as a signal officer coordinating internet/radio/satellite comms for companies/battalions/brigades, commanders at all levels basically expect to have a constant stream of near real-time communication and information with their units. The better units train to anticipate comms breakdowns and empower subordinates…but a lot of units just break down into anarchy during an exercise if the satcom goes down or they can’t get a good FM or HF radio signal.

    Even at the time, as a staff officer in a battalion, I used to think, “Shit, the joes fighting in places like Normandy or the Philippines in WW2 had no expectation that they’d always have continuous and instant comms with their higher echelon (not to mention pre-radio armies like the Union in the Civil War), why are we so over-reliant on it?”

    > “Contractors are too expensive and unwilling to really risk their necks, and outsourcing maintainance to non-army technicians is a disaster.”

    This one really hits home! As a signal or comms officer in any of the branches of the US military, you are utterly dependent on contractors from companies like Harris and General Dynamics! Your own soldiers aren’t taught enough to service or troubleshoot any of the big, complex systems that Army units rely on for everything, such as the satcom terminals that provide internet access, beyond just the most basic and simple field maintenance. Anything even semi-serious goes wrong, you *have* to have one of those contractors send out a civilian technician to fix it, even in a fucking war! When I was in Iraq, General Dynamics contractors were flying out almost weekly to fix things for us.

    It’s basically an open secret that the operating model of these contractors is a lot like that of Taylor, the makers of the infamous and often-broken McDonald’s ice cream machines: the majority of their profit is from service and maintenance contractors, NOT the manufacturing or sale of the actual physical equipment.

  16. Ian Welsh

    In a “real” war with a true peer, the first thing that will happen is taking out sattelites. All troops need to train to work without sattelite comms or info or even aerial recon.

    The wars you have reliable access to those are not truly serious wars, no matter how horrific.

  17. VietnamVet

    World Wars with mass armies are simply impossible today. A losing nuclear armed opponent will use tactical nuclear weapons to save itself. Every war game conducted has from this point unleashes the strategic ICBMs to avoid losing them. A nuclear holocaust is always the end result. The West can only fight for-profit low intensity conflicts. The global military is manned by mercenaries except for China and Russia to a degree. The US government simply facilitates the wealth extraction from what’s left of the middle class by DOD, NIH, and all the other alphabetical public private partnerships.

    When I came back from Vietnam, I spent almost a month in the Army hospital neurological ward. There were four quadriplegic patients from the war being prepared to be shipped into the VA system. They are forgotten half century later except for their families that visited them every day and other Vets.

    The just retired Joint Chief Mark Milley, in his WWII uniform, laments the present wannabe dictators and wants conscription back. That requires the feeding, teaching, good health, and housing of all of Americas’ youngsters. But instead, those fit enough to cross Panama’s Darian Gap will be enlisted. When the Metro Police finally refuse to clear out the Capitol of protestors the third or fourth time, the succession of Red and Blue American States will start.

    The decline and fall of the West today is as certain as Rome or Constantinople before. Only the restoration of good government by and for the people can save North America from further civil war.

  18. Lysias

    The two world wars that ended the British Empire were both wars of choice. In both cases, Britain entered the war before it had been attacked. If Britain had stayed out of those wars, as she was free to do, that empire might still be with us.

    Not just historical speculation with no relevance. The US has the same choice today.

  19. bruce wilder

    Ukraine is the last war of the long 20th century, the last war centered on manned aircraft and manned armored vehicles.

    The capability of semi-autonomous robots and drones and guided bombs and mines is established but has set off a chaotic period in the development of tactical doctrine. In other words, Russia and Ukraine (and presumably Ukraine’s sponsors) are in a learning phase.

    Learning phases in military history can vary in character. WWI occurred during a period of intense change in industrial technologies impinging logistics and tactics. Soldiers learned fast to dig trenches and keep their heads down, but generals learned very slowly if at all how to reform tactical packages and organize for “breakthrough”. The incompetence of political and military leadership was exposed as wide and deep, with massive political consequences.

    I wonder if the American military-industrial complex as constituted and centralized is capable of learning from this conflict. The way the neocons and the “intelligence community” / Democratic Party are organized and co-financed by the MIC and the continuous policy of foreign policy wars has become a political hairball choking American democracy to death. Discontent and blowback are mounting. The debt mountain is about to have a landslide. I see no adaptiveness.

    Russia, on the other hand, was practically de-militarized at the start of the conflict, its numbers very limited, its logistics poor, and much of its equipment shabby and antiquated. Both Ukraine and Russia burned thru a lot of Soviet equipment.

    Russia is reviving its military industrial capability. The handful of dubious wonder weapons sponsored by Putin during the leanest years are being fixed or supplanted. The Russian economy is being massively restructured even outside the military sphere.

    I do not see how the War in Ukraine can be prolonged in stalemate. Ukraine’s society and economy are in a state of collapse. I also do not see how a resolution comes about without regime change in one of Russia, Ukraine or “the Collective West” or maybe all three.

  20. Geoffrey Dewan

    I would say the word “volunteer” should always be in quotes in discussions such as these.

  21. Feral Finster

    Tolliver needs to stop drinking the Kool-aid. The Ukrainian military is basically confused conscript meat waves, often press-ganged literally kicking and screaming off the streets.

  22. Carborundum

    Fifteen years ago I would have been very worried about losing satellite assets. These days, not so much. Too many birds, too dispersed, too much surge capacity for new launches and too many stealthed birds parked in obscure places with a lot of delta in reserve . I would definitely be concerned about losing space-based capabilities, but I don’t think it will be because the birds are killed – too low an ROI compared to other approaches.

  23. Ricardo2000

    Americans have decided they won’t fight for corrupt politicians and greedy oligarchs. Ukrainians made the same decision in 2014, and haven’t changed their minds since that date. Those Ukrainians that haven’t are being killed in Donbas.

    Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992): “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that your ignorance is just as good as my knowledge.”

    Far more problematic than the 77% of Americans who can’t stop watching sports while eating pizza and beer, nachos and coke, is the lack of respect for knowledge and scientific pursuits. WWII was won by science: radar, nuclear bombs, jets, ballistic missiles, penicillin, aircraft, international supply lines, Bletchley Park code breaking, fuel refining.

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