Scholars such as Steven Pinker and John Mueller have provided a great deal of evidence suggesting the world is a more peaceful place than it used to be, but even they cannot rule out the possibility that major war might return in the future. And if it did, would the U.S. military be prepared to fight it? Steven Metz, the director of research at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, grappled with that question recently in an essay for the War College’s journal, Parameters. And his recommendations for dealing with the problem are worth considering.
In describing the dilemma the military today might face in preparing for major war, Metz makes note of several important differences between today, and the last time a societal mobilization for war was necessary. During the buildup to World War II, the United States had little debt and excess industrial and labor capacity due to the Great Depression. Today, America’s debt would make it difficult, if not impossible, to put a major war on the national credit card, and similar excess industrial and labor capacity do not exist. New taxes will likely be needed under any circumstances. If major war came in response to a direct attack on the United States there would certainly be a surge of volunteers, but even they might not be enough and conscription might need to return to supplement them. If it came in response to regional aggression by North Korea, Russia, or China, it is unclear whether the American people will be willing to pay the necessary costs to fight it.
Given these challenges, Metz makes several sensible recommendations. He argues that deterring a major war requires the demonstrated ability to fight one. Metz recommends that the military focus on its ability to expand in the event major war becomes a reality. He suggests it can demonstrate its potential to do so through war-gaming and exercises. He also recommends that the military experiment with new formations that might allow it to forestall an adversary while the force expands to prosecute the conflict.
One of Metz’s recommendations, however, seems misplaced. To stimulate thinking about the possibility of a “big war,” Metz proposes that “There should be a single organization within the Joint Force specifically assigned responsibility for understanding, preparing for, and planning big wars requiring full national mobilization.”
For an issue as significant as major war, it is unclear why thinking about it should be relegated to a single office. Centralizing the problem makes it more likely that a single solution will emerge. As Niskanen Center adjunct fellow Harvey Sapolsky noted recently, single solutions threat single-fault failures. Given that the time, place, and even the adversary against whom the U.S. military might need to fight a major war is inherently unknowable, it is better to have a range of options rather than a one-size-fits-all plan to expand the Joint Force in a crisis. As Sapolsky has argued repeatedly, and as Richard Danzig of the Center for a New American Security noted in a well-regarded report, uncertainty requires diverse perspectives and, more importantly, diverse approaches. Putting the planning for a major war in a single office assumes that the big war is predictable enough that a single solution can be found for a scenario that is at this time unknowable.
As Danzig writes, “Respect for unpredictability argues against keeping many eggs in one basket.” Planning for major war should be subject to competition among the military services. The Army, both for historical reasons related to the service’s culture and practical reasons stemming from a desire to prove its relevancy in light recent force reductions, is likely to show a great deal of interest in demonstrating its ability to deter—or, ultimately, fight—the big war. Similar competition for relevancy and resources during the 1970s helped the Army recover from its post-Vietnam War miseries to win the first Iraq war in less than one hundred hours. Today, it has powerful incentives to show it can expand quickly in the event of a major war. Moreover, competition will ensure redundancy that act as a backstop for the experiments with new formations that Metz recommends. Experiments require trial and error, and maintaining redundant capabilities ensures forces will be available even when errors occur.
The return of major war cannot be ruled out entirely, so the military should be thinking about how to deter—or, if necessary, fight—it. Centralizing the planning for it though is likely to leave the military less prepared than it would be if competing perspectives were brought to bear on the problem.