Everyone has their weird little hyper fixations or odd things that are soothing or enjoyable to think about but that make other people arch and eyebrow. For me, a big one of those is thinking about military structures and organization. That’s been the case for me thinking about things both in real life in regard to my actual job or my work here, and also as a hobby when I think about writing stories or doing worldbuilding or what have you. It’s just my thing.
Inevitably, over the past year or so as I’ve approached the topics of war and military matters from a left perspective, I’ve found myself wondering to myself or talking with like-minded folks I know about how existing military structures and organization should be changed, replaced, or just killed with fire under a more just and equitable system. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time and have hinted at in bits and pieces before, but have continuously had to push back because inevitably some new crisis or conflict emerges that I feel compelled to write about while the iron is still hot. Finally, I decided there is no time like the present and I should at least get started on it.
This essay will be the first in a series of essays on how I think the United States Armed Forces should be structured and organized if it were under a government and overall socioeconomic system that didn’t make me want to crawl into a corner and cry several times a day about how we are living in a dogshit timeline. I knew from the beginning that there was no way in hell I was going to be able to cram everything I wanted to write about into one essay if I wanted to do it all justice, so I’ll be dividing up this study across about a half a dozen parts or so in the coming months. It will likely be interrupted by current events here and there, as with how things are currently going in the world, I don’t expect the madness to slow down anytime soon. But I’m going to keep fitting in chapters of this series where I can until its done.
With that in mind, I felt a fitting place to start in the first chapter of this series is to address the big picture items that you need if you’re going to design – or re-design – a military force. Once we get that out of the way, in the ensuring chapters we’ll look at each of the military services or major components of the Joint Force and the ways in which they would change to fit a different strategy and overall mentality of not only the military, but the people that it serves. So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Strategy: Let’s Try Not to Be Dicks
If I learned one useful thing about national security in two very expensive years of graduate education and more than a few years working in the field, you can’t structure and build a military force without first thinking of a strategy (I mean, you can, but it probably will fail or not be very useful in the end).
Strategy is the point from which everything else flows in military thinking, laying out the main objectives that a country or entity seeks to accomplish, as well as the overall big-picture approach to achieving them. Once you have a strategy, you then need to visualize some of the most likely scenarios that may occur in the course of executing it. Then, from there, you can actually start thinking about how you will plan out and then develop and build an effective military force to fight and succeed in those scenarios in service of the strategy (and most importantly for a different mentality about this, the people it’s meant to protect). I’m simplifying and abstracting this process a lot for those of you who don’t live among the DoD PowerPoints like I do (don’t cry for me I’m already dead) but that’s the basic idea at the end of the day.
So, in a better world, what would be the main U.S. defense strategy?
In contemporary times, every U.S. administration will put out a series of different defense and security related strategies. These include a National Defense Strategy (NDS) that hits on the high level national security objectives, a National Military Strategy (NMS) that explains how the military will implement the objectives laid out in the NDS. For purposes of our conversation I’m gonna kinda mesh them bother together (I don’t really see why they need to be separate anyway).
The objectives listed within the NDS range from straightforward and obvious to very much open-ended and murky (which leaves a lot of room open for interpretation), as well as ranging from practical and sensible to openly imperialistic. We can see this in the most recently published NDS from the Trump administration in 2018 (the Biden administration is still working on their replacement, though they’ve thrown together some interim guidance). For example, “defending the homeland from attack” has been in every National Defense Strategy in recent memory and seems both straightforward and like something we should be doing. Meanwhile, “sustaining Joint Force military advantages, both globally and in key regions” could be taken to mean a lot of things to anyone. And don’t even get me started on “Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere.” Oof.
So, in the better world we hope for, where President Leftist has just been elected with his/her/their big lefty Congressional majority or whatever, what should the objectives be? I’m not going to list out a dozen different objectives or more like there usually is in an NDS because I could spend days pacing around my room just trying to figure out what those should be and frankly a lot of those will change reflective of the time a strategy is written in. But what I can do is think of a few, key objectives that will likely be enduring throughout time and offer some a persistent reference point from which other objectives would come and go in future iterations of the strategy.
To identify a few key objectives, I think back to some of my earliest essays and the main themes that have persisted throughout them. Fundamentally, as a defense strategy, I feel that it should actually be truly defensive. Moreover, it should not seek to only defend territory and certainly not be intended defend nebulous “interests” abroad. At its core, the strategy should be about defending people and the means that they need in order to survive and lead happy and fulfilling lives free from fear. We should be seeking to do this not only in our own country, obviously, but in other countries too. Essentially, wherever a people come under unprovoked, unjustified, uncalled for armed aggression, we should be prepared to offer assistance and to provide it if the people under attack accept our help. In past essays I have referred to this more politely as the “Don’t Start None, Won’t Be None” strategy, and less politely as the “Fuck Around and Find Out” strategy (choose whatever one you’d rather say among friends, I’m gonna go with the saltier one because of reasons).
More than anything, this would be a strategy not about “interests” but about people and principles, chief among them being the principle of solidarity with people around the world. As part of that solidarity, we should also support those throughout the world that want to live under a better system. I should be careful to say this should not involve invasions, occupations and regime change, nor should it involve working to incite or provoke rebellions, uprisings and civil wars through covert action and manipulation. But what I do mean is when a people in a given place decide that they have had enough, are denied peaceful ways of enacting change for the better and are left no choice but to turn to force of arms against forces of authoritarianism and fascism in order to create a better more just system to live under, we should be ready and willing to support them in their struggle. The choice to embark on this path must lie with the people in question and the support we offer should be aimed at enabling them to achieve what they want instead of dictating to them how and what they should be doing.
That same logic should apply to supporting nations and peoples across the globe in a “steady state” peacetime environment. The United States and other countries often pay lip service to the idea of allies, but only when allies align with our interests. Instead, we should be supporting allies based on shared principles. We should be supporting those with similar systems who value the same principles we do – the principles that often also get paid lip service to but would be great if we actually lived up to them. Principles like true democracy and self-determination, justice in every sense of the word and for all peoples, freedom – not simply to do certain things, but freedom also from want, fear, privation, etc. We should be supporting other nations, not only by pledging to stand beside them in battle should they ever request it, but also by doing our best to help them stand on their own two feet and defend themselves so it may not be necessary for us to come to help in the first place. We shouldn’t be keeping allies on a short leash or turning everything into a quid pro quo situation of “what can you do for me”. We should be helping them because it’s the right thing to do (there’s that whole “solidarity” thing again).
This whole strategic concept is kind of ironic because I realized after the fact that it reminds me a lot of the realist (realist in the I.R. theory sense) concept of “offshore balancing” that’s been around for a while but really came into vogue in the immediate post-Cold War period (I’m sorry to link Wikipedia here but I really cannot find a good source that isn’t behind a paywall, because my field is truly inclusive and welcoming to all lmao). Under offshore balancing, a great power would maintain a sort of informal federalist empire and avoid deploying its own military forces forward to the maximum extent possible by providing certain key actors in regions of interest (ex: Europe, Southwest Asia, Northeast Asia) with economic and military support as long as they act in accordance with the great power’s interests. Under offshore balancing, the great power at the epicenter of the empire “passes the buck” to its local agents to deal with regional conflicts, only intervening itself when it absolutely has to in order to minimize the cost to itself.
Now obviously this is extremely fucky and imperialistic almost by admission. But what we’ve come up with here is actually fairly similar in structure, but completely different in purpose. Again, the key here is not interests, but principles. The state at the center of this web in our system is not trying to act as the heart of an empire – in fact, it would be trying not to be the center of a web at all. It would be supporting local powers to better defend themselves because that would benefit everyone involved in terms of safety and stability and would be doing so without preconditions (aside from maybe encouragement to continue on with reforms to make a more free and fair society if it is a country that is still in a transition from a previously more authoritarian existence). The goal would be to create a series of interlocking hubs and spokes of like-minded states and peoples that are supporting one another in being independent and self sufficient in their defense, but also stand ready to intervene on their behalf should that become absolutely necessary. In that case, the strategic concept supporting the Fuck Around and Find Out overall strategy is less Offshore Balancing and more Offshore Solidarity.
Yes, I know way too much international relations theory for my own good. How could you tell?
Remember the ‘90s?
Ok, so we have a strategy. But we can’t get to the fun stuff of tanks, jets, ships, brigades and etc. just yet. Because before we can get to those details, we need to think about what executing this strategy would mean in practice in a broad way. We need to think about what the force as a whole would need to do in order to carry out the key points of the strategy before we can think about what it would need in terms of system and units to support it.
An important thing to keep in mind when attempting to build a force is no that no military force can cover every single potential military eventuality you may encounter. It’s just quite simply impossible to think of every possible conflict you may find yourself in, and even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to be fully prepared to excel in all of them. Even the United States military now, spending more money than God on its capabilities, isn’t capable of winning everywhere all the time at everything (as this summer probably made painfully obvious). This is where scenarios come into play, forcing us to think about the most likely and plausible instances in which we will find ourselves on the battlefield. By necessity and for practicality’s sake, you’re going to end up having to make trade-offs when building a force, assuming risk in one area in order to be stronger and more effective in another. Obviously, these are tough choices to make, and will depend a great deal on the types of situations you anticipate your force ending up in. So, that begs the question, under this hypothetical strategy, what do we see our force doing?
We’ve already fleshed this out some in the strategy itself – as well as in past essays – but we can add a bit more granularity here. The main recurring scenario, as I’ve described before, that seems to come to mind when I’m thinking of the Fuck Around and Find Out strategy is when a hostile nation (we’ll say Country A) launches an unwarranted attack on a neighbor (Country B). For purposes of our planning, we’ll assume this attack is going balls to the wall and Country A has the intent of fully invading, occupying and forcibly integrating Country B. We’ll assume also for the sake of our planning that Country A isn’t a small country with a bottom tier military, but at least a regional power with a fairly robust military capability across multiple domains.
Thankfully for my own sake here, I don’t have to work from scratch with visualizing this, because some of this work has been done for me before in a far-off time known as the “1990s.” Several studies were done on this type of war in that mystical hyperpower period of the “end of history” that occurred between the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 when the U.S. military was trying to find out what the fuck to do without itself in the coming decades. One such study undertaken by the RAND Corporation from 1993, examined the changing role of airpower in what they called “major regional conflicts” – with their primary example being a hypothetical Gulf War style conflict in Southwest Asia against an abstracted Iraq or Iran sized adversary (at least they had the good sense in this study to make it abstract or that potentially could have been awkward later on down the line let me tell you).
While it pains me to say this, a Gulf War style scenario – both the actual one and the one outlined in this study – is a pretty good reference point for what we want to do under this strategy in terms of actual operational execution. Now, obviously, as good leftists, we want to do this without helping out several corrupt and authoritarian oil-rich absolute monarchies in the process (and the oil companies of course) and also try to commit little or no war crimes as we do it (I would hope). But in terms of the operational goals and execution, it’s a pretty decent blueprint. Now, things we’ll change for us looking out into the future in terms of the exact capabilities and systems brough to bear, and its exact application would change based on the location and adversary involved, but we’re talking about the same basic thing: enemy invades country and occupies it, we move in and liberate the country and forcing the enemy out. Politics aside, it’s a pretty damn good framework (ok that’s the last of my praise for now I swear).
Now, assuming you want to halt and roll back the invasion that is occurring before the enemy can complete it, a number of pieces are required and need to fall into place at certain times. RAND’s scenario – as does mine – assumes no US forces being forward deployed when the attack occurs (though for some reason ‘no’ doesn’t account for an entire fucking carrier battle group, which they consider ‘modest’, but whatever I guess – I’m going to assume ACTUALLY nothing). This means right off the bat that air forces – as they tend to be in modern warfare – are crucial. Air forces are the forces that will be able to reach the war zone the fastest and have the most immediate impact. This includes – but is not limited to – fighters that establish the air superiority that all other functions will occur under the umbrella of, attack aircraft to work to slow down or stop enemy ground advances (and eventually assist friendly ground forces in a counter-attack), ISR collection aircraft to get a better picture of the situation, and of course transport aircraft bringing in the first waves of troops and equipment to support allies and assist in stopping the enemy advance and establishing a defensive line until heavier forces arrive.
This leads into the types of ground forces you’ll need as well. Obviously, you’ll need some forces that are light enough to be airlifted quickly into a conflict area and achieve enough mass and have enough capabilities to be able to work with local forces to stop – or at least slow down – a numerically superior enemy advance. However, you’ll then need to be able to bring heavy mechanized and armored forces to bear that will pack the firepower, protection and mobility necessary to push back enemy forces out of friendly territory. These forces will need to be backed up by long range fires, as well as all the less sexy aspects of warfare, including logistics, medical, and other support that you don’t usually see in action movies and video games.
And of course, if you want to move heavy forces into the theater, you’re going to need sealift (not unless you want to be flying in tanks two at a time on constantly running transport flights, which is not ideal). Even if the country you’re trying to help is landlocked, if you want to get in the bulk of the equipment and materiel you’ll need to fight a major war – which is all heavy as fuck, it’ll have to come by boat and then move overland. That means, in addition to sealift capacity, you’ll need some naval forces to make sure said sealift gets from point A to point B in one piece – especially if the enemy you’re fighting has a navy of their own. If the opposition does have their own navy, you’ll also need your own navy to ensure the enemy can’t use their own navy to launch attacks on your forces in all domains. Even if the enemy doesn’t have a navy, naval forces still bring another means of delivering long range fires on target (for reasons I’m about to get into).
Long-range attack from the air and sea becomes all the more important if the enemy has a robust anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) network of anti-air, anti-ship and surface-to-surface missiles, attempting to block you from bringing in forces to the fight. That importance is further accentuated if the enemy succeeds in the invasion and this operation becomes a war of liberation to free the ally under occupation, with the enemy having time to move their A2/AD assets into the occupied territory to solidify their gains. This is also another reason why air forces are so important in the same regard. Firing long range missiles from ships and planes outside the “bubble” of A2/AD may end up be one of your only ways of being able to “pop” the bubble or make a crack in the dome, allowing you to flow forces in to help your ally. That, or finding ways to get inside that bubble without your enemy being none the wiser. It’s a tough nut to crack.
But I’m starting to get ahead of myself here, as this is all stuff I’m going to talk about as I get deeper into the different domains and services in subsequent essays. There’s also lot of other capabilities I haven’t mentioned because they don’t necessarily have to be flowed into the theater (like space assets, cyber, information warfare, and etc.) that will all play a critical role in any campaign as well, and they’ll be getting their due later too. I also kind of hand waved all the support elements that would be necessary to focus on the sexy, pointy things, but rest assured they’ll be covered as well and are crucially important. But I wanted to first give you a big picture idea of the kinds of key things you’d need in order to carry out this Gulf War style campaign to stop the invasion of a friendly country, roll it back, and also destroy enough of the enemy’s capabilities to ensure that they wouldn’t be able to try that shit again for a while (fuck around and find out, after all).
The Stage is Set and the Game is Afoot
Well, we have the beginnings of a strategy and at least one supporting concept for it. We also have a rough idea of what I think would be a pretty likely scenario that would be carried out under the auspices of that strategy. I think we have a ball game, folks.
Now, this isn’t the only scenario that could happen, but as I said before you can’t plan for everything and this is also only our first foray into this adventure. What I tried to do here was throw out something that seemed like it would be the most plausible and also fairly stressing. There are a few other edge cases that may occur. I’ve mentioned before the possibility of intervening in an internal conflict to prevent a genocide – that may bring some unique difficulties. Likewise, you could fight a conflict like the one I laid out against an even more powerful nation. But I only have so much space to work with and so many hours in the day, so I just threw out what seemed like a plausible, believable scenario – both in the past, but also under the hypothetical system that we’re imagining here.
I also want to point out that obviously this isn’t going to be as robustly researched and analytically rigorous as a well-polished research report or book. Honestly? I’d love to do something like that and maybe someday I will. But between my day job and my other hobbies and responsibilities, I’ll need to stick a pin in that for now and reach for what’s possible. Rest assured I’ll do my best not to talk completely out of my ass and back up my assertions with what I can find in terms of supporting research. Some folks will obviously disagree with my conclusions and that’s fine. I welcome some constructive feedback. In fact, that’s the only way things like this work. When you just get one person – or several succumbing to groupthink – working on these sorts of things and carrying them out, well, that’s how you get just about every U.S. military and foreign policy failure since ever in the history of ever. So, I look forward to feedback from friends and comrades as I continue on in this series.
Unless you’re just gonna be a dick about it and lecture to me about how drones are going to solve everything or whatever. In that case: lol lmao.
Well, I think I’ve pretty much run out of gas on this for now. Next time I return to this series, we’ll be starting to get into what each of the services or key domains of warfare would need to look like to make all of this happen – starting with everyone’s favorite green machine: the Army. Until then: stay safe, stay alert, and remember to log off once in a while.