Image courtesy of Flikr user AMadGunslinger. Image courtesy of Flikr user AMadGunslinger.

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a short essay series on Future Warfare which asked what the dominant trend in warfare will be over the next 20 years.

By Cadet Austin Willard

Before determining what the future of warfare is, it is important to decide what it is not. It is not nuclear. It is not conventional. It is not quick. The battle no longer belongs to him who gets there “the fastest with the mostest,” as Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest so eloquently put it.[1] The future of warfare lies in nebulous, “low-intensity” (unless you are getting shot at), “small” (unless your village gets leveled), protracted, and highly unconventional conflicts. The U.S. has a regrettable history with these “irregular” wars—considered irregular only because they do not fit our preconceptions of what war ought to  look like. To effectively fight and win these wars, the U.S. must reorient its military priorities, and American political leaders must strive to adjust the expectations of U.S. citizens about war.

In the wake of lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military remains bafflingly committed to preparing itself for exclusively large-scale conventional conflicts. No rational opponent would challenge the conventional might of the U.S. military. Because of our dominance, our opponents are forced to fight us using anything but conventional means. So, while it is prudent to maintain our position as the greatest conventional power, we must focus on developing our capacity to fight unconventional wars. This means expanding the SF, PSYOP, and cyber communities, training conventional units in “by, with, and through” as well as “close with and destroy,” and investing more heavily in our human resources than our technical capabilities.

The American people still view the Gulf War as the standard for what a “real” war is. Americans believe that wars ought to be fast, cheap, and bloodless (at least on our side). They must be disabused of this notion as soon as possible. American political leaders should have the courage to tell the American people to expect long, costly, bloody conflicts. As long as the American citizenry holds on to their unrealistic expectations about warfare, it will be extremely difficult to sustain public support during protracted wars.

[1] Forrest, ironically, went on to lead a quasi-insurgent movement—the Klu Klux Klan.