Before the modern era, most nations didn’t spend much time speculating about where their next war would be or who it would involve. Geography largely determined who would fight whom. With the rare exception of invaders from afar, enemies often remained at each other’s throats for decades, even centuries. States knew who they would fight the only question was when. But the United States is different. With no major enemies nearby, America’s wars have been fought around the world against a wide range of opponents. This meant that U.S. policy makers and military leaders needed to anticipate the location and identity of their enemies. Being wrong had strategic and blood costs.
Unfortunately, the United States isn’t particularly good at anticipating where its next war will be and what enemy it will face. Most have been fought in places and against enemies that received little attention before America became involved. The wars that the United States did plan meticulously a conflict in Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and a second Korean War never happened. This pattern of fighting unexpected wars should tell us something: Rather than picking today’s most hostile opponent, whether North Korea, Iran or an increasingly aggressive China, and designing the future U.S. military to fight it, America should think more broadly and creatively about the type of wars it might face in the future.
Changes underway in the global security environment suggest that America’s next war will be one of six types. The most obvious scenario is one where provocation and nuclear proliferation compel the United States to destroy the military capability of a hostile State and possibly change its regime. North Korea and Iran are, of course, the leading candidates in this category, but others are likely to emerge in the coming decades. If North Korea can build nuclear weapons, many other nations can as well. And aggressive, miscalculating dictators are never in short supply. Wherever it occurs, this type of war could drag the U.S. military into a long occupation, since simply destroying existing nuclear weapons or missiles may be only a temporary fix. So what begins as a conventional operation could end up as a counter-insurgency campaign, potentially a large and long one.
With no major enemies nearby, America’s wars have been fought around the world against a wide range of opponents. This meant that U.S. policy makers and military leaders needed to anticipate the location and identity of their enemies. Being wrong had strategic and blood costs. Unfortunately, the United States isn’t particularly good at anticipating where its next war will be and what enemy it will face.
Another possibility is that a big State invades a small one and whoever is President at the time decides, in George H.W. Bush’s words, “This will not stand.” As a general rule, reversing conventional aggression is easier than regime change Iraq 1991 was easier than Iraq 2003. While today’s U.S. military is very different than the one used to throw Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, it could still reverse most conventional invasions if it had coalition support, forward bases and overflight rights. In some cases, the U.S. could defeat a conventional invasion even without those things. In many ways, this is the least challenging type of war that the United States might face in the future.
Other types, though, are more complex. For instance, a future American President may decide to intervene in a major conflict that is already underway, whether to end a humanitarian disaster, to prevent the use of nuclear weapons or the loss of control over them, to keep the conflict from spreading or to protect vital U.S. economic interests. In fact, several of these factors could be at play America entered World War I because it did not want to see Europe dominated by Germany, because it did not want other democracies defeated and because of the damage done by Germany’s unrestricted submarine campaign. The important characteristic of this scenario is that the enemy did not anticipate having to fight the United States when the war started. While there are not many nations willing to take on the U.S. military today, there are a number of potential conflicts that have the potential to drag the United States in. The possibility of a U.S. military intervention after a nuclear exchange is particularly frightening.
The fifth scenario is one in which a future U.S. President commits the United States to save a collapsing democracy facing civil war or military overthrow. In all likelihood, this would entail the rapid deployment of the U.S. military followed by a handover to a multinational stabilization force and some sort of U.S. training or advisory mission. Washington would certainly try to avoid involvement in combat associated with a civil war.
Then there is counter-insurgency. While President Barack Obama and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta indicated that large-scale, protracted counterinsurgency would no longer be a primary mission for the U.S. military (.pdf), this could be reversed if insurgency again became a form of proxy conflict, as it was during the Cold War, and a hostile State supported an insurgency threatening to overthrow an important U.S. ally. After all, the United States has walked away from counterinsurgency several times in the past only to have to relearn it as political conditions shift; it would be dangerous to write off counterinsurgency altogether.
The final type of war that the United States could become involved in is one to contain or remove a criminal State, whether one involved in piracy, drug trafficking, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or something else unacceptably deadly. This would not be unprecedented: America’s first major military operations outside North America were against the Barbary pirate States of North Africa. Such a war would probably not involve an invasion and occupation but could see major armed incursions by the United States, potentially including the use of ground forces. After all, history suggests that large-scale piracy only ends when the pirates lose their land bases.
Each of these six scenarios is individually unlikely, but unless the course of history has shifted, U.S. involvement in a future war somewhere against some enemy is virtually certain. The important thing is to be prepared for all scenarios, not just one or two of them. Looking across the array of potential future wars, it seems clear that the United States will need to act quickly in bringing effective military power to bear. U.S. involvement in Iraq demonstrated the costs of developing military capability on the fly. America’s future will certainly require the ability to destroy enemy military targets but also to sustain wide-area stabilization, and to quickly secure and hold key sites or facilities, potentially for months or years. And the U.S. military must be prepared for a wide array of enemies, from conventional militaries to hybrids of conventional and unconventional capability, and from terrorists and insurgents to criminal militias.
Rather than looking at conflicts that may break out in the coming months or planning for the type of conflict the military would prefer to fight, political leaders should think broadly about America’s next war as they refine the U.S. military. This will be difficult, but failure could be deadly.
(Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.)