This morning I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow who's in both my "History of Islam" class, and my "War on Terror" class. The young man is going into the marines after graduation, and we talked about the nature in which war is waged by this nation.
The United States, he argues, has to be ready for two kinds of war at all times. We have to have the capacity to fight at least one superpower, and so that means a strong airforce, powerful navy, and the really expensive fancy stuff that combine technology with killing power. That's the high-end, worst-case scenario army we've got to have around, for the incredibly bleak "just-in-case" scenario.
The other war we have to be ready for is the kind of war we fight. Counter-insurgency, occupations, humanitarian missions - in these, our technological superiority is a given, so we have to better protect our forces and give them more tools to outmaneuver the enemies we fight.
Of course, the US is always in a process of readying ourselves for these wars - the 1950s saw the US arm itself to fight Russia on the fields of eastern Europe, and the 1980s saw the US readying itself for a massive air war against Russia. But then we fought the other kind of war - Vietnam was initiated with forces designed for the eastern European theater, and the 1990s saw an airforce useless against small bands of gunmen. The US of course adjusted - as the wars dragged on, we readied our military to fight the war it had to fight. But then, when the war was over, we switched from a force that could fight the war to a force that could fight another kind of war. But we had to fight the first kind of war again, and the transition hurt our effectiveness. A specific example - in Vietnam, our army was well-equipped for fighting along rivers, and we had what my classmate termed "a brown-water navy". This navy was then decommissioned and dismantled, leaving us in a position today where we have brown-water military needs (river patrols on the Tigris and Euphrates, fighting piracy on the coast of Somalia), but no brown-water capability.
My classmate argued for double-redundancy. We store the vast reserves of our military resources, and after a war of counter-insurgency, we keep our forces on superpower war alert. The costs here are only in storage and updating equipment - no wheels need reinventing, and we retain the military capacity we need during peacetime.
It's not a bad plan, but then I brought up the nuclear arsenals our country keeps. We discussed this for a while, and then had to part for class before I could make my argument.
I've argued on this blog before that having a nuclear weapon stockpile is a cheaper alternative to fighting big, costly, conventional wars. Of course, the United States still fights conventional wars - Iraq in 1990 is a good example of a recent one. But then, the United States transitions into fighting counter-insurgencies (more or less every other war we've fought over the past fifteen years). With the military's present emphasis on conventional superiority, the conventional war part doesn't last that long, and that's fine. That part sucks. But counter-insurgencies are also unpleasant, and by necessity take much longer. And our emphasis on the conventional aspect of war leaves us in a state of unreadiness when our armed forces switch over to police and counter-insurgents. And this is a problem we repeatedly find ourselves in.
My classmate's solution, as outlined above, is to keep a double redundancy of military forces. This way, we always have what we need, and can switch roles.
But my thinking is this - if the United States gets involved in a superpower war, it will go nuclear. It will go nuclear sooner rather than later, and it will go nuclear as soon as it looks like one side is doing better conventionally. And once the war has gone nuclear, everything else doesn't matter.
And that's well and good - if nuclear war was not the worst of all outcomes, it wouldn't be the strong deterrent that it is today. We need that. We absolutely need that horror waiting as a way of keeping us sane enough to not risk it.
But what we don't need, so much at least, is an army to fight a superpower war. We need some of that force, certainly, and the production capacity to make a conventional military on a large scale when the need arises. But we don't need to be able to fight that kind of war immediately, and I would argue we hardly need any new capacity to fight that war at all.
Nuclear weaponry cannot allow for a cheaper military if it doesn't actually replace anything. Nukes have to be allowed to take the place of a carrier group or two. They have to stand in for divisions and for bomber wings. And they can, provided we are dealing with nations. Nations still act under rules like Mutually Assured Destruction, and cold-war formulations. The situations where people ignore these constraints (terrorists, non-state actors) are the situations where a military aimed at counter-insurgency can flourish.