The Next War, A Special Forces War


Photo by Spc. Daniel P. Shook

President Obama announced the new Defense Strategic Guidance last week. In follow-up remarks Secretary Panetta outlined a much smaller ground force (an Army of some 490,000 troops and Marine Corps of 175,000) but argued that under this new strategy the military would “surge, regenerate, or reverse” troop strength to meet any contingencies. Can the Pentagon really do this? It would require successfully turning what are still effectively strategic reserves into operational reserves. Turning around the “force generation” system to meet these contingencies is a big task. The other question is whether large land forces are even likely to be called on. The premise of the strategic guidance is that they won’t.

A lot of people believe that kind of thinking is dead wrong. They expect a major conflict will quickly force the reversal of cuts called for in the guidance, and they’re in good company. A year ago Robert Kagan noted that US troops have been engaged in combat in 16 of the last 22 years. The general belief among the defense intelligentsia is that the early top contender for a fight is Iran. But even if an Iran scenario came true would it really require a large US ground force? In other words, is the risk that the answer is ‘no’ a good risk to take?

Let’s look at Iran. Why even expect war? For hawks it boils down to ‘crazy theocrats can’t be reasoned with’ so either they’ll start it or we will preemptively. (For a fun exercise google “war with Iran” and count how many years experts of all stripes have been declaring it imminent.) Of course if you were to read any serious academic or journalistic book on the country you’d know that the ‘crazy Ayatollah’ trope bears little resemblance to reality. Read almost any book (to start I recommend Robin Wright’s The Iran Primer) and the take is that there’s a lot more to the Iranian regime than the Ayatollah or Ahmadinejad. In other words, there’s a broader political context surrounding the admittedly wacky and aggressive rantings of Ahmadinejad that needs to be considered.

I bring this up not to discuss Iran, per se, (I’ll save that for a later expert interview) but to highlight what I see as a remarkable inability to perceive international relations from anything other than an American perspective. [Robert Wight beat me to this conclusion with a great piece on Ron Paul of all people.] First, Iran is more than the mullahs. Blithely presuming the inevitable outbreak of a religious war displays a serious lack of understanding about the domestic reality of Iran.

Second, the larger problem with the general view of future wars is that too many civilian and military experts seem to forget that foreign policy is intimately connected to domestic policy. No serious scholar argues that Iran is an autocratic state. “Politics” happens, even in Iran; a structure of competing constituencies and institutions attempt to check each other. So knowing something about a state’s domestic policy is vitally important to understanding what it might or might not do in the foreign policy realm. On this point I’m truly mystified because I daily read complaints about how US domestic politics is affecting our own foreign and military policy. What’s so hard about recognizing that if it works this way here it does elsewhere?

Which brings me to my third point: the significance of seeing the world this way is that it blinds you to the messy reality of actual armed conflict. The future threats the US faces, the ones outlined in the new strategic guidance, are not old-fashioned clean-cut bad-state vs. good state fights. They’re not even really between states, but between state proxies (e.g. Hezbollah), other non-state actors and maybe the US. And why is that? Because the sheer cost of a state-on-state war, economic and moral, is too high for anyone but the truly insane to contemplate. Even in the two cases where the possibility most strongly exists, between Israel and Iran or on the Korean peninsula, the concept of the military campaigns on either side would be to keep it from escalating into a full-out ground war. And while Iran may be capable of vaporizing Tel Aviv, they know they’d lose their entire country in the process and still not occupy Jerusalem.

How does all this relate to the new strategic guidance? Probable conflicts likely won’t require large ground forces designed to occupy chunks of Asia. (Remember, land wars in Asia are bad ideas.) Instead, defiant states will use special forces, by which I mean a whole range of non-general purpose forces. It’s not just the US that’s beefing up the role of special forces. The largest such force is in North Korea, and the part of the Iranian regime the US rightly worries about the most is the Revolutionary Guard. And state-sponsored, but non-uniformed groups can be best understood for what they are: another kind of specialized force, often specializing in terror tactics.

At least on the ground, the next war will be a special forces war, on all sides – because political logic demands it.

In addition to the author’s own views, this forum will feature guest commentary and interviews. The views expressed are entirely those of Dr. Schmidt or his guest contributors. The views expressed in this forum are not endorsed by the US Army, the Department of Defense or the US government.

Matthew Schmidt

Dr. Matthew Schmidt is currently a dual appointee in national security and political science at the University of New Haven, where his research focuses on strategic decision-making. Previously, he taught military operations planning and political science at the U.S. Army's School of Advanced Military Studies. In 2012, he was named to Fast Company magazine's list of the top 100 Most Creative People in Business for his work linking creative design methodologies to strategic planning. His work has appeared in Military Review, Review of Politics, Demokratizatsiya and on the website of Foreign Policy. Schmidt founded the "Matters Military" online section of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. He holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Russian studies from the University of Kansas.


  • January 11, 2012

    Tom Schmidt

    While I totally agree with facts you presented and even agree with your final point that political logic demands that “the next war be a special forces war,” from my persepective not much of war through history has been particularly logical. Forces go to war for a host of reasons and many are less than logically calculated. Many have been started through miscalculation, even sheer idiocy, and the dominos just keep falling. Are we now to believe that will change in the future?

    I hope so, but to plan on that with a strategy that assumes the best case (most logical case) scenario borders on national security malpractice.

  • January 11, 2012

    Matthew Schmidt

    Full disclosure: Tom Schmidt is my much esteemed uncle and godfather.


    I didn’t mean to say that throughout history war is necessarily fought for or in a logical, that is, “rational” way. I agree that “non-logical” elements like ethnic prejudice, sheer anger, or fanaticism of whatever sort are often present. But I do believe that even these kinds of drivers have a “logic” to them – a system of reasons that make sense as explanations for why one side in the war is doing something, even if what those reasons are seem “unreasonable” to us.

    In this way I’m a Realist. I think an Ahmadinjad weighs threats and opportunities to his country and his position in it just like most statesmen. That is, he’s not so enraged by anti-Semitism that he isn’t taking into account what it would mean to his own country to actually carry out his rhetoric. Further, there are plenty of other people and institutions in Iran who have an incentive and the power to keep Ahmadinijad in check. They use him as much as he does them. And even if a war is started, I argue that there’s a common logic on all sides that, your caveat in mind, will nonetheless be a strong incentive toward keeping it a SOF war of sorts. The fact that this is common to all potential sides is what’s so interesting.

    Though I didn’t intend the piece as a comment on how to plan I don’t think it’s as easy as saying “always plan for the worst-case” (if I’m reading you right). Strategy has to ask how a military can best advantage the nation over time, not the military. Military superiority of 10X magnitude over our rivals may not be the best way to give advantage to the nation in a given era. Maybe 5X is enough. Or maybe a different force-structure is better for achieving the right kind of superiority. A worst-case only military risks no longer being an effective tool of national policy.

    But this is exactly the kind of debate we should be having, you and me (over beers?), and hopefully others.

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