#Reviewing The Future of Land Warfare:

What happens if we bet too heavily on unmanned systems, cyber warfare, and special operations in our defense?

Legged Squad Support System. Today’s dismounted warfighter can be saddled with more than 100 pounds of gear, resulting in physical strain, fatigue and degraded performance. Reducing the load on dismounted warfighters has become a major point of emphasis for defense research and development, because the increasing weight of individual equipment has a negative impact on warfighter readiness.. Photo courtesy Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The Future of Land Warfare. Michael E. O’Hanlon. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 2015.

“Fatigued by Iraq and Afghanistan, rightly impressed by the capabilities of U.S. special forces, transfixed by the arrival of new technologies such as drones, and increasingly preoccupied with rising China and its military progress in domains ranging from space to missile force to maritime operations, the American strategic community has largely turned away from thinking about ground combat.” — Michael O’Hanlon

The question used in the title is the hook line the Brookings Institute uses to introduce Michael O’Hanlon’s book The Future of Land Warfare. O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institute national security analyst and director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence pushes beyond the typical Department of Defense Five Year Plan to look at what threats the U.S. may encounter and how the U.S. could counter them. He asserts that though technology will be an important element in future warfare, it will “not radically change how forces are sized and structured for most ground combat missions.”

O’Hanlon points out that after each major conflict, strategists have attempted to redefine the military based on the last war while futurists attempt to define it against what might happen in the next.

O’Hanlon begins the discussion where the Department of Defense left off when its focus shifted from Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) to fight the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in addition to the other smaller conflicts. O’Hanlon points out that after each major conflict, strategists have attempted to redefine the military based on the last war while futurists attempt to define it against what might happen in the next. However, he expounds that the futurists are often wrong!

O’Hanlon establishes the range of analysis as “roughly 2020 through 2040” which takes it beyond the Five Year Planning cycle and the budget appropriation processes but within what he describes as “not so far off as to be disconnected from current policymaking.” It is extremely difficult to establish what group or nation may arise as a threat to the U.S., however, O’Hanlon attempts to look at the world and provide the reader with an idea of what might be the future threat. In doing so, the reader sees how quickly world affairs shift and why the U.S. must maintain a flexible force to counter the unexpected.

Throughout the Cold War, Russia and its satellite states were the prime drivers of U.S. military acquisition, organization, and warfare doctrine. O’Hanlon proffers four scenarios regarding Russia. The first would involve Russia’s modernization of its military that he describes as having started in 2010 and the emergence of a “confident and stable Russia.” He further argues that another avenue for Russia includes a minimalist posture of doing less in global affairs. Thirdly, a “Reganov Russia” as a status quo power; and lastly, the emergence of a Russia feeling besieged to the point that it acts to “pursue opportunities for expansion or at least reestablishment of a strong sphere of influence…” What is missing is the idea that Putin would move forces into the Middle East to support its long-term interests in Syria.

“Modern war is becoming increasingly lethal and thus unforgiving to the unprepared, but it is not making ground combat irrelevant or obsolete.”

The U.S. military often drives technological innovation and the question arises whether “…Robotics, high technology standoff weapons, and new technologies in space and cyber realms [will] change ground warfare radically?” Regardless of the technology, O’Hanlon argues, “Modern war is becoming increasingly lethal and thus unforgiving to the unprepared, but it is not making ground combat irrelevant or obsolete.” America has enjoyed technological supremacy in the most recent wars, however, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work offers that, “…our technological superiority is slipping. We see it every day,” and Steve Metz of the U.S. Army War College argues, “…possible adversaries are increasing defense spending while many of America’s most important allies are slashing theirs.”

Futurists may argue that land warfare in the future will consist of armies of robots and drones with fewer and fewer soldiers on the actual battlefield. However, “…most countries do not seem to consider land warfare obsolete” and 75 percent of the world’s militaries are ground forces. A unique idea that O’Hanlon argues is, “Ownership or control of a given piece of land may turn out to be less important.” It may not be the political topography that is important in the future, but the adjacent waters that may be claimed under the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea. This idea is currently playing out in the South China Sea where China is constructing defensive islands on shoals and small islets. O’Hanlon suggests this concept could also emerge in the Black or Mediterranean Seas, or even the Indian Ocean:

“Trying to look two to three decades into the future, the situation could change…There are too many possibilities, and some seemingly remote or improbable scenarios could become all too real in the future.”

O’Hanlon’s discussion of the issues facing the U.S. in regards to land warfare are timely as the current and next administration will have to restructure the Department of Defense within budget constraints and the need for new technology to meet the enduring as well as emerging threats that cannot be predicted in the near term. As a strategist, The Future of Land Warfare is a good companion book to read along with the recently released service strategic plans that have been submitted to the administration.


Dave Mattingly is a writer and national security consultant. He retired from the U.S. Navy with over thirty years of service. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, NETGALLEY Challenge 2015 and a NETGALLEY Professional Reader.


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