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Revising the American Way of War Pt 1

November 23, 2009

Certainly the old Industrial Warfare, often called “The American Way of War” has reached its limits in this new century. The 3rd Generation Warfare ideas of mass armies, navies, and air forces dominated the tactics of the last century but appears now to have met their match in the face of the Third World Hybrid Warrior, the 4th Generation Revolutionary. Every nation, rebel group, even social movements which has adopted these principles of bluff, propaganda, and fanatical devotion have prospered over more conservative ideas from traditional governments attempting to hold up well established societies born out of the Reformation.

There are few greater evidences than the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, consuming the past several decades and threatening to extend into another. Costs have been estimated up to $3 Trillion for the wars, with the budget of the terrorists who started the conflict being ever so frugal. Despite the immense burden placed on America’s economy, industry, and lifestyle, it is not certain we are winning. At best, we could say they we are holding our own against an insurgency who dwells in caves and huts, surviving off the charity, or the fear of others.

When it was cost efficient, the Industrial Warfare, or Total War was adequate for the needs of rising Great Powers. Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as “Military conflict in which the contenders mobilize all of their civilian and military resources in order to obtain a complete victory.” Mass use of force was usually against other states, or rebel groups controlling certain portions of a state, who were less industrialized but more devoted, often better led, with better individual troops. The pattern of this type of warfare rarely varied, and can be roughly summed up like so:

  1. Larger, richer power with greater number of troops would suffer catastrophic battlefield defeat initially in a conflict.
  2. The victorious smaller army would enjoy a string of battlefield or naval victories, though never actually bringing the larger power to terms.
  3. At terrific cost to men and matériel, the large power would win a series of exhaustive battles that would temper the smaller’s run of luck, then begin gradually to throw the latter back from conquered terrain.
  4. In the last stages of the conflict, the larger state’s greater industry, manpower and natural resources would kick into high gear, with a slow but steady march of armies into enemy territory, the latter paying a desperate price for every inch of territory.
  5. The outcome soon became inevitable, and with the last of the smaller power’s forces destroyed and his territory occupied, there was almost a collective sigh of relief, instead of the glorious victory hoped for in the early stages of the conflict.

A brutal costly business, this Total War, but it worked for its time. Against lesser, more nimble powers the industrial giants always triumphed, examples being the Northern Union against the Southern Confederacy, the Triple Alliance defeating Paraguay, the British versus the Boers, the British French, Americans, and Russian against the Germans (twice), America, China, and Britain versus Japan. More recently, we see the same type of wars of attrition with the Sri Lankan Federal Government fighting to the end to destroy the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) terrorist organizations’ stranglehold on several of the island’s provinces. The latter was also mixed with new elements of the terrorist suicide bomber, but fanaticism of all types in this kind of savage campaign is nothing new.

After World War 2, the first cracks were seen in the American Way of War. Though arguably victorious, and “never defeated on the battlefield”, America’s recent victories have only come at immense cost of life on the enemy’s side, but economically on our own. In other words, though battlefield casualties are practically negligible compared to often a single battle of the Civil War or the World Wars, there is a price to pay when an economy survives mainly by producing government sponsored weapons, as the old Soviet Union learned. Then there is an even greater crisis of conscience that has invaded every aspect of our society.

 In Korea, a draw, in Vietnam, a retreat, despite possessing overwhelming military, industry and manpower. The 2 astounding blitzkriegs (1991, 2003) on Saddam Hussein, with the “world’s fourth largest army” might have been all the more glorious, save for the fact that tiny Israel has been running roughshod over more numerous and often better equipped Arab armies for decades. We might also learned further lessons from the Jews that fighting the Arabs on their own terms, in insurgency warfare, isn’t so much of a picnic.

There has definitely been a revolution in warfare in the past 2 decades, but the Pentagon would have you believe this has been led by Industrial Age vehicles updated to fight in a new age. Thus, getting most of the headlines were superfighters, stealth bombers, supercarriers, nuclear submarines, and the monolithic M-1 tanks. However, one must take into account the poor quaility of the enemy. Saddam’s forces were already worn from a decade long conflict with Iran plus numerous trade embargoes afterward by 2003, leading to the conclusion that using updated versions of previous generations of weapons like the M-60 tank, the F-5  fighters, light carriers, more light troops like the 10th Mountain or 82nd Airborne divisions, along with new smart bombs, the outcome would have been the same. Only there would have been less of the astronomical costs or the forbidding logistical headaches. Far less.


There are three main obstacles to reforming weapon’s procurement in modern militaries:

  • Conventional Weapons appear more useful-There is nothing more useful in modern warfare than the giant aircraft carrier. In this it has become much like the battleship of the World Wars, whose heir as fleet capital ship it has become. Despite the proven vulnerability of battleships after Taranto and Pearl Harbor, they soldiered on in numerous conflicts, as important and visible as ever. The last battleship versus battleship fight occurred as late as 1944, and there were more such instances (9) throughout the war than carrier versus carrier(5) fights. The battleship especially excelled at expeditionary amphibious warfare, applying the firepower of its 12 inch to 16 inch guns against shore targets. Interestingly, the primary justification for large decks in recent years has been its usability against land targets. Yet, despite their extreme utility, they were quickly discarded after the war, failing to posses the range or versatility of what prewar seemed only a minor threat, the manned fighter bomber. Today, the aircraft carrier, suffering from many of the same cost concerns and vulnerability questions as the former capital ships, faces a like rival in the guided missile.
  • Conventional Vehicles appear more survivable. Size gives the impression of power and presence, especially with the modern main battle tank. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between the Arab Powers and Israel, the vulnerability of heavy armor to modern anti-tank weapons (ATGMs) became drastically real. The solution seemed naturally to increase the armor protection of the tank, which in turn caused the size of vehicles and cost to rise accordingly. Modern land ships like the M-1 Abrams are huge, incredibly costly to operate and extremely visible on the battlefield. It has been much easier to increase the penetrating power of ATGMs in response than to replace the Abrams, with no such program currently in sight.
  • There are no other Alternatives-The reason questionable and very expensive weapons systems stay in production so long, is the Defense officials see no other alternatives. Currently several Western fighter programs are in the works, many suffering from development problems and all from cost overruns, despite being less capable in many respects to the aircraft they are replacing.  So we seem resigned to spending vast sums on increasingly mediocre platforms, claiming, we have no choice, or the program is “too big to fail”.


26 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2015 3:35 am

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  2. November 25, 2009 5:05 pm

    “Designing, building and integrating all of these systems is time consuming and expensive.”

    I have extensive knowledge of systems integration.

    “The tumblehome has a composite deckhouse and flush sensors, and uses an integrated electric propulsion system.”

    I think Nelson would have recognised tumblehome…………..
    I think the aircraft industry have been using composites for a decade or three…..
    I think the Arleigh Burke has flush sensors………
    And integrated electric propulsion well that might have been a new a decade ago or so……………

    “The DDG-1000 also has a completely new gun system (AGS), computing environment, radars, sonars, communications, and new VLS cell designs. There’s really not much that isn’t new.”

    AGS nothing new in 6in guns or shell handling………….
    A have looked at the new VLS cells. Um they are VLS cells……….

    I will give you that electronic systems are problematic. But if less time and money were spent redesigning the wheel there would be more money (and therefore effort) put into integrating these vital systems.

    I think you are suffering Americanism Shipdesignisum. When the Ohio boats were designed each facet of the missile hatch had its own production manager. On the Vanguards at VSEL one guy did the whole hatch plus most of the engineering on the tube………..

    For what its worth I sincerely do hope that the DG-1000 are success even though they are now a dead end.

    They should put us lot in charge of US/RN ship design…….. ;)

    Thanks for the banter.

  3. B.Smitty permalink
    November 25, 2009 2:41 pm


    Just look at two new USN programs: the DDG-1000 and LCS. Right there you have three non-traditional warship hull forms (low observable tumblehome, planning monohull and trimaran). The tumblehome has a composite deckhouse and flush sensors, and uses an integrated electric propulsion system. The other two are capable of 40+kts.

    These weren’t “off the shelf” designs.

    The DDG-1000 also has a completely new gun system (AGS), computing environment, radars, sonars, communications, and new VLS cell designs. There’s really not much that isn’t new.

    The DDG-1000 also uses new survivability concepts like total ship Low Observables (RF, IR, acoustic), peripheral VLS systems and a new automated firefighting system.

    Designing, building and integrating all of these systems is time consuming and expensive.

  4. November 24, 2009 1:17 pm

    “x, there’s a lot of R&D that goes in to advanced combat systems, hull design, and new survivability concepts.”

    Yes I am very aware of that. But lets take a look at those elements you have selected.

    Hull Design) The nature of water is pretty constant; well within the effects of salinity and temperature. In times past successful hulls were copied to save development time. Computer models for emulating hulls in water are quite advanced these days. Scaling a design to fit your requirements should be no more difficult than changing a value in a cell on spread sheet.

    Most of the time designers know what has to go in to the hull before they sit down in the front of the computer. We need a VLS, we are using that radar, this gun, that helicopter etc. Large components that have known dimensions and weight. We know how quick the hull needs to be pushed. A first rate escort in the region of 30kts top speed; patrol frigate for arguments sake let say 25kts tops. This will dictate engines, bunkers. These days with the move to podded propulsion and all electric drives we don’t even have to worry about shafts.

    Survivability concepts) Watertight compartments and sprinklers? The former is as old as steel ships; though double bulkheads as found on German ships should be more common IMHO. The latter common in merchant men and becoming more and more common in warships. I think these will take care of survivability unless the Chinese Navy start to field LAZER canon. I think the lessons o f the Falklands War still dictate DC now; simple lessons like damming to stop free surface effect.

    Advanced combat systems; All combat systems are advanced at inception. A big enough hull, ever more potent electronics, requiring less electric should impact that much on a hull suitability for upgrading. Lets say the US replaces SPY1 whatever replaces will still need its phased arrays placed in the same positions as the current system to provide 360 coverage. Moving from a mechanical system like the T45 Sampson to phase array may present problems. But then again electronics are getting smaller………

    Sorry if that is rushed. I do make generalised statements. But they aren’t thoughtless ones.

    Of course submarines are a total different kettle of fish…….or are they? :)

  5. B.Smitty permalink
    November 24, 2009 11:50 am

    x, there’s a lot of R&D that goes in to advanced combat systems, hull design, and new survivability concepts.

  6. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 24, 2009 11:35 am

    “would drive the USN to build ships with 10-15 year projected service lives”

    Actually I think it is the high end that ages most rapidly. Simple ships can continue to perform simple tasks for extremely long lives. The Coast Guard 378s are 10 years older than the FFG-7s, they are over due, but they are still performing their function. The 210 ft WMECs are even older, and because they are even simpler they are if anything performing better. The 327 ft cutters lasted almost 50 years. B-52s which are now essentially bomb truck may keep going 100 years after the initial flight.

    By contrast the high end needs to be updated constantly.

  7. November 24, 2009 11:25 am

    ““would drive the USN to build ships with 10-15 year projected service lives”

    Car models get revamped with increasing frequency, why not ships? What I don’t understand is why ships take so long to design in this modern computerised age.

    It times past one of the limiting factors on design time was the number of draughtsmen needed. Surely that isn’t an issue. Routing pipes and cables? As we all know there are lots of them in a ship but compared to the plumbing in a microchip there is nothing. And chips are mostly laid out by computers. And it shouldn’t be to much a problem with virtual models anyway. And similarly for hydrodynamic matters. Hulls, knuckles, breakwaters, whatever could always be easily placed. I am stopping this is turning into a rant-ramble…… :)

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 24, 2009 7:48 am

    “would drive the USN to build ships with 10-15 year projected service lives”

    I disagree, since the Perry’s have been with us close to 30 years now. But what if it does? This takes into account that certain platforms are obsolete and keeps forces modernize for future threats. Often the price to refit and update a warship usually matches its original costs, as with the recent plans for the USS Enterprise.

    As for small ships and frigates, I see no problem with a decade or two of service. This is how the Royal Navy operates, with frigates often replaced after a very short lifespan. America only keeps ancient warships in service to keep numbers up at the insistence of Congress, but I think we can do better if we cease building only exquisite warships and bring back practicality to procurement.

  9. November 24, 2009 6:36 am

    “That is all good, but I think it more complicated than that. You need to know how to end it. Who will continue the fight after our forces are gone? Develop countervailing forces and institutions that will prevent this “infection” from reoccurring.”

    Wars are best fought for limited well defined aims with the support of the people. The people just need to realise that military action means casualties.

  10. B. Walthrop permalink
    November 24, 2009 6:12 am

    There is no such thing as a $10 IED that can take out a M1A1, Humvee, MTVR, M-88, or my BMW 300 SUV.

    Mike B says:

    “The reason for I’m calling for low cost platforms is to get us in the habit of building cheap but good enough weaponry, so the boots on the ground won’t be constantly distracted patching up ancient platforms which their fathers, even grandfathers drove, and concern themselves more with fighting the enemy. Making warfare less complicated is the goal, though fighting is never easy.”

    I think that the cognitive dissonance between first sentence and the last sentence is astounding (specifically related to shipbuilding). Taken to it’s natural conclusion this seeming innocuous statement would drive the USN to build ships with 10-15 year projected service lives. Think about it, and then see if this is serious commentary or something else entirely.


  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 24, 2009 4:47 am

    Graham, we just have to learn to fight these Third World conflicts more economically. The old ways of doing things no longer work, it they ever did.

  12. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 24, 2009 2:35 am


    As usual, agreed. If a $10 IED can take out a $2 million dollar tank, we need to think about how we fight. Someone has to pay for this stuff.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 23, 2009 9:28 pm

    Hudson said “However, just to shuffle the deck, the idea of total war is not new.”

    Absolutely, couldn’t agree more. The only difference today is the scope and the cost of war, unlike anything seen in history. I think this is what really makes Modern Total War stand out. The terminology really means nothing.

    Chuck wrote “Not sure the solution is platform dependent.”
    Again no argument. the reason for I’m calling for low cost platforms is to get us in the habit of building cheap but good enough weaponry, so the boots on the ground won’t be constantly distracted patching up ancient platforms which their fathers, even grandfathers drove, and concern themselves more with fighting the enemy. Making warfare less complicated is the goal, though fighting is never easy.

  14. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 23, 2009 9:16 pm


    Excellent points. I fully concur. Spec Ops forces are much better trained to fight asymmetrically then regular troops. They’re usually a little older, smarter & used to thinking out of the box then regular troops. That was kinda my point about the Wrath of God operation. The Israelis used elite troops, spies, imagination & HUMINT to beat the PLO leadership down with limited resources & few civilian casualties.

    I also agree wholeheartedly with your point that we MUST HAVE EXIT STRATEGIES & ENDGAME SCENARIOS. I mean, for God’s sake, the US has a serious problem getting out of wars even when we win them. We still have troops in Germany & Japan! And Korea! And…everywhere. About 500,000 troops worldwide. Korea, I sorta understand…but Germany? We simply can’t afford to base our people everywhere, fight two losing wars & lose multi-million dollar weapon systems to $10 IEDs. An Abrams costs about $2-$8 million a copy, depending on sources. They’re hard to kill, but you still have to pay to fix them. Every troop in Afghanistan costs $500,000 to $1 million a year. Every gallon of gasoline we send costs $400. Our supply lines are over-extended & our troops are exhausted, demoralized & come home traumatized.

    Eisenhower was a great general in large part because he understood logistics, the economy of war, military history. We could use Ike about now.

    I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the Islamic extremists are bleeding us out exactly the way they bled the Russians in Afhghanistan…using lessons we taught them!

    Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

  15. Paul permalink
    November 23, 2009 9:03 pm

    Wow those Chinese ship pictures are impressive. How come they get to build whatever they want and all we get are a bunch of desert trucks?

  16. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 23, 2009 7:31 pm


    That is all good, but I think it more complicated than that. You need to know how to end it. Who will continue the fight after our forces are gone? Develop countervailing forces and institutions that will prevent this “infection” from reoccurring.

  17. November 23, 2009 6:17 pm

    It is even simpler. Educate your people that military ventures mean lives will be lost. Robust ROE. And putting your people before others.

  18. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 23, 2009 6:03 pm

    Not sure the solution is platform dependent. Spec forces helping our enemies’ enemies is the right way to go. We have been hurt more by our over reaction to 9/11 than we ever were by the act itself.

    You have to look at it as a return on investment equation. The Brits did it for years, working the margins, financing the efforts of those that also opposed their enemies. They prospered and bleed their enemies dry. And yes, even insurgent groups have their own expenses, and they make enemies.

    Of course the strategy goes back a long way. When the Thebans permanently crippled the power of Sparta and turned what had been a military powerhouse into a quaint tourist attraction, they did not even enter Sparta, that might have been disastrous. They did it by freeing the helots, Greek slaves who were the basis of the Spartan economy, and helping them to defend themselves.

  19. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 23, 2009 5:52 pm

    @Hudson: This is a tangent, I’ve seen that killer wasp video. Believe the name is the Japanese Giant Wasp. Their as long as your thumb, can spray venom & aside from massacring bees by the 10s of thousand, they’re also responsible for about 40 human deaths a year. These bugs kill more people then great white sharks, and possibly more painfully.

    Chimp troops, incidentally, also practice organized warfare against other chimp troops. When they’re not busy ripping people’s faces off, of course.

  20. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 23, 2009 5:46 pm


    For some reason this post brings to mind one of the West’s few sucessful asymmetric military campaigns against a non-governmental entity: Israel’s post-Munic hit campaign on the PLO (“Wrath of God”, I believe was the name. By applying a succession of small but deadly raids & targeted mafia-style assassinations against key PLO leaders, Israel rather effectively neutered the PLO & Arafat. Good intelligence, creative tactics and discipline quite effectively terrorized the terrorists. This had the practical (and moral) benefit of greatly limiting civilian casualties, thus stealing any chance the PLO had of winning the media war. With one or two exceptions, Israeli operatives and soldiers also did a very good job of vanishing after their strikes. Not only did this make the strikes & assassinations that much scarier, it provided Israel with plausible deniability.

  21. Hudson permalink
    November 23, 2009 5:08 pm

    To respond to the substance of the post:

    This is a good, succinct essay on the evolution of modern warfare (a term that has been with us for some time.) The total war waged by the great powers in WWII ran up against the supreme prohibition of crossing the line into nuclear apocalypse. So most of the larger post WWII conflicts have been client state conflicts, with the US and USSR pulling the puppet strings. For some of the clients like Israel, the battles have been all services existential fights. Now we are engaged in the hybrid wars mentioned, where the enemy don’t wear uniforms and blend in with the civilian populations, causing great expense and consternation among the powers trying to defeat these insurgents.

    In Gulf War II, we saw the entire evolution of war from state to state, to guerilla and factional conflict, very messy, but the U.S. might well have pulled this one out—maybe. Today in Afghanistan, special ops are supplying local tribes already at war with the Taliban, with ammo, etc. So that our un-uniformed allies battle their un-uniformed enemies, and both sides can see each other in the dark.

    However, just to shuffle the deck, the idea of total war is not new. Biblical armies practiced total warfare. In destroying Carthage, for instance, after burning the city, taking slaves and killing the rest, plowing salt into the soil, Roman priests hailed the Carthaginian gods into the Roman Pantheon. Whereas Hiroshima came back after three decades, ancient Carthage is a memory and a few old stones. The Maccabees waged classical guerilla warfare against Rome.

    Even animals practice total war. One of the most chilling videos I’ve ever seen was of some kind of super wasps or hornets stationed outside a honey bee hive, decapitating the bees as they filed out to defend the hive. A few of these super wasps destroyed the entire hive of 50,000 bees. Let’s hope we can stay with the limited variety of conflict.

  22. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 23, 2009 2:26 pm


    Pictures needed? Try the Bluffer’s Guides series by Planeman. I’ve included his index page link at Three other links follow.

    Bluffer’s Guides: Index

    *THE* Harrier Carrier Thread

    Large aircraft carriers compared

    Chinese Type-054A Frigate compared

  23. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 23, 2009 1:40 pm

    “Mike, where’s the picture?”

    I got carried away with the text and didn’t have time to search!

  24. Joe permalink
    November 23, 2009 12:01 pm

    @ Hudson – Tsk, tsk. It’s called “centerfold”, ya know. And what, you don’t peruse for the sake of the interesting articles?!?

    @Mike – Another Joe once said that quantity has a quality all its own. He never said much worth remembering, but that one kind of sticks.

  25. Hudson permalink
    November 23, 2009 11:44 am

    Mike, where’s the picture? Without a picture, we can’t function properly.


  1. Byzantine Lessons in Hybrid War Pt 2 « New Wars

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