Mark Helprin, meet John Arquilla. Helprin is a gifted novelist who, in his spare time, offers strategic commentary. Arquilla is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who coined the term “net war” and has become an influential strategist. They have just published articles with diametrically opposing — and equally wrong-headed — messages.
Helprin in the Wall Street Journal bemoans our having “recalibrated the armed forces to deal with perhaps a division’s worth of fluid irregulars worldwide, thus granting China, Russia, and Iran military holidays in which to redirect the balance of power.” He thinks we are losing conventional-combat power and warns of dire consequences: “This year, the Air Force will keep 150 fighters in all of Europe, as at one time, while it declined but before it burned, Rome kept only a shadow of legions upon the Rhine and Danube.” Really? The U.S. will fall like the Roman Empire did because we don’t have enough fighter aircraft in Europe? Helprin thinks so, and demands that the F-22 production line be restarted, even though we have another ultra-modern aircraft, the F-35, in the pipeline. The large picture he misses is that we spend as much on defense as the rest of the world combined; our edge can’t be taken for granted but it won’t disappear soon either.
Arquilla, by contrast, thinks the U.S. military remains too conventional. His preferred analogy is not to Rome but rather to World War I: “When militaries don’t keep up with the pace of change, countries suffer. In World War I, the failure to grasp the implications of mass production led not only to senseless slaughter, but also to the end of great empires and the bankruptcy of others.” Today, he argues in Foreign Policy, the U.S. Navy is spending too much on surface warfare ships “whose aluminum superstructures will likely burn to the waterline if hit by a single missile”; the Army, on “a grab bag of new weapons, vehicles, and communications gadgets now seen by its own proponents as almost completely unworkable for the kind of military operations that land forces will be undertaking in the years ahead”; and the Air Force, on “extremely advanced and extremely expensive fighter aircraft — despite losing only one fighter plane to an enemy fighter in nearly 40 years.”
His solution is a radical one: cut defense spending by 10 percent a year, declare “a moratorium … on all legacy-like systems (think aircraft carriers, other big ships, advanced fighters, tanks, etc.),” and cut military manpower (more than 2 million serve today) by two thirds. “The model for military intervention,” he writes, “would be the 200 Special Forces ‘horse soldiers’ who beat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan late in 2001. Such teams would deploy quickly and lethally, with ample reserves for relieving ‘first waves’ and dealing with other crises.”
Give Arquilla props for “out of the box” thinking — as well as for demonstrating why it usually makes sense to stay in the box. The “Afghan model” he cites has been found wanting since 2001 — a few Special Forces troopers could help overthrow the Taliban but couldn’t keep them down. That requires dispatching lots of more troops, which is what President Obama is wisely doing today. Likewise, the projection of U.S. power around the world requires more, not fewer, soldiers. And I wouldn’t be so quick to junk the “legacy weapons system,” which for years to come will give us an invaluable edge over potential adversaries. Helprin goes too far in the other direction, however, by focusing exclusively on the F-22 and its ilk while ignoring developments in robotics (more advanced unmanned aircraft) and the need for effective counterinsurgency forces.
As usual, between the two extremes they represent — extreme unconventionality and extreme conventionality — the truth lies somewhere in the middle.