Challenges of the 21st-century battlefield

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Today's paradigm of battle and combat operations is completely different from what I experienced in 1982 when I was commissioned as a young Lieutenant in the United States Army. At that time, the battlefield was much simpler.

In broad strokes, there was the Soviet Union on one side and the United States on the other. We were familiar with their tactics and equipment, and they with ours. Both sides wore uniforms, and every now and then we would stage war games on border control missions. However, that paradigm has completely disappeared, leaving in its place an asymmetrical battlefield with non-uniformed, non-state belligerents using unconventional weapons and tactics.  If the United States of America is going to be successful in protecting its citizens and interests, we must quickly understand and adapt to this new battlefield, and be prepared for success and victory.

How do we understand the complexities of this global conflagration in which we are engaged, and how do we make the necessary changes? With the appropriate strategic level perspective, we will never lose at the tactical level on the ground, because the United States has the best soldiers, sailors, marines and coastguardsmen the world has ever known. But without the correct strategic and operational goals at the tactical level, we will find ourselves on the proverbial hamster wheel. No matter how much effort we exert on the wheel, we will not make forward progress.

To begin with, we must correctly identify our enemy. It is frankly naïve to say we are at war with "terror" because a nation cannot be at war with a tactic. Imagine, if during World War II, the United States went to war against the "blitzkrieg" or the "kamikaze."  Further, we cannot narrowly define the enemy as simply Al Qaeda or the Taliban. It is just as ridiculous to say we declared war against the 12th German Panzer Division or the 55th Japanese Infantry Regiment.

Before the rise of Al Qaeda, the terrorist group which had inflicted the most damage on the United States was Hezbollah. Now Hezbollah has become a very capable military force, albeit one without state or uniform –- so capable in fact, they have armed missiles within striking distance of every city in Israel.

The Obama Administration has failed to identify Hezbollah as an enemy. On this 21st Century Battlefield we are not fighting against a single organization, a single leader, or a single nation. We are fighting against the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism, which knows no country and recognizes no borders.

Until we, as a nation, are able to correctly and openly identify our enemy, we will continue to put our men and women on the ground in harm's way without a clear mission for success. Once we have identified the enemy, we must ensure we have clearly identified the specific strategic level objectives to effectively fight. I believe there are four.

1.       Deny the enemy sanctuary. The number one asset our military has is strategic mobility.  When that is curtailed by a focus on nation-building or occupation-style warfare, we eliminate our primary advantage, and worse, our military forces become targets. Because this enemy has no respect for borders or boundaries, we must be willing to take the fight directly to him.

2.       Cut off the enemy's flow of men, material and resources. We have to interdict the enemy's flow of resources in order to prevent the ability to fund, supply and replenish his ranks.

3.       Win the information war. Unfortunately, the enemy is far more adept at exploiting the power of the internet, broadcast media and dissemination of powerful imagery. In addition, I fear our media now sees itself as an ideological political wing. If we cannot fully utilize our own national informational power as an asset, will lose the battle, if not our county.

4.       Cordon off the enemy and reduce his sphere of influence. We must shrink the enemy's territory but we are not being effective. We are allowing, if not welcoming, the enemy into the United States. What happened with Major Nidal Hasan should not have happened in this country. We must not turn a blind eye to a very bold enemy who is telling us exactly what he wants to do and willing to bring the battle to our doorsteps.

We must recognize Afghanistan and Iraq are not wars, but combat theaters of operation. It is up to our elected leaders and our strategic level military officials to identify and agree on the correct strategic goals and objectives in order to be successful on these battlefields, and others.

Beyond identifying the enemy and defining our objectives in kinetic battle, we must also understand and recognize the truly non-kinetic conflicts of the 21st Century Battlefield. One need only review the collapse of the Soviet Union to understand great nations can be toppled economically as well as militarily. In fact one country paid particularly close attention to the fall of the Soviet Union: China. 

Currently the United States is providing a great economic advantage to China, including a trade surplus and ownership of nearly 30% of our debt.  But we must recognize China is not using that advantage to improve the standard living of its citizens. Instead, and of great concern, China is taking its economic advantage to the 21st Century Battlefield.

Within ten years, the world's largest blue water navy will fly under a Chinese flag. Why is that important? Because no matter how technology changes in the future the Earth's surface is still 70 percent water.  All of the world's greatest civilizations --  from the Phoenicians to the Romans, to the Spanish, Dutch, English, or the Japanese –- all understood the power and the reach of a nation is not extended through a great army, but through a powerful navy.  In 1990, the United States possessed 570 naval war vessels. Today we have 285. If we cannot protect the sea lanes of commerce, we leave ourselves vulnerable not just militarily, but economically.

Another key factor for success on the 21st Century Battlefield is energy independence. The Department of Energy was created in 1977 with one mission: to make the United States of America energy independent. We have obviously not yet succeeded, and if we do not recognize countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela can and will use energy resources as a weapon on this 21st century battlefield, we do so at our peril. If there is ever a time when we, the United States of America, should commit ourselves to being energy independent, the time is now.

We must develop the full spectrum of energy resources we have at our disposal. We must not hamper our ability to reach our significant oil, coal and natural gas reserves. We must develop our nuclear capability, and continue to look for cost-effective bio-fuel, wind and solar energy solutions. 

In closing, if we miss this opportunity to recognize the 21st Century Battlefield for what it truly is, understand the threats, and have a strategic vision for victory, we will lose the opportunity to ensure we protect America for the future, for our children and our grandchildren.

As a country we must roll up our sleeves and devise a road map for our national security that clearly identifies the threats, and lays out precise, measurable goals and objectives. We must be mindful of the wise words compiled by Sun Tzu in the Art of War more than 25 centuries ago, "to know your enemy and to know yourself and to know the environment and countless amounts of battles, you will always be victorious." If we do not understand this simple maxim, we face dark days ahead indeed.

But these days of darkness would cover not only the United States of America, but potentially the entire world. Because no matter what our detractors may say, we are that beacon, we are that light house, we are, as Ronald Reagan said, "the shining city that sits upon a hill." For the sake of our nation, and of all nations who seek freedom for their citizens, we must clearly identify the 21st Century Battlefield, and ensure we are victorious upon it.   

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