So, About that Next Wave: Planning for the Next War

Forget the enemy: can we overcome ourselves?

The new hotness these days is large scale combat operations – or LSCO, for short, just because. Well, I should say, the new hotness other than cyber or Space Force. LSCO is supposed to be all about reorienting the Army to its roots. Back to the good ol’ days of the world wars, where divisions maneuvered and generals basked in the glory of casualty figures in the hundreds of thousands.

But seriously.

We should take LSCO seriously because people who advise the President and Congress on how to make war are taking LSCO seriously. So, yeah – let’s get on board with divisions as the unit of action and a return to maneuver warfare. Only, we’ve got just eighteen divisions to work with. Compared to 91 in WWII and even over forty during WWI. That seems…less than optimal – that is, if we can even get those divisions some place to fight, which is a whole other story told by the Air Force and Navy.

In all this talk about LSCO, whether it be war with Russia, China, or some other partner – er, enemy – as yet to be named, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and even Marine Corps have all made their claims to importance. Which is in the grand tradition of every branch fighting tooth and claw for what they can get. Far be it from me to stand in the way of that, but in the midst of all the conversation about cyber attacks, hyper-sonic missiles, and fleet actions, pretty much every branch has remained mysteriously silent on the one constant that played a major role in our last LSCO experiments: the draft.

Oh yeah, that’s right, I said it. The dreaded d-word. It’s right up there with “nationalizing industry” as the words that the Department of Defense really doesn’t want to talk about. Which is funny, because selective service and the national industrial base have more to do with coming away with a W rather than an L in the world war category than pretty much anything else. Which is awkward as hell, because pretty much every service rides on the coattails of its leaders’ WWII performance rather than the obscene amount of shipping, aircraft, and materiel produced between 1941-45, or even the 10 million citizen-soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen that were drafted in that time. Those numbers seem to be slightly – just ever so slightly – important.

In both world wars, the U.S. relied almost wholly on its industrial base and national will to create an armed services that could compete with the best of them. You could have all the Arnolds, Mitchells, Nimitzes, Halseys, MacArthurs, Marshalls, Bradleys, and Pullers in the world, but they don’t mean diddley squat without the manpower produced via the draft and the half-decent equipment pumped out non-stop via American industry.

Take, for example, tanks. Up until 1941, the U.S. produced a paltry number of tanks. Barely over 300. But by 1943, the U.S. was up to 37,000 in production per year. Same with merchant ship tonnage, which surpassed 11.3 million in 1943. Meanwhile, training camps in the U.S. turned out citizen-soldiers-marines-sailors-airmen like clockwork, filling vacancies and enabling all the “stuff” to still move.

Fast-forward to this LSCO thing today. From the Army perspective, we’ve got Active duty and National Guard divisions to get us up to eighteen divisions. And that’s it. Wave good luck to them, because they’re all we’ve got. Army Reserves will round out the formations but overall, there’s just about 1 million in the Army with no plans for anything else. Why is there all this emphasis on “fight tonight?” Because tonight is all we got. There ain’t anyone else coming.

See, following Vietnam, the nation got real tired of the draft. So, we instituted the all-volunteer force (AVF). That has a lot of good features, don’t get me wrong, but if history shows anything, it’s that LSCO is super-duper heavy on the casualties. So, after the Active and National Guard divisions are worn down to hollow shells, augmented by the Reserves, who comes in to replace them?

Bueller. Bueller. Bueller?

It may just be a silly 1980s movie about the abdication of responsibility, but Ferris Beuller’s Day Off highlights this one severe drawback in the fascination of the AVF: there’s no one else there if Bueller is bleeding out on the front lines (spoiler alert for Ferris Bueller’s Day in the Army).

It’s not like the U.S. hasn’t been here before. Prior to U.S. entrance in WWII, the Army ranked somewhere behind Portugal as a land power. Not even top ten. But leaders such as Army Chief of Staff George Marshall – who had a helluva first day on the job, the day Germany invaded Poland – recognized these issues and had planned an expandable Army, one that could grow rapidly in time of war. Marshall and FDR were on the same page, with FDR authorizing a peacetime draft of 900,000 in 1940-41. Within days of Pearl Harbor, the War Production Board had taken charge of U.S. industry and was beginning the giant task of shifting American industrial might towards war.

So, not all is gloomy and depressing. There’s precedent for rapid expansion in time of need, in both world wars and even Korea. Comparatively, we’re far more prepared than we were at the time. However, there were also mechanisms in place back then to nationalize the war effort.

The bad news: the current selective service system is…well, not great, Bob. According to a 2017 report, the budget for the selective service system remains consistent with that of 1980. The agency has a whopping 124 full-time employees, augmented by reservists across the Armed Forces and civilian part-time volunteers. It is vastly overdue for an overhaul into modernity, especially if we’re going to be transitioning to that type of conflict that makes the draft necessary.

If we want to get actually serious about LSCO, then we need to also be thinking about the strategic efforts of sustaining that type of war longer than the first day. Because once shots are fired, odds are fairly good that shots will continue to be fired long, long after.

Views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

Cover image: 308th Infantry Regiment of the National Army marching down 5th Ave, NYC, 1918 (NARA)

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