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Lessons on Defense Strategy from the Interwar Years

Peter W. Singer

Editor’s Note: Peter Singer writes that the United States should look to lessons from the period between World War I and World War II as it adjusts to new defense realities. The early 20th century, categorized by new and disruptive technologies as well as rising peer competitors, offers important reference for today’s policymakers.

When today’s leaders compare our turbulent times to the drawdown era of the 1990s, they’re missing the target for a more useful historical lens. In the years surrounding World War I, fundamental political transition was accompanied by a wave of technological progress that seemed to leap from science-fiction novels. Just as submarines, tanks, and airplanes disrupted tactics, doctrine and organizational identity in the early 20th century, so today we are struggling with deep changes wrought by the likes of drones, cyber and lasers. And, strategically speaking, the U.S. at present is akin to Great Britain then: no longer a rising power but a status quo empire of global commitments, striving to maintain dominance in a changing world. Our military, like Britain’s during the Boer Wars and other colonial endeavors from Iraq to Afghanistan, has been fighting a series of tough, painful and exhausting deployments. But they have been “small wars,” not on par with the challenges from rising peer competitors.

The parallels are hardly perfect; moreover, we have a bit of “breathing space” for strategic reassessment as new economic and military rivals rise. Yet technologic competition is pressing us harder than it did our predecessors. Then, the number of states that could build or even use dominant platforms such as the battleship or bomber could be counted on one hand. Today, at least 87 militaries have deployed unmanned aerial systems, and more than 100 have cyberwarfare programs. But states are far from the end of the story. Technology with low barriers to entry is making non-state actors more relevant — more powerful, even, than traditional state agencies — in fields from international finance to cybersecurity. Who matters more on cyber issues: Google and Huawei or the U.S. State Department and China’s Foreign Ministry? And technology is not simply stripping states of their monopoly on power, it is turning a longtime source of strength — their large bureaucracies — into a handicap. As one U.S. Army general put it: “The threat’s ability to take the technology and innovate with it is higher than ours.”

Such shifts require today’s strategists to look beyond their typical focus on force numbers and budget placeholders. There are better, more essential questions that studies such as the Strategic Choices and Management Review and the Quadrennial Defense Review should pose, and they aren’t all about external threats. Successful strategic reform in times of change — e.g., the development of the Blitzkrieg or AirLand Battle — requires introspection as much as external observation. As father-of-the-Internet Vint Cerf told the tech site Gizmodo: “What happens when you see bad stuff in the mirror? Well, you don’t fix the mirror.”

Are you changing by learning?

Among the most important lessons from the interwar years is the need to question old concepts, tactics and doctrines, and test out new ones. Tough budget times are no excuse not to engage deeply in research, development, experimentation, wargaming and exercises. Our forebears who went through an actual Great Depression would laugh at the notion that sequestration might prevent the needed activities of learning. Indeed, they had far tougher budget lines to meet, but they figured out everything from uses for the new aircraft carrier to the development of an Army Air Corps. Contrary to our approach today, they understood that many of these activities did not require waiting for the full purchases of an entire new suite of technology to start thinking on its concept of operations. The Marines conceived amphibious warfare before they had truly functional amphibious landing craft, while cars with the word “tank” written on the side sufficed in mechanization studies.

These activities were not just about generating new ideas and throwing away old ones, but also about identifying the leader attributes that would be needed in the next wars. The Louisiana Maneuvers in 1941 were in many ways the culmination of the debate in the Army between mechanization and horse cavalry, but they were also used to scout talent for the coming world war.

Are you protecting the new from the old?

In military culture and bureaucracies, the old often has the advantage in internal battles. The old is privileged by tribes of people who believe their careers and professional identity are linked to a particular system or specialty. You can meet Air Force officers who have flown unmanned aircraft for years but still introduce themselves as F-16 pilots. The old also has influential constituencies in industry and on Capitol Hill. Yesterday’s contracts and today’s constituent jobs mobilize Congress far more quickly than tomorrow’s potential.

This dynamic is neatly illustrated by a look at the Pentagon’s largest programs of record. From the C-130J airlifter to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the Ford-class aircraft carrier, there is not much truly new and disruptive. Some systems are decades old, while others are based on decades-old designs — improvements to be sure, but hardly game changers. Moreover, what we are spending the most on today is what we still plan to spend a great deal on tomorrow. The F-35, for instance, is the most expensive program today for the U.S. and those allies who plan to buy it and yet there are still more than a trillion dollars’ worth of budget space to come. Any new spending must either be in addition to that, or at its expense.

Tough budget times provide an excuse to use the narrative of shared cuts to pull out longer knives for the newcomers. For example, when developing the upcoming year’s budget, the Air Force asked to reduce spending on unmanned aircraft by 33 percent, about four times as much as the cuts for the rest of the force. Similarly, just as the Navy met with success with its X-47 next-generation drone, its budgeteers requested a 24 percent reduction in spending — again, several times the size of the rest of the budget cuts.

Are you spreading your bets and ignoring sunk costs?

In 1934, the British Air Ministry poured money into a new aircraft meant to advance past the World War I generation of planes. The metal-clad Gloster Gladiator could fly almost 250 miles per hour and carry four machine guns. Unfortunately, this biplane was quickly outmatched by new monoplanes such as the Spitfire and the German BF-109. And yet the British plowed ahead, falling prey to the fallacy of sunk costs and ultimately building more than 700 Gladiators. The pilots unlucky enough to fly the last, best biplane gave it a different nickname: the “Flying Coffin.”

Militaries may not like it, but they must be prepared for cherished developmental programs to go rapidly out of date. Rather than holding on, they must be prepared to treat them as sunk costs: spent money to be lamented but not weighed in setting future requirements. And yet the real challenge isn’t merely to ignore lost bets, as a good investor should, but also to travel the larger transition. Success depends not on merely taking risks but spreading risks. Another way of putting it is that while there is danger in putting all your bets on the best of the last generation, there is also danger in embracing too closely the first generation of the new.

If the position of the U.S. and its allies today is comparable to that of the British almost a century back, the case of the HMS Furious is instructive. Despite the battleship’s dominance of naval warfare, in 1917 the Royal Navy pioneered a capability called an “aircraft carrier,” a ship that took the new technology of an airplane out to sea. Yet having launched a disruption, the British proved unable to move past early suboptimal designs and concepts of use. It was the U.S. and Japanese who would figure out the fleet carrier. When you gain the new, you still have to ask whether you are locking in on the first generation of its design, doctrine, tactics, etc.

Does your personnel system link to your strategic priorities?

Oft ignored in strategic reviews and technology discussions is the people side of the equation. It comes down to the essential question of whether a military’s personnel processes and incentives work for or against its new goals. Right now, every military has young officers debating what direction to take their careers — just like a certain Army officer commissioned into the horse cavalry just over a century ago. That officer loved his craft and, indeed, was so good at its key skills of horsemanship, fencing and pistol shooting that he competed at the 1912 Olympics in the pentathlon. Fortunately, after being mentored by a colonel with a knack for both talent scouting and strategic forecasting, a young George S. Patton joined the nascent tank corps. (The same Col. Fox Connor would also mentor a young Dwight Eisenhower, showing the importance not just of the choices young officers make, but also the role of mentors.)

Today’s officers are also weighing moves into new fields and the accompanying risks and rewards. While some will be “true believers,” many will take their guidance both from mentors and the tone and results of the personnel system. For instance, if the Air Force seeks to maintain its leadership in unmanned/remotely piloted aircraft, it must consider the signal it is sending when a young officer in this community is roughly 13 percent less likely to make major than his peers, a figure that Brookings Institution Air Force Fellow Col. Brad Hoagland notes has gotten worse the last several years.

What kind of leader will you be?

To believe that some technological trend will solve all our problems — “lift the fog of war,” in Adm. Bill Owens’ phrase — is an error made by everyone from Gen. Giulio Douhet in the 1920s to the acolytes of network-centric warfare during the last drawdown. In reality, shifts are not about easy solutions and silver bullets; they are about new problems and new questions that we must accept that we don’t have all the answers to. Success in dynamic times depends largely on what kind of leaders our strategists decide to be.

One leadership model is that of John Herr. Like his fellow cavalry officer Patton, Herr was offered the chance to join the U.S. Tank Corps. He turned it down and, like the rest of cavalry, saw no combat riding a horse during World War I. Still, Herr remained convinced of the value of horses. He checked all the standard professional boxes and rose through the ranks to become chief of cavalry. “A magnetic and pleasing personality,” wrote Lucian Truscott, then an officer at Fort Leavenworth. “Unfortunately, he was impatient with those who might hold contrary views, and he did not hesitate to make his opinions of such persons known on any and all occasions.” Under Herr, the only voices heard were from officers who agreed with him, and his staff sent him only those news articles that seemed to prove his ideas. Thus he came before Congress in 1939, just as the Blitzkrieg was poised to strike, and argued, “We must not be led to our own detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proved and tried horse.”

Another path is that of the visionary. As early as 1906, a young Billy Mitchell predicted that technology would push conflicts into new domains that would require novel military organizations. Savvy, smart and possessed of a strong personality, Mitchell was one of the first to see the potential of air power. He rose to command all American air combat units in World War I and began advocating for an independent air force. Through tests like the controversial bombing of the captured German battleship Ostfriesland, he made the case that continued investment in old ways would waste money and lives. But Mitchell tossed rhetorical rocks along with his good ideas, and created more enemies than allies. In 1925, he was court-martialed after accusing Army and Navy leaders of incompetence and “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” Whether Mitchell was right or wrong didn’t matter anymore. He was wrong in his means.

The final model is that of William Moffett. A naval surface officer, Moffett was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in a daring 1914 raid on Veracruz, Mexico. Subsequently, he took command of a battleship, the apogee of naval officer accomplishment in his day. But the “air admiral” is remembered for none of this. In 1921, he was appointed to lead the new Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. In many ways, it was an odd choice. Moffett was not a flier, unlike his frequent sparring partner Mitchell. However, he had a number of key skills. He was a visionary but a pragmatist, and most of all, a master politician. Throughout his career, Moffett worked the internal bureaucracy, driving it toward change, but in ways it could accept. He built and maintained relationships with key civilians, thinkers and leaders, most notably Franklin Roosevelt, the assistant Navy secretary who would go on to become president. Under Moffett’s leadership, aviator training programs were established and a “brown shoe” aviator culture took hold. New technologies like aircraft carriers were developed and deployed. New tactics and doctrines were shaped through experiment. Of particular relevance today, the Bureau of Aeronautics made a point to diversify production in order to encourage a nascent and non-monopolized aircraft industry. Moffett died in a 1933 aviation accident, but his legacy was the Navy that won the looming war in the Pacific.

What trends are you watching?

One must pay attention to the trends that loom on the horizon so that we are able to better identify the changes hurtling toward us and thus better shape our response to them. We cannot fight these trends, but we can, as Martin Luther King once said, “bend the arc of history.” And yet, just as important are the parallels with the past. Keeping an eye on the horizon behind them allows strategists to draw lessons from history. As Mark Twain once put it, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Strategists will succeed by keeping their eyes on both horizons. 

This article originally appeared in Armed Forces Journal under the title “What the QDR Should be Asking – But Isn’t?”