By Charles Miller
Imagine this same exercise had been carried out by British strategists in 1930 and they had been asked what the majority of wars would look like in the coming thirty years. Many of them would have answered that they would be ‘North West Frontier’ type campaigns, or what we today would call COIN. And they would have been right. The majority of the wars the British Army fought between 1930 and 1960 were indeed COIN, but one of the two sole wars which were not COIN – World War Two – had an impact which was far greater than any of the rest, bankrupting the country, almost leading to the extinction of national independence and costing over half a million dead.
Conventional wars are a low probability, high impact event – a ‘Black Swan’ as Naseem Nicholas Taleb would have it. Contrary to the beliefs of some, they have always been rare relative to other types of conflict. Conventional war has been getting somewhat rarer over the last few decades, but there have been decades in the past, as measured by the Correlates of War project, in which they have been even rarer, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of all wars. Moreover, in terms of human and financial cost they dwarf non-conventional wars and so prudent decision making would suggest the United States should not neglect conventional war fighting capabilities in order to beef up its COIN capacities.
Proponents of the view that the future should be all about COIN make two arguments. First, they project the immediate past into the future and claim that because most recent wars have been COIN, most future wars will be too. This is not only a great way to end up fighting the last war rather than the next one, but it also could be an example of the ‘availability heuristic’ – a cognitive shortcut which leads us to overestimate the probability of a given event occurring in the future simply because we personally have experienced and can recall it. The second point is that the United States’ overwhelming conventional superiority means that enemy actors will have no choice but to resort to unconventional means to fight it.
This argument is very attractive, however it ignores two points. The first is that America’s conventional superiority may not be as overwhelming in future as it has been in the past, with the rise of other potential great powers. The second is that unconventional warfare is in fact quite difficult to pull off – it requires a very high degree of trust in one’s subordinates to allow them to discard their uniforms and blend into the civilian population where you can no longer monitor whether they are actually fighting or not. This degree of trust eluded Saddam Hussein and could very well also elude Assad or Kim Jong-Un also. In fact, there are surprisingly few examples in history of weaker states foreswearing conventional resistance altogether and opting to fight via unconventional methods immediately.
None of this should be taken as suggesting that a future large scale conventional war is likely, or that significant defense cuts are not necessary. It is simply to remind us all that it would have to be almost certainly extinct for us to stop devoting some part of our capacity to thinking about and preparing for it. We have not reached that point yet and may very well not in the near future.
Mr. Miller is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Duke University.