U.S. Should Invest in Truly Unconventional Forms of Warfare

By Aldrich, Russell | National Defense, January 2012 | Go to article overview

U.S. Should Invest in Truly Unconventional Forms of Warfare


Aldrich, Russell, National Defense


Cyber-attacks are now recognized as the newest form of nontraditional warfare that U.S. enemies can employ effectively.

But other varieties of non-military warfare are being waged against the United States, and have been given less attention. China, for instance, owns nearly a trillion dollars in U.S. treasuries. It is the largest foreign owner of U.S. debt. China could use this liability as a weapon. If China decided to sell these bonds and invest elsewhere, it could have potentially devastating effects for the U.S. economy.

This is just one example of how non-military warfare can inflict as much harm upon an enemy as conventional combat. In the 21st century, this kind of warfare will become increasingly common, and indeed it may one day render conventional conflicts obsolete. The United States must therefore expand its own non-military offensive capabilities.

There are three reasons why the nation must develop its own non-military warfare capabilities if it is to maintain its advantage over adversaries.

First, the scope of warfare is expanding beyond conventional conflicts, and a failure to adapt will leave the United States incapable of responding. Costly improvements in capabilities such as the F-22 Raptor serve little purpose. They are unnecessary to deter attacks because the United States already possesses an indomitable conventional military advantage and an enormous nuclear stockpile. They are also unlikely to be used offensively, as a conventional attack on a powerful adversary risks igniting a full-fledged war. In contrast, non-military strategies can be used incrementally and surreptitiously thus lessening the likeliness of escalation into a conventional conflict.

Second, U.S. defense spending is unsustainable. It currently exceeds the rest of the world's defense budget combined. As a result, severe budget cuts in the near future are inevitable. History illuminates the dangers of rapid reductions in military spending. After World War II, the Truman administration drastically reduced spending on conventional military forces, confident that nuclear weapons would be sufficient to deter adversaries from attacking. This strategy produced a military incapable of waging the low-intensity proxy conflicts that were the hallmark of the Cold War, a deficiency that would not be remedied until the Kennedy administration recognized the problem more than a decade later and placed an emphasis on special operations capabilities. The addition of new non-military warfare options would allow the United States to sustain its military' readiness for a fraction of the cost of maintaining the present conventional force.

Lastly, the addition of non-military capabilities to the existing military arsenal will allow for increased flexibility. The first half of the 20th century saw three major wars centered on conventional warfare. This strategy was not suited to Vietnam and later Iraq and Afghanistan. Future conflicts will focus less on conventional and unconventional military strategies than they will on non-military strategies.

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The ability of the United States to develop these new methods of waging war is circumscribed only by its own morality. For example, it should refrain from engaging in acts of state-sponsored terrorism, such as the North Korean bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 or the Libyan bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, because they are anathema to our values and way of life. Narco-war-fare--the infusion of affordable, addictive, and destructive drugs into the society of an enemy state--is also contradictory to our ideals. The most prominent example of narco-warfare is when the British Empire forced China to import its opium, which had devastating effects on the Chinese population. In addition to being morally reprehensible, the use of these strategies is sure to draw widespread condemnation from the international community.

But the moral lines regarding other forms of non-military warfare are not so clear. …

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