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Is the Military Losing Its Ability to Fight Capable Foes?

We need to refocus on future existential threats.

In the conflicts currently at play in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, America practices a policy of “military first.” But this constant use of force will not bring the conflicts to an end or stability to the region. Nor will these policies safeguard American interests. As has has been the case for virtually the past 16 years, the almost-certain outcome is that U.S. national security interests will continue to be eroded. A new direction in American foreign policy, however, can reverse these negative trends.

By keeping our conventional military focused so sharply on fighting insurgent-based enemies that have no modern armies, no navies, no air forces, or any air defense weapons, we continue the degradation of our armed forces’ ability to fight wars against capable foes.

Retired Air Force General Rob Givens, a former fighter pilot, explained that whereas today’s aviators have considerable numbers of “combat” flying hours, they are of limited use. “Many of our pilots today have considerable amount of combat experience—but most of it is flying around countless hours over the desert, waiting to drop ordinance on targets that can’t shoot back,” Givens explains.  

The decision to fly these simple missions comes at the expense of conducting rigorous, challenging training against a simulated enemy that has powerful air defense capabilities. If for any reason in the future American pilots must engage in aerial combat against Russia or China, the experience gained over two decades of flying against defenseless ground forces or antiquated fighters will be worth very little.  

We must begin the process of disengaging from inconsequential military operations and start to rebuild the ability of our armed forces, allowing them to focus on and prepare for possible existential fights of the future.  

Foreign policy must begin withdrawing militarily from missions that can never be accomplished. Even if belatedly, it must be painfully admitted that decades of military operations in the Middle East have not had a positive impact on any of the fires burning there. Ceasing our combat operations will likewise have no impact on the outcome of events.

We should militarily disengage from the Syrian civil war, take action to prevent the violence from spreading further, and significantly increase our diplomatic efforts to assist in regionally-authored peace initiatives.

One of the first policy shifts we should diplomatically support is an arms embargo on all parties of the Iraq and Syrian conflicts. Using all means available, the U.S. should stop providing arms and ammunition to all parties, and diplomatically pressure Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others to likewise stop providing arms and support for their favored sides.

It must be admitted that such a policy will not result in a sudden drive to peace, and while we can bring pressure to bear on Russia, Iran, and others, we cannot force them to stop arming their respective allies. That may result in their beneficiaries gaining a tactical advantage in the civil war. We have to be willing to accept that outcome–because we can’t impose a solution with so many opposing hands in the war, but also because our security won’t be affected regardless of how it turns out.

One of the first charges against this idea is that it might strengthen anti-American forces in the Middle East, potentially increasing the threats to our country. The first might be true, but the second would not. Let me explain why.

It is in America’s unequivocal, vital national interest to ensure the security of its citizens and interests, both at home and abroad. The U.S. should continue to maintain a robust global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability that is able to identify, track, and if necessary, destroy threats.

Moreover, if in the future any foreign government should harbor or support terror entities that threaten the U.S. homeland or citizens, our conventional military will continue to be poised to conduct punitive strikes to eliminate the threat. Not only is it not necessary to physically hold ground abroad to ensure American security, but trying to do so is antithetical to that end.

Since 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has wedded itself to the belief that we must “fight them over there” to keep us safe over here. The evidence, however, is overwhelming and compelling that despite the considerable national treasure and blood we have expended over the past 16 years, there has been no diminution of violence abroad nor a reduction in the terror threat to our nation. Meanwhile, as noted above, our ability to prevail against future conventional threats has decayed.  

We must take rational action now, based on a sober and realistic analysis of the conditions facing us, before the U.S. suffers consequences it may not be able to afford.  We would benefit by recognizing past and current failures, and transform our foreign policy into one that protects our nation and interests.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1



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