The next military conflict won’t be won with silver bullets

In a political environment that seeks to tie itself to national security, it’s not surprising to see a near-constant distillation of threats and prospects of future war. This distillation — whether through the creation of buzzwords or the simplification of geopolitical realities — creates a common lexicon, generates easily understandable facts for those with diverse portfolios and overbooked schedules, and informs average citizens of their present world.

{mosads}However, simplification is not without its risks. For one, national security isn’t an easy subject. As with any case in which one attempts to reduce the complexity of a subject, some loss of resolution is bound to occur. When discussing the intricacies of tax policy, perhaps this loss of resolution is for the best. When determining whether to enter into a conflict that comes at the cost of American lives and a change in the global balance of power, the consequences are more severe.

Simplifying national security also lends itself to the creation of “silver bullets” — the bane of werewolves and national security subject-matter experts alike. National security silver bullets come in many forms: Technologies, programs and tactics alike can be made all-powerful in the hands of the right public relations team.

Unfortunately, silver bullets just don’t work. It’s a fact seen throughout history, with only the details changing. In hindsight, these programs, technologies and tactics can seem remarkably, well, unremarkable, as so often is the case when viewing historic failures. Until that time, however, the glimmer of the present is as seemingly impenetrable and as flawless as a well-polished diamond.

The fact that silver bullets, in one form or another, have existed in a host of conflicts and almost-conflicts throughout history is a testament to their rhetorical strength. World War II had the Maginot Line, the early Cold War had the Soviet Blockade of Berlin, the Vietnam War had Operation Rolling Thunder. More recently, some would have you think that the admittedly diverse skills found in America’s special operations forces could win the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and still be home in time for Christmas, or at least by Easter. Less kinetic efforts of engagement, including no-fly zones and economic sanctions, may be less bombastic in rhetoric but equally uni-faceted in nature.

Fortunately, it’s not impossible to avoid the silver bullets — although the alternatives are admittedly not always as sexy.

First, there is no substitute for strategy. Since the U.S. first began to confront ISIS, a large number of individuals inside and outside government have criticized the administration’s apparent lack of strategy — yet an almost equally large number do so without proposing a strategy of their own. Without a well-articulated strategy, the U.S. cannot win a war against an actor, much less a networked, non-state or hybrid one. Defining a strategy is not a matter of saying “X, Y or Z” and declaring it a strategy, but rather setting a clear set of objectives, how those objectives are to be achieved and the instruments one has at one’s disposal in order to accomplish those objectives. It is not an impossible task to define these ends, ways and means, but it is a difficult and essential one.

Second, invest in well-balanced education for military leaders. Most civilian leaders are well aware of the opportunities afforded to prospective undergraduate students through our nation’s service academies, but those institutions are only the beginning. Throughout all service academies and joint professional military education opportunities, we must better develop innovative and open-minded leaders, not just narrowly tailored, technically proficient officers. As an added bonus, developing greater breadth in these institutions serves to develop officers who can more effectively communicate with civilian counterparts.

Lastly, learn from failure. U.S. national security is for good reason a cautious and reactive endeavor — at least in theory. Abject failure comes at great physical and reputational cost. However, even with our best efforts, failure is bound to occur at some point and to some extent. This failure can come in the form of technological programs, domestic leadership or strategy. Rather than trying to pretend as though these things never happened, or that they don’t exist until the last possible moment, we should seek to learn from them in an expedited manner — even if it means the swallowing of some pride. The costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of recognition and adaptation.

A cohesive strategy, sound education and failure probably won’t become talking points in the 2016 candidates’ national security strategies anytime soon, but that isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be. We talk about strategy, but we rarely, if ever, define one. We thank our men and women for their service, but don’t consider how to best develop them. We think of our military as above failure, but failure is merely a fact of life. Moving away from silver bullets and taking into account some of these hard-won lessons will not only help us confront the next crisis, but will also better prepare us to see the following one in the distance.

Dobkin is an adjunct fellow of the American Security Project. He has previously developed communications and legislative strategies for nonprofit organizations, for-profit firms, and public officials, with a specialization in national security and military affairs. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and the Center for International Maritime Security. The views represented in this article are the author’s alone. Follow him on Twitter @AdinDobkin.

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