US Army soldier keeps watch on a road in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan.

By Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Consulting Senior Fellow

Difficulties encountered by Western armed forces in recent armed conflicts have stemmed, at least in part, from a tendency to neglect both history and continuities in the nature of war, especially its political and human dimensions. What military and civilian leaders learn from recent experience is important because those lessons influence operational planning and force development. Prospects for learning lessons that acknowledge continuities in the nature of war, however, are dim. This is because four fallacies about future war have become widely accepted; these fallacies promise that future conflict will be fundamentally different from all historical experience and, in particular, from the recent and ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We might call the first of these the ‘vampire fallacy’. This fallacy seems impossible to kill; it goes dormant for a period, but re-emerges just about every decade. In its last manifestation, the vampire fallacy emerged as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in the 1990s. Concepts with catchy titles such as ‘Shock and Awe’ and ‘Rapid, Decisive Operations’ promised fast, cheap and efficient victories in future war. Those who argued that these ideas were inconsistent with the nature of war were dismissed as being wedded to old thinking. Technology would make the next war fundamentally different from all that had come before it, because information and communication technologies had shifted war from the realm of uncertainty to that of certainty. Western armed forces would possess ‘Dominant Battlespace Knowledge’. Under the ‘Quality of Firsts’, forces would ‘see first, decide first, act first and finish decisively’.

The vampire fallacy is much older than the orthodoxy of RMA. It goes at least as far back as strategic bombing theory in the 1920s. Today, it once again promises victory based on even better surveillance, information, communications and precision-strike technologies. The vampire fallacy is based in an important suite of military capabilities, but it neglects war’s political and human dimensions. It equates targeting to tactics, operations and strategy and fails to take into account the uncertainty of war, the trajectory of which is constantly altered by varied interactions with determined and elusive enemies.

The second fallacy can be referred to as the ‘zero-dark-thirty fallacy’. Like the vampire fallacy, it elevates an important military capability, raiding, to the level of a defence strategy. The capability to conduct raids against networked terrorist organisations is portrayed as a substitute for rather than a compliment to conventional joint-force capabilities. Raids, because they are operations of short duration, limited purpose and planned withdrawal, are often unable to affect the human and political drivers of armed conflict or make progress toward achieving sustainable outcomes consistent with vital interests.

The third fallacy may require a little explanation for those of younger generations. In the 1960s on Sunday nights, US families with young children gathered to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The host for Wild Kingdom was Marlin Perkins. Marlin Perkins would introduce the topic of the show, often a dangerous animal, and provide commentary throughout. But Mr Perkins would rarely place himself in a dangerous situation. He usually left close contact with the wildlife to his assistant, Jim Fowler. Under the corresponding fallacy, Western armed forces assume the role of Marlin Perkins and rely on proxy forces in the role of Jim Fowler to do the fighting on land. While it is hard to imagine future operations that will not require Western forces to operate with multiple partners, primary reliance on proxies is often problematic due to variations in capability and the impact of incongruous interests on each party’s willingness to act. The political and human dimensions of war often create what economists and political scientists call ‘principal-actor problems’.

Finally, the ‘RSVP fallacy’ solves the problem of future war by opting out of armed conflict, or at least certain forms of it. The problem with this fallacy lies in its failure to give due consideration to enemies in wars or adversaries between wars. As Leon Trotsky said, ‘you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you’. If Western armed forces do not possess ready joint forces capable of operating at the scale and for the duration required to win, adversaries are likely to become emboldened and deterrence is likely to fail. In the words of the first US president, George Washington, ‘To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace’.

Preparing effectively for war to prevent conflict, shape security environments and, if necessary, win in armed conflict requires clear thinking. Western militaries and their civilian leaders might begin by rejecting fallacies that are inconsistent with the enduring nature of war. As nineteenth-century Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz observed:

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

These fallacies persist, in large measure, because they define war as one might like it to be rather than as an uncertain and complex human competition usually aimed at achieving a political outcome.

The first step in thinking clearly about future war is to pay due attention to continuities in the nature of war as well as changes in the character of armed conflict. The new US Army Operating Concept is grounded in historian Carl Becker’s observation that ‘memory of past and anticipation of future events work together, go hand in hand as it were in a friendly way, without disputing over priority and leadership’. The concept establishes the intellectual foundation for US Army force development. It establishes a framework for learning and for applying what the US Army learns across leader development, training, doctrine, organisation, material development and policy. In contrast to the four fallacies, the theory emphasises joint power exercised in coordination with multinational partners and civilian organisations:

Since World War II the prosperity and security of the United States have depended, in large measure, on the synergistic effects of capable land, air, and maritime forces. They have reinforced one another in the conduct of joint operations and together provided options that any one or two services could not provide alone.  U.S. military power is joint power. Trends in threats, the operating environment, and technology highlight the enduring need for ready Army forces operating as part of joint, interorganizational, and multinational teams to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win in a complex world.

Moreover, the US Army Operating Concept:

  • Considers the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war, because conflict, unlike command, cannot be divided into discrete levels.

  • Describes the Army’s contributions to winning, defined as achieving sustainable political outcomes consistent with US vital interests. Recognises that winning may not require fighting, because Army forces shape security environments, reassure partners and deter aggression.
  • Acknowledges the criticality of land forces to deterring conflict because they are capable of compelling outcomes without the cooperation of the enemy.
  • Recognises that decentralised operations in complex environments require adaptive leaders, cohesive teams and resilient soldiers who are committed to the Army professional ethic and thrive in conditions of uncertainty.
  • Emphasises the integration of advanced technologies with skilled soldiers and well-trained teams to maintain differential advantages over enemies.
  • Outlines what US Army forces must do across the range of military operations including:
    • Provide foundational capabilities. Forces integrate joint, government, military and multinational efforts.
    • Develop situational understanding through action. Forces fight, learn and adapt operations in close contact with enemies and civilian populations.
    • Conduct expeditionary manoeuvre. Forces with combined arms capabilities deploy rapidly and conduct operations of sufficient scale and ample duration to achieve strategic objectives. 
    • Conduct joint combined arms operations. Forces manoeuvre and project power across the maritime, air, space and cyberspace domains to ensure joint force freedom of action and deny enemies the ability to operate freely across those domains.
    • Consolidate gains. Forces execute early and effective consolidation activities as a fundamental part of campaign design to enable success and achieve favourable outcomes in the shortest time span.
    • Project national power. Forces deploy and sustain land power with multiple partners.

This blog post is based on an article that originally appeared in Small Wars Journal.


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