The Curse of 9/11: How to Stop the Dissipation of American Military Power

By Daniel L. Davis

In 1991 the United States military crippled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after a month of airstrikes and a mere 100 hours of ground combat.  At that time no nation on the planet represented a conventional military threat to America.  Our dominance was unchallenged.  In response to the September 11th 2001 terror strike, however, the US military diverted its focus to fighting insurgent groups.  15 years later, that conventional dominance is gone and with it, the unchallenged security the nation once enjoyed.  We must move rapidly to reverse this condition.  

Earlier this month, the US and German armies hosted a tank competition among US allies in Europe called the Strong Europe Tank Challenge.  The winner was a German tank crew, followed by a Danish team and in third was Poland. The US crews, once the envy of the Western world, shockingly did not even place.  In case any thought the outcome an anomaly, one week earlier in Fort Benning, Georgia another tank crew competition was held, and the winner of the Sullivan Cup was also not an active duty crew.  A National Guard team from North Carolina that included “an insurance adjustor, Pepsi truck driver, college student, and aspiring police officer” which “beat fifteen other reserve and active duty tank crews to place first.”

That’s no ding on the National Guard – they should be justly proud of the victory – but when a full time armored crew can’t beat a part-time team in the US and doesn’t even place in international competition, something is deeply wrong.  The reason for these performances is clear.  Whereas prior to 9/11 armor units trained on maneuver warfare fundamentals hundreds of days a year, since that time many crewmen and leaders have gone years without any such training because they spend year after year training for and then deploying to counterinsurgency fights. Our potential adversaries, however, have not suffered such distractions and have gained in both warfighting proficiency as well as improved modern combat platforms. 

Russian armor and infantry units have spent years training for maneuver warfare, significantly improving their capability, and have fielded state of the art new tanks.  During the same timeframe, Chinese ground forces reorganized into more efficient combat units and conduct frequent and large scale field training exercises, constantly improving their conventional warfighting ability.  Even otherwise technologically inferior North Korea has been improving their ground fighting abilities while the US bogged itself down in COIN.  The results of these two tank competitions are canaries in the coal shaft we ignore to our peril.  

One of the most oft-repeated slogans voiced by those advocating for perpetual overseas military engagement is that when fighting terrorists, “it’s better to fight them there than here.”  There is virtually no evidence to support that contention.  To the contrary, there is much evidence to expose how our never-ending airstrikes, drone attacks, special operations missions, and large scale combat deployments have served only to increase the number of terrorists and terror groups abroad. 

The reason the US hasn’t had a major terror strike on our homeland since 9/11 has nothing to do with fighting “over there.”  It has had everything to do with the effective work done by domestic law enforcement, FBI, and other organizations to keep the borders safe, interdicting foreign plans before they occur.   

As demonstrated in the anecdotes about tank crews above, our conventional warfighting skills have eroded to dangerous levels.  These skills are not easily or quickly rebuilt.  The non-stop employment and dissipation of US military power abroad must stop before its strength can be rebuilt.

The solution to this imbalance, the best way to ensure the defense of the American homeland and protection of US interests abroad, is first to openly acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that the militaristic mind-set we’ve been stuck in since 9/11 has failed to create a safe environment for the country.  Once acknowledged, there are three steps that should quickly follow. 

First, rebalance our foreign policy by elevating diplomacy to primacy, increasing the budget for the State Department, and increase efforts to attract and retain the best, smartest, and most creative talent in the country to the diplomatic corps. 

Second, reorient the US Armed Forces back to their core purpose of guaranteeing the defense of the country.  This would include reorganizing and reforming the DOD.  The Department must transform the way it does business.  It must account for changing and evolving potential threats, exploit increases in combat capability made possible by new technology, and employ new organizations for combat that increases lethality and power. 

Third, reinforce homeland defense using the tools that have proven successful in keeping us safe. Cooperation between the FBI, state and local law enforcement officials should be expanded.  Politicians will have to finally take action on effective immigration reform to ensure that enemies of America are prevented entry. Effective systems must be developed that leverage international, national, and local intelligence data and creates a framework to ensure timely distribution to all entities that need it.   

It will be a difficult and time consuming effort to reorient the way our leaders believe American national security can best be maintained.  But there is no choice.  Evidence continues to pile up that the militaristic, insurgent-focused foreign policy the US has been using for most of the past 15 years has proven to be a failure.  The security of our country has been compromised as a result. The damage is not irreversible, but improvement can’t start until we first acknowledge our current understanding is bankrupt. That recognition better happen soon.

Daniel L. Davis is a foreign policy fellow and military expert  at Defense Priorities and retired from the US Army as a Lt. Col. after 21 years of active service. He was deployed into combat zones four times in his career, beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and then to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan twice (2005, 2011). He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor at the Battle of 73 Easting in 1991, and awarded a Bronze Star Medal in Afghanistan in 2011. He earned a Master of International Relations from Troy University in 2006 and speaks level II German and level I Russian. 

This piece was originally published by The National Interest on June 8, 2016. Read more HERE