How would the high-tech U.S. military fare in a war against China or Russia? The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War may provide some answers. It may call into question some deeply held U.S. military axioms. Two of these are particularly important. First, is the belief that future wars will be short, decisive affairs. Second, the complexities of modern warfare demand professional forces in being. The second point is a corollary of the first: If wars are short, then only the forces available at, or shortly after, their inception have utility.
As we shall see, this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that, if proven false, has potentially disastrous consequences for the United States. Specifically, if future wars with peers are protracted and involve significant attrition, can countries with relatively small, all-volunteer armies and no ready and robust personnel replacement systems prevail?
Although it is too early to tell what the war in Ukraine heralds, the West may be witnessing the end of short wars between states by professional armies. A similar transition last occurred as a result of the French Revolution. This was a real revolution: Power arrangements were forever changed in France, most obviously by the regicide of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. The guillotine was the final political arbiter. Killing nobility was obviously a bad precedent for European monarchies and they mobilized to restore the French monarchy and eradicate the revolution lest it spread. To meet this threat, the French instituted the levée en masse that mobilized the totality of the French nation.
The Frederick the Great Model
The Frederician system of warfare relied on highly trained professional armies made up principally of paid volunteers that were augmented by conscription depending on the practices of the country. These were the days of soldiering for the king’s shilling. The costs of armies coupled with the fact that they were financed by the king meant that they were small. In 1772, Frederick’s peacetime army was the third largest in Europe at 190,000, behind those of Austria (297,000) and Russia (224,000).
Losses in battles, given the tactics and weapons of the day, were high and could be equivalent on both sides. At the April 1741 Battle of Mollwitz, Frederick’s 21,600 soldiers faced 16,000 Austrians. Despite their victory, the Prussians suffered 4,850 casualties to the Austrians’ 4,550. Frederick’s instructions to his officers show why combat in his era was such a deadly affair:
battalions must attack when they are within twenty paces, or better still, within ten paces (at the commander’s discretion), and give the enemy a strong volley in the face. Immediately thereafter they should plunge the bayonet into the enemy’s ribs, at the same time shouting at him to throw away his weapon and surrender.
In Frederick’s day, the solution to sustaining expensive, hard to replace armies was to constrain the demands of war. As Gregory Fremont-Barnes writes, the wars of the anciens régimes were intentionally limited, a “quest for territorial spoil or economic advantage without radically upsetting the existing balance of power between great empires.” Given the limited means of the various monarchies, this was unavoidable. Even so, armies were constantly scouring Europe for new recruits — foreign mercenaries at one point made up over one-third of the Prussian army. Like today’s modulated recruiting bonuses, the supply-and-demand dynamics of the marketplace in Frederick’s day determined how much it took to hire soldiers.
A Real Revolution in Military and Political Affairs
The French Revolution changed everything. Within a year after the August 1793 National Convention issuance of the levée en masse, the French army swelled to an unprecedented 1,500,000 citizens under arms. The Republic was the model of a nation of arms with a citizen-based and self-sustaining military, supported by a mobilized population and industrial base.
Napoleon wielded this instrument ferociously, rampaging across Europe until other states adopted his methods, if not the empowerment of their citizenry, to survive his onslaught. Ironically, responding to France eventually ended the absolute monarchies kings were endeavoring to preserve and changed politics in Europe, as well as military and mobilization methods, forever. Importantly, the levée en masse meant casualties could be replaced annually as a new class of young men came of age. This was the meaning of the refrain in La Mareillaise known by every French citizen: “If they fall, our young heroes, will be produced anew from the ground.”
Conscription enabled Napoleon to regenerate his army despite horrendous casualties. The famous Russia campaign is the starkest example. In June 1812, although accurate numbers are still elusive, some 600,000 men of the Grand Armée marched into Russia. Roughly 120,000 made their way out in December. Nevertheless, the levée en masse responded. By 1815 France had a reconstituted army of 300,000 and Napoleon took 73,000 soldiers into the fateful Battle of Waterloo.
The levée en masse became a universal model across European nations. They had to adopt the system or be woefully outmanned and unable to replace their considerable losses in a timely and predictable manner. These methods of war, organizations, and means of mobilization continued to develop after the Napoleonic wars. Mass armies manned with conscripts and armed by robust industrial bases were the new normal. On the eve of the Great War, armies were of a size Frederick and even Napoleon would have had difficulty imagining. In 1914, France had 4,000,000 men under arms; Germany 3,800,000; and Russia 5,971,000. These armies, whose enormous losses could be replaced with annual classes of new conscripts, would feed the near-insatiable appetites of two protracted world wars.
When the State Is Not in Jeopardy
Until the Vietnam War conscription was viewed as necessary in the United States — given the threats citizens that were being drafted to deter or fight. That war did not pose an existential threat, and sending Americans’ sons off to be killed or maimed in an increasingly unpopular war lost the support of the U.S. people. The war and the draft also ignited public unrest and protest became a political liability until it ended in 1973.
Relatively small (by Cold War standards) volunteer armies now constitute the norm in the United States. Following the end of the Cold War, most Western states have also ended or restricted their conscription practices. This includes China and Russia, who are also transitioning to professional forces, although both maintain active conscription systems. China has not had to rely on conscription, filling its ranks with volunteers. Russia still registers its citizens that come of draft age twice a year, but is moving (unevenly) toward a contract-based active force to increase professionalism. Draftees, after a year of service, enter the reserves to provide a mobilization capacity if needed.
Could the U.S. military stay in the fight with similar losses? The first logical place to look for personnel replacements in the event of a national emergency would be the Selective Service System. Since the end of the draft in 1973, the U.S. selective service infrastructure has atrophied. First, there is no demand from the Department of Defense for a draft. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report noted, “There are no operational plans that envision mobilization at a level that would require a draft.” Those supporting the all-volunteer force believe that “it is far more experienced, motivated, disciplined, and committed than the draft army during Vietnam. It is also considered the most effective fighting force the world has ever seen.” Thus, a return to the draft would reduce military effectiveness.
Furthermore, in its current state, the Selective Service System principally manages the registration of eligible males, because, despite occasional efforts to include women, they are currently exempt. Indeed, legislation is occasionally put forward in Congress to completely abolish selective service, including even registration by eligible males. More importantly, even if the system works as intended, it cannot begin conscription until Congress and the president authorize a draft. The first inductees would not report for processing until day 193 following the passage of the authorization law. It is worth noting that as of the date of the drafting of this essay, the Russo-Ukrainian War at day 125 is short of that 193-day mark by 68 days and replacing casualties trained personnel is already an issue for both countries. Finally, soldiers are not ready for service until they have successfully completed their initial training. In the case of an infantry soldier, One Station Unit Training is a 22-week program. In a best case, the first group of infantry soldiers would be available in approximately one year to ship out to combat.
There are also those who doubt whether the system could actually accomplish even this modest effort. The services are responsible for training inductees. During interviews for a 2018 Government Accountability Office review of the Selective Service System, military officials expressed doubts about the availability of adequate “training facilities, uniforms or funding to receive, train, equip, and integrate a large influx of inductees in the event of a draft.”
What is the Russo-Ukrainian War Showing?
A first-order observation coming out of the war in Ukraine is that modern major combat operations may not necessarily be short. Even though this war has gone on less than five months, it is still short by the standards of any major large-scale conflict between relatively equally matched adversaries. This suggests that what needs to be fundamentally reexamined is the new American way of war that has emerged since the end of the Cold War: that overwhelming American high-tech capabilities, wielded by superb professionals, will result in unstoppable offensives that will make wars “short, decisive, and accomplished with a minimum of casualties.”
What if this is wrong? Might future great power wars look like Ukraine, or worse?
We are witnessing a grinding war of attrition taking place primarily on land over territory that both sides covet. This only strengthens the resolve of both combatants. Furthermore, the longer the war continues, it appears the deeper the commitment of both Russia and Ukraine to victory becomes. And the more casualties each will suffer. Ukrainian Brig. Gen. Oleksiy Hromo told ABC News on June 17 that his military is losing 1,000 casualties per day in the heavy fighting in Donbas, with 200 to 500 of those killed on average in action daily. Ukrainian sources (which may not be reliable) hold that 35,000 Russians have been killed between the invasion and June 27, with many more wounded.
Consequently, force preservation, reconstitution of units, and casualty replacement are turning out to be crucial as both sides fight to endure and outlast the other. Accordingly, both Russia and Ukraine are combining depleted units and reaching back into their less well trained reserves and will surely look to its conscripts if the war continues.
Although it is beyond the scope of this current essay, the ongoing high levels of materiel wastage and the insatiable demand for munitions are also daunting challenges in a high-intensity protracted war. Conrad Crane’s article in these pages about the fragility of the U.S. military in attrition warfare is an important warning.
Furthermore, given the geostrategic realities in NATO, might U.S. forces, like the Ukrainian forces, have to operate on the defensive rather than offensive? If so, none of the emerging service and joint warfighting concepts emphasize defensive operations, nor are capabilities being developed to create a U.S. anti-access and area-denial capability. This is clearly at odds with the principal U.S. mission in NATO: to deter aggression. I have suggested that such an approach would demand a strategy of deterrence through denial and supporting concepts and capabilities, which conflicts with the fundamental preference of the U.S. military for offensive operations.
As Crane notes, “When I walk the halls of the Pentagon today, I still hear discussions about the importance of winning the first battle decisively.” More importantly, he believes (as I have also written) that there is a belief “that nothing like that [what is happening to the Russians] could ever happen to them.” This is a toxic mix of hubris and denial that could result in losing not just the first battle, but the war.
Thus far, as I have written in these pages, there seems to be a consensus that the central cause of Russian failures is attributable to a lack of professionalism, resulting from their untrained troops, lack of noncommissioned officers, and incompetent officers. If this is correct, then the U.S. military is in great shape. Move along, nothing to see here. These assessments are not only premature, but they are also exceedingly dangerous. There is a reason the U.S. military loses its first battles. It is not because it planned to do so. It is because it was prepared to fight the war it wanted, not the one that the enemy visited upon it.
That first battle may be protracted and the only one of a war if the United States cannot maintain adequate forces in the fight. Politically, one can only imagine what the NATO reaction would be to losing anywhere near what the Russians or Ukrainians have in just in a few short months of a war that still shows no signs of lessening its intensity. It is a battle the militaries modeled after Frederick the Great could not win until they woke up to the necessity of becoming Napoleonic.
Consequently, we have to look critically at the lessons from Ukraine as a catalyst to make the necessary changes to enable us to prevail against countries who are preparing to defeat us in the next first battle, banking on our inability to continue beyond that initial failure. The inability to keep units in the fight after significant attrition and to replace large numbers of casualties rapidly are in my view the Achilles’ heels of the all-volunteer professional U.S. military.
What to Do, Absent a Modern-Day Levée en Masse?
If in fact the possibility of protracted wars with significant personnel attrition are a possibility identified by the war in Ukraine, then the Department of Defense needs to understand how to meet the demands of force preservation, unit reconstitution, and personnel replacement. Putting one’s hopes in the renewal of the draft is almost surely not, given current national perceptions of the threats facing our country, a realistic near-term solution.
Although there are occasionally calls to institute a system of national service, the goal is to create better citizens and instill national unity, not meet the potential demands of replacing mass casualties. Regardless, these efforts have all failed to gain traction. Even in the face of a growing threat, it is an open question whether U.S. citizens would support conscription. It is worth recalling that the August 1941 bill to extend selective service to begin preparing the U.S. Armed Forces for World War II passed by only one vote in the House of Representatives. This was after Germany had conquered most of continental Europe and was driving deep into the Soviet Union. One could reasonably ask if Congress would authorize conscription before NATO was actually attacked.
Furthermore, increased recruiting efforts are not likely the answer. The services are already having difficulty meeting current goals peacetime objectives. The Army has met only 40 percent of its annual goal and recently announced that it would accept recruits without a high-school diploma or a General Educational Development certificate. This comes after already relaxing its tattoo standards.
How the American people would respond to a new draft as a hedge against great power war is unknowable. In any case, it is not a viable course of action for the U.S. military to rely upon absent its institution by authorization in law. Therefore, the Department of Defense needs to take steps to reduce its vulnerability to mass casualties. Below are several suggestions that, although certainly not comprehensive, are a necessary beginning.
Systems of rotational readiness should be abandoned and the individual replacement system and tiered-unit readiness reinstituted. As Robert Rush convincingly argues in his pathbreaking study Hell in Hurtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment, the individual replacement model enabled the U.S. Army to keep units in action. German forces did not have a similar system and their units eventually suffered attrition to the point of combat ineffectiveness. This will once again raise the argument that unit replacement systems result in more cohesive units. That is correct, all things being equal — but they are not. In a protracted war of attrition where battalions are being decimated as they are in Ukraine, the ability to man, train, and equip units will soon fall behind the demands of the war. Finally, replacements can be sent where they are most needed.
The maximum number of forces available at all times at a deployable level of readiness should be the goal for U.S. forces. This had been the enduring model in the Army with the exception of the decision to “modularize” into brigade combat teams to sustain the never-ending deployments to protracted counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Forces should be permanently based in key areas in Europe and the Pacific. Where there is not adequate infrastructure for families, military members should be assigned on short tours, as they were in Korea for decades.
The focus of combat medical care should be on returning soldiers as rapidly as possible to the fight. The U.S. military also needs to come to grips with two realities. First, its capacity is woefully inadequate for the numbers of casualties being sustained by either side in Ukraine. I led a RAND effort that came to a similar conclusion about conventional combat operations before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Second, in an environment with a significant air defense threat, evacuation by air will likely be impossible. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, praising the heroism of Ukrainian helicopter pilots flying supplies into Mariupol and evacuating wounded, stressed, “We lost a lot of pilots.” As David Barno and Nora Bensahel recently noted in these pages, “The war in Ukraine raises very serious questions about whether and how helicopters can be used effectively — or even survive — on the modern battlefield.” Consequently, there may be no “Golden Hour,” the current U.S. standard for getting wounded to medical treatment in a war, unless major advances are made in unmanned casualty evacuation.
Finally, the American people ought to be prepared for the realities of a war like that in Ukraine. We may assess we are better, but we should accept the reality that the capacity to inflict large casualties at range from Russian systems is very much present.
None of these options would be likely to sustain sufficient replacements for casualties in a long war of attrition. Nevertheless, they are measures the Department of Defense could begin taking action on in the near term that could provide time for the resuscitation of the Selective Service System in response to a crisis. They might buy the year needed to start the flow of replacements into the war zone.
The long-term demands of a protracted war with China or Russia will demand a modern-day American levée en masse with implications far beyond reinstituting conscription. As we are seeing again for the first time since World War II or Korea, the dogs of war have insatiable appetites for people, munitions, and materiel. We are also witnessing in real time the sacrifices this has demanded from Ukraine and Russia. The final question for us as a nation, as we ponder the realities of great power competition and conflict, is this: Are we up for the same?
David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945. From 2012 to 2014 he founded and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.