September 18, 2023 - 1:10pm

The Russo-Ukrainian War has been a wake-up call for Western politicians and strategists in many respects, not least of which is a reintroduction to the realities of what a full conventional war against a hostile power involves.

In the decades since the end of the Cold War, American strategists (and their British foederati) have become used to asymmetrical conflicts against low-tech opponents. Such wars can be long and ugly (and, as in Afghanistan, unsuccessful), but they haven’t made the same demands of Western militaries or voters as the wars fought by earlier generations.

To what extent either is still prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to fight that sort of conflict directly is a question posed sharply by a new paper from the US Army War College. Most strikingly, the report asks whether the United States should reintroduce conscription.

The authors, Katie Crombe and John A. Nagl, are blunt about the implications of the war in Ukraine for the US Army:

Army theater medical planners may anticipate a sustained rate of roughly 3,600 casualties per day, ranging from those killed in action to those wounded in action or suffering disease or other non-battle injuries. With a 25 percent predicted replacement rate, the personnel system will require 800 new personnel each day. For context, the United States sustained about 50,000 casualties in two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In large-scale combat operations, the United States could experience that same number of casualties in two weeks.
- Katie Crombe and John A. Nagl

At present, America is not recruiting anything like enough soldiers to sustain casualties at that sort of tempo. Worse, the recruitment crisis is a problem that compounds over time, for every soldier not recruited today is a trained reservist missing in the 2030s:

The Individual Ready Reserve, which stood at 700,000 in 1973 and 450,000 in 1994, now stands at 76,000. These numbers cannot fill the existing gaps in the active force, let alone any casualty replacement or expansion during a large-scale combat operation.
- Katie Crombe and John A. Nagl

If the United States wants to be ready for a large-scale conventional war — for example, a direct intervention to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion — then, the report argues, the implication is clear: “that the 1970s concept of an all-volunteer force has outlived its shelf life and does not align with the current operating environment”. More, “large-scale combat operations troop requirements may well require a reconceptualization of the 1970s and 1980s volunteer force and a move toward partial conscription.”

Crombe and Nagl don’t just rest their case on casualty rates. A war in which the US lacks the total technological and battlespace-information dominance it enjoyed in Iraq and Afghanistan is also necessarily more manpower-intensive. One needs more troops, empowered to make local decisions, to fight in a theatre in which satellites and drone strikes cannot be relied upon.

Yet realising this idea is another matter. A nation’s military is ultimately downstream of its culture. The US retains a far more Prussian attitude to its armed forces than any European nation, yet it still has a recruitment crisis. What’s more, it is now both deeply polarised at home and increasingly sceptical of interventions overseas.

The report urges America to heed the Ukrainian example, after its conscripted army has bought “lessons with blood that not only preserve their freedom but can also help the US Army deter and, if necessary, fight and win future wars at a lower cost of life”. Would any president be able, in the near future, to impose conscription? Especially in order to fight a war far from the US and its voters’ narrowing conception of its interests.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.