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:
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:
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.