Is the U.S. Ready for War?
It always comes down to men killing their enemies in the mud, says Sen. Tom Cotton.
Is the U.S. ready for that kind of war? To find out, I met with Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton—a former platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq who now sits on the Armed Services Committee. “I still don’t think the Defense Department is doing enough to adapt quickly,” he said. Current wars have exposed the Pentagon’s “brittleness and lack of resiliency, and that’s in part going back to the drawdown during the Clinton era.”
“Different wars require different kinds of weapons,” he said. “You just look at three conflicts or potential conflicts. In Ukraine, you have heavy mechanized land warfare, and Hamas, you have intense urban combat. And in Taiwan, if it came to that, you would have a largely maritime conflict. Hamas doesn’t have tanks. So Israel doesn’t need Javelins.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention. And Ukrainians are very resourceful,” he continued. “The problem with the Soviet Union was not only that it was communist, but also that it was Russian. Ukraine exposes the fanciful thinking of many political leaders here and in Europe who believed that threats from Russia ended with the Cold War.”
But are we buying the right stuff? F-35 Lightning II fighter jets do amazing things, but don’t we need more adaptable weapons? “Machine guns can do a pretty effective job against paragliders,” Mr. Cotton says. “In Congress, when people think about technology as it applies to security, they think too much about whiz-bang keystroke warriors, that somehow you’re going to win wars just with cyber attacks or with hashtags.” He shakes his head. “It always gets down to men under arms in the mud on the ground killing their enemies until their enemies submit to their will.”
“The department needs to do a better job of that kind of thing. There’s still going to be a significant need for traditional battlefield technology for tanks and armored personnel carriers and munitions, for fighter squadrons, for new stealth bombers. The technology that matters most is technology that enables the soldiers who are out in front of the spear and makes it safer for them.” Mr. Cotton reminded me of the military adage invoking D-Day: “When the ramp drops, the bulls— stops.”
Then I sensed frustration. “It’s like pulling teeth to get the DOD to focus on what’s needed to fight and win the wars. Ukraine is a reminder that that kind of warfare has not vanished from the earth. There’s still going to be battlefields. There’s still going to be the infantry in the army that have to close with and destroy the enemy, to fire and maneuver as opposed to big brains sitting back in Washington, D.C., clacking away on keyboards and all of a sudden, you compel a nation to submit to your will.”
I nodded and said I agreed. Mr. Cotton quickly jumped in: “There was a lot of people who don’t agree with you and me, just to be clear, like mostly Democrats.”
But what about using commercial technology for warfare? “In 30 years of consolidation of the defense industry, there have only been three companies that have broken through at the department with a big splash. Elon Musk with SpaceX, and by extension Starlink. Palantir with Peter Thiel. And Anduril with Palmer Luckey. It should not take an iconoclastic billionaire willing to break china at the Pentagon. The department should be a lot more open to commercial off-the-shelf solutions.”
I reminded him that many engineers threatened to quit Google if they worked on artificial intelligence to help drones identify targets. “Unfortunately, the rot you see that has infested campuses over the last month with pro-Hamas rallies also extends in some cases to their engineering and their computer science departments. There’s no question about that.”
Has the U.S. lost its will? “We can have the weaponry and ships and aircraft, but if our adversaries don’t think we’re willing to use them, to defend ourselves and stop them, they don’t do much good.” In the Middle East, if “Joe Biden is not going to respond, and if he’s going to be shooting empty warehouses in eastern Syria, as opposed to blowing up IRGC barracks outside of Tehran—if I’m Xi Jinping sitting in Beijing, and I see that, it makes me think.”
Will we be ready for a China-Taiwan conflict? “You don’t have to be read into classified programs or have all that much imagination to realize that those drones you see swarming around Super Bowls or opening ceremonies might be pretty effective against Chinese ships or Chinese landing craft, if you could rapidly convert them into military usage.”
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