The Evolution of Military Strategy Since 1980

By Larry E. Bush, Jr. /

“Those skilled in war subdue their enemies armies without battle. They capture their enemies’ cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without a protracted operation.” “-Sun Tzu”

Its 0730 hours, Sunday morning on the 23d Day of October 1983. The sun was just starting to heat up the desert, and a warm breeze drifted across the desert sand from the East. Young Marines were just beginning to move about preparing themselves for the day’s activities. Guards and weapons were being exchanged at the front gate. Some Marines and Sailors were preparing themselves for Sunday religious services. There was confusion at the front gate and suddenly a large bomb exploded.

​A suicide bomber detonated a truck bomb at the building serving as a barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines (Battalion Landing Team – BLT 1/8), killing 220 Marines, 18 sailors and 3 soldiers, making this incident the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Armed Forces since the first day of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War.

In an instant, the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan found himself standing on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Delaware as the caretaker of 241 flagged draped caskets.  Clearly moved by this tragedy, Ronald Reagan came to realize that the U.S. Military was not prepared for fighting this new asymmetric threat. He realized that his military leadership was still fighting the last war and had learned very few lessons from the Vietnam War.  Which was for the most part completely asymmetrical.

The Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, knew changes had to be made at the highest levels of military command and quickly.  Quietly, he began to seek out the advice of General Colin Powell and others in that generation of Vietnam veterans to help transform the military into the world’s best fighting force.  He tasked the pentagon to develop a new forward-thinking strategy that would exceed expectations and carry the Armed Forces into the 21st century and beyond.

Later, this strategy became known as “Warrior 21”.  The overarching principle is to always look forward and plan for the next war, not the one in the past.  Retired General Gordon Sullivan was once asked, “How do you prepare soldiers for a distant conflict if you don’t know what kind of threat will emerge in the future.” He said, “you climb on top of the mountain, or the highest building you can find, then you look out as far as you can see across the valley.  When you pick out a point in the distance, you point all of your resources toward that objective.”

Strength, Speed, and Agility became the foundation of this new strategy as Warrior 21 began to take shape.  Those commanders that could know adapt to the new strategy and concepts were quickly dismissed. Major commands were streamlined and a new force was added to the MACOM structure and designated as United States Special Operations Command, USSOCOM.

​In military terms, these changes were coming at lighting speed.  By the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term in office, the U.S. Armed Forces had turned 180 degrees and was pointing at the future.  The mantra of Strength, Speed, and Agility became crystal clear during the next administration when President George H.W. Bush found himself faced with burning oil fields in Kuwait, which Saddam Hussain had suddenly incorporated as part of his ancestral lands that belonged to Iraq.  The full implementation of this forward-thinking strategy can be historically evaluated during this conflict.

During this administration Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, which gave him a front row seat to implementing this strategy.  He implemented what would later be known as the Powell Doctrine. This is a reference from his book, “An American Journey” in which he listed 10 guiding principles that would help every commander at every level. For us, the Powell Doctrine meant simply to ask yourself how many soldiers do you need to win a battle? When you decide on a number you double that amount.

This overwhelming force moving with Strength, Speed, and Agility will force an enemy into submission in very short order.  Remembering the lessons from Vietnam, this new group of commanders chose to break the enemies will using strategic targeting options.  When Colin Powell was asked in a press briefing what was the American strategy? He said, “we are going to cut his army off and then we are going to kill it.” That’s exactly what we did.  

General Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander CENTCOM, decided on the size, disposition, and strength of his forces, and then he doubled that number.  His original decision to put 125,000 troops on the ground, eventually became 250,000 with full combat loads. The brilliance of General Schwarzkopf Campaign Plan was its simplicity.

First, control the airspace over the battlefield and then kill all Iraq’s communications systems. Within the first 24 to 48 hours, the U.S. had air and ground superiority over Saddam’s forces.  Before moving a vehicle on the battlefield, General Schwarzkopf destroyed Iraq’s logistical lines and now all Saddam’s forces were trapped in place where many of them went to their eternal rest. Those that could move, either gave themselves up to the Americans as quickly as possible, and those that tried to escape the battlefield where trapped on the border with Kuwait, where they were cut off and killed in tremendous numbers.

It took only 100 hours to dispatch Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, and General Schwarzkopf had an open pathway to Baghdad had he chosen to do so.

This military strategy has been repeated multiple times since the first Gulf War.  Commanders decide how many troops they need to win the battle, then double that number.  Stay ahead of technology by gaining air superiority, then destroy the enemy’s ability to communicate with subordinate forces from the top down. Destroy the enemy’s logistical lines no matter how sophisticated or primitive.  When they have no ability to shoot, move, or communicate they will then submit to overwhelming force.

Finally, the most important development in the evolution of military strategy has been the elimination of politics from the military decision-making process.  Before and after the end of the Vietnam War, the Commander-In-Chief exercised a political metric into the military decision process. You would often hear words like “peace keeping” describing military operations.  Soldiers would often not be allowed to charge their weapons when under threat because the “rules of engagement” had a political component to them. This meant that many politicians would use the military to make up their political shortcomings.  

We learned our lessons well from the past. Now the military option is firmly presented as the final option, before all other elements of power have been exhausted. It was in this conflict that the United States first imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, and when that didn’t work the U.S. implemented a political strategy through the UN calling for multiple resolutions.

After Saddam Hussein failed to act on UN resolutions to leave Kuwait, the President of United States presented his case to the American people. In a clear and decisive message, he explained to the American people that America had exhausted all political and economic options and that we need the domestic support of U.S. Citizens to complete this strategy.  

The strength of the U.S. Military is directly linked to the domestic power of the people within its borders. There is no other country on the planet that can transform its domestic engine overnight to support military operations in the way the US can.  When called on to do so, General Motors can stop making trucks and start making humvees, domestic aviation carriers will become troop transport aircraft, and logistical support providers such as Kraft foods can start packaging MREs. Across America, children will begin to collect parcels to send to troops overseas.

The power of the people in support of military strategy cannot be overstated.  
​When all economic and political options have been exercised, then the President must go to the American people to win the domestic support. With the people’s support, the President can then turn to the military for action.  

Once the decision is made for military action, the world knows that American Military Forces are coming to fight. Without proceeding through the economic, political, and domestic process before exercising the military option will leave soldiers standing at the gates without being able to load and fire their weapons at the enemy. That should never happen again.