Brent L. Sterling has been an adjunct lecturer at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University for the past twenty years, teaching courses on security studies, military strategy, and operations. He is the author of Other People’s Wars: The US Military and the Challenge of Learning for Foreign Conflicts and Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors? What History Teaches Us about Strategic Barriers and International Security. Dr. Sterling has spent the past thirty years as a defense analyst, including positions at the Central Intelligence Agency and consulting firms working for the U.S. Department of Defense.
In our interview with Dr. Sterling, we discuss how militaries learn (or don’t!) from foreign conflicts, what pitfalls await those trying to learn from historical conflicts, how focusing only on “relevant” observations hampers our creativity in analyzing warfare, and what strategists can do to avoid past mistakes. The following bullet points highlight key insights from our interview:
- In Other People’s Wars, Dr. Sterling provides a longitudinal evaluation spanning the 19th and 20th centuries on what the U.S. military learned from foreign conflicts. Exploring the Crimean, Russo-Japanese, Spanish Civil, and Yom Kippur Wars as use cases, Dr. Sterlingidentifies how effectively the U.S. assimilated key lessons from each of these conflicts and developed responsive capabilities across doctrine, organization, training and education, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P); drew erroneous conclusions; or failed to act altogether. Importantly, Dr. Sterling compares the success of learning from these wars across the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.
- Studying foreign conflicts allows the U.S. military to learn about new technologies, their applications, and novel problem sets, facilitating proactive responsesto problems before they are encountered in the field. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. Army was reconsidering the future of the bayonet. Observations from the Russo-Japanese War, where knife fighting was prevalent — especially in night assaults, given the heightened risk of friendly fire — led Army Leaders to determine that the weapon was still relevant, and should be maintained.
- Learning from foreign wars can be a challenging endeavor, as it frequently runs counter to deeply-rooted institutional biases.Services’ culture and bureaucratic politics can limit the implementation of lessons learned from other nations’ conflicts. Insufficient access to information can also prevent the Services from fully appreciating the important implications of remote conflicts involving less than peer adversaries.
- The U.S. military also needs to be mindful that other observers learn from foreign conflicts, too. For example, while the U.S. Army learned of the importance and adopted Anti-Tank (AT) guns from observing combatants during the Spanish Civil War, these weapons were quickly rendered obsolete by what other powers observed in this conflict, largely rendering AT guns ineffective by the advent of WWII. Thus, considering the viewpoint from other observers is critical in preparing for the next war.
- Cooperation with foreign combatants is more important than direct observation when trying to learn from foreign wars.Access to information and contextual perspective can allow for understanding of the conflict without requiring direct U.S. presence.
- Increased levels of disinformationwill make learning and effective decision-making more challenging, especially under the time pressure induced by conflict.
Stay tuned to the Mad Scientist Laboratory for the debut our new The Convergence podcast series entitled “How They Fight.” Our first episode will focus on Russia and feature subject matter experts from CNA, Center for a New American Security, Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, and the TRADOC G-2 discussing how Russia fights, addressing unmanned and autonomous systems, maneuver warfare, special operations, cyber warfare, information operations, proxy forces, and more!
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