In the wake of victory in the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. armed forces were widely acknowledged to be the best in the world. Indeed, the combination of suitable doctrine, exceptional training and discipline, and technological dominance provided such overmatch against conventionally armed opponents that onlookers posited a coming age of American military supremacy. A revolution in military affairs underpinned by precision-guided munitions and new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems would provide battlespace dominance and enable rapid, decisive operations that could quickly collapse an enemy armed force or regime by directly attacking its center of gravity. A "Pax Americana" would guarantee peace and prosperity for the indefinite future.
Wars against irregular opponents in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade have tempered such visionary notions. After dramatic conventional operations that quickly dispatched the Taliban and Iraqi armed forces, the U.S. military and its allies found themselves enmeshed in guerrilla conflicts for which they were ill-prepared. The focus on technology and conventional warfighting left all too many military leaders intellectually unprepared to adapt to the kind of wars they faced, rather than trying to mold the conflicts into the kind of wars they wanted. After several years of drift, a number of leaders stepped forward to fashion new doctrine, improve training, and create viable operational concepts to wage counterinsurgency warfare. The result was a military victory during the surge in Iraq and the reversal of the Taliban tide in Afghanistan. The outcomes of both conflicts are still uncertain, but this has more to do with strategic failings concerning the decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place and our inability to force Pakistan to close down insurgent sanctuaries on its soil than with inadequate operational capabilities of the U.S. armed forces.
Just because American military superiority did not lead to the desired outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan does not mean that we should swing to the other extreme and believe that the expense of maintaining conventional dominance has not been worth the cost. American naval and air forces dominate the seas, skies, and space of the global commons, creating a stable environment for interstate commerce and international exchange. American land power has stabilized a number of regions, among them Europe and Northeast Asia, that for centuries were among the most volatile in the world. These manifest accomplishments were the result of astute diplomacy backed by American military superiority. The absence of major interstate war today is the result of American strength, not weakness.
American strength relies to a great degree on the capabilities of its military forces. There are a number of factors that go into determining their combat effectiveness, among them leadership, discipline, morale, doctrine, command and control, adaptability, intelligence, interservice cooperation, fire support, endurance, and technology. Many of these factors are determined more by brainpower, organization, and good training than by large military budgets. Furthermore, a greater percentage of U.S. soldiers have combat experience today than in the armed forces of any other major power, a not negligible advantage that the U.S. military will retain for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, advanced technology is crucial to the effectiveness of military forces, and those militaries that fail to adapt to new technology are likely candidates for defeat in battle. Although U.S. military forces in the Gulf War might have been able to switch equipment with the Iraqi military and still prevail, the outcome would no doubt have been much bloodier. The cost of exceptional arms and equipment is a small price to pay to prevent filling tens of thousands of body bags on the battlefield.
Few weapons emerge from the design and experimentation stages without flaws. This observation especially applies to new types of weapons, such as remotely piloted vehicles. Looking at an M1A2 Abrams tank today, it is hard to envision that its predecessor was the slowly, clunky machine of World War I vintage that could travel at less than 5 miles per hour and that broke down after a few dozen miles of use. The same applies to modern fighter jets, which originated from biplanes built of canvas, wood, and wire. The complaints of some observers that the performance of the MQ-9 Reaper is "pathetic" miss the entire point that a new era of air weaponry has dawned. The remotely piloted vehicles in the U.S. Air Force of the future will dwarf the capabilities of those now in service -- that is, unless the United States decides to stop their development. In that case, the same technological outcome will occur, but the most effective weapons on the planet will be Chinese or Russian instead of American.
Technological prowess is of more than just passing interest to soldiers at the sharp end of combat. The last time that U.S. ground forces came under air attack was the spring of 1953, during the Korean War. Nearly 60 years on, American soldiers can still fight without worrying about attack from manned enemy aircraft. As a result, the U.S. Army has been able to economize thousands of soldiers by disbanding short-range air defense units. If the F-22 fighter is necessary to ensure that happy situation extends into the future, then it is worth the cost. Exercises rigged to display the aircraft's vulnerability in short-range combat miss the point that enemy aircraft will rarely be able to close the distance to gun range. Shooting down enemy aircraft with long-range missiles may not be as sexy as a dogfight, but the outcome is the same. Dead is dead. If the problem with the F-22, rather, is lack of training time for its pilots, then cutting their flying hours by reducing the Air Force budget is hardly the answer.