Welcome To 1939
Reading about the state of the European military establishment led me to ponder historical parallels. The best analogy is the interwar period between the two world wars:
Interwar years: End of First World War leads to military spending cutbacks and Western reluctance to risk another war.
1991 to 2001: Victory in the Cold War has opinion leaders and politicians discussing all of the uses of the peace dividend. Military spending is cut back in Europe and the United States.
Interwar years: Regional conflicts breakout (Spanish Civil War, Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Japanese invasion of China). West seeks diplomatic solutions via League of Nations and economic embargos.
1991 to 2001: Regional conflicts breakout (Yugoslavia/Kosovo, Somalia, Rwanda Genocide, Iraqi no fly zone enforcement, Palestine). West seeks diplomatic solutions via United Nations and economic embargos. Use of military power is reluctant and sparing.
Interwar years: Dangerous leaders take power, announcing their plans in advance (Hitler, Mein Kampf). West ignores warnings.
1991 to 2001: Dangerous leaders announce their plans in advance (Bin Laden, declares war on West). West ignores warnings.
Interwar years: International treaties designed to guarantee peace are broken (Versailles, Locarno, Washington and London Naval Agreements) with no meaningful attempt to enforce them. Germany re-arms.
1991 to 2001: International agreements designed to guarantee peace are broken (Gulf War cease fire, Oslo Accords) with no meaningful attempt to enforce them. Iraq re-arms.
Interwar years: West passes by easy opportunities to squash problems before they escalate (German advance into Rhineland in 1935 could have easily been countered by French Army).
1991 to 2001: United States misses several opportunities to capture or kill Bin Laden.
Interwar years: Shock of German aggression leads West to conclude that Hitler’s demands will be never ending. Re-armament begins in earnest.
1991 to 2001: WTC attack points out the need to beef up the military. United States and major European nations begin to increase defense spending.
Interwar years: Military technology and doctrine advances render much existing military equipment (battleships and fortifications) and planning (linear defense and naval planning) obsolete. Much of the technology is driven by the civilian market (aircraft development and production techniques) rather than by military planning and strategy.
1991 to 2001: Military technology and doctrine advances render much existing military equipment (aircraft unable to deliver precision weapons and inadequate C3I equipment) and planning (Anti-Soviet focus) obsolete. Much of the technology is driven by the civilian market (information technology and advanced materials) rather than by military planning and strategy.
Welcome to 1939.
Naturally the analogy only goes so far. We are fortunate that at the moment we do not face a militarily powerful enemy. And there are some bad Evil Doers out there, but none yet seem to be at the order of magnitude of a Hitler or Stalin. But on the flip side it takes much longer today to build military power than it did in 1938. A major aircraft program can take 15 years to move from design to squadron size deployments. Major warships take 10 years to complete. Wars are much more come as you are affairs than they were in 1939.
What lessons can be drawn from this? I suggest two for starters. First, allowing your military to atrophy due to insufficient spending levels is a mistake. It wears the guts out of the force. You hemorrhage good people to the more advanced and interesting civilian economy making it that much more expensive when it comes time to fix the problem.
Second, it is better to step on a problem early rather than let it fester. Regional problems have a way of growing. People who announce they intend to kill you sometimes actually mean it. And some of them have more principles than you do and won’t compromise their view that you are the Devil just because you talk nice to them and give them some money.