Small Wars Journal

LSCO is a Lost Art…and it’s About Time

Sun, 12/13/2020 - 9:15pm

LSCO is a Lost Art…and it’s About Time

By Major Kaman Lykins

“A brilliant man would find a way to not fight a war.”–Isoroku Yamamoto, Marshal Admiral, Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN)

            War is one of the oldest and most terrible of human endeavors and Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO) is war at its conventional zenith. Of course, most would agree that reducing the effects of war to a simple calculus of blood and treasure is crass and callous. Yet these two cursory measurements can shed light upon the sheer devastation war can, and has repeatedly, wrought. According to John Harrington and Grant Suneson in an article from USA Today entitled “What were the 13 Most Expensive Wars in US History?” major wars from 1914 through the current war on terror have cost the world a staggering $12.34 trillion in current U.S. dollars and an estimated 121 million military and civilian lives.[1] As warfare, weaponry, and military technologies consistently evolve, war has continued to exact its fee in terms of lives and resources, despite research and development advances in precision weaponry and improved intelligence collection. Nations strive to develop weapons and tactics more destructive than the previous generation in a deadly competitive and deliberate march toward the perception of security, driven by an arms industry forever pursuing increasingly astronomical financial benefits to a few and fatal consequences to national policies, military members, and the common citizen for most.

War is not a multi-tool

If the past 20 years of continuous war have taught the U.S. anything, it is that war alone does not act as a panacea for foreign policy problems. America’s longest war has provided a glaringly obvious reality: A military built for conventional large scale combat cannot guarantee victory in any other form of conflict. The United States has a demonstrated propensity to engage in “socially sanctioned violence” (JP 3, I-3) much like Sun Tzu’s defeated warrior- seeking victory after going to war. Despite the U.S. military’s obvious shortcomings in achieving national strategic objectives, it continues to put its focus on LSCO in an effort to reclaim its own organizational relevancy by attempting to revitalize an irrational necessity.

The present international environment does not warrant the singular emphasis on LSCO. Even a minimal understanding of recent history tries to tell military leaders they must refocus for success. However, the Department of Defense still bemoans the loss of the military’s ability to conduct LSCO, arguing it is a lost art, and out of inevitability, must be retrained and reemphasized. LSCO is indeed a lost art, and I hope it will remain so.  


            Since 2001, the US has spent more than $6.4 trillion dollars fighting terrorism in the name of a safer world.[2]


Considering the cost in both resources and lives, the U.S. military must candidly assess the results. As the saying goes, “was the juice worth the squeeze?” I would argue, no. The U.S. has been singularly-focused on defeating enemies the only way it knows how; through the employment of overwhelming military strength. Meanwhile, peer nations have endeavored to change the international system through sub-conflict employment of various elements of national power in the background. As an example, during the United States’ $6.4 trillion global counter-terrorism venture the Chinese invested a “humble” $1 trillion in the Belt Road Initiative (BRI).[3] The global war on terror has lasted nearly 20 years, while the Chinese have been operating the BRI since 2013, a mere seven years. Which nation has benefited from their operational efficiency the most?

So what works?

While the United States has been exporting its military efforts pursuing terrorists in the darkest corners of the world, the Chinese have exported infrastructure, economic opportunity, and a worldwide trade initiative involving 125 nations.[4] According to the World Bank, the Chinese have lifted more than 850 million people out of poverty.[5] This is more than twice the population of the United States.

Chinese efforts can certainly be argued as self-serving and in no way philanthropic, as their human rights record consistently shows. Additionally, their success should be a red flag to all casual observers of international relations. Fundamentally, China has achieved tremendous economic growth and international influence while achieving major strategic objectives without providing clear intentions of their ultimate goals. However, despite the warning signs the West may take from these changing conditions, the fact remains nation after nation has signed onto and are generally benefiting from their BRI investments. The enactment of this unique strategy has proven difficult but effective. This initiative is unlike any in the world’s history and the Chinese are solidifying their survival and achieving strategic objectives in new and distinctive ways while also avoiding violent reactions from the United States.

            Despite these facts and realities, the US Department of Defense continues to draw $732 billion of the Unites States national budget, while the Department of State and USAID combined receive far less, at $40 billion.[6] This is a ridiculous mismanagement of funds, considering the current threats to the United States. It makes one wonder, what international developments are signaling a need for such a robust military budget. Are the United States’ claims of peer and near-peer threats from Russia and China legitimate and demanding of such a commitment of resources to the DoD almost singularly focused on LSCO?

            One of the supposed near-peer threats is Russia. However, the Russian military budget is $65.1 billion – a mere tenth of the total U.S. military budget.[7] Both China and Russia are limited in military spending by their overall GDPs to be sure, but their spending trends are not indicative of the “peer threat” fearmongering of the Department of Defense’s most recent strategic guidance. Of course, China and Russia may be able to do more with less in the absence of a bloated military-industrial complex. Alternatively, maybe they are able to invest much less in their respective militaries due to tremendous technological dominance. Either way, the Department of Defense is being out maneuvered in obvious ways. 

In reality, neither China nor Russia pose a significant military threat to the U.S. nor recently has either conveyed violent intent against the United States through military means. Rather, their actions over the past two decades reveal a different strategic track altogether - a brilliant international strategy on the part of both nations that operates in America’s weaknesses and is meeting with great success: soft power. China and Russia have consistently been advancing their strategic interests while the U.S. fights its small wars to little strategic benefit relative to the cost, indicating their unique employment of soft power is the future.

Russia and Soft Power

Russia reclaimed Ukraine in 2014 after planning and conducting operations as early as 2003.[8] For Russia, capturing Crimea was notably quick, simple, and well below large-scale conflict. Despite U.S. finger-wagging, pledges, and promises NATO and the West did nothing substantial to prevent or respond to the aggression. For all the DoD’s massive, outsized budget, the hundreds of billions of dollars allocated for defense did little to help the Ukrainian people. In the end, Russia achieved a major strategic and political objective. The costly U.S. military sat unresponsive, technologically capable, and completely powerless. 

Further, Russia spent years studying the critical vulnerabilities of the United States electoral system. By utilizing minimal election interference through social media, Russia was able to help in bringing the legitimacy of an entire presidency into question for more than two years.[9] These simplistic efforts have helped divide the nation, throwing future election results into an interminable suspicion, as currently evidenced. For such a significant result, Russia paid surprisingly little, both in terms of resources and in terms of repercussions.

Essentially, the Russians have studied and know where our “threshold of violence” will be engaged. They are masters at conducting strategic activities just below this threshold, rendering the US military a resource without a purpose. Russia has proven the ability to achieve ends with minimal and efficiently executed means. Other examples include; sea routes and land claims in the North Pole, air interdiction near Alaska, and land claims in northern Japan. They are not the only ones. The Chinese have also discovered the utility of knowing the United States’ engagement criteria and are skillfully operating around it to achieve strategic objectives without fear of reprisal from the powerful U.S. military machine.

China and the BRI

The Chinese have utilized diplomacy, information, military, and economic (DIME) means to initiate an “Enticement Point Strategy” designed to ensure their survival.[10] By making themselves invaluable to the world economic system, they place themselves in the center of the economic world. Investments in less-developed nations under the BRI, couples the growth of the recipient nation’s economy with China’s own economic growth and creates opportunities for future development for the recipient nation. In the short term, China receives resources and capital in exchange for the infrastructure. In the long term, China is creating an economic web of financially linked nations with tremendous manufacturing and prospective growth. It is a brilliant plan which has the potential to extend their influence across the globe without the need for an expeditionary military force. Rather, they are focused on defense of their own country, and protection for their international investments in other nations. This has proven to be a much less expensive option and the Chinese have achieved and are still achieving extensive global objectives.

The LSCO obituary

“Conventional war is dead,” writes author Sean McFate in his book The New Rules of War.[11] Good riddance. Enough money has been spent, enough lives have been lost, and the world is finally, and hopefully, evolving past the need for massive military forces to move and fight around the world leaving unfulfilled objectives and irreparable damage in their wake. Large militaries are expensive to maintain, dangerous to employ, and extremely difficult to justify in the current global environment for the foreseeable future. Moreover, having an overly expensive military consuming a tremendous portion of the annual budget indefinitely often, by virtue of sunk costs, leads to its employment in situations wherein other, often more viable and less violent options are available. The U.S. military has become a too common solution, backed by powerful corporations which prioritize financial growth as they interfere in shaping strategy, rather than by elected leaders facing policy realities.

Some military scholars believe powerful militaries are key to a “deterrent” philosophy. Large, skilled ready forces, they argue, prevent violence through fear of action. Some of the most prevalent evidence supporting deterrence theory is the absence of major world wars since 1945.  Was it the U.S. military or the effective neutering of Germany and Japan as well as the invention of the United Nations which has caused this trend? Advocates of deterrent strategy often claim large armies are much like nuclear weapons. As Dr. Oppenheimer said himself,


If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nation’s preparing for war…The people of this world must unite or they will perish.” Acceptance Speech, Army-Navy "Excellence" Award (16 November 1945)


            For Dr. Oppenheimer, deterrent strategy was an “all or nothing” concept. This has proven to not be the case. In the modern age, even as the United States fought insurgencies and its small-scale wars, its counterparts have demonstrated how states can avoid major conflict and achieve strategic objectives below the West’s threshold of violence. Deterrence has, perhaps, prevented large-scale conflict, but not prevented near-peer states from subverting American power and influence, in the end. Whether China and Russia were compelled to act in the Grey Zone out of simple pragmatism, due to nuclear deterrence, or because of the conventional deterrent of a massive military force is irrelevant. In an international environment where states actively engage in and win sub-conflict competition, perhaps it is time to revise how we view conflict and war.

If we continue to sit atop our watchtower, ready to deploy and destroy anyone who crosses our “red lines”, how long do we wait while nations around us achieve strategic goals below our threshold of action? Limited resources must be allocated with fiscal and strategic responsibilities in mind. Further, an accurate and honest understanding of the world’s international stage, rather than Don Quixote style windmills, must dictate these resource allocations.

The Future without LSCO

We must rethink our methods and restructure our priorities in order to engage the world in this new style of conflict, while also maintaining the ability to keep the peace. These characteristics are not mutually exclusive but must be pursued as two distinct yet coordinated efforts. It will require a “whole of government” approach involving all government agencies working in synchronization. This will also include a change of focus for the DoD. Recent developments, to include the defunding of the University of Foreign Culture and Military Studies (UFCMS) which focuses on design thinking and red-teaming, indicate the DoD is still not prioritizing the need for a cognitive shift from LSCO and other related forms of kinetic conflict to principles such as Irregular Warfare (IW) and other non-kinetic focused disciplines. 

            This realignment and reprioritization will require a major perspective change. Instead of looking at the world through a geographically-oriented strategic lens of allies and enemies, we must thoroughly and regularly assess the intertwined and frequently shifting web of relationships to understand the international system as a whole. We must see beyond a nation’s strategically advantageous physical existence and understand geographic location or even political alignment is not as important as how strong our relationship is with the foreign nation. Preemptive changes to relationships can predict major conflicts and provide alternate avenues for avoiding war, or LSCO. Military partnerships; smaller, more flexible regular units; Special Operations Forces; and other alternative means of military engagement outside of conventional forces for deterrence and combat can aid in preventing further escalations of unnecessary violence and destruction. 

            Such a shift in priorities does not mean the world will be less violent. Quite the contrary. LSCO has been replaced with small-scale conflicts, drug cartel-driven violence, corporate powers, and terrorism. This reality should cause the U.S. military to restructure, refocus, and reallocate funds to a “whole of government approach.” The Department of State and the Department of Defense budgets should be much more balanced and weapons beyond those which destroy, should be invested in and utilized. This equilibrium will be vital for the United States to achieve its national objectives and maintain its international legitimacy. Failure to readjust this fiscal balance will lead to more “pointless wars,” lives lost and international influence squandered. This reality should not come as a surprise to policy makers or military members, but rather, as a relief. Perhaps the world has finally and thankfully evolved past large-scale war. Are we ready?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, or he U.S. Government.


[1] John Harrington and Grant Suneson, USA Today, What were the 13 Most Expensive Wars in US History?,, June 13, 2019


[2] Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University, Costs of War,, January 2020.


[4] Ibid.


[5] The World Bank, Overview, December 28, 2017.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Joshua P. Mulford, “Almost everyone lost the Russo-Ukranian war: Russia, Ukraine, the EU, the United States. The only winner was China. “Non-State Actors in the Russo-Ukranian War” Connections. 15 (2): 89-107 2016.


[10] Kaman Lykins, The Enticement Point Strategy, MMAS Thesis, CGSC, June 2020.


[11] Sean McFate, The New Rules of War, 36, 2019

About the Author(s)

Major Kaman Lykins is a Civil Affairs Officer with experience in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He currently serves as the Deputy G9 at 10th Mountain Division Fort Drum, NY.


The defense budget of the U.S. rose to 37.5% of total GDP.  For comparison, in 2020 the U.S. defense budget was around 3.7% of GDP. Which is kinda the same,  as long as you ignore that the decimal point has shifted one, giant, step to the left. As you can see, a huge chunk of the economy at the time was oriented towards the war. In fact, the U.S. spent much more than any other country involved in the war ever did.


Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:30am

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