From our Just-When-You-Thought-It-Was-Safe-To-Get-Back-In-The-Water file:

An expert from the Rand Corp. suggests that more than a decade’s worth of experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has honed the U.S. Army’s ability to fight irregular adversaries. But the Army now faces a “crisis of relevance” for its future enemies, particularly “state-sponsored hybrid adversaries” similar to the Islamic State (ISIL), Hezbollah, Hamas and separatists in Ukraine.

The thoughts of Rand senior researcher David Johnson, a retired Army colonel, may get into the weeds for the average civilian. Critics may also find the implications of his belief in the inevitability of U.S. military engagement off-putting.

But they do offer an interesting challenge about Army engagement — the battles the U.S. has not fought but likely will fight in the future.

“Our potential adversaries know our capabilities — and our vulnerabilities — and they are adapting,” Johnson warns. “In some critical areas, we are overmatched now.”

As Johnson defines it, the state-sponsored hybrid is moderately trained and disciplined, with weapons that include small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, short-range rockets and roadside bombs and land mines; but also anti-tank and other more sophisticated shoulder-fired missiles.

Such forces often adopt tactics designed to avoid Western advantages in firepower, such as concentrating in cities to hide among the population, as ISIL has done.

If you fight the force with air power, you risk civilian casualties, which the enemy can exploit for propaganda purposes. The remaining option is ground forces, and Western nations are often reluctant to commit to putting large numbers of troops on the ground, he observes.

Equipment issues

Johnson also raises the question of equipment, particularly after more than a decade of adapting to what was needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. An unintended consequence of the new equipment is that it may be unsuitable for future engagement, he argues.

For instance: the Stryker Infantry Carrier was adopted by the Army because it could be rapidly deployed by C-130 aircraft. But slat armor and V-shaped hull modifications to protect it from rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan now bar it from being deployed from that aircraft.

In another case, a remote-controlled weapon system for Humvees can’t be dropped from the air, a key requirement for equipment in infantry battalions.

Johnson argues for more mobile firepower that can protect against high-end, anti-tank weapons and rocket-propelled grenades; systems to counteract drones; better cyber- and jam-proof communications, and more mobile, survivable tactical headquarters.

It’s likely to be an opinion shared by the defense industry and by many in the Pentagon who fear budget cuts from a war-weary civilian population.

“We are behind, and we need to impart the same sense of urgency to develop capabilities to counter hybrid and state adversaries that we did during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to defeat insurgents,” Johnson argues.

“And we need to do it now.”