For the U.S. Army, the last decade was one of surprises. In 2000, the army was focused on a somewhat distant future, in which weapons, equipment and tactics were expected to change in some vaguely science fiction fashion. Lots of effort was going into FCS (Future Combat Systems), a family of futuristic vehicles and weapons to replace current ones in twenty years or so. Same with Land Warrior, which would do the same thing for the infantry. Then came September 11, 2001, and things began to change in unexpected ways.
The rapid victory in Afghanistan, where 300 Special Forces operators and CIA field agents, won the war quickly, was a surprise to the public. The war in Afghanistan featured two weapons that were most responsible for victory over the Taliban. The most visible weapon was the smart bomb, usually a one ton, GPS guided weapon dropped from a B-52. The other widely used weapon was cash. Money. Defeating the enemy with a pile of greenbacks is often looked down on, but in Afghanistan it is often much more effective than bombs.
When the special forces and CIA agents went into Afghanistan in October of 2001, they already knew that, as the British had noted over a century ago, "Afghan's can't be bought, but they can be rented." Even the Taliban had used bribes to defeat some of the Northern Alliance warlords. Since there was no price list, and Afghan warlords knew the Americans had a lot more cash, there was a lot of negotiation involved. But for a few hundred thousand dollars, many warlords were willing to switch loyalty. Moreover, this was an ancient Afghan custom. A warlord became a leader of fighting men by having the resources to take care of his lads. That takes money, and the Americans had a lot more than the Taliban. Going into November and December, more pro-Taliban forces switched sides. This often happened even before a warlord's troops got hit with smart bombs. And a greedy warlord was sometimes led to lower his asking price after such an experience.
All this got the military theorists and pundits going on about how the Afghanistan experience was the future of warfare. It was, but it wasn't. What happened in Afghanistan was something the United States was ready for. The Special Forces and CIA had been preparing for something like this (supporting one side in a civil war), and we had the weapon to do it in the middle of nowhere (a country with no access to the sea); the smart bomb. Since only a few bombers could be put over Afghanistan (as they had to fly in from thousands of kilometers away), every bomb had to count. The smart bomb was no new wonder weapon, but one that had been around for over half a century. But Afghanistan happened at the time when the smart bomb had been perfected (with the GPS guided version), but not demonstrated in combat yet. Afghanistan was the demonstration. But Afghanistan was not the future of warfare. The "special" in Special Forces means troops trained for rare situations. Everyone kind of forgot that in the aftermath of the Afghan victory.
The real changes came when it was decided to bait the Islamic terrorist enemy out into the open, by threatening their base; the Middle East. This is one of the oldest strategic moves. When you can't force the enemy to face you in battle, go occupy something he has to come out and fight for. One of al Qaeda's major goals was to drive all non-Moslems, especially military personnel, out of the Middle East. So by invading Iraq, the U.S. not only removed one of the worst tyrants on the planet, but forced al Qaeda to man up and step up. They did, and were slaughtered by the thousands. In doing so, al Qaeda destroyed its standing in the Moslem world. That's because al Qaeda allied with one of their enemies, the secular Baath party. Saddam had used Baath to rule Iraq since the 1970s, and Baath decided that a terror campaign against the majority Shia Arabs would get them back in power. Al Qaeda believed that once the foreigners were driven out, they could take all the credit and crush Baath. But the large number of civilians killed (by Baath and and Qaeda suicide bombs, or Shia and Sunni death squads), appalled the Moslem world. While it was fashionable to blame the United States, this was Islamic radicalism doing what it does, covered in the media courtesy of the U.S. military (which provided enough protection for the Western media to allow the story to be publicized.)
Along the way, the American army went through some unexpected, and largely unreported, transformations. First, as the American military has done throughout its history, the army quickly adapted to the conditions it found itself in (in the middle of a major terror campaign), and defended itself, while training the new Iraqi army and police force. This was more difficult because the old army and police were dominated by Sunni Arabs, who were still the enemy and still fighting. But although the army was under heavy attack, their casualty rate was a third of what it had been in Vietnam, Korea and World War II. Better training, tactics, weapons, leadership and equipment was the reason. But that was not the kind of stuff that makes for exciting headlines, so it was ignored. Outside the military, at least.
As the army adapted, it also developed new weapons and equipment (remotely controlled gun turrets, missiles fired from UAVs, GPS guided rockets and shells, jammers to defeat roadside bombs, robots, new armor, new intelligence collection and data mining techniques, MRAPs, and so on.) This was an army of the future, able to not just move more quickly, but also able to evolve new ideas and techniques more rapidly. The army also found that some weapons, like their M-1 tanks and M-2 infantry vehicles were still very relevant.
The army also discovered that there was a down side to lower casualties. Troops were now spending more time in combat than ever before. As was discovered, and documented, during World War II, that the average soldier can only take so much combat (about 200 days worth) before they become psychologically unfit for the battlefield. The army then went on to find ways to delay the onset of this breakdown, and ways to cure it.
While the army was just taking care of business, that made it clear that a lot of Cold War era weapons systems were a waste of money. This led to the cancellation of some expensive systems (the Comanche helicopter, Crusader artillery vehicle, FCS and Land Warrior, just to name the big ones). But not just for the army. It became obvious that the Navy and Air Force, which were much less involved in Iraq, also had a lot of expensive new systems that were out of sync with reality. So DDG-1000 destroyer and the F-22 were sharply cut, and several other systems put on hold, or cancelled.
In the last decade, the U.S. Army went to war, and changed everything, not just the political landscape of Iraq and the al Qaeda's prospects and popularity ratings, but also the future of how wars are fought. Military commanders and planners the world over have been carefully studying what the U.S. Army did in Iraq, and is still doing in Afghanistan. This is the future of warfare, and no one wants to fall too far behind.