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Research Questions

  1. How can the United States assess and influence partner and adversary will to fight?
  2. What are the political, economic, and military variables that may strengthen or weaken national will to fight, and which are most important?

What drives some governments to persevere in war at any price while others choose to stop fighting? It is often less-tangible political and economic variables, rather than raw military power, that ultimately determine national will to fight. In this analysis, the authors explore how these variables strengthen or weaken a government's determination to conduct sustained military operations, even when the expectation of success decreases or the need for significant political, economic, and military sacrifices increases.

This report is part of a broader RAND Arroyo Center effort to help U.S. leaders better understand and influence will to fight at both the national level and the tactical and operational levels. It presents findings and recommendations based on a wide-ranging literature review, a series of interviews, 15 case studies (including deep dives into conflicts involving the Korean Peninsula and Russia), and reviews of relevant modeling and war-gaming.

The authors propose an exploratory model of 15 variables that can be tailored and applied to a wide set of conflict scenarios and drive a much-needed dialogue among analysts conducting threat assessments, contingency plans, war games, and other efforts that require an evaluation of how future conflicts might unfold. The recommendations should provide insights into how leaders can influence will to fight in both allies and adversaries.

Key Findings

National will to fight has been insufficiently analyzed, but RAND Arroyo Center's multi-method research has identified some key variables to help understand and influence it

  • Will to fight is poorly analyzed and the least understood aspect of war.
  • A country with more factors in its favor (e.g., high stakes, strong cohesion, popular support) should have stronger will to fight and thus a higher chance of victory.
  • Political context (i.e., government type and national identity) plays an underlying but important role in strengthening or weakening will to fight. The research supports the proposition that strong democracies and totalitarian states are better able to maintain will to fight (through very different means) compared with democracies in turmoil or states with a mix of democratic and autocratic traits.
  • The influence of economic variables on will to fight depends on a government's alliances and its engagement with other countries. A country's economic dependency on and support from its allies often matter more than economic pressures from an adversary.
  • The effective use of engagement and information (internally directed indoctrination and externally directed messaging) can greatly influence will to fight and thus should improve the chances of victory. These mechanisms are most effective before a conflict begins.
  • When will to fight is evenly matched, superior military capabilities and infliction of greater casualties should lead to victory — or stalemate. In some scenarios, however, the infliction of casualties is actually more likely to strengthen an adversary's will to fight than to weaken it.

Recommendations

  • U.S. Army and other leaders should undertake assessments of national will to fight in potential wartime allies and adversaries.
  • If leaders wish to incorporate considerations of will to fight into future analysis, they will need to update strategic guidance documents and military doctrine.
  • U.S. Army and other leaders should incorporate will to fight considerations into international engagements, from high-level political discussions to multinational military exercises and tactical training events.
  • For the U.S. Army to help guide U.S. government efforts to operate more effectively in the information space, Army and other leaders should understand and influence the indoctrination and messaging efforts of other countries.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    What Is Will to Fight and Why Does It Matter?

  • Chapter Two

    Why Do Governments Persevere in War?

  • Chapter Three

    Exploring the Model Across the 20th Century

  • Chapter Four

    The Korean Peninsula: Will to Fight and the Arc of History

  • Chapter Five

    Russian Will to Fight and the Arc of History

  • Chapter Six

    Findings and Recommendations

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans, and Training, U.S. Army (G-3/5/7) and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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