Publication details

An Army Trying To Shake Itself From Intellectual Slumber, Part 1: Learning From The 1970s

  • For the past 3 decades, the US military has been using concepts and strategies developed during the Cold War for dealing with peer adversaries
  • The last fully-developed doctrine the Army has for high-end adversaries is AirLand Battle
    • AirLand Battle was developed after the Vietnam War
    • Reached its apotheosis during the military build-up of the ’80s
    • Hasn’t been significantly updated since
  • While Strategic Landpower was promoted as a replacement for AirLand Battle, it never caught on, and quickly vanished from the discussion
  • Now we have a new proposed doctrine: Multi-Domain Battle
  • What must be done to prevent Multi-Domain Battle from going the way of Strategic LandPower?
  • Need consensus on the specifics of the military problem
    • Adversary
    • Capabilities and weapons that must be countered
    • Terrain where the battle is expected to occur
  • In addition, new military concepts must be supportive of national strategy
    • New National Security Strategy document prioritizes security challenges facing the US
    • Provides broad guidance on the strategic path forward
  • How will the Army turn the political guidance of the National Security Strategy into concepts and capabilities?
  • The last time the Army was at such a crossroads was in the aftermath of Vietnam, when it turned itself from an army of tactical action against irregular enemies into an army of operational and strategic relevance against the Soviet Union
    • I’m not so sure about this - according to Nagl, the Army was never really all that interested in being an “army of tactical action against irregulars”
    • The US Army always prosecuted the Vietnam war as if it were fighting a conventional war against the regular North Vietnamese Army

Concept Development and Consensus

  • Conceptual coherence can only emerge from a consensus that there is a problem that must be solved against a specific adversary, with specific capabilities, in a specific place
    • Aye, well that’s the rub, isn’t it? Who is our specific adversary? Is it China? Is it Russia?
  • During the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact was a named and studied adversary
    • Provided the motivation for sustained strategic and conceptual thought
    • Specific Soviet capabilities became metrics for our weapons programs
    • Clearly defined location of engagement (inner-German border) provided terrain that could be understood and prepared for a variety of eventualities
  • The the Soviet Union fell and “history ended”
  • In the interregnum, a variety of concepts proliferated
    • Network-centric warfare
    • Effects-based operations
    • Halt operations
    • Air-sea Battle
    • Strategic Landpower
  • These concepts were all about what the US military wanted to do, and not what it would have to do against a competent, well-armed adversary
  • They were reinforced by a hubris that the US would remain the sole remaining superpower
  • Also reinforced by campaigns in which America achieved near effortless strategic superiority in almost casualty-free battles

Waking Up After Vietnam

  • Parallels between where the Army finds itself now and where it found itself after Vietnam
  • Gen. William DePuy feared that the Army had missed out on a generation of modernization, while gaining a generation of nearly irrelevant combat experience
    • And IMHO that attitude is exactly the problem with the US Army
    • The US Army has always systematically underestimated the value of the lessons learned fighting irregular opponents
    • The US Army deliberately forgot the lessons that it learned in Vietnam (by deliberately not recording them and deliberately not including those lessons in future training)
    • Now it is doing exactly the same thing with the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The real wakeup call was the Arab-Israeli war of 1973
  • Soviet-trained Arab forces using Soviet equipment bloodied the nose of the supposedly invincible Israeli military
  • The fear was that if “second-tier” Arab armies could do this using “export-grade” equipment, what would a “real” Warsaw Pact military formation be able to inflict?
    • Many historians say this fear was overblown - Arab armies and equipment weren’t actually that far removed from “real” Soviet formations
  • After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the US Army embarked on a doctrinal transformation
  • Explicitly focused on NATO conflict against Warsaw Pact
    • This was believed to be the most difficult mission the Army would have to fulfill
    • If the Army could hold its own against Soviet ground forces, everything else could be treated as a lesser-included cases
  • 1976: Army publishes FM 100-5: Operations
    • Defensive doctrine
    • Army’s main mission becomes the defense of Western Europe against a large, modern Soviet armored force
    • This manual eventually became Active Defense doctrine
  • FM 100-5 was almost immediately subject to controversy
    • Too much emphasis on defense, rather than offense
    • Focused too much on force ratios, at the expense of the psychological aspects of war
    • Focused too much on Western Europe, at the expense of neglecting contingencies elsewhere in the world
    • SACEUR Haig summed up the objections to FM 100-5 by saying that the purpose of defense was to allow an army to regain the initiative and go on the offensive, and the manual almost totally neglected this
    • However, despite its shortcomings, FM 100-5 did get the Army refocused on the possibility of war between major powers

The Warsaw Pact Challenge

  • In 1986 the Army publishes a revised FM 100-5
  • Maintained emphasis on conventional warfighting
  • Stressed importance of offense
  • Became the Army’s keystone warfighting manual, reflecting the latest understanding of the enemy and posited a theory of victory around which concepts and capabilities should be developed
  • Formed the core of the AirLand Battle doctrine
  • By the end of the Cold War, the Army had transformed itself into a force able to execute AirLand Battle with a high degree of competence
    • New weapons systems: the “Big-5”
      • Abrams main battle tank
      • Bradley armored fighting vehicle
      • Apache attack helicopter
      • Black Hawk utility helicopter
      • Patriot air-defense missile system
    • New training routines honed at new combat training center facilities
  • The challenge of the Warsaw Pact also forced inter-service cooperation
    • Army and Air Force developed joint doctrines to enable them to prosecute AirLand battle
    • Forced services to work together to solve a problem that neither could solve independently
  • These post-Vietnam reforms paid dividends in the limited engagements that the US embarked on at the end of the Cold War
    • Operation Just Cause to end the regime of Manuel Noriega
    • Operation Desert Storm to drive Saddam Hussein out of Iraq

The Problem of the Perished Peer

  • The end of the cold war and the removal of the Warsaw Pact as a common enemy
    1. Removed the lodestone for strategy and policy
    2. Removed the common problem that all US armed forces had to solve
  • Soviet Union was the glue that enforced “jointness”
  • In the face of post-Cold War budget cuts, inter-service cooperation turned into competition for increasingly scarce budget dollars
  • This was especially true of Air Force and Army
    • Air Force argued that increased precision strike capability obviated the need for large ground force contingents
    • Seemed to be vindicated by the early effectiveness of airstrikes in Operation Allied Force (Kosovo), Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq)
  • As Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom dragged on, the US Army once again focused on defeating insurgencies
  • Meanwhile Russia and China had treated Desert Shield, Desert Storm, the Balkan conflicts and the second Iraq war as wakeup calls and were embarking on long-term transformations of their military
  • Treat the US military much as the US military treated the Warsaw Pact forces during the cold war
  • Meanwhile, insofar as the US military was even thinking about conflicts against near-peer adversaries, it was focusing on concept-based capabilites development, rather than threat-based approaches