Publication Details

An Army Trying To Shake Itself From Intellectual Slumber, Part 2: From 9/11 To Great Power Competition

  • US military was dominant in military operations after 9/11
  • However, decisive initial successes proved to be illusory
  • Campaign plans woefully underspecified what would happen after the end of hostilities
  • As a result Iraq, especially, goes off the rails and ground troops find themselves in the middle of an insurgency
  • Insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan create political crisis and a demand for military solutions

The Failures of Fighting Insurgents as Peers

  • In 2006 (20 years after the publication of AirLand Battle FM 100-5) Army and Marine Corps publish FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency
  • Manual to deal with insurgency problem that they were not prepared to deal with in 2003
  • Institutionalized and formalized many of the ad-hoc adaptations already taking place
  • Conceptual shift from closing with and destroying the enemy to protecting the population
  • Surge in Iraq, combined with surge, restored security to Baghdad and Anbar province, stabilizing Iraq
  • FM 3-24 regularized what had previously been considered “irregular warfare”
  • FM 3-24 worked… until it didn’t
    • Rise of Islamic State showed illusoriness of gains carved out during surge
    • Counterinsurgency tactics never really worked in Afghanistan
      • Insufficient capacity
      • Different terrain
        • Afghan population was not concentrated in a few relatively large cities
        • Scattered across a broad swath of difficult terrain, with relatively poor infrastructure
      • Taliban had sanctuary in across the border in Pakistan, Sunni insurgents in Iraq couldn’t access cross border resources as easily
      • Militias in Afghanistan couldn’t be bought off like militias in Iraq
      • Afghan police and civil government were far behind Iraq in competence and experience

The Present Costs America The Future

  • US military adapts at all levels, not just doctrinally, to the demands of Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Cuts procurement of advanced vehicles for high-intensity combat in favor of replacing rear-area vehicles with more ambush/IED resistant versions
    • Comanche attack helicopter, Future Combat System, Crusader howitzer, and a number of other major programs were cut
    • Extant systems like the Abrams, Bradley and Stryker were modified to make them more survivable against insurgent weapons
    • These modifications increase weight and reduce maneuverability
  • US military develops a mindset that insurgencies are the new normal
    • Erodes AirLand Battle skills
    • US Army becomes expeditionary
      • Larger formations are dismantled to create more brigade combat teams, since the largest usable unit in counterinsurgency operations is a brigade
      • Soldiers train for individual tasks, flew by commercial aircraft to Iraq or Afghanistan, served a tour of duty and rotated home
    • This process caused the Army to lose much of its understanding of the rule of larger formations, like divisions and corps
    • Headquarters become glorified think-tanks, as their functional units are stripped to form more brigade combat teams
  • This leads to the same situation that Gen. DePuy saw after Vietnam - army has lost a decade of equipment modernization, and is doctrinally and experientially ill-prepared for high-intensity conflict
  • The US military does not know how to fight in a situation where air, maritime, space and cyber domains are contested
  • There were signs that near-peer adversaries had modernized their forces
    • Chechen Wars
    • Second Lebanon War of 2006
    • Russo-Georgian War
    • Russian and Chinese military exercises
  • However these signs were not sufficient to broaden the US focus beyond the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The wake-up call occurred when Russia returned to the scene
    • Invasion and annexation of Crimea
    • Stymieing of US attempts to depose Bashar Assad in Syria
  • The US faces a situation today that it has not faced since 1940 - competent, well-equipped potential adversaries in both the Pacific and the Atlantic
  • China and Russia both have home-field advantages
  • Have studied and planned specifically against US doctrine with their Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) weapons and tactics
  • Meanwhile the US has to simultaneously deal with the increasing capabilities of Russia and China, while also continuing to fight the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Similar to the situation the US found itself in during the Vietnam war
    • US forces in Europe became a hollow shell as resources were diverted to Vietnam
    • However, US forces in the Cold War had the “equalizer” of tactical nuclear arms
    • As forces were diverted to Vietnam, the remaining forces in Europe were increasingly equipped with tactical nuclear weapons to maintain their ability to blunt a rapid Soviet advance
    • Today, however, the US Army no longer has tactical nuclear weapons (what happened to them?)
    • There is a huge jump from conventional strikes to strategic nuclear weapons
  • Russia’s military modernization appears to specifically target this gap
    • New tactical nuclear weapons
    • Doctrine to force the US to choose between conventional war on unfavorable terms and strategic nuclear strikes with no options in between

Waking Up Again

  • US leaders now face the same dilemma they did in the 1970s - do you continue to prepare against counterinsurgency? Or do you prepare against peer adversaries?
  • First needs to recognize that there is a problem that needs solving
  • Needs to recognize that analysis should take precedence over experience, since the last relevant experience the US had against near-peer adversaries was 1941-1945
  • New National Security Strategy begins this process of assessment and prioritization
  • In addition, the US needs to limit its commitments on the periphery
    • Fight to not-lose rather than win
  • Example: Afghanistan
    • Effort to build a nation-state in Afghanistan has failed
    • The US should be asking itself: Why are we in Afghanistan and what is the least bad outcome there?
    • Maybe it’s sufficient to do the minimum necessary to prop up an Afghan government capable of preventing the country from turning into a terrorist safe haven
  • Take the pragmatic view that not every contingency is an existential crisis
    • It’s easy to argue that when your “contingency” hasn’t resulted in the destruction of two highly symbolic buildings and the deaths of thousands of American civilians
    • People did argue this very point when the US was going into Afghanistan after 9/11. Those people were roundly ignored.
  • Near-term existential problem is a nuclear armed Russia, but this time the problem is in Eastern Europe rather than Western Europe
  • China poses a long-term existential threat
    • Not a threat now, but will be a threat soon
    • So far the US response has been empty rhetoric - “pivot to Asia”
  • Important to note that recognition of interstate competition does not presage war
  • In fact, the presence of a clear and flexible deterrent that allows for a range of response options can help prevent war by preventing miscalculations
  • As in the 1970s, the Army is central to the US response to Russia
  • However, unlike the 1970s, the Army’s force structure and logistics are no longer suited to fighting a protracted conventional conflict
  • US Army is an expeditionary force, with limited forward presence in Europe
  • This leaves Russia with all the advantages when it comes to a conventional conflict in Eastern Europe
    • Numerical superiority
    • Materiel overmatch
    • Tactical nuclear weapons
    • Much shorter supply lines
  • A RAND corporation analysis found that it was possible for Russian troops to advance from the Russia-Estonia border to Talinn in as little as 60 hours
  • This would present NATO with nothing but bad options
    • Launch a bloody and risky amphibious invasion against dug-in Russian troops, leading to the threat of Russian nuclear escalation
    • Nuclear escalation on the part of NATO itself
    • Concede defeat (and thus show that the North Atlantic Treaty is no longer worth the bits used to store it)
  • While the US can take some steps to slow the conflict down, the US Army does not currently have the ability to deny the Baltics to Russia
    • Did the US Army ever have the ability to deny the Baltics to Russia?
    • I think that slowing down the conflict is the best you can do - if you don’t allow Russia to present the world with a fait accompli, then you can open space for diplomatic maneuvering and drum up support from allies for a decisive counterpush
  • If the Baltics fall, it’s not at all clear that NATO will be able to retake them
    • Polling in the most militarily capable European NATO countries shows that they’re not willing to fight for Eastern European allies
      • Wars have a funny way of changing public opinion very quickly
      • Also, if the threat is grave enough, I do trust European leaders to go to war over the objections of their publics - they’re not all Chamberlains over there
    • NATO capabilities (those that remain after post-Cold War budget cuts) are all geared around the defense of Western Europe, not power-projection into a battlespace controlled by an adversary with potent A2AD capabilities
      • And again, this has always been the case - NATO has never been geared towards projecting power into Russia’s backyard
      • The real problem was the expansion of NATO in the first place. NATO never had the ability to defend the states that joined it after 1990; but with seemingly permanent Russian weakness, no one thought it would matter
      • Now Russia is no longer weak, and NATO is realizing it wrote a check it can’t cash

Back To The Future

  • Deterrence against Russia must be bolstered by credible military options
  • The reform of the Army after the Vietnam War relied on a thorough understanding of the military problem posed by the Soviet Union
    • Fight would take place in Europe, as part of the NATO alliance
    • Materiel capabilities were outmatched by the Soviets
    • NATO would have to fight outnumbered an win, possibly in a nuclear/biological/chemical environment
    • Deterring and defeating the Soviet Union without relying on strategic nuclear arms required detailed integration between the Army and Air Force
  • This is contrast to post-Cold War concept-based doctrines which have been all about things that the Army wanted to do, rather than adversaries the Army would have to fight
  • Overemphasis on technology over doctrine
  • Historically the most successful military strategies have not relied on new technology, but rather have combined existing technologies in innovative ways
    • Blitzkrieg, for example, combined pre-existing technologies (tanks, airplanes, radios, infantry) into a combined arms concept
  • If Multi-Domain Battle is mature into a 21st century operational doctrine, it must address the problems faced by the Army as it faces two near-peer competitors that pose dramatically different problems from one another
  • If the US is to win its next first battle, it needs to focus on specific adversaries (Russia and China) their capabilites and the specific locales in which conflict may occur
  • This is an approach that worked very well in the post-Vietnam era, and it will serve the Army again today

My Thoughts

  • I kind of question the very premise of this article (and of the article preceding it as well)
  • The premise is that counterinsurgency is an abberation, and that the Army needs to “refocus” on its “core competency” of deterring and (when deterrence fails) winning against near-peer adversaries
  • The problem is that I don’t see counterinsurgencies fading
  • One of the things that Nagl points out in Learning To Eat Soup With A Knife is a persistent pattern of thinking among Vietnam-era generals that the Vietnam war was temporary, and that very soon they could all go back to staring down Russian forces across the Fulda Gap
  • This led these generals to prosecute the Vietnam War as if it was a strictly conventional inter-state conflict (rather than a civil war), with predictably disatrous results
  • And while these generals eventually did get back to staring down Russian tanks across the Fulda Gap, they did so after losing the Vietnam war, which put them at a grand-strategic disadvantage vis-a-vis the Soviet Union
  • Likewise, my concern is that this article gets it backwards, just as the Vietnam-era generals got it backwards
  • The truly important things are the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan - if the US military/diplomatic complex can clean those up, we go into a potential great-power struggle with our noses unbloodied
  • Meanwhile, if we let the insurgencies rage out of control, then that signals weakness to China and Russia (just as the US defeat in Vietnam did), and the US faces a much harder climb in deterring these two near-peer adversaries