Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Guest Post from BG
Good friend and frequent commentator BG has asked that I assist him in getting his thoughts out to you all. Believer in the free flow of ideas that I am, I am doing so, with no editorial input or comments. Everything you see below is BG. Have at it!
Can the US Armed Forces win the next war?
This question came up a couple of times in numerous threads, and I thought it was important enough to have its own thread. More specifically, the question is this:
Will the US Armed Forces have the capability to win the next prolonged, conventional fight?
My first, instinctive response was, “Who cares? It is an irrelevant question because there are no conventional, or ‘real’ wars left to fight in the foreseeable
future. However, after giving it a little thought, it is a very relevant question for obvious reasons. If history has taught us anything, history is predictably unpredictable.
Ultimately, this is the job of the US Armed Forces: “To support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” One can
even mix in the words, “against all threats to our national interests” seeing
how the job of the military is not (and never has been) solely to protect our
nation against existential threats posed by enemy nations, but instead the
military has always been used to protect the interests of Americans abroad from
the oil fields of the middle east, to the railroads of the wild west, to the
pineapple fields of Oahu. So with that said, let’s have the discussion and start with two assumptions that we need to go any further.
Assumption #1: There is a conventional threat that could lure the US Armed Forces into
a prolonged, conventional fight. Although I have no examples of this threat, without this assumption, the rest of this argument is pointless.
Assumption #2: This next war will occur after Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn down to
sustainable levels. I consider this to be less than 10,000 uniformed troops per country, which I consider to be realistic by 2016 (less troops than we kept in Korea for 50 plus years). Any discussion about trying to fight a conventional fight, air land battle style, before this occurs is marred with logistical challenges of projecting forces to a third theater and is just not realistic (nor, IMO, is a realistic scenario based on the current assessment conventional threats to the US Armed Forces).
I absolutely believe that the US Armed Forces will have the capability to win the next prolonged, conventional fight (based on the above assumptions).
Although I admit that I may be too close to the topic to make a completely unbiased, unemotional assessment, but I also feel my near 18 years of service, a mixture of Active, Reserve, officer, enlisted, combat arms, combat support and special operations, as well as participation in 4 different armed conflicts, does give me some insight worthy of discussion.
One of the primary arguments against our ability to win the next, “real” war is that we will not be ready due to three concerns. First of all, we are currently decisively
engaged in two theaters. I will not argue this, thus assumption number #2.
Second, we don’t have the forces required, the industrial base or the
economy to fight a prolonged war. My argument against this is simple. What was the status of our Armed forces and our economy in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland? A hallow Army, a country still in a decade long economic depression. It took years for the US to prepare itself for WWII, and don’t forget our first engagement in 1943 at Kasserine pass where the US lost over 6,500 soldiers. What makes the US military
great is their adaptability and flexibility.
The third concern, probably the most common, as to why we won’t be ready to win the next “real” war is the US Army’s current focus on COIN. The argument is that we’ve lost our “hard skills” and our ability to meet another army head on. I will take the opposite stance. I believe that our current COIN and Irregular warfare training and war fighting will instead make us better prepared for a conventional war (after a short period of “reblueing” at national training centers).
1. The equipment we use today is still the premier war fighting equipment in the world (minus the M4 carbine and the M9 pistol, but don’t get me started).
2. Conventional warfare tactics are EASY. Action, reaction, counteraction. Give me a doctrinal template, show me a map and I will give you 3 enemy courses of action. It is two dimensional thinking. What you know about the battle field is far greater than what you don’t know, what lies in the fog of war is usually just one or two pieces of key information and all you have to do is find it and act. COIN is far from easy. You have action, reaction and counteraction for dozens of simultaneous variables. The amount of unknown information is overwhelming. A couple of rotations at a CTC and we are back in action for conventional fight.
3. “Amateurs talk about tactics, professionals study logistics” Rommel. During the invasion of Iraq, our greatest failure was logistics. The “Strategic Pause”, when 3ID waited out a sandstorm and the US government gave the Saddam Regime one last chance to surrender occurred partially for diplomacy, but primarily because 3ID overextended their supply lines. It was a logistical failure, and this was after decades of air land battle, ground offensive, conventional training. Those were the logisticians of
the post Cold War.
But who are the logisticians of today’s and tomorrow’s US Armed forces? COIN can be the most challenging logistics environment known to man, and Afghanistan is probably the worst of all logistics scenarios. One of my best friends was a forward support company commander for an infantry battalion in Afghanistan. She (yes, she, did any think we would see a time where a female officer had an infantry blue guide on, times have changed, and in a good way), her company was responsible for providing logistics to over 12 combat outposts spread over an area the size of New York state in the worst
terrain imaginable. Some places were only accessible by helicopter, some by logpacs that took 2-3 days of driving on IED infested, ambush alley roads. Tell
me something. Do you think these soldiers are learning something about logistics?
4. The small unit leaders of today, many of them with as much, if not more, combat time than garrison time, will be the leaders of tomorrow. I’ve often heard that the
Army of the 80’s was the best Army the country has ever seen, due partially to
the Vietnam junior leadership taking over key positions. I don’t know if this is true, but if there is some truth to it, I assess that the same will happen in the next 5-10
years. No, today’s leaders of the Armed Forces won’t be able to effectively get in a plane today, fly their units to a new country and jump right into a conventional fight without a reasonable expectation of Task Force Smith redux. But I maintain that any
fighting force that can survive a COIN fight, especially in Afghanistan, can
quickly relearn the basic tank on tank battle. Again, what has always made our Armed Forces successful (or unsuccessful) has been our ability to adapt, improvise and flex.
I fully believe that fighting in a COIN environment values these qualities above all, and those who do well will take these experiences with them to the next fight. I have an issue with my own argument here. The question is “will the US Armed Forces have the capability to fight a prolonged, conventional fight”. One of the real issues is not
the capability of the US Armed Forces, but instead the political and popular
will of the US population. This leads me to add a third assumption, that the US government will not attempt to fight the war “on the cheap” as we attempted during the GWOT, and that the US population is willing to mobilize for a long fight. Therefore, assumption #3.
Assumption #3: The threat against our nation is considered existential, or at the very
least, considered extremely important to the American people. This assumption must be made for a prolonged fight because without it, we have to worry about the US politicians attempting to fight another war “on the cheap” again. And without a full commitment, that will jeopardize any prolonged military venture. (Damn that Clausewitz
Holy Trinity thing).
So what? Assuming that our nation gets into a prolonged conventional fight (which I still consider the biggest assumption of them all), after we’ve had time to pull out of the current engagements, and the next biggest assumption, assuming the threat is
great enough that our nation will get behind a real commitment, then absolutely, YES, the US Armed Forces can win the next prolonged, conventional fight.