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Can a Regular Army Fight an Irregular War?

October 2008
By Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.)

The task seemed simple enough: The U.S. military services should use a technological edge to adapt forces to whatever type of fight came to pass. They were prodded by an impatient secretary of defense who saw information technology as the means to win conventional wars quickly with less force. But, U.S. armed forces also were instructed by the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review to prepare for combat operations against new, elusive nonstate foes, with a focus on multiple irregular, asymmetric operations. They also had to give equal weight to combat and sustainability operations.

Convinced they were uniquely empowered by information technology, U.S. armed forces instead discovered in Iraq that their lean, mean, kinetic-based, net-centric combat force was ill-prepared for asymmetric soft war against insurgents—and least of all for stabilization and nation-building.

Led by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, the military establishment now is in a state of retransformation, but it is receiving conflicting guidance on how to balance demands for hard and soft wars—specifically, how it should respond to Defense Department Directive 3000.05 to “rebalance training and readiness focus between stability operations and conventional combat” and perform “all tasks necessary to establish and maintain order when civilians cannot do so.”

While admonishing senior officers to listen to their combat-wizened junior officers and enlisted soldiers, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen, USN, also cautions them to “widen their view and remain ready” for “who—and what—comes after.” At the same time, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, convinced that insurgencies are the conflicts this nation is most likely to face in the future, warns forcefully against “next-war-itis.”

Add to this cacophony of conflicting guidance a Congress that sees shortcomings in an interagency process that obliges the Defense Department to assume missions that are not its core military responsibilities—and orders a “thorough review of the military services’ roles and missions.”

Reflecting on a legacy of irregular conflicts dating from 1798, and considering U.S. involvement in 320 “operations that cannot be characterized as conventional wars,” one asks why unconventional war skills were allowed to atrophy.

On Point II: Transition To The New Campaign, published by the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, provides some answers. While admitting that “the American military establishment in general, and the U.S. Army specifically, have a long, well-established, and multifaceted history of conducting missions that do not feature conventional combat … these conflicts, taken as a group, have dominated the Army’s historical record, even though they have not dominated its culture and training focus.”

The Army called them military operations other than war, but it admits “they did not include counterinsurgency operations or major counterterrorism missions.” Those who wrote doctrine did not heed Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak, USMC, who in 1997 foresaw the three-block war and the strategic corporal. Nor did they take note of Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, USMC (Ret.), who brought joint force exercise Millennium Challenge 2002 to a sudden halt when he waged asymmetric war with motorcycle command and control and a fleet of small boats that sank 16 vessels in the Blue Fleet.

Military responses to the stability and support demands of operations in the Balkans, Haiti and Somalia were episodic, dismissed as anomalies and quickly forgotten. Any lessons learned were passed down informally and anecdotally and “did not lead American Soldiers to internalize these types of operations as a core mission.”

On Point II finds that “while Army doctrine in 2003 accepted stability and support operations and contained a formal approach to those operations … doctrine has limited influence if it is not disseminated and practiced through the means of education and training.”

The consequences of doctrine dominated by “decades of conventional U.S. military practice” are further explained in joint Army Field Manual 3-24 and Marine Corps Publication 3-33.5. This new counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual admits to doctrine that did not equip our forces with the knowledge or tools to cope with “time-honored insurgent tactics,” nor trained them for the key task of protecting the population, nor empowered them with “all of the political, diplomatic and linguistic skills needed to accomplish their mission.”

The armed services are laboring to adjust to the demands of irregular warfare involving functions that are normally the responsibility of civilian agencies. On Point II reports that joint force planners were “reportedly assured that other elements of the U.S. government would handle the larger issues involved in planning for and executing Phase IV [stability and support] operations.”

Many experts have sharply differing views on military restructuring, ranging from confidence in evolving organizational arrangements to the creation of multiple armies—one to fight conventional war, another for COIN operations, another for counterterrorism and yet another to conduct humanitarian operations.

In the Winter 2007 issue of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Studies Quarterly, Colin S. Gray avers that COINs are winnable by regular armies. He notes that all wars contain both regular and irregular elements, but “few armies excel at both regular and irregular warfare.” He cautions that “irregular warfare calls for cultural, political and military qualities that are not among the traditional strengths of Americans. Gray warns against an overreaction “only to discover the COIN challenge was a distraction from more serious security international business.”

NavalPostgraduateSchool Professor John Arquilla agrees that the U.S. military “lost touch with its own colonial and revolutionary roots in irregular warfare,” but he believes that armies can wield both hard and soft power. Arquilla argues in his book Worst Enemy that a dual capability does not require retraining the entire Army for unconventional warfare, nor forming two different types of forces, thereby creating a “bifurcated military” that is unable to prevail in either conventional or unconventional warfare. He contends the initial Afghanistan campaign should be seen as a “war to change all wars” and that the Army of the future should be “the many and the small” rather than the “few and the large.”

Retired Army officer and now journalist Ralph Peters also agrees with the wisdom of preparing for soft and hard wars, but in his book Wars of Blood and Faith, he credits the new COIN manual as a “useful first step.” He contends that “no two insurgencies are identical,” and that not all insurgent goals are political and amenable to negotiation. Therefore, the “hearts and minds” model in Iraq and Afghanistan ought not be the prime guide for restructuring the armed forces.

He argues that the “techniques that work against opponents inspired by ideology fall woefully short when applied to enemies aflame with divine visions or the lust to avenge old or imagined wrongs done to their kind.”

JCS Chairman Adm. Mullen admonished newly graduated Army colonels to “heed the words of the younger generation.” An excellent place to begin is with the thoughts of Maj. Kenneth J. Burgess, USA, expressed in his NavalPostgraduateSchool thesis, “Organizing for Irregular Warfare: Implications For The Brigade Combat Team.” Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Maj. Burgess agrees the Army can be organized to deal with both types of war, but he finds that most recommended changes result in a “radically-bifurcated force structure that would lessen the Army’s strategic flexibility and create unnecessary and costly force redundancy.” While some conventional units now have the potential to perform irregular operations, Maj. Burgess thinks the Army has made only incremental progress in preparing its general-purpose forces as directed by the joint U.S. Army and Marine Corps Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, Version 1. “Today’s transformation is not wrong,” he argues, “it’s just not enough.”

Maj. Burgess challenges the Army claim that the brigade combat team modular construct is “more than adequate to address the demands of stability operations.” He finds it to be an incremental step resulting from a decade-long process to fix strategic mobility problems and institutionalize tactical successes from the 1991 Gulf War, and these changes fall short of “transforming the Army for 21st century conflict.”

He also asserts that current infantry brigade teams can be more autonomous, multifunctional “full-spectrum capable” units as described in FM 3.0, but that “not all units should, or can, be restructured to do all things equally well. Irregular warfare may be intellectually more difficult than traditional warfare,” he notes, “yet competent specialists are rarely dedicated beyond the brigade level to assist commanders with planning and conducting these operations.” He believes that “COIN requires a greater autonomy at squad, platoon and company levels.”

Maj. Burgess emphasizes an important element brought out in On Point II: what matters most is not the number of troops, but what type of troops and how they are trained and organized to contribute. What needs more attention, he finds, “are human-capital-intensive investments in the current force structure.”

What does irregular warfare demand of human capital? Are there some things that a “can-do army” cannot, or should not, be asked to do? Can a soldier also be a guardian and a nation-builder? Is it reasonable to ask a warfighter to function as a social worker, a civil engineer, a school teacher, a nurse, a boy scout? Some fear it is unrealistic to expect those trained in violence to retain the essential basic survival instincts while simultaneously functioning as civil policemen, agronomists and judges.

In his 2007 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush asked Congress to expand the national security team by establishing a Civilian Reserve Corps that would function as a post-conflict reconstruction unit—a nation-building corps for stabilization and reconstruction. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Gates agree that “The primary responsibility for post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction should not fall on our fighting men and women but to volunteer civilian experts.”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) writes in the November-December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs that “America needs not simply more soldiers but more soldiers with the skills necessary to help friendly governments and their security forces to resist common foes.” He proposes an Army Advisory Corps that could draw together specialists in unconventional warfare, civil affairs, psychological warfare, covert actions, anthropology, advertising and other relevant disciplines from inside and outside government to train and work together with the military in post-conflict reconstruction.

Any of these proposals could profoundly change current military planning and substantially reduce demands on both the quantity and quality of military personnel. They also will have a profound impact on the design of supporting networks and information technology.

In their groundbreaking 1998 Proceedings article, Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka avowed that a networked force “should be able to triumph over any foe, regardless of mission, regardless of force size and composition, and geography.” Gen. Tommy Franks, USA (Ret.), wrote that the new technology promised “today’s commanders with the kind of Olympian perspective that Homer had given his gods.”

Networks and information technology in Iraq did support the combat phase of what the Army calls “full-spectrum warfare” but not the demands of COIN. Networked information technology may have given commanders a God’s-eye view of their own troops, but as a RAND report warned in 2002, airborne observation by unmanned aerial vehicles and other electronic means was unlikely to consistently find an enemy hiding in hills, under rocks, in caves or in urban environments; or impersonating noncombatants.

On Point II and the new Army/ Marine Corps COIN manual do not directly explore the role of information technology, but Noah Shachman does in “How Technology Almost Lost the War” (December 2007 Wired). He concludes that while network centricity promised to be the magic solution to wars of the future, “the future lost.” If insurgencies are the dominant future threat, then Shachman is correct when he concludes “[t]he failures of wired combat are forcing troops to improvise a new, socially networked kind of war.”

The goal of the Global Information Grid (GIG) is to “push information to the edges,” meaning downward to the tactical level. This approach is suitable for troops engaged in conventional war, but makes little sense in a COIN operation where actionable intelligence originates at the tactical level: collected by soldiers improvising all manner of undoctrinal means. On Point II proclaims this to be a major shift in practice if not policy: “exactly the opposite of major combat operations in terms of producers and consumers of intelligence.”

Capt. J. Lee Johnson, USN (Ret), accurately captures the role of information technology (May 2008 Proceedings), writing that “the benefits provided by technological developments depend on their use.”

Experience in Iraq indicates that no standard network architecture will adequately satisfy the sharply different demands of conventional, COIN, counterterrorism and stability operations. Networking will be even further tested if U.S. foreign policy shifts to humanitarian operations with the military in a supporting role. The GIG then might become the latticework connecting a multi-agency national security team, with operators from the X, Y and millennial generations demanding a Web 2.0 view of sharing, collaboration and networking (SIGNAL Magazine, March 2008).

The U.S. military has proven that given time, adequate resources and a clear statement of foreign policy, it can adapt to unanticipated demands. It is not clear that the Iraq/Afghanistan experience should drive the vector, velocity and end-state of changes that will take at least a decade to unfold.

“We need a new national security act,” says Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-DE). He wants one that “equips the U.S. with diplomatic and civil administration capacity that can move into irregular conflicts as rapidly as can the military.”

Finally, if this nation expects to embark on future foreign ventures with “the army you need rather than the one you have,” we should heed Giulio Douhet, who wrote, “A man who wants to make a good instrument must first have a precise understanding of what the instrument is to be used for; and he who intends to build a good instrument of war must first ask himself what the next war will be like.”

The military needs to be told what the next war will be like and given a decade or more of policy and fiscal stability in which to raise, equip and train this new force.

Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.), is a SIGNAL contributing editor. His Web site is www.cyberinfowar.com.