The U.S. Army and its principal client, the American people, stand at an important crossroads. Ongoing military operations in two wars have exposed the difficulties of accomplishing critical policy aims. In these conflicts, the nation has relied heavily on the Army to carry a significant portion of the national effort, and it has done so in ways that neither it nor the Army had envisioned a decade ago.
The Army has adapted well. It has radically reorganized its force structure, shifting from an emphasis on large division formations and conventional combat to smaller formations centered on brigades with component modules more easily tailored to a variety of contingencies. The Army has also thoroughly reworked its doctrinal and intellectual foundations to incorporate counterinsurgency and stability operations on par with traditional combat operations in a comprehensive framework known as “full spectrum operations.” It is more nimble than ever, and it certainly contemplates the future far less narrowly than it did a generation ago.
None of this adaptation, unfortunately, ensures that the Army will meet the challenges of the future with the same success. Several factors are working against a successful evolution. It will have to implement its vision in the face of unaccustomed budget stringencies, and it will have to do so against the grain of a long-standing organizational culture that still privileges conventional combat capabilities over the rest of the operational spectrum. Indeed, most disagreements within Army ranks fall along these lines.
The Army will also face a kind of philosophic problem: There is an inherent limit to how well any person, let alone any organization, can see what is not yet. In 1973, the eminent British historian Sir Michael Howard cautioned against those who supposed they could play the oracle:
This is an aspect of military science which needs to be studied above all others in the Armed Forces: the capacity to adapt oneself to the utterly unpredictable, the entirely unknown. I am tempted indeed to declare dogmatically that whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am also tempted to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives. . . . [I]t is the task of military science in an age of peace to prevent the doctrines from being too badly wrong.1
This eternal challenge, as framed by Howard, is the one that the U.S. Army must revisit now as it tries to think past the opaque curtain of the future. In light of past performance, it is a daunting task. Certainly, events since 1973 validate Howard’s skepticism. Why did the Army not escape being “too badly wrong” coming out of the Cold War, so that it might have avoided the uneven performance and wrenching changes of the past decade? Might knowing the answer to this question, in turn, help us avoid being too badly wrong for the future?
From Vietnam to Desert Storm
No one seriously takes issue with the proposition that the U.S. Army was ill-prepared for the post-Cold War and post-September 11 worlds. And few would argue over the basic reason: The Army got trapped in the well of its own experiences, its successes as well as its failures.
In the wake of the failure to win the Vietnam War, which was primarily a counterinsurgency, the Army chose instead to redouble its effort to rebuild its conventional capabilities to confront the continuing Soviet threat. Hard-earned advances in counterinsurgency constituted the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union did little to change this course, in large part because it nearly coincided with the Army’s most significant military conflict since Vietnam, the 1990–91 Gulf War. The outsized success of Operation Desert Storm, a conventional battle against a Soviet-styled Iraqi Army, demonstrated the Army’s effective recovery from its defeat in Vietnam and the subsequent “hollow Army” that emerged from the 1970s drawdown. But it did more than that; as a source of high organizational morale and professional pride, the conventional battle in Iraq, and the continuing presence of another major conventional foe in Korea, provided a rationale for the Army’s continued focus on large-scale, heavily mechanized combat even as its Soviet adversary exited stage left.
The Army’s comforting response to the end of the Cold War was to assert that forces capable of major conventional combat would also be able to undertake “military operations other than war” (MOOTW)—now referred to as “stability operations”—as lesser-included cases consonant with existing doctrine, structure and training protocols. Other than the force reduction made possible by the Soviet collapse, most Army leaders saw no need for any significant reorientation to address unconventional threats. The most significant change envisioned at the time was one the other U.S. armed services were also concerned with: advances in applied information technology. The forces understood those advances almost exclusively in terms of improving their ability to augment the existing playbook of conventional military operations, particularly the identification, targeting and destruction of enemy armed forces.
With Desert Storm in the rearview mirror, however, the rest of the 1990s found the Army almost constantly engaged with irregular challenges in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Despite these challenges, the Army remained intellectually and structurally wedded to its playbook for large-scale conventional combat centered on its primary operational unit, the division. The Army’s intellectual response to a constant string of irregular challenges was to see them as a series of one-offs, not as parts of an emerging pattern. The Army’s operational response was one of ad hoc training and the temporary diversion of conventional forces to these unconventional missions. Its approach, then, was one of fundamental continuity with that of the Cold War. America’s adversaries, meanwhile, were following another script.
The significant exception to this general narrative concerns the Army’s Special Forces (SF), which at the time represented less than 10 percent of the service’s overall strength. The Special Forces did focus on irregular challenges, but their ability to do so came largely despite the Army’s leadership, not because of it. Army Special Forces gained vitality with the creation in 1987 of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and its accompanying civilian secretariat, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC). The SOLIC/SOCOM civil-military combination was tantamount to a separate service, similar in kind if not in scope to the Navy and Air Force. To the degree that the U.S. armed forces were able to maintain the intellectual framework and capability to counter irregular challenges, credit rightfully belongs to SOCOM and SOLIC, not to the “Big Army” (as it is often referred to in SF parlance).
The disparity between the demands of repeated irregular challenges and the Army’s approach did produce some internal tensions during the 1990s, but no overall shift of perspective. This was largely because the irregular missions themselves were peripheral to U.S. security interests, and so did not lend themselves to the kind of extrapolation that might have supplied an impetus for major innovation. All that changed after September 11, 2001. What had been considered operations of choice in the 1990s became operations of necessity in Afghanistan and, for many, in Iraq as well.
In this new era of war, the Army initially succeeded in major combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq (though, admittedly, the former operation was hardly conventional in the accepted sense) in ousting the targeted regimes. It proved much less successful in actually winning these wars by establishing the security preconditions for new governments to arise. The Army’s ineffectiveness in dealing with irregular challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly owed much to its earlier inattention to them, particularly with respect to stability operations. Additionally, the large scope of the operations made it unrealistic to rely solely on Special Forces, whose expertise could be spread only so thin.
To its credit, the Army forthrightly admitted its deficiencies and determined to adapt. Its achievements have been remarkable. It has worked toward the creation of more flexible formations and has dramatically changed the intellectual framework for Army professionals, as evidenced by doctrinal publications, most prominently the Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency (2006), Field Manual 3-0 Operations (2008) and Field Manual 3-07 Stability Operations (2008). In December 2009, the Army put the capstone on its adaptive process with “Operational Adaptability: Operations Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict.”2 Those who doubted that the Army would respond to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s order (Directive 3000.05, September 16, 2005) to place stability operations on par with combat operations have been proven wrong.
On balance, the Army has not disappointed Sir Michael. It did not predict the future very well, but it did “get it right” fairly quickly when “the moment arrived.” Part of the reason it could do so is that the Army has been well resourced, but more importantly, the Army is inherently the most flexible of the armed services. It is not only the largest, it also has the most diverse assortment of personnel specialties assigned the largest number of potential tasks. As such, it has a larger repertoire of potential responses than any of the other services. That said, how should the Army continue to leverage this advantage as it plans for the future? To answer that question we should revisit two central questions: What does American society need the Army to do? And what should the Army do to meet society’s needs?
American society needs the Army for a diverse set of national security objectives: to fight and win major wars, to secure the U.S. presence overseas, to confront counterinsurgencies, stability operations, domestic disturbances and national disasters at home and abroad. It is easy to make such a list, but lists don’t organize or prioritize themselves. There is no objective standard by which we can determine what constitutes “enough” security, or what particular mix of goals and resources is best. These decisions are inherently subjective, which is why the battlefield today draws down into conventional and counterinsurgency camps.3
There is both more and less than meets the eye to these dueling conceptions of the Army’s future. On the one hand, there are real tradeoffs to each approach. It takes time and effort to master the skill-set that each requires, and each approach demands an exclusive share of some non-overlapping resources. On the other hand, no one argues that we should abandon one set of capabilities entirely, and almost no one still makes the mistake of assuming smaller or low-intensity conflicts can be easily covered by large and nimble forces. The real question, then, is about what balance to strike—a question that is ever more likely to boil down to questions about how to pay for it all.
The challenges of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan were the result of a major institutional failure by the Army following the Cold War. The Army’s response to Vietnam was to declare as a matter of institutional preference that it should not have to fight that sort of war in the first place. It convinced itself that its preferred role coincided with society’s needs. The Army focused on preparing for conventional war against similarly structured armies (especially the Red Army) and so implicitly recommended to its civilian leaders that the use of military force be limited to this particular conception of war.4
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army delivered on its promise to win any and all conventional combat operations. But in the difficult aftermath it could no longer credibly claim that the commandment to avoid counterinsurgency efforts aligned with the national interest, or that civilian leaders should abandon such efforts just because the Army preferred not to engage in them. The question, now and for the future, is, how thoroughly has the Army internalized its relative successes with irregular warfare? Can the Army institutionalize what it has learned? Should it?
I believe that it can and that it should. The overarching challenge for the future is to avoid squandering the hard-won lessons of recent operations, to avoid giving in to vain hopes that such conflicts are historical anomalies. Those outside the Army might think that the lessons learned are too obvious and dramatic to miss. But effective concepts, organization and practice for counterinsurgency and stability operations have been hard to institutionalize. Not everyone who matters in the Army is persuaded that the expense and effort deployed to reorient the Army to more effectively perform counterinsurgency has been worthwhile relative to the importance of the policy aims at stake. Nor is everyone persuaded that the future will throw up such challenges as to warrant a continued sharp focus on counterinsurgency warfare. Many worry, too, that by lurching too far toward irregular warfare, the Army will make the same mistake it made after the end of the Cold War, but in the opposite direction.
Both history and contemporary evidence suggest, however, that irregular warfare will remain a frequent and enduring part of the conflict landscape. Modularity and full-spectrum operations concepts will match the demands of the future strategic environment better than any others. The Army needs to act accordingly, while avoiding the pitfall of becoming a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. That is a tall order, for the concepts have myriad possible applications. It is also important to note that the Army is an organization more than a million members strong. Not all of these members need to master every facet of the Army’s mission. The capabilities of the Army’s irregular warfare agents don’t need to be extrapolated to the institution as a whole.
There is, for example, already a reasonably well-balanced division of labor with regard to the body of expert knowledge between Army Special Forces and the “Big Army.” The regular Army remains expert at large-scale land combat and the integration of huge formations against similarly sized foes. The Special Forces are the experts at irregular warfare but lack the depth for large-scale challenges like those we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the expertise needed to address irregular challenges must be readily adaptable to the Army’s larger conventional forces for large-scale stability operations as well as for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations like those the Army has undertaken in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, any hedging strategy that balances the need for conventional and irregular warfare capabilities needs to include some reasonable means to scale capabilities up or down.
Another crucial aspect of the Army’s approach to the future is how it deals with the constant tension between its roles as a profession and as a bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is as inevitable in large organizations as it is necessary. Getting the Army’s million-plus members to understand fundamentals requires a vast machinery to organize, train, equip, maintain and operate. But it is just as important for the Army-as-a-profession to respond flexibly at a high level to society’s needs, and the culture best suited for that runs against the grain of the bureaucratic process.
A profession requires the latitude to exercise expert judgment in wide realms of human interaction, of which war is one of the most dramatic. An Army professional accepts change, uncertainty and friction as givens. He acknowledges that human passions, violence and reason interact in unpredictable ways. The need for efficiency drives bureaucracies, on the other hand, to privilege predictability and routine. Thus developing both professional excellence and bureaucratic efficiency will remain a challenge. That is why we cannot assume that the lessons learned in recent conflicts will automatically be integrated into the Army as a whole. In the past, such lessons drained away. It could happen again, especially as the protracted budget battles on the horizon drive choices after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
As the next U.S. Army arises after Iraq and Afghanistan, it is inevitable that whatever reality sends forth will influence the way Army leaders think about their obligations and priorities. The urgent will threaten to crowd out the important. The Army must therefore build flexibility and versatility into its very nature. It must see modularity not only as a way to organize its forces but also as a way to organize itself as an institution. If the Army is to implement a full-spectrum concept of operations and prevent adversaries from impaling it on the horns of operational dilemmas, it must put a high premium on learning even in the absence of battlefield tests.
This is a daunting task, but it is a task the U.S. Army must master if it is to succeed in the future. Perhaps the demands of tighter budgets will be a good thing; perhaps they will help us to make the hard choices we need to make. The Army has a long history of turning disadvantages into assets, and there’s no time like the present (and future) to show off that skill.
2United States Army Training and Doctrine Command Pam 525-3-0, The Army Capstone Concept, 2016–2028, December 21, 2009.
3The best examples of these two camps are John Nagl and Gian Gentile. See the paired articles, John Nagl, “Let’s Win the Wars We’re In” and Gian Gentile, “Let’s Build an Army to Win All Wars”, in Joint Forces Quarterly (January 2009).
4This narrowed focus on conventional combat operations is captured in the Weinberger Doctrine regarding decisions for the use of force and the Powell Doctrine to employ overwhelming force if chosen.