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Small Wars, Big Changes

U.S. military leaders, including Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert M. Gates, now recognize that the nature of warfare itself is changing, from conventional conflicts between nations to “small wars” — counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, religious and ethnic strife — and that the Army must change with it.

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CQ Weekly

January 28, 2008
Pg. 252
Cover Story

Small Wars, Big Changes
By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff

When Donald H. Rumsfeld became Defense secretary at the start of the Bush administration, he set out to transform the ponderous U.S. Army of the Cold War into a highly mobile, high-technology ground force that could dominate any battlefield.

What he did not foresee was a guerrilla war in the ancient streets of Baghdad that would tie down his Army for years and cost him his job. Iraq required more foot soldiers than the Pentagon had thought, and to be successful, those soldiers had to do jobs for which they were ill-prepared: negotiating with local sheiks, managing municipal governments, fixing sewers, defusing mobs, keeping the lights on and understanding tribal and religious quarrels.

U.S. military leaders, including Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert M. Gates, now recognize that the nature of warfare itself is changing, from conventional conflicts between nations to “small wars” — counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, religious and ethnic strife — and that the Army must change with it.

The new doctrine, spelled out in publications such as the newest Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published in late 2006, is that the Army must be prepared to wage all types of warfare but focus much more of its attention on irregular, guerrilla conflicts like that in Iraq.

This is a fundamental change that will drive most other decisions within the Army — from recruitment to equipment — and will permeate every defense debate for the foreseeable future. In fact, it already has. Military journals are full of articles and commentary on counterinsurgency. Last summer, eight months after the Army field manual appeared, the Air Force rushed out its own doctrine on the subject.

For the Army, the new doctrine means a seismic culture shift. It will still have guns and tanks, but it will also need more people skilled in languages, public affairs, economic development, even anthropology. Instead of grudgingly accepting the task of nation building, as it did in the Balkans and in Iraq at first, the new Army for the most part will have to embrace the role. In this way, the high-technology, smart-weapons “revolution in military affairs” that has captivated Pentagon strategists for decades is becoming a revolution beyond military affairs.
Though it is too early to tell precisely what the ramifications might be in general defense policy and the budget, most experts think the Army will not get a big budget increase, but will have to reorder its priorities, shifting money from, say, high-tech hardware to personnel.
The new doctrine “is very manpower-intensive, and manpower is very expensive,” said Andrew F. Krepinevich, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank. “There could be some enormous budget implications.”

The Army, for example, would probably invest less in technologies such as sophisticated sensors to gather data about electronic intercepts or heat signatures, and more money on spies. It would probably scale back its plans for a lightweight new class of vehicles and other high-tech gadgetry in the $200 billion Future Combat Systems in the interest of diverting some of that money to personnel accounts and battlefield supplies needed now. There would be additional procurement costs associated with maintaining war stocks of materiel not only for U.S. forces but for the foreign militaries and militias the United States would equip as partners. An Army set for small wars would spend less of its money on tanks and artillery and more on infantry units.

If less money is spent on mechanized units, more will be spent on recruiting, training and retaining quality personnel, experts say. The Army now has about 1,037,000 active-duty soldiers and reservists and is already planning to add 74,000 by 2013, a 7 percent increase. It might need even more under the new doctrine. But Army recruiters already have trouble filling the ranks, and the service has acknowledged reducing its education requirements, for example, to meet its quotas.

To make matters more difficult, the soldiers who could most capably wage unconventional war in a complex city or jungle environment would have to be highly trained and sophisticated, and that is not cheap.

Some Foes in High Places

Such fundamental changes are bound to meet resistance, particularly once the armed forces start extricating themselves from Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons in counterinsurgency that the Army learned in Vietnam were largely forgotten once that war was over 35 years ago; in fact, the Army pointedly hoped to avoid similar conflicts in the future. As Gates explained it in a speech in October to the Association of the United States Army (AUSA): “In the years following the Vietnam War, the Army relegated unconventional war to the margins of training, doctrine and budget priorities.”

The changes within the Army were under way long before Gates succeeded Rumsfeld 13 months ago, but Gates’ background is in intelligence, and he has enthusiastically embraced the new direction. A number of senior officers, though, including Adm. Michael G. Mullen of the Navy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Lance Smith of the Air Force, who retired this month as head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, have warned that concentrating so much effort on counterinsurgency might leave the Army poorly prepared for a conventional conflict.

Such apprehensions seem natural from the Navy and Air Force, which are designed primarily to fight major wars and now dominate the defense budget with expensive aircraft and ships. Both services play mainly secondary roles in counterinsurgency.

The Air Force has seemed particularly uneasy with the Army’s new direction and its possible implications for overall defense strategy. In a monograph published by the Air University last year, Air Force Major Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. said the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, issued in December 2006 and encapsulating the “small wars” doctrine, “regrettably reflects a one-dimensional, ground-centric perspective almost exclusively, as evidenced by the fact that considerations of air power are confined to a short, five-page annex.”

Last August, eight months after the Army-Marine manual came out, the Air Force issued its own doctrine on irregular warfare. “As Airmen, we have a unique war-fighting perspective shaped by a century-long quest to gain and maintain the high ground,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, wrote in a forward. “We must be able to articulate Air Force capabilities and contributions to the irregular warfare fight, with its unique attributes and requirements.”

Although Gates strongly supports the Army’s new doctrine and direction, he is careful in his speeches to stress the importance of preparing for any kind of war. “One of the principal challenges the Army faces,” he told the AUSA, “is to regain its traditional edge at fighting conventional wars while retaining what it has learned — and unlearned — about unconventional wars, the ones most likely to be fought in the years ahead.”

A new Defense secretary might seek a different direction in another year, and opposition within the service might slow things down, but it is unlikely to halt the movement, which is driven by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who are now moving into leadership roles. “Eventually, we’re going to have to get this,” said Krepinevich, a former Army officer. “It’s just a question of how long it’s going to take and how painful it’s going to be to learn the lesson.”

Unconventional Enemies

Having forgotten the lessons of guerrilla war in Vietnam, military leaders have been forced to learn them again in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “asymmetric” strategy used by today’s insurgents is as old as warfare itself, allowing a relatively weak force to tie down a stronger one by exploiting its vulnerabilities rather than meeting it head-on in conventional combat.
“Folks aren’t going to attack our strength, either in a regular war or a conventional war. It’s silly to,” said the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. George W. Casey, in a December speech.

In Iraq, insurgents do not engage in pitched battles against American armor or aircraft. Instead, they detonate makeshift but powerful roadside bombs when U.S. vehicles happen past, blow up cars near checkpoints and crowds, or hide snipers in Baghdad’s alleys. Afterward, they spread their version of events on the Internet before U.S. government spokesmen can make it to the microphones.

Today’s adversaries seek to draw U.S. forces into cities, where troops are more vulnerable and where they might hesitate to return fire for fear of hitting civilians. Insurgents can exploit any such incidents in their propaganda. Such an unconventional foe cannot be defeated using conventional military means. Indeed, power alone is often ineffective or even counterproductive because, as in judo, the strength can be used against you.

“These conflicts,” according to Gates, “will be fundamentally political in nature, and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior — of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.”

One of the first signs that the Army was beginning to change direction was a Defense Department policy directive in 2005 that said stability operations, meaning nation building of the sort under way in Iraq, were equal in importance to combat operations. This was a major reversal not only for the military but for the Bush administration and other Republicans who for years had reviled the idea that U.S. soldiers should do anything but fight wars.

As a candidate for president in 2000, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas criticized Vice President Al Gore’s ideas for using the military to help other countries: “I mean, we’re going to have kind of a nation building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war.” At a campaign stop that year, Bush said: “I’m worried about an opponent who uses nation building and the military in the same sentence.”

Now, by contrast, nation building is becoming a core military mission. It is making its way into the doctrine that drives other Army decisions — from organization to tactics to budgets.

Power or Protection?

Many of the new approaches are expressed in the joint Army and Marine Corps field manual, which fundamentally revises for the first time in 40 years how the services conceive of this form of warfare.

The document is novel in several ways. Gen. David H. Petraeus of the Army, who at the time was the commander at Fort Leavenworth before taking over in Iraq, was in charge of the project. Journalists and human rights activists were among those who reviewed a draft of the manual, and Sarah Sewall, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote the introduction for a version published by the University of Chicago Press. In the first two months that it was on the Internet, the manual was downloaded 2 million times; the Chicago Press version has sold briskly in bookstores.
According to the manual, the “center of gravity” in counterinsurgency is the mass of civilians that are not rigidly committed to either the insurgency or the state. Winning them over — rather than just killing insurgents — is the key to success. The authors of the manual learned from Mao Tse-tung that the insurgent is a fish who cannot survive without a sea — the people — in which to swim.

Rather than stressing the importance of military power, the manual emphasizes the role of military intelligence, training allied forces, understanding social networks in other countries, learning languages and remembering history. It even lists nine paradoxes of counterinsurgency, including, “sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” (Paradoxes, p. 256)

The new view holds that forces have to use deadly might only as a last resort. They have to allow the local population to do things their way as often as possible. They have to build up more than break down — including doing work they never dreamed of, such as fixing sewers or setting up dental clinics. Among the skills needed for effective counterinsurgency are language and a diplomat’s touch. “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents,” the manual states.

Petraeus put his new manual into practice in Iraq last year. The resulting reduction in violence has compared favorably with previous strategies, though the ultimate outcome is not clear; some critics say Iraq is no closer to a political solution and working government.

Such a kinder, gentler approach to overseas missions does not come easily to military people. One Army general, who did not want to be quoted by name characterizing his colleagues, said some other senior officers “are very, very uncomfortable working in that area. They joined the Army to fight, to break things, to kill things.”

Or as Col. Mark A. Olson of the Marines, the deputy director of the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center and Fort Leavenworth, put it, “It’s harder to talk to a guy than to shoot him, because he can shoot you the next day.”

Revolution in the Classroom

Besides the counterinsurgency manual, even more fundamental elements of Army doctrine are being rewritten to reflect the new realities. These include the cornerstone “operations” doctrine, as well as those on stability operations and training. Most of these documents are expected to be made public later this year.

The new doctrine holds for the first time that stabilizing operations are now a core job of Army forces — no matter what kind of mission they are on. In other words, soldiers must provide food, water, medicine and some degree of security to populations affected by any military campaign. As a result, a task the Army previously rejected is now supposed to be central to its mission.

“Even while you are fighting, you have a legal and moral responsibility to provide certain things for that population if no one else is doing it,” said Clinton J. Ancker III, director of the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth.

“It doesn’t mean the military has to do it, but it has to ensure that it gets done. This is a big change.”

Besides policy and doctrine, the Army is changing education and training. Not only has the Army adjusted “dirt” training at places such as the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California, but it also is writing new classroom instruction — known in the Army as “leader development”— to reflect the shift away from major combat operations.

At the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., there are more classes dealing with small-war issues, and all classes are influenced by lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan because most of the students are veterans of the fighting, said William Johnsen, the dean of academics. “My personal belief is we’re in the middle of a rather large shift,” he said.

At the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where Army majors spend 10 months doing post-graduate work, the curriculum also is changing. Before the Iraq War, less than 20 percent of the course work was geared toward counterinsurgency; now roughly 60 percent is on that subject, according to Col. William M. Raymond Jr., director of one of the staff college’s schools.

The focus of much of the training is on humanities — history, languages and the like — which teachers and students at the school say are as important to soldiering as military sciences are.
In the spirit of a liberal arts education, Fort Leavenworth’s instructors are teaching tomorrow’s generals less about what to do in war and more about how to think about what to do. For generations, they have taught young officers the lessons of the past in “staff rides,” in which history classes learn strategy and tactics while roaming U.S. battlefields.

Those are supplemented today by computer-generated simulations, including “virtual staff rides” that enable majors to feel, for example, what it is like to be at a checkpoint in Iraq and how a decision a soldier makes there can have global repercussions.

Reorganizing for a New War

As a young cavalry officer in the 1980s, Col. Robert B. Abrams remembers training for war in mock tank battles across the 1,000 square miles of Fort Irwin in the parched Mojave Desert. The resident opposing force simulated Soviet-style units fighting for a generic country that was dubbed “Krasnovia.”

Abrams, now 47, embodies Army tradition. He does not bring it up in conversation, but he is the youngest son of the late Creighton Abrams, a Vietnam commander and Army chief of staff for whom the M-1 Abrams tank is named — a symbol of the massive, high-tech American way of war. “I am a product of the Cold War,” Abrams said in an interview. “I am a product of Krasnovia.”

But when in 2003 he returned to Fort Irwin with the cavalry brigade he was to command in Iraq, the training regime and the base itself had changed. In place of tank battles, the Army had built a dozen Arab villages peopled with Iraqi-Americans hired almost like movie extras to lend authenticity to the training.

Today, Abrams is deputy commander of the Combined Arms Center for Training at Fort Leavenworth, one of the top officers in charge of training Army soldiers and entire units. Eventually, tank and artillery training will be returned to the regimen, he said, but only as elements of a broader approach to warfare. “We are not going back to Krasnovia,” he said.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Army has retrained about 116,000 people — nearly a quarter of the active-duty force — for jobs more suited to small wars than big ones. People who had trained to fire artillery guns, for example, have been re-educated to become military policemen.
Part of Rumsfeld’s transformation that will survive in the new Army is a reorganization of the troops into brigades averaging 3,800 soldiers that are self-sustaining and that commanders can assemble into forces for any particular mission. The Army has concluded that its traditional divisions of about 15,000 are too unwieldy.

Among the skills slated for tomorrow’s brigades that were not part of yesterday’s: public affairs personnel, to help shape the message about the conflict; human intelligence operatives, because technical sensors can tell only so much about an urban jungle; civil affairs officers, the Army’s liaisons to the civilian world; and “psychological operations” personnel, responsible for everything from helpful information to outright propaganda aimed at foreign audiences and adversaries.

While such personnel could have been assigned to a brigade in the past, if the mission determined it, now they will be an inherent part of every such unit.

“These organizations are designed with offense, defense and stability operations in mind, as opposed to the predecessors, which were designed with major combat operations in mind,” said Thomas A. Jordan, director of the Current Force Integration Directorate at Fort Leavenworth.

Language training has assumed a central role in the new Army. Until January 2006, the Command and General Staff School — a part of the Command and General Staff College — did not have any language course requirement; now students are taking languages, and more students have been brought in from other countries’ militaries.

Until last February, the Army did not have a separate occupational specialty for interpreters and translators, although military intelligence personnel were required to speak a foreign language. Now many of the newly minted interpreters are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s more, the Army is considering deploying them as an organic part of its brigades and possibly also at higher echelons of command.

The Army general who spoke on condition of anonymity said that in Iraq, language proficiency was the top skill his captains and majors said they wished they had received more training in before deploying.

Army officials passed the comments of an officer stationed in Iraq who described the new generation of interpreters — the Army’s job classification is 09L — as his most powerful weapon: “There is no doubt in my mind that our 09L has saved U.S. lives thorough his proactive method of engaging the local populace and the invaluable insight he provides during combat operations,” this officer wrote. “There is no single capability in our arsenal better than our 09L.”

Some Army brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq have been equipped with “human terrain teams” that include civilian social scientists — anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists — each with regional expertise. They are backed by a 40-person office at Fort Leavenworth providing virtual research support.

James Greer, a former Army colonel who is now deputy program manager of the Human Terrain System, said there have been fewer violent encounters in some areas where such teams are working. The teams, he said, earn the trust and gratitude of locals by providing, for example, medical and veterinary care. In one case, Afghanis in a village between Kabul and Kandahar stopped firing rockets into a nearby U.S. military base after the local terrain team figured out why they were angry: they wanted a volleyball net.

The academic community at home is wary of such programs, and the American Anthropological Association has warned its members that working for the military might violate their ethical standards, which “begin with the admonition to do no harm to those one studies.”

The Army is expanding the use of these teams. One is based in Afghanistan and five are in Iraq, with others being trained. The Army is creating 26 such teams and is considering deploying others around the world.

“Institutionalizing this is going to be extremely important,” Greer said. “This global war on terrorism is going to go on for a long time.”

Creating a Culture

The Army will have trouble recruiting and retaining people to fill some of these non-traditional specialties, though, unless it changes its personnel policies and, indeed, its entire culture, which honors and rewards combat skills above all else.

Experts say the Army must encourage people to pursue careers as public affairs officers or linguists, for example, as much as it now rewards armor or artillery specialists.

An Army War College task force reported last April that “future wars will be won by leaders who can succeed at both lethal and non-lethal operations,” with the latter skills including “statesmanship, governance, enterprise management, cultural awareness [and] mental agility.”
“Unfortunately,” the study concluded, “the officer corps has created a culture that discourages any deviations away from a career focusing exclusively on the lethal fight. As a result, the development of multi-skilled leaders is possible, but not encouraged.”

The top leaders of the military appear to recognize that the people who hold those skills are, to a large extent, already in the services: those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. But keeping them in the military with the strain of repeated deployments is a difficult and expensive challenge.

Gates, in his speech to the Army association, said institutional changes may need to be made to keep “the best and the brightest” battle-tested, mid-level officers in uniform. “This may mean re-examining assignments and promotion policies that in many cases are unchanged since the Cold War,” he said.

Things appear to be changing along these lines. Petraeus himself has been helping review the applications of colonels seeking to become generals. Officials are also considering allowing input during promotion reviews not just from superiors but from peers and subordinates, to reduce the chances that the next generation of leaders will look just like this one.

And Casey has said he is trying to find “windows” in the timeline for training leaders when they can gain “broadening experiences” outside the military, with other U.S. government agencies or private companies, or in other countries. “We come from a society that is not very good at dealing with other cultures,” Casey said. “We need to train our folks to be able to influence others. The challenge becomes, how do you train an agile mind?”

A Question of Focus

There is of course a chance that the Army and the Pentagon as a whole will pull back from the movement toward counterinsurgency. Some observers in and outside the Army are skeptical about the staying power of the recent changes. They note that some senior and some retired Army generals are eager to return to more traditional war-fighting ways, and they predict that the post-Iraq phase will be one of retrenchment from counterinsurgency, as it was after Vietnam, when deterring the Soviet Union in Europe became once again the Army’s primary focus.

Buttressing the skeptics’ case is the sight of senior officers such as Mullen emphasizing the need to train for conventional conflicts.

The Air Force’s Smith told the trade publication Inside Defense in October, “The danger now, of course, is we get so focused on counterinsurgency and irregular warfare that we are not prepared for a different kind of war, whether that is a major conventional war or . . . a hybrid of large conventional war and irregular war.”

Some critics worry that when the Army says it needs a “full spectrum force,” it is code for one that is trained and equipped for major wars and that can dabble in lesser conflicts as needed — not an Army specializing in small wars.

“If you’re going to say irregular warfare really is Job 1 for the Army, you’re talking about turning the Army’s cultural hierarchy on its head,” Krepinevich said.

But even skeptics such as Krepinevich think the Army will eventually adopt a small-war focus, while retaining a significant portion of its major-combat capacity. The question, it seems, is how rapidly that will occur and whether, if the Army drags its feet, the United States will be ill-prepared for a crisis in the meantime.

Still, most believe the general thrust of the changes is not reversible and is unlikely to be affected by who becomes president in 2009 or which party controls the House or Senate.

“Whenever you change a culture, that’s hard, and it takes energy and effort,” said Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV of the Army, the commander of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth. “But I don’t think anybody who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan would argue that it’s not the right change.”

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