The invaluable War News Updates (if you aren’t reading it every day, you are just wrong!) brought this article on the future of the Army to my attention. Go read the whole thing. I’ll wait.
After Desert Storm, where the Army (and the rest of the services) displayed an ability to annihilate any near-peer competitor on a conventional battlefield, the Army looked to leap ahead in technology. Our opponents, however, looked for ways to fight us while avoiding a conventional battlefield. Neither course of action should be surprising. Both sides were playing to their strengths.
But the Army’s attempt at transformation ran into two huge obstacles. First, the enemy didn’t cooperate. As we’ve seen in Somalia, The Balkans, and of course, Iraq and Afghanistan, our enemies are not willing to fight a conventional campaign. Secondly, the Army’s plan for transformation, the Future Combat System, was something of a bridge too far. The FCS wasn’t a procurement program. It was an umbrella for about 30 different procurement programs, none of which were built on fully mature technology. It was also a very long range plan. And it is somewhat useless to plan a 25 year procurement strategy. Technology, threats, domestic politics and policy and doctrine all change at a far more rapid pace.
The FCS program was rendered moot more by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than by anything else though. The low-intensity conflict, the threat of IEDs, low tech enemies and the fact that so much of the fighting took place right among crowds of noncombatants were all factors that mitigated our Army’s enormous edge in conventional maneuver warfare.
Over the last decade, the operational side of the Army had to learn to fight these types of wars, and had to pry loose the money to buy equipment suited for them. Among the most visible of these purchases are MRAPs and improved body armor, but a host of smaller items had to be bought as well, such as improved radios and esoteric items such as improved bandages. And as the Army became embroiled in these wars, less emphasis was paid to the conventional war of maneuver.
There is an intellectual tension about which way the Army should train and equip for the next war (and there will always be a next war).
Mr. Ludes also questioned the suggestion that the opposition between conventional and counterinsurgency capabilities is a false choice. “The demands of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it harder to develop leadership with experience and training to conduct maneuver warfare,” he said.
As an example, he noted there had recently been a dearth of brigade-level conventional warfare exercises at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and that the brigade that staged them there had itself been deployed.
It has long been my opinion that the Army needs to maintain that heavy, conventional war of maneuver capability. It is a lot easier for a heavy maneuver unit to downshift to COIN operations than for a light COIN force to fight on a heavy maneuver battlefield.
Further, take a look at the pace of operations in Desert Storm versus the current war in Iraq or Afghanistan. The fact is, you have to get it right the first time in a war with a near-peer enemy. You won’t get a second chance. But in a COIN war, you have time to make mistakes, readjust your force, and reshape the battlefield.
Let’s take Iran for an example. If we end up having to fight them, will it be a conventional war, or a COIN war? Iran has a large conventional army. It also has a large psuedo-army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. What might a war with Iran look like? I have a strong suspicion it would look a lot like the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It would begin with a rather conventional fight, and quickly develop into an insurgency, as defeated forces turned to a guerrilla campaign.
I’m not arguing for an either/or proposition. There has to be a balance. It would be foolish for the Army to discard the wealth of tribal knowledge it has gained in the last decade. But we need to make sure we don’t discard that tribal knowledge we gained throughout the Cold War, either. Let’s hope the Army can strike the right balance.