Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Blame The Generals?

Who is to blame for the unfolding tragedy in Iraq? According to US Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, American military leadership, and more specifically, the generals of the US armed forces. In the current issue of Armed Forces Journal, Yingling has a blistering piece placing the blame for Iraq squarely on the leaders of the American military, arguing that "America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy."

Yingling is the deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and has served two tours in Iraq and served in Operation Desert Storm as well. In the article, he argues that:

The most tragic error a general can make is to assume without much reflection that wars of the future will look much like wars of the past....

After visualizing the conditions of future combat, the general is responsible for explaining to civilian policymakers the demands of future combat and the risks entailed in failing to meet those demands. Civilian policymakers have neither the expertise nor the inclination to think deeply about strategic probabilities in the distant future. Policymakers, especially elected representatives, face powerful incentives to focus on near-term challenges that are of immediate concern to the public.


America's generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America's generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America's generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.

Despite paying lip service to "transformation" throughout the 1990s, America's armed forces failed to change in significant ways after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In "The Sling and the Stone," T.X. Hammes argues that the Defense Department's transformation strategy focuses almost exclusively on high-technology conventional wars. The doctrine, organizations, equipment and training of the U.S. military confirm this observation. The armed forces fought the global war on terrorism for the first five years with a counterinsurgency doctrine last revised in the Reagan administration. Despite engaging in numerous stability operations throughout the 1990s, the armed forces did little to bolster their capabilities for civic reconstruction and security force development. Procurement priorities during the 1990s followed the Cold War model, with significant funding devoted to new fighter aircraft and artillery systems. The most commonly used tactical scenarios in both schools and training centers replicated high-intensity interstate conflict. At the dawn of the 21st century, the U.S. is fighting brutal, adaptive insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, while our armed forces have spent the preceding decade having done little to prepare for such conflicts.

Having spent a decade preparing to fight the wrong war, America's generals then miscalculated both the means and ways necessary to succeed in Iraq. The most fundamental military miscalculation in Iraq has been the failure to commit sufficient forces to provide security to Iraq's population. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimated in its 1998 war plan that 380,000 troops would be necessary for an invasion of Iraq. Using operations in Bosnia and Kosovo as a model for predicting troop requirements, one Army study estimated a need for 470,000 troops. Alone among America's generals, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki publicly stated that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. Prior to the war, President Bush promised to give field commanders everything necessary for victory. Privately, many senior general officers both active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency of forces for Iraq. These leaders would later express their concerns in tell-all books such as "Fiasco" and "Cobra II." However, when the U.S. went to war in Iraq with less than half the strength required to win, these leaders did not make their objections public.


After failing to visualize the conditions of combat in Iraq, America's generals failed to adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency theory prescribes providing continuous security to the population. However, for most of the war American forces in Iraq have been concentrated on large forward-operating bases, isolated from the Iraqi people and focused on capturing or killing insurgents. Counterinsurgency theory requires strengthening the capability of host-nation institutions to provide security and other essential services to the population. America's generals treated efforts to create transition teams to develop local security forces and provincial reconstruction teams to improve essential services as afterthoughts, never providing the quantity or quality of personnel necessary for success.
What is to be done about this problem? For Yingling, the answer lies in the manner in which officers are promoted, and particularly in the ways in which US generals are educated. He notes that only 25% of Army three- and four-star generals hold advanced degrees in social sciences or humanities from civilian universities, and that only a similar percentage speak a foreign language. This produces a hide-bound military leadership, trained in one way of thinking, and incapable of adapting to new circumstances. The solution according to Yingling:

Neither the executive branch nor the services themselves are likely to remedy the shortcomings in America's general officer corps. Indeed, the tendency of the executive branch to seek out mild-mannered team players to serve as senior generals is part of the problem. The services themselves are equally to blame. The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. Officers rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns. Senior generals, both active and retired, are the most important figures in determining an officer's potential for flag rank. The views of subordinates and peers play no role in an officer's advancement; to move up he must only please his superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.

If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper oversight function in three areas. First, Congress must change the system for selecting general officers. Second, oversight committees must apply increased scrutiny over generating the necessary means and pursuing appropriate ways for applying America's military power. Third, the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure.

To improve the creative intelligence of our generals, Congress must change the officer promotion system in ways that reward adaptation and intellectual achievement. Congress should require the armed services to implement 360-degree evaluations for field-grade and flag officers. Junior officers and noncommissioned officers are often the first to adapt because they bear the brunt of failed tactics most directly. They are also less wed to organizational norms and less influenced by organizational taboos. Junior leaders have valuable insights regarding the effectiveness of their leaders, but the current promotion system excludes these judgments. Incorporating subordinate and peer reviews into promotion decisions for senior leaders would produce officers more willing to adapt to changing circumstances, and less likely to conform to outmoded practices.

Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer's potential for senior leadership.

I agree with much of what Yingling has to say. I saw first hand during my time at SAIC high-ranking US military officers who were incapable of seeing beyond their parochial interests and background. During a war game designed to hypothesize about the future of the US Air Force, I was told by one colonel that the USAF would never move towards a largely unmanned air force or one with a primary mission of close air support. Never mind that this was merely a hypothetical exercise...the officer couldn't even consider the possibility. The problems adjusting to and dealing with insurgent-based conflicts in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq certainly point to an inability to adapt, as Yingling notes.

However, the problem doesn't have as easy of a cause as Yingling would like. While the US military may have difficulties dealing with insurgencies, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated just how effective the modern US military can be against a more traditional foe (and even less traditional ones, as in Afghanistan). And here is the rub: the US military is being asked to do two very different jobs. First, it is asked to be supreme in conventional war, and it has clearly succeeded in that mission. But that mission may in fact make the second mission, rebuilding shattered nations and establishing democracy there, more difficult.

I've written before about the need to train US forces for different missions. It's just too difficult to ask soldiers trained to kill their enemies to now work as policemen. The US military needs to adapt to the new global environment in which insurgencies and police work are just as important as deterring large-scale conventional war and defending the world. Educating our officer corps in different cultures and getting them outside of the military/service cocoon would certainly help. So would a better division of labor. But this is a serious problem. The US military is the finest fighting force the world has ever seen and is the only thing that keeps rogue states in check, that prevents chaos, and that permits the international community to function as well as it does. Hopefully, it can learn from Iraq and improve its capability to do its most important job.

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