Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Whither the US Military?

This weekend The Economist, ran two fantastic articles about the future of the US military. In "Brains, Not Bullets," it was argued that:

ANOTHER debate to do with Iraq and Afghanistan is building in America, one that could have important consequences for the West. This debate is being conducted in the Pentagon—and it has to do with the future shape of America's armed forces. With its far-flung alliances and commitments, the superpower rightly wants a “full spectrum” of military capabilities to deal with everything from an all-out war to a small policing action. But precisely what the mix should be is increasingly contentious—and could prove expensive.

If the biggest threat comes from rising powers, such as a belligerent Russia or a pushy China, America and its allies will need to invest in aircraft, ships and advanced weapons to cope. If the greatest challenge is the fight against militants and insurgents around the world—seen by some as a new and different “fourth generation” of warfare—then they will need more boots on the ground and, crucially, different sorts of soldiers wearing them. Sadly for taxpayers everywhere, the emerging answer from America is that a modern power needs to prepare for both challenges. But there has been a clear swing towards manpower from technology.


The first is whether the Pentagon is right to focus so heavily on creating more combat brigades. With American units serving 15 months in the field and a year at home at best, the army understandably wants more front-line soldiers to ease the strain. But large armies have often found it extremely hard to fight guerrillas in far-away places—ask the French in Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan and, not least, the Americans themselves in Vietnam. With the possible exception of the British in Malaya, it is hard to think of many insurgencies in modern times that have been crushed by a Western occupying power.

Post-colonial politics, stronger concerns for human rights, the rapid dispersal of news: all these (good) things make today's conflicts even harder to win for occupiers. So it may well be better to step back and work through local allies. Few insurgencies have unseated existing governments. In the “war on terror” most of the important al-Qaeda suspects have been rounded up for America by local allies. Strengthening local forces is the best way of salvaging Iraq and Afghanistan, and may help avoid the need for future interventions.

In the other piece, entitled "After Smart Weapons, Smart Soldiers," it is argued that "fourth generation warfare" will continue to become more prevalent in coming years:

Modern Western armies cannot, as the Romans did, make a wasteland and call it peace. Modern wars are complex affairs conducted “among the people” and, as Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army, put it recently, “in the spotlight of the media and the shadow of international lawyers”. In Iraq in the 1920s, Britain's air force pioneered the use of “air policing” to put down rebellious tribesmen on the cheap; today the use of air power often carries big political costs. The greater the accuracy of modern weapons, the louder the outcry when they nonetheless kill or wound civilians. And the wider the reach of the internet, the bigger the impact of propaganda videos showing insurgent attacks against Western forces, regardless of civilian casualties. The British who fought the Mahdist religious rebels in Sudan in the 19th century had no need to worry about provoking attacks in London; today such a campaign would be seen as another front in the jihad against the West.

Such bewildering conflict is regarded by some military thinkers as the “fourth generation” of warfare, distinct from those of previous eras: the first generation, of line and column, which culminated with the Napoleonic wars; the second, of machinegun and artillery, which brought about the slaughter of the first world war; and the third, of manoeuvre with tanks and aircraft, which stretched from the second world war to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Fourth-generation warfare, according to Thomas Hammes, a retired colonel in the American marines, involves loose networks, made more powerful and resilient by information technology. It does not seek to defeat the enemy's forces, but instead “directly attacks the minds of the enemy decision-makers to destroy the enemy's political will”.

I have blogged about this problem before, arguing that "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."

A potential solution that I believe holds promise is the development of a new service branch of the US armed forces, distinct from the 4 extant ones. As I suggested earlier, "future military campaigns are much more likely to resemble Afghanistan and Iraq than World War II. What are needed are boots on the ground (soldiers) trained not only in infantry tactics but guerrilla/urban warfare, police duty, and language/culture." The US needs to recognize that nation-building and counter-insurgency are very different operations from war-fighting, and that troops trained for one task may not be up to the other. The Economist articles agree with this position, arguing that the US military "may need more radical steps—in particular creating new specialist units to train allies, embed Western soldiers in local forces to improve their performance and be able to call in airstrikes, and help organise civil reconstruction. Generals complain about splitting the army, but they already oversee a myriad of specialist units. It is at least worth trying."

Yes it is.


Todd said...

Totally agree. A new branch of the Military is what is needed. One might argue that you could close down the Marines at this point and put all those resources into this other branch.

Michael said...

I totally agree that we need both kinds of forces, but we already have a force capable of waging irregular warfare - our special operations forces commanded by SOCOM. While they are commonly seen as just the "direct action" door kickers, they are actually much more than that. Their task is to work through, with, and by, the local population and they are trained in civil affairs, reconstruction, psychological operations, information operations, foreign internal defense, and a myriad of other irregular warfare tasks. The problem isn't that we don't have a force like this, it's that we aren't using it as much as we should or in the best manner in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, we send tank battalions to fight insurgents.