Thursday, December 04, 2008

Irregular Warfare and the US Military

The Washington Post is reporting that the Pentagon this week:

approved a major policy directive that elevates the military's mission of "irregular warfare" -- the increasingly prevalent campaigns to battle insurgents and terrorists, often with foreign partners and sometimes clandestinely -- to an equal footing with traditional combat.

The directive, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England on Monday, requires the Pentagon to step up its capabilities across the board to fight unconventionally, such as by working with foreign security forces, surrogates and indigenous resistance movements to shore up fragile states, extend the reach of U.S. forces into denied areas or battle hostile regimes.


[Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates warned that, for the near future, the United States will face the greatest threats not from aggressor countries but from insurgents and extremist groups operating in weak or failing states. "We do not have the luxury of opting out because they do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war," he said.


{Assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities Michael] Vickers [full disclosure: I worked with Vickers during my time at SAIC in the mid 1990s] said he envisions that the Pentagon's primary vehicle for carrying out irregular warfare operations will be a global network -- already underway -- made up of the U.S. and foreign militaries and other government personnel in scores of countries with which the United States is not at war. The network is designed to wage "steady state" counterterrorism operations. The directive also requires the Pentagon to develop capabilities to conduct larger-scale irregular campaigns, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Specifically, as irregular warfare is more manpower-intensive, it is likely to shift more resources toward training the Army and Marine Corps, which are undergoing significant growth, in skills such as language learning and advising foreign militaries, he said.

The policy also supports continued growth in Special Operations forces -- elite troops such as Army Green Berets skilled in partnering with foreign forces and civil affairs soldiers who conduct nation-building.

First, let me be clear. I am whole-heartedly behind such a shift. It is vital that the US develop a capability for dealing with such low-intensity, asymmetric conflicts. As both Iraq and Afghanistan have made clear, the ability to work with a population and build civil society can be just as vital to political success as can military victories on the battlefield.

But, such a shift must be done wisely, and must not come at the expense of the current US dominance in conventional warfighting capabilities. First, while it may be true that, as Gates says in the article "the United States will face the greatest threats not from aggressor countries but from insurgents and extremist groups operating in weak or failing states," it is certainly that to some degree that reality is a product of US military hegemony. That is, if the US's ability in conventional warfighting declines and it becomes more possible for enemies to challenge the US on the battlefield, they will. The US must continue to possess an overwhelming advantage in conventional warfighting. The threat of great power war is still the greatest danger to national and international security, and one of the greatest accomplishments of the post-Cold War era is that such war is increasingly becoming unthinkable. But a decline in US military power could force regional powers in Europe or Asia to provide for their own defenses, stoking arms races, and reinvigorating traditional military threats. This must not be allowed to happen.

That said, I have already recommended in these pages (here and here) that the US should separate its traditional warfighting role from its asymmetric/nation-building role. At a minimum, forces should be tasked to one mission or the other; at best, a whole new service branch should be created, or even a complete reorganization of the existing branches. The missions of warfighting and nation-building/counter-insurgency are extremely different, and soldiers trained to do one task may not be qualified for the other. The Defense Department should consider establishing separate forces or branches to deal with these new missions. Of course, doing so would incur costs. As I wrote about here, the money could come from being smarter about the kinds of weapons platforms the military purchases. Maintaining a dominant military force does not necessitate doing so at any and all costs.

It's good to see the Pentagon thinking creatively about future force planning and missions. Let's hope that any changes are done wisely.


Anonymous said...

Thomas Barnett had a suggestion similar to this in the speech he gave to TED this year. It's a really excellent watch, you should check it out.

Anonymous said...

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