Fighting Over the Future

By Shawn Brimley

Most defense analysts have been following the debate going on in military circles over what the future threat environment will look like and how to best prepare America's military. To those who may not be wonkish enough to follow the blow-by-blow in the pages of Armed Forces Journal or websites like Small Wars Journal or Abu Muqawama (all of which I highly recommend), I offer a short and dirty overview below. [Update: a reader notes that Andrew Bacevich cites the same three sites in an Atlantic Monthly piece, "The Petraeus Doctrine."]

I recognize that I am being stupendously simplistic, but I think there are generally three different schools of thought about the nature of contemporary warfare and defense priorities:

1. The "More Planes, Tanks, and Ships Please" School:
To this school, the U.S. military has spent years trying to perfect counterinsurgency or irregular warfare, largely to the detriment of the more important and fundamental mission of waging conventional wars against another state's armed forces. This school sees the notion of "nation-building" to be deeply flawed, an illusion of American power that we follow at great strategic peril. Advocates of this school look to states like Russia, China and to the threat of state-to-state conflict as the most important issue to focus on. Members of this school tend to shun the very public debate, but are deeply influential during the all-important budget discussions in the Pentagon and Congress. In general, this school tends to be older, higher-ranking, and considers Iraq and Afghanistan to be aberrations to be endured, before the institution can reset and reconstitute to more traditional challenges. To those who think that this school's days are numbered... well, just look at the defense budget.

2. The "Counter-Insurgency is Important, but My Brigade is Fine, Thank You Very Much" School:
This school constitutes the not-so-silent majority in the U.S. military - those who agree that acceptable outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan will require a focused effort for some time to come, but are resistant to large sweeping changes in the way the military (and particularly the ground forces) organizes, trains, and equips its main units. This school believes that major ground units can task-organize for various missions, and do not need radical changes to adapt to emerging circumstances. Members of this school tend to be the Colonels who lead battalions, brigades, Marine regiments, or the Navy and Air Force officers who command ships or expeditionary air wings. These are the officers who, while adapting their large units for current missions, believe that when push comes to shove, radical restructuring will likely do more harm than good. These officers are likely to argue that in order to be ready for a range of possible futures, it is best to train these larger units for multiple types of missions along the "full spectrum" of conflict. Another important constituency in this school are the older retired Colonels and Majors who served in the later years of the Vietnam war, who saw first-hand how the Army in particular dismantled the "special" units and capabilities that focused on counterinsurgency and combat advising after the war. To these officers, if counterinsurgency and advising is to really take hold in the Army or Marine Corps, it is vital that these capabilities be associated with the main war-fighting units in order to avoid what I've called a future "system reboot" - basically a collective "CTL-ALT-DELETE."

3. The "Viva la Revolutionne!" School:
To this school, the future is now baby, so get used to it. This school, which tends to dominate the pages of military journals and wonkish outlets, tends to be populated by younger officers and civilian analysts who are outspoken and frustrated about the inability of the military to adapt more quickly to the needs of counterinsurgency and irregular warfare. These are primarily people whose formative experiences occurred in the post-9/11 era - who were either junior officers or graduate students in the early years of Iraq and Afghanistan. To this school, the future security environment looks a lot like Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and the Philippines. They believe that the United States will need to be engaged in persistent advising efforts in weak and failed states, and so the military services had better develop specialized units and officer career paths that can sustain such missions over the long-term. Members in this school believe that it is an illusion to believe that traditionally organized Army or Marine units will - left to their own devices - retain the lessons of counterinsurgency when the immediate need for them in Iraq and Afghanistan recedes over time.

Some will likely take great umbrage at these descriptions, as I've painted with a very broad brush what are in fact nuanced and overlapping positions. And there are exceptions of course - there are very senior officers who might fall into the third school, and there are a lot of younger folks who think messing around with the basic organization of the military is a fool's errand. And I'm sure Erin, John, and "The Bateman" all have views on this question - in fact, I know they all have strong opinions!

My own view is pretty fluid on these questions. There are real merits to each view. Over time, though, I've gradually fallen into the second school. When I visited Iraq recently and saw what the various battalions and brigades were doing on a daily basis, it tended to reinforce the idea that dramatic restructuring is probably not necessary. I do think that ensuring traditional or conventional units retain hard-fought lessons over the last few years is vital, if only because we are going to be engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan for some time to come.

There is another layer of importance to this debate related to how each school of thought rests upon some basic assumptions regarding American grand strategy and enduring national interests - a topic for a forthcoming post.

By |  September 17, 2008; 4:02 PM ET  | Category:  Counterinsurgency , Emerging Conflicts
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Excellent summary of the debate going on behind the scenes. You might want to link to Bacevich's article in the Atlantic Monthly (from whom you appear to have cribbed your openning paragraph). Also, while I'm not Thomas Barnett's biggest fan, I believe he does a good job of breaking down the tension to even fewer categories:
1) Buying a few very high-tech systems - very advanced planes/tanks/ships for fighting another very advanced country (Russia or China).
2) Buying a whole lot of lower tech systems - armored personnel carriers, unmanned drones and other infantry support systems, which are needed to put "boots on the ground" and occupy (and rebuild?) the Third World Nation of your choosing.

I think taking the debate back to that very simplistic level does help build toward more complex ideas.

A couple of questions worth considering:

1) Which path is Gates following right now?
2) Which path would Obama or McCain follow?

Gates seems somewhere between 2 and 3, particularly in the way he's pushing the air force into seriously focusing on supporting the ground troops.

McCain seems to be less interested in the details of war, and more interested in kicking ass. That least to #1, a flashy, expensive force that can start down or bomb down the Somalis, the Russians, or anyone in between.

Obama? I don't really have an idea. He doesn't seem to seek conflict with Russia or China, so that leasts away from #1. Other than that, I'm not sure.

Posted by: Bill | September 17, 2008 5:16 PM

"...some basic assumptions regarding American grand strategy and enduring national interests..."

I'd opine that one of the MAJOR elements in this argument is that we are at a moment when the U.S. grand strategy is in tatters and there is a genuine cleavage on what constitutes our national interests.

Given the relative return-to-investment of our southwest Asian military adventures one would think that arguing for MORE of this sort of thing would be a nonstarter. But the sort of geopolitical acuity that takes the "Ledeen Doctrine" ("Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.") as a sort of starting point has pretty much inevitably resulted in this sort of mess.

One of the first tasks of the incoming President, whoever that may be, will be to get his intel folks AND his operations folks AND his economic folks to boil down their best estimates and hand him a bullet-point summary of 1) the most likely course of potential enemy actions and 2) the most realistic, AFFORDABLE response to it.

We've been mortgaging our national treasury to the Chinese and the Europeans to finance these expensive little wars. High time we made a realistic cost-benefit analysis - BEFORE we go down the road of 17th Century Spain. If we're going to make southwest Asia our Netherlands, better we know sooner rather than later.

Posted by: FDChief | September 17, 2008 7:01 PM

I suppose it is something of a summary from a certain perspective, but to me it also looks a lot like high-tech navel gazing. In all of the examples the whole emphasis is on applying military power. Yet military power rarely operates at the operational level these days, let alone at the strategic, and when we have attempted to wield military power at the operational level it backfired on us. Ruppert Smith pointed that little fact out in his "The Utility of Force" and how Western military force only operates at the tactical level today, leaving intelligence, economic, political, diplomatic operations to dominate above the tactical.

This "fight" belongs to the same discussion over at SWJ about the "fuzziness of Maneuver Warfare", what you are talking about is the next US tactical military doctrine which is fine . . . lots of money to be made.

But if you want to consider rather operational art and how military force is used effectively today consider the recent offensives of the Russians, those students of Svechin and Clausewitz, who are the masters of operational art. They've launched their third or fourth operation since the beginning of August, and only the first, a counter-attack, rested on military force. Where will their strategy lead them? Follow their operational trail.

Posted by: seydlitz89 | September 17, 2008 7:21 PM

Posted by: srv | September 18, 2008 1:33 AM

Eghads! Maybe they'll start polling the riff-raff about strategery:

Posted by: srv | September 18, 2008 1:37 AM

Interesting post. Put me down for:

4. The Schools are for Losers School.

Posted by: Charles Gittings | September 18, 2008 2:06 AM

@srv: I'm hoping that your comment on the PEO Soldier surveys and strategy was sarcasm, but I'm having a tough time reconciling it with your comments about Gen Schwartz.

FTR, the surveys are a great idea that is long, LONG overdue.

Posted by: Sky | September 18, 2008 8:06 AM


Schwartz's comments are aimed at retired General Officers who are whoring their stars for their new defense contractor employers by using their influence to sway procurement decisions for said contractors. I agree completely with him on that score. Schwartz isn't saying that retired GO's need to be "lockstep" with the AF, what he's saying is they should STFU and let the AF make procurement decisions based on what the service wants and not what Boeing and it's lobbyists want.

Posted by: Andy | September 18, 2008 9:23 AM

"let the AF make procurement decisions"

That would School #1+, the F"A"-22 and FA-35 are always THE optimal hammer for every school.

Mr. Gates rantings, aside, of course.

Sky: The handle is short for snarkivore. The eghads is for the leadership that has just figured out that would be a good idea.

Posted by: srv | September 18, 2008 12:38 PM


The decision on the need for some new type of equipment is different than the decision on exactly which equipment to buy. Regardless, your examples of the F-22 and F-35 only prove my point. How do you think those programs ultimately survived? In the current competitions like KC-X, CSAR-X, etc., the influence of these retired generals has been detrimental.

Are you trying to argue that retired GO's in the paid employ of defense contractors SHOULD have influence over the purportedly internal procurement processes of the services?

Posted by: Andy | September 18, 2008 12:47 PM

"How do you think those programs ultimately survived?"

I'd be very interested in why you think the active duty Fighter Mafia was dragged kicking and screaming on the F-22 and F-35. Yes, people on the outside have had influence on what (namely the reality of accomodating other services), but that is mostly a proxy of internal debates. The external debate is mostly about quantity.

We're still stuck with two a/c that are unlikely to be optimal for future real world conflicts.

I guess we'd be better off w/o the A-10, that was certainly an AF goal. As is the focus on manned a/c - is Mr. Gates wrong about that?

There's as much whoring going on inside as there is outside. Schwartz isn't making choices any better than any of his predecessors, and I'll wager he has a great job waiting for him doing exactly what he whines about.

Posted by: srv | September 18, 2008 3:50 PM

I think there is a basic premise that is lacking in this debate, wich is basically: What is the plan? If the US armed forces is indeed going to be meddling into multiple states at the same time, then I think much more drastic changes to the whole system is needed than just COIN/FM 3-24. To begin with, you need to double your available manpower base. Second, you need to look at your economical base, how much action is *doable*. Third, you need to sit down and evaluate the opposition in a long term perspective.

Wich means again, as usual, that FD Chief is right: What does the cost/benefit analysis tell you about possibilities in a rational world? If you all choose the McCain way, Right makes Might and a school wich says that the US military has superpowers and need not worry about logistics, over-reach, finance or opposition then I think the COINdinistas are in for a big surprise. Because holistic plans are nice to ponder, but seem to survive badly in reality. The Iraq adventure, wich was supposed to last a year and cost 500 billion +/- is now in its 6th and has cost trillions. In US politics, it is still being hailed as a sucess, but in reality it was an is a grand failure. At least, thats what we call projects in industry wich exceeds their projected cost/time limits by more than 500%.

Posted by: fnord | September 18, 2008 4:15 PM


The problem isn't manpower, it's wasting manpower on pointless missions like Iraq and overseas deployments left over from the cold war.

Posted by: Charles Gittings | September 18, 2008 5:57 PM


This discussion has expanded beyond the scope of this post and I doubt that either of us is likely to convince the other regardless.

Posted by: Andy | September 18, 2008 7:29 PM

>>>In general, this school tends to be older, higher-ranking, and considers Iraq and Afghanistan to be aberrations to be endured

I read: "more experienced and wiser and realizing that, despite their viciousness, Islamic terrorists can't destroy the homeland. Russia and China can and are thus the primary threat to plan for."

>>>There are real merits to each view. Over time, though, I've gradually fallen into the second school.

Thus you are essentially picking position #1. The primary threat is still the destruction of the homeland. That's the primary planning factor..all else can be adapted to.

It would seem that older, senior officers agree with you. See Gen Mattis' recent letter to JFCOM on the demise of EBO and network centric (pick an object) as hallmarks of the third school.

Posted by: PanhandleWilly | September 18, 2008 10:38 PM

>>>I think there is a basic premise that is lacking in this debate, wich is basically: What is the plan? If the US armed forces is indeed going to be meddling into multiple states at the same time, then I think much more drastic changes to the whole system is needed than just COIN/FM 3-24. To begin with, you need to double your available manpower base. Second, you need to look at your economical base, how much action is *doable*. Third, you need to sit down and evaluate the opposition in a long term perspective.

Exactly!! In other words the executive branch must realize the pitfalls of viewing the hammer as the only tool in the foreign affairs toolbox. Thus it's no surprise that every foreign problem starts to look lke a nail.

Posted by: PanhandleWilly | September 18, 2008 10:42 PM

panhandlew: To steal your allegory, I think it might also be a point for the powers that be to start calculating in that there are different types of wood to hammer in, that there is only so much force behind the hammer and that force diluted makes results across the board suffer proportionately. And, that trying to do many many things at the same time is very very very hard. It seems to me that current US politicans have a "Right makes Might" doctrine going, what I have coined a holistic approach to foreign policy. At some point, someone has got to tell the "neocons" that they do not have superpowers, but are bound by reality and physical laws just like any other force in the history of man.

Posted by: fnord | September 19, 2008 4:08 PM

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