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.
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