This Week at War, No. 10

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

The generals declare war on war adjectives

The generals declare war on war adjectives

Over the past week, a war has broken out at Small Wars Journal over adjectives. In an attempt to improve the U.S. military’s ability to respond intelligently to the variety of threats it faces now and in the future, over the past decade analysts have added their favorite adjectives in front of the word warfare. With the proper definition of the problem, these analysts reason, a logical solution should then be easy to find.

Thus, we have seen a parade of terms such as irregular warfare, insurgency warfare, counterinsurgency warfare, hybrid warfare, unconventional warfare, traditional warfare, fourth generation warfare, etc. The creators and promoters of each of these modifiers have hoped to precisely describe a particular problem, from which an elegant and efficient solution should then appear.

The onset in late 2003 and 2004 of an urban insurgency in Iraq was the clearest justification for the arrival of war adjectives. The mechanized, high-speed, and high-firepower military machine that invaded Iraq in March 2003 was perfectly suited for traditional or conventional warfare. However, that military machine seemed inept at dealing with the irregular war that followed.

But has the flowering of war adjectives turned into a confusing thicket of weeds? Col. David Maxwell, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, senses confusion and perhaps even a hint of profiteering in the growth of war adjectives. He made this case in a piece for Small Wars Journal:

For both academics and think tank researchers, published work is a measure of merit. Published research is augmented by the widest possible exposure at conferences and symposia to promote name recognition and career success. Unfortunately there are pundits who also participate in these conferences and symposia and publish their opinions without the same rigor as academics and professional researchers. A select few members of this ad hoc and informal community can be seen as peddling the same ideas over and over again as the answer to all the future US national security problems… Leaders should and, in fact must, listen to these researchers and academics but they must also consider the agendas of pundits who often have the loudest voices as they push their concepts and terminology. [emphasis in original]

Maxwell advises U.S. generals to listen less to outside pundits and think-tank analysts and more to the military’s own officers with field experience.

Two generals entered this debate at Small Wars Journal and both declared war on war adjectives. Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, asserted,

Every modification of the word war serves mainly as fodder for unneeded conferences, workshops, and meetings where the new definitions as well as the merits of these terms are debated with, in my estimation, little value added. These new terms also help confuse our officer corps and undermine a solid professional lexicon.

Finally, four-star Gen. Martin Dempsey, currently the commander of all of the U.S. Army’s training programs, joined Lt. General Van Riper at Small Wars Journal in the battle to gun down some of the war adjectives:

Dissecting war and placing it into various bins may seduce us into believing that we have somehow discovered a way to make it coherent. However, we’d be wrong. War is war. The threats we face are always hybrid threats … What the nation needs is a balance of capabilities that can be applied by agile leaders when we confront an adaptive enemy.

Rather than attempting to define every type of war in order to prepare for that special situation, Dempsey advises, the Pentagon should develop a balance of capabilities to best prepare for unpredictable events.

Who could object to a balance of capabilities? Regrettably, one is only going to find out if U.S. military forces are properly balanced after the shooting starts. After the enemy’s vote is counted, policymakers will then find out which capabilities they should have bought more of.

Special operations forces — the talent-poaching elite?

Ever since U.S. forces first entered Afghanistan in October 2001, policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum have called for increasing the size and budgets of the Pentagon’s special operations forces. As military planners have discovered, the Pentagon is short of many of these elite specialists, such as the Army’s Green Berets, the Navy’s SEALs, and specialized aviation units. Congress and the Pentagon have therefore authorized expanding these and other special operations forces.

But some in Washington are calling for more. On March 3, Robert Martinage, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, delivered testimony to the House Armed Services Committee recommending even more growth for special ops. On the final page of his testimony, Martinage advised that it will be necessary to offset the cost of these investments with cuts in conventional forces.

But where do the special operations forces find their elite warriors? By recruiting from the ranks of the conventional forces. Martinage understands the problem. While discussing his recommendation to create an additional Ranger regiment in the Army, he wrote:

The risk in creating an additional Ranger regiment, however, is that it would siphon off some of the most skilled and capable soldiers from the conventional Army, which is already struggling to maintain performance standards, especially within its non-commissioned officer corps. Increasing active-duty Army infantry, Ranger, and [Special Forces] force structure simultaneously without sacrificing quality will likely prove a daunting challenge. [emphasis in original]

The Army’s special operations forces fill their ranks by poaching the best talent from the ranks of its conventional forces. But poachers can also be the victims of poaching, as this advertisement from the Central Intelligence Agency, which I found by clicking through a banner ad at Foreign Policy, reveals:

The Clandestine Service is looking for U.S. citizen candidates to fill Paramilitary Operations Officer and Specialized Skills Officer positions… Qualified candidates can expect to focus on intelligence operations and activities for U.S. policymakers in hazardous and austere overseas environments… Minimum requirements for Paramilitary Operations Officers include a bachelor’s degree, military special operations or combat arms experience (ground, air or maritime), as well as combat leadership experience. [emphasis added]

Does this put the CIA at the very top of poaching food chain?

This Week at War, No. 9 (March 6, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 8
(Feb. 28, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 7
(Feb. 20, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 6
(Feb. 13, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 5
(Feb. 6, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 4
(Jan. 30, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 3
(Jan. 23, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 2
(Jan. 16, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 1
(Jan. 9, 2009)

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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