Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Light vs. heavy Army (II): The accused responds

Here is a response from uber-hawk Tom Donnelly, who was pinged yesterday by our cranky tankers for his assertion that light infantry guys have done better at counterinsurgency than have treadheads. He says he likes heavy Army guys just fine, but wouldn’t want the next chief of staff of the U.S. Army to be one: ...

579087_091016_rickstann2.jpg
579087_091016_rickstann2.jpg

Here is a response from uber-hawk Tom Donnelly, who was pinged yesterday by our cranky tankers for his assertion that light infantry guys have done better at counterinsurgency than have treadheads. He says he likes heavy Army guys just fine, but wouldn't want the next chief of staff of the U.S. Army to be one:

Chad Foster is the first person to ever accuse me of hostility to the heavy Army. As the co-author of Clash of Chariots: A History of Armored Warfare, I have a tread-head reputation to defend.

Here is a response from uber-hawk Tom Donnelly, who was pinged yesterday by our cranky tankers for his assertion that light infantry guys have done better at counterinsurgency than have treadheads. He says he likes heavy Army guys just fine, but wouldn’t want the next chief of staff of the U.S. Army to be one:

Chad Foster is the first person to ever accuse me of hostility to the heavy Army. As the co-author of Clash of Chariots: A History of Armored Warfare, I have a tread-head reputation to defend.

The quote you [that is, Tom Ricks] used in your book [The Gamble] was to simply observe that while the Cold War heavy force was focused — quite correctly! — on operations on the German central front, the light Army was doing other missions (while also figuring out how to play in WWIII; the 10th Mountain Division was revived, in part, to do that in Europe and bushwhack Soviet armor with TOWs). The heavy community also understood the new technologies of their systems — Abrams and Bradley — far better than others; we should remember (and how silly this seems in retrospect) that the Iraqi heavy forces were thought to be a near match before Desert Storm.

And while no one would disparage that part of the Army which produced HR McMaster or Sean McFarland (or the artillery branch in the case of Raymond Odierno) I do think it is fair to wonder whether the domination of service leadership positions through the post-cold War years by heavy-force officers (Gordon Sullivan was an armor officer, Dennis Reimer an artilleryman, Eric Shinseki a tanker, George Casey a mech infantryman) didn’t have some effect (possibly, inadvertently, exacerbated by having Peter Schoomaker, who served most of his time in special operations).  Generally, it has been hard to break the Army out of its strict force-on-force mindset. And so much of the service’s institutional energy has been spent, during these years — and again, it’s a serious question — on wondering what the purpose of the heavy force was.

This all makes the question of who becomes the next Army chief of staff a critical one. Interestingly, the vice chief of staff, Peter Chiarelli, began his career in the 9th Infantry Division, which then was (or was in train to become) a “motorized” division, with different gear but a similar approach to today’s Stryker units, mounted but not heavy and with a higher number of infantry dismounts.  One might also say that the 101st Airborne (the community that produced David Petraeus and Jack Keane) is also not really a “light” organization in that the high number of helicopters (both lift and attack), make it a pretty large beast, with a lot of firepower and mobility but without the battering-ram abilities of tank-Bradley-based units.  And should Odierno return to Washington (he was, for six months, the vice chief before being reassigned to Baghdad), he too would be a potential chief of staff.

Probably the real way to think about the effects of individuals and “corporate culture” on the direction of the service, though, is likely to be when there is a “post-surge” officer at the top. That is, someone who understands the nature of the Long War (which clearly demands a land force made up of not just light but some mixture of heavy, “motorized”, heli-borne and pure light units) and has a track record of success. The same is also true of the Marine Corps: what will it do with Jim Mattis or John Kelly?

The need to actually fight and win on the battlefield has meant that, to some degree, the service institutions have yet to fully reflect the experience of its most successful combat leaders — the writing of doctrinal manuals matters, but so does controlling budgets or setting personnel policy. In the long run, those may matter more.


Rennett Stowe/flickr





Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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