Best Defense

Dudes! Misinterpreting DoD’s strategic guidance repeats mistakes, ignores emerging trends, and leads to failure

By Janine Davidson Best Defense officer of strategic corrections Much has been made about the Defense department’s January 2012 Strategic Guidance documents, (Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense and Defense Budget Priorities and Choices) and what they do and do not say about stability operations and counterinsurgency (COIN). Critics have misinterpreted DoD’s ...

U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy

By Janine Davidson

Best Defense officer of strategic corrections

Much has been made about the Defense department’s January 2012 Strategic Guidance documents, (Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense and Defense Budget Priorities and Choices) and what they do and do not say about stability operations and counterinsurgency (COIN). Critics have misinterpreted DoD’s decision not to size the future force for large-scale Iraq or Afghanistan-like stability operations as a rejection of COIN and stability operations as a key mission-type the military must be ready to conduct. Given America’s preponderance of power, it is understandable that some may wish to plan for a world in which conventional war is the only type on offer. But military leaders who misinterpret the document’s language as some sort of permission to throw out the lessons of the last ten years in order to organize, train, and equip for the types of conventional conflicts everyone would prefer to fight would be abrogating their responsibility to prepare the next generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines for the types of fights they will surely face.

The fact is, whether we call it "COIN," "stability operations," "peacekeeping," or "irregular warfare," such frustrating, complex, population-centric, and increasingly urban operations against and among savvy and networked non-state actors are simply a modern version of an age-old phenomenon. And they are here to stay. Contrary to what some might wish to believe, DoD’s new guidance document recognizes this reality and directs the military to sustain competence and learning in this priority mission area.

Understanding the Guidance

To be fair to the critics, the language on COIN and stability operations in the guidance is a bit tortured, reflecting both the very strong sentiment among military leaders that such messy missions are something to be avoided or prevented if at all possible, as well as the cold hard reality that the military does not get to choose the types of wars it will fight or the enemies it will face.

The language that has people so worried is this:

Conduct Stability and Counterinsurgency Operations: In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations. U.S. forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations. [Italics original to document]

Critics zero in on the italicized line at the end of the paragraph referring to sizing the forces and infer the military will be "scaling back" or "shunning" stability operations. Such misinterpretation reads the line out of context, equates size with competence, and fails to appreciate how America raises its army and otherwise organizes, trains, and equips the force.

First of all, this paragraph is in the key section of the document, entitled "Primary Missions of the U.S. Armed Forces." So obviously the president and the secretary of Defense view these as key missions for which the force must be prepared.

Second, not sizing the force for large-scale operations like Iraq and Afghanistan is a responsible and prudent strategic approach. As these two huge wars wind down, of course the force will be down-sized. This is what we do after every war, no matter the type. It would irresponsible, and in fact unconstitutional, to do otherwise. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States clearly indicates the power of the Congress to "raise and support Armies…" but to "provide and maintain a Navy." This language is deliberate, as the founders did not want to maintain large expensive standing ground forces in peacetime. The Congress is empowered to appropriate money to expand the force as needed to fight wars. And that is exactly what happened during the past decade. Our force planning can and should account for our ability to do this again when needed.

For operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the army grew from just over 480,000 soldiers in 2001 to a peak of 570,000 just a couple of years ago. Likewise, the marine corp grew from approximately 170,000 to 210,000. Following redeployment from these wars, the new strategy calls for downsizing back to about 490,000 soldiers and 182,000 marines by 2017, (assuming we manage to disengage in Afghanistan) which is slightly larger than the what President George W. Bush inherited eleven years ago. And still, it is nearly four to five times the size of the ground forces of any of our NATO allies.

Third, let’s not confuse size with competency. Not sizing for Iraqs or Afghanistans does not, and should not, mean forgetting how to conduct such missions — no matter the size. Learning from this experience and sustaining competency is exactly what the guidance calls for the military to do: "U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."

But aside from clear strategic guidance to the military to organize, train, and equip itself with these missions in mind, there is clear historical precedent and emerging trends to suggest that failing to plan accordingly for these missions would be folly.

Avoiding mistakes of the past

Throughout its entire 250-year history, coin, stability operations, and nation building have been far from an "irregular" occurrence. The U.S. has conducted such missions — on a large scale — about every 25 years since the Mexican War in the 1840’s. U.S. ground troops conducted nation-building, peace-keeping, and a series of counter-guerilla wars against American Indians on the western frontier throughout the 1800’s. They conducted a bloody counterinsurgency in the Philippines (1898-1902), a number of "small wars" in the Caribbean (1930’s), and occupation duty after the American Civil War and the two World Wars. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has deployed every 18-24 months in response to complex crises of various size, with the average duration of these endeavors becoming increasingly protracted.

From the beginning, these missions have been frustrating and ill-defined, and they have always been controversial. Repeatedly, after each painful episode, the military has sought to avoid having to do them again by forgetting its doctrine and failing to plan, leaving the next generation to re-learn on the fly.

The U.S. army was so fed up with counterinsurgency after its bloody and protracted experience in the Philippines that it eagerly — with the support of the secretary of War — managed to turn the whole mission set over to the marines in the early 20th century. While the army focused on "real" war, the marines were sent to the Caribbean for the "Banana Wars," where they had to re-learn all the hard-learned lessons from old U.S. army manuals that were being discarded. The marine corps did allow a small team of officers to capture this Caribbean experience in the 1940 Small Wars Manual; but the mainstream corps had little appetite for these missions and was already trying to reinvent itself as specialists in amphibious operations. Once WW II began, the marines discarded its doctrine, training, and education for small wars in order to focus intensely on amphibious operations. This left the Vietnam generation to re-invent relevant doctrine once again.

Although the U.S. military was just as ill-prepared for its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan as it was for Vietnam, the current generation was arguably better able to adapt due to the lessons-learned processes and organizational culture that had evolved in the decades since Vietnam. Still, adaptation is not the same as organizational learning, and the aversion to these missions is a powerful force. Military leaders might be tempted to assume (or hope) that the past will not be prologue this time around; but that would be a mistake, again.

The Future Fight and the Force We Need

Today we face a global environment characterized by transnational criminals, terrorists, insurgents, and myriad illicit and violent bandits and traffickers. Some of these "bad guys" are aligned with nation states, but most operate in the gray space between what we consider crime and war. Importantly, our future enemies have been paying attention to our struggles against low-tech, high-impact fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere and have been sharing their own "lessons learned" across global social networks. One lesson is clear: Go asymmetric and "irregular" against the U.S. military, because taking it on head to head conventionally would be just plain stupid. Tactics such as remotely detonated road-side bombs and suicide bombers are only the beginning, given the potential proliferation of new and increasingly less expensive unmanned vehicles, cyber technology, nuclear materials, and the enhanced ability to mobilize populations via social media. Demographic trends such as urbanization, the youth bulge, resource scarcity, and radicalization ensure that future conflicts requiring ground forces will occur in cities and slums and among populations, where differentiating friend from foe, and victim from "combatant," much less just trying to navigate through the crowded urban "battle space" will continue to plague traditionally-minded and conventionally trained ground forces.

Fortunately, preparing for these likely future missions is more about thinking, learning and organizing than about major high-dollar weapons systems. Yes, we should continue to invest in unmanned vehicles, Strykers, MRAPs, and other types of hardware that have proven valuable in these environments. But, just as important is the need to sustain education and training to ensure future military leaders are well versed in the latest doctrine on COIN, stability operations, peacekeeping, and mass atrocity response. Military institutions must continue to study and revise their doctrine in order to ensure that capabilities and innovations that enable ground forces to operate in urban environments among civilian populations and against "irregular" forces are retained. The Marine Corps’ Lioness program, which places small, specially trained units of women marines among the population reflects the need to work among diverse populations, while respecting cultural customs regarding women. Likewise, the army’s regional alignment of its force structure will enhance its ability to engage with real people on the ground when the time comes. The military should continue to develop special operations and civil affairs capabilities as key components for security force assistance, conflict prevention, and crisis response. Army modularity, which allows ground units to be scaled and tailored for various operations should continue to be developed, and competencies in foreign languages, interagency coordination, and human intelligence collection and analysis should be sustained and enhanced. Nothing in the recent guidance instructs or encourages the services to stop developing these key capabilities or otherwise abandon them. In fact it instructs the military to institutionalize these innovations.

Back to the Question of Size

So how then, do we size this new more enlightened and capable force to ensure success in future coin or stability operations missions? With 490,000 soldiers and 182,000 marines on active duty, plus the forces in the selected ready reserve (560,000 in the army and 39,000 in the marine corps), America’s ground forces will arguably be large enough for stability operations of significant size even without needing to add to the force once a crisis hits. Still, there is no crystal ball to predict the exact scenario our military might face. Moreover, despite much debate, there is still no consensus over the question of how many ground troops are required to bring stability to a country of a given population. Clearly neither sizing the peacetime force for the largest imaginable stability operation, nor down-sizing and hoping we won’t face another large-scale mission of this sort, is no way to plan. Because we have the demonstrated ability to grow the force and adapt once a war begins, the trick is to find the right size that allows us to conduct smaller and medium scale operations and to initiate an operation while scaling up for something larger if and when needed.

The Budget Priorities document makes this approach pretty clear:

While the U.S. does not anticipate engaging in prolonged, large-scale stability operations requiring a large rotation force in the near-to mid-term, we cannot rule out the possibility. If such a campaign were to occur, we would respond by mobilizing the Reserve Component and, overtime, regenerating Active Component end strength. Additionally, even as troop strength draws down, the Army, Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command will preserve expertise in security force assistance and counterinsurgency training.

But to do this, we need to be confident that we can access the capable and ready forces we need, when we need them. Being able to grow the force for large-scale missions if required means having a reserve component that is ready for mobilization and an active duty-training cadre that can deliver the expertise on demand. The DoD’s plan to, "… leverage the operational experience and institute a progressive readiness model in the National Guard and Reserves in order to sustain increased readiness prior to mobilization," is aiming in the right direction. On the active duty side, the army and marine corps are both planning to retain a greater percentage of mid-grade NCO’s and officers even as they downsize, reflecting their understanding that a slightly more senior force is not only required in the conduct of these complex missions, but is also the seed corn needed to train and grow a force if required.

Far from rejecting stab ops and coin or throwing out the lessons of the past ten years, the secretary’s new strategic guidance and budget priorities clearly reflect the understanding that these missions are not likely to be avoided. Together, the documents present clear direction to the uniformed military not to repeat the mistakes of the past by planning for only the fights some might prefer to face. Such willful misinterpretation of the secretary’s guidance would only be planning to fail.

Janine Davidson is assistant professor at George Mason University’s Graduate School of Pubic Policy. From 2009-2012, she served as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Plans, where she oversaw the development of guidance for military campaign and contingency plans and the review and assessment of plans. Before all that she was a pilot in the air force.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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