A New RMA???
Chad C. Serena, A Revolution in Military Adaptation: The US Army in the Iraq War, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011, 224 pages, $26.95.
If, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson claims, effectiveness in conflicts requires an ability to radically change our forces, or find entirely new competencies, then the study of adaptation within ongoing wars is central to future military success. A Revolution in Military Adaptation provides numerous insights on how U.S. Army units identified and implemented necessary changes in the recent past in Iraq. This effort seeks to understand the process by which the U.S. Army sought out and applied new solutions in the crucible of combat.
The author of this well-crafted scholarship is a former Army officer who now serves with the RAND Corporation. Dr. Chad Serena highlights how unprepared the U.S. Army was for exploiting the military success the United States had achieved with the political conditions that had really been assigned in 2003. Forces designed and trained for quickly destroying Iraq’s military power proved themselves in conventional combat but were equally inept at the post-conflict stability phase. As a result, substantial organizational adaptation was necessary and the army made extensive Service-level changes. Serena argues that this success came in the absence of direction from the senior echelons of the Army and was promoted from tactical units in the field until it resonated belatedly back in the institutional army.
This book joins a number of recent efforts to explore the demands of adaptation at all levels of war. Previous entries include Major Brian Steed’s Piercing the Fog of War, Israeli Colonel Meir Finkel’s On Flexibility, and James Russell’s Innovation, Transformation, and War. (see SWJ 17 May 2011 http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/764-hoffman1.pdf ). Serena’s contribution is comparable to the latter due to the focus on U.S. operations in Iraq, while the former pair take on a broader swath of historical cases. Serena’s research was concurrent with these works but it does leverage Dr. John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, since Serena’s analytical foundation also exploits organizational learning theory. This intellectual lens is more appropriate for exploring adaptation in the midst of combat, given that most research into military innovation has focused on anticipatory change during interwar eras. Even the esteemed military historian Williamson Murray, editor of the well-regarded Military Innovation in the Interwar Period and now a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, admits that his assessments of both military effectiveness and innovation have overlooked the importance of adaptation within an ongoing conflict (see Military Adaptation, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
Serena’s assessment captures critical aspects of organizational adaption, particularly the complex process of learning (and unlearning) and change. Dr. Serena also notes that culture “can either enable or disable organizational capability.” Organizational culture’s impact on accelerating or impeding this learning is given its due, consistent with both Finkel and Williamson Murray’s work.
Serena’s somewhat harsh evaluation about the Army needs to be tempered with the realization that the ability to evolve tactically or operationally can be restricted by either policy or strategic guidance. The Army’s ability to adapt in Iraq early was limited due to countervailing strategic direction from higher authority that either would not admit that there was an incipient insurgency nor would it allow U.S. forces to conduct traditional COIN practices. At least as long as Mr. Rumsfeld ran the Pentagon, the preferred strategy was to minimize U.S. forces and to generally avoid the intense effort at nation building required. Mr. Rumsfeld was abetted in his views by those of American (and largely U.S. Army) military leaders. General Casey’s and General Abizaid’s insistent belief that a light American footprint in Iraq would best suit our interests was hopeful but is largely now seen as enamored with T.E. Lawrence’s injunction to let Arabs find their own approach. Required operational-level adaptation will rarely occur in a timely manner when policy and strategic guidance constrain field commanders.
Serena’s interpretation of events focuses on the tactical component of adaptation via techniques and practices of deployed units, and only touches upon the harder and more time intensive aspect of materiel adaptation or the acquisition of new hardware solutions. This challenge is difficult in the midst of war where time is of the essence and certainly not irrelevant even in insurgencies as shown by the reaction/counter-reaction between improvised explosive devices and a host of technological solutions, including the MRAP. As these receive only passing reference in A Revolution in Military Adaptation, future scholars will have to build on Serena to examine this element of adaptation in greater detail.
Additionally, while Serena’s study of the U.S. Army is balanced it is limited in time and depth. More evidence is necessary to draw conclusive insights about how adaptation best occurs in all forms of war or in military institutions beyond the U.S. Army. The author’s organizational learning theory approach demonstrates mastery of the literature, more so than Steed or Finkel. Like Professor Russell, Serena’s emphasis on bottom up adaption relates principally to tactical level changes within theater, and tends to discount the need for military institutions to quickly assess, validate and incorporate field lessons from operations backwards into home stations, school houses and doctrine. Finkel’s identification of formal lessons learned processes, rapid dissemination, and connectivity to acquisition/industry for material solutions appears warranted and relevant to this inquiry. The author does not completely miss this aspect, commenting that adaptation must ultimately be both “resourced and nourished by higher command authorities.”
The author draws upon his intensive research to reach a number of simple but profound implications, calling for change in training and doctrine to emphasize adaptability, deliberation, thinking and reflexivity. In particular he criticizes the “Cold War combat-centric model of tasks, conditions and standards.” He adds a warning for those who draw upon the past to preserve continuity. “History,” Serena warns, “must serve as a guide to doctrine, but doctrine need not be shackled by past events and old prescriptions.”
The implications drawn in the conclusions of A Revolution in Military Adaptation are spot on. Serena is absolutely right in noting that “the army that will be leaving Iraq in the coming years is not the same army that crossed the Kuwaiti border in 2003.” It is battle-tested, and hardened, and appreciates the need for more than technology to successfully navigate the myriad challenges of the modern battlespace. Institutionalizing the ability to conduct full spectrum operations, in reality not just rhetorically is the Army’s post-war challenge.
This is a serious and thoroughly researched product that adds to the growing literature on American military experience and military adaptation. It is highly recommended for general students of the Iraq conflict and modern warfare, but especially for Command and General Staff Colleges and War Colleges in the United States to properly draw lessons from U.S. operations in Iraq. As Michael Howard insisted many years ago, it is not necessary for the military to pierce the future’s hazy veil and divine the exact character of the next fight. It must merely not it get too badly wrong and then quickly adapt itself to the contingency at hand. Serena’s detailed description of the U.S. Army’s adaptation may not constitute a revolution in military affairs and it was not quick as many would like, but it was remarkable and eventually effective.
If the Army's adaptability in Iraq was an RMA, it has already fallen to the counterrevolution. One has only to look at the shifts to undo the adaptations as Iraq winds down. The one example that comes immediately to mind is the stated desire by Army leadership to shift from brigades as the unit of employment back to divisions.