Small Wars Journal

An Outsider's Perspective

Mon, 03/24/2008 - 6:03am
I think the SWJ community will benefit from the attached essay by Dr. David Ucko, who recently completed his doctoral work at King's College London. This well-crafted essay has just been published by Orbis, the policy journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. It's an objective assessment of where the United States stands in our adaptation to counterinsurgency and irregular warfare, from an outsider's perspective.

Dr. Ucko's research is focused on how well the U.S. is absorbing the right lessons from today's ongoing conflicts, and how well DOD is institutionalizing the necessary changes across the doctrine, structure, training and education and equipment pillars of combat development. A student of American military culture, he notes our history of adapting to counterinsurgency campaigns, but then quickly discarding the lessons learned at the close of the war to return to our preferred conventional mode.

Ucko challenges whether or not DOD has truly embraced irregular warfare. "With the eventual close of the Iraq campaign," he asks "will counterinsurgency again be pushed off the table, leaving the military just as unprepared for these contingencies as it was when it invaded Iraq in 2003?" Thus, this essay fits into the context of the debate we have seen on these pages and in the Armed Forces Journal (Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh's "System Reboot") about whether or not the American Way of War will adapt or revert to form.

In his Orbis article, provocatively titled "Innovation or Inertia," the author recounts in detail the new directives and initiatives undertaken by the American military since 9/11. He suggests that the reforms point to "a potential turning-point in the history of the U.S. military." Yet the Pentagon's defense strategy and budget suggests otherwise. This leads Ucko to ask "what are the prospects of the U.S. military truly learning counterinsurgency"? Aside from rhetoric, how committed is DoD to the required changes needed to make America's military as dominant in COIN and other forms of irregular warfare as it currently is in conventional warfare?

One insightful part of this essay s discusses organizational learning and adaptation. Ucko makes a discerning point that military learning can occur on two levels: through bottom-up adaptation in the field or from top-down innovation at the institutional level. While the former suggests changes in tactics, techniques, and procedures implemented on the ground through contact with an unfamiliar operating environment, the latter involves the institutionalization of these practices through changes in training, doctrine, education and force structure. Both are necessary for long term success. Obviously, John Nagl's seminal Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife captured the former mode in Malaya. Just as clearly, the British Army failed to institutionalize the bottom up lessons. Oxford Professor Hew Strachan made this same point in RUSI's journal, noting how the same learning curve was repeated in Kenya.

The author acknowledges the creativity shown by Gen. Petraeus and our theater forces, but notes that the Pentagon's QDR and budgetary allocations and force structure remain "oriented predominantly toward high-intensity combat. In its budget requests, the DoD has continued to pour money into costly programs with questionable value in today's strategic environment." Ucko finds a palpable degree of resistance against those who are working to institutionalize the lessons learned from our fielded forces.

"Opposition to the learning of counterinsurgency springs from a combination of old, flawed and wishful thinking. In the first place, the COIN community faces resistance from the old guard, who have clung on to the conventional priorities, ''tribal'' equities and military culture typical of the U.S. military. Whether through inertia or conviction, large swathes of the DoD continue to view all ''operations other than war'' as an afterthought to the U.S. military's primary mission: major combat operations."

Ucko makes a number of observations about the Army's Brigade Combat Team plans, and similarly criticizes the Marine Corps for its failure to alter its force structure to cover those unique skill sets essential to effective COIN. Both Services seem to focus on Major Combat Operations against putative regional or peer competitors. The Marine Corps' plans for expansion include additions to a few low density units with great utility in stability-operations (military police, civil affairs and intelligence) but as noted in a report by the The Center for a New American Security, the additive Marine end strength increase is currently allocated to building conventional capabilities; artillery, tank units, and fighter squadrons.

Ucko wraps up by noting that "it is too early to say with any real certainty whether or not counterinsurgency will become a central priority for the U.S. military." He finds the evidence "emerging from its initial encounter with counterinsurgency in 2003 presents a mixed picture: on the one hand, a group within the DoD has driven an impressive learning process, featuring rapid integration of counterinsurgency in our doctrine, education and training. On the other hand, the U.S. military has remained structured for conventional war and, more important yet, emerging opportunities to change force structure or budgetary priorities have not been seized."

Dr. Ucko's bottom line is that, despite a long war and omens of a generational struggle, "the future of counterinsurgency within the U.S. military thus seems to hang in the balance, dependent on whether the message and cause of the COIN community is accepted and thereby gains momentum or whether it is rejected and pushed off the table."

I think this is an important article. One can argue about how much balance or specialization we need in our force structure to execute full spectrum operations. But there is little doubt in my mind that Small Wars, COIN and complex irregular wars are part of our future. However, given the emerging debate over post-OIF defense priorities, I am concerned that narrow, parochial preferences for big ticket platforms and stand off warfare will come out on top. Are we doomed to repeat history once again???


SWJ Editors' Links

David Ucko on Learning Counterinsurgency - Abu Muqawama

Innovation or Inertia? - Insurgency Research Group

Discuss at Small Wars Council


Rob Thornton

Mon, 03/24/2008 - 11:28pm

The bigger question is, are we willing to substitute U.S. Government in most of the areas where Ucko filled in the question with "DoD" or "U.S. Military". Ucko makes the case up front that our strategic culture produced a military which lived up to how it saw its role as a military, but that only apportions part of the responsibility - the part LTC Paul Yingling brought up in a "Failure in Generalship" - the part that requires military leaders to look out beyond our biases and sometimes parochial interests to the security threats that face the United States and challenge the civilian leaders who determine the political objectives.

I dont think you can put the full responsibility on the U.S. military though, I think a significant part of the responsibility should and must rest upon past, current and future political leadership to determine what role its military will play in meeting security challenges as an instrument of policy. It is our elected leadership which determines what tools it will use to achieve its policy objectives, and how it addresses reason and passion - it was the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that said "You go to war with the military you have". That is not a dig at the former secretary, his statement is accurate - when the decision is made to go to war, and the tools you have resourced and cultivated are the means by which you can determine ways to the end.

Colin Gray has an interesting chapter in War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History. In Ch. 16 Gray explores the "Inter-War period" between the collapse of the Soviet Union (Cold War) and 9/11(GWOT/Long War). Gray spends the chapter thinking about lost strategic opportunities and failures to consider what would fill the vacuum during that decade, and the types of security challenges that would emerge. I think it is an important observation by Gray, because it cuts to the chase on Civ-Mil relations, and also raises the role of politics, parochialism and lobbyists in providing the most basic function to which government is charged, and held in legitimacy - the provision of security.

Given that we spent the second half of the century preparing for a war which never came, but one which if it would have could have been existential in the extreme, how did that affect our strategic outlook? How strategically important was Vietnam in comparison to our commitment to NATO (when it was really an alliance meant to preserve territorial integrity of Western Europe)? How did the combinations of politics and experiences that not only formed many of our pre 9/11 flag officers, but also many of those serving as senior political appointees then and today create and facilitate a failure to understand what changed and lead the adaptation of our government to meet those challenges?

Ucko examines the role of DoD in adapting to the current challenges, but as I said up front, I think you have to look beyond DoD, because we already know that given the nature of this threat, our competing FP objectives elsewhere and our U.S. strategic culture in terms of the ways which are acceptable to us, that the use military force has limitations. Military force has a role to play in providing security, but ultimately (and Ill steal from Dave Kilcullen here) counter-insurgency might usefully be thought of as "counter-war" because sooner or later to make good on the gains improved security has bought, the effort must transition to establish the political and/or economic conditions which made the insurgency viable in the first place.

To do that I think the government and the people who elected it must be convinced of the nature of the threat, and must understand how it affects them - this does not mean it must be blown out of proportion, just that Americans must understand that its political leaders believe that the most pressing and legitimate threat we face is not the same thing it was prior to 9/11 and the consequences for ignoring that threat are such that the expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure are worth the price. This is a tall order because there are years of bias built up as to what a threat is and what role we should play unilaterally or multilaterally. Elected officials must either articulate or facilitate the articulation of causality in such a manner that it is credible, e.g. "we are investing in Columbias (or Iraqs, or Africas, or Lebanons, etc.) security because... .".

Elected officials must know the risk associated with retooling our government (to include its military) to meet one set of security challenges, while not being optimized for others. This does not absolve elected officials from continuing to reassess risk, and forecasting change - e.g. if a near peer competitor shows indications of becoming a near peer threat, then our focus must change in time to first deter that threat, then accommodate the enduring existence or defeat of that threat. That is the role and responsibility of government; it should not be complacent and stagnant because it fears something ambiguous on the horizon while ignoring the present one that has defined itself. When there are multiple threats, the leadership must distinguish between most dangerous and most likely - that is what they get elected and paid to do, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Our military should not be seen independent of the context of the government to which it serves, to do so would negate the role political leadership should play in determining what its military is capable of doing as an instrument of national power. Im not absolving military leadership, certainly it has a strong role to play in informing our civilian leadership of risk and capabilities, advantages and disadvantages, opportunities for us and for our enemies, but the decision to accept risk by large scale transformation, and the decision when and to what proportion military force will be used must be made by the elected leadership. That I think addresses the conceptual challenges associated with how our military responds to changes in the environment, but its also worth considering the challenges of large scale change when a decision has been made. Im not sure right now if we could do much more then what is currently being done, or if doing some things for the sake of acknowledging a need for greater change is really in our best interest. Consider just how much of the overall ground force structure is engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan? Consider how much of the Air force and Navy are engaged in other areas around the world? How important is it to make choices about doing things fast vs. doing things right? These are all hard calls and sometimes the question is "How bad do you want it?", and the corresponding answer is "If you want it real bad, that is how youll get it."

Uckos article is worth reading, but I think the question is too important just to make it a military one? There are both some capabilities and capacities missing in the tool bag, and it is going to take awhile to develop them. It could be argued we should have been developing them based off the anticipation of what would happen when the Soviets collapsed, and then we could have implemented the change - a holistic national strategy for the post Cold War that redefined some priorities, and built capabilities and capacities where they would be needed vs. where they were needed. Instead, when the question presented itself we made a deal, and went for the easy money and it would appear we did not even seriously consider what was behind the doors. It was both politically and culturally amenable to do so; we called it a peace dividend and thought nobody would bother us as we moved about the world. As long as a state or a nation wishes to retain its freedoms and standards it must stay smartly engaged, we should not elect leaders to take breaks and tell us were great, we should allow them to abdicate those responsibilities and authorities which define the position to which they were elected; we should elect them to retain our advantages, secure our blessings and if possible extend them.

Best, Rob

Ken White

Sun, 03/23/2008 - 11:19pm

Frank Hoffman wrote:

"<i>One can argue about how much balance or specialization we need in our force structure to execute full spectrum operations. But there is little doubt in my mind that Small Wars, COIN and complex irregular wars are part of our future. However, given the emerging debate over post-OIF defense priorities, I am concerned that narrow, parochial preferences for big ticket platforms and stand off warfare will come out on top. Are we doomed to repeat history once again???</i>"

A month ago, I would have replied, "No we're smarter than that." However, a few things I've heard recently to include the fact that the trial attempt of the theater Military Advisory Assistance Group (TMAAG)in SouthCom is not to begin until FY 2010 lead me to believe the wagons have been circled to protect business as usual. That unit activation can and should be accelerated, the fact that is not happening is an indicator of selective non-compliance, a US Army specialty...

I had hoped we would opt for better training and the development of a truly full spectrum force, a capability that is easily within our grasp and capability and that any rational look at the next few years would indicate as simply prudent. Apparently rice bowls and 'it worked for me' are more important than effectiveness.