Small Wars Journal

A Call to Shift the Focus of Conflict Specific Spending

Sun, 09/01/2013 - 2:12pm

A Call to Shift the Focus of Conflict Specific Spending

Justin Lynch

After observing the United States defeat conventional forces in both Gulf Wars, followed by our struggle with insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, our enemies have learned a valuable lesson: in an armed struggle with the United States, the best practice is to wage a guerilla war or insurgency.  This threat promises that most conflicts will not be quick affairs, but long wars of attrition during which the enemy will attempt to gradually drain our nation of both the will and resources to fight a war.  With this threat of resource draining contests combined with budget cuts, our ability to conduct armed conflict will rely as much on our efficient use of funds as our ability to defeat the enemy on the battlefield.  Without the funds we have enjoyed for the last decade, we have to increase our emphasis on maximizing the efficiency of military spending.  During our campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, resources were surged to programs designed to solve problems specific to one or both theaters.  The best way to maximize the effectiveness of our conflict specific funding is to focus spending on education and training and reduce our current emphasis on technology.

Our national zeitgeist emphasizes the use of technology to solve problems.  This has served us well in recent conventional conflicts, and can be a very visible sign of the American government’s war effort and our military superiority over our enemies.  While this approach has been somewhat effective in Afghanistan and Iraq and has been reassuring to the American people, it has pulled limited resources away from providing Soldiers the theater and conflict specific education necessary to fight as effectively as possible.  I am approaching this issue from the perspective of a company grade infantry officer, and basing my beliefs on a combination of research and the observed results of military spending on platoon, company, and battalion level operations.  From this frame of reference, I believe I can perceive the effects of spending on its target customer, the Soldier in combat.  I am not addressing the military’s overall budget, general research and development spending, or long term investments in technology.  These investments, such as aircraft advancement, communication platform improvements, and the development of drone technology, are an important part of maintaining American military supremacy, and are not part of the conflict specific funding addressed in this article.

The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle’s rapid acquisition process is an example of technology purchased as a solution for a conflict specific problem.  By 2007, the majority of combat injuries experienced by coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused by improvised explosive devices.  Facing public pressure to provide American Soldiers a defense against this threat, the Department of Defense decided to respond by developing a highly visible piece of equipment.[1]  By July of 2009, 16,204 vehicles had been produced and 13,848 were in use in Iraq or Afghanistan and funding for the MRAP acquisition program had reached $22.7 billion.[2]  The MRAP, like most military acquisitions, required further funding after that.

Typically, the acquisition process has been less expensive than the cost of operating and supporting a system after it has been fielded.  Operation and support are usually 60% to 80% of a system’s long term costs.[3]  The Department of Defense exacerbated this problem for the MRAP by purchasing them without communication equipment.  That capability was added later as the government furnished the equipment at further expense.[4]

All of the money spent on the MRAP has had a positive effect on American forces and capabilities.  Soldiers can conduct mounted movements with fewer casualties.  Beyond the immediate benefit of reduced casualties, the MRAP also allows Soldiers to project influence farther from their COP or FOB while minimizing risk.  But the MRAP also lacks effective maneuverability, the ability to traverse mildly rugged terrain, and is so top heavy it easily rolls.  Because of these issues, the Department of Defense has gone through another process to acquire the MRAP All Terrain Vehicle at additional expense.  Furthermore, while the previously mentioned positive effects are important, MRAPs are primarily a tool to reduce casualties, not a tool to win a war.

The MRAP, as with most technology, faces at least two more major issues.  While Soldiers definitely have been safer in MRAPs than in up-armored HMMWVs, our enemies quickly created or purchased new weapon systems that could defeat its improved armor.  Anyone who has deployed to an operating environment that included either explosively formed projectiles or handheld shaped charge grenades, or RKG-3s, can attest to the effectiveness of our enemies’ adaptations.  Our ability to develop new technology through the acquisition process, no matter how rapid, cannot compete with an insurgent who has little to no bureaucracy to fight.  The second issue is the specificity of the problem the MRAP was designed to solve.  Though a vehicle designed to survive IEDs while driving on paved roads has proven practical in the more developed parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, its effective use in other environments is doubtful.  The MRAP has faced significant issues in even moderately rugged terrain.  It also does not fit into the Army’s current brigade combat team focused table of organization and equipment.  In broad strokes, the Army has structured itself around infantry, stryker, and armored brigades, each of which is designed to fight a particular type of enemy or solve a particular type of problem.  The MRAP does not fit into this structure very well, and does not solve the same problems as any of the brigades.  This limits the MRAP’s future use, particularly as the Army focuses on unified land operations instead of counterinsurgency.  While many of our platforms are robust enough to be adapted to solve or mitigate a new problem, we usually do not do so very quickly or effectively, and the process is expensive.  If the next war American enters is in heavily forested terrain with unimproved roads, the entire process of creating a new platform to address these problems would have to start over.

The Army’s focus on technology has saved lives, but focusing limited resources on conflict specific education and training could improve the Army’s ability to perform in new operating environments and shift the military’s priorities from reducing casualties to winning wars.  While this may seem like a cold hearted or politically unrealistic reprioritization, quickly winning wars is generally the best way to reduce casualties and sustain the general public’s support for military action.

Some conflict specific education and training has been done already with varying degrees of success.   The Combat Training Centers have successfully adapted to counterinsurgency rotations, units provide pre-deployment culture and language classes, and mobile training teams provide counterinsurgency theory instruction to a limited number of Soldiers.  But these programs are a very brief portion of a unit’s training cycle and do not effectively teach units to function in a complicated environment without a sustained effort from the unit outside of the program.  The CTCs are amazing opportunities, but if a brigade arrives with inadequately trained and educated Soldiers and leaders, it will not get the most out of its training.  And a five hour slide show will not help anyone gain a working comprehension of either a language or a foreign culture.

Currently, it seems that most of the information Soldiers have about the language and culture of our current operating environment is learned in theater and passed on by NCOs to Soldiers within the unit during pre-deployment training.  While this has created a useful body of knowledge, it has also allowed for a great deal of loss of knowledge, does not provide a uniform picture across the Army, and facilitates the transfer of shallow impressions and incorrect information.  Some of this incorrect information has been based on negative experiences in theater and has led to harmful behavior, such as the use of derogatory terms for Iraqis and other ethnocentric behavior.  Leaders rarely discuss useful operational theories associated with COIN at the company level, leaving most Soldiers with the impression that COIN theory consists only of winning hearts and minds while forcing host nation forces to secure themselves.

To illustrate the shortcomings of our current theater specific education, I will focus on language training.  Most leaders agree that language and cultural proficiency is important for deploying units.  In 2009, while he was the ISAF Commander, General McChrystal released a policy memorandum stating that all military personnel deploying to Afghanistan should master basic greetings and expressions and that at least one Soldier in every platoon “should have a fundamental proficiency in the language.”[5]  He went on to state that “language skill is as important as your other combat skills.”[6]  During his trip to the Defense Language Institute in 2009, Admiral Mullen told the staff and students they were “as important as any other undertaking in the US military right now.”[7]  FM 3-24.2 Tactics in Counterinsurgency states that organizations should increase their regional competence over time, eventually reaching the level of cultural expertise.  This expertise is crucial for developing “culturally influenced situational awareness [that will] result in a greater chance of mission accomplishment, tactical effectiveness, and protection.”[8]

The Defense Language Institute (DLI) is the military’s primary language education program.  It generally teaches about 24 languages, though that number can increase or decrease based on the current or projected needs of the military.  In addition to their on-site education, DLI has been responsible for much of the language distance learning, language survival kits, and the Headstart language survival kits provided to Soldiers before deployments.  In 2009, DLI’s annual budget was $275 million.[9]  Prior to sequestration, DLI’s budget was projected to increase to $345 million annually by FY2015.[10]  While $345 million is certainly not a small amount of money, it is dwarfed by the $22.7 billion spent on the MRAP program in two years, especially when you take into account that the $345 million would fund programs in all 24 languages, not just Arabic, Pashtu, or Dari.   Regardless of the relative cost, the funds allocated by the military for language and culture training have not accomplished the goals set by the Department of Defense.  In 2004, the DoD created a “roadmap for language transformation.”[11]  This roadmap called for the creation of language and regional expertise, the ability to quickly provide language and cultural resources, and improvement in several other areas regarding the military’s language and cultural capabilities.[12]  In 2010, the Government Accountability Office’s study of the DoD’s language program found that it had not reached many of its objectives, identified the resources required to meet those objectives, or linked its overall plan to funding requests.[13]

The military should enact two approaches to increase the effectiveness of pre-deployment education and training.  First, commanders should increase their emphasis on the subject.  I have heard many senior officers talk about the importance of understanding the language and culture of Afghanistan.  But there are few accounts of significant amounts of time dedicated on a unit’s training calendar to the subject, or a commander making working knowledge of a future operating environment a mission essential task.  The 101st established a language school on Fort Campbell in February of 2010, a huge step forward for this type of training.[14]  But there was more than eight years between the 101st’s initial deployment to Afghanistan and six years between the Department of Defense’s creation of a roadmap for language transformation and the creation of the language school.  During our next counterinsurgency, the time lag must decrease considerably.  On other installations, Soldiers have few opportunities to learn about their future operating environment.

Ideally, Soldiers would have regular access to instructors well in advance of their deployment.  If each battalion had a language and culture instructor as early as eight months prior to deployment, companies could receive classes on a nearly weekly basis for an extended period of time.  This would help individual Soldiers reach a level of cultural and linguistic competence that would allow them to interact with the host nation population far more effectively.  Company grade leaders also rarely receive COIN theory focused education at either their units or in continuing education courses.  The classes they do receive usually do not dedicate the time necessary to teach the level of comprehension required to apply theory to execution.  Given counterinsurgency’s emphasis on small unit action and modern media’s ability to create strategic consequences for individual mistakes, junior leaders need to become intelligent decision makers who understand the operating environment and their effect on it.

The Army should also increase the frequency of mobile training team visits that teach tactically applicable skill sets, such as thorough site exploitation, attack the network theory, or advanced situational awareness training.  Creating a force with a high percentage of these skill sets will provide the Army an excellent long term capability that transfers well to other theaters and a broad range of operational environments.  Instead of taking a year to create an expensive vehicle that functions well against a specific type of threat in limited terrain, educating our Soldiers will create a flexible force that can quickly adapt to any number of new problems by thinking of solutions that may not cost the American taxpayer anything.  This monetary efficiency would allow the military to maximize our impact in any given theater despite fiscal limitations.

One reason we prefer to prioritize technology over education and training is that technology provides quick, quantifiable results.  This feedback helps justify military spending.  It is easy to show pictures of MRAPs to the American public and congressional oversight committees to prove the Department of Defense is actually taking concrete measures to save the lives of Soldiers.  Presenting data is as easy as saying “1500 MRAPs have survived IEDs with no crew losses that would have been catastrophic kills in an up-armored HMMWV.”  This quantified data is an important part of assuring both the Congress and the public that the military has purchased an effective product and not wasted taxpayer money.

An approach that emphasizes education and training does not lend itself as easily to either photogenic moments or data that will reassure congressmen.  Educated Soldiers can provide quick feedback during training and deployments, but that feedback is not as visible or as easily quantified.  Also, a large number of factors determine a unit’s success in combat, so gathering data about language training’s contribution to a unit’s success is often impossible to do with any degree of certainty.  Soldiers can also provide testimonials saying that situational awareness training is effective, but that success will rarely turn into a photo opportunity as appealing to the public as an impressive armored vehicle.

This lack of easily visible evidence will make a focus on education and training difficult as the military’s leaders are portrayed as either heartless of irresponsible for not providing Soldiers equipment that can save their lives.  But the best way to reduce casualties is to quickly win whatever war we are fighting.  An intellectually agile Army with expertise in its operating environment will be far more effective than one that can withstand some road side bombs while operating in an environment they do not understand and cannot effectively influence.

This article is not a Luddite’s call for the United States’ military to move away from technology.   Technology has recently been, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, one of the biggest advantages the United States has over its enemies. The rapid acquisition process used for the MRAP doubtlessly saved American lives and allowed the military to continue fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan after the American people would have otherwise grown tired of casualties. For this to continue, we must keep developing new technology that maintains our superiority, particularly for high intensity conflict.  But rather than focusing our funding primarily on technology during a crisis, we need to take a broader approach that includes a rapid focus on training Soldiers to have the right skill sets to solve a multitude of potential problems.  Instead of an MRAP that reduces the number of casualties suffered by IEDs, our Soldiers should have the language and cultural knowledge to interact with the population that knows where the IED is and who made it, the situational awareness to find and stop its manufacturer, and an understanding of the theories that teach them how to tie everything together to effectively win America’s wars.

End Notes

[1] United States, Government Accountability Office, Defense Acquisitions Rapid Acquisitions of MRAP Vehicles Statement of Michael J. Sullivan. (Washington GAO-10-155T, 2009) 1.

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] United States, Government Accountability Office,  Defense Logistics Improvements Needed to Enhance Oversight of Estimated Long-term Costs for Operating and Supporting Major Weapon Systems (Washington GAO-12-340, 2012) 1.

[4] United States, Government Accountability Office,  Defense Acquisitions Rapid Acquisitions of MRAP Vehicles Statement of Michael J. Sullivan. (Washington GAO-10-155T, 2009) 3.

[5] HQ ISAF, Headquarters U.S. Forces-Afghanistan/ISAF, COMISAF/USFOR-A Countinsurgency (COIN) Training Guidance Statement of General Stanley A. McChrystal. (Kabul, 2009) 1.

[6] Naylor, Sean D, “Afghanistan Chief Stresses Importance of Language Skills,” Training and Simulation Journal Online 2010: 1.

[7] “Can you repeat that?” Linguistics key to Afghan war effort,” Medill National Security Zone, 2009, 23 MAR 2013

[8] Headquarters, Department of the Army. Tactics in Counterinsurgency. Washington D.C.: HQDA, 2009, 1-24 and 1-25.

[9] “Can you repeat that?” Linguistics key to Afghan war effort,” Medill National Security Zone, 2009, 23 MAR 2013

[10] Kruzel, John. “Language Institute Remains Responsive, Adaptable to Nation’s Needs.” AFPS (2008). Web. March 2013.

[11] United States, Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, Building Language Skills and Cultural Competencies in the Military: Bridging the Gap (Washington D.C.: USC, 2010) 11.

[12] Ibid, 11.

[13] United States, Government Accountability Office, Continued Actions Needed to Guide DOD’s Efforts to Improve Language Skills and Regional Proficiency (Washinton D.C.: GAO 2010).

[14] Vowell, Michele.  “Language Training Detachment Debuts here.” The Fort Campbell Courier (2008). Web. June 2013.


About the Author(s)

Justin Lynch is an infantry officer in the U.S. Army with a B.S. in history. He has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and is a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed are his own and not those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Move Forward

Sun, 09/15/2013 - 10:34am

<blockquote>Instead of an MRAP that reduces the number of casualties suffered by IEDs, our Soldiers should have the language and cultural knowledge to interact with the population that knows where the IED is and who made it, the situational awareness to find and stop its manufacturer, and an understanding of the theories that teach them how to tie everything together to effectively win America’s wars.</blockquote>

Are there really that many instances where villagers freely offered IED locations, even if they knew them? Heck, a Sept 12 New York Times article described an IED planted directly outside the gate of a ANA COP and even the guards did not report it.…

On the other hand an aerostat, sensor tower, UAS, unattended ground sensor, or unmanned ground vehicle observing pattern of life might detect personnel avoiding a particular area of the road and could determine which house was getting lots of unusual truck traffic. It also could spot digging activity as well as efforts to turn some IEDs on at night and off during the day.

CPT Lynch, I applaud your service and admire your combat experience and efforts to learn another language to better communicate with some Afghans. However, which of several languages since we already see Northern Alliance ethnicity ANA having difficulty speaking with Pashtun locals. Money diverted from Army equipment and force structure would poorly serve our troops who are killed by bombs, bullets, and insufficient friendly assets...not words...nor is some zero sum game involved.

* In a shorter war with just 9 month tours (7 months for Marines), how long would it take to crank out multiple future language-capable troops before the war or theater tour ended...especially since we have little idea where we will fight ahead of time

* Once troops are trained, what happens when they exit the service and that language training is lost. Compare that to decades of service provided by modern equipment that saves lives.

* What's wrong with translators? Isn't that cheaper and does it provide higher levels of language proficiency?

* Do younger leaders have the training to negotiate on behalf of the Army, particularly at a barely proficient language level? Will they get correct or manipulative answers, and will we understand them or them us? Does the average Soldier join to become a diplomat? Can we teach Soldiers/Marines "not to be a jerk" and to practice lines of efforts without learning a language? Aren't the host nation ANSF supposed to do more of the communicating instead of us?

* With many reservists involved if it <strong>is</strong> a longer war, how will they have time to learn a new language along with all their other training?

* If future battlefields occur in areas with more literate populations, couldn't a simple I-Pad-like device or smart phone allow us to type out text and translate it automatically? Could we develop oral translators? How about pictures/video to convey an idea visually with the associated word underneath or narrated?

* Could fewer U.S. translators hear a conversation via radios and networks to translate or at least verify that host nation translators are truthfully conveying what is said?

Is it possible to understand the culture without speaking the language? Leaders who attempt being buddy-buddy with locals using rudimentary language skills won't be understood and will be exploited to gain projects and money. The language expertise one can gain in a short time span in peacetime (assuming it actually applies to a future conflict) followed by almost never actively using that language is problematic.