FORT BENNING, Ga. — “A GREAT deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” the novelist Saul Bellow once wrote. We should keep that in mind when we consider the lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — lessons of supreme importance as we plan the military of the future.
Our record of learning from previous experience is poor; one reason is that we apply history simplistically, or ignore it altogether, as a result of wishful thinking that makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past.
We engaged in such thinking in the years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; many accepted the conceit that lightning victories could be achieved by small numbers of technologically sophisticated American forces capable of launching precision strikes against enemy targets from safe distances.
These defense theories, associated with the belief that new technology had ushered in a whole new era of war, were then applied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; in both, they clouded our understanding of the conflicts and delayed the development of effective strategies.
Today, budget pressures and the desire to avoid new conflicts have resurrected arguments that emerging technologies — or geopolitical shifts — have ushered in a new era of warfare. Some defense theorists dismiss the difficulties we ran into in Afghanistan and Iraq as aberrations. But they were not aberrations. The best way to guard against a new version of wishful thinking is to understand three age-old truths about war and how our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq validated their importance.
A little background on MG McMaster-
He first rose to prominence for his brilliant performance as a Captain leading a cavalry troop at the Battle of 73 Easting in Desert Storm. His performance there was a textbook example of AirLand Battle doctrine executed at the small unit level.
And he has risen through the ranks serving as a sucessful combat commander of a cavalry regiment during the Iraq War. And today, he serves as the commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence- the result of merging the Infantry Center & School with the Armor Center & School. In a nutshell, he’s the Army’s head instructor for land warfare.
But McMaster is also one of the Army’s leading intellectuals. Which, normally, is in direct conflict with rising to higher rank. The numbers of intellectuals in the Army who saw their careers stall at Colonel is large. Indeed, McMaster almost befell the same fate. He was passed over for Brigadier General his first time before the selection board. Fortunately, he was later selected and promoted again to Major General.
The Op-Ed isn’t an official Army statement. Theoretically, it’s just McMaster’s own musings. But let’s face it, H.R. isn’t exactly going off the reservation here. I’d be rather stunned if the 4-star leadership of the Army didn’t get a heads up that the article was coming.
And Brian McGrath at ID, no slouch in the brains department himself, sees the article primarily as a shot at AirSea Battle, the joint Air Force-Navy effort to address anti-access efforts by our potential enemies.
Major General H.R. McMaster is one of the smartest men in our military, the epitome of a warrior-scholar. He has been famous since he was a Major and he is one of the few serving officers who can confidently have his work placed in the New York Times, which he did yesterday. He is the most eloquent advocate for land power on the scene today, and he will invariably provide much of the Army’s intellectual heft in the coming QDR and concomitant budget battles. Read closely in his NYT piece and you see the Army’s argument clearly. That is, without even mentioning AirSea Battle, he has lumped it in with the Revolution in Military Affairs, Net Centricity, and Rumsfeld’s reorganization ideas as fashionable passing fancies we must not follow again. Instead, we must keep in high readiness a large powerful Army capable of combined arms maneuver AND the ability to occupy large portions of the earth’s surface.
If you think that I’m wrong, and that he’s not arguing against AirSea Battle, then it is not worth your time to read on. If you think he is or might be, then consider moving forward.
I think McGrath is right. McMaster is taking a shot across AirSea Battle’s bow.
Furthermore, I think McMaster is right. I’ve always been a strong proponent of a strong Navy, and robust airpower. But the Army (and to a lesser extent, the Marines) see ASB not so much as a tool for future warfare, but a truce in the looming defense budget battles, in which the Navy and Air Force will set aside their long animosity and attempt to bolster their budget out of the Army’s hide.
Maybe that is paranoia, but then again, maybe not.
And as a practical matter, simply wishing away the need for large numbers of ground troop in future warfare is simply that- wishing. Not once since the end of World War II has the nation engaged in a significant war or military intervention and decided it had more than enough ground troops. Instead, we’ve repeatedly found ourselves scrambling to increase the numbers of formations available, at great cost in money, time, and sadly, often in lives.
I’d be far, far more receptive to the Navy’s arguments for a larger slice of the budget pie if recent history hadn’t shown just how bad the Navy can be at using what it has. The utter trainwreck that is the LCS program leads front and center. The goldplated LPD-17 class is a close second. Building amphibious warfare ships without a well-deck for the LHA-6 class chimes in as well. And now we’re hearing rumbles that the replacement for the LSD-41 class might be a stretched LPD-17 (as opposed to a much cheaper modernized LSD-41 hull).
Don’t even get me started on the JSF tri-service fighter boondoggle.
I’ll grant you that Army procurement hasn’t been much better, but at least the Army has had the good sense to cancel monstrosities rather than pushing on to production.
This will hardly be the only shot fired in a newspaper Op-Ed page. We can, in the next few years, expect to see more from all sides.