The Army of the Future

The invaluable War News Updates (if you aren’t reading it every day, you are just wrong!) brought this article on the future of the Army to my attention. Go read the whole thing. I’ll wait.

After Desert Storm, where the Army (and the rest of the services) displayed an ability to annihilate any near-peer competitor on a conventional battlefield, the Army looked to leap ahead in technology. Our opponents, however, looked for ways to fight us while avoiding a conventional battlefield. Neither course of action should be surprising. Both sides were playing to their strengths.

But the Army’s attempt at transformation ran into two huge obstacles. First, the enemy didn’t cooperate. As we’ve seen in Somalia, The Balkans, and of course, Iraq and Afghanistan, our enemies are not willing to fight a conventional campaign. Secondly, the Army’s plan for transformation, the Future Combat System, was something of a bridge too far. The FCS wasn’t a procurement program. It was an umbrella for about 30 different procurement programs, none of which were built on fully mature technology. It was also a very long range plan. And it is somewhat useless to plan a 25 year procurement strategy. Technology, threats, domestic politics and policy and doctrine all change at a far more rapid pace.

The FCS program was rendered moot more by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than by anything else though. The low-intensity conflict, the threat of IEDs, low tech enemies and the fact that so much of the fighting took place right among crowds of noncombatants were all factors that mitigated our Army’s enormous edge in conventional maneuver warfare.

Over the last decade, the operational side of the Army had to learn to fight these types of wars, and had to pry loose the money to buy equipment suited for them. Among the most visible of these purchases are MRAPs and improved body armor, but a host of smaller items had to be bought as well, such as improved radios and esoteric items such as improved bandages. And as the Army became embroiled in these wars, less emphasis was paid to the conventional war of maneuver.

There is an intellectual tension about which way the Army should train  and equip for the next war (and there will always be a next war).

Mr. Ludes also questioned the suggestion that the opposition between conventional and counterinsurgency capabilities is a false choice. “The demands of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it harder to develop leadership with experience and training to conduct maneuver warfare,” he said.

As an example, he noted there had recently been a dearth of brigade-level conventional warfare exercises at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and that the brigade that staged them there had itself been deployed.

It has long been my opinion that the Army needs to maintain that heavy, conventional war of maneuver capability. It is a lot easier for a heavy maneuver unit to downshift to COIN operations than for a light COIN force to fight on a heavy maneuver battlefield.

Further, take a look at the pace of operations in Desert Storm versus the current war in Iraq or Afghanistan. The fact is, you have to get it right the first time in a war with a near-peer enemy. You won’t get a second chance. But in a COIN war, you have time to make mistakes, readjust your force, and reshape the battlefield.

Let’s take Iran for an example. If we end up having to fight them, will it be a conventional war, or a COIN war? Iran has a large conventional army. It also has a large psuedo-army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. What might a war with Iran look like? I have a strong suspicion it would look a lot like the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It would begin with a rather conventional fight, and quickly develop into an insurgency, as defeated forces turned to a guerrilla campaign.

I’m not arguing for an either/or proposition. There has to be a balance. It would be foolish for the Army to discard the wealth of tribal knowledge it has gained in the last decade. But we need to make sure we don’t discard that tribal knowledge we gained throughout the Cold War, either. Let’s hope the Army can strike the right balance.

8 thoughts on “The Army of the Future”

  1. My idea has been to establish a “Nation-building Corps” within the Army, similar to how the Marine Corps exists within the Navy.

    It would have more of the MOS’s required for COIN (i.e. MP’s and intel), its own training, and its own promotion structure. The equipment would be MRAPS, Strykers, artillery, helicopters, etc.

    In the case of a war with Iran the Army would kick down the door and defeat the conventional forces. Then the NBC would take over operations. If the insurgency was big enough you could take units from the Army, run them through an abbreviated version of the NBC dedicated training pipeline, and attach them to commanders who lived, ate, and dreamed COIN.

    1. Well, I don’t think you need to go that route, and it would add a layer of bureaucratic complexity that would hamper, not improve the situation. I think what we’ll see is the continued heavy/light force split. Light forces will continue to emphasize COIN type issues, with some “hot war” training, and the heavy forces will get back to maneuver training, with a bit of COIN tossed in.

      Having said that, a lot of the pre-2003 training for heavy forces was somewhat unrealistic because it didn’t face the issues of non-combatants on the battlefield and urban combat. Not that these issues weren’t foreseen, just that no one had an easy way of addressing them, so they ignored them. I think they’ve learned a lesson there.

  2. What do you think the role of intelligence is within COIN? I’m wondering about the need to identify and eliminate targets when fighting urban warfare, with civilians all around.

    1. Intel is crucial in the COIN fight. It is the heart and soul of COIN. That’s not to say that intel isn’t crucial to maneuver warfare- it is. But they are two entirely different types of intel collection in practice.

      Maneuver warfare against a near-peer competitor lends itself to technical collection, ie, signals intel, airborne recon, scouts, that sort of thing. And finding the enemy’s formations and predicting his probable courses of action in a very compressed time frame.

      But in COIN, a huge amount of the inel has to be Human Intelligence, or HUMINT. And in COIN warfare, rather than dedicated intel units collecting, analyzing and disseminating intel to the line units, the line units have to “grow their own” intel. The best analog is policing. Beat cops on patrol and detectives making low level busts learn to use the population, both innocent and guilty, as informants to learn more about criminals.

      Similarly, line units in a COIN war have to learn to establish a “rat line” of informants. Most intel comes from the community. In this lies a part of the secret why COIN is so manpower intensive. To get the local population to cooperate, you have to provide them with enough security that they are less likely to suffer consequences from cooperating. If you “flood the zone” with enough troops to guarantee security (because even insurgents hiding in the population can’t really do much when there are troops on every corner), you’ll get a fair bit of cooperation. Once you’ve achieved a critical level of cooperation, you can actually reduce the troop presence while still having a reserve to carry out offensive operations against the insurgents.

      When the NYPD instituted its Community Policing initiative in the 90s, they bumped up the numbers on patrol. They put more officers on foot patrol versus in patrol cars. And they pretty soon got a lot of cooperation from the community.

      When the LAPD tried something similar in the late 90s/early 00s, they failed (not miserably, but still failed). Why? Well, among the biggest differences between the departments is size.

      The NYPD has about 40,000 cops. The LAPD has about 10,000 cops that have to cover a comparable area. There was no practical way the LAPD could put enough officers into an area to suppress crime long enough to develop the trust and cooperation of the community.

      The same challenge obtains in COIN warfare. You can see the similarity between Iraq with a discreet number of cities occupied by about 150,000 US troops, versus Afghanistan where about a zillion small villages were “secured” by about 35,000 troops.

      That is by no means the entire answer, but it should give you some food for thought.

  3. Whether the Army gets it right is more of a political question than an operational question. I disagreed with David Hackworth when he asserted that we would never fight another war similar to WW2, Korea, or Gulf War I. If we built an Army or Marine Corps that was incapable of that kind of fight we would find our next opponent would give us exactly that kind of war. I told him he was foolish to think we should not maintain that type of capability.

    You are correct that we can adapt to COIN warfare fairly quickly. But, it is interesting to note that after Abrams relieved Westmoreland in Vietnam he changed the way we fought the war, and handed the NVA and what remained of the VC their heinies on a silver platter. When we left the country was pretty well pacified. The last battle we fought, the ’72 Easter Offensive by the NVA, was hurled back over the DMZ with 50% losses on the part of the NVA. The biggest difference was ARVN was standing up for itself and fought well. We had few troops in Vietnam in April of ’72, but supported ARVN well with air power (and the first combat use of the TOW missile). They could have done it again in ’75 if we had given them the air support the treaty required, but that’s another story.

    It did help a lot, however, that Tet ’68 pretty much destroyed the VC and their cadres. I don’t think it made much difference to Abrams, or his strategy as Charlie had recovered some.

  4. I disagreed with David Hackworth when he asserted that we would never fight another war similar to WW2, Korea, or Gulf War I. If we built an Army or Marine Corps that was incapable of that kind of fight we would find our next opponent would give us exactly that kind of war. I told him he was foolish to think we should not maintain that type of capability.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    And the similarities between Abrams relieving Westmoreland, and Patraeus relieving Casey are amazing.

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