What’s Old is New Again

For almost a decade, the Army has been focused on low intensity conflict (a very relative term!) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, there’s no such thing as low intensity to the guy in a firefight, but the fact remains that Afghanistan and post-invasion Iraq were fought primarily against insurgent forces, not near-peer competitors fielding what we tend to think of as modern armies.

But with the reduction of US troops in Iraq, and the possible drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan in the near future, the Army is again looking at the need to train for higher intensity conflict, what they now call “full spectrum operations.”

YAKIMA – Capt. Dan Ferriter is used to facing elusive insurgents on his combat tours of in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve been the Army’s main enemy during his six-year career, planting roadside bombs and taking shots at American soldiers from hidden places.

Now the former Ranger is training to fight a different foe, but one just as lethal for American forces who have been emphasizing counterinsurgency warfare for nearly a decade.

Ferriter, a Stryker brigade officer from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, is getting back to basics and preparing to go to war against another military rather than a shadowy network of terrorists.

“This is pre-9/11,” the dirt-covered captain said last week during his company’s drills at the Yakima Training Center. “The guys that were in the Army pre-9/11 are starting to get few and far between.”

Ferriter is in the desert of central Washington this month with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The 4,000-soldier brigade has deployed to Iraq three times since 2003 – it was the first of the Army’s eight Stryker brigades – but it doesn’t have another mission to Iraq or Afghanistan on the horizon.

It’s using this opportunity to build skills for what the Army calls “full-spectrum operations.”

“The hard part is not losing how good we’ve become at (counterinsurgency) and making the right balance,” said Ferriter, 28, of DuPont.

Back in my day, this was meat and potatoes, bread and butter stuff. Mechanized force on force warfare was the focus of much of the Army from the immediate post-Vietnam era through the end of the Cold War. And we were very good at it (see: Storm, Desert).

It wasn’t until the messy and bothersome interventions in such garden spots as Somalia and the Balkans that the Army even began to realize that it might have to fight in ways it didn’t really want to, in urbanized terrain, against non-state actors such as terrorists and insurgents. As an institution, the Army was slow to grasp some of the difficulties of fighting in that environment. Stability and support operations doctrine was slow to evolve, and to say that many troops early in Iraq had only On the Job Training would be accurate.

Faced with the need to deploy large numbers of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in these counter-insurgency campaigns, the Army tailored the pre-deployment training of its forces to their next deployment, and focused on the roles and missions those units would be tasked with. That’s only right and proper. We call it battle focused training for a reason. And it would be immoral for the Army to not provide the best suited training for its soldiers as they were spun up to deploy.

But while the Army was largely focused on those two theaters, the rest of the world didn’t go away. The possibility of conflict with near-peer nations hasn’t disappeared. And a lot of the skillsets that troops in combat arms units used to practice have withered from disuse. As the article notes, (and as Esli and LTC F note in a pair of excellent comments left at NepLex’s post on this subject) the people who grew up doing “full spectrum” operations are largely gone. The Army, despite excellent retention, has a lot of personnel turnover, and the “tribal knowledge” has been diluted by that.

An armor or “heavy” infantry officer in the days of “AirLand Battle Doctrine” had a fairly predictable career path, much of which allowed the doctrine of maneuver warfare to sink into his bones. A tour as a platoon leader, then either as a company XO or specialty platoon leader, time as a company commander, then as a junior staff officer at battalion or brigade, time for advanced military and civilian schooling, time as a senior staff member or battalion XO, and then on to battalion command. All that time, he’d be using the same basic doctrine, and learning ever more complex ways to utilize the basic tools available to him, and how the various units and staff sections, and supporting arms and services worked hand in hand to achieve victory against a large maneuvering enemy force, usually heavy with armor and motorized infantry.

Today, while our young officer might have many of the same assignments, his focus has been elsewhere. As Esli will attest, not since his days as a company commander has unit training been focused on fighting enemy tanks.

It is about time the Army return to this capability. One of the reasons we have faced insurgent forces is that our enemies realized in the wake of Desert Storm that a stand up fight against us was a good way to get your ass kicked. But as we have focused more on the counter-insurgency fight, some potential enemies may start to feel froggy enough to take us on under certain circumstances. We need to be prepared for that.

A couple of complications lie ahead, not just from the lack of experience throughout the force in maneuver warfare.  One, the Army has transitioned form a division based organizational structure to a brigade centric organization. The Army had 50 years of experience in learning how to fight a division in high intensity warfare. It has almost no practical experience with the new brigade concept. It will learn (and they DO have the practical experience of actually using the brigade organization in the real world for a decade now), but there will certainly be some bumps in the road, and some surprises.

Second, the Army isn’t facing an “either/or” situation, where it gets to choose between a “heavy” fight, or a COIN campaign. The new doctrinal name “full spectrum operations” recognizes that any heavy fight will almost certainly also involve a lot of stuff the Army would prefer not to deal with, such as insurgents, paramilitary forces, the need to perform stability and support operations simultaneously ( or nearly simultaneously) with combat operations, and interfacing with civilian populations, allied forces, and non-governmental organizations, all while trying to fight a fast moving heavy opponent.

The practical effect of that is, they have far more tasks that units simply must train for. And there is only so much time, money and other resources available to train units. Finding the right balance, as CPT Ferriter says, is going to be the hard part.

1 thought on “What’s Old is New Again”

  1. It should be pointed out that “Full spectrum Ops” is not new. The Wehrmacht had that problem in Yugoslavia and Soviet Russia. While fighting what we now know as traditional combat with Stalin, they had to fight a COIN battle against partisans as well. In Russia it didn’t amount to much. In Yugoslavia is was more than annoyance, although it never would have resulted in victory by itself, particularly if the Germans didn’t have bigger fish to fry tot he east.

    If things go economically the way they seem to be headed, we’ll find ourselves fortunate to field an Army of the size we had in the Indian Wars, and Full Spectrum Ops will just be an academic term as we won’t have the money to fight anyone bigger than Costa Rica.

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