Last week, former Army chief of staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan editorialized that the Army is repeating the mistakes of the post-Vietnam era, when it turned away from a decade’s experience fighting a counterinsurgency war, in favor of building a more capable conventional force. This, according to General Sullivan, forced the Army to improvise its way through conflicts in Panama, Somalia, and the Balkans. General Sullivan went on to say that, despite these three experiences, we still possessed the wrong Army when we invaded Iraq in 2003.
One wonders how an Army optimized to fight insurgents would have dealt with the six armored Republican Guard divisions that ringed Baghdad. General Sullivan does not address this question. What he does say is that the Army was well on its way to defeat in Iraq until, after three years of muddling through, it adopted a new counterinsurgency doctrine. Now General Sullivan fears that the Army, in its rush to put Iraq and Afghanistan behind it, will once again put its counterinsurgency skills on the shelf, as it once again turns its attention to preparing for conventional warfare.
I have nothing but the deepest respect for General Sullivan, but his concerns are misplaced. His first mistake is viewing today’s global environment as similar to the environment of the last 40 years. According to the general, “We cannot wish away instability, failed states, post-conflict instability, large refugee flows, genocide, terrorism, humanitarian catastrophe, regime change, and the need for intervention.” Far be it from me to predict an end to all of these various forms of human misery. Still, one must recognize that we live in a dramatically different world from the one that existed when we went into Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago. It is a world in which the United States does not have to bear every burden, and those we choose to (or are forced to) bear are likely to require a force that can sustain itself in a high-intensity conflict.
Africa has been growing economically at 6 percent a year for a while, and many experts believe this is not just another false dawn for that disadvantaged continent. That means Africa’s wealth is on pace to almost double every decade. If we look east, many Asian nations have long experienced even faster growth rates, and even a cyclic slowing will still see them doubling their GDP every decade, if not faster. China, for instance, has been doubling its wealth every six years, and even a slowdown of 50 percent will still leave it on pace to be the world’s largest economy by 2050. In short, the world is getting wealthier at a pace scarcely imaginable when General Sullivan was learning the art of counterinsurgency warfare in Vietnam.
There is, therefore, real hope that the world will experience a declining number of failed states, as a rising tide lifts all boats. Increasing global prosperity will also do much to reduce chronic instability in many regions of the world. Increasing wealth in some nations may, for a time, increase internal turmoil, as growing middle classes demand more power over the political and economic direction of their countries. But even in these cases, growing wealth can temper many of the worst effects of regime change. That assumes that a new government moves rapidly to establish free markets and sufficient rule of law to assure a rapid recovery. It hardly needs saying that such a political upheaval in China, or what may be now taking place in Russia, would certainly have much larger and more unpredictable consequences than what, for instance, the Arab world is undergoing. On the other hand, we are unlikely to commit our military forces to quell internal turmoil in either country. And if we did, an Army and Marine Corps optimized to handle counterinsurgencies would be worse than useless.
Moreover, in a wealthier world there is no longer any reason for the United States to continue doing all the heavy lifting. That does not mean we do not help, either where our assistance can do the most good, or where the international community does not possess the wherewithal to accomplish specific tasks. It does, however, mean that we do not have to rush to commit American combat troops whenever something goes wrong in the world. Still, when we do commit American soldiers and Marines to a situation where combat is likely, it is imperative that we have the right force for the job.
So, let us take a look at General Sullivan’s examples of where we muddled through in the past. In Panama, soldiers and Marines secured all 27 assigned objectives on the first day. Although fighting continued for some time thereafter, I am at a loss to see where a differently designed military-force structure would have made a substantial difference. In Somalia, a company from the 75th Rangers was severely mauled, causing the United States to declare that any continuing effort in that country was not worth the cost. That company was part of the most elite infantry force in the world, fighting in a counterinsurgency that its men had spent years honing their skills for. But in the narrow streets of Mogadishu they decided to fight the way their enemies were fighting, and they paid dearly for it. What would have made a difference? Heavy armor (tanks and armored personnel carriers) surely would have had a significant impact. Finally, in the Balkans, U.S. intervention brought an end to the worst of the violence in short order. This was not done through a special counterinsurgency doctrine or with a specially trained counterinsurgency force. Rather, it was accomplished by the 1st Armored Division, which crossed the Danube River with hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers, fully prepared to take or inflict casualties as necessary to create a lasting peace. In the words of the sign posted by Lieutenant Colonel (now Major General) Tony Cucolo over the gate to his battalion compound, “Peace in the Posavina [Sava River Valley] or deal with us!” That, in a nutshell, is the heart of counterinsurgency; not some doctrine that is more concerned with nation-building than it is with security.
The soldiers and Marines in Iraq always knew this. The corps commander in Iraq during the surge, now the Army chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno, reportedly said that nothing he was doing before the Army published its new counterinsurgency doctrine changed once it was published. A new doctrine did not break the back of the counterinsurgency in Iraq. That was done by the addition of 50,000 more soldiers and Marines to the fight. Note: These were not aid workers or even forces imbued with a new doctrine (most of them had never read it). Rather, they were 50,000 mostly combat troops, prepared to take the fight to the enemy. And it was a hard and vicious fight — one that often required the full combined-arms panoply (armor, artillery, close air support) to win. Somehow, much of the true narrative of this fight is being lost in favor of one that emphasizes getting along with the locals, building schools, and helping farmers. All of these activities were, of course, important, but they pale in comparison to the benefits of increased security, which was only bought by hard fighting. One brigade commander captured it perfectly when he said, “I know all about counterinsurgency doctrine. It means shake hands in the light and kill at night.”
And there you have the true purpose of America’s Army and Marine Corps: to fight and win our nation’s battles. Humanitarian assistance, stability operations, and counterterrorism have become military missions mostly by default. There is simply no other organization that can handle a crisis as rapidly and efficiently as the U.S. military. General Sullivan is right to say that the United States will continue to find itself dealing with these kinds of operations. Moreover, he is probably correct in stating that despite our current distaste for such ventures, this country may find itself fighting another counterinsurgency war sooner rather than later. But his fear that we are allowing the Army’s and Marine Corps’s core competencies in this area to wither is unfounded. In fact, our Special Forces, which exist almost solely to handle this type of mission, have tripled in size since 2003, and there appears to be little impetus for shrinking this force.
What General Sullivan left out of his history was the crucial importance that heavy armored forces played in Operation Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He also neglects to mention what happened to Israeli forces in their 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Israel had optimized its forces and doctrine for a counterinsurgency war, only to pay a high price for the loss of rapidly perishable combined-arms skills when it was forced to fight a heavily armed Hezbollah force. In fact, throughout our own war in Iraq — in the battles for Najaf, Fallujah, and Sadr City — heavy forces were often a crucial factor in the Army’s and Marines’ battlefield success. The truth of the matter is that a heavy force can move rapidly down the spectrum of conflict to engage in a counterterrorism operation. On the other hand, it would take years for a force optimized to fight insurgents to acquire all the skills necessary to fight as a heavy combined-arms force.
The Army and Marine Corps this country requires have to achieve a proper balance between their light and heavy forces. Light forces remain crucial because of their rapid strategic deployability, their ability to traverse any terrain, and their unparalleled capacity to closely interact with local populations. Still, there are times when nothing will do except a battalion of heavy M-1 tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers. These heavy forces have proven their worth in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, they are absolutely essential for fighting a more advanced enemy. And it is these advanced nations that are our primary worry for the future. As the world becomes wealthier, more and more nations will be able to afford military establishments that can be overcome only by heavy armor. God help us if we ever come to blows with a technically advanced force and all we have to fight with are light forces optimized for counterinsurgency warfare. Some are too quick to forget that the light forces that first deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield referred to themselves as “speed bumps,” to discourage the enemy until the heavy armored divisions arrived to support them.
The United States did not turn away from counterinsurgency warfare after Vietnam because it was tired of fighting such wars. It did it so in order to prepare to confront a massive Soviet armored threat to Europe. That force not only held off the Soviet Union, it proved spectacularly good at doing everything else asked of it over the past 20 years. Likewise, the Army is not once again turning its focus away from counterinsurgency warfare because of a sour taste left by Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, it is peering into an uncertain future and noting that a host of potential enemies can be confronted only by a U.S. Army and Marine Corps capable of engaging in a high-tempo, heavy-force-dominant combined-arms fight.
— Jim Lacey is a professor of strategy at the Marine Corps War College and the author of the just released The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not express those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.