Mr. Sparkles Asks A Question
Madison or DC?

Long, Small Wars or Big, Bad Ones?

Mac Owens lays out the choices as we try to design military forces for the different challenges we face.

Though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely discredited staunch transformation advocates, a heated debate still rages about the shape of the future U.S. military. One side, the "Long War" school, argues that Iraq and Afghanistan are characteristic of the protracted and ambiguous wars America will fight in the future. Accordingly, they say, the military should be developing a force designed to fight the Long War on terrorism, primarily by preparing for "small wars" and insurgencies.

Critics -- often labeled "traditionalists" or "conservatives" -- concede that irregular warfare will occur more frequently in the future than interstate war. But they conclude that such conflicts do not threaten U.S. strategic interests in the way large-scale conflicts do. They fear that the Long War school's focus on small wars and insurgencies will transform the Army into a constabulary force, whose enhanced capability for conducting stability operations and nation-building would be purchased at a high cost: the ability to conduct large-scale conventional war.

The reality is that we can do both, to some extent. Counterinsurgency is not a resource or weapons platform intensive strategy. Actually quite the opposite, it involves getting our troops out among the populace to meet them, learn about them and share their dangers and burdens. It involves building rapport with them so they believe your presence leads them on a path to greater security and prosperity. This does not require nuclear submarines or air superiority fighters. It takes cultural awareness and shared sacrifice. But the larger tools of war must be available to them as threats are identified.

The other end of the spectrum is large-scale conventional war, the last real example of which was Korea. Vietnam was an insurgency that we fought as a conventional war to our detriment. Although unlikely, the possibility that we may end up rolling tanks against a determined opponent, basically Russia or China, requires us to maintain that capability. That option is strongly supported by our military-industrial complex and it's powerful lobbying arms. I don't disagree that we need to develop and field major weapons systems to ensure we will be dominant if tested, but I think we can take a reasonable look at which ones and in what quantities we should buy.

President Obama has famously stated he would eliminate the Future Combat Systems program. This would be a major mistake as one of the hallmarks of the program is inter-operability. We have seen in our recent conflicts that the more our systems can speak to each other, the more we can clear away the fog of war. Commanders can assemble all the bits of battlefield intelligence into a coherent view allowing a more precise application of force to achieve objectives. Granted the program is pricey, but it is certainly a job creator and more valuable to our country than millions of condoms.

The defense industry and the Generals and Admirals who command the large combat units and the attendant hardware have always fought for more of their particular type of system. Admirals want more ships, Tankers more tanks. But we can't allow these parochial turf wars impede our progress toward integrated systems that support the joint operations that we now conduct. The lines between the different services are increasingly blurry and to the grunt calling for fire there is no difference between a Navy fighter, and Air Force bomber or an Army helicopter. All he wants is the bad guys to blow up.  That should be the focus of our development and procurement process, "Does this system further our ability to use all of our abilities in a united effort?"

Counterinsurgency requires our troops and more importantly their leaders to know in depth the history of the local populace as well as it's aspirations. This requires a considerable amount of academic work and we should be expanding that capability. Perhaps we even need a branch of proponent command for COIN, but even if so this could be fairly small and serve as a cadre to train and advise conventional forces as they approach a new theater. We should also have some units that are specifically organized and trained for that mission.

We must still maintain the bulk of our combat power in fairly conventional albeit highly-networked units because that capability cannot be quickly spun up. We can adapt well trained conventional units to COIN with the assistance of the specialists and designated units. We should also ensure that conventional units have an organic COIN capability and component. This mix maintains the large warfighting capability we need, with the flexibility required for the much more likely small ones we will be engaged with.

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