Learning from Contemporary Conflicts to Prepare for Future War

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: HR McMaster

H.R. McMaster is a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a colonel in the United States Army. He is author of Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and The Lies that Led to Vietnam (1997). This essay is based on his full-length article in the Fall 2008 special issue of Orbis on “The Future of War.”

War is the final auditor of military institutions. Contemporary conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq create an urgent need for feedback based on actual experience. Analysis of the present combined with an understanding of history should help us improve dramatically the quality of our thinking about war. Understanding the continuities as well as changes in the character of armed conflict will help us make wise decisions about force structure, develop relevant joint force capabilities, and refine officer education and the organization, training, and the equipping of our forces.

But first we need to reject the unrealistic, abstract ideas concerning the nature of future conflict that gained wide acceptance in the 1990s. Flush with the ease of the military victory over Saddam’s forces in the 1991 Gulf War and aware of the rapid advance of communications, information, and precision munitions technologies, many observers argued then that U.S. competitive advantages in these technologies had brought about a Revolution in Military Affairs. It was assumed that there would be no “peer competitor” of U.S. military forces until at least 2020. Military concepts based on this assumption promised rapid, low-cost victory in future war. Ultimately, these ideas and their corollary of reduced reliance on military manpower became subsumed under “defense transformation.”

Defense transformation advocates never considered conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq—protracted counterinsurgency and state-building efforts that require population security, security-sector reform, reconstruction and economic development, building governmental capacity, and establishing the rule of law. Our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the 2006 Lebanon war, provide strong warnings that we should abandon the orthodoxy of defense transformation and make appropriate adjustments to force structure and development.

Policy and Strategy Must Determine Force Development
U.S. force development should be driven by how our forces might be employed to protect vital national interests. Prior to 9/11, “capabilities-based” defense analysis reinforced shallow thinking about war and disconnected war from policy and strategy. The belief that surveillance and information technology could lift the fog of war elevated a desired military capability to the level of strategy. After 9/11, military operations were not clearly subordinated to comprehensive plans that aimed to achieve policy goals and objectives.

It is illogical to acknowledge an uncertain strategic environment yet believe in assured results in military operations. War’s conduct and outcome depend in large measure on subjective factors such as the will of the people, the wisdom of political objectives, and consistency between those objectives and military strategy.

The U.S. government must develop improved interdepartmental capabilities for planning and executing complex operations, emphasizing operational design that begins with a comprehensive understanding of the environment and the enemy. Joint forces must be designed not only to defeat identifiable enemy forces, but also to impose security and undertake the wide range of activities necessary to achieve political objectives. Until civilian departments within the U.S. government expand deployable capabilities in order to establish local governance and rule of law, develop police forces, improve basic services, build institutional capacity, and set conditions for economic growth and development, the U.S. military will continue to bear responsibility for those missions.

Counterterrorism Demands a Broad Range of Capabilities
Notwithstanding terrorist organizations’ improved use of communications and their access to increased destructive capacity, they still find it hard to operate without a safe haven, state sponsorship, or tacit support from nation-states or communities therein. As counterterrorism efforts improve, networked movements like Al Qaeda become less effective as they are forced to operate in a more dispersed manner. For this reason Al Qaeda continues to emphasize control of geographic space, whether in Pakistan, Somalia, or a particular region within Iraq. Considering the terrorist threat as merely a law enforcement, homeland defense, or intelligence problem overlooks terrorist organizations’ immediate sources of strength and support, such as freedom of movement and the ability to plan, organize, and prepare for operations in a safe location.

Iran’s engagement in proxy wars through terrorist and insurgent groups in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan demonstrates that the greatest danger to international security may lie at the intersection between hostile states and terrorist organizations. That is why the U.S. Joint Force must expand its ability to deter, coerce, or defeat nations that either threaten U.S. vital interests or attack those vital interests through proxies. It must also improve its ability to take on a wide range of missions, including interdiction of terrorist movement and support; raids against leadership and support bases; and counterinsurgency, peace support, and state-building operations in places that terrorists would like to use as bases of operation.

Fighting Under Conditions of Uncertainty
Initial military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq illustrated more continuities than breaks with previous conflicts.[1] Surveillance and information technologies failed to deliver the promised “dominant battlespace knowledge” as enemy forces employed traditional countermeasures (e.g. dispersion, concealment, deception, and intermingling with civilian populations) to Coalition technological capabilities. While long-range surveillance and precision-strike capabilities were essential to both U.S. campaigns, over-reliance on these capabilities complicated the transition from major combat operations and limited our forces’ effectiveness. At Tora Bora, for example, surveillance of the difficult terrain could not compensate for a lack of ground forces to cover exfiltration routes. After a 16-day battle, many Al Qaeda forces, probably including Osama bin Laden, escaped across the Pakistan border.

Conventional “legacy” Army organizations, designed to fight under uncertain conditions, proved critical in Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in March 2002 and in the attack into Baghdad a year later. But some of those organizations have since been eliminated or redesigned, based in part on the assumption that future tactical and operational environments would be marked by a high degree of certainty. Although the divisional cavalry squadron of the Third Infantry Division, a unit designed to fight for information, protect against surprise, and ease the forward movement of follow-on forces, was invaluable during the attack toward Baghdad, that formation and all others like it have since been eliminated in favor of small, lightly armed reconnaissance squadrons designed to use mainly aerial and ground sensors to develop situational awareness out of contact.

The major offensive operation that quickly toppled the Hussein regime in Iraq clearly demonstrated the possibilities associated with new technology, as well as the effects that improved speed, knowledge, and precision can have in the context of a large-scale offensive operation. However, the initial phases of the operation also revealed important continuities in warfare that lie beyond the reach of technology. Unconventional forces will continue to evade detection from even the most advanced surveillance capabilities. Moreover, what commanders most needed to know about enemy forces, such as their degree of competence and motivation, lay completely outside the reach of technology.

Post-9/11 experience highlights the enduring uncertainty of combat and the need for balanced air, ground, and maritime forces that can both project power from a distance and conduct operations on the ground to defeat the enemy and secure critical terrain. Yet some observers continue to portray the impressive performance of new technologies and airpower in Afghanistan and Iraq as decisive and consistent with the prewar belief that these capabilities had revolutionized the nature of armed conflict. Defense programs have not been altered significantly despite experiences that expose fatal flaws in the assumptions that underpinned many of those programs.

We must develop new joint and service operational concepts that are consistent with the enduring uncertainty and complexity of war. Rather than “capabilities-based,” these concepts ought to be based on real and emerging threats and connected to scenarios that direct military force toward the achievement of policy goals and objectives.

In doing this, we must avoid viewing force design as a zero-sum game among the services. Precision strike, information, and surveillance technologies cannot substitute for balanced joint forces, but they are nonetheless vitally important. Technological improvements have delivered a higher level of situational understanding. Without dominance at sea or supremacy in the air, U.S. ground forces would be extremely vulnerable to enemy action. Additionally, U.S. air and naval strike capabilities make it difficult for enemy ground forces to concentrate, except in very complex terrain or urban areas. Moreover, the ability of small U.S. forces to bring overwhelming firepower to bear upon contact with the enemy permits our forces to operate with confidence while dispersed across wide areas.

However, recent conventional combat experience also suggests that we should reject the notion that lightness, ease of deployment, and reduced logistical infrastructure are virtues in and of themselves. What a force is expected to achieve once it is deployed is far more important than how quickly it can be moved and how easily it can be sustained. As we endeavor to improve ground force capability, we must therefore increase airlift and sealift capabilities.

Counterinsurgency and Stability Operations
The United States is likely to become engaged in future conflicts against armed groups that employ tactics and strategies similar to those it is facing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have also confirmed that the key battleground in these conflicts is the population.

Some commanders and defense officials were slow to recognize the character of the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Initial emphasis was on an attrition approach to the complex problem of growing insurgencies. Using technical intelligence and surveillance capabilities, U.S. forces attempted to defeat networked enemy organizations through attacking leadership and reducing critical capabilities. This approach viewed the enemy as a complex system that could be collapsed if the right nodes were destroyed. A “raiding” approach to counterinsurgency, combined with the rapid generation of Iraqi security forces, seemed to promise quick results and compensate for insufficient Coalition troop strength to secure the population. This approach elevated an important capability to the level of strategy. Resources were dictating strategy, rather than the other way around.

As indigenous security forces came under increased enemy pressure and insurgent groups replaced their killed or captured leaders, commanders moved off large bases and conducted area security operations to protect the population, isolate the insurgents, foster political and economic development, build security forces, and help establish the rule of law. However, lacking sufficient forces to secure the population in critical areas, many commanders were only able to continue raiding operations to disrupt the enemy. Meanwhile, insurgent forces were able to coerce the population, establish safe operating bases in areas beyond Coalition reach, incite sectarian conflict, and prevent Coalition and Iraqi forces from establishing the security necessary for economic and political development. A lack of troop strength also compelled dispersed Coalition forces to move continuously along routes they were unable to secure, a main cause of large numbers of casualties from roadside bombs.

Population security must be the focus of counterinsurgency operations. Technology can assist greatly in that effort, but it cannot substitute for a sufficient strength of land forces. In weak or collapsed states, indigenous forces cannot provide security on their own. Recent combat experience has demonstrated the need to develop in military forces the critical skill sets relevant to state-building and developing security forces, even though this will take time.

Obstacles That Undermine Learning from Conflicts
Unfortunately, parochial agendas and narrow perspectives threaten to impede the effort to repair the intellectual foundation for defense modernization and adjust force development. Some analysts maintain that current operations either are derived from flawed policy or unimportant to U.S. vital interests. For example, U.S. Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap argued recently that the Iraq War is an aberration—an ill-advised “hearts and minds campaign.” He suggested that America should eschew conflicts like those in Afghanistan and Iraq in favor of “scenarios” that call for the destruction of an adversary’s “capacity to project power.” In Dunlap’s construct, war could once again be made simple, fast, inexpensive, and efficient by divorcing military operations from policy or limiting the application of military force to targets capable of “projecting power.” Instead of “colossal, boots on the ground efforts,” the United States should rely on “air strikes to demolish enemy capabilities complemented by short-term, air-assisted raids and high-tech Air Force surveillance.” Divorced from its political context, the problem of future war could be solved by America’s “asymmetric advantages.”[2] The argument has appeal, in part, because it defines war as we might prefer it to be.

Those who advocate a return to 1990s thinking also assert that U.S. airpower and the delivery of “effects” from long range (e.g., bombing) are more “culturally compatible,” because these capabilities represent America’s “asymmetrical advantage.”[3] Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula has argued that increased investment in asymmetric capabilities would permit U.S. forces to “project power without projecting mass.”[4] While it is clear that air, space, and cyber systems deliver valuable speed and flexibility, it is not clear how those systems alone will deliver sufficient capability to overcome countermeasures, defeat determined adversaries, or achieve political objectives.

Another argument used to support the orthodoxy of the RMA is that remotely delivered effects would make war less risky, less costly, and even more humane. Dunlap and Deptula, among others, cite the targeting of U.S. land forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They seem to attribute combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to the mere presence of U.S. forces rather than the possibility that these forces pose a threat to enemy organizations and designs hostile to U.S. political goals. Deptula and Dunlap fail to consider the enemy’s ability to react and adopt countermeasures that complicate our ability to remotely deliver effects. One wonders what kind of remotely delivered capability might secure people from terrorists living in their midst, reconstitute a police force, or interdict concealed vehicle bombs aimed at crowded marketplaces. Dunlap and Deptula suggest that the United States reexamine the degree to which it will accept “collateral damage,” but do not explain how bombing suspected targets without the ability to secure the population or discriminate between combatants and noncombatants would support U.S. objectives in current or potential conflicts.

Finally, Deptula and Dunlap, among others, argue that future war will be fundamentally different. For example, Deptula states that “the profound effects of globalization and the information revolution are mirrored, if not magnified, in the realm of conflict—where they have recast the nature of our adversaries, redefined the fabric and scope of the battlespace, and reinvented the tools and techniques used to conduct warfare.” The assumption that future war will lie mainly in the realm of certainty has obscured differences between business and war. It fosters the belief that the influence of information technology on business and the economy is directly transferable to war. Prior to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the RMA movement was driven in large measure by that belief, reinforced by computer simulations that failed to replicate the conditions of war. Faulty analogies and flawed experiments were mutually reinforcing. However, the continuous interactions with the enemy in war and uncertainties associated with those interactions are fundamentally different from business interactions.

Moreover, efficiency in war means barely winning, and in war, barely winning is an ugly proposition. In war one seeks to overwhelm the enemy such that he is unable to take effective action; the business principle of maximum payoff for minimum investment does not apply. The complexity and uncertainty of war require decentralization and a certain degree of redundancy, concepts that cut against business’s emphasis on control and efficiency.

We need to reject the assertion that future war will differ fundamentally from recent and ongoing conflicts in order to protect future commanders from what could become a tendency toward risk aversion and over-control. Assuming information superiority might lead some commanders to conclude that making near-perfect decisions based on near-perfect intelligence is the essence of command. Commanders must be capable of conceptual thought and have the ability to communicate a vision of how the force will achieve its objectives.

Potential adversaries are developing technological countermeasures to attack components of emerging capabilities. Recent examples include the Chinese demonstration of an anti-satellite capability and Russian cyber attacks that reveal the vulnerability of information systems. Future adversaries will likely develop countermeasures that pose a significant threat to U.S. surveillance, information, communications, and precision-strike capabilities and the network on which those capabilities depend.

The above factors militate for the development of balanced joint forces capable of operating against determined enemies that will attempt to evade and attack our technological advantages. But theory continues to triumph over practice, due largely to informal relationships between defense contractors, the DoD, Congress, and think tanks, some of whom built client bases on marketing or lending legitimacy to flawed concepts. Moreover, conflicts of interest present obstacles to unbiased experimentation. The stark contrast between actual experience and the results of tests and experiments argues for a critical examination of joint and Defense experimentation and the practice of using experimentation results to justify Defense programs.

Implications for Land Forces
The U.S. Army, despite having fought for six years under conditions that run counter to the orthodoxy of defense transformation, is still finding it difficult to break away from years of wrongheaded thinking. The Army brigade organization, designed using mainly computer simulations to validate a smaller, lighter, more efficient organization that could “see first, understand first, act first, and finish decisively,” has not undergone significant revision. That “quality of firsts,” based on the assumption of dominant knowledge in future war, has gone largely unchallenged.[5] Indeed, the quality of firsts, despite being exposed as unrealistic by combat experience, continues to provide the primary conceptual justification for the Army’s Future Brigade Combat Team (FBCT) organization and some acquisition programs.

Recent combat experience has had no discernible effect on the FBCT or current Army Brigade Combat Team (BCT) organizations, largely because of flawed doctrinal concepts and a continued fixation on futuristic experiments in constructive simulations even as U.S. forces are at war. Forces equipped only for self-defense under the assumption that information superiority will protect them and permit the destruction of the enemy at a great distance are certain to suffer a high number of casualties when they engage in close combat. In war, the enemy makes decisions that help determine when, where, and how our forces will fight. If a force optimized for operations under conditions of information superiority loses communications, it could become isolated and unable to access remote fires. Any ambiguity will necessitate reallocating sensors and an analysis effort to avoid risks associated with encountering the enemy unexpectedly. While much of the transformation literature stresses speed, adaptability, and initiative, the force’s inability to overmatch the enemy in a close fight will predispose leaders toward waiting for information rather than taking resolute action in uncertain conditions. Ironically, a force that was supposed to be fast and agile will operate ponderously.

The factors underpinning uncertainty in war are mainly land-based. As defense analyst C. Kenneth Allard has observed, operations on land provide challenges “for which technology at best provides only incomplete answers.”[6] Indeed, people live on land, and land is where political, social, and cultural factors interact with geography and determined enemies to generate profound uncertainty. U.S. Joint Forces must be prepared to fight and win under conditions of uncertainty.

It is time to discard flawed idealized visions of future war and the assumptions that underpin them. New doctrine based on logical projections into the near future should provide the conceptual foundation for joint and service force design. Civilian and military defense leaders should eliminate the practice of contracting out their intellectual responsibilities. In particular, defense contractors should not produce and test operational concepts that can later be used to justify the purchase of their systems or products. We might declare a moratorium on joint and service experimentation so these programs can be audited and alternative means developed to justify acquisition programs. Forces ought to be designed explicitly to fight under conditions of uncertainty and to achieve effectiveness rather than efficiency. This will entail tolerating a higher degree of redundancy. We should build sufficient logistical and lift capacity to sustain and transport forces for what they are to accomplish in wartime. In particular, the disparity between the doctrinal foundation for Army forces and recent experiences demands a thorough review of Army organization. Instead of creating more of the same BCTs as the Army grows in strength, leaders might conduct a comprehensive review of the BCT design and strengthen those organizations based on recent and ongoing experience.

New technologies and “spin outs” from acquisition programs have contributed significantly to the combat effectiveness of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; technological modernization and innovation should be pursued with undiminished vigor. Understanding both the capabilities and limitations associated with these technologies, however, is essential to shaping the future force.

1. ^ See Stephen Biddle, “Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy,” Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pa., November 2002, esp. pp. 1-3; and Stephen Biddle et al., “Iraq and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy,” August 2003, U.S. Army War College, at www.globalsecurity.org.
2. ^ Major General Charles Dunlap, “America’s Asymmetric Advantage,” Armed Forces Journal, Sept. 2006.
3. ^ Ibid.; Deptula, “Air and Space Power Going Forward.”
4. ^ Ibid.
5. ^ Mark Rocke and David Fitchitt, “Establishing Strategic Vectors: Charting a Path for Army Transformation,” Association of the U.S. Army, April 2007, at www.ausa.org/pdfdocs/special/may07.pdf
6. ^ C. Kenneth Allard, “Information Warfare: The Burden of History and the Risk of Hubris,” in The Information Revolution and National Security: Dimensions and Directions, ed. Stuart J. D. Schwartzstein (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1996).

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