The Best Defense

What the last 10 years tell us about what kind of military we'll need in the future

By Max Boot

Best Defense guest columnist

In my new book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, I argue that low-intensity warfare always has been and always will be the dominant form of combat. Assuming my analysis is correct -- and I believe it is confirmed by thousands of years of experience -- what does this mean for the future of the U.S. armed forces? What kind of military do we need to fight terrorists and guerrillas?

It is hard to top the description offered by Colonel Pierre-Noel Raspèguy, one of the central characters in Jean Larteguy's classic novel The Centurions (1962) about the French paratroopers who fought in Indochina and Algeria. Raspèguy, modeled on the real-life legend Marcel "Bruno" Bigeard, says:

I'd like France to have two armies: one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their general's bowel movements for their colonel's piles: an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country.

The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put on display but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That's the army in which I would like to fight.

As it happens, the United States today already has the second kind of army -- and a Marine Corps too: Both have been shaped by a decade of war into counterinsurgency (COIN) forces with few peers in history. They may not look good on parade, and they may not be as proficient at fighting with tanks and artillery as the peacetime forces of prior decades, but at the messy, trying business of fighting terrorists and guerrillas they have few if any equals.

Achieving this level of proficiency has not been easy. It has required overcoming the built-in bias in favor of conventional conflict among all conventional military forces. Indeed the COIN revolution in the U.S. military would never have come about were it not for the fact that the more conventional method of fighting nearly led the United States to disaster in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. The danger now is that the armed forces will revert to their default setting -- preparing to fight some version of the (nonexistent) Red Army -- and turn their back on the hard-won lessons of the past decade.

The danger is especially great because the heavy deployment tempo of the last decade is winding down and both the Army and Marine Corps are downsizing -- the former is set to lose at least 80,000 troops, the latter at least 20,000. Actually, the personnel cuts may be even deeper if $500 billion in sequestration cuts are implemented or if they are turned off by a budget deal that inflicts smaller but still substantial cutbacks on the armed forces. A smaller force that will experience less combat may see the exit of some of its most experienced COIN veterans -- the hardcore warriors who have no desire to serve in a spit-and-polish parade-ground army.

A smaller force will also be less capable of COIN operations in the future because such campaigns are manpower intensive. The Iraq War showed that, while you don't need that many troops anymore to take down a conventional force like Saddam Hussein's army, you need a lot more personnel to pacify a country of 25 million people. We did not have enough troops, in no small part because of the "peace dividend" cuts of the 1990s which eliminated one-third of the Army's active-duty ranks. There was a modest plus-up in active-duty strength over the past decade, but if the Army and Marine Corps are now cut again they will lack the riflemen they need to conduct COIN operations in the future.

Of course COIN requires not only large numbers of general-purpose troops but also as many as possible who know the culture and language of the land where they are deployed. This has long been a weakness of the U.S. military, which has never stressed foreign-language training or foreign-area knowledge save for a handful of foreign affairs officers who are typically consigned to career purgatory. This is supposed to be a specialty of the Army Special Forces, but over the past decade their A-teams from all over the world have been sucked into Iraq and Afghanistan and focused on direct-action missions, sacrificing whatever local language proficiency they might have previously cultivated.

It will be hard to enhance the foreign-area expertise of the armed forces without taking some steps that are anathema to the bureaucracy. Some ideas:

  • Recruiting more non-citizens into the armed forces -- the premise of a small program, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), which was wildly successful when implemented in 2009 (one of its recruits, a Nepalese immigrant, was named the Army's Soldier of the Year) but that was suspended in 2010 after the shooting by Major Nidal Malik Hassan, an native-born citizen, at Fort Hood. The program has now been relaunched but it remains to be seen how many slots it will have and how long it will last.
  • Creating an entire advisory organization within the Army focused on security assistance -- an idea first suggested by COIN expert John Nagl that has never come close to being implemented. Instead advisors are currently taken out of conventional Brigade Combat Teams, which means that top performers are seldom selected for this assignment.
  • Dedicating officers to spent years focused on one region, whether they are down-range or at home station. This was the premise of the AfPak Hands Program, an initiative launched in 2009 by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Adm. Mike Mullen, designed to dedicate a group of officers to years of focus on Afghanistan-Pakistan. But the individual services refused to support it by assigning top-performing officers and it has not lived up to its promise. The program should not only be revived but expanded to other parts of the world -- and it should be attractive enough to recruit high-fliers.
  • Making a year of study abroad mandatory for students in the military academies, command and staff colleges, and war colleges.

Whenever such proposals are put forward, the bureaucracy raises myriad reasons why they are supposedly impractical. What's really impractical, however, is forcing the armed forces to fight on human terrain they don't understand.

None of these is meant to suggest that we should get rid of all heavy conventional forces. The Army and Marine Corps should keep their tanks, albeit in smaller numbers than today -- not because there is great likelihood that anyone will once again fight an armored war against us, as Saddam Hussein tried to do twice, but because tanks can come in handy in COIN. (See the two battles for Fallujah or the Israeli Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada.) The Air Force and Navy shouldn't focus much on COIN at all -- they need more ships and aircraft to counter the rise of China and deal with other conventional threats. But low-intensity conflict will remain the most common form of warfare in the future, and the Army and Marine Corps will need to dedicate the bulk of their resources to preparing for this kind of war in the future.

And that will require not only identifying and shooting insurgents but also dispelling the conditions that give rise to insurgency. Perhaps the most important step we can take to increase our COIN capacity in the future would be to create a civil-military nation-building office, possibly by transforming USAID into an agency focused not on promoting "development" for its own sake but on building up state structures in strategically important countries that are endangered by actual or potential insurgencies. In other words, places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, and post-Assad Syria.

I know that "nation-building" is anathema to political expediency in Washington. But there is really no other choice. If we can't do a better job of assisting other countries to govern themselves, especially in the arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia, we will find our military forces sucked into more difficult and costly conflicts in the future.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (Liveright).


The Best Defense

10 things I don't get about PME

By Harun Dogo

Best Defense guest columnist

1. Why do we send field grade officers to two or three separate, year-long schools over the course of a decade? In fact, why do we send so many of them for a year of schooling a few years before they retire?

2. If the Army can teach the staff college core at their satellite campuses in 15 weeks, what do we get from the in-resident students for the other eight months of residence that makes the added cost worth it?

3. The objective of both SAMS/SAASS and the War College is to teach strategy. In fact there is much overlap in their reading material. If we really need a number of "Jedi" strategist majors running around, why not just send them to War College early?

4. The Air Force in particular has long had a bit of schizophrenia about whether its officers are required to have a master's degree completed before they meet their major's board. As a result, many of those officers pick up an online master's degree somewhere along the way -- oftentimes those degrees are in a subject area very similar to PME -- see some of AMU's offerings or even the AU's own online programs. With the staff and war colleges both conferring the master's degree too -- is it really necessary for officers to pursue up to three master's degrees in the same subject area over the course of a decade?

5. With the sole exception of the Eisenhower School at the National Defense University (the former Industrial College of the Armed Forces -- ICAF), PME core curricula do not seem to include serious instruction in resource management, economics or statistics. Can strategy that does not consider resource implications still be called a "strategy"? Particularly since DOD might be a tad more resource constrained in the future than it has been in the past...

6. Why does everyone have to study the same thing? Social psychology literature tells us that a greater diversity of experiences and backgrounds makes us better at innovating and avoiding groupthink, despite a greater proclivity for clashing opinions. Why not allow officers to pursue a diversity of graduate opportunities instead -- MBAs, MPPs, master's degrees in social science, engineering or (gasp!) basic science? DOD's corporate universities (NPS and AFIT) could pick up some of it, while still enabling students to complete the core staff/war college courses. For those going out to a civilian university, they can take their indoctrination at a distance or spend the summer re-militarizing their thinking...

7. If the goal of war college is to ensure we have senior military leaders who are familiar with strategic thought, rather than trying to identify those with flag potential among PME students when they are majors, why not wait until they are selected for flag rank and then have them attend whatever strategy education we deem to be necessary? Between the four services there are approximately 100 new flag officers per year, and all of those officers already have to attend the CAPSTONE course. Making war college only a general's course or making it six months like the NATO course in Rome might be a more efficient way of making senior officers more strategic...

8. Why not let promising officers attend PME earlier? George Marshall attended staff college six years into his military career. He seemed to do OK in the long run...

9. We already send a fraction of eligible officers to detail with other government departments, non-profit organizations, or businesses in lieu of attending PME. If those experiences are just as valuable as in-residence education, then why not make them more pervasive at the intermediate level? It might help with that pesky retention problem, or serve as a bridge to that sabbatical idea folks want to see...

10. All that said, it appears that attendance of in-residence PME is (at least in certain services) a signaling device for promotion and a reward for top performers. It can also be seen as an opportunity for a frequently deployed force to rest and recuperate and spend some uninterrupted family time. But the current PME framework has been around since the 19th century -- the world and the military have both changed a bit since then -- is this still the best system we can come up with?

Harun Dogo is a doctoral fellow at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and is currently based in Washington DC. He also hangs with his homeys in the CNAS Next Generation National Security Leaders 2012-2013 cohort.