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).

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