Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What is the future use of the US Army

Noah Schactman at Wired, is linking to an Army complaint that they are spending too much time and training on counterinsurgency and not enough on large tank on tank, maneuver force warfare exercises:

“The major concern is, while we’re doing all this COIN [counterinsurgency] . . . do we have battalions that can still do an attack or a major defense, or brigades that can coordinate three battalions attacking an objective?” said Dennis Tighe, deputy director of the Combined Arms Center for Training . “Maybe we’ve got some problems there.”

Tighe added that the greatest concern is not that the next generation of battlefield commanders are learning skills like foreign military advising, policing and reconstruction -- but that they may be learning them at the expense of those hard skills.

“We’re probably still good on individual gunnery skills and small unit gunnery skills, but we’ve got some captains that haven’t done a major gunnery,” he explained.

“I am concerned,” he wrote in the January/February issue of Armor magazine, “based on reports from the field as well as observations of training units, that the long war is taking a toll on our core competencies.”

You can take this statement in one of two ways. Noah takes it the first way, a blast against the dinosaurs who want to go back to a simpler times when the enemy wore slightly funny looking uniforms and fought in a fairly similar, but less competent and less technologically advanced manner.

Excuse me, General. But when the Army has spent the last five years or so fighting a pair of insurgencies -- and not exactly burnt out the scoreboard with its performance -- isn't it time to make counterinsurgency a core competency? Especially since planners from the President on down are talking about keeping American troops in Iraq for decades?

Of course we need to have an Army that's prepared for every eventuality. But it seems to me like we should be zeroing in on the eventuality that's right in front of our faces.

The second manner in which to discuss this complaint is a larger manner in trying to assess what type of military do we actually need and what types of threats are we likely to face. The small, snide remark that keeping twenty brigades in Iraq has a remarkably high opportunity cost, is at best a true but side comment.

I want to start by pulling up a chart that Ian Welsh at the Agonist loves to post whenever he has a reasonable chance to do so. It is the 2002 comparative military spending profiles of the US, major allies, China, Russia, and "Rogue" states.

This is the spending profile before the massive Iraq war and occupation bumps. As Ian notes, we do not get good value as we are engaged in two wars right now and are unable to accomplish our political and thus strategic objectives despite outspending our opponents by anywhere from a 50:1 to 100:1 ratio depending on how you want to do the accounting.

There is a methodology of warfare that allows for an enemy fighting an operationally defensive campaign that will allow the United States to bleed itself dry without being able to engage in sustained and decisive conventional force on force maneuver combat. This system is becoming more common in both the general spread and also in the probable combatant lists. Conventional, large scale mechanized maneuver warfare opponents are becoming far fewer until you get to scenarios that have France, Germany and Russia invading Poland for the hell of it. [not a bad airport read btw]. The North Korea scenario is the only major 1,000s of tanks and vehicles crossing the border scenario that does not immediately get laughed at these days. Even then, this is a low probability event compared to counterinsurgency.

Where are the other scenarios that requires multiple US divisions of heavy forces to intervene to support an ally against conventional, large scale military attacks that are backed by armor, artillery and air?

The mission universe greatly expands if the previous sentence's strategically defensive assumption that the US military is a counter-attack force changes into the US military is a strategic attack and decapitation force. That is the mission that the US Army performed in March and April of 2003. If this is the main strategic mission, the capacity to credibly threaten to wreck a country and decapitate an existing political and economic infrastructure, than the current constitution of the US Army is reasonably useful.

I believe that the United States is a hegemonic power that has successfully instituted a global rule set that has been significantly net beneficial to us by creating non-zero sum games for most of the involved actors. I also believe that the power of the state is seeing significant competition from the empowerment of the individual, and the massive democratization, comparative de-skilling and deflation for the costs of communication and violence.

The greater threat to the United States is not findable, and thus deterrable nation states but the lawless and the chaotic zones without functioning governments. The Taliban's hold on Afghanistan was weak, although it was strong enough to crush opium production. Warlords held considerable autonomy and the tribes loosely aligned their interests with the weak central government. Now Afghanistan is having its third bumper crop of poppy production in a row, and the disfunctionality of its government has spread to northwestern Pakistan. The disintegration of the state in Iraq and Somalia has led to an increase danger for both nearby states and their distant patrons.

So what is the future use of the US Army? If one believes that all foreign policy is state-centric and that there is a short term blip of insurgencies and guerrilla warfare then more of the same, with marginal and incremental but expensive tweaking are appropriate. If one believes that something significantly different is going on, and that the probability of conflict between modern nation states has dramatically declined, then a different solution and force structure is needed.

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