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Sapping Our Precious Conventional Capabilities


Via Noah at Danger Room comes this: “The poobahs are worried that ‘the new emphasis on… counterinsurgency may be undermining conventional [big war] capabilities.'”

“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.”

Gen. Richard Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, was the first to sound the alarm publicly late last year. He warned that soldiers need more than 12 months between deployments so that they can complete a full range of combat training.

“We need to reset the sergeants and send them to schools, the lieutenants and captains and send them off, so that we don’t erode and become an Army that only can fight a counterinsurgency,” Cody told reporters. He added that North Korea‚Äôs Oct. 3 nuclear test “reminds us all that we may not just be in a counterinsurgency fight and we have to have full-spectrum capability.”


First off, this development isn’t terribly surprising. There remains a bias in the Army brass against counter-insurgency operations; it’s been there for over a hundred years, is deeply embedded, and only increased in influence after the end of the Vietnam War. That the brass are pushing back against FM3-24 and Petraeus was predictable. I suspect that this bias also helps explain why the Army is finding itself shut out of senior Pentagon leadership positions. The Air Force, no doubt with parochial interest in mind, has already taken this line on counter-insurgency and a preference for major combat operations, although it defines such operations differently.

This argument on the balance between counter-insurgency and combat operations was plausible in the 1960s, when the Army really could argue that the most significant threat it faced was the Red Army, and that it couldn’t allow a counter-insurgency brushfire like Vietnam to reduce overall readiness for the big fight. Today, as far as I can tell, the argument is hopelessly indefensible. It’s not just that we’re engaged right now in two counter-insurgency wars; in the near and middle term, nearly all operations we can imagine ourselves becoming engaged in will be counter-insurgency/low-intensity conflicts. The exceptions to that would be an full invasion of Iran, an effort to retake Taiwan from China, or a need to defend South Korea from North Korea, but a) none of these eventualities are particularly likely, b) the most serious (Chinese invasion of Taiwan) is unlikely to be decided by the Army in any case, c) at least one (the invasion of Iran) pretty much assumes a return to counter-insurgency operations in short order, and d) the US conventional advantage is so huge in every case that we can really afford to make some sacrifices.

Noah is also correct to note that counter-insurgency operations in neither Afghanistan nor Iraq have thus far been so successful that we can imagine diverting time and resources away from thinking about and preparing for this kind of conflict. Even if we leave Iraq soon (and I very much hope that we will), operations in Afghanistan will continue. If you had asked me before 2001 “what is the biggest blind spot in US defense planning?” I would have said “given the kinds of fights we’ve seen recently, the preponderance of overall US force, and the most likely fights in the future, counter-insurgency”. Perhaps the sole positive effect of the Iraq War has been the jump start it gave low-intensity, counter-insurgency planning and doctrine in the US Army. It would be a pity to throw that away.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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