Streetwise Professor

July 25, 2007

I’ll Have Both, Please.

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:45 am

This article states that the Israeli military has come to the conclusion that its neglect of conventional large unit operational and maneuver skills brought on by a decision to focus its attentions on counter-terrorism and counter-guerrilla operations in the territories was a mistake. In light of last summer’s embarrassment in Lebanon, the IDF has now decided to rejuvenate its atrophied—and once formidable—conventional capabilities.

This is probably wise, but points out a problem that seems to have hobbled not just Israel but the United States military; the crippling debates between those who think that unconventional wars are the wave of the future, and hence should be the focus of military preparation, and those who think that traditional conventional “big war” capabilities should be paramount. Currently there is a debate raging within the US military between younger officers with extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan who advocate a reorientation of the US armed forces towards “small wars,” and the more senior officers who favor maintaining a formidable conventional, large-war capability. And this is not the first time we’ve had this debate—a similar debate occurred in the Vietnam era.

I am of the belief that both capabilities are important. I further believe that the either-or nature of these debates is extremely counterproductive. The answer to the question “Should we develop large war or small war capabilities” is “Both!”

Historically—and now—these debates revolve around differing predictions of future threats, and these predictions tend to be dominated by immediate circumstances (e.g., our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) The problem is that threats are endogenous. One’s enemies have the ability to respond to your decisions. If you decide to develop one capability and let another erode, your enemy will direct resources to exploit the weaknesses that this erosion creates. This is one reason (unexpected technological change being another) that forecasts about future wars are so often wrong—as the Israelis found out to their discomfort last year.

To be sure, there are distortions in the decision making process. For instance, defense firm lobbying arguably results in the purchase of more high tech, big ticket toys than is optimal. In this environment, spirited advocacy by Young Turks can serve as a valuable counterweight. But the Young Turks’ denigration of such capabilities can go too far. A common criticism of big ticket items is that they are seldom—and sometimes never—used. But you need to consider what would happen if you don’t have them. We spend many billions on the Navy and the Air Force to create capabilities that are not challenged, but if we didn’t build these capabilities, our enemies could challenge our dominance of the skies and seas. That would pose problems, arguably far more serious than the consequences of our putative neglect of small war capabilities in the post-Cold War decades.

The US needs a full spectrum of capabilities to perform its irreplaceable role. It needs big units with big guns and heavy armor and fast planes and big ships. It also needs units expert in small wars.

This raises interesting questions about how these varying capabilities should be fielded. One alternative is to create specialist forces. Back in the day, the Marine Corps was the specialist in small wars, and the Army the specialist in big ones. Another alternative is to field flexible technologies and forces that have both capabilities. For instance, the USMC has developed a vastly improved heavy capability while retaining its small war mentality. Similarly, the Army has responded to conditions in Iraq by developing and augmenting its small wars capabilities.

I don’t presume to know which way (specialization vs. multi-mission capability) is best. But I think that this way of framing the debate (i.e., how to develop the capability to fight both big and small wars) is much more productive than the “Big War vs. Small War” debate that seems to be the norm. Due to the endogeneity of threats, the “winner” of this either-or debate will create a force that is pre-disposed to failure. The enemy gets a vote too, and he almost always votes to behave differently than you assume. If you overdevelop one capability at the expense of others, you can rest assured that you will end up ruing your choice—regardless of the choice you make.

This is just a variation on a well-worn theme in military history. Militaries that are successful, be it tactically, operationally, or strategically, have mutually supporting combined arms capabilities. Any single capability is vulnerable to a countermeasure, but this vulnerability can be mitigated by partnering with a complementary capability. Military monocultures are not highly survivable in the medium or long run no matter how well they do that one thing. The Colonel Sanders (“We only do chicken”) approach is a recipe for failure.

If put on the spot, I would conclude that it is harder to create the capability to go big (i.e., to create effective heavy forces) than it is to create the capability to go small. Indeed, in Iraq the Army has been quite effective at using traditional heavy units–such as heavy artillery outfits–in infantry and counterinsurgency roles. The physical capital intensity of heavy units makes them difficult to create overnight. In contrast, as the American experience in Iraq shows, well-trained and highly motivated soldiers and Marines can be employed effectively in light and counterinsurgency roles if they are operating under a sensible counterinsurgency doctrine with tactics appropriate to the mission. That is, counterinsurgency is human capital intensive, and the human capital can be embodied in doctrine and training. Investing in heavy forces while at the same time developing diverse operational and tactical doctrines applicable to varied missions and training troops to perform multiple missions creates real options for commanders to exploit. The optionality of light forces is not nearly as great.

In this formulation, a crucial thing will be to provide the proper incentives for officers to invest in diverse skills. This is probably where the military has fallen short, with an overemphasis on conventional heavy warfighting skills and a slighting of those outside the Special Warfare community who invest in human capital specific to light and counterinsurgency operations.

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