After years of fighting insurgencies, the Army pivots to training for a major war

Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In mock battles at the Army’s massive combat training centers in California’s Mojave Desert, Louisiana’s pine forests and Germany’s mud, the service is spending less time preparing troops for meetings with village elders and more time training soldiers how to respond to artillery barrages and attacks from enemy fighter bombers.

After spending the last 17 years fighting grinding counterinsurgencies in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is shifting its gaze. This year’s National Defense Strategy charged the military with preparing for high-intensity conflict against major nation-state threats like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. The Army is falling in line.

The change is popular with the current crop of generals, to judge from their comments at the recent Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting and exposition in Washington, D.C. But if the military’s post-Korean War history is any guide, the Army’s next war is more likely to be another messy insurgency than a conflict with a major power. Army senior leaders say that they can prepare adequately for both. Others are not so sure.

“We have a bad habit of not being able to stop the pendulum in the middle,” said retired Col. Joe Collins, a professor at the National War College. That context has some observers — including the general arguably most associated with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — cautioning that as the Army gears up for war on the European plains, it must not forget the lessons it has paid such a high price in blood to learn.

“It is reasonable to refocus a fair amount on higher-end tasks on which we didn’t focus a great deal during the years of back-to-back deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said retired Gen. David Petraeus, who at different periods was the senior U.S. commander for each of those wars. “But we do need to retain the lessons that we learned too often the hard way in those counterinsurgency campaigns.”

The Army has been here before. After withdrawing from Vietnam in the mid-1970s, the service turned its attention to preparing for war in Europe against the Soviet Union and wanted nothing more to do with the sort of battles it had fought in the jungles of southeast Asia. “We did walk away from it,” said retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, vice president of education at the Association of the U.S. Army. The only lesson the Army seemed to learn from Vietnam was that it didn’t want to fight a counterinsurgency again.

But the Army doesn’t get to pick its wars. When President George W. Bush nominated Gen. George Casey to lead the military effort in Iraq in June 2004 as that country was starting its slide into anarchic civil war, he was selecting a general who had achieved four-star rank without ever reading a book on guerrilla warfare. It’s unlikely that Casey was alone in that regard among the Army’s senior leaders. The full cost of that institutional amnesia became clear only as the United States and its allies lost control of Iraq to Sunni insurgents and Iranian-sponsored Shi’a militias. By the time the U.S. military had climbed back up the steep counterinsurgency learning curve towards the end of 2007, almost 4,000 American troops were dead.

One of the faulty assumptions that Army officers made in the years between Vietnam and Iraq was that units trained for high-intensity conflict would be able to handle anything else. “If we can face the Russians, then we can handle these guerrillas,” was how Swan described their attitude. “And that was not the case.”

Today’s senior Army leaders seem convinced that the service can combine training for tank-on-tank battles with preparation for counterinsurgency and other forms of low-intensity conflict. Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of Army Training and Doctrine Command, acknowledged that the service could not afford to completely turn its back on the sort of warfare it had been conducting in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The future of war will be a hybrid threat,” he told reporters at the recent Army association meeting in Washington, D.C. . “There’ll be everything from tanks and missiles and fighter-bombers down to criminal gangs, terrorists, suicide bombers and guerrilla cells. … We’re going to have to do all of that, the full spectrum of conflict.”

Other generals sounded the same theme. But occasionally there were faint echoes of the post-Vietnam mantra that, as Swan put it, “any tank unit can handle guerrillas.” “We don’t forget the lessons learned” from Iraq and Afghanistan, said Brig. Gen. Christopher LaNeve, who heads 7th Army Training Command in Grafenwoehr, Germany. But “it’s easy” to transition from a high-intensity fight “to a counterinsurgency,” he told an audience at the meeting. “It’s harder,” he said, to make the opposite switch.

Today’s colonels and generals made their careers conducting counterinsurgency campaigns, but the Army has always been more comfortable preparing for high-intensity, artillery-intensive warfare than for the dirty, messy business of putting down insurgencies, not to mention peacekeeping (now almost officially a dirty word in the service). As the Army’s commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began to wind down, “there was almost a sense of relief that we can go back to ‘real soldiering,’” like after Vietnam, said Petraeus.

Army officers simply have a greater comfort level with conventional wars, he said, and “it’s about getting resources,” he said. “And big wars get you big resources.”

Swan said there was “some truth” to that theory, but he argued the major reason the Army defaults to high-intensity conflict is because that sort of war is the “most dangerous” to American interests, even if a less likely scenario. “If you’re an army that’s expected to fight and win the nation’s wars, I think you have to lean towards the higher end of the spectrum,” Swan said.

Even Petraeus, who as a lieutenant general oversaw the 2006 publication of the service’s counterinsurgency doctrine manual, says it is “reasonable” for the Army to refocus on high-end conflict. But, he added, the service must remember that all operations include a mix of offense, defense and stability.

Today’s senior Army leaders say that won’t happen again. “Whether we want to or not, we’re going to find ourselves doing a peacekeeping operation or doing a stability operation, doing another counterinsurgency somewhere in the world,” Townsend said.

Others are not so sure. “I’m concerned that while the Army says we’re not going to do that, they’re not making the adjustments in our education and our training that ensure that our forces and our junior officers and [non-commissioned officers] see this as not a binary but a continuum which they’ve got to be prepared to fight in,” said retired Col. John Agoglia, who was the director of the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010.

That training and education will grow in importance in the coming years as fewer and fewer soldiers will have firsthand experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Already, comparatively few junior officers and enlisted soldiers have the benefit of that experience. That might present the Army with a challenge, said Swan, who cited as an example his son, a first lieutenant who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point two years ago. “He hasn’t deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, and what he’s been doing has been tank gunnery,” Swan said. “He is focused on Russians and other high-end competitors.”

The training centers, which include permanent opposing forces (essentially home teams that visiting units train against), could shift back to a counterinsurgency scenario “very quickly,” said Mario Hoffmann of the Training and Doctrine Command’s intelligence directorate. However, doing so would require “an enormous increase” in the number of role players involved (who usually play civilians on the battlefield) as well as an expansion of the facilities for training units in urban warfare, he said at the AUSA annual meeting. Even now, Hoffmann said, even though most training is focused on the “metal-on-metal” combined arms threat, every unit rotating through every combat training center “should be fighting elements of irregular warfare, to include insurgencies or guerrillas or terrorists.”

But how should the Army prepare to fight across the full spectrum of conflict when there is an inevitable zero-sum element to decisions about how to spend training resources, particularly the resource of time? A day spent on counterinsurgency, perhaps by training how best to interact with Afghan village elders, is a day not spent training for tank warfare on the plains of Europe.

The Army is, in part, answering this question by creating conventional Army units that specialize in low-intensity conflict, a task that has been normally carried out by Special Forces. Scarred by the experience of trying and failing to win counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with its own combat formations, the service is planning for campaigns in which its role is to advise and assist host nation forces in putting down insurgencies, rather than to do the fighting itself.

“We think the United States Army in particular but the military writ large will be in an advise-and-assist role for years and decades to come,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters. He acknowledged that the Army’s traditional experts at this work are its Special Forces, who call it “foreign internal defense.” However, Milley said, “there’s simply not enough of them” to handle the workload on their own.

Milley’s solution to this problem is the Security Force Assistance Brigade, a new type of unit that includes the officers and sergeants of a regular infantry brigade, but not the junior soldiers. The idea is that the SFABs will train and advise foreign militaries, to include accompanying their partner units into combat. One is already in Afghanistan, another is scheduled to deploy next spring, three more are planned for the active force and one for the National Guard.

Each SFAB (pronounced “ess-fab”) will have about 800 soldiers, and the Army is putting significant resources towards its goal of filling them with some of the Army’s most talented soldiers. “That is a big change from what you saw after Vietnam,” said Guy Swan. “They’re putting the best and brightest in those units, at the expense of a lot of other missions,” in the process causing “some angst in the rest of the Army,” he said.

The SFABs are “a demonstrable symbol” that the Army’s leaders recognize that the service will continue to be involved in low-intensity conflicts, and “we have to capture those lessons learned and we have to put them into a formation,” said Maj. Gen. Charles Flynn, the assistant deputy chief of staff in the Army’s operations directorate, at an event hosted by Defense One.

However, while the SFABs appear to be evidence that the Army is preparing for a future characterized by low-intensity conflicts, Milley suggested that at least as important to him was that the SFABs would free up for high-intensity operations upwards of half-a-dozen brigades’ that are currently deployed on advise-and-assist missions. “What these SFABs do there is as we deploy them we should be able to recoup or get back the conventional brigades … that we’ve ripped apart,” Milley said.

Another advantage is that if the service needs to rapidly expand the number of combat brigades in a national emergency, the SFABs, could be quickly fleshed out with junior soldiers, according to Swan. “Those outfits were a way to husband end strength and key billets,” he said. “If the next chief sees that same logic, then I think they will survive.”

One test of how much priority the Army will continue to place on counterinsurgency is whether the colonels who command SFABs get promoted to one-star generals and selected for key jobs like assistant division commander at the same rate as their peers who command regular infantry, armor and artillery brigades, Petraeus said. When the Army stood up much smaller advisor teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, the colonels who commanded them were promoted at a much lower rate than their combat arms peers.

“The Army doesn’t have a brilliant track record with a lot of these programs like that,” said Agoglia. “SFABs?” he said. “They’re only going to last until the next chief of staff comes in and maybe he gets tired of it.”


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