Re-thinking war-fighting doctrines after the failure of ‘overwhelming wealth’

Special to

Gregory Copley, Global Information System

Most strategic allies of the United States are waking up after the long Cold War and post-Cold War party with the realization that their efforts to integrate their military doctrine with that of the U.S. have led them to evolve force structures which require enormous capital investment and which are not optimized for current and anticipated conflict situations.

The re-thinking of U.S. defense budgets and threat and power projection priorities is expected to start a slow process of re-examining military doctrines for U.S. forces, but U.S. allies do not have the luxury of time to make their own doctrinal changes. They are now beginning to discover that they will be largely functioning separately and independently from U.S. forces in many engagements over the coming years, and only occasionally working with the high-cost U.S. structures. Moreover, they will, in future, be, of necessity, addressing threats with a whole of government response, in which kinetic, military operations are but one component.

"Today, troops believe that water comes from the air. It‘s something choppered in for them."

There is now the beginning of a growing recognition within the U.S. military establishment itself that its doctrine over the past decade has led to strategic failure; that defense budgets will henceforth continue to be cut dramatically as a result; and that new and more practical doctrine is required.

The re-thinking of U.S. military doctrine and overall force architecture was made all the more urgent by the announcement on Jan. 5, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama of substantial cuts in the growth of the U.S. defense establishment. But for the U.S., the defense budget cuts were not as significant as media commentary made out.

What is significant is the change in threat and deployment priorities for the U.S., moving the U.S. to a more Asia-Pacific focus (which would also embrace the Indian Ocean), diminishing the NATO orientation. The FY 2012-13 U.S. defense cuts would, however, still give the Defense Dept. a budget of $662 billion, only $43 billion less than 2011-12, but are planned to start a total of some $489 billion in defense spending cuts over the coming decade (or double that under some circumstances). The U.S. defense transformation, however, is going to be about the way it postures its forces, and how they fight. In the emerging environment, it may be that the U.S. will rely more on allies to work in coalition with it, but, equally, its allies are in most instances increasingly reluctant to choose to join with the U.S. in major engagements.

As MacKubin Thomas Owens noted in The Wall Street Journal of Jan, 6: The new strategy envisions a regional focus on the AsiaPacific and a shift from a two-war capability to a — win-spoil plan that maintains the capability to fight and win one regional war while spoiling the military aspirations of another adversary in a different theater. The Army will be reduced to 490,000 troops from 570,000 and the Marines to 175,000 from 202,000 over the next few years while air and naval assets will be maintained in order to optimize operations in Asia-Pacific, primarily a maritime theater. The primary concern for the U.S. and its allies is not so much the cuts in actual U.S. defense spending, which almost certainly will inhibit current and planned major weapons systems development, but rather how the U.S. should be forced to do what most budget — or manpower-constrained forces have traditionally done: rely on human creativity in operational situations, rather than depend on technology.

The initial reaction to proposed U.S. defense budget cuts was to think in terms of using more unmanned, and remotely-managed combat assets as part of a risk-averse process. That, however, is a stop-gap thought process, and fails to accommodate the reality that such assets as unmanned aerial vehicles and the communications links vital to them are vulnerable to the growing assortment of countermeasures available to a potential hostile power. Several factors are critical to any review of military doctrine, quite apart from the realization that the economic, manpower, and political reach of U.S. and allied defense forces are becoming increasingly constrained, and the realization that these assets — economic might, large manpower pools, and political reach — did not stave off strategic damage to the U.S. and the West in Iraq and Afghanistan. The important additional working factors include, among other things:

1. The fact that modern, networked forces will, for the foreseeable future (ie: perhaps the next decade or two), face complex battlefield threat scenarios in which — in most instances — the adversaries should be expected to be geographically and socially entrenched, and impervious to counternetwork capabilities (because they do not rely on them);

2. The fact that the threat will increasingly include source-obscured attacks on rear-area (ie: homeland) civil infrastructure which will necessitate the use of the armed forces to maintain law and order, and, indeed, life through the delivery of power, safe water, and communications, as well as the delivery of food, rescue, and medical services;

3. The fact that a casualty-averse, risk-averse, defensive posture would once again lead to a protracted battlefield engagement which would in turn (and again) lead to increasing economic and political costs, ultimately contributing to greater costs and the likelihood (again) of strategic loss. In other words, to be successful, expeditionary forces will need to fight symmetrically, not asymmetrically; they would need to fight a net-eccentric conflict (meaning that they would have to sustain local networks, but not be reliant on remote command and control); and they would need to fight a logistics-independent war insofar as possible.

Any re-thinking by the U.S. of its war-fighting doctrine, however, is likely to be painful, and — if it is to be successful — would require an understanding that overwhelming wealth is no longer the decisive element, even if it had ever been a substitute for overwhelming innovation. Doctrinal re-thinking by U.S. allies, with less wealth at their disposal and more limited force structures, should be expected to be even more painful, and there will be a strong urge by most to attempt to sustain their missions as merely coalition partners of the U.S. in any future conflicts. That is a luxury which may not be available to them, as the U.S. constrains its commitments to enter new conflicts.

This may be particularly the case in, for example, such situations as the 2012 collapse of Nigerian domestic stability, despite the overwhelming importance of the Nigerian (and Gulf of Guinea) oil and gas resources to the U.S. and European — and Asian — economies. However, military doctrine parallels civil society. And civil society today in industrialized states remains replete with hubris, despite the economic declines and social uncertainty. The first reaction of civil society faced with hard economic decisions is to fight for the sustainment of the status quo; the retention of rights, privileges, and the security of economic stability. In other words, the process of soldiering — or, indeed, air and naval power projection — overtakes and overshadows what should be the overwhelming objective: mission success.

As part of moving ground force troops — literally at the level of the individual soldier and their squad and company commanders — toward improved battlefield success, it will be necessary to reintroduce the concept of risk-taking. This, too, involves re-shaping the thinking of higher-level military and political command, where the social consequences of every battlefield casualty have been seen to have severe in terms of media and voter dissatisfaction. The temptation to resort to overwhelming firepower, using strategic delivery systems, was shown to be largely counter-productive in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns by the U.S. and Coalition forces. Rather, sustained presence, improved and deep situational awareness (not merely superficial reconnaissance intelligence), and a low-kinetic approach — coupled with non-military, strategic force multipliers, such as psycho-political maneuver and aid — are more likely to deliver mission success.

All of this implies a highly-fluid approach, in which maneuver is key and in which fixed emplacements and on-road operations are the great impediments (and costs). Much of the re-hardening of troops, tactical and strategic commanders, and politicians requires, in essence, a return to earlier bootcamp thinking. In other words, civil society expectations must be abandoned in the knowledge that rapid mission success is the best way to reduce casualties and win political approval. In all of this, the reduction of costs, the exposed logistical tail, and the fixed patterns of conventional power/force projection are the areas where existing Western military doctrine must be overturned if it is to re-make itself to meet future demands. And in all of this, battlefield water and power are the core example of where doctrinal change is needed. Of paramount importance to the U.S. (and, indeed, NATO) is the need to recognize that strategic failure accompanied the use, over the past decade, of strategic (and by definition deterrent) weapons systems to achieve tactical, theater objectives.

However, nothing is more fundamental to the conduct of sustained military operations of the type already seen (and anticipated) in the early 21st Century than ready access to potable water.
Ammunition can be in short supply; communications can be patchy; lack of diesel may inhibit large-scale mobility. But absent water, even more than food, military operations disintegrate within a day or two.

The result has been that modern conflicts — in particular the Iraq and Afghanistan deployments by Coalition militaries — have seen major investments by conventional forces in ensuring adequate water supplies to forward-deployed troops. What this has meant, however, has been a major investment of cash into the supply of water. There has not been a commensurate investment in thinking about water, with the result that the financial and logistical commitment to water for expeditionary forces has absolutely distorted war-fighting doctrine and costs to the point that strategic missions have been set aside. The process of supplying water has paralleled the logistics chain approach to deploying forces and fighting wars. The goals of the conflict have, in large part, become secondary, even blurred or forgotten. And the costs have escalated dramatically. The logistics tail literally wags the dog.
This entire approach has evolved from the U.S. experience in Vietnam, in the 1960s, which embodied the approach of lifting food, water, and all of the comforts of home, to troops in the field. It ensured that the element of surprise, maneuver, and light-footedness began to disappear from U.S. doctrine.

Massive firepower became the order of the day. Victory through overwhelming wealth was the basis for the hubris. Except that victory did not eventuate. Things became even worse by the time that the paddy fields of Vietnam gave way to the wadis of Iraq and the valleys of Afghanistan. And the U.S. way of war had become the way of war of its allies. U.S. and Coalition deployed forces all assumed that the supply of water was a given; that it would always be delivered, at the point of a massive logistical column, regardless of cost. Troops, even squad and platoon commanders, no longer felt that it was vital that they should, each day, win the water they needed. As one force planning officer told me recently: “Today, troops believe that water comes from the air. It‘s something choppered in for them. They won‘t exploit local water sources for fear of ambush or IEDs placed along paths of predictable access to streams or wells.”

This has obviated much of the dramatic success being achieved by new, and increasingly lightweight and efficient, battlefield water purification technologies. As that force planning officer said: “We can give the troops the systems, but they resist using them, still waiting for the skies to open up for them and deliver them penalty-free water.” Except that it is not penalty-free, especially when it is purified and delivered as a result of diesel fuel which, by the time it gets to the battlefield, costs around $1,200 a U.S. gallon. Water, diesel, and the fear of casualties have, then, cost the West its treasure; its strategic dominance.