Can satire predict reality? Sometimes it definitely seems to.
On May 18, 2016, the satirical Duffel Blog reported with tongue firmly in cheek that “the Pentagon’s top spokesperson said he was ‘pretty sure’ the military could ditch the manual used for counterinsurgency, since it plans to fight all future wars against conventional armies that wear uniforms and use known tactics.” Several months later, the Army Times published a more serious article that the Army would be reducing training for counterinsurgency (COIN) to focus on preparing for large-scale combat operations (LSCO) against near-peer competitors. The Army Times article, and others like it, reflected the view that the return to great power competition presages a return to fighting major battles, or at least preparing to do so.
Funny as it might be to see satire (dumping COIN knowledge) matched with reality (shifting training and acquisition dollars to focus on big wars), it is also tragic when it is déjà vu all over again. The United States has done this before, with fatal consequences for American soldiers and their allies. After developing considerable knowledge on how to train for and fight COIN during the Vietnam War, the Army as an organization purged its institutional knowledge in the early 1970s, perhaps motivated in part by the stunning successes of the USSR-equipped Arab forces that came close to overrunning American-equipped Israeli forces in the first forty-eight hours of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Any remaining COIN expertise was relegated to special operations forces, particularly the US Army Special Forces (which was not even a permanent branch at that time). The US military refocused on equipping, planning, and preparing to fight the Soviet Union in major combat operations and failed to institutionalize the irregular warfare (IW) competencies bought at such tragic expense in Vietnam and other battlefields.
Abandoning IW as a national security tool was surely politically expedient at the time—the Vietnam War had been wildly unpopular—but doing so did not change the nature of threats in the international environment. Small wars have always accompanied great power competition. Within six years of Vietnam ending, the United States was again fighting an irregular conflict in El Salvador after neighboring Nicaragua fell to a communist insurgency. Only two years later it was supporting insurgencies against communist governments in Afghanistan and Nicaragua. Throughout the 1990s, the United States played a significant role in irregular conflicts in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Colombia, and beyond.
But it never rebuilt the skills lost after Vietnam, at least not at scale. And when the United States returned to large-scale COIN operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, self-deceit on the enduring importance of IW hurt it on two fronts. During planning for both operations, the lack of IW doctrine did a disservice to US political leaders by not forcing their attention to the key activities that come after major combat operations. Consequently, and tragically, once the wars in both countries escalated, many of the US forces on the ground were ill prepared and had to relearn the hard-fought lessons of how to conduct COIN.
This time is different, right?
It is tempting to think the United States can opt out of IW conflicts in the future. There is a clear preference by some to move on from costly and enduring conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq. We tried IW, the argument goes, and did not get good strategic results, so we must move on to focus on great power rivals, which means a tight focus on major combat operations. Irregular warfare, COIN, foreign internal defense, counterterrorism, et cetera—it is all old news.
But waxing nostalgic for the “good old days” of preparing to fight major combat operations is a fallacy. In practice, great power competition and irregular warfare have always been inextricably linked. Indeed, some scholars argue that international orders with two or more competing powers may be especially conducive to enduring small-scale conflicts between evenly matched forces.
This time around the stakes of disregarding IW may be even more severe than during and immediately after the Cold War. Threats from violent nonstate actors persist, but now great power rivals such as China and Russia are regularly competing in the gray zone that exists below the threshold of open armed conflict. Both competitors employ tactics in this space designed to attack the United States’ interests and coerce its partners. If history is any guide, this kind of competition will spill into irregular warfare, which will remain as important as ever. While Iraq and Afghanistan have with good reason reduced the national security community’s appetite for IW, future national security threats will require engaging in it.
What is old, is new again—but harder
The return to great power competition requires the United States to be able to plan, prepare, and resource across the spectrum of conflict, from the extremely unlikely nuclear exchange, to unlikely but consequential conventional war, to ongoing operations in the gray zone (which will continue for the foreseeable future). To an extent, this is similar to the situation that faced the United States during the Cold War, but several features are also markedly different. There are now at least three major actors (China, Russia, and the United States), America’s adversaries and competitors are achieving nonmilitary successes in parallel to their military pursuits, and the economic interdependence of the United States and China creates a new set of constraints for both sides compared to the Cold War, when the two great powers operated parallel and largely independent economic systems.
Coupled with major technological, demographic, and environmental shifts, the United States and its partners face a harder problem than during the Cold War. Hard problems require hard thinking from a wide variety of perspectives across all instruments of national power. The community needs a platform that can connect military and national security planners engaged in IW with scholarly research and critical thinking.
To help bridge this gap, the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point are proud to announce the launch of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). IWI is designed to support the community of irregular warfare professionals, to include military and interagency practitioners, scholarly researchers, and policymakers, by providing a space for accessible, practically grounded discussions of irregular warfare policy and strategy.
Practitioners have important trial-and-error lessons to share from engaging in IW contexts around the world. Researchers have the ability to step back and extrapolate important lessons from within and across conflicts, and over time. Both do better when they communicate. IWI’s goal is to serve as a focal point for bringing together IW professionals from across the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic elements of the national security community with policy-focused academic researchers. It will provide a forum for debate and discussion so that the community can appropriately archive and apply the hard-fought lessons of the past two decades of IW in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world, while also engaging with innovative ideas for applying these and emerging IW competencies in the competition and conflict realms the United States expects to see in the future. We can all hope this skill set will not be in great demand, but if history is any guide, we should prepare as if the new era of great power competition will indeed require it.
IWI will support three pillars of engagement. The first pillar will be IW-focused content, which will include both the Irregular Warfare Podcast and written content from contributors across the community of IW practitioners and researchers. The second pillar will take the form of interactive engagements, to include an annual conference focused on interdisciplinary collaboration. The final pillar will include an annual fellows program, providing the opportunity for a select number of professionals to engage in substantive examination of some of the most pressing IW challenges of the day. Through these vehicles, IWI intends to facilitate dialogue, provide access to new ideas, and support innovative approaches to addressing the contemporary strategic security environment.
The need for this kind of dialogue is real and growing. We look forward to you joining the discussion!
Jacob N. Shapiro is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and Managing Director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. He is a veteran of the United States Navy.
Colonel Patrick Howell is the Director of the Modern War Institute. He received his PhD in Political Science from Duke University and is also a Chief of Staff of the Army Advanced Strategic Planning & Policy Program (ASP3) Fellow (Goodpaster Scholar).
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official positions of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Lt. Amy Forsythe, US Navy
From our item above:
"What is old, is new again—but harder:
The return to great power competition requires the United States to be able to plan, prepare, and resource across the spectrum of conflict, from the extremely unlikely nuclear exchange, to unlikely but consequential conventional war, to ongoing operations in the gray zone (which will continue for the foreseeable future). To an extent, this is similar to the situation that faced the United States during the Cold War, but several features are also markedly different. There are now at least three major actors (China, Russia, and the United States), America’s adversaries and competitors are achieving nonmilitary successes in parallel to their military pursuits, and the economic interdependence of the United States and China creates a new set of constraints for both sides compared to the Cold War, when the two great powers operated parallel and largely independent economic systems."
If I were writing this paragraph, I would change it as follows:
"What is old is new again but, this time, with the "expansionist" shoes, and the "containment" and "roll back" shoes, these being on different "feet:" Explanation:
The return to great power competition requires the United States to be able to plan, prepare, and resource across the spectrum of conflict, from the extremely unlikely nuclear exchange, to unlikely but consequential conventional war, to ongoing operations in the gray zone (which will continue for the foreseeable future). To an extent, this is similar to the situation that faced the United States during the Cold War, but several features are also markedly different. In this regard, note that:
1. In the Old Cold War of yesterday, it was (a) the Soviets and the Chinese who sought to transform the states and societies of the world (in this case, more along modern communist political, economic, social and value lines) and it was, back then, (b) the U.S./the West that, as to this such threat, sought to prevent these such transformations from taking place/from being realized; herein,
a. Employing "containment" and "roll back" strategies in their such efforts and, therein:
b. "Targeting," "courting" and using their "natural allies" in these such "containment" and "roll back" endeavors, to wit: the more-conservative/the more-traditional/the more-no-change elements of the world's populations.
(The Soviets and the Chinese, for their part in the Old Cold War, and consistent with their "expansionist" designs, would "target," court" and attempt to use their "natural allies" in these such matters, to wit: the more-liberal/the more-modern/the more-pro-change elements of the world's populations.)
2. In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, however, it has been (a) the U.S./the West that has sought to transform the states and societies of the world (in our case, more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines) and it has been (b) such nations as Russia and China that have, as to this such threat, sought to prevent these such transformations from taking place/from being realized; herein,
a. Employing "containment" and "roll back" strategies now against us (and much as we did against them in the Old Cold War, see my "1" above), and
b, "Targeting," "courting" and using their "natural allies" in these such endeavors, to wit: the more-conservative/the more-traditional elements of the world's populations.
(The U.S./the West, for our part in this New/Reverse Cold War, and consistent with our "transformative" designs for the rest of the world, "targeting," courting" and attempting to use now our "natural allies" in these such matters, to wit: the more-liberal/the more-modern/the more-pro-change elements of the world's populations.)
Thus, much as in the Old Cold War of yesterday — likewise in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — there are major adversaries and competitors seeking to achieve — diametrically opposed — versions of nonmilitary success; these such, diametrically opposed, nonmilitary successes being understood as:
a. "Expansion" of one's way of life, one's way of governance and one's values, etc. (see the Soviets and the Chinese in the Old Cold War of yesterday; and see the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today) and
b. "Containment" and "roll back" of these such "expansionist" designs (employed by the U.S./the West in the post-the Cold War; and employed by Russia and China in this exact same period).
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
Based on the information that I have provided here, one might suggest that — as to such things as "irregular warfare" today — this must be understood in the New/Reverse Cold War terms that I describe above and, thus, in terms of:
a. Acknowledging "our" post-Cold War efforts at "expansion,"
b. Acknowledging "their" post-Cold War efforts at "containment" and "roll back" and
c. Acknowledging who both "our," and "their," "natural allies" (and "natural enemies"?) are in these such endeavors.
After that, then it becomes rather obvious, and indeed rather easy, to see how both "we," and "they," sought/seek to use both "people," and "technology;" this, so as to achieve the — diametrically opposed — BUT NOW SPECIFICALLY IDENTIFIED — nonmilitary goals that I describe at my "a" and "b" immediately above. (And, these, via such things as "irregular warfare?")
The following sub-paragraph above, which appears just before my "Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above," this must obviously be changed:
b. "Containment" and "roll back" of these such "expansionist" designs (employed by the U.S./the West in the post-the Cold War; and employed by Russia and China in this exact same period).
b. "Containment" and "roll back" of these such "expansionist" designs (employed by the U.S./the West in the Old Cold War of yesterday; and employed by Russia and China in the New/Reverse Cold War of today).
Beware of the Army that thinks it can do everything, it'll end up doing nothing well. The Army has to put it's main emphasis in the threat it deems most probable. The Army could designate a specific unit for such duty….such as the 75th Ranger Regiment and partner them with one larger element such as the 25th Inf Div. Problem solved….mail me a check, what's your next issue I can solve ?
Is the U.S. Army becoming too "Infantry-concentric" with the "awoken notion" that armed UAVs, ATGMs, and drones can solve a lot of problems on the battlefield?
If a U.S. soldier or Marine were to carry a SPIKE ATGM or drone launcher to the target objective in any weather, what is to prevent an enemy, be in COIN or peer nation, from firing at a landscape and preventing such soldier from accomplishing his or her mission? A missile, shell, rocket, mortar round, or precision bomb is much better and easier than sending a soldier to hike and fire something, and peer nations don’t lack high explosive rounds
An Army that relies on technology to better the soldier stands at odd ends with an Army that outnumbers in soldiers and then uses technology to better the Army. THAT is the problem that the U.S. Army faces…vast quantities of soldiers using technology to better the Army itself and not the individual soldier. For an Army to do both, better itself AND the soldier, then that is a huge threat to any other nation, hence the WW1 and WW2 Germans.
A soldier that relies on technology for betterment will produce the "Universal Soldier," or "HALO's Master Chief Spartan 117," or a "SpaceMarine AVATAR."
An army that relies on technology to better itself will produce the "Star Wars Stormtroopers." We all know in movie wars which side fares better…it's usually the Stormtroopers and their massive show of force of AT-ATs and AT-STs.
Do we need small arms vs. armor or vice-versa? Vietnam and Afghanistan were wars fought mainly with boots and small arms and minimal armor. Iraq was the opposite—heavy mechanized. What, then, would the outcome be in Gray Zone conflicts with SOFs lacking mechanized armor? Colin Powell believed no brush war conflict was worth the U.S. involvement unless one can send mass armored formations into it. “Mission Creep” sets in if the host nation cannot adequately defend itself no matter how much money, training, hardware equipping, or support. The West often doesn’t resort to terror weapons unlike the COIN enemy.
The problem is that without Spartan 117, or Stormtroopers, the host nations' armed soldiers are woefully unprepared, untrained, and unmotivated to press forward the security of their own country's defense. We saw that in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan where the host nations' soldiers relied on the U.S. soldiers and Marines for their own country's defense. Many true non-fiction stories were written of Afghan National Army soldiers abandoning their outposts and having the Taliban overrun them to rain fire down on the American soldiers. Providing small arms to the host nations' soldiers is dubious at best as many small arms end up on the Black Market or get sold or captured.
The United Nation's Blue Helmets Peacekeeping Force has mixed results in securing the peace and preventing conflict, but the U.N. soldier is better than nothing.
Private Military Contractors, mercenaries, militias, and "Guns for hire." might help, but they're often no match for armies with mass waves of well-trained soldiers.
A Guerilla War of sharpshooters and snipers might chip away at a mass army, but not many wars are won by sniping away.
The United States has a long history now of COIN and fighting other nations’ wars, but to what success in the Gray Zone of conflict? To what success would West Point, Quantico, Fort Bragg, and Fort Knox graduates yield to the future world in preventing conflict and stabilizing a peace? If the other side hates the West SO MUCH as to kill and pass down to tell generations, then the gray turns to pitch black hatred and that is downright dark and dirty for decades, even Centuries to come. Religion also plays a role too, and one cannot fight these wars without invoking Religion, politics, government ways, and Human Rights into the equation—aspects soldiers and officers aren’t well trained in—and should they be or not? They’re often just kids. What does your moral and ethical compass tell you in the late teens to 20s as the gray matter in the head is still developing?
On the flip-side, small bands of SOF and soldiers do and have made a big difference in Gray Zone conflicts. Just the presence of a restive force is enough to make the enemy pause, slow, contemplate, and use caution. Even movies show this as the Star Wars Rebels topple and destroy hardware and empires far over their force size.
Alliances and diversity, along with Spirit and Ethos, can make a small force really potent and lethal to a much larger force. HALO's Spartan 117 is legend in this matter as one Master Chief, even if fictional, became a beacon for all. In reality, Tier 1 Operators have been instrumental in the GWOT as such a small group of highly trained Operatives can inflict Intel and power far beyond their size.
But in future wars, would all brush conflicts require Tier 1 or Tier 2 Operatives? The attacked nation, no matter how small, recognizes that the USA sends its very best into the fight. However, at a time of tightening budgets and overstretched SOFs, peer nations can exploit and take advantage of tactics, strategy, and philosophy by just causing chaos with conventional forces to draw out Western SOFs and have them run around and deploy in exhausting tours of duties with no end in sight against elusive enemies aligned to peer nations that risk a wider global war.
And what of the migrants fleeing war-torn nations due to Insurgents and terror? Now if State-sponsored, who will be left behind to fight for their country if the very best, brightest, and richest left for Europe and the USA? These people know that their best chance of peace, hope, family and life would be to side with the foreign soldier and live in the country that flew in to fight that host nation's war. A country without a resistance can fall prey to exploitation, Insurgency, and governance to make a dystopian society enslaved to produce for a larger country similar to Feudalism. How black and white and gray would such "conflicts other than war" be to Superpower and First-World nations? If the goal is to pillage and plunder for some monetary or resource gain, physically in country, then the "Smash and grab" tactic of robbery might work for a State-sponsored military. How fast can a First World quick action force get there, even if United Nations? The USA has plenty of experience with COIN, brush wars, and "conflicts other than war," but how many actually succeeded in creating a nation that is better than before? History takes time to record and decide.