CPT Jake Miraldi: This is the podcast of The Modern War Institute at West Point, an integrative look at war, policy and leadership. I’m Captain Jake Miraldi of The Modern War Institute. Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on the War Council blog at http://www.ModernWarInstitute.org.
Today on the podcast, we’ll be talking to Michael O’Hanlon. He’s a Senior Fellow and co-director in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the director of research for the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. He also has a new book out titled, The Future of Land Warfare. We’ll be talking about that future and what junior leaders and security professionals could do to prepare.
Mr. O’Hanlon, great to have you on today. Before we talk about the future roles of the Army, I think it’s important to understand the past. How have U.S. land forces been used in the past? And what missions and roles have defined their use?
Michael O’Hanlon: Well, of course, we’ve gone through a lot of iterations of thinking about land forces in our history and certainly we’ve relived and relearned a lot of those lessons this century and probably added a few as well.
But the simplest of all is that counterinsurgency and stabilization missions are extremely hard and, perhaps, that should have always been obvious. And I think we have to avoid going so far with that lesson we think we can’t do them at all even when they’re crucially important, but they are certainly difficult, demanding, dangerous and costly. And that’s one lesson.
And that’s true even for a U.S. ground force, Army and Marine Corps, that is probably as good as there’s ever been on the planet. And, yet, even with all of our great efforts, our amazing leaders, our large resource flows and so many other things that I think we did reasonably well at least for stretches of these two wars, we’ve still had a great deal of difficulty in being successful with large-scale operations. So that’s certainly one lesson.
But the other lesson – well, you can talk about a lot of specifics of how we’ve done interesting things with smaller numbers of people or what’s worked and what hasn’t with training indigenous forces, so there are a lot of other lessons. But the other big high-level argument that I would add right now is that I do think, as I indicated or hinted at a minute ago, that we’re at some risk of overlearning the lessons of how difficult these operations can be and to the point where we’ve concluded in official Pentagon guidance, official Pentagon doctrine and planning assumptions that we should not be ready for large-scale stabilization missions anymore. We should simply not view them as a viable set of contingencies for American force planning. And this is articulated in both the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.
And I think it really is a dangerous way of thinking. It hasn’t caused us a lot of harm yet, and certainly we should want to avoid these kinds of missions when we can. They are dangerous and difficult and costly as I’ve said. But there may be situations where we have little choice either.
And so I’m troubled by again what I would describe as the pendulum going too far away from these conflicts, which, in a way, is what happened to us after Vietnam as well. And we’ve got to keep some balance in how we think about the future of ground forces.
CPT Jake Miraldi: That’s much in line with my next question. As the priority is shifting a bit from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army especially seems to be searching for what its role will be in future conflicts. How do you see the role of the Army developing in the near term?
Michael O’Hanlon: Well I think that we’ve already learned some lessons, as I said a minute ago, about how often we want the Army to be involved. And it’s not as if we got involved in Iraq or Afghanistan for the joy of it or in a cavalier way. We may have been cavalier in some of our planning. I think the Bush Administration was a little cavalier in Iraq. But we went into these things knowing that there was some serious national security issues on the table and some serious stakes and that’s why we got into these, but, perhaps, we also had a bit of overconfidence in what we could do with our ground forces in such situations. And I think we’re going to try very hard not intervene on that kind of scale in those kinds of problems again.
But having said that, I still think there’s a wide range of possible missions. And one can be very specific. You can look at contingencies in Korea that involve stopping and reversing aggression and then tracking down weapons of mass destruction and helping a beleaguered population if we ever did a counter-invasion of North Korea, and that could involve some elements of warfighting as well as stabilization as well as searching for weapons of mass destruction.
One could imagine as the U.S. Army has written about it in the last couple of years with a big report on megacities that some of the cities of the world that are now 10 to 20 to 30 million people in their overall population could have huge issues either with civil conflict, with loose weapons of mass destruction, with biological pandemics, with major terrorist organizations immersed within them where we wind up feeling that there’s little choice but to try to help the indigenous government at issue deal with some kind of a major security threat coming out of a megacity. And then the sheer scale of that kind of an operation would be mind-numbing given how big some of these cities have become and what we know from U.S. Army history and doctrine about the number of stabilizers or peacekeepers or counterinsurgents or just relief personnel needed to handle a population of that kind of size. In other words, we could actually have cities that are almost as big in population as either Iraq or Afghanistan is in its entirety.
So even if we wind up wanting to stay away from classic coin missions, classic counterinsurgency missions, we could get lured into or find that we have no choice but to deliberately get into some kind of a complex endeavor that involves elements of relief, stabilization, counterterrorism, what have you. And I see those kinds of missions as eminently feasible.
Of course, Vladimir Putin has reminded us that the needs for classic deterrents don’t focus exclusively on the Korean Peninsula, but could be relevant to other parts of the world as well such as the Baltic members of NATO. And even those of us who might have been skeptical of the invitations to those countries 12, 14 years ago, or who wish that they were not currently in NATO, in fact, I think most of us would acknowledge that now that they’re in, the United States and its other NATO allies have no choice but to make the Article 5 security promise sincere and robust in regard to their security. So there’s another set of contingencies where you’d want to have an option short of threatening to use nuclear weapons or something like that against Russia if Russia tried to slice off a piece of one of the Baltic states.
And so these are just some of the scenarios that I have in mind, but I think it’s the full range. I think the Army operating concept, for example, is basically correct or, to be even more pithy, General Petraeus’s line that we need an army of pentathletes, an army that can do a wide range of things. Whatever current political sentiment and sensibilities may argue for, we need to be able to fight to keep the peace, to provide relief, to do all those things simultaneously. I think that’s still the better part of wisdom and I hope we get back to it in the next set of Pentagon reviews starting in the successor to the Obama Administration, because I just don’t think we have the luxury of ruling out whole categories of possible major ground operations.
CPT Jake Miraldi: So, to paraphrase, you’re advocating for an army built on flexibility as its watchword. Is that about right?
Michael O’Hanlon: Yeah. I think flexibility is right. There is a danger here that we could give an army lieutenant or captain so many responsibilities for what he or she has to get their platoon ready for that they wind up driving themselves crazy going through a checklist of preparations for 30 or 40 or 50 different kinds of missions. I’m not really trying to argue for that.
I think, however, that we need our young 18-year-old, new recruits to be training from day one for the possibility of missions that will not be clean, easy and present a simple, old-fashioned enemy, but that will involve elements of the need for restraint in the use of force, the need for addressing a political goal even in the context of a military operation, a mission that will involve dealing with an indigenous population that may not speak English or easily understand Americans. And so you need to have some set of tactical drills and broader strategic education that acquaints the typical soldier with the idea that these sorts of missions are just as likely to be the ones we wind up in as an old-fashioned fight.
And beyond that, I think we need to be a little bit careful of asking the Army to again create a huge checklist of different missions that every unit has to sort of certify itself capable of carrying out, because I do worry about distracting the soldier from the most difficult and fundamental missions. But, again, I don’t think that we can assume it’s always gonna be a high-end kinetic fight.
And so I think in terms of two broad categories of operations and contingencies that a future soldier needs to be able to do and one of them is high-end maneuver fighting and combined arms fighting and the other is what you might just generally call messy stuff that again involves politics, involves foreign cultures and indigenous populations, involves a complexity of goals, missions and objectives in which the restraint on the use of force may be every bit as important as the application of fire power.
CPT Jake Miraldi: That seems like the major thing the Army is currently wrestling with, balancing the competing mission set across a whole spectrum of war. The vast majority of experience in the force today are steeped in the counterinsurgency fight and it really colors a lot of what we do. If you would venture a guess, what sort of experiences do you think new lieutenants that are commissioning this year are going to experience over the next 10 or 15 years that are gonna shape the way that they operate as more senior level officers?
Michael O’Hanlon: Well, two answers to that question, they’re both somewhat indirect, ’cause I don’t know how to predict the future. So I’m gonna be a little wary of that. I do think the broader Middle East is enough in turmoil that we need to expect more things there. And some of them will be direct action. And others might be participation in a peacekeeping mission in a future Syria after a future peace deal or something like that, training a new Libyan army. There are a lot of things one could imagine.
But in broader terms and to get these two ideas, to these two broad but indirect answers to your question, one thought I would have is that that next generation that you mention is exactly the generation we need to worry about. Not so much your generation. Not so much people today in their 30s or even those in their 20s, ’cause they’ve had some exposure to this range of missions. And we probably need to help them get back to some of their classic skills since they’re relatively underdeveloped in the amount of time they’ve been able to apply to such old-fashioned maneuver, combined arms fighting. But for the next generation that’s arriving on the scene now and it’s not gonna have the burden or benefit or both of these big deployments to the Middle East, I think this is when we have to avoid the temptation to overcorrect from Iraq and Afghanistan and dismiss the relevance of large-scale stabilization, relief, peacekeeping, deterrents missions for our country’s overall security.
So, in other words, I’m sort of reinforcing the importance of your question by emphasizing my concern that current doctrine, current guidance is not gonna eliminate all the knowledge and all the skills that people in their 30s and 40s and 20s have accumulated on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader region. But the next generation is really gonna need to have a way of learning these skills largely in the United States on stateside bases and training facilities.
But then the additional answer I would give, the other big answer is that I asked that same question that you posed to me when I gave a talk at West Point in December last year. And it was interesting to me. I was asking this question of cadets. So they were all people who had joined West Point after President Obama’s 2012 strategic guidance that declared an end to the era of large-scale stabilization missions and yet they all seemed to think that that kind of category of operations, what you might describe as messy, complex, partly political, partly population-oriented scenario or contingency operations, that that was a more likely defining mission for their future career in the U.S. Army than classic, high-end, combined arms maneuver warfare.
So, in other words, whatever they thought President Obama was trying to say, they didn’t seem persuaded that he had it right. They weren’t acting in insubordination, of course. They were just responding to my question about what they thought would be the most likely.
And, of course, they all grew up in an era when old‑fashioned, high-end fights to the finish line didn’t really happen as much as these long, messy things. They’re all 18, 20, 22 years old and haven’t really known a life except the messy parts of Iraq and Afghanistan. They probably can’t even remember back to 2001 when we overthrew the Taliban with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan or to 2003 when Thunder Run reached the streets of Bagdad after just three weeks of fighting. They think much more about everything that’s happened subsequently. And so, maybe, they’re just extrapolating or projecting what they’ve seen to the future.
But being good soldiers who obey their commander in chief and comply with the doctrines that he’s articulated, they nonetheless as a group didn’t find his prediction believable and thought it was much more likely that the near term future will resemble the recent past if I could summarize and paraphrase. And I think they’re right.
CPT Jake Miraldi: The last question I have for you today is in terms of self‑development, what should our junior leaders be focused on to prepare themselves for the future?
Michael O’Hanlon: Well, I would read a fair amount of history. And I think that for officers, this is crucial, because we’re not gonna be able to devote as much time on the training ranges to the wide range of missions in the future as we did in the past. And I’m not really disagreeing with the Army’s desire to go back and train more for the conventional missions as long as we don’t overdo it. I think we have to avoid a complete emphasis and obsession with the high‑end mission.
But I think for the typical officer, I guess two bits of advice.
One of them is to keep reading history and books that have addressed big, complex conflicts of the past, not just the heroic battles of World War II, but the messy fights of the Philippines war or some of the smaller operations in Central America or the U.S.‑Mexico conflicts of the past or certainly Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, even Korea. I think these kinds of conflicts need to be on people’s minds and also some of the broader realities of the Middle East today and the kinds of tensions that are still being unleashed there that are still very raw and very powerful. And so that’s one set of thoughts, really to keep broadening one’s view of history, history of warfare, recent history of the Middle East in particular, but also a little bit on Africa, a little bit on east Europe, a little bit on east Asia.
And then the second main piece of advice or, at least, to the extent I have any limited insight here to share, I think that future officers are gonna have to help wrestle with the very conundrum we’ve been discussing today, which is that right now the United States has not figured out the right path forward after Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, we’re not even out of those two conflicts yet, but we’re out of the big phases presumably. And we are now at risk of overdoing it yet again, which has been sort of our classic history.
Any time we come out of a big, messy war, especially the ones we don’t like or the outcomes we don’t like, after Korea, certainly after Vietnam, we have decided we’re just not gonna fight that kind of war again. We’re not gonna make it central to our force sizing or training or doctrine development or strategic education for officers. And then we wind up surprised in 10 or 20 or 30 years that we do yet again engage in a messy conflict where we would have been a lot better prepared from the outset if we had developed some of those skills along the way.
And I think the next generation is gonna have to help figure this out, ’cause right now we don’t have good guidance. And it’s not just a question of the old fogies like me, the people in their 40s and 50s, who are in senior positions in the Army today and writing doctrine, and it’s not just a question of them getting this right in the next administration. It’s even gonna be the second lieutenants and others who are out there with their soldiers training and trying to figure out a 6-month or a 12-month training regimen that makes sense of all this, that allows for some degree of development of these complex skills in a complex, messy, sometimes non-combat, but still dangerous scenarios or missions or operations. And what’s the right balance in terms of how do you train a future soldier to be prepared for these kinds of almost inevitable operations? How do you structure a week or a month of your 18-year-old enlistee’s time so that he or she starts to get exposed to the ideas that are crucial for the unpredictable, messy conflicts and messy operations that we’re almost certainly gonna do while at the same time heeding the general thrust of national thinking, President Obama’s guidance and other guidance that says that high-end, combined arms warfare needs to be a priority, needs to be, perhaps, even our top priority and that we don’t want to lose sight of that either?
So it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to get the balance right. It’s a challenge to keep training simple so that you can make it come back to the same core competencies and core themes that will really make certain kinds of activities almost instinctive for a future soldier, to get them outstanding in the most important skills and, yet, at the same time have them intellectually prepared for missions where, again, you have to face the full range of political, population-oriented, cultural challenges that are inherent to the nature of ground warfare, and I don’t see that changing.
So I’m sorry. It’s a long answer, but it really gets down to how do you do your job day to day with young soldiers that you’re commanding and training? And how do you inculcate some of these complexities and some of these skills into their brains while at the same time you’re being told that a more classic form of warfare is the Army’s priority and you’re trying not to overburden the new soldier with too many competing messages? That’s gonna be the trick.
And I think young officers should talk to each other a lot, have some kind of a clearinghouse, some kind of a website, journals that help them share best practices as they work towards essentially what’s a curriculum for training the new enlisted soldiers of the future that balances these competing concerns and allows us to focus on these two distinct categories of scenarios, high-end combined arms warfare on the one hand with stabilization missions, counterinsurgency missions, complex relief operations or, as I put it in a more cavalier sense or sort of a more vernacular, messy stuff on the other hand.
And that’s the challenge that we need the wisdom of smart, young officers to address, ’cause it can’t all be done from offices and from the places where manuals and doctrine are written. It has to be done in the field as well.
CPT Jake Miraldi: Great. I think that’s a good place to stop. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. I appreciate it.
Michael O’Hanlon: Well, thanks. Thanks for giving me the chance.
CPT Jake Miraldi: If you’d like to find additional research, op-eds and other original ideas from The Modern War Institute, please visit the War Council blog at http://www.ModernWarInstitute.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find new episodes of the Modern War Institute podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher.
The views expressed in this podcast are those of the respective participants and do not reflect the official position of the United States government.
For The Modern War Institute, I’m Captain Jake Miraldi. And I hope you’ll join us next time for more in-depth conversations on war, policy and leadership.