The Art of Petraeus

October 30, 2008 Topic: Security Tags: Troop SurgeInsurgencyHeads Of StateIraq War

The Art of Petraeus

Mini Teaser: There is no doubt that General Petraeus’s strategies salvaged Iraq. His successes, however, mask a vital policy debate about the future of our armed services.

by Author(s): T. X. Hammes

Recently, a third view has emerged that suggests we will not face either of these extremes but instead will encounter a complex mixture of warfare. Its proponents build on the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review that lists four types of challenges we can expect to face: traditional, irregular, disruptive and catastrophic.1 They argue that future wars will actually be a combination of these threats-hybrid wars. From this point of view, the Israel-Hezbollah war is not a demonstration of the continued relevance of conventional conflict, as the Gentiles of the world would have it, but rather it is the poster child of hybrid war: Hezbollah used a combination of local guerrilla fighters, advanced technology (missiles, communications intercepts, UAVs) and a sophisticated strategic-communication campaign to fight the Israelis to a standstill. Some see this as a new form of war-fighting. Yet, we saw this same mix of regular and guerrilla forces equipped with high- and low-technology weapons in the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars (particularly in Spain and Russia), the Communist Revolution in China and the Indochina wars. In each of these campaigns, the conventionally more powerful force found itself having to fight a mix of conventional and guerrilla forces. Hybrid war is not new, but our growing recognition of its attendant complexities is-and we are better for it.

The key point of contention obviously remains whether the services should reorganize under the assumption that conventional or irregular warfare will dominate the future.


THE NATURE of bureaucracies, though, means that the question is never how they should respond, but rather of how they will respond. So, the camp of conventional warriors has little to fear. No matter what the legacy of Petraeus, it is almost impossible that counterinsurgency operations will drive the organization and equipping of the military for three reasons.

First, conventional warfare remains the dominant culture of the Department of Defense. Despite seven years of irregular war and Secretary Gates urging us to focus on the wars we are in, most of the department remains focused on conventional war.

Second, the armed forces' own bureaucracy would make it extremely difficult to change. Our current recruiting, training, education, career development and force structure were designed to fight a conventional enemy. Like all bureaucracies, they do what they are designed to do-and require great effort to shift from their original purpose. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have provided sufficient momentum to move the bureaucracies to focus on counterinsurgency. However, the effort will have to be sustained for at least a generation for it to become permanent. Otherwise, the organizations, processes and procedures will inevitably push our forces back toward the institutions' conventional comfort zone.

It is truly remarkable the number of leading voices in the debate that belong to those officers who have advanced degrees in the humanities. Their education seems to provide a wider aperture to look at the world. Yet, during the 1990s and even through most of the current conflicts, the services have not treated advanced civilian education as career enhancing. Further, our system often punishes those who stray from an approved career path. Unfortunately, this produces an echo-chamber effect where most of each service's leaders have the same career paths and, as a result, the same education and life experience. Only after seven years of war did the last promotion boards finally select colonels who had served as advisers for general-officer rank. Despite the fact that the administration has been stating that training Iraqi security forces is our most important mission since at least 2004, the services had failed to promote a single adviser to general officer. The promotion record indicates the army and Marine Corps still value commanding U.S. units above the much more challenging problem of advising and building Iraqi and Afghan forces. Only if we can change these career and education paths can we sustain the changes of the last few years.

Finally, the conventional path of the military is all the more intractable because of Congress's interest in maintaining the status quo. The question of where the Pentagon will spend its money is the underlying issue-and perhaps the most important one inside the Beltway. The defense industry has expressed concern that COIN will dominate U.S. spending and thus leave us without the big-ticket items necessary to fight a high-technology near-peer competitor. DOD, Congress and the defense industry all have enormous vested interests in building, equipping and maintaining high-end, conventional forces. While the equipment, advanced education and training required in COIN represent a relatively small cost, the additional manpower will consume large resources. The current end-strength increase of sixty-five thousand soldiers and twenty-seven thousand marines will cost $108 billion during the ramp-up to 2012 and an additional $12 billion per year after that. As always, personnel costs will be competing directly with procurement accounts for DOD dollars. Naturally, American voters will pressure their congressmen to "bring home the pork" in the form of military-hardware contracts. Thus, Congress has a vested interest in shaping the forces for conventional conflict.

One can hope that despite these factors, General Petraeus's legacy will be a United States that studies and understands the kind of war upon which we embark, rather than debating between the false choice of a COIN or conventionally dominated military.


BUT NO matter the bureaucratic and institutional inertia, we should answer the question not only of what will happen but also how we would best be served by our military. When faced with determining whether the U.S. military must exclusively focus on conventional or irregular warfare, one is not faced with an either-or proposition. Rather, we must do both. Unfortunately, despite the numerous examples each side can draw upon to reinforce its vision, the reality is we are not very good at predicting the future. And, as always, the enemy gets a vote. An intelligent enemy will strive to strike our weakest points. Thus, focusing our forces on conventional operations will drive enemies to irregular warfare, while a force focused on irregular warfare will encourage potential enemies to develop effective high-technology conventional forces.

Prudence requires we be ready to fight across the entire spectrum of potential conflict. So, a better question is how to organize, educate, train and equip a force that is capable of doing so. But trying to answer this question is complicated by the reality that even if we succeed in withdrawing our forces from Iraq and Afghanistan in the near future, it is impossible for a force to train equally across the full range of potential conflicts. We will have to make choices.

We need a flexible force that can organize to fight nation-states as well as nonstate actors. Rather than optimizing our ground forces to fight conventional opponents, we need to establish a joint force capable of fighting well-trained units equipped with highly capable weapons systems, as well as very lightly armed irregulars who learn on the job. In short, we need a medium-weight joint force capable of operating across the spectrum of war rather than one optimized for fighting high-intensity warfare against nation-states or one primarily prepared for irregular conflicts.

Elements of the force (fighters, bombers, tanks, artillery, blue-water navy) should focus on fighting conventional wars, though they should still conduct some training for irregular war. We may choose to organize a portion of our ground forces specifically for conventional operations. A single army corps can maintain the corporate knowledge necessary for such operations and provide a base for rapid mobilization in the face of a conventional threat.

Other parts of the force should focus on irregular war: advisory groups, military police, civil affairs, human intelligence teams and other key elements for this type of conflict. We have to develop sufficient numbers of military and nonmilitary advisers to assist other nations against insurgency. Since military advisers must be relatively senior personnel, we may have to expand the number of field-grade officers and senior noncommissioned officers available for such assignments. We can do so by sharply reducing senior-level staffs. Rather than grinding away on these staffs, the personnel would spend their time either becoming expert on their region or teaching others about the area. These people should be the repository of the most challenging cultural and developmental knowledge and skills. And, certainly in the immediate future, they can be effectively employed in a wide range of countries.

The bulk of the force-infantry, rotary-wing aviation, light-attack aviation, inshore naval forces and logistics-should train to fight across the spectrum. Of course, in the near term, this remains mostly an academic discussion for the army and Marine Corps. Because current operational demands are so intense, these forces must focus on the COIN training essential for their immediate deployments. Implementation of across-the-spectrum training must wait until we withdraw sufficient troops to restore a normal rotation cycle.

Some critics will be skeptical that this type of training is possible; to some extent this is valid. It is impossible to train equally well for all contingencies. So, our forces should lean toward preparing to fight irregular enemies simply because it is harder to train forces for irregular war than for conventional war. COIN is rightfully referred to as the graduate level of war. For those forces that have the institutional ability to learn, it takes about three to four years for a conventionally oriented force to become effective against an insurgency. This is reflected by the British experience in Malaya, and the United States in Vietnam and Iraq. Unfortunately, conventional forces very often fail to adapt-the French in Indochina and Algeria, the Soviets in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and the Belgians, Dutch and Portuguese in their colonies.

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