Let’s face it: American landpower is in crisis. As blogfather Andrew Exum pointed
out in a January column, without a dominant adversary or geographical
template (the Soviet Union, Central Europe) landpower’s case is getting harder
to make. The counterinsurgency era provided a breather, but not necessarily a
solution. It was common not too long to ago to see a flood of books and
articles making the case that the Army had innovated towards a form of war (counterinsurgency)
that would dominate the future of conflict. However, as Exum observes, this
ignored the fact that Army/Marine counterinsurgency in Iraq was a contingent
innovation designed to help the US through a war that many COIN thinkers regarded as a mistake.
In 2012, the American defense landscape has moved away from large-scale
stability operations and privileged air-sea battle, foreign internal defense,
and unconventional warfare scenarios. None of these seem, at first glance, to
be particularly promising for the big battalions.
Some predict that the “man
on the scene with the gun” will be replaced by the culturally
sensitive special operative, cyberwarrior, or Predator pilot. Afghanistan in
2001-2002 and Libya last year is often trotted out to support this thesis.
Certainly US airpower and Gulf Cooperation Council unconventional warfare units
saved the Libyan rebels from defeat and gave them the support and organization
necessary to win. But holes in the narrative emerge when we consider that the
decisive weight was Libyan ground forces. Similarly, the success of the
“Afghan Model” in 2002 should be properly credited to the Northern
Alliance’s Afghans. Moreover,
relying on airpower and special operations forces as the US main effort also
had costs. The fact that the US cannot diplomatically
operate in a Libya whose citizens and government are ostensibly
pro-American or even properly investigate
the Benghazi consulate attacks speaks volumes about the problems of confusing
reliance on ground proxies with actual political control. Granted, these costs
are small compared to large-scale ground engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan,
but they still complicate the now-trendy vision of indirect warfare.
Douglas Ollivant has also soundly
observed that we cannot assume that special operations forces will be a
salve for every security challenge we face. Some scenarios will simply be too
big for SOF to handle alone. Even in the US does not seek to reconstruct collapsing states, securing weapons of mass destruction and leadership targets in the aftermath of an implosion of Syria, North Korea, Libya, or any number of other states would be demanding tasks that special operations would have difficulty handling by themselves. Some sanctuary-raiding missions would require larger ground forces. Others may simply lend themselves better to general purpose
forces. Recent African success waging combined land-amphibious operations in
Somalia suggests that land forces executing amphibious raiding in Africa could
inflict substantial damage on pirates and other foes. In other situations we may not
be able to rely on proxies to do the job for us, either because of a principal-agent
mismatch or lack of capability. Finally, SOF and airpower in recent conflicts
also depend implicitly on the enemy lacking the ability to threaten the bases
and supply networks that sustain them with ground power, commando forces, or
long-range weapons. Should Afghanistan’s
government lose substantial amounts of territory or collapse outright after US
withdrawal, the basing arrangements upon which we base our proxy warfighting
would be threatened.
Still, the question remains: how to
rebrand landpower? The Army War College’s Antulio Echevarria II has a
great piece at the Strategic Studies Institute taking on the challenge. In
the past, Echevarria has written
about how the United States lacks a “way of war” but instead had
developed a “way of battle” oriented around destroying enemy armies.
Destroying armies is necessary but not sufficient for decisive victory. In a
of case studies on the subject of hybrid warfare edited by Williamson Murray
and Peter Mansoor, there are copious examples of strategic misfortunes induced
by conflation of Napoleonic victory with actual defeat of the enemy.
Eliminating the bulk of French forces in 1871 forced the Prussians to contend
with makeshift armies and partisans. The US’ inability to manage the challenge
of fighting insurgents, partisans, and main force units simultaneously played a
strong role in its defeat in Vietnam. And in Korea today the US and South Korea
will contend with North Korean main forces, special operations groups, and
paramilitary networks in any ground scenario.
We’ve argued for a while as to what to call these conflicts, from Fourth
Generation Warfare to various forms of “complex” irregular war. But
the bottom line is that future conflicts will involve the need to gain control
over populations, whether the opponent is a positional force, guerrillas, or
both. Echevarria offers a way out of the morass:
Some will want to argue that Landpower’s raison
d’être is to defeat an opponent’s ground forces. However, if more
than 2 centuries of military operations are any guide, America’s political
leaders will see that as only “mission half
accomplished.” The Indian wars, the Philippine insurrection, the Banana wars,
World Wars I and II, the interventions in Asia and Latin America, the Balkans,
the Middle East, and many other areas suggest that Landpower is generally
employed not only to defeat an opponent’s ground forces, and the quicker the
better, but also to establish and maintain control over people and places
thereafter. This is what Landpower brings to the table that Airpower and
Seapower cannot. The idea is, again, to extend the reach of policy.
Echevarria is not saying the role
of landpower should be to build states. The conflation of defeating one’s
opponents with governing them has
been one of the most destructive trends in recent national security policy.
Echevarria addresses this head-on. In contrast to the stereotypical idea of an
American way of war based around unlimited political objectives, Echevarria
argues that Presidents have often sought to only use as much force as
appropriate. Even in eras of total war, we have always considered conserving
our own resources. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of fighting Germany in World War II, and
US did not completely completely mobilize its resources for the task. Even
during the Cold War, the US never
adopted a “garrison state” mode akin to the Soviet total warfare
Adopting a holistic definition of landpower allows the Army and Marines to
market themselves for a range of missions while still building a core set of
skills oriented around offense, defense, and stability and support operations.
This would certainly preserve all of the experiential gains of the last ten
years in fighting insurgents, guerrillas, and illicit networks, but not limit
the military to believing that one strategy should guide response. Indeed, it
would also emphasize the productive use of land forces in situations short of
war for shaping operations and rapid response. Finally, this conception of
landpower would be a good
basis for integrating landpower with cyberpower and special operations
warfare. The Landpower Group currently examining the future of the concept is
fruitfully looking at that intersection, as well as landpower’s adaptation to
other emerging security challenges.
To return to Echevarria’s original point, an new conception of the American
way of war would emphasize not only the armies of the opponents but the social
and political contexts that generate them. It would privilege Carl von
Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini but also leave room for John Arquilla.
However, such a conception would require forces built around around combat. In the last ten years American
soldiers have hunted down the enemy and engaged in the close fight in some of
the most physically demanding regions of the Earth. And historically there is
nothing soft about small war, whether chasing down Pancho Villa overland in
Mexico or fighting dug-in al-Qaeda units on the mountains during Operation Anaconda.
To recognize this is not to denigrate
the importance of cultural knowledge or persuasion, but it is to point out that
everything else rests on the ability to threaten or violently coerce. Combat could
occur anywhere, as daring attacks against American rear areas and supply
columns have proved over the last ten years. As William F. Owen observed, expansive political objectives must be purchased by operations that grant control. Otherwise, the enemy always has the ability to spoil the plan.
This vision of landpower would not necessarily be a call for large land forces on the model of 1917-1991. Rather, it would be a use of landpower familiar to policymakers throughout most of American history: boots on the ground to give America a say in what happens in unstable regions of interest to American national security, protect American diplomats and commercial interests from the predations of states and sub-state groups, and attack non-state organizations that threaten American lives. If framed that way, landpower could remain a competitive advantage even if scaled down.