Thursday, September 18, 2014

How Do We Achieve Continuity on the Ground?

This author makes a number of excellent points on the Long War. One I would particularly like to explore because it is one that I hadn't considered, is his criticism of the Army's unit deployment rotation policy.

The points the author makes are either something I've discussed or something that I agree with even if I haven't thought about it, I've just had it as a background assumption for other issues, or I discussed it in a different manner.

Only because I happened to run across it while looking for the post I was interested in, I'll note a post of mine that seems to reflect the gist of his last COIN point.

Although I have strong reservations about concluding that we live in a time when conflict termination is actually messier or more difficult than in the past.

Anyway, this point by Crane in particular deserves examination:

We are still fighting one year wars. At a War College Strategy Conference a few years ago, I challenged David Kilcullen when he claimed that unit rotations would solve all the problems individual rotations had caused in Vietnam. (The individual replacement system applied there was blamed for fostering a lack of unit cohesion and continuity, with soldiers constantly flowing in and out on 12 month tours, creating a disjointed unit filled with varying levels of expertise and motivation). I failed to change Kilcullen’s mind, but I remain convinced that we have just exchanged one set of transition problems for another. In stability and counterinsurgency operations, long-term presence is critical to establish the personal relationships necessary for cultural understanding and political influence. I think that the individual rotation policies employed in Vietnam were actually better suited for such conflicts. The Military History Institute of the Army Heritage and Education Center holds a vast collection of after action reports from the war in Southeast Asia. Units established themselves for years in the same zone, getting to know every village, every infiltration route, every key person. There was no need for transitional handovers of intelligence and relationships with local populations, who came to know the unit in their midst very well. Unit rotations may mean better unit cohesion and, perhaps, better performance, but one still sees an arc of capability that peaks in the middle of tours, and rises and declines with learning and fatigue curves. And there can be complete breakdowns in handovers.

He has an excellent point.

I've thought our unit rotation policy was far greater than the individual rotation policy that led to the terrible morale problems that infected our Army during the drawdown from the Vietnam War.

And unit cohesion is more than just serving together in theater, as that post notes.

But our troop morale was pretty good in Vietnam before the drawdown despite having an individual rotation policy. So while we weren't retreating under heavy anti-war pressure from the home front and pulling troops out, that rotation policy didn't harm our Army or war effort.

And I'll add that part of the churning in Vietnam was from those individuals leaving not being replaced by new troops from the United States but from further churning other units in South Vietnam to replace the losses.

Unit rotations are absolutely the way to go for conventional warfare, I think, although the length on the line is surely a point of debate.

And efforts to build unit cohesion outside of the combat zone are important.

But after reading this I have to reconsider whether we did the right thing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It worked well enough. But I strongly suspect we may not have had the right policy.

I'd read about the learning and fatigue curve before. Maybe for a non-conventional war an individual rotation policy is better. Or maybe the Marine policy of 6- or 7-month unit rotations. Maybe an individual rotation policy after 6 or 7 months would work best in these types of wars.

Do read it all.