Thursday, October 26, 2006

We Aren't Fighting the Next War Yet

It is often said, a bit unfairly, that armies prepare to fight the last war rather than the next war. But armies do have to do what it takes to win the war they are in, and that can build up experience that becomes doctrine. Our Army is fighting a counter-insurgency instead of the force-on-force we trained for since 1975 and executed so well in 1991 and 2003.

Via Stand-To! is this article describing how the need to fight the current war is harming the ability of the Army to fight conventional high intensity battle:

Counterinsurgency "is all we can do right now," said Jack Keane, a four-star general who retired as vice chief of staff of the Army three years ago and serves on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. "There is no time to work on conventional [combat] operations or conventional campaign planning, so those skill sets among officers and senior NCOs in particular are atrophying. This is a serious issue."

This is a correct assessment and we would suffer if this Army has to fight a high intensity war in the near future.

But this is an improvement over the Vietnam War attitude expressed by one general who said he wasn't going to ruin the Army just to win that war. Our Army was ruined anyway for nearly a generation. The Army needs to fight and win the war it has and not the war it would like to have. And we are focusing on that.

Second, if some are right and nobody will ever confront us in conventional war and the Iraq and Afghanistan type of war is our lot for the future, the failure to train for force-on-force combat won't matter one bit. In this thinking, which has some support, we should be focusing on counter-insurgency anyway.

Now, I disagree with this thinking that says we are so dominant in conventional warfare that nobody will ever fight us that way again. So the deterioration of conventional combat skills concerns me. Indeed, a decade ago I wrote about the same problem in regard to preparing for peacekeeping type missions (In Army Magazine with "Peace Enforcement: The Mythical Mission.").

Now, more so than then, operations other than war make our units less capable of fighting battles against other conventional units in the short run.

But in the longer run, once counter-insurgency fighting is over and we can devote time to getting our units back into shape for conventional warfare, we will be training experienced and battle-tested officers and soldiers. Once we reset, our current fighting experience will pay off with troops who know what it is like to get shot at and who fought and won a war. As long as we return to serious training with OPFORs that are more skilled than any enemy we are likely to face, we will turn out just fine in regard to conventional warfare.

But in the meantime, as serious as the concern about conventional skills is, we have a war to win and we must focus on this opponent and not look ahead to the next. Losing would harm our Army far more than winning the "wrong" kind of war.