Five Takeaways From a Decade of War

Members of Montana's 163rd Alpha Company take pictures in front of an American flag as they prepare to depart Iraq at the conclusion of their tour on July 16, 2011 in Iskandariya, Babil Province Iraq.
National Journal
James Kitfield
Nov. 8, 2013, 10:40 a.m.

De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, in a key­note ad­dress at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies this week, signaled to mil­it­ary com­mand­ers that they should as­sume the across-the-board, auto­mat­ic spend­ing cuts im­posed by se­quester over the next dec­ade will re­main in place in­def­in­itely. “We do not have the op­tion of ig­nor­ing real­ity, or as­sum­ing something will change.” Be­fore they de­cide how to shrink U.S. mil­it­ary forces and al­loc­ate scarce re­sources, however, uni­formed lead­ers will have to de­cipher the les­sons of the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan and how to ap­ply them to the com­ing era of aus­ter­ity and glob­al in­stabil­ity.

Hagel gave a pre­view of his own think­ing when he ar­gued that the Pentagon should pro­tect in­vest­ments in cut­ting edge tech­no­lo­gies that are cent­ral to the evolving, net­work-cent­ric mod­el of war­fare honed in those con­flicts — to in­clude space sys­tems, cy­ber cap­ab­il­it­ies, “ISR” (in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, and re­con­nais­sance), and spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces (SOF).

Fol­low­ing Hagel’s speech, three seni­or re­tired gen­er­als offered their own thoughts on bat­tle­field les­sons. Here are five takeaways from the dis­cus­sion by Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of the Army; and Gen. Ron­ald Fogle­man, former chief of staff of the Air Force.

The First In­form­a­tion-Age War

Just as ad­vances in weaponry such as the ma­chine gun, ar­mored tank, and air­craft car­ri­er changed war in the In­dus­tri­al Age, so have rap­id ad­vances in com­pu­ta­tion­al power and data-crunch­ing fun­da­ment­ally changed mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions in the In­form­a­tion Age. And as the first ex­ten­ded con­flicts for U.S. forces of that era, Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq were a crit­ic­al test­ing ground. The U.S. mil­it­ary’s de­vel­op­ment of a more net­work-cent­ric, in­tel­li­gence-driv­en mod­el of op­er­a­tions em­ploy­ing pre­ci­sion-strike cap­ab­il­it­ies in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan were an early at­tempt to lever­age re­volu­tion­ary tech­no­logy with new doc­trines and ways of fight­ing.

“The U.S. mil­it­ary used the ex­po­nen­tial in­crease in com­pu­ta­tion­al power in our com­mand-and-con­trol and data ana­lys­is in ways that we nev­er con­ceived of be­fore these con­flicts,” said Cartwright. “The days when we would send a rifle squad out in the field just trolling for the en­emy are gone forever. Today we can be much more pre­dict­ive about where that squad is go­ing, what it will find when it gets there and where it is most likely to be am­bushed. That rep­res­ents a fun­da­ment­al shift.”

That more net­work-cent­ric mod­el of op­er­a­tions em­powered small units with the in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing power that was once avail­able only in di­vi­sion and corps headquar­ters. Fre­quently young of­ficers and non­com­mis­sioned of­ficers on foot patrol could tap in­to full-mo­tion video sup­plied from un­manned drones and oth­er sur­veil­lance air­craft fly­ing over­head, or reach back in real time to massive in­tel­li­gence fu­sion cells in the U.S. through the ma­gic of satel­lite and fiber-op­tic com­mu­nic­a­tions. That gave rise to the phe­nomen­on known as the “stra­tegic cor­por­al,” where po­ten­tially game-chan­ging au­thor­ity and de­cision-mak­ing was pushed down to front-line units whose com­mand­ers had to re­act to rap­idly evolving cir­cum­stances on the bat­tle­field.

“If you take the hunt for IED (im­pro­vised ex­plos­ive devices) cells, that was a 30-day fight,” said Cartwright. The en­emy would in­vent a fuse, U.S. forces would de­vel­op a counter to it and the en­emy would re­spond by in­vent­ing an­oth­er trig­ger­ing device. “And if it took you longer than 30 days to re­spond to a change in en­emy tac­tics, your people were dy­ing.”

That com­pressed cycle of ac­tion and re­ac­tion also meant that with rare ex­cep­tions, U.S. forces had to rely on the ma­jor weapons plat­forms in their ar­sen­als at the start of the war, and ad­apt them to a dy­nam­ic bat­tle­field with changes in com­puter soft­ware and cut­ting edge sensors. “These bat­tle­fields were not driv­en by ‘plat­form solu­tions,’ be­cause our ma­jor weapons plat­forms take 15 to 20 years to field,” said Cartwright. The ex­cep­tion, he noted, was the rap­id field­ing of the MRAP (Mine Res­ist­ant Am­bush Pro­tec­ted) ar­mored vehicles to pro­tect troops from IEDs. “Oth­er­wise, we turned a ‘man­euver force’ in­to an ‘oc­cu­pa­tion force’ in these con­flicts, and did it without plat­form solu­tions.”

The New “Joint­ness”: Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions and Con­ven­tion­al Forces

The 1991 Per­sian Gulf war re­vealed the im­mense power un­leashed when the sep­ar­ate armed ser­vices began op­er­at­ing more syn­er­gist­ic­ally in the post-Gold­wa­ter Nich­ols era, hon­ing the U.S. mil­it­ary’s con­ven­tion­al war-fight­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies to an un­pre­ced­en­ted edge. Sim­il­arly, the post-9/11 “glob­al war on ter­ror” and the con­flicts in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan have cre­ated an un­pre­ced­en­ted syn­ergy between spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces, in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and con­ven­tion­al forces that have pro­foundly changed U.S. mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions.

In the past, the rivalry that ex­is­ted between spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces and con­ven­tion­al forces was so in­tense that spe­cial op­er­a­tions earned a repu­ta­tion for not play­ing well with oth­ers. “To me the biggest and most sur­pris­ing les­son of these wars was the close in­teg­ra­tion between SOF and con­ven­tion­al forces, es­pe­cially in the realm of in­tel­li­gence in­teg­ra­tion,” said Chiarelli. “That was something I had not seen in my 34 years in the Army, and it’s ab­so­lutely crit­ic­al that we sus­tain that close in­teg­ra­tion as we wind these wars down.”

All-Vo­lun­teer Force Re­si­li­ent and Ex­pens­ive

The all-vo­lun­teer force was de­signed dur­ing the early 1970s, in the wake of Vi­et­nam and at the height of the Cold War, as a core around which to build a draft army in the event of a ma­jor con­flict. In­stead, a re­l­at­ively small all-vo­lun­teer force bore the weight of more than a dec­ade of war on its nar­row shoulders, re­veal­ing a re­si­li­ence that sur­prised even many of its staunchest pro­ponents.

“I was in the Pentagon on Septem­ber 11, 2001, when the plane crashed in­to it, and if you had told me then that we could sus­tain a dec­ade of war with no re­ten­tion prob­lems, with troops do­ing mul­tiple com­bat tours on a 12-month de­ployed, 12-month home cycle, I wouldn’t have be­lieved it,” said Chiarelli.

One of the key les­sons of the last dec­ade, however, is that in con­trast to past draft armies the all-vo­lun­teer force is dif­fi­cult to rap­idly ex­pand even in a crisis. “We learned in these con­flicts that you can’t grow the all-vo­lun­teer force as quickly as a draft army,” said Chiarelli, who served as vice chief at a time when the ser­vice ad­ded 20,000 sol­diers to help shoulder the load in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. “It took us a year and a half to re­cruit and field 20,000 new privates, which was really a slow pro­cess.”

With re­cent evid­ence in­dic­at­ing that the Pentagon is spend­ing more than $2 mil­lion for every uni­formed vo­lun­teer cur­rently serving in Afgh­anistan, a num­ber of ex­perts also ques­tion wheth­er the all-vo­lun­teer force is too ex­pens­ive to fight ex­ten­ded con­flicts in the fu­ture. The es­cal­at­ing costs res­ult from a mul­ti­pli­city of factors, to in­clude ex­pens­ive force pro­tec­tion meas­ures in com­bat zones; the rising cost of con­tract­ors to help sus­tain that force in the field; and soar­ing per­son­nel costs as­so­ci­ated with in­creased pay and be­ne­fits. With ad­vances in com­bat medi­cine hav­ing led to a sur­viv­al rate of bet­ter than 90 per­cent for troops wounded in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, med­ic­al costs are also soar­ing.

“The all-vo­lun­teer force served us very well in these con­flicts, but the prob­lem go­ing for­ward is that it has be­come un­af­ford­able at its present size and com­pos­i­tion,” said Gen­er­al Fogle­man, the former chief of staff of the Air Force. The De­fense De­part­ment already spends roughly 40 per­cent of its budget on per­son­nel, he noted, and that num­ber will in­crease to 60 per­cent if costs are not con­tained. “I don’t be­grudge a single thing we gave this all-vo­lun­teer force, but pretty soon per­son­nel costs are go­ing to squeeze everything else out of the budget. That’s not a sus­tain­able course. “

Pre­ci­sion Strike and Un­in­ten­ded Con­sequences

The abil­ity to rap­idly dir­ect leth­al force to any­where in the battle-space, with GPS and laser-dir­ec­ted pre­ci­sion, has be­come a call­ing card of the U.S. mil­it­ary. Not only do guided weapons res­ult in far less col­lat­er­al dam­age and ci­vil­ian cas­u­al­ties than “dumb” bombs, rock­ets and mor­tars, but the need to use far few­er of them to des­troy a giv­en tar­get greatly re­duces the bur­dens of mov­ing am­muni­tion through a globe-span­ning lo­gist­ics train.

And yet, just as the cost of an ex­pens­ive all-vo­lun­teer force is driv­ing up the price-tag of this new Amer­ic­an style of war, so too are mil­it­ary form­a­tions that rely by habit on pre­ci­sion weapons. “I saw in­stances in the war zone when we were fir­ing pre­ci­sion ar­til­lery rounds that cost on or­der of $110,000 each, when an un­guided mor­tar round cost­ing $60 would have done the job just as well,” said Chiarelli. “I watched as we fired three pre­ci­sion-guided ar­til­lery rounds at a IED cell, and thought, ‘Wow, that’s $300,000 worth of pre­ci­sion mu­ni­tions go­ing down range.’”

The broad­er im­plic­a­tions of war fought in­creas­ingly by pre­ci­sion weapons at stand-off dis­tances are also poorly un­der­stood. Air Force pi­lots who fly armed un­manned drones from bases in the United States have a high­er rate of sui­cide, di­vorce and PTSD than pi­lots in theat­er, said Cartwright, per­haps be­cause they have to take the emo­tion­al bur­dens of killing home to their fam­il­ies each night.

The great­er re­li­ance on pre­ci­sion weapons and a counter-in­sur­gency strategy that em­phas­ized pro­tect­ing the ci­vil­ian pop­u­la­tion, with the cor­res­pond­ing drop in the num­ber of over­all cas­u­al­ties, may also carry un­in­ten­ded con­sequences. “When his­tor­i­ans study these con­flicts in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, they will find that they rep­res­ent the first time in his­tory where the pop­u­la­tion of young men 17-35 ac­tu­ally grew, where­as his­tor­ic­ally that pop­u­la­tion de­clines dur­ing war­time un­til you reach a point when every­one is tired of the con­flict,” said Cartwright. “When that pop­u­la­tion of young men ac­tu­ally grows dur­ing a con­flict, I’m not sure what that means for ‘ter­min­a­tion of con­flict.’ But it could be im­port­ant.”

Coun­ter­insur­gency a Long, Hard Slog

There is a reas­on that Afgh­anistan rep­res­ents the United States’ longest war, with Ir­aq not far be­hind, and it’s a les­son the United States learned and then tried to for­get after Vi­et­nam: coun­ter­insur­gency wars are long and dirty con­flicts, and they of­ten take a dec­ade or more to settle. They also in­volve na­tion-build­ing tasks out­side the core com­pet­ency either of the U.S. mil­it­ary or the U.S. gov­ern­ment writ large, and they risk U.S. forces be­com­ing em­broiled in an­oth­er na­tion’s civil war.

“The in­teg­ra­tion of kin­et­ic and non-kin­et­ic op­er­a­tions are crit­ic­al in these kinds of con­flicts,” said Chiarelli, be­cause the Ir­aqi and Afghan gov­ern­ments lacked the es­sen­tial min­is­teri­al ca­pa­city to gov­ern — to pick up the garbage, in­sure clean wa­ter and safe streets, to write con­tracts. The United States in both in­stances was forced to step in and try and build that min­is­teri­al ca­pa­city — a task which re­mains un­fin­ished to this day in both coun­tries — or else risk the in­sur­gents win­ning over the pop­u­la­tion.

“The num­ber one takeaway is that if you are go­ing to in­ter­vene in an­oth­er na­tion’s con­flict as a third party, you bet­ter ad­mit go­ing in that it’s a cost-im­pos­ing strategy that will re­quire an eight-to-ten year ef­fort,” said Cartwright. “That’s the primary les­son of third-party in­ter­ven­tions.”

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