The battle to rebuild America’s military after Iraq—and in preparation for the battles of the 21st century—has begun.
Over the next year, the public is going to find itself buried in proposals for reforming our nation’s military. In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is truly stretched thin: As Army Vice Chief of Staff General William Cody told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, “The current demand for our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds the sustainable supply, and limits our ability to provide ready forces for other contingencies.” All the services are going through equipment–from guns to trucks to bombs–three to four times faster than planned. Yet because procurement decisions are set years in advance, the replenishment rates for equipment have fallen dramatically. And all the services are struggling, and failing, to maintain the very high standards they established for recruits during the 1990s–in particular the Army, which in 2006 granted 8,330 “moral waivers” to recruits with criminal histories. Rejuvenating our armed forces will not be easy. But before we can talk about rebuilding the broken military, we have to decide who our enemies are likely to be, what types of wars we will fight, and what we will need to win them.
One cannot underestimate how much the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed the discussion about the future of the American military. In the 1990s, the smug preoccupation was on “transforming” our forces so they dominate the battlefield–embodied in ideas like the “Network Centric Warfare” promoted by Donald Rumsfeld and Admiral Arthur Cebrowski–to one of playing catch up to rapid changes in the global security landscape. The discussion now pits those who think the primary threat is a “near peer competitor” in a conventional military conflict (China, Russia) against those who see non-state actors, such as insurgents and terrorists, as the primary threat. Given the long lead time and huge expense of new weapon systems, the threat we choose to prepare against today will have major impacts on both domestic and defense spending over the next decade or more–not to mention on our fighting posture when we go to war again. Simply put, defining the threat today is a critical step in designing a defense for tomorrow.
Rather than pick a side, John Arquilla’s Worst Enemy posits that the right kind of organization can fight both enemies with equal effectiveness. Arquilla is no Johnny-come-lately to the defense debate. A veteran RAND analyst with more than 20 monographs to his name, he has been a leading thinker and writer on the subject for over 15 years. In 1993, he and his colleague David Rondfeldt wrote a seminal work on one of the critical ideas in modern military theory–namely, “netwar,” the idea that wars would no longer be fought by hierarchical organizations but by networks linked by ideas and technology, ranging from Al Qaeda to the Animal Liberation Front. They foresaw much of what we face today in the war on terror. They accurately described how insurgents, terrorists, and criminal entities were organized as networks and were using this superior organization to share information and speed decision making. Their argument was controversial, because it directly contradicted the Pentagon’s fascination with high-technology, nation-state war. Time has proven them right. While the Pentagon spent the 1990s funding high-tech projects like the multi-platform Future Combat Systems, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that technology alone cannot guarantee battlefield dominance.
This is not an academic debate confined to the hallowed halls of a think tank. If we fail to understand the character of the conflict we are fighting and will fight in the near future, it is impossible for us to win it and maintain national security. Yet there are no easy answers: no one can seriously predict whether our next conflict will be with a near-peer competitor or a stateless network. But by having this conversation now, and by designing a force that can best meet the sweeping variety of potential challenges ahead, we can hope to prevent a repeat performance of Iraq the next time American forces will have to take to the battlefield.
Worst Enemy is not the best way to begin. Arquilla sets out to explore how warfare is changing by answering two critical questions: “What kind of military is needed to win the war on terror and future conflicts?” and “How should American armed forces be employed?” No two questions could be more central to the future of the American military. But Arquilla answers neither, because he never provides a cohesive view of the strategic future. Instead, he simply observes that the war on terror is “a global struggle between largely tradition-bound nations and innovation-oriented networks, with both the past and future of conflict apparent.” Whatever insight that statement provides on the nature of combating terror, it is not the summation of America’s strategic challenge. Terror is a tactic that a network may choose to use against America–but not the only one. Insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to challenge us for years using a combination of political, economic, social, and military actions. The repeated ability of insurgency to neutralize American power will make it an attractive option for potential enemies of all stripes. And, unlike terrorists, insurgents have demonstrated the ability to seize and hold ground, even to rule a nation. In an increasingly resource constrained world, organizations from Al Qaeda to nation states will adopt networked insurgencies to confront U.S. power.
Arquilla wants us to believe that in such a world, the best possible organization for our armed forces is small, networked teams. Essentially, he proposes a network to fight a network. He states that right now, the U.S. armed forces are focused on anachronisms like mass and firepower to the exclusion of anything else. The U.S. military has, he writes, “Stubbornly viewed the diffusion of improved new weapons and innovative operational concepts as impelling a reassertion of the primacy of sheer mass and dedicated drill.” Arquilla contends that as a result, the military has missed the remarkable changes that robust networking offers in terms of combat effectiveness, and is incapable of changing itself. Like Pogo, “We have met the enemy and they are us.”
Arquilla offers a different model: the swarm. He sees the ideal force as being able to divide into very small units, link via data networks, and swarm over the battlefield. Using precision weapons and a superior view of the battlefield, they will, like a swarm of mosquitoes attacking a horse, choose where and when to bite while remaining impervious to focused enemy action. He points to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan as one of a “few shining exceptions do suggest we are at least aware of the future ways of war.”
Since this is only one of many times he cites the creative use of Special Operations troops and air power in conjunction with Afghan forces as a model for future action, we need to understand what really happened in Afghanistan before accepting Arquilla’s proposed reorganization based on it. Did our Special Operations efforts really give us victory? Or were there other factors involved? If nothing else, the fact that Afghan’s tribal culture allowed most of the Taliban’s supporters to simply change sides, even in the middle of a fire fight, may have made Afghanistan a unique case. But for Arquilla, the offensive capabilities of the Special Forces, tied to precision air strikes, were all that mattered. He never explores why, six years later, we are still engaged there–and even losing ground as the Taliban and Al Qaeda regroup in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.
The book nevertheless uses Afghanistan as justification for an operational concept of “networked swarming,” essentially an enemy-centric approach to counterinsurgency. Enemy-centric counterinsurgency holds that by killing the enemy guerrillas, the counterinsurgent can collapse the insurgency. It’s deceptively simple. However, proponents never explain how to keep a still-aggrieved population from producing more insurgents. In contrast, population-centric counterinsurgency is based on the idea that insurgents come out of the population, and that only by providing security and prosperity for the population can the counterinsurgent eliminate the insurgency. Arquilla’s focus on enemy-centric counterinsurgency is way behind the curve. Both soldiers in the field and military theorists such as Dave Kilcullen and Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl point to General David Petraeus’s shift to population-centric counterinsurgency as a major factor in the success of the Iraq surge. In fact, the Army’s new Counterinsurgency Field Manual makes this the official doctrine of the Army and Marine Corps.
Arquilla does concede that not all wars will look like Afghanistan. But he still thinks networked swarms are the way to go to fight these conventional battles. When considering how U.S. forces should fight these traditional wars, he points to another “shining moment”–the People’s Liberation Army’s offensive in the winter of 1950 in Korea. Arquilla posits that its success was based on the use of swarm tactics to overwhelm the mass- and firepower-focused U.S. forces. But the reality of the conflict actually undermines his point. The Chinese deployed over 380,000 men who fought in divisions, armies, and even army groups. And when they ran up against U.S. forces that maintained their cohesion, the Chinese troops were devastated.
Despite Arquilla’s odd selection of historical examples, he does highlight some significant problems within the U.S. defense structure: It continues to maintain a force optimized to fight a peer-competitor nation state, even as our current enemies are networked coalitions of non-state actors. If this is the case, what sort of military will fighting non-state actors require?
In examining the various parts of our armed forces, Arquilla suggests reforms across a wide field, from organizations to hardware to bureaucracy to personnel. He begins by drilling down on the operational focus of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, devoting an entire chapter to each and the reforms he thinks are necessary. Why, he asks, didn’t the Army change its operational concepts after the collapse of the Soviet Union? The premise of his question isn’t entirely correct: Based on the success of high-technology weapons in Desert Storm, the army did seek major changes. But those changes were based on the fatally flawed Joint Vision and Network Centric concepts. These ideas centered on state-versus-state warfare in which battles were won through the application of high technology. But Arquilla’s core point, and it’s a good one, is that the real problem is cultural: U.S. forces focus on fighting the big battles they’d like to fight rather than the small wars they are fighting, and likely will continue to fight.
But Arquilla doesn’t go far enough. While he is correct that much of the Army leadership is resistant to change, Arquilla never explains how his proposed organizational reforms will get past that resistance. He never actually discusses how the Army will go from brigade organizations to swarms, so we don’t know what the Army leadership is resisting. Nor does he highlight the fact that the Army’s new capstone manual, Field Manual 3.0 Operations, gives stability operations equal weight with conventional war, indicating Army leadership is in fact changing its conception of future conflict.
Arquilla also offers a simplistic solution for the Navy. This time the great challenge is not cultural but technological–in particular, he posits that the Navy has clung to the large aircraft carrier, long past its useful life as an organizing principle. It’s a fair point. Arquilla makes some strong arguments that the increasing lethality of both shore- and ship-based weapons threatens the aircraft carrier, and he suggests that sea control and shore-bombardment missions can be done more effectively with missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles than with carriers. However, he never addresses that fact that, in many situations, carrier-based air power still provides responsiveness and a volume of firepower not available either from missiles or long-range, land-based air. Using precision munitions, the carrier air wing can strike hundreds of targets a day and maintain air superiority over friendly forces, all without hard-to-get basing permissions from any foreign governments.
Thus, any discussion of aircraft carriers must show how we can provide that sustained support to forces ashore when denied basing rights. Arquilla doesn’t. Instead, he quickly pivots back to his hobby horse, advocating small-craft swarm tactics at sea and giving examples of the use of such tactics by various nations. Again, Arquilla never actually discusses what types of ships he envisions, nor how they are organized into formations and supported. This failure to discuss operational issues is a surprising oversight. Different countries use their navies to different ends. It is one thing to maintain a swarm of small boats operating in your own waters to prevent an enemy from approaching your coast. It is an entirely different problem to sail ships around the world and sustain them there in combat. The future purpose of the U.S. Navy is an important topic, but Arquilla clouds the issue by reducing it to a simple binary question: carriers or no carriers. Like all the defense issues confronting us, it is complex and fraught with risk. No one is helped by reductive reversions to panaceas like “swarm tactics.”
Yet Arquilla persists, and not surprisingly, there is a swarm solution for the Air Force, too. Arquilla chastises the service for continuing to pursue the holy grail of strategic bombing despite almost 70 years of repeated failure, adding that its apparent willingness to sacrifice everything to produce more F-22 fighters does not bode well for other capabilities. I am in complete agreement with Arquilla. The F-22 is useful only against a peer-competitor nation state with a sizable air force of its own. The Air Force should cease seeking a way for airpower to win a war by itself and focus on how it functions as part of a joint force.
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