NATIONAL DEFENSE UNIVERSITY, WASHINGTON, DC: Ten years to the day after the US invaded Iraq with shock, awe and too few ground troops, the Army is anxious never to repeat the errors of the past. Yet as policymakers not only cut the defense budget — the Army’s portion most of all — but also emphasize investing in air, sea, and increasingly cyber power at the expense of troops on land, there’s an understandable and uneasy sense of deja vu.
It’s not that the much-hyped, high-tech “transformation” of the Donald Rumsfeld era was entirely bad, said Gen. Robert Cone, chief of the Army’s intellectual priesthood, the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), in a roundtable with reporters this afternoon. Transformation, aka the “revolution in military affairs,” started with an appreciation of the very real advances in information technology, and today, “the power of the network is tremendous,” Cone said. “We can push information down to lower echelons [so] a battalion commander gets what a division commander used to have, and soon a company commander will.”
But that appreciation of technology turned into an infatuation that blinded American leaders to the ugly realities of war, said Cone, who admitted to having been among those overawed by the high-tech hype. Never again, he swore. The idea that must never be allowed to rise again, he said, “the earth that needs to be salted, is the idea that war is anything other than a fundamentally human struggle.”
“Look at the Iraqis,” he went on. “We surely systematically collapsed their command and control, logistics,” and every other military “system” whose physical “nodes” we could target with precision weapons, he said, “but that didn’t stop them from finding an alternative way to wage war… The will [to fight] was still present.”
“Technology’s critical,” Cone said, and both the US and its enemies will always pursue technological advantage, but “what’s behind that is human will… That’s really the lesson I’ve learned.”
So as the Army looks to its future role beyond Afghanistan and 12 years of all-consuming counterinsurgency, Cone’s director for concept development, Maj. Gen. Bill Hix said, “there are two big ideas, and they both begin with the word ‘human.’” One, called the “human dimension,” is the Army’s effort to apply the latest science to improve its people, its biggest asset — personnel costs consume nearly half the Army budget — with everything from World of Warcraft-style training simulations to inculcating resistance to PTSD.
The other is tentatively called the “human domain” — domain being a Pentagon term of art whose usage here is hotly debated among the theologians of military doctrine — and focuses on the human beings outside the Army: the complex mix of enemies, allies, neutrals, civilians, and wild cards that junior officers learned to navigate in places like Baghdad.
With the administration’s official strategic guidance explicitly ruling out “large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” the Army is anxious that its hard-won counterinsurgency skills not be thrown out with the bathwater. “I talk to young folks all the time,” said Cone, “and some of their biggest concerns are… what are we going to do about language and culture and those things we paid for in blood.” The attempt to institutionalize a “human domain,” or whatever it is ultimately called, he said, “is the biggest effort we have launched to try to capture that.”
There’s considerable debate within the Army over what the “human domain” requires, let alone what it should be called, as was revealed at a literally star-studded conclave of generals, senior civilians and others here today, presided over by none other than Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. Odierno led a similar brainstorming session last year to review the Army’s conceptual effort known as Unified Quest, but he insisted this year’s run longer, about five hours. (Select reporters were allowed to attend on the condition they not quote participants by name).
One problem that came clear in this year’s extended discussion: Training troops to speak foreign languages and understand foreign cultures is attractive, but it costs a lot. That’s especially true when you are no longer at war and don’t have an obvious one or two countries to focus on, but must prepare for interventions around the world.
“What we have to figure out as an army is what’s practical and affordable,” said one four-star officer. Special Forces have extraordinary skill in languages and cultural knowledge that the “big Army” cannot replicate at any reasonable cost, he said: “I would like to do it but I can’t afford the investment.” At the same time, SOF is too small to carry the burden of training, advising, and fighting alongside foreign partners by itself.
As fewer units are needed in Central Command, which oversees by Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army is starting to allocate regionally aligned forces to other geographic commanders around the world, something Special Forces units have done for years. But assigning a brigade to support, say, Pacific Command, hardly tells them whether to study Korean, Tagalog, or Hindi.
“I know a lot of people in this room who developed long-term relationships in Iraq and Afghanistan who can’t speak a word of Arabic or Pashtun,” the four-star went on. Rather than try to replicate Special Forces-style language skills, he and others suggested, the Army needs to make the best use of the few specialists it already has but augment them with a much broader and deeper bench of generalists who may lack fluency but are still versed in the culture, politics, and security issues of their assigned region.
As the Army looks beyond Afghanistan, one two-star general said, it needs to inculcate the ethos that “if you’re a professional soldier, you should know where you’re likely to fight and you need to study, extremely hard, that language, that culture. That’s not a hard sell to this generation right now; in fact they’re demanding it.”
As uncertain as the assembled officers and officials were about how to institutionalize such human factors, they unsurprisingly agreed that ground forces were the best equipped to do it. This wasn’t purely institutionally self-serving. Participants noted that “ground forces” meant not just the Army but the Marines and Special Operations Command as well. Gen. Odierno himself has launched an Office of Strategic Landpower to bring the three disparate cultures together in a unified effort — in part as a counterweight to the intellectual and budgetary influence of the Air Force and Navy concept of AirSea Battle.
After every major war, grumbled one official briefing the group, “the nation always turns to over-reliance on air and sea” at the expense of ground. “Cyber is the new chimera that is being chased for the same reasons.”