By Jeffrey Record 1995
Strategic Studies Institute
United States Army War College
Bacevich, contend that the United States will seek to avoid direct involvement in unconventional conflicts, and if unable to avoid involvement, will inevitably perform poorly. In his view the culprit is a Pentagon still so petrified by the prospect of another Vietnam that it has deliberately blocked attempts to prepare effectively for unconventional conflict—and this, says Bacevich, at a time when the age of conventional military practice is drawing to a close.
I tend to believe that we are entering an era in which the predominant form of conflict will be smaller and less conventional wars waged mostly within recognized national borders. State disintegration in much of Africa, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the potential decomposition of Russia itself, and the likely spread of politically radical Islam—all portend a host of politically and militarily messy conflicts. They also portend a continuation of strong pressures to participate in operations other than war, especially in peace, humanitarian relief, and nation-building operations.
But whether I am right or wrong, I think most would agree with the proposition that a military establishment dedicated almost exclusively to preparation for conventional combat, and strongly averse to dealing with violent challenges that cannot be effectively dealt with by conventional means, is a military establishment that is not ready for unconventional conflict. Our own military performance in this century reveals a clear correlation between the type of combat we faced and how successful we were. Almost all of our military victories were gained against conventionally armed states that in the end failed to match either the quàlity or quantity of U.S. (and allied) manpower, materiel, and raw firepower. Wilhemine Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Baathist Iraq were simply overwhelmed.
In contrast, our military failures and humiliations for the most part have been at the hands of opponents having little or nothing in the way or sea and air power, or even ground force other than light infantry. Most of them could not hope to prevail over U.S. forces conventionally. But they did prevail because they employed a combination of unconventional strategy and tactics and had a greater willingness to fight and die. U.S. military power was stymied by Philipppine insurrectos, stalemated in Korea, defeated in Vietnam, and embarrassed in Lebanon and Somalia by opponents who succeeded in denying to U.S. forces the kind of targets most vulnerable to overwhelming firepower, while at the same time demonstrating superior political stamina in terms of enduring combat’s duration and cost.
To be sure, there were factors on our side other than our military conventionality that contributed to these failures, including excessive micromanagement of military operations from above, an absence of interests worth the price of the fight, and an underestimation of enemy political will and fighting prowess. But the fact remains that military forces designed primarily for one type of warfare are inherently ill-suited for other kinds of warfare. Race horses perform poorly at rodeos and behind plows.
Of the Pentagon’s commitment to conventional military orthodoxy and aversion to the unconventional, Andrew Bacevich has written:
Adversaries as different as Mohammed Farah Aideed and Radovan Karadzic have all too readily grasped the opportunities implicit in this fact. No doubt they respect the American military establishment for its formidable strengths. They are also shrewd enough to circumvent those strengths and to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in the rigid American adherence to professional conventions regarding the use of force. As long as U.S. military policies are held hostage to such conventions, those vulnerabilities will persist. The abiding theme of twentieth century military history is that the changing character of modern war long ago turned the flank of conventional military practice, limiting its application to an ever narrowing spectrum of contingencies.Far more of a challenge than Iraq presented 4 years ago will be forthcoming from Iran, which in its continuing campaígn against American power and influence in Southwest Asia has relied not on direct conventional military challenges, but rather on more successful, indirect, unconventional instruments such as terrorism, hostage-taking, and subversion. Add to these ingredients weapons of mass destruction and a keen attention to surreptitiously exploiting U.S. conventional military weaknesses, such as mining Gulf waters, and you have what Andrew Krepinevich has called a “Streetfighter State.” Such a state relies on unconventional acts of violence, and is prepared to wage a protracted struggle. Iran, and nations like it, are willing to absorb what the United States would consider a disproportionate amount of punishment to achieve its goals. The Streetfighter State exploits American social weaknesses, such as impatience and aversion to casualties, while at the same time denying U.S. firepower decisive targets or at least easily attackable ones. It’s not that the U.S. military is preparing for the wrong war. It’s just that there is more than one war—any single “right” war—to prepare for in the post-Cold War world. Stuffing money into the defense budget readiness accounts prepares us for conventional warfare but not for much else, and that “much else” may come to dominate the international military environment.
Krepinevich has written:
It would seem that, rather than maintaining a force structure for two ‘last wars,’ the Defense Department might consider expending some additional resources, especially intellectual capital, examining how the United States military might explore innovative operational concepts that help it cope with the Streetfighter State. Such conceptual innovation need not break the budget . . . [D)uring the 1920s and 1930s the U.S. military successfully engineered a number of conceptual, or ‘intellectual,’ breakthroughs in response to dramatic changes in the geopolitical and military technical environment. The military services did it through a mixture of good fortune and farsighted leaders, both military and civilian, who were sufficiently adaptive and innovative to nurture the ‘intellectual breakthroughs’ that led to the rise of carrier aviation, strategic aerial bombardment, and modern amphibious assault operations. They accomplished this sea change while military budgets were extremely tight. Wargaming and prototyping were emphasized, as opposed to full-scale production of systems. In essence, the services benefitted from a relatively small force structure, which allowed them to move more quickly into the new form of warfare once it was identified and the nation found itself confronted with great power rivals.