May 1, 2010  

A balancing act

Optimizing the Army for irregular and conventional wars

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that “the defining principle of the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy is balance” — between winning today’s wars and preparing for future ones and between investing in new, irregular capabilities while retaining conventional ones.

With the sense that the post-9/11 years of budget increases are over and leaner years are ahead, a debate has exploded between those who believe that the military is overinvested in capabilities for one form of conflict or the other. On one end are the counterinsurgency (COIN) advocates who believe the services, particularly the Army and Marine Corps, must continue their shift toward preparing for protracted, irregular wars — the most likely threat on the horizon. Opposing them are the “traditionalists” who believe the military should remain focused on nation-states and that irregular wars against insurgents or terrorists should be avoided or can be adequately managed by a conventional force. The Army’s official position is that it is currently overly focused on COIN and must be rebalanced to a “full-spectrum” force in the future, which presumably would entail shifting resources back toward conventional capabilities. Before one can assess whether the force is out of balance, however, one must have a sense of what a balanced force looks like. Rather than endlessly debate whether the future will hold conventional, irregular or hybrid adversaries, this article proposes a force-planning construct for ground forces that balances irregular and conventional capabilities based on a holistic view of land warfare.

Today, the military is balancing three competing needs:

• Resourcing the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• Preparing for the most likely near-term future challenges — small, irregular conflicts where the U.S. is assisting partner nations to manage internal instability.

• Retaining a hedge against potential future conflicts, which may include conventional and/or hybrid threats in addition to irregular ones.

Balancing the first and second priorities — today’s wars and future small, irregular wars — is a reasonably manageable task because the skills needed for these fights overlap significantly. A force optimized for Iraq and Afghanistan would likely be well-prepared for future irregular fights (although fighting numerous smaller wars that add up to the equivalent size of Iraq would strain current logistics and sustainment).

Balancing the first two priorities against possible future contingencies is much harder, however, because some conventional capabilities may also be needed in addition to irregular ones. This balancing act is particularly difficult for the Army, which is not only severely strained by Iraq and Afghanistan, but also is expected to preserve the ability to defeat adversaries, state and nonstate, in force-on-force conflict on the ground. The Army’s official “full-spectrum” policy acknowledges the need for a mix of conventional, irregular and hybrid capabilities, but there is no framework for assessing what that mix ought to be. Just as we have a “combined arms” concept for the relative ratio of artillery, armor and infantry for conventional operations as well as some sense of what the ideal mix of infantry and key enablers (civil affairs, engineers, military police, etc.) for irregular operations would be, a hybrid combined-arms concept for ground forces is needed to tell us how to balance irregular and conventional capabilities.

By starting from the principle that the Defense Department must have the capability, at a minimum, to fight a major ground war on the scale of Iraq from start to finish, this article will demonstrate that, despite growth in irregular capabilities since 2001, the ground forces continue to be overinvested in conventional capabilities. Many key irregular enablers, such as civil affairs, are disproportionately located in the reserve component. Other irregular enablers vital to building enduring security to sustain the political aims of the conflict, such as foreign security force trainers and advisers, have no dedicated force structure. Despite eight years of experience fighting counterinsurgency wars, the Army’s force structure remains heavily weighted toward conventional war fighting. The biggest risk the DoD faces in a future ground war is not that our forces will be unable to destroy an adversary’s military, but that the U.S. will be unable to stabilize territory it has seized or enable host-nation civil authorities to secure the political objectives of the conflict.


Joint Publication 1, the capstone document for U.S. military doctrine, states: “The purpose of the armed forces is to fight and win the nation’s wars.” Leaving aside for a moment the incompleteness of this definition, which does not include important functions such as deterrence and security cooperation or homeland defense, this definition provides a frame of reference for the current debate over the appropriate balance between conventional and irregular capabilities in the Army. The champions of both the COIN and conventional camps in the debate over resources appeal to the notion that the fundamental purpose of the Army in this joint fight is to fight and win on the ground. For COIN advocates, the Army has no higher priority than winning the wars we’re fighting today. For traditionalists, COIN is nation-building, not fighting, and the Army must return to its (conventional) war-fighting roots.

At the core of this debate is a disagreement not only about the nature of war, but also about the purpose of war. War is fought to accomplish the political objectives determined by the nation’s civilian leadership, but we often narrowly conceive of war only as the conflict of arms that takes place on the field of battle between nation-state armies. The term “irregular war” is born of a reaction to this myopic view, which could not account for insurgents who struggled to undermine U.S. legitimacy and thwart U.S. goals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because irregular approaches seek to sap our political will to fight rather than challenge us directly, we act as though fighting them is a radically new form of war, forgetting that all war is fought for political aims. Army Field Manual 3-0, “Operations,” states that the difference between irregular war and conventional war is that irregular war “is waged not for military supremacy but for political power,” raising the question, what sort of war would not be waged for political power? The reality is that influencing the population, which is how the DoD defines irregular war, is not a distinct type of war, but rather an approach that any group can use to achieve its political objective. Even in World War II, the archetype of conventional war, the U.S. employed strategic aerial bombing partly in an attempt to influence the civilian population to surrender in addition to attempting to materially degrade the enemy’s capability to wage war.

The DoD has come a long way in accepting that irregular war is real war, but still lacks a concept for understanding how irregular and conventional struggles relate to each other. This can lead to unhelpful debates about which is more important, framing the debate as an either/or issue. While there are legitimate capability tradeoffs to be made (e.g. more armor versus infantry, or more artillery versus civil affairs), the reality is that many, if not most, conflicts will employ some irregular and conventional elements together. Talk of “hybrid” wars is all the rage among defense scholars, but rather than being a new innovation, as some have suggested, most wars have blended both force-on-force conflict and influence operations aimed at key populations.

Yet we continue to try to force irregular and conventional forms of conflict into neat, tidy boxes, even though the boundaries between them, and between peace and war, are increasingly blurred. We use phrases like “winning the war but losing the peace” or “post-conflict,” even though it is the height of absurdity to call Iraq in 2006-2007 or Afghanistan today “post-conflict” or “peace.” Our formal military definitions are inconsistent and confusing. The DoD’s concept for major combat operations (MCO) includes five phases, of which phases IV (stabilize) and V (enable civil authority) are largely irregular, but DoD continues to act as though the “C” in MCO really means “conventional.” The Quadrennial Roles and Missions Review Report defines an MCO in purely conventional terms: “Major Combat Operations (MCOs) are the conduct of synergistic, high-tempo actions in multiple operating domains, including cyberspace, to shatter the coherence of the adversary’s plans and dispositions and render him unable or unwilling to militarily oppose the achievement of U.S. strategic objectives.”

FM 3-0 further expands on this conventional focus: “Combat between large formations characterizes these operations. … Successful major combat operations defeat or destroy the enemy’s armed forces and seize terrain. Commanders assess them in terms of numbers of military units destroyed or rendered combat ineffective, the level of enemy resolve, and the terrain objectives seized or secured.”

The problem with this definition is obvious: The metric for success in a war should be whether the nation’s political goals are achieved, not the number of enemy units destroyed. Operational success does not necessarily ensure the achievement of strategic or political objectives. If we define the objective improperly, we are handicapping ourselves before the war has even begun.

Far from being merely semantic concerns, these documents shape (or at least reflect) our thinking and have real-world implications. This dangerously narrow definition of war, which focuses only on the clash of armies and not on political objectives, contributed to the failure to adequately plan for post-invasion stability operations in Iraq, nearly rendering the war a failure. Before Iraq and Afghanistan, we did not even develop the forces needed for the irregular phases of an MCO (phases IV-V) because we incorrectly believed they were “lesser includeds” that a conventionally focused force could handle and/or because we believed they were not the military’s job (hence the term “military operations other than war”). Seven years after the invasion of Iraq and nine years after the invasion of Afghanistan, it should be clear that imagining stability operations to be easy was a grave mistake and that preparing for them ought to have received greater attention.

Political scientist Colin Gray has critiqued the U.S. approach to stability operations as a separate type of warfare, noting: “Stability operations must be approached as being integral to strategy, not as behavior that follows the ‘war proper.’ War is only about the peace that follows. It should be waged in such a style that the subsequent peace is not fatally mortgaged. With respect to irregular conflict, the current focus of most attention, stability operations, are, or should be, part and parcel of the U.S. strategy from the very outset.”

Our concept of war must be expanded to conceive of both traditional and stability operations as part of any war that has the aim of toppling a regime. Phases I-III (deter, seize the initiative, dominate) of an MCO constitute only half of the war at best, and not always the most difficult half. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the phrase “winning the war, but losing the peace” is too generous toward us. The reality is that we never won decisively in either nation when we invaded, and so the wars dragged on for six-plus years. The lesson isn’t that we need a military that can “win the peace” — we need to redefine what “winning the war” means.

We need a military that can do more than simply defeat other armies — we need a military that can win decisively on the ground. This means not only seizing territory, but also defeating adversaries who might contest U.S. control of that territory through violent means, be they states or nonstate actors; stabilizing the territory; and building host-nation security structures so that the U.S. can leave with its political goals secured. A military that can defeat another nation’s armed forces and seize its capital, only to be overwhelmed from a thousand directions by insurgents and terrorists, has won nothing. The result, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be wars that are longer and bloodier than necessary and place the nation’s political objectives at risk. Just as the ability to destroy any adversary, state or nonstate, in force-on-force combat is essential to victory, a decisive victory also requires establishing stability, along with enduring security structures that can maintain that stability once U.S. forces leave.

Effectively engaging host-nation populations is fundamental to achieving stability. This requires going beyond the traditional “civilians on the battlefield” mindset that views civilians as essentially a nuisance in the way of the commander’s real task: engaging the enemy. The reality is that the U.S. cannot leave behind a stable environment that secures the political goals of the conflict without engaging with the population. Politics flow from the people. This approach has now been embraced enthusiastically by military commanders in Afghanistan, intent on waging a classic COIN campaign. However, it applies equally to any ground MCO where the U.S. desires to leave behind stability. Unless our forces are fighting on the moon, the population cannot be ignored in a ground MCO. Moreover, as we have learned bitterly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the skills required to effectively engage with host-nation populations are not “lesser includeds” that a conventionally focused force can handle but, in fact, require specialized capabilities, such as civil affairs and security force trainers and advisers.


If the force-planning construct for ground forces calls for the ability to fight an MCO, then a balanced force would have sufficient capability to fight each phase of an MCO equally competently so that it can fight the entire war from start to finish, phases I-V. To do anything less — to build an Army to fight phases I-III of a conflict but not phases IV and V — would make as much sense as going into battle with a rifle but no ammo. Viewing an MCO holistically can help gain traction on the relative ratio of conventional to irregular capabilities needed, allowing the construction of a hybrid combined-arms force concept.

The Iraq war, which has featured both stability operations as well as a robust conventional invasion against a nation-state army, gives us an opportunity to assess what a balanced force might look like. It is instructive to consider that while it took only six brigade-equivalents 21 days to seize Baghdad in 2003, it has taken approximately 15 combat brigades (20 at the surge’s peak) six-plus years to stabilize the same country. Moreover, while the straightforward “two up, one back” rule is generally applied in conventional operations to determine the ratio of reinforcements needed to troops engaged, stability operations require a rotational base of forces to conduct sustained operations, generating an enormous manpower burden.

To sustain a 1:2 ratio of two years at home for every year deployed, three times as many total forces are required on hand than are deployed in theater to stabilize a country and win a war without risking breaking the force. (In Iraq, the U.S. did it with less, but at a significant risk to the long-term health of the Army.) Forty-five combat brigades (or the equivalent in active/reserve mix), therefore, could be considered the absolute bare minimum required to stabilize a country the size of Iraq, and even then, with significant risk to the health of the force. (This assumes the Army had no commitments anywhere else on the globe, which would not be true in practice.) Sixty combat brigades would be preferable and would allow 20 brigades deployed at a 1:2 ratio. This would allow for both a sustainable operational tempo as well as adequate forces on the ground. Counting reserve-component units, the current force of 45 active and 28 National Guard combat brigades comes close to meeting this 20-brigade objective. At a rotation ratio of 1:2 for active forces and 1:5 for reserves, the current force would yield 19.6 combat brigades at a sustainable rate. (A deployment ratio of 1:3 in the active duty, for comparison, would require an even larger ground force for stability operations — the equivalent of 80 active combat brigades — but no change in the numbers of conventionally focused forces.)

Unlike stability operations, which ultimately require large numbers of boots on the ground, the military’s proficiency in conventional operations relies on qualitative superiority in organization and technology over its enemies, not merely numerical superiority. In addition, air and naval power contribute greatly to joint conventional operations on the ground, while air and maritime dominance simply cannot substitute for ground forces in “wars amongst the people.” The result of America’s joint air, ground and maritime conventional dominance — as the world has seen — is stunning. Six combat brigade-equivalents were all that was required to seize Iraq and dismantle Saddam’s army. An additional three conventionally focused brigades ought to be available in reserve according to the “two up, one back” rule. The resulting burden of only nine combat brigades for conventional operations for an Iraq-like adversary is significantly less (one-fifth) of the minimum forces needed to stabilize the same country. Provided the U.S. qualitative superiority and air and naval power is maintained, the U.S. can be equally proficient at seizing terrain as it as it is stabilizing terrain by having ground forces that are heavily balanced toward stability operations in terms of sheer numbers, perhaps as much as 80 percent stability operations and 20 percent conventional.

One can argue whether Iraq is precisely the right model for a future ground MCO — whether six, nine or 12 heavy brigade combat teams (BCTs) would be needed in a future conventional fight and whether 15, 20 or more BCTs should be available for stability operations (multiplied by whichever ratio is necessary for sustained operations — 1:2 or 1:3). The following points can be generalized from recent experience, however:

• U.S. technological superiority and air and naval dominance enable smaller, yet qualitatively superior, U.S. ground forces to defeat numerically superior opponents in conventional operations.

• Stability operations require significant numbers of personnel on the ground to secure, influence and interact with the population. While advanced technology, air superiority and naval power are useful, these advantages are mitigated in stability operations by the simple fact that the mode of conflict is primarily irregular in nature (i.e., through the population), and interacting with the population requires humans on the ground.

• U.S. prowess at conventional operations allows such operations to be conducted swiftly, meaning forces held in reserve are needed, but not a rotational base.

• Stability operations can be protracted, necessitating a rotational base that will require, in total, three to four times the number of forces on hand as are required overseas.

The Iraq experience suggests a stability-to-conventional operations forces mix of roughly 80/20 for ground forces, although other conflicts and other analyses might point to other mixes. Finding the precise ratio is less important, however, than conceptually grappling with the need to re-evaluate our concept of what a balanced force looks like. The diagram from Joint Publication 3-0, “Joint Operations,” showing military level of effort for each phase of a notional operation (see graphic, Page 21), is a good example of how our doctrinal thinking has not kept pace with the reality of lessons learned on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It shows a peak in level of effort in the conventional “dominate” phase, which is also the longest phase of the conflict in this diagram. Our experiences not only in Iraq and Afghanistan. but also in stability operations in other theaters, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, suggest that this graphic should be radically revised to account for the fact that the U.S. can forcibly seize and dominate a territory within days, if not hours, while stability operations last years and sometimes decades.

My revised graphic makes some progress toward more realistically portraying the duration and manpower required for stability operations. This diagram places into better perspective the relative stresses of each phase on a balanced force, although it is difficult to completely capture on a simple graphic the relative time scales for seizing/dominating operations (hours and days) versus stabilizing operations (years and decades). It is also important to note that some military operations (Bosnia and Haiti 1994, for instance) may have little to no conventional phase I-III activities and may move directly to phase IV stability operations. At a minimum, however, the U.S. must have the ability to fight a single MCO, phases I-V.


If we need a force that can fight an MCO from start to finish, then our force is clearly out of balance. There are not enough dual-purpose Stryker BCTs, too many conventionally focused heavy BCTs, and not enough enablers for phase IV and V operations, including civil affairs, military police, military information support teams, human intelligence collectors and analysts, foreign security force adviser training teams, and sociocultural research and analysis teams (so-called human terrain teams). Some of these irregular enablers, such as sociocultural research capabilities or security force advising training teams, don’t even have permanent force structure.

While the Army has made some adjustments from conventional to irregular capabilities over the past several years, even more significant adjustments are needed to be truly balanced to fight an MCO. The current mix of heavy, Stryker and infantry BCTs is overly weighted toward heavy BCTs (HBCTs), which are more useful for conventional operations, while stability operations require large numbers of infantry and few tanks. More dual-purpose infantry and Stryker BCTs are needed, which are useful both in irregular operations as well as in intense urban war fighting in the “seize” and “dominate” phases of an MCO. In a force of 45 active BCTs, the current 18 HBCTs could be reduced to 12 or even nine HBCTs by conversions to Stryker or infantry BCTs. Consistent with this adjusted force, some conventional support capabilities, such as artillery to support brigade and higher-level conventional maneuvers, could be reduced in order to make room for irregular enablers, such as civil affairs, engineers, military information support teams, human terrain teams, human intelligence collectors, and foreign security forces trainers and advisers.

Many of the force structure shifts needed are between the active component and reserve component (i.e., the “AC/RC mix”). Enablers such as civil affairs have historically been predominantly in the reserves (more than two-thirds of the civil affairs community is reservists). The prolonged duration of stability operations suggests these units be in the active component, however, where they can be deployed for six out of every 18 months, rather than one out of every six years. The intense manpower demands of stability operations, which would likely draw upon the entirety of the force, suggests that irregular enablers should be proportionately balanced in the AC/RC mix the same as combat forces. If the fighting force is weighted 45 active-duty BCTs and 28 National Guard BCTs, then enablers should be proportionally balanced the same, since it will simply be impossible for reserve enablers to keep pace with active-duty units they are supposed to be supporting if active units are rotating overseas at the twice the operational tempo.

Some conventional capabilities, on the other hand, such as armor and artillery that are in excess of the 20 percent of the force needed for phase II-III operations of an MCO, could be shifted to a strategic reserve. Conventional capabilities in excess of that for a single MCO are not needed in the active component now, but they can and should exist in larger quantities in a strategic reserve. In the event of a hypothetical aggressor land power in some future, as yet unseen contingency, these forces would provide the materiel with which to rapidly build a larger, draftee Army.

At the same time that the Army adjusts its AC/RC mix to increase the number of irregular enablers in the active component, the Army can also continue to improve its capability for phase II-III operations by focusing not on quantity, but on the proficiency of its conventionally focused heavy forces. Conceiving of war holistically and taking into account the stability operations that will follow an initial invasion puts a premium on avoiding civilian casualties during an invasion so that the highly kinetic conventional phases II-III do not “fatally mortgage” phase IV-V stability operations. Advances in precision firepower not only reduce civilian casualties but also makes combat forces more lethal in force-on-force engagements and should be pursued. Increased air-ground coordination has enabled ever-more-sophisticated close-air support to deliver precision fires in the support of ground forces and should continue to be exploited as well as more advanced precision artillery and mortar munitions. Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) in particular offer the opportunity to deliver highly effective precision fires without placing troops in harm’s way. While UGVs have been incredibly effective in counter-improvised explosive device missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, current concepts for their use have yet to even scratch the surface of their full combat potential. Even simple innovations, such as increased marksmanship training for soldiers, would pay large dividends in both conventional and irregular operations, simultaneously increasing lethality as well as discrimination in avoiding civilian casualties.


The hybrid combined-arms force resulting from these changes would have, at its core, dual-purpose Stryker or other mechanized infantry BCTs and would be augmented with conventional (heavy BCTs and artillery) and irregular (civil affairs, military police, human intelligence, engineers and information support) forces as needed. This force would lie somewhere between the Army’s current approach, which relies on full-spectrum units functioning like “utility infielders,” and Andrew Krepinevich’s proposed “dual-surge” force, in which units would be highly specialized in either conventional or irregular operations. While full-spectrum units, in theory, benefit from more versatility in their employment than specialized forces, in practice there is a serious risk that full-spectrum units become focused on training and equipping for conventional operations and that irregular operations are once again relegated to “lesser includeds” they are expected to handle. Some degree of versatility is needed (all soldiers must be able to fight, after all), but just as combat-arms forces have specialized tasks — we have artillery, armor and infantry units, not simply generic “combat” units — some specialization is also needed in order to be proficient at irregular operations.

A hybrid combined-arms force would be far more balanced to fight an MCO than the force we have today, which continues to be overinvested in conventional force structure. Shifting resources from conventional to irregular capabilities would likely result in less absolute numbers of tanks and artillery pieces, but would not necessarily result in any additional risk. If anything, an Army with only 45 active-duty BCTs would find itself quickly exhausted in the event of a major stability operation that spanned several years. The Army would be able to completely mobilize its active-duty forces to stage an invasion, but for a prolonged irregular campaign, only a third of the active force (and one-sixth of the 28 National Guard BCTs) would be available to be deployed at any given time without unduly straining the Army. Ultimately, the size of the Army would be the biggest limiting factor, with an Army of 45 BCTs only able to fight a war from start to finish in a medium- to small-sized country approximately the size of Iraq (about 25 million people). The costs of growing end-strength to increase the size of the Army may outweigh the risks we incur by not having a larger Army, but we should be honest about where those risks lie. Even if we build the necessary population-centric capabilities that the Army needs, we will continue to have an Army that is far more capable at seizing terrain than it is at stabilizing it.


One argument for maintaining the current overinvestment in conventional forces would be for deterrence, which must be addressed. While it is crucial that the military retain the ability to defend against multiple threats at once to deter aggression, deterrence against other nation-states today primarily hinges on the ability of the U.S. to deliver withering punishment from the air. Both the Navy and Air Force, alone, could bomb any country on earth back into the Stone Age — a significant deterrent to military aggression. Even in South Korea, the purpose of the single mechanized combat brigade of U.S. ground forces is to commit the U.S. politically to the conflict, not to actually stop a North Korean advance. (For comparison, South Korean ground forces number 40-plus divisions.) We must not fall into the trap of imagining that one service must be prepared to fight a war without support from the other services. We fight jointly.

How the DoD might balance its scarce dollars across the services has not been addressed. This is because despite the fear that one service might lose out at the expense of the others, the reality is that each service’s relative share of the defense budget has stayed more or less constant for the past 40-plus years. In every fiscal year since 1966, the Army has had between 28 percent and 40 percent, the Navy 30-38 percent, and the Air Force 30-40 percent of triservice outlays. Clearly, this division of goods into roughly equal shares is based not on a calculation of the national interest, but on bureaucratic politics. Whether this state of affairs could be changed without plunging the DoD into interservice budget cannibalism is a topic for another discussion.

PAUL SCHARRE is a former infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment and has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The views presented in this article are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Department of Defense.