Lessons and warnings from the post-Vietnam era
By 1973, when the last U.S. troops departed Vietnam, the Army was close to collapse. Widespread opposition to the war, indiscipline in the ranks and conversion from the draft to an all-volunteer force were daunting-enough challenges, but additionally, the Army’s share of the defense budget was dropping like a stone. And even worse, by 1975 the Army was outclassed by its most likely enemy. Soviet forces on the other side of the inter-German border (IGB) had modernized fighting doctrine and equipment during the decade the U.S. was preoccupied with Vietnam.
Even during this crisis in the Army’s history, though, the late 1970s and early 1980s were an especially fecund period for the Army, during which the service rewrote its basic fighting doctrines, rebuilt the enlisted force and professionalized its noncommissioned officer corps, reset the relationships between active and reserve forces, and developed — over strong opposition — the “big five” weapons that sustain the Army today: the M1 tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, and the Patriot missile. Starting in the mid-1980s, the all-volunteer, professional Army that stood in combat boots along the IGB and elsewhere was a different and clearly superior force, in almost every respect, from its post-Vietnam forebear.
How did the Army’s leaders make that transformation, and how much of the post-Vietnam experience is useful to the Army of today as it withdraws from its second decades-long war? At first blush, there are huge differences. The Army of the Cold War had a clear and discernible enemy; the Army of today, though tired, is highly professional and nowhere near the collapse of the post-Vietnam force. There are threads, though, that run through both periods that the service’s military and civilian leaders — both in the Obama administration and in Congress — should carefully consider.
Focus On The Core
Steadiness of purpose was the major factor in the Army’s successful resurrection and transformation in the post-Vietnam decades. The Army’s rebuilding and reshaping ran through six chiefs of staff, beginning with Gen. Creighton Abrams in 1971 and ending with Gen. Carl Vuono in 1991, by which time the transformation can be said to have been complete. Although during the post-Vietnam period internal debate in the Army over force structure and fighting doctrine was spirited and continual, senior leaders kept the overall focus on core functions that led to effective tactical formations and the growth of a professional officer and NCO cadre. Though in the post-Vietnam era the Army returned to its strategic focus on Europe, solid doctrines and effective tactical units made possible the tactical and operational flexibility that was required to win in the Persian Gulf in 1991.
Post-Vietnam leaders took big bites because they had to. The Army faced huge challenges in the ’70s and early ’80s, not only in restoring discipline and capability in its units, but also in designing, testing and acquiring a generation of weapons, in revamping the NCO and officer corps in the face of strength cuts, and recruiting in the face of widespread anti-military attitudes in the general public.
Looking back, the Army’s leaders took great risks in undertaking so comprehensive an overhaul of the service, down to its basic tactical frameworks. Re-equipping was not confined just to the “big five,” but affected every facet of service life, from redesigned barracks, training and communications gear to new uniforms and a replacement for the venerable “steel pot” worn by soldiers since World War II. Though the critics piled on — particularly the “military reform” movement of the ’70s which advocated larger quantities of cheaper, less effective equipment — the Army’s decisions to act boldly were justified by the mid-’80s. To have done otherwise would have weakened the force and left it much less capable when the challenges of the ’90s came in the Middle East.
They protected the training and education base. The Army’s leaders of the post-Vietnam period were either World War II veterans or had come into service in the immediate postwar period, when the Army’s school and training system had been key to the rapid mobilizations that accompanied the World War II and Korean War expansions. As a result, the leadership in the ’70s was sensitive to military education and the role of the school establishment. Teaching at a service school was a career plus, and doctrine was written “from the platform” by instructors who not only learned the nuts and bolts of effective tactics (“If you want to learn something, teach it”) but also underwent constant student critiques from officers newly arrived from the field.
The Army’s most significant post-Vietnam reorganization was the establishment of the Training and Doctrine Command, which gave the service a powerful, four-star spokesman for the training base, for the protection and encouragement of the Army’s schools and for the re-establishment of fighting doctrine as the engine of change in the service. A system of schools for noncommissioned officers was established that became key in professionalizing the Army’s NCOs. The School for Advanced Military Studies was established at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and became a center for study of operational art, leading to doctrines that were modified and adopted to become the underpinnings of revitalized Army and joint doctrine in the ’80s and ’90s.
Finally, the Army’s leaders could focus on basics and operational reform because their strategic mission was stable. By the end of the Vietnam era, the Army had been stationed in NATO Europe for more than 30 years. Posting in Europe was the service’s common professional experience. Indeed, the Army’s leaders of the ’70s had been lieutenants and colonels together in the same Corps areas in then-West Germany, serving under the same commanders, facing the same professional challenges and the same potential enemy year after year. This had its drawbacks in a certain rigidity in the European-based force. When the time came, Army leaders in Europe struggled with out-of-area challenges, as in the 1999 deployment from Germany to Albania. But the stable threat also facilitated the re-establishment of Army institutions in a time of turmoil and became a useful “straw man” to encourage the development of joint operational doctrines like AirLand Battle, which led to success in Operation Desert Storm. AirLand Battle, incubated in TRADOC, was a doctrinal game-changer for the Army and the services at large, driving joint-service research and procurement for decades, and it was inspired by the challenge of defending NATO.
As the service most sensitive to new conditions on the battlefield, the Army in the 1990s had already begun to shift away from the Cold War/European model. It is not inaccurate to say that the post-Vietnam era ended midway in the Vuono years, abetted by Operation Desert Storm. His successor, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, began to move the Army into a new globally deployable operational phase, a sort of mini-rebuilding time marked by great turbulence as the European army closed down, some units were disestablished and all other units were reoriented on global mobility. Who now remembers, during Sullivan’s watch, the millions the Army spent after Desert Storm on tank-carrying railcars, improved railheads at posts in the United States and the fleet of huge, gray roll-on, roll-off ships now in the U.S. fleet? In the pre-Iraq years, the Army completed its second great post-Vietnam rebuilding effort — the shift from a land-bound, European-focused force to a globally mobile Army that successfully deployed several times in the pre-9/11 days and has honed its skills in 10 years of rotations in and out of combat zones. The Army today is as different from the 1990s’ Army as that Army was from the Vietnam force.
Lessons for Today
Now, after a decade of war and some turbulence in the Army’s top leadership, another postwar era of rebuilding is about to begin. What experiences from previous rebuilding — the withdrawal from Vietnam, the long procurement fights that led to the “big five” weapons and the realignment from Europe to the expeditionary force — can be useful to Army leaders as they contemplate the 21st century, with all its unknowns?
First and most important, in a time of uncertainty the Army must safeguard its training base to provide the ability to rapidly shift gears to meet strategic challenges in the future. Aside from the obvious requirement to field a disciplined, competent force, the Army has a requirement to adapt its fielded units to prevail on unexpected battlefields. One might say that, as a “force provider” to overseas combatant commands, the Army institution “maneuvers” through a flexible training base, appropriate doctrines and lessons-learned reviews to infuse real-world battlefield conditions and practices into the deploying force. Rapid reaction in the training base can literally save lives overseas and support operational success. The converse is unfortunately true: Doctrinal rigidity can cost lives and time. In the early Iraq years, TRADOC resisted counterinsurgency as a doctrinal and training mission, and lagged behind events in the field. Eventually, when good counterinsurgency doctrine was developed for Iraq, operational success followed.
Unlike World War II, when assembly lines cranked out upgraded tanks and new ships every year, the basic fighting platforms of the 21st century will be long-lived. The pattern is already established. The CH-47 helicopter, for example, entered service in the early 1960s, the UH-60 helicopter in 1979, the basic M1 tank in 1980. All three, and other systems of similar age, continue to serve in upgraded form on battlefields never envisioned when the Army was focused on the European theater.
Looking back, the surprise is that our present-day equipment, designed for the NATO war, has proven so adaptable in theaters from Bosnia to Afghanistan, and from combat in Fallujah to the rugged slopes of Nuristan. As Army leaders today look at concepts for future weapons programs, they no longer have the advantage of focusing on a dominant theater, but must take into account widely varying scenarios and battlefield conditions, from urban warfare in the tropics to counterinsurgency operations in sub-Arctic conditions.
Durability is key. Whatever eventually replaces the M1A2 tank will probably have to last half a century or more and accommodate upgrades that we can’t imagine today. With all that, though, there are other conditions that will not change — the need for armored protection, for example — and doctrinal assumptions that probably should not change, as in the Army’s decision in the 1960s that its primary troop-lift helicopter would carry a squad as the basis for maneuver (the Marines chose instead a platoon or half-platoon, according to their doctrine). All these far-reaching decisions must be made by Army planners and leaders in the near term, under conditions that in some ways resemble the rebuilding years of the 1970s (budget drawdowns, for example) but in many ways are very different. The force is now far better trained and better able to adapt to complex missions, but the political and strategic environment of the new century is utterly different from the past.
If an Army planner had been asked in 1913 what the service would have to look like in 1950, he probably would have said something like: “At least three divisions, one strong regiment to protect the Panama Canal and one in the Philippines. And, by the way, as many as a hundred airplanes.” A similar dilemma faces defense and Army planners today: No one in his or her right mind would try to predict the future, but someone must.
Political and Social Factors
Since soldiers fight “among the people,” developing the Army’s post-Afghanistan size and equipage depends more on anticipating future political and social factors than any other service. And it is social and political factors that are changing most of all in the 21st century. This is the challenge for the Army’s leaders today, and the major difference between the present and the post-Vietnam Army.
The information revolution is causing at least three other social and political upheavals that will change the way Army leaders prepare for future conflict. The first is migration; a great movement of populations is underway that will reshape the way nations and cultures behave and react to change. Those societies and states that can assimilate newcomers into the popular cultures will probably remain cohesive and viable; those that reject newcomers and isolate immigrants may see their own societies crumble under waves of dissatisfied and alienated peoples.
Secondly, modern arms and supporting technologies are increasingly widespread. Armies no longer have a monopoly on the means of violence. Distinctions based on lethality among guerrilla fighters, criminals and regular forces will become more and more blurred, and nuclear weapons will likely fall into the hands of stateless insurgents.
Finally, because of all this, borders and the authorities of governments in some parts of the world will become increasingly tenuous, leading to wide swaths of the globe in which state control will be weak or wrested away by stateless groups. Tension between legitimate authority and bands of criminal terrorists, like the Mexican narco-insurgents today, will lead to long-running conflicts with no obvious beginning or end. Before Vietnam, communism and nationalism combined into wars of national liberation and caught the Army wrong-footed. Today, terrorism and transnational criminal organizations, proto-Marxism and the Iranian brand of radical Islam are in a roughly similar way all coalescing into a future threat.
Another effect of the information-driven 21st century will be international interdependence. With the possible exception of occasional high-stakes, Osama bin Laden-type raids, unilateral actions by the U.S. or any other democratic state will not only be hard to pull off, but strategically undesirable. One plausible version of the future will be a struggle for survival between established national and international institutions against the challenge from powerful transnational religious, ideological or criminal movements (or all three blended together). Consequently, for political and practical reasons the United States will seek to support the established international order whenever possible and operate with allies when military force is used. For the Army, this should mean greater effort to cement international ties in peacetime and improve our ability to reach out quickly to security forces in troubled parts of the world. Expanded allied attendance at U.S. service schools, more foreign-area experts in the ranks and more sophisticated ways to send U.S. officers and NCOs to serve alongside allies overseas should be on the table, in a range somewhere between Special Forces teams and the somewhat clunky “Advise and Assist Brigades” developed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This is the “big bite” equivalent to the 1970s decisions on deep changes in the Army’s makeup.
So with the usual caveats of anyone trying to forecast the future, in the coming century the United States will face challenges from states such as North Korea and Iran, which likely will have access to nuclear weapons, and then a descending order of stateless terrorist and criminal groups with international reach who may be supported and supplied by criminal states, like the two just mentioned. The Army must find its “sweet spot” in that arena of conflict.
Time to Change
Beginning with the 2013 budget, Army leaders have to start shaping the future force toward that spot. Cuts in the defense budget almost certainly will result in a smaller ground force than existed even in 1974-80, and service research and development budgets will be even more constrained.
Army leaders will confront three choices:
Draw down the present force to a smaller version of itself, with reserve component support, ready to deploy on short notice while the country mobilizes.
Shift to a mobilization-based Army with more structure and active-force advisers in the reserve components and with an expanded training and education base to keep professional skills sharp.
Shift a greater number of the active force into quasi-Special Forces-type skills for training and advising other security forces, and to fight low-level counterinsurgency-type operations conducted by different kinds of forces than its present “conventional” structures.
The first “expeditionary” option has the advantage of minimal disruption to current planning and training. The second “mobilization” model basically re-creates the Army of the 1930s and has the advantage of rapidly expanding forces when required. The third option, though, speaks to the decentralized nature of likely future conflicts and permits the Army to maintain a conventional base (perhaps expanded in the reserves) to ensure that, if needed, Army forces retain the skills and doctrines required to “scale up” to large-unit warfare, and some smaller units better organized to confront terrorism and its offshoots. This has the disadvantage of moving against political winds; the current Defense Strategic Guidance constrains the Army from organizing for “large-scale” counterinsurgency conflicts, clearly a politically driven reaction reminiscent of the 1970s.
But that needle can be threaded. War is changing, and the Army’s challenge is to change with it, while keeping an anchor out to windward in case old-style conflict breaks out with the old-style armies still extant in some countries — Iran, for example. Though styles of warfare change only slowly, today’s (and tomorrow’s) technology has made the possibility of a European firepower-intensive, massed-army battlefield less likely with every passing year. Just as the main battle tank symbolized the wars of the 20th century, something else — perhaps the ideologically driven terrorist — will define the 21st.
Robert Killebrew served more than 30 years in the Army and is a former Army War College instructor.