Daniel L. Davis
“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. And it’s an unreliable guide to the future.” – Bill Gates, “The Road Ahead”
Conventional wisdom holds that the past decade-plus of combat has forged a group of Army leaders as good as any our country has ever produced. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went further in 2010, calling today’s Army “the most professional, the best educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle.” Can this be true? Or is it hubris?
In fact, the military conditions under which we’ve operated for the past two decades have been historically atypical. They have allowed too many in uniform to believe the hype. What happens when men whose whole professional life has known only success meet real challenges and the threat of defeat?
Most of today’s senior generals – division commanders up to four-stars — got their first taste of battle in 1991’s Desert Storm. Brigade-and-below commanders typically deployed first to Bosnia or fought in Iraq or Afghanistan soon after 9/11. All of these military operations were hailed as unequivocal tactical successes. But all military success is not alike.
The level of difficulty and set of challenges the Army has faced since 1980 isn’t comparable to those faced by uniformed leaders during World War II, Korea, and even the initial stages of Vietnam. Our senior leaders have spent virtually their entire careers in environments where they were able to schedule “war” as if it were a training event. They had the luxury of establishing deployment schedules, often times years in advance. Next-to-deploy units had predictable flight schedules, shipping timetables, and arrived in the combat theater to mature infrastructure. Troops frequently had on-base shopping malls (post exchanges), restaurants, coffee shops, and all-you-can-eat military dining facilities (typically featuring weekly lobster and steak nights).
Throughout Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, leaders at Regional Command and below have been able to conduct tactical engagements throughout their deployment window against Iraqi and Afghan insurgents with unprecedented certainty. Before the first boot hit the ground, leaders often knew exactly when their units would return. American troops were able to conduct tactical missions at a time, place, scope, and speed as they saw fit. If any conditions didn’t favor employment, U.S. leaders could choose to alter the fight timelines or cancel the mission altogether. The only time the enemy took the tactical initiative it was at something like platoon-level or below, and action of that nature was rare. Since the Vietnam War, no American combat leader above the position of company commander has faced a situation where his unit was at risk of defeat by an unexpected enemy attack.
In fact, never since Vietnam has any enemy formation had any chance of inflicting a tactical defeat on U.S. forces. Not in Grenada, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, the conventional phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, nor any phase of counterinsurgency operations since 9/11.
Not one of our combat opponents over the past four decades has had a capable air force, effective tank, artillery, or infantry force, helicopter fleet, missile force, anti-air capability, or an effective logistic and supply chain. Owing to the overwhelming capability we have in all those same categories, any operation we undertook – whether the tank fights in the deserts of northern Kuwait in 1991, the drive to Baghdad in 2003, or every COIN-related mission in Iraq and Afghanistan – could only result in a tactical success. Whether the plan was satisfactory, brilliant, or outright foolish, it didn’t matter (at least tactically). The U.S. was ordained to win.
To be sure, a cursory look at U.S. casualty lists since 9/11 shows that more than 6,700 Americans were killed and more than 45,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in contrast to the major battles of World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam, the vast majority of these casualties were caused by improvised explosive devices during mounted and dismounted patrols, sniper fire, hit-and-run ambushes, accidents and “friendly fire” from some Afghan troops. Only the few weeks of the conventional phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom offered any opportunity for a fight above company level (such as the “Thunder Run” by 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division that captured parts of downtown Baghdad).
As a result, we have convinced ourselves that all our plans, concepts, and methods of employment have been validated as effective. It is rare to consider how any given plan or action might have fared against a capable foe. The virtual absence of such critical thinking and the dearth of experience in true crises – those forced upon us by unexpected (and effective) enemy action — has created several levels of senior leaders of uncertain mental agility. Like the French and British in 1940, we may be mentally and physically unprepared for an enemy with tough and surprising tactics.
Imagine one of today’s division commanders finding himself at the line of departure against a capable enemy with combined-arms formation. He spent his time as a lieutenant in Bosnia conducting “presence patrols” and other peacekeeping activities. He may have commanded a company in a peacetime, garrison environment. Then he commanded a battalion in the early years of Afghanistan when little of tactical movement took place. He commanded a brigade in the later stages of Iraq, sending units on patrols, night raids, and cordon-and-search operations; and training Iraq policemen or soldiers.
Not once in his career did an enemy formation threaten his flank. He never, even in training, hunkered in a dugout while enemy artillery destroyed one-quarter of his combat vehicles, and emerged to execute a hasty defense against the enemy assault force pouring over the hill.
Perhaps our commander’s enemy similarly lacks combat experience. Or perhaps he has considerable combined arms field training. Either way, it’s the first time that U.S. leader has faced the profound stress of split-second life-and-death decisions.
How successful teams are built
Last January, the Florida State Seminoles faced #2 Auburn in the college football national championship game. Of FSU’s 14 wins, five were against ranked teams and three against teams ranked #7 or higher. This hard experience bred mental toughness: when Auburn scored with only 1:19 to go, FSU mounted a remarkable comeback and won.
More pertinently, perhaps, our World War II history shows how toughness is bred through hard training and the crucible of combat experience. “With the Old Breed,” Eugene Sledge’s remarkable account of fighting in the Pacific theater, describes troops in contact running out of water, ammunition, and other equipment; suffering withering fire from the enemy; losing countless battle leaders; enduring unexpected counterattacks by the enemy; and facing the horror and shock of violence few in uniform today have experienced. In subsequent battles against vicious and experienced Japanese fighters, this hardened U.S. force did not break even when surprised by tactics or outmatched in firepower.
Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers,” made famous by the HBO miniseries, details Murphy’s Law in savage effect at the Battle of the Bulge. In December 1944, intelligence indicated it would be four months before the 101st Airborne would next see action. Instead, the Germans attacked. Some American units were overrun, enemy units penetrated gaps in the lines, troops didn’t have proper winter clothing. They had inadequate ammunition, no medical evacuation services while surrounded, missing many key leaders, and unable to replace combat losses of any kind. Yet key American units had the tenacity and courage to stand. Both books show how tough and realistic training helped prepare the troops for hardships and the unexpected. Moreover, they carried a healthy respect for their enemy.
We must admit that very few in uniform today have had either the intense combat experience or training as tough as our World War II counterparts. At some of the Combat Maneuver Training Centers, Army forces do some good training. Some of the products and suggestions from Army Training and Doctrine Command are good on paper. For example, we often tout the “world class” opposing force that fights against U.S. formations, and features a thinking and free-fighting enemy. But I have seen many of these engagements, both in the field and in simulation, where the many good words are belied by the exercise. For example, in 2008 I took part in a simulation exercise in which the opposing forces were claimed to be representative of real world forces, yet the battalion-level forces were commanded by an inexperienced captain, and the computer constraints limited the enemy’s ability to engage.
Many may remember the famed “Millennium Challenge 2002” held just before Operation Iraqi Freedom. Retired Marine general Paul Van Riper, appointed to serve as opposing force commander, quit because the exercise was rigged. “We were directed…to move air defenses so that the army and marine units could successfully land,” he said. “We were simply directed to turn [air defense systems] off or move them… So it was scripted to be whatever the control group wanted it to be.” For the U.S. Army to be successful in battle against competent opponents, changes are necessary.
To be clear, it’s not the “fault” of any current leader in the Army we have not fought tough conventional foes. The Army obeys the orders given it by the civilian leaders of the United States and we fight who we’re told. That does not, however, give Army leaders a pass. Field training exercises can be designed to replicate capable conventional forces that have the ability to inflict defeats on U.S. elements. Such training should require leaders at all levels to face simulated life and death situations, where traditional solutions don’t work, in much more trying environments than is currently the case. They should periodically be stressed to levels well above what we have actually faced in the past several decades. Scenarios, for example, at company and battalion level where a superior enemy force inflicts a mortal blow on some elements, requiring leaders and soldiers to improvise with whatever is at hand, in the presence of hardship and emotional stress.
Simulation training for commanders and staffs up to Corps level should combine computer and physical exercises that subject the leaders to situations where the enemy does the unexpected, where key leaders or capabilities are suddenly lost (owing to enemy fire or efforts), yet they still have to function; where they face the unexpected loss of key communications equipment, yet still be forced to continue the operation.
Such exercises should not all be done in nicely compartmentalized training segments with tidy start and end times, and “reset” to prepare for the next sequence. Instead, some exercises should be held where there is a beginning time “in the box” and no pre-set start or end times until the end of a rotation two weeks or more later. In short, the training rotation should replicate the physical and emotional stress of actual combat operations in which there is no “pause” to rest and think about what happened.
If America wants a championship-caliber Army, we must subject them to much tougher training – both physical and emotional – and place our leaders under considerably more stress, exposing them to a much broader set of potential combat environments than has been the case for the past couple decades. Further, we must hold commanders responsible for how they perform under these stressful conditions, rewarding prudent risk-taking (even if the outcome of any given engagement might result in mission failure) and avoid rewarding performance that seeks the avoidance of risk.
Success is never assured. It must be earned by constant vigilance, hard work, and a healthy dose of humility. How many Super Bowl champions fail even to make the playoffs the next year? It doesn’t matter how great we were in Desert Storm or post-9/11 tactical engagements. The capabilities of potential opponents are constantly evolving, requiring an equally constant necessity for American forces to improve. Living on past glory without continuous reassessment of one’s capabilities could lead to failure. We must avoid this at all costs.
Today’s U.S. Army has the skills of FSU and the experience of facing only junior-college talent. If the Army doesn’t toughen up its methods of training and expand its study of war, we may one day find ourselves overmatched by an unexpectedly tough opponent.
The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.