July 1, 2009  

Striking a balance

Posturing the future force for COIN and conventional warfare

We are in another post-Iraq war debate about how to best posture our military investments for the future. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review will center on the critical question about the evolving character of conflict. Exactly what kinds of wars are we expecting to fight, and how should we allocate scarce time and resources to maximize readiness and deterrence while minimizing risk? The not-so-subtle groundswell of resentment, if not outright bureaucratic resentment, coming from Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ effort to allocate just 10 percent of the Pentagon’s investment account for irregular warfare suggests that this will not be a simple matter.

Today’s post-Iraq strategy and forces debate was first depicted in Andrew Bacevich’s tart Atlantic Monthly essay, “The Petraeus Doctrine.” He portrayed a stark choice between two competing camps in the U.S. military. At one end of the spectrum of conflict, he observed that there was a group which he derisively called the “Crusaders,” who were promoting an emphasis on counterinsurgency and irregular threats as the proper focus for our armed forces. At the other end of the spectrum, he identified a competing school of thought, which he labeled the “Traditionalists.” Bacevich personalized the ongoing debate by using two prominent contemporary authors, retired Army officer John Nagl and West Point’s Col. Gian Gentile, as the polar protagonists.

This “black and white” option set created a false binary choice that is great for media consumption but represents a gross oversimplification and distorted conception of America’s strategic options. It also created a caricature of the protagonists who offer much more sophisticated arguments when reviewed closely in context.

There are a variety of schools of thought on how to address this force posture problem. This assessment will examine a suite of four schools. In each school, the principal military threat and its probability and consequences will be identified. Additionally, the force structure requirements and posture shifts to support each school will be examined. The four schools include:

• Counterinsurgents, who emphasize the high likelihood and rising salience of irregular adversaries.

• Traditionalists, who place their focus on states presenting conventional threats.

• Utility Infielders, who balance risk by striving to create forces agile enough to cover the full spectrum of conflict.

• Division of Labor, who balance risk differently by specializing forces to cover different missions to enhance readiness.


This school argues for a transformation based on today’s fights. The advocates here believe that Iraq and Afghanistan represent far more than a passing blip in the evolution of conflict. They contend that massed formations comprised of traditional arms and large-scale conflict between conventional powers is not a realistic planning scenario. They contend that the most likely challenges and greatest risks are posed by failing states, ungoverned territories, transnational threats and radical versions of Islam.

This school contends that the purpose of having a military is not to perpetuate its preferred paradigms; it’s about preparing for likely contingencies and securing America’s interests. They worry that the U.S. military culture will reject the primacy or even necessity for competency in irregular warfare as operations in Iraq wind down. They argue that this would be a strategic mistake, more reprehensible than the institutional memory dump that occurred after Vietnam, and perhaps even more costly.

Retired Army colonel and irregular war expert John Waghlestein observes that “the institutional military still seems to think that the current conflicts are mere temporary distractions from some future main showdown with an as-yet-undefined peer force.” This school believes that America’s enemies are learning and adaptive beings who recognize the futility of confronting the U.S. in open warfare. Rather than present template-able aim points for easy targeting and destruction, these opponents will continue to confound the American military until it demonstrates that it has mastered irregular warfare.

This school is far smaller than its opponents believe and does not include Gates, although some have misread his interest in giving irregular warfare programs a seat at the budget table. David Betz of King’s College London and former Army strategist Nathan Freier are leading advocates of this school.

However, these authors are looking well beyond today’s population-centric fights and the dominant COIN narrative of Afghanistan. Thus they are not really advocates for COIN, per se, but proponents of a wider school that sees failed states, al-Qaida and large-scale and contested stabilization tasks as appropriate critical missions for ground forces. Freier argues that the primary missions for land forces of the future include active engagement against dispersed terrorist threats, criminal activity and armed stabilization. He argues that “the principal large-scale, land-based contingency against which Army and Marine Corps forces optimize is no longer traditional MCO [major combat operations] but rather the minimum essential armed stability of a strategic state, territory or region … where functioning order has failed or has been seriously undermined.”

This school argues that irregular warfare is not only different and of greater priority, it cannot be successfully conducted by general-purpose forces who only marginally prepare for it. This school challenges what Betz called the “current orthodoxy [which] says that what is needed is a one-size-fits-all medium force.”


The Traditionalists sit at the opposing end of the spectrum of conflict. This school seeks to re-establish the traditional focus of the armed forces on “fighting and winning the nation’s wars.” Its members focus on major, high-intensity interstate wars. They advocate against reorienting forces, especially ground forces, away from their traditional emphasis on large-scale, industrial-age warfare against states or an alliance of states.

This school does not ignore the frequency of irregular warfare or dismiss its persistent nature; it just believes that such scenarios are not amenable to military intervention and that these contingencies should not be the focus for the American military. Traditionalists want to retain the Pentagon’s current procurement profile and its emphasis on “the Big Guns” for a future they predict will be conventional in nature and for which a large and expensive military is strategically necessary.

This school is particularly wary about the newfound embrace of messy, protracted counterinsurgencies such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are rightfully concerned about the degradation of combat skill sets within the Army and Marine Corps because of the severe operational tempo of today’s conflicts. However, they also overlook the need to “win the wars we are in,” as Nagl has noted.

The debate is inherently mixed with the strategic lessons of Iraq. The conservative proponents make clear that irregular warfare/COIN/nation-building does not match up well with U.S. culture or priorities. As Gentile has argued, “Experience to date both indicates the limitations of American military capability to reshape other people’s societies and governments and points to the limits of American military and economic resources in the conduct of these operations.”

This school has the weight of strategic history on its side, and it is consistent with a key assessment made by Joint Forces commander Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis in Joint Forces Command’s “Joint Operating Environment” that concludes, “Competition and conflict among conventional powers will continue to be the primary strategic and operational context for the Joint Force over the next 25 years.”

Traditionalists also question whether our culturally based inadequacies against ambiguous threats are largely immutable. It is a valid question. Can America’s military culture be sufficiently adapted to deal effectively with the insidious character of irregular combat and terrorism? How real and permanent are the institutional adaptations that have been made since 2003? Is being prepared for irregular warfare really “folly”? Should we dismiss the irregular foe as merely “mischievous,” as author Colin Gray suggests, or will this result in continuous series of David over Goliath shows over and over?

Another leading proponent from this school, retired Army colonel and author Douglas Macgregor, has suggested in Armed Forces Journal that we should simply “refuse battle” in scenarios where America’s vital interests are not at stake. This strategy has long resonated with the U.S. military culture and its preference for the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine.

Utility Infielders

The third and most prevalent school, at least among American ground force commanders, is the Utility Infielder school. This school recognizes the need to deal with strictly conventional tasks and irregular threats. It seeks to cover the entire spectrum of conflict and avoid the risk of being optimized at either extreme. Instead, it seeks to spreads this risk across the range of military operations by investing in quality forces, educating its officers for agility in complex problems, and creating tough but flexible training programs.

The Utility Infielder school is officially represented in the Army’s new doctrinal manual, FM 3-0, which declares, “Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that must be given priority comparable to that of combat (offensive and defensive) operations.” This construct rejects the narrow mission profile of the Traditionalists and claims the Army must train its units in the application of “full-spectrum operations” to ensure it provides a balanced, versatile force to provide to joint and combined-force commanders. These “full-spectrum operations” emphasize the importance of adaptive, flexible forces able to fight and win in combat, whether facing a terrorist entity or the modern forces of a hostile nation. However, the real priorities of this school might be found in this crucial statement: Full-spectrum operations “will take us into the 21st century urban battlefields among the people without losing our capabilities to dominate the higher conventional end of the spectrum of conflict.” There are inherent assumptions in these statements that conventional conflict is at the higher end but that urban battlefields and today’s emerging threats are somehow less demanding and less costly.

This school is similarly reflected in the Marine Corps’ long-range vision and capstone operating concept that extols the versatility of “multicapable” Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) across the full range of military operations. In their latest long-range service vision, the Marines claim to cover an “extraordinary range of operations,” but seek to add new competencies only “without losing our conventional capabilities.”

How reasonable is it for our land forces to add the new training, culture, language and materiel requirements for armed stabilization missions, without losing some edge in high-intensity conflict? The proponents of the Utility Infielder school do not address a number of crucial questions. How reasonable is it for general-purpose forces to be able to train, equip and be proficient at such a wide range of operational missions and contexts? How can our ground forces be good at many things without losing time and resources for so-called “conventional capabilities?” Are increased resources or a much larger ground force implied? Even more critical, is the new version of full-spectrum operations any different than the 1990s, when nontraditional programs got so little attention? Since full-spectrum operations and the Marine “3 Block War” phrase were prevalent before 2003 but apparently given only lip service, how can defense policymakers now be assured that our general-purpose forces will truly be ready across a broadening spectrum of tasks in an ever increasingly complex operating environment?

Division Of Labor

There are a number of analysts that reject the fundamental premise of the Utility Infielders school. This alternative school argues that irregular and conventional warfare are markedly different modes of conflict that require distinctive forces with different training, equipment and force designs. This camp places a great emphasis on preventing conflict, on stability operations and on investing in indirect forms of security forces with a greater degree of specialization for security cooperation tasks and war fighting. Because this school specifically divides and specializes roles and missions between the services, it can be labeled the “Division of Labor” option.

A team from Rand Corp. has proposed a different approach that rationalizes roles and missions, and offers a means of guiding future defense investments. This study is worthy of serious examination. This team notes that: “The imperative to promote stability and democracy abroad will place the greatest demands on the Army, the Marine Corps, and special operations forces (SOF). The most plausible regional wars that U.S. forces might be called on to fight — involving Iran, China (over Taiwan), and North Korea — call for heavy commitments of air and naval forces and, in the first two cases, fewer U.S. ground forces.”

Accordingly, Rand recommended that the Defense Department consider focusing a much larger proportion of U.S. ground forces on direct and indirect stability operations and “accept the risk of shifting some of the burden for deterring and defeating large-scale aggression to air and naval forces.” This recommendation appears based upon a set of assumptions; that the three scenarios listed represent:

• The most serious force driving contingencies for U.S. planners.

• All three are vulnerable to stand-off precision warfare.

• U.S. political interests can be guaranteed or obtained reliably without ground forces.

I have problems with all three assumptions, but not with the thought process involved in evaluating scenarios and making explicit conclusions rather than simply perpetuate today’s fixed service shares of a constricting defense budgetary pie.

Instead of interservice divisions of labor, Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has proposed that the Army specialize its ground forces between stability operations and war fighting. He challenges the critical assumption of the Utility Infielder school: “… because the range of missions is so broad, and the skill sets required sufficiently different, attempting to field forces that can move quickly and [seamlessly] from stability operations to high-intensity conflict appears destined to produce an Army that is barely a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and clearly a master of none.”

His proposal would allocate Army maneuver forces into two components; a war-fighting force of 27 Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) and a stability operations force comprised of 15 Security Cooperation BCTs. The National Guard also would be similarly reconfigured. This arrangement would ensure higher readiness for these distinct tasks by ensuring that forces were organized, trained and equipped to fulfill the missions. Should a long and sustained conventional fight arise, the stability formations could be cycled into more traditional combat forces over a 12- to 18-month cycle.

Here again a number of assumptions are implied about the intensity of ground combat scenarios and the duration of a protracted stabilization mission that might make this strategic approach to force planning invalid. Here again, I am not certain that these assumptions are reasonable but applaud the effort to challenge the status quo. In the context of a grand strategy that seeks to prevent conflict while maximizing readiness for specific tasks, the Rand or CSBA approach offers something the other schools lack.

Force posture analysis

The benefit of this new focal point can be best depicted by the risk analysis displayed in the table (Page 18). This reflects the potential benefits and disadvantages of the four prevailing schools today.

The Counterinsurgent school focuses on today’s fights and what could be tomorrow’s most likely scenarios. The Counterinsurgent school would markedly improve our preparation for stability operations and COIN or security, stability, transition and reconstruction missions by improving individual cultural and language skills, small unit tactics, and training/advisory missions. At the same time, this focus would leave the U.S. less prepared for rare but demanding conventional conflicts. It would also leave the force suboptimally ready for hybrid threats that would severely maul light forces unprepared for the ferocity of some scenarios. But this school would reduce defense spending overall by precluding the need for heavy and expensive ground forces and attendant aviation support for multiple interstate wars.

The Traditionalist camp seeks to preserve today’s competitive advantages in large-scale conflicts and avoid entanglements in messy protracted stability operations. This school focuses on the most dangerous of scenarios and emphasizes traditional kinetic maneuver. This posture would perpetuate the sine wave of American military disinterest in small wars — the “small change of soldiering,” in Kipling’s phrase. What this school overlooks is America’s global leadership role and the destabilizing effects of the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the concomitant decline in American access and influence it would produce. As Gates himself noted, “The United States does not have the luxury of opting out because these scenarios do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war.”

The Utility Infielders have no specific posture or focal point. They accept the risk that forces will be suboptimal for any specific threat but strive to increase their effectiveness across the whole range of military operations. This posture may assume that force size and resources will remain high, which is a dubious assumption. Under all but the most favorable resource projections, the force would be spread thin, and most units and individuals would not obtain proficiency in many tasks. Because of the manpower, training and equipment costs, the Utility Infielders force is slightly more expensive than the other options as it underwrites the retention of many legacy systems and the development of high-end systems that Gates castigated for preserving a notional American way of war. Yet, the Utility Infielders school is perhaps the most prudent and avoids getting the future too badly wrong, which is what the Counterinsurgents and Traditionalists risk by their narrower focus.

Finally, the Division of Labor school offers dedicated and separate forces or services for discrete missions. It offers high levels of unit readiness for stability operations and conventional state-based scenarios. However, it exposes America to some risk that U.S. forces would lack of depth and/or capacity for long-duration scenarios. Because the specific options described represent the two extremes of the conflict spectrum, this posture option produces forces suboptimized for hybrid threats but optimized for the two extremes.

There are risks attendant here, too. Key observers in the U.K. think that the blurring of neat delineations in modern operations could generate risks if specialized troops find themselves in situations for which they are unprepared and unsuited. The rising force protection challenges posed by ever more lethal “hybrid threats” suggests that force specialization at the operational level may generate more risks than it is worth. However, some specialization for enablers may still be warranted to give general purpose forces more versatility.

There is also the concern that this approach lets the Navy and Air Force entirely off the hook for making any adjustments for riverine warfare, Special Forces, training and advisory missions, and the like. This would be a mistake that would retard our partnerships with developing states and shortchange the Joint Force of needed unique skill sets that the Navy and Air Force should be able to offer.

The Division of Labor school offers the nation’s depleted treasury some relief. Ground force investments would be reduced in this option because the ground force is not required to provide combat formations for more than one major combat operation scenario.

Overall, the Division of Labor school approaches balance differently and with greater attention to the resource balance dilemma. This school realizes that the services do not have to receive fixed shares of the budget or that each service plays equally in all modes of war. Rand’s preference for relying heavily upon air and navy forces appears incompatible with Gates’ stated conclusion that we “look askance at idealistic, triumphalist or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to transcend the immutable principles and ugly realities of war, that imagine it is possible to cow, shock or awe an enemy into submission.” But it does try to reasonably address the chasm between roles, missions and available resources and should be scrutinized closely.

False choice

The current bifurcation of the spectrum of conflict between irregular and conventional wars is a false choice and intellectually blinds us to a number of crucial issues. We need to assess our assumptions about frequency, consequences and risk far more carefully and analytically. The QDR’s options are not simply preparing for long-term counterinsurgency operations or high-intensity conflict. We must be able to do both and do them simultaneously against enemies far more ruthless than today’s.

Future opponents will exploit whatever methods, tactics or technologies that they think will thwart us. Canonical conventional scenarios do not help us prepare for such threats. We need to better posture our forces, reduce the risks we face and allocate scarce resources against threats that pose the most operational risk. I have contended that state-on-state, high-scale combat cannot be ignored, but hybrid threats are profoundly asymmetric and present the greatest operational risk to U.S. forces and to the attainment of America’s strategic interests over the near to mid-range.

This reconceptualization will have significant implications for military force design and posture. In a perfect world, our military forces would be robustly sized, and we would build distinctive forces for discrete missions along the conflict spectrum. We would have separate counterterrorism forces, a force for protracted counterinsurgencies, expeditionary forces and heavy conventional forces for those rare but existential interstate conflagrations. The training and equipping of these forces would be well-matched to their expected operating environments and threats. But we do not live in a perfect world, and we need to prepare and shape our forces with a greater degree of uncertainty and with fewer resources. “We have to be prepared for the wars we are most likely to fight,” Gates said on the Hill in May, “not just the wars we have been traditionally best-suited to fight, or threats we conjure up from potential adversaries.”

The Sept. 11 funding spigot is about to be turned off, returning the Pentagon to the need to rethink its priorities and make tough choices. We no longer have the resources to simply buy everything and eliminate every risk. We will have to consciously wrestle with this challenge in the upcoming QDR. The time for hard calls has arrived.

FRANK G. HOFFMAN served more than 24 years as a Marine officer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Defense Department or any institution with which he is affiliated.