In a speech last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates worried aloud, again, about the Pentagon’s spending priorities and whether they are at all suited to the wars the U.S. is currently fighting or will fight in the future.
“Support for conventional modernization programs is deeply embedded in our budget, in our bureaucracy, in the defense industry, and in Congress. My fundamental concern is that there is not commensurate institutional support - including in the Pentagon - for the capabilities needed to win the wars we are in, and of the kinds of missions we are most likely to undertake in the future.”
Gates is talking about nation building, a mission the military thought it offloaded in the 1990s after the Balkans operations. Of course with Iraq and Afghanistan, the military, particularly the Army, is now the U.S. government’s primary nation building force. Gates sees the potential for future interventions in failed or failing states and realizes, along with most everybody else, that nation building skill sets are rather lacking in the U.S. military.
What are some examples of these much needed capabilities Gates is talking about? Setting up and operating fish and poultry farms, according to Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commanded the 3rd Infantry Division, the surge force that operated south of Baghdad during 2007-2008. Lynch spoke this week at the Army’s annual convention in Washington, DC. He said troops fighting in today’s wars must be able to transition from major combat operations to counterinsurgency operations almost instantaneously.
“I worry that there are people out there saying all we have to do now is train for counterinsurgency, but we also have to train for major combat operations,” he said. Lynch gave the example of one of his companies that was conducting community foot patrols south of Baghdad when violence erupted in Sadr City. The soldiers mounted their tanks and Bradleys, went and did “major combat operations” for two weeks in Sadr city, “then came back and walked the streets again.”
He said the 3ID conducted ten division level operations in their area, known as the “Triangle of Death,” for the first six months of their deployment. “Then we parked our combat vehicles and did nothing but dismounted patrols and worked to build capacity of Iraq security forces, the local government and the economy.” Lynch said troops in Iraq spend 85 percent of their time doing nation building operations, like fish and poultry farming. Lacking any institutional knowledge on the subject, Lynch said his soldiers improvised, with considerable success.
The problem, as Lynch acknowledged, is that the Army is not exactly set up to provide soldiers training in how to run a fish farm. At the military’s various combat training centers, troops run through lots of drills on patrolling, convoy operations and “door knocking.” But when it comes to rebuilding an economy in a developing country or building local government capacity, well that type of training just doesn’t exist.
The military is the only tool in the U.S. toolkit capable of doing armed nation building. If the country is determined to embark on such enterprises in the future, the question arises, for how many more years will defense secretaries be asking aloud where is the “institutional support” for training American troops to become fish farmers?