Fighting two simultaneous counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has placed enormous demands on the small number of elite Army Special Forces teams, known as Operational Detachment Alpha. So the Army and Marines plan to restructure and create many more small combat and advisory teams from existing conventional ground forces, says Marine Gen. James Mattis, Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command.
The military is dominant in conventional warfare and can best any opponent in high-intensity battle, but it’s not superior in irregular warfare, the types of wars the U.S. is most likely to fight in the future, Mattis said. The requirement for small combat and advisory teams, along the Special Forces model, is now a “national priority.” Mattis recently created a Joint Irregular Warfare Center, headed by a Special Forces officer, to guide the effort “to shift general purpose forces more into a special operations forces approach to fighting, without giving up conventional warfare.” Creating these small, deployable “high performing” teams for irregular warfare will require many more Army and Marines trained as advisors.
"We need more troops who are culturally adept, who are comfortable working outside mother Army, mother Marine Corps and able to work in small teams," Mattis said, speaking Feb. 12, at a conference sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in Washington, DC. Irregular wars are fought amongst the people, requiring American troops, "understand not just of the nature of the conflict, but the 'human sea,' to use Mao’s analogy, within which the enemy swims," according to the "Joint Operating Environment," a recent Joint Forces Command publication.
Mattis said in future irregular wars, the military must avoid the logistically demanding and often problem causing "heavy footprint," where large numbers of troops are sent ashore and operate from massive bases, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. He prefers an expeditionary approach, using small advisory teams who live and work among the local people. It will require a "fundamental shift" in the approach to basing in foreign countries, "where not every troop has a big screen TV and eighteen entries on the menu that night and where they’re completely isolated from the local people." He said the seabasing concept, where troops operate from large naval platforms located offshore, will be an important component of the new irregular warfare operating concept.
Mattis said greater partnering with foreign militaries will be how the U.S. fights irregular wars in the future; the advisory mission is a "growth industry." Some point to the El Salvador model as the preferred model for counterinsurgency, where a small team of U.S., advisors, not more than 55, trained the El Salvadoran military to defeat a community insurgency in the 1980s. The problem is the military’s acute shortage of advisors able to train foreign militaries. That mission is one for which the Special Forces ODA teams were created and are well suited. Yet, those teams currently operate as commandos, pursuing high value terrorist targets and insurgent leaders around the world.
A number of voices have pushed for more Army and Marines to serve as advisors, yet those general purpose troops lack the specialized training, particularly cultural and language, found in Special Forces teams. Currently, the Army and Marines create temporary ad-hoc advisory teams, with troops thrown together from different units, a practice that is disruptive to existing units and fails to create small unit cohesion. John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and one of the authors of the counterinsurgency manual, says the military must create an "advisory corps," with large numbers of troops specifically trained in foreign languages and cultures.
General purpose troops in Iraq and Afghanistan typically operate in small units, since massing a battalion, or even a company, is rarely useful on a battlefield where the enemy avoids toe- to-toe fights against the high-firepower brought by the American military. Mattis wants troops to train how they fight, with focused training, including use of simulations and other training aids, on operating as small, self-sustaining units.
Mattis said he recently met with Army Chief Gen. George Casey, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway and Special Operations Commander Adm. Eric Olsen, to discuss the “division of labor” in advisory missions. "Where we need people to build relationships, that’s going to be a Special Forces kind of job… where we want to just go in and train people in marching, basic marksmanship, first aid, small unit tactics, the general purpose forces will pick up most of those."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is determined to “rebalance” the military by shifting focus and resources to irregular warfare. Mattis said the irregular war concept, which includes preparing to fight hybrid enemies, is a useful “magnet” to pull the military out of its conventional war mindset. “We don’t want U.S. forces to be dominant and irrelevant,” he said.