In spring 2005, while embedded with an infantry battalion in southwest Baghdad, I was hanging out late one night in the battalion command post bs’ing with the battle captains when radio traffic suddenly spiked with reports of a massive attack on the Abu Ghraib prison compound, located just west of Baghdad. Hundreds of insurgents attacked the compound with suicide car bombers, accurate mortar, small arms and RPG fire, and simultaneously tried to seal off the battlespace; the first American reinforcements that rushed to the scene ran into clusters of roadside bombs and ambushes.
As the battalion command group packed into the TOC, orders came from division to spin-up a quick response force to rush to Abu Ghraib by an alternate route. The battalion commander decided to go in heavy, and use his 70-ton Abrams tanks to blast through any insurgent obstacles or ambushes along the route. He told one of his ablest company commanders, Capt. Ike Sallee, to ready his mechanized platoons. Within thirty minutes, Sallee radioed the TOC that his tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles were ready and assembled on the main road outside the FOB awaiting the go order. As it turned out, Apache gunships drove off the insurgent attack and Sallee was told to stand down. While Sallee’s soldiers didn’t end up battling the insurgents that night, there is every reason to believe their training, coupled with superior technology - thermal sights, heavy armor and overwhelming firepower - would have easily tipped the scales.
I was reminded of that episode after reading this article on the Small Wars Journal site weighing in on the shape of the future Army debate. The authors argue that the Army needs soldiers who are generalists, and can fight equally well across a range of missions, “the full spectrum of conflict,” not specialists, trained in either irregular war or conventional war: “there is no clear evidence that the U.S. Army cannot move from irregular to conventional war in a timely fashion.” The authors contend that “over-specialization” would create a large pool of soldiers who would sit on the sidelines of a conflict that didn’t match their skill sets, severely taxing that part of the force that does deploy.
The article was a response to the argument made by CSBA’s Andrew Krepinevich that the service risks creating “an Army that is barely a “jack-of-all-trades,” and clearly a master of none.” Krepinevich argues that the Army needs to beef up its irregular warfare skills, that soldiers need more, not less specialization. He calls for a bifurcated Army, with a portion oriented to stability operations and counterinsurgency, and the other for conventional operations. “While it was once argued that such “general-purpose” forces could readily shift gears to handle contingencies at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, the evidence of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq suggests the contrary.”
Back to Sallee, the company commander in Baghdad. Interestingly, Sallee was widely considered the best counterinsurgency leader in the battalion, if not the entire brigade. He was renowned for his practice of walking the streets versus drive-by patrols, forging personal relationships with the Iraqis in his area, and cleverly using informants to develop precise intelligence on the enemy, all principles he drilled into his soldiers. (It’s a fallacy that troops in Iraq didn’t practice counterinsurgency principles prior to the arrival of Petraeus in 2007. Many companies and battalions did and to good effect. The problem was it depended entirely on the unit commander.) Here was an example of a commander and a company of soldiers able to almost instantly transition from counterinsurgency operations to more of a conventional fight (the insurgent attack on Abu Ghraib that night was really an example of a “hybrid” enemy that blends guerrilla and more conventional tactics). After getting the stand down order, Sallee returned his tanks and Bradleys to the motor pool and his soldiers went back out to patrol the local neighborhoods.
Does that ability of troops to shift back and forth seamlessly between different types of operations hold across the board? I would argue that it’s not always the case. For example: there was a clear difference in competence between Sallee’s soldiers doing a cordon and knock operation and an artillery company temporarily converted into a motorized rifle company doing the same task. The 11 Bravos, the infantry, were just much better at basic infantryman skills, which stands to reason. Special operators, who relentlessly train to take down a house or roomful of enemy, are much better than the 11 Bravos, although that gap has narrowed considerably in recent years as the rank-and-file ground pounder has accumulated a mass of experience doing cordon and knock operations during combat tours in Iraq.
Speaking earlier this month at a CNAS conference in Washington, Gen. David Petraeus weighed in on the issue. “Our troopers can still very much fight,” he said, but instead of preparing just for the big battles, current and future wars require troops prepare for a constantly shifting mix of conflict, across the low and high intensity scale, he said. “We’re not doing the big tank armies colliding in the central corridor anymore, we’re doing continuous complex counterinsurgency which sometimes requires very significant kinetic ops, often requires very significant stability and support, all integrated.” Readying units for a major force on force fight might mean a couple of weeks spent brushing up on shooting big metal targets at the NTC, he said.
The Army is wrestling with the issue. Trainers at the Army’s premier training center are mindful of a potential atrophy of high-intensity skills and try to include some training in those tasks for units preparing for Iraq and Afghanistan, said Maj. Michael Burgoyne, co-author of an excellent book on adapting to counterinsurgency: The Defense of Jisr Al-Dorea. “It’s about finding a balance… somewhere in between counterinsurgency and high-intensity conflict, some kind of mix of capabilities where we can do a lot,” he told me.
The Army leadership sees a potential vulnerability on the training side, according to a TRADOC paper released last month. The paper warns of the “atrophy” in the quality of the “opposing force” at the training centers, particularly the NTC, in terms of personnel and equipment. It says future enemies will be of the hybrid type, and having learned from observing U.S. military operations, “will not fight the US in open terrain but will seek to draw the US into a confusing close-quarters environment, where US technology is neutralized and the fight takes on a small-unit decentralized character.”
That change in the character of fighting will demand changes in how the Army prepares its soldiers, specifically: beefing up training, the paper says. The CTCs must better replicate future urban battlefields, and build “an adaptive, free thinking OPFOR that is equipped and manned to achieve victory.” Providing role playing Iraqi or Afghan civilians at the CTCs has certainly aided soldiers preparing for the current wars. Its time to up the ante, the paper says, as preparing units for future wars will require they go up against a far better armed, aggressive and adaptive OPFOR to provide “the toughest opponent our Army will face short of actual combat.”
Can the Army prepare for both low end and high end conflict without some degree of specialization? It’s difficult to see how it can, but it most likely will not have a choice. As the strategist Frank Hoffman writes in the July issue of Armed Forces Journal, “In a perfect world, our military forces would be robustly sized and we would build distinctive forces for discrete missions along the conflict spectrum… 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 less resources.” Ultimately, it falls on the skill and expertise of small unit leaders, and the training among soldiers, that will determine whether they can shift seamlessly between very different types of conflict.