Debating Theories of Success

July 24, 2013

Major General McMaster’s op-ed provides an opportunity to tee up a debate over two theories of success. I’ll try to summarize what I think they are:

The theory of success from the ground forces perspective and from FM 3-24 is that a large but temporary deployment of Western ground troops into a failed state can enforce security during an interval when indigenous security forces and institutions are stood up. The hoped-for result is a stable and presumably pro-Western state. This theory of success largely failed in Iraq and Afghanistan because

(1) As Gen Abizaid predicted, the Western armies were an “antibody” that catalyzed violent resistance;

(2) Standing up local security forces was doomed due to moral hazard; and

(3) Corruption, caused by the tsunami of Western money, doomed any chance of creating indigenous institutions.

Patience for the strategy among the public and policymakers ran out after about three years, resulting in abandonment of the theory. Even so, ground-centric theorists explain, as McMaster did, that war is ultimately fought in the human domain and that therefore the persistent presence of ground forces is essential in order to establish the human contact and relations necessary to mold success.

The theory of success for air power advocates is that air power targeting, either by itself or in support for air mobile raiding forces, can effectively suppress global terror threats as occasionally may be required, without creating the “antibody effect” and in a manner that does not risk sustained public support for action. For security competitions with capable nation-states, air power can hold at risk assets and conditions (such as internal political control) highly valued by adversaries and thus guide the behavior of those actual or potential adversaries in favorable directions. An example of actual recent employment of air power coercion was Serbia 1999, when the bombing of assets valued by Milosevic and his associates compelled their cooperation. Ground-centric theorists such as McMaster, Mattis, et al scoff that this theory remains hopelessly utopian, mostly because it ignores the necessity of human relationships.

What the two theories have in common is that success for either requires effective and sustainable behavior modification in (surviving) adversaries. They differ in what it will take to achieve that modification, and over which of their methods is viable and sustainable in the context of American culture.

I think the outcome of this debate is tightly connected to the debate over U.S. military force structure (and budget shares) over the remainder of this decade.