An Army Trying to Shake Itself from Intellectual Slumber, Part II: From 9/11 to Great Power Competition


Editor’s Note: This is the second of two essays on the challenges facing the U.S. Army. Don’t miss the first, “Learning from the 1970s.”

In military operations after 9/11, U.S. conventional warfighting dominance was on full display. The Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s military were quickly routed. However, the decisive initial operational and tactical successes in Afghanistan and then Iraq turned out to be illusory. It was soon evident that the campaign plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom, although delivering as promised in toppling Saddam and his military, did not have a realistic vision for what would follow. Consequently, there were not enough forces on the ground to deal with a post-Saddam Iraq, and that country soon went off the rails. Coalition forces were suddenly in the midst of a full-blown insurgency. The challenges of Iraq, coupled with a worsening insurgency in Afghanistan, presented a different problem that, while not existential, created a political crisis and demands for military solutions. The Army and the other services responded.

The Failures of Fighting Insurgents as Peers

In 2006, the Army and Marine Corps produced FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency to solve the insurgency problem they were not prepared to deal with in 2003 after the collapse of Baghdad, institutionalizing many of the adaptations already happening on the ground. Importantly, for the first time in the Army’s post-World War II history, there was a conceptual shift from closing with and destroying the enemy to protecting the population as the way to prevail.

The surge in Iraq provided sufficient capacity to meet FM 3-24 security force-to-population norms and restore security to Baghdad and Anbar Province. This was coupled with an integrated intelligence-enabled program for hunting high-value targets that “removed from the battlefield a significant proportion of the senior and midlevel extremist group leaders, explosives experts, planners, financiers, and organizers in Iraq.” What had previously been termed “irregular warfare” was regularized throughout the Army DOTMLPF-P (doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy). The “surge” allowed the United States and the government of Iraq to restore sufficient stability to fully hand the problem off to the Iraqis — and to depart in 2011 — ending the U.S. presence in the country.

Until it didn’t.

The rise of the Islamic State brought the return of U.S. airpower, ground trainers and advisers, special operations forces, and a host of enablers to allow Iraqi forces to systematically destroy the jihadists as well as the cities (Fallujah, Mosul, Raqqa) where they had gone to ground. These were mainly tactical and operational contributions. Strategically, Iran and Russia took advantage of the situation, supporting Iraqi militias in the fight against ISIL and ensuring the survival of the Assad regime in Syria. Russia and Iran are bigger players today than before the toppling of Saddam.

Importantly, when FM 3-24 was applied during the Obama “surge” in Afghanistan, it failed, partly because of insufficient capacity, but also because the problems in Afghanistan were different than those in Iraq that the manual had been designed to solve. The Afghan population was not centered in large cities, and instead was dispersed across a land of difficult terrain and wretched infrastructure. Al Qaeda and especially the Taliban enjoyed broad sanctuary next door in Pakistan. There were no “Sons of Iraq” militias in the thousands to be bought off (although the U.S. military certainly tried). Finally, the Afghan military, police, and civil government were generations behind the Iraqis in terms of competence and experience.

The Present Costs America the Future

The U.S. military adapted to the demands of Afghanistan and Iraq across the DOTMLPF-P, not just doctrinally. At the insistence of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Department of Defense purchased thousands of mine resistant anti-ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles to replace what had been rear area support vehicles for high-intensity combat that proved highly vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in counter-insurgency operations. The Future Combat Systems, Comanche, Crusader, Ground Combat Vehicle, and a host of other major programs were axed to buy readiness or because they were not relevant to the fight at the time. Other systems — Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Strykers — were all modified to make them more survivable against insurgents and their limited, but deadly arsenals of small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and IEDs. Ironically, this has increased the weight of the Abrams to the point where it is becoming difficult to deploy, as well as maneuver in combat, given rail, bridge, and other limitations where high-end fights could happen.

Most importantly, a mindset developed in the U.S. military that the post-9/11 shared experience was now the new normal, displacing the AirLand Battle skills learned, practiced, and refined during the Cold War. For the Army, this meant making the brigade combat team the centerpiece of a modular organizational construct. Divisions, corps, and other formations were dismantled to create as many brigade combat teams as possible. Numbers were important, because the more available brigades, the longer the “dwell time” between deployments for brigade combat teams. The Army perforce became expeditionary after its previous drawdown to mostly continental U.S. bases after the Cold War. Soldiers and formations trained for the task they would execute in Iraq or Afghanistan, flew (mostly by commercial charter aircraft) to the war zones, met their equipment, were sustained by an immense contractor presence, did their tours (which varied within and between services from a low of 30 days to a high of 15 months during the Iraq “surge”), boarded airplanes, went back to their home stations, and got ready to do it all over again.

In what became brigade combat team-centric wars, the Army also lost much of its understanding of the roles of divisions and corps, which were central to directing AirLand Battle. These headquarters, largely stripped of their functional units like division artillery, focused on policy guidance and oversight and a myriad of supposedly civilian functions (e.g., anti-corruption, provincial reconstruction teams, etc.), given the paucity of personnel from other U.S. government agencies. There was little need for higher level control of resources (artillery) or campaign planning or execution. Ironically, these years of combat experience recreated the problem Gen. William E. DePuy saw after the Vietnam War: the loss of a decade of modernization and an Army without relevant combat experience for mid- and high-end warfare. This is not to say that there were no extremely intense tactical fights, particularly in Iraq — Najaf, Sadr City, and Fallujah all bear witness to the tactical prowess of the American soldiers and marines. Rather, it is to note that these engagements were in environments where U.S. forces had supremacy in the air, maritime, space, and cyber domains. That will not be the case for future mid- and high-level adversaries.

Although there were harbingers that history had not ended — the Chechen Wars, the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Russo-Georgian War, Russian and Chinese military modernization and muscle flexing, Iranian and Korean adventurism, and the Syrian civil war — they were not sufficient to broaden the U.S. focus much beyond Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terror.

It took Russia’s return to the scene to begin the Army’s wake-up call to a new reality. The Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimea, which was soon followed by their support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine, put on full display their military capabilities in their near abroad. Furthermore, their military efforts that kept Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria, which unhinged a U.S. strategy of “Assad must go,” further demonstrated their new prowess. This was not unlike the shock the Army experienced after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

What was different was not just the return of a single high-end competitor, but a situation that the United States had not faced since the 1940s: competent, well-equipped potential adversaries in the Pacific and Europe. China and Russia have significant home field advantages particularly in their evolving anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities designed specifically to neutralize U.S. military and power projection capabilities. As many have argued, this creates a situation where the United States is out of position, outgunned, outranged, and overmatched. The United States is also being out-thought, because the Russians and Chinese have a theory of victory and a way of warfare — based on their rigorous analysis of America and the capabilities they need to thwart the United States. Coupled with these high-end challenges are ongoing demands from Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Korea, Iran, and a plethora of violent extremist organizations. Thus, the United States must continue to prosecute the wars it is in as well as those it could be in.

This is not unlike the dilemma the United States faced during the Vietnam War: providing forces, relevant modern equipment, and strategic focus where Americans were dying. During the war in Vietnam, U.S. forces in NATO became a hollow shell as priority went to the war the county was in. The existential threat became a backwater, but one with a crucial hedge: tactical nuclear weapons. They were the equalizer, as recalled by former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Edward “Shy” Meyer. During an interview in 1994, I asked him why the Warsaw Pact had not attacked NATO during the post-Vietnam era before the Reagan build-up, given the considerable conventional advantages Moscow held. His response? NATO’s nuclear deterrent. In his view, tactical nuclear weapons were the hedge against a rapid Soviet win absent sufficient conventional land forces. In the 1950s, the Army began fielding cannon (155mm and 8-inch) and missile (Honest John, Lance, Pershing) nuclear capable units in Europe. These complemented the tactical nuclear weapons of the other U.S. services and several NATO members. Nevertheless, Meyer’s view of the role of tactical nuclear weapons in deterrence is now largely irrelevant in Europe and elsewhere. Today the Army’s tactical nuclear weapons inventories no longer exist. While the United States maintains a strategic nuclear force and some air-delivered tactical nuclear weapons, there are many steps missing now on the escalatory ladder between conventional options and strategic weapons. Although there are different opinions on the topic, Russian nuclear modernization efforts and its policy of escalate to de-escalate appear to mine this gap.

Waking Up Again

U.S. leaders now face the dilemma of the 1970s: For what do you prepare? America is undergoing another Rip Van Winkle moment where it has woken up to find it is no longer the power it was when it went to sleep after the Cold War. Now, like in the 1970s, the United States needs to understand the world in which it lives. First, Washington must understand that it has a problem. Only with that recognition will recovery come. Second, it must accept that it can lose the next first battle — and perhaps the next war — if it does not change course. Here analysis must take precedence over experience. However, irrelevant experience will trump analysis if the problem is not accepted. All of this will be difficult, given that the United States is still lost in a 16-year-long dream, while simultaneously trying to anticipate the new nightmares beyond that familiar consciousness.

The new National Security Strategy begins this assessment and prioritization. So too does limiting commitments on the periphery in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere to not losing, rather than the imperative to win, no matter what the cost in treasure. A legitimate critique of the Army’s focus on high-end warfare until 2006 is that it did not consider sufficiently the so-called lesser-included cases. Consequently, the Army was not prepared for the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The lesson here is that the United States cannot only focus on one problem. Unfortunately, Washington has rarely shown the ability to do two things well at one time, much less think in time.

Contingencies will happen and should be dealt with, but they should not demand the same effort as existential adversaries. A good example is Afghanistan, where the costly experiment in nation-building has failed. What should guide U.S. policy is the answer to the question: Why is the United States in Afghanistan and what is the least bad outcome there? The original goal was to eliminate Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist attacks on the homeland. If the United States and its partners can prop up an Afghan government and support their armed forces sufficiently to prevent a Taliban takeover or the establishment of terrorist bases in the country, it may well be good enough to meet the original goal of the United States in Afghanistan. Again, under that goal, the flaws in the Afghan government — corruption, lack of representation, lack of inclusiveness — are all secondary and one could argue should be treated as such.

The pragmatic view that every contingency is not an existential crisis, coupled with the understanding that some problems cannot be solved, only managed over time, would enable us to focus on what is vital.

Again, as in the 1970s, the near-term existential problem is posed by a nuclear-armed Russia, but this time in Eastern Europe. Additionally, a rising China presents a potential long-term existential threat, which has thus far been met mostly rhetorically with the “pivot to Asia” during the Obama administration. Importantly, this recognition of interstate competition does not presage a future war. Rather, it could provide the impetus for the United States to restore its military capabilities to regain its edge, and thereby enhance deterrence to protect its vital interests and influence. In Eastern Europe, the Army is central to this proposition.

As in the 1970s, Russia presents a military problem that demands integrated approaches across all the domains. Nevertheless, few of the conditions that enabled AirLand Battle in the 1980s are relevant today. Today the Army is an expeditionary U.S.-based force with insufficient forward presence in Europe. America’s forward European-based maneuver forces consist of an airborne infantry brigade combat team in Italy and a Stryker brigade combat team in Germany, which have been augmented by a rotational armored brigade combat team from the United States and some additional unmanned armored brigade combat team prepositioned stocks. This level of presence leaves the initiative to the Russians. At the outset of a conflict, they will have numerical superiority, materiel overmatch, tactical nuclear weapons, and, again, they are operating in their own backyard. Consequently, RAND Corporation wargaming and analysis concluded that NATO’s current posture in the Baltics cannot prevent a Russian coup de main in short order (60 hours or less), presenting NATO with a fait accompli and few good options. This would leave NATO with

a limited number of options, all bad: a bloody counteroffensive, fraught with escalatory risk, to liberate the Baltics; to escalate itself, as it threatened to do to avert defeat during the Cold War; or to concede at least temporary defeat, with uncertain but predictably disastrous consequences for the Alliance.

The RAND analysis also offered a possible solution: a more robust ground force presence, supported by air and land-based fires, “to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.” Making things harder for the Russians is a good first step. Nevertheless, such an approach would only slow the Russians down in attaining their objectives. To deter, NATO has to convince Russia that it can and will defend the Baltics to deny Russia its objectives. Michael Kofman has a different view. Critiquing the RAND wargame recommendations in War on the Rocks, he instead advocates relying on strategic flexibility and ambiguity of response as a policy, backed up by U.S. air and naval power, rather than more ground forces in the Baltics to deter Russia. This approach is cold comfort, given that such a view relies on Russian intentions, not NATO capabilities. In any event, as Kofman writes, the Russia problem in the Baltics is different than during the Cold War and will require different conceptual and capability approaches than currently envisioned. Otherwise, the initiative is clearly in the hands of the Russians.

Before moving to the military challenges of how to reverse Russian aggression, it is also important to briefly consider what would happen if the Baltics fell. Would the NATO member states have the political will to mount a campaign to retake them? Recent polling shows that in Western European countries with the best military capabilities (France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and Germany) less than 30 percent of their populations are willing to fight for their countries. One can imagine there would be even less appetite to fight for the liberation of distant Eastern European allies.

The “retake the Baltics” approach also assumes that the military problem of a Russian invasion can be reversed with existing NATO military capacities and capabilities. This is not a given when one compares current NATO air, maneuver, fires, air and missile defense, and other capabilities and capacities to those in place in Russia. Those NATO systems that have not been wholly abandoned for economy — at the time a reasonable course of action given the absence of a threat and competing domestic demands — were designed around a defense of Western Europe, not power projection eastward against formidable A2/AD defenses. They are also, like many U.S. systems, a generation behind new Russian capabilities and outgunned or overmatched in the Baltics. And, despite their assurances to the contrary, there seems to be little appetite in Western European capitals for significantly increasing their defense investments, even to the 2 percent they have repeatedly pledged, but few have met.

Therefore, an important question to ask about any scheme to retake the Baltics if they fell to Russia, aside from NATO political and domestic will is: Does NATO have the military capabilities to dismantle Russian A2/AD challenges and project power to retake the Baltics? Even if the answer to this first order question is “yes,” can they do it in the face of Russia’s tactical nuclear capabilities and their stated policy of using them to “escalate to de-escalate”? Would governments in the West be willing to risk nuclear war to save Estonia?

Clearly, the current military posture and deterrence regimes against Russia have thus far avoided the larger political and domestic contexts of the Western European NATO members and the relative military effectiveness compared to the Russians in Eastern Europe. How can NATO wrest the initiative from Russia? If the Baltics are seized by Russia, even temporarily, then NATO will have demonstrated that it is an unreliable alliance that cannot protect its members. It will also likely go the way of other alliances that have failed in realizing their fundamental reason for existence — the military protection of its members.

Back to the Future

Although the diplomatic, informational, and economic dimensions of the competition are fundamental in deterring Russia, they must be bolstered by credible military means. And developing those means must be based on a thorough understanding of the military problem posed by the Russians. The brilliance of the post-Vietnam War rebuilding of the U.S. Army rested on understanding the problem it faced in the post-Vietnam era:

  • The existential adversary was the Soviet Union
  • The fight would take place in Europe as part of a NATO alliance
  • Our materiel capabilities were outmatched by those of the Soviets, as demonstrated during the 1973 Yom Kippur War by their client states
  • NATO would have to fight outnumbered and win against the Soviets, probably in a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear environment
  • Deterring and defeating the Soviet Union below the strategic nuclear threshold in NATO required the detailed integration of the Air Force and the Army at the operational and tactical levels

The plethora of new concepts and capabilities that have proliferated since the Cold War have not been satisfying because they were neither problem- nor threat-based. Concepts relied on existing or imagined capabilities and often became unmoored from the laws of physics and economy and, more importantly, purpose. Costs and complexity increased in the never-ending quest for future capabilities to fight the way we wanted, with no reference to how the U.S. Army would have to fight against whom, and where. This is a form of military technological determinism where “things” guide the thinking and shape concepts. If we can imagine it, it must be possible. This is an important point, because successful military innovation combines ideas and technologies in novel ways to solve specific problems. Historian Williamson Murray emphasized this point in assessing several case studies on successful and unsuccessful military innovation in the interwar period:

Our conclusion, therefore, is that one precondition for significant military innovation is a concrete problem which the military institutions involved have vital interests in solving.

Often, the U.S. military chases the potential of technology, rather than harnessing it to solving the problem — because the problem is never specific. What results is a reliance on invention, rather than innovation. Murray also provides a useful cautionary note about the impact of technological innovation on the production of solutions to military problems: “changes in inputs like weapons systems, whether large or small, do not necessarily yield changes of proportionate magnitude in outputs or combat dynamics.”

Such was the case with the blitzkrieg. The Wehrmacht developed a combined arms concept that linked airplanes and tanks via the radio to capitalize on the tactical and operational successes of their infiltration-based tactical doctrine that they executed during the 1918 Spring Offensives. They could not exploit the initial successes of these offensives, because maneuver in 1918 relied on largely man and animal power. They experimented with these concepts and turned them into doctrine after rigorous wargaming and exercises, and adapted them further after each campaign to incorporate combat lessons. Interestingly, all the technologies employed by the Germans were known by the key belligerents from World War I, but they never developed a similar doctrine because there was no concrete problem they had to solve.

This is not dissimilar from the U.S. Army’s approach to armor and aviation during the period before World War II. The concepts and capabilities the Army developed for its ground and air forces were developed independent of an adversary and rested on a series of unchallenged assumptions. In brief, tanks would not have to fight other tanks and bomber formations could fight their way to key industrial node targets deep in enemy territory without fighter escort with acceptable losses. At Kasserine Pass, the U.S. Army ground forces lost their first battle against the Germans. In the skies over Schweinfurt and Regensburg, the U.S. Army Air Forces lost theirs. Both adapted, but at great costs that could have been mitigated with a thorough pre-war understanding of the enemy and its capabilities.

If the Multi-Domain Battle concept is to mature into a 21st Century blitzkrieg or AirLand Battle doctrine, it must address the problems the Army, as part of a joint force, must solve in terms that are understandable by all the agencies engaged in developing solutions across the DOTMLPF-P. This consensus is necessary to ensure that all who are working on a problem understand it as the same problem. Here there is work to be done, because while the Army has framed its concept as “Multi-Domain Battle,” other concepts — “Multi-Domain Operations,” “Multi-Domain Command and Control,” and “Multi-Domain Maneuver” — are also in circulation. This has become a perennial problem: the undisciplined proliferation of terms, often coupled with hyperbole, e.g., “Dominant Battlefield Awareness.” Perhaps the title holder for most definitions for a term is “hybrid warfare,” and the confusion extends to our allies. At a NATO conference in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,

attendees were told that ‘there is no agreed definition of terms related to hybrid warfare’ . . . . How can NATO leaders expect to develop an effective military strategy if they cannot define what they believe is the threat of the day?

More importantly, new concepts, to have rigor, must address specific problems. During the Cold War, this was relatively straightforward. DePuy and his successors focused on the Soviet Union, because it was the only peer competitor that posed an existential threat to the United States and its allies. Multi-Domain Battle has a different challenge. Today, there are at least two potential peer adversaries, Russia and China, that pose dramatically different problems from each other. Nevertheless, they are lumped together as undifferentiated peers in the recently published Multi-Domain Battle: Evolution of Combined Arms for the 21st Century, 2025-2040. This is important, because the Army and the joint force will have to develop different concepts, capabilities, and capacities to address them.

Similar capability gaps may appear in an assessment of the military problem posed by Russia and China, and they should be addressed with common capabilities where possible. But, there will be radical differences, e.g., the strategic depth of the Pacific area of operations as compared to that of the Baltics and the importance of the maritime domain in the Pacific versus the land domain in the Baltics. These fundamental differences must be addressed specifically for any concept to have the relevance to endure as doctrine. The Army and the joint force should understand the system of the specific adversaries and design theories of victory to defeat them.

Furthermore, new concepts must account for the constellation of challenges beyond existential threats that the United States will contend with in the future. As AirLand Battle demonstrated, a singular focus on one way of fighting can fail when it confronts an adversary it was not prepared to address, as during post-major combat operations in Iraq in 2003. Failure in Iraq did not pose an existential crisis, but it did cause a domestic political crisis. Insurgency was not a lesser-included case of AirLand Battle. Consequently, Army doctrine and capabilities required radical adaptation in Afghanistan and Iraq. Aside from Russia and China, other potential adversaries, ranging from rogue states (North Korea, Iran) to state-sponsored hybrid adversaries (Hizballah, the Islamic State, pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine) to non-state irregular and terrorist threats (al-Qaeda, Taliban) are a reality of the current and future operating environments. Again, materiel capability solutions for Russia and China will have relevance across these adversaries, particularly against non-state hybrid actors who often use niche high-end weaponry provided by state actors, e.g., anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Thus, an active protection materiel solution that defeats Russian and Chinese ATGMS and MANPADS will have utility against other adversaries. What will be different are the conceptual approaches to the specific adversary, e.g., are you in major combat operations or counter-insurgency operations? Core doctrine cannot and should not be all things to all people, but it must acknowledge what it is and is not, and where necessary, supporting doctrine, consistent with the theory of war in the core doctrine, must be developed to address other recurring challenges.

If the United States is going to win its next first battle it needs to focus on specific adversaries, their capabilities, and the places we might fight. In the near- and mid-terms, the pacing threat for the Army is Russia and its capabilities in Eastern Europe. This was the transformative approach of DePuy and others in the 1970s and 1980s — they built the car on which the bumper stickers of Active Defense and AirLand Battle could be displayed. A similarly rigorous threat-based approach to understanding and solving the problems of today and tomorrow could serve us equally well.


David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a Principal Researcher at the RAND Corporation, an Adjunct Scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.

Image: U.S. Army/Lauren Harrah