war on the rocks

An Army Trying to Shake Itself from Intellectual Slumber, Part I: Learning from the 1970s

February 2, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two essays. The second essay will examine the effects of the embrace of insurgents and terrorists as the U.S. Army’s pacing threat.

For the past three decades, the U.S. military has lived off the concepts and eroding capabilities for conflicts against peer adversaries that it developed during the Cold War. For the Army, AirLand Battle is the last fully institutionalized intellectual and doctrinal warfighting construct intended for high-end adversaries, although there have been several replacement candidates in recent years. These have included “Strategic Landpower,” and, most recently “Multi-Domain Battle.” The former never gained traction within the Army and vanished from the discussion in a few short years. Why is that? What must be done to keep Multi-Domain Battle from going the way of Strategic Landpower?

Without consensus on the specifics of the military problem — including the adversary, his capabilities and weapons that must be countered, and the place where the fight is envisioned to occur — Multi-Domain Battle and other concepts for deterring or defeating peer adversaries (like the third offset) are in jeopardy.

Furthermore, to gain broad acceptance, new military concepts must be supportive of the priorities of a national strategy. Otherwise, they are irrelevant in the key areas of obtaining political support and resources. The new National Security Strategy is such a policy statement, because it prioritizes the security challenges (Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and jihadist terrorists) facing the United States and provides broad presidential guidance on a strategic way forward. The question for the Army is how will it turn this political guidance into concepts and capabilities to address these challenges?

The last time the Army was at such a crossroads was in the 1970s, when it transformed itself from an Army of tactical action against irregular enemies in Vietnam, to one of operational and strategic relevance against the Soviet Union. Given that a tactical focus pervades the U.S. Army today, there is much to learn from the experience that is relevant today for preparing the Army for the future.

Concept Development and Consensus

Conceptual coherence can only emerge from an institutional consensus that there is a problem that must be solved against a specific adversary, armed with specific capabilities, in a specific place. For decades, deterring and containing the Soviet Union provided the impetus for such a strategy, and the undergirding military concepts and weapons programs that came with it, in the United States and allied countries. The Warsaw Pact, a named and studied adversary, provided the motivation to sustain the strategic and conceptual energy and commitments of the decades long Cold War, forging the principal guarantors of deterrence — a strong NATO alliance and nuclear deterrence. Specific Soviet capabilities became the metric for our weapons programs and their guiding requirements. Finally, the inner-German border (the place) provided terrain that could be understood and prepared and created demands for adequate forces for its defense, forward presence, logistical hubs, nuclear storage sites, and a host of other definable requirements.

Then the Cold War ended — the so-called end of history. Until it wasn’t.

Absent the Soviet Union, generic concepts (Network-Centric Warfare, Effects-Based Operations, Halt Operations, Air-Sea Battle, and Strategic Landpower, et al.) proliferated to do what the U.S. military wanted to do, with little view to what it would have to do in the face of competent, well-armed adversaries. These views were compounded by the hubris and complacency of believing that the United States would remain the sole superpower and reinforced by operations against enemies largely powerless to thwart American ambitions. And, until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, America ruled the domains (air, land, maritime, space, and cyber) in almost casualty-free, rapid campaigns

Those days are over.

Waking Up After Vietnam

There are parallels between where we find ourselves now and where we were at the end of the Vietnam War. The Army woke up from that war and found the world had dramatically changed. Historian Paul Herbert wrote that after Vietnam, Gen. William DePuy, then commander of the new U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command,

And his assistants feared that Vietnam had been an aberration in the historical trend of warfare and that the Army had lost a generation’s worth of technical modernization there while gaining a generation of nearly irrelevant combat experience.

Historian John Shy addressed this issue in America’s First Battles: 1775-1965, writing “The peculiarity of first battles lies mainly in the lack of recent, relevant combat experience by the forces engaged.” His essay concludes a collection that recounts the failures of the American Army in many of its first engagements in war, including First Bull Run (1861), Cantigny (1918), Buna (1942), Kasserine Pass (1943), and Task Force Smith (1950)). In each of these cases, American soldiers went into battle confident in themselves and certain of victory. In each they found their confidence unfounded and suffered defeat. Eventual Army victories in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, came at a high cost in blood and treasure and significant battlefield adaptation.

The 1973 Arab-Israeli war was the wakeup call that shook the Army (and the other U.S. armed services) out of its somnolence, because it “demonstrated the new lethality of the future battlefield. The U.S. Army learned from this war that it was not prepared for mid-intensity conflict.” The Arab forces, equipped with Soviet weapons and employing Soviet doctrine, had bloodied the invincible Israeli military. How much worse would it be for Americans in Europe against the Soviets themselves?

DePuy’s answer to this challenge began a doctrinal transformation in the Army, that explicitly focused the Army on war in NATO against the Warsaw Pact, because he believed that this was the most difficult mission the Army would face. Everything else he viewed as a lesser-included case. Politically, the Nixon Doctrine, which eschewed sending the Army to contest wars of national liberation, also helped shift the focus to state conflict. As DePuy recalled, “The Vietnam war — combat with light and elusive forces — was over.”

In 1976, the Army published FM 100-5: Operations. It was a defensive doctrine, given DePuy’s conviction that “The defense of central Europe against large, modern, Soviet armored forces once again became the Army’s main, almost exclusive, mission.” What came to be called Active Defense, with better air-land coordination, was the DePuy prescription for the challenges of NATO.

The 1976 doctrinal manual was immediately the subject of an intense inter-Army controversy for three reasons. First, it placed too much emphasis on the defense at the expense of the offense. Second, in stressing force ratios and destruction of enemy forces, the manual ignored the psychological dimensions of warfare. And third, the manual focused too narrowly on combat in Europe to the exclusion of contingencies elsewhere in the world.

DePuy’s protégé, Lt. Gen. Donn Starry, also found during his command of V Corps in Europe, that the 1976 manual did not solve the problems he faced against the Warsaw Pact:

We tackled the tactical problem up forward [but] we kind of brushed aside the operational level considerations, the theater-level considerations … What gelled it for me was being a corps commander.

Nevertheless, the comments of then-Supreme Allied Commander-Europe Gen. Alexander M. Haig were perhaps most representative of the internal Army rejection of the manual. He wrote to DePuy “that he ‘would personally like to see . . . a more explicit reminder that in general, the ultimate purpose of any defense if to regain the initiative by taking the offensive.’” However, despite its shortcoming, Active Defense did get the Army focused on major power war.

This focus on the offensive is an enduring feature of U.S. Army doctrine. We can see this in some of the service’s oldest doctrine. For example, the 1923 Field Service Regulations states explicitly: “Decisive results are obtained only by the offensive.” Nevertheless, DePuy’s focus on worst case Soviet threat to Europe was consistent as well. The 1923 manual noted that the Army had to prepare for “an opponent organized for war on modern principles and equipped with all the means of modern warfare.” Why? It explains: “An army capable of waging successful war under these conditions will prove adequate to any less grave emergency with which it may be confronted.”

The Warsaw Pact Challenge

What eventually evolved from this internal Army debate was a new conceptual approach to warfare, captured in the 1982 and 1986 versions of FM 3-0. The 1986 edition was explicit in its purpose: “FM 100-5, Operations, is the Army’s keystone warfighting manual. It explains how Army forces plan and conduct campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements in conjunction with other services and allied forces.” It reflected a deep understanding of the enemy system, the problem to be solved, and posited a theory of victory around which concepts and capabilities could be developed.

The manual was also the Army’s guiding light for what became termed the DOTMLPF-P process (doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy), because

It furnishes the authoritative foundation for subordinate doctrine, force design, materiel acquisition, professional education, and individual and unit training. It applies to Army forces worldwide, but must be adapted to the specific strategic and operational requirements of each theater.

The manual also maintained its emphasis on conventional warfighting:

While emphasizing conventional military operations, it recognizes that Army forces must be capable of operating effectively in any battlefield environment, including low intensity conflict and on the nuclear and chemical battlefield.

It also stressed the importance of the offense:

The offensive is the decisive form of war-the commander’s ultimate means of imposing his will upon the enemy. While strategic, operational, or tactical considerations may require defending, defeat of an enemy force at any level will sooner or later require shifting to the offensive.

Indeed, the manual’s section on defense stressed “the immediate challenge of any defensive operation is to recapture the initiative and thus create the opportunity to shift to the offensive.” The 1986 manual, however, was broader than its predecessors in that it talked about the gamut of possibilities facing the Army in the waning days of the Cold War, from terrorism to warfare with the nuclear-armed Warsaw Pact. It also recognized that the problems it confronted in the Warsaw Pact necessitated close cooperation with the U.S. Air Force, hence the term AirLand Battle.

By the end of the Cold War, the Army’s transformation to a force able to execute AirLand Battle was complete. It had formidable weapons (“The Big Five” and others) and well-trained soldiers and formations who had honed their skills at the combat training centers.

But this was much more than an Army effort. Working at high levels, the Army and the Air Force developed the means and ways by which they would execute AirLand Battle through a process that resulted in the “31 Initiatives” to solve a problem in a war with the Warsaw Pact that neither service could independently. This cooperation extended across the services with the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols bill that mandated jointness among the U.S. military services.

The results of these post-Vietnam War transformations played out in rapid, low-U.S. casualty victories in Operation Just Cause in Panama to end the regime of Manuel Noriega and Operation Desert Storm to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. These were the “preferred” and understood first battles for the United States, although there were signs that the “next” first battles might be different in places like Somalia.

This preference is reflected in the Army’s 2001 FM 3-0 Operations in the statement:

The doctrine holds warfighting as the Army’s primary focus and recognizes that the ability of Army forces to dominate land warfare also provides the ability to dominate any situation in military operations other than war.

Similarly, the Air Force clearly enunciated its place as an independent, war-winning service in its 2003 Air Force Doctrine Document 1: Air Force Basic Doctrine:

Operation DESERT STORM proved the efficacy of strategic attack and Operations DELIBERATE FORCE, OAF [Operation Allied Force], OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom], OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] further refined it. In these operations, air and space assets conducting strategic attack proved able to deny enemy access to critical resources, defeat enemy strategies, and decisively influence enemy decisions to end hostilities on terms favorable to US interests. Today’s Air Force possesses an independent war-winning potential distinct from and complementary to its ability to decisively shape surface warfare.

The Problems of the Perished Peer

When the Cold War ended, aside from removing the lodestone for strategy and policy (and for the concept and capability processes that had created the post-Vietnam War Army), it removed a common problem the U.S. armed services had to cooperate to solve. In short, the Soviet Union was the glue that held together jointness. In the face of massive post-Cold War budget cuts, troop reductions, and withdrawals from overseas basing, the inter-service competition for what dollars remained became strident. The Army and the Air Force diverged, and the jointness demonstrated during Operations Just Cause and Desert Storm devolved, as both services strove to use recent operations to tout their utility — and thus budget relevance — for future conflicts. The debate over the role of air versus ground power in Operation Desert Storm was particularly heated, followed by pronouncements on the effectiveness of air power during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, and in the initial campaigns during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom that seemed to obviate the need for large ground force contingents. The possibility that air forces and special operations forces can end wars quickly without large, messy, protracted ground operations is obviously attractive to decision makers, as was their embrace of a post-Cold War peace dividend.

For Russia and China, however, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were wakeup calls, and they embarked on long-term transformations, intellectual and physical, based on solving the problem posed by the United States. Their actions went largely unnoticed by the U.S. military, as concept-based capabilities development processes took the place of threat-based approaches, given the apparent absence of a peer. In 2003, in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the problem of defeating insurgencies became the principal U.S. focus. As during Vietnam, concept and capabilities development shifted into high gear to deal with this challenge.


David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a Principal Researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Image: U.S. Army/Mark Burrell