An Alternative History of AirLand Battle, Part I

depuy and westmoreland

Early in the morning on Feb. 11, 1974, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command headquarters is abuzz with activity. Gen. Creighton Abrams, Army chief of staff since October, is coming to Fort Monroe for a meeting with all the Army’s three- and four-star generals. The focus of the session is on the initial lessons learned from what the press is calling the “Yom Kippur War.” This latest round between Israel and the Arab states was an unexpectedly close-run thing.

Lt. Gen. Todd Land, director of the Future Concepts Division, led the team that went to Israel for a month to study the war. He and his team have lots to tell the chief. Indeed, what they had learned fully validated the path the Army was on in fielding its new active defense doctrine, itself crafted after an exhaustive analysis of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, more popularly known as the “Six Day War.” Indeed, the Army had created U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and U.S. Army Forces Command in 1970 to get the Army on track. The lessons learned from that war showed the importance of the Army in big wars. It was also a great surrogate for — as his boss, Gen. Bill DePuy, loved to frame NATO’s challenges against the Warsaw Pact — “winning the first battle of the next war while fighting outnumbered.”



Why Think About an Alternative History?

The story related in the introduction didn’t happen. It’s fiction. We are using it to set up an alternative history of what might have happened at the Army set up Training and Doctrine Command three years earlier than it did, using the 1967 war as its basis for innovation for modern warfare rather than the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Had that happened, when the 1973 war came, we believe it would have been viewed through the lens of the hard work that had already been done to prepare the Army for the future. Consequently, the lessons of 1973 would have been skewed to validate this process, rather than question its efficacy. We believe this alternative history can serve as a cautionary tale about the challenges all the services — deeply invested in their ongoing modernization efforts — will face in fully and objectively assessing the “lessons” from the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.

Before we continue, a note on literary style: In our alternative timeline, we look closely at our characters — especially Land, Westmoreland, and DePuy. We do this because we believe these characters speak a great deal to the culture of the Army, both at the time and today in all the services as they examine Ukraine. DePuy’s stature is especially important. He was the best leader the Army had at the time and was probably the only general officer who could have pulled all this off, whether it is in our alternative history or in the actual story that unfolded. His toughness and demeanor are important, because they gave him the ability to ram Active Defense and the training reforms through the gauntlet.

The admonition to “Never let a good crisis go to waste” is apt advice to any institution that has set out to drive change. In militaries, transformational changes are often termed “revolutions in military affairs.” The most famous in the military literature are the innovations that occurred between World War I and World War II: the German blitzkrieg, U.S. Navy carrier aviation, and U.S. Marine Corps amphibious operations.

Other attempted revolutions in military affairs are largely lost to history except as case studies of failed approaches. This was the case of the Pentomic Division — the Army’s grasping for relevance in the face of “New Look” massive cuts to conventional forces during the Eisenhower administration. Or the Air Force’s attempts to build a nuclear-powered bomber to avoid risky refueling operations. More recently, the decision to cancel the Army’s Future Combat Systems program and abandon its supporting concepts come to mind. Similarly, the Navy continues to have difficulties with its Littoral Combat Ship, while the Marine Corps has abandoned the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which supported new concepts of its own.

Fortunately, many efforts at innovation never get far enough along to fail in combat. Instead, the “ideas” join the massive stack of useless bumper stickers masquerading as major innovations for which no car was built on which to hang them. Some of the more recent such efforts that come to mind include network-centric warfare, halt operations, responsibility to protect, leading from behind, air sea battle, strategic landpower, and rapid decisive operations.

There are, however, examples in post-Cold War U.S. history where crises spurred action and true innovation. For example, the Global War on Terror forced the U.S. military to embrace unmanned aerial systems whose potential a “pilot-in-the cockpit” culture had stymied for decades. These unmanned systems revolutionized the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance-Strike Complex with their long reach, endurance, and zero risk of pilots becoming casualties or terrorist captives.

The literature on military innovation abounds if one looks for other examples of success and failure. What is less examined are cases when there is not a crisis but, instead, the motivation is to justify institutional relevance. Importantly, these innovations are not necessarily designed to take advantage of new ideas or technologies. Here, the focus is on highlighting to their political masters the relevance of existing and planned service capabilities and concepts to solving a problem. The stakes are high in these endeavors; success ranges from forestalling cuts to significantly increasing budgets. This approach is the rationale for the case that we will examine in this alternative history of the U.S. Army at the end of the Vietnam War.

What actually happened is one of the best-known cases of Cold War military innovation: the development of AirLand Battle by the Army, ably assisted by the Air Force. Briefly, Active Defense and its successor, AirLand Battle, were ultimately responses to a crisis caused by assessments of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The U.S. Army was alarmed that the Arab armies had nearly defeated the vaunted Israeli Defense Force.  To add to the anxiety was the realization that the Arabs were using Soviet equipment and doctrine, while the Israelis largely relied on U.S. materiel. If Arabs had pulled this off against the Israelis, what would happen to U.S. forces in a fight against the even better trained and equipped Warsaw Pact?

The Army’s response is the stuff of service legend. The Army created a new four-star-led institution — U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command — to study the war, develop concepts to prepare the Army to fight in NATO, and to drive materiel requirements to realize the concept. Eventually, the Army and the Air Force realized that they had to work together on the Soviet problem; it was beyond the ability of either service to solve independently.

The problem, revealed by the 1973 crisis, had two important dimensions. First, it was a strategic and vital national security problem, which assured external political and budgetary support. It was not just the Army looking to demonstrate its relevance in the face of budget pressures, particularly force structure cuts, as had largely been the case during its response to Eisenhower’s New Look. Second, the problem was enduring. Consequently, it enjoyed continued support both outside and, perhaps more importantly, inside the Army from successive chiefs of staff.

Absent a clear, specific strategic problem that demands significant institutional change, innovation often founders. Operational concepts, when not tied to a specific military problem, struggle to provide relevance against nebulous strategic policies, e.g., “the pivot to Asia.”

The 1973 Yom Kippur War clearly had all the characteristics that foreshadowed the strategic challenge posed by the Warsaw Pact to NATO. Inside the Army, it had the added attraction of returning to how the Army had fought since World War I. Vietnam had been an anomaly. That war would have been won, in the opinion of most senior military officers, if the U.S. Armed Forces had been permitted by their civilian masters to fight it like it should have been fought.

The question we will pose is what would have resulted if the Army had created Training and Doctrine Command before the 1973 war and instead based its innovation on the 1967 war? Would they have viewed the 1973 war as validation of their efforts to date? Or would they have seen the war as something different and as a crisis?

This is the challenge facing all the services as they begin mining the lessons from Ukraine. Will they use this crisis to search for flaws in their concepts and capabilities, or merely for validation?

Embracing the Only Crisis You Have: Next Steps in this Alternative History

Continuing the “what if” alternative history of events that might have transpired if the Army had formed its Training and Doctrine Command in 1970, rather than in July 1973, the new command would have focused on the 1967 Arab-Israeli War as the basis for analysis and impetus for modernizing the Army for high-end warfare. Our story continues with a brief elaboration of the context within which Gen. Westmoreland made these decisions.

One of the first things Westmoreland did when he got settled in as chief in July 1968 was direct a close examination of the recent 1967 Six-Day War between the Arabs and the Israelis. In that war, the outnumbered Israelis had routed the larger Arab armies. Westmoreland wanted to know how the Israelis did it, particularly since the Arabs were using Russian equipment and doctrine.

Westmoreland believed that he had to reorient the Army away from Vietnam now that the war in Vietnam was clearly drawing down. Quite frankly, in his view, the Army was on the cusp of a crisis. What reforms and modernization initiatives would make it relevant after the war, when, as always, budgets would contract?

Westmoreland clearly had reasons for concern. The Nixon Doctrine, announced by the President in 1969, stated that in the future the United States would prepare to fight one-and-a-half wars simultaneously — a major war in Europe or Asia and a lesser conflict like Vietnam. This obviously had implications for the Army’s size and budget, given that the previous administration had a two-and-a-half war strategy, requiring forces to simultaneously fight the Soviets in Europe, the Chinese or North Koreans in Asia, and a lesser Third World conflict. Nevertheless, it was hard to make the case that the Chinese would ever become a significant threat. Furthermore, the North Koreans had been contained since the armistice ending the Korean War and the Republic of Korea military was coming into its own.

Westmoreland’s worst fears were being born out. In 1968, there were 1,570,343 soldiers on active duty in the Army. The actual numbers for 1972 were bleaker than anyone had expected in their worst nightmares: the Army was cut nearly in half to around 810,000 active duty soldiers. Budgets were plummeting. Projections for future years looked even more dire.

In addition to cuts to its end strength and budget, the Army was facing growing internal issues of indiscipline, drug use, and racial tension. Furthermore, the officer corps was in trouble as well. A disturbing study by the Army War College, directed by Westmoreland, had uncovered widespread perceptions in the officer corps that they were being micromanaged. More alarming was the finding that many did not trust their superior officers. “Careerism” was the shorthand for these problems. Westmoreland kept the report confidential — this was not a story the Army needed out in the public, particularly now. The seemingly never-ending fallout from the My Lai disaster was bad enough!

Maintaining even the reduced end strength numbers was going to be difficult. President Nixon, following up on his 1968 campaign promise, had made the decision to end the draft by 1973 just this past December. Like so much else, this was likely done to dampen domestic protests. Recruiting enough qualified volunteers to fill the Army’s ranks was going to be a “significant challenge” — Army speak for “nearly impossible.”

Westmoreland knew he had to find a compelling reason to justify the Army’s relevance or watch it wither in the shadow of the other services. The defense of NATO was the obvious answer. and his strategy had two fronts. First, he was going to reinvigorate the Army for a major war in Europe against the Soviets, given that was the principal threat. The demands of the war in Vietnam had forced the Army to both underman the units in Germany and elsewhere and to focus its training and equipment for the war it was in: Vietnam.

To get the Army back on track, Westmoreland created in July 1970 a new four-star command — the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. He also carefully selected the commander for this key post. Bill DePuy, his J-3 in Vietnam, and Assistance Vice Chief of Staff in the Pentagon, took the reins of this important new command.

DePuy was known throughout the Army as a tough and innovative leader. He, like Westmoreland and Abrams, had also been in the Army long enough to have seen the big elephant in World War II, in addition to his service in Vietnam. He knew the demands and lethality of a high-intensity war against a peer enemy. In his first official call with them, Westmoreland gave DePuy his marching orders.

Land had been a note taker for Westmoreland during the meeting and remembered vividly his boss’s guidance to the eager new commander. Westmoreland told DePuy that he was his handpicked trusted agent in the campaign to help restore the relevance of the Army. In short, he was entrusting the very future of the Army to him.

Westmoreland told DePuy that this job was particularly central to his vision. He wanted U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command to be the Army’s “Architect for the Future.” He needed concepts that made the Army central to any U.S. response to the Soviet challenge in NATO, as a way to arrest the downward slide in Army manpower and budgets.

The hard-charging Bill DePuy was the perfect choice for U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Land knew DePuy from having served as one of DePuy’s battalion commanders in the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam. Indeed, he was a survivor of DePuy’s demands for excellence. In the Big Red One, DePuy sacked battalion commanders and majors — over 50 between March and December 1966 — so fast that then Army chief General Harold Johnson declared, “If every division commander relieved people like DePuy, I’d soon be out of lieutenant colonels and majors. He just eats them up like peanuts.”

DePuy was unfazed. He knew the cost of unprepared commanders. He was a second lieutenant in 1942; in August 1944 he received a field promotion to major and was commanding an infantry battalion in the 90th Infantry Division. His toughness on officers in his subsequent commands, most notably in the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam (1966), was the result of witnessing the costs of incompetent officers on the battlefield: dead American soldiers. He had also demonstrated personal courage on the battlefields of Europe and Asia that demanded respect, having earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, three Silver Stars, and two Purple Hearts.

Bill DePuy was exactly what the Army needed. He soon began a campaign to get the Army back to basics and demanded competence: everyone had to know their jobs. Military occupational specialties were deconstructed into tasks, conditions, and standards and at every level, enlisted soldiers were tested on their mastery. DePuy also riveted the Army’s attention on the NATO fight against the Warsaw Pact. “Know your enemy” became his prime directive: if you knew the Soviets in detail, you could beat them.

The disciplined, focused Army that Westmoreland envisioned would be trained in reinvigorated Army schools, run by U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. New equipment and formations would be developed to execute the doctrine that evolved from the new concept. Therefore, the concept had to come first, or the Army would chase the next good materiel idea endlessly. And the equipment would be focused, as was everything else, on beating the Soviets.

DePuy was building a threat-based Army. For example, with artillery, the range challenge was being able to outrange Soviet artillery and win the counter-fire fight while supporting the scheme of maneuver, not just shoot as far as possible. As for any new tank, it had to make a gunfight unfair by killing Soviet tanks outside of the enemy tank’s maximum effective range — and the mechanized forces had to fight in well-trained, combined-arms teams. All of these efforts required rigorous experimentation, modeling, and analysis.

Central to DePuy’s strategy was the crafting of a warfighting concept relevant to the mission of NATO of deterring a war with Russia. If deterrence failed, the Army had to be ready to execute its key mission of defending NATO in a high-intensity war. Clearly, a robust and credible defense was imperative. “Active Defense” is what resulted from DePuy’s guidance and two years of hard work at U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

The goal of the operating concept, essentially a multi-corps bounding overwatch in reverse, was to grind up the Red Army and its allies, denying the Warsaw Pact the rapid achievement of territorial objectives its own doctrine demanded.

DePuy was ruthless in his enforcement of what he knew were necessary measures to meet Westmoreland’s guidance. This was a top-down exercise and DePuy, as he had been throughout his career, did not shy away from enforcing his will.

Land was proud to be on DePuy’s team. Westmoreland had promoted him and finally released him from the hated Pentagon to go take a key role in this exciting new endeavor that would save the Army. Land had replaced his West Point classmate, Lieutenant General Tom Air, who had just retired. Air, unfortunately, had not been moving the ball forward. He kept insisting that the Air Force would have to be closely involved in crafting the Army concept, given that air support would be critical in a big state war, just as it had been during World War II.

Aside from broad disagreement in U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command with Air’s assertions, airmen were clearly not interested in helping the Army. The Air Force was riding high, insisting that the recent Christmas bombing campaign over North Vietnam had won the war by breaking the North Vietnamese will and driving them to the peace table in Paris. If that wasn’t enough, the bomber mafia was reasserting itself, proclaiming that the war would have been won in the first year if strategic airpower had been unleashed on the North, per the plan offered to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1964. They could do the same thing in any future war — if, as they predictably argued, the service was sufficiently funded. Westmoreland feared that if their arguments prevailed, it could be the Eisenhower New Look all over again.

As for McNamara and his ”whiz kids,” their limited war theories and gradual escalation failures showed once again that civilians, particularly academic intellectuals, had no business getting involved in the conduct of a war. Their micromanagement made fighting the war nearly impossible and beyond frustrating.

The ’73 War Was an Outlier

Land was ready for the meeting. He and DePuy had spent many late hours that week developing the briefing. Their findings about the Yom Kippur War bore out the correctness of Active Defense; their hard work over the past two years of war was well worthwhile.

Land was amazed at the poor Israeli performance in the Yom Kippur War. Obviously, they had not studied their own ’67 War as rigorously as had U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. They were known for their arrogance, but this was unbelievable!

The clear lesson from the Yom Kippur fiasco was the fact that the Israelis were not trained to defend. Their positions in the Sinai were easily overwhelmed. Fortunately, for the Israelis, the terrain in the Golan and some tough Israeli commanders had enabled them to hold against the Syrians. Then they reverted to what they always did: high-risk offensives using a flawed operating concept that overly relied on pure armor formations and close air support. The Arab use of Soviet air defense systems, particularly the mobile SA-6 surface-to-air missile, denied the Israelis the air superiority they had previously enjoyed. Consequently, the air-armor team the Israelis relied upon was stymied. The Israelis barely pulled it out, even with significant U.S. materiel support.

Furthermore, all the ado about the surprise appearance of the Russian Sagger anti-tank guided missile on the battlefield was idiotic. Had not the U.S. Army used its version, the TOW, to great effect in Vietnam in 1972 against North Vietnamese armored attacks? It was a great weapon to reinforce the defense against armored offensives. It would play an important role in NATO, both on the ground and mounted on helicopters. Unfortunately, part of the Army’s budget would have to go to replacing the TOWs it had to send to Israel.

The clear lesson from the ’73 war wasn’t that the Arabs had gotten that much better since ’67. Rather, the vaunted Israeli military, resting on its laurels, had atrophied and was not ready.

Yes, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command team was ready for the chief and the Army was clearly on the right track! Active Defense had been validated in the ultimate experiment: the crucible of war. Fortunately, for the Army, this was a vicarious learning experience. Rather than losing its next first battle, the Army had learned from the Israelis’ success in ’67, as well as their catastrophic near defeat in ‘73.

The briefing was a huge success. General Abrams was clearly pleased, so much so that he hosted an open bar at the Fort Monroe O Club. He told the team that their work was just what the Army needed. It showed the central role that only the Army could play in defending NATO. And the gap analysis between U.S. and Soviet systems was invaluable. It gave him just the right ammunition for the looming budget battles on the Hill. How could Congress deny soldiers the capabilities they would need to win? The “bloody shirt” had its uses.

Finally, Abrams was also enthusiastic about Active Defense. It showed that the Army understood how to fight big wars and knew the same old “On to Berlin” offensive concept was not going to cut it in a war against a nuclear power. He would personally work on getting Army doubters in line. This was key. If you thought DePuy was tough, having Abrams in your face was a real nightmare, particularly since everyone knew that he personally managed all general officer assignments. Abrams’s message would be crystal clear: sing with one voice or find another choir.

Why is This Alternative History Relevant?

Although the alternative history we posit did not happen, it is plausible that it could have happened. If it had, the 1967 Arab-Israel War would have been the basis for the Army’s innovations as it modernized to fight and win while being outnumbered against the Warsaw Pact. In our story, this hard work would have been developed over three years. It is reasonable to postulate that the new concept — Active Defense — that resulted from these years of rigorous gaming, experimentation, exercises, and modeling would have been the standard against which lessons from the subsequent 1973 Arab-Israeli War would be measured. Furthermore, a determined Gen. DePuy was implementing the concept and driving modernization. He was not someone to be crossed without good cause.

Our next article will try to chart a path through the minefield of lessons to be learned from Ukraine, that can better prepare the U.S. Department of Defense for the challenges it faces in the future.



David Johnson is a retired Army officer. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 and Learning Large Lessons: The Evolving Roles of Ground Power and Air Power in the Post-Cold War Era. From 2012-2014 he founded and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for General Raymond T. Odierno.

Zach Alessi-Friedlander is an officer in the U.S. Army, having served in tactical, operational, and strategic assignments in light infantry and armored cavalry units. He was a member of General Odierno’s inaugural Strategic Studies Group and participated in the Art of War Scholars program at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is currently a Ph.D. student in History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image: U.S. Army photo