Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Internal Conversation

What follows is an expanded version of a response to a question that was raised in an NCO forum on Army Knowledge Online, an officially-sponsored channel of communication within the Army. The internal conversation with ourselves on this issue has reached the NCO ranks, as well it should.

The discussion of our ability to readjust to a conventional conflict is a background conversation that the Army is having with itself. Part of the discussion has been the Gentile V. Nagl debate concerning this issue.

While the Army has been involved in a LIC (Low Intensity Conflict) for the past few years in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we have struggled with it. COIN operations are complex and the difference between very effective and ineffective COIN operations are hard to define subjectively. Has the Army truly reconfigured itself as a COIN-centered LIC force, or has it been doing the mission that it has been given while still keeping in its heart of hearts a yearning for the HIC (High Intensity Conflict?)

We still have the conventional capability. We have not rid ourselves of the systems that are used in conventional conflict. We still have the armored force. We still have the artillery. We still have the deep interdiction capable helicopters. If the question is do we have the capability to use those systems, isn't the question really, "At what level do the skills become non-transferable?"

Is it at the soldier level? Soldier-level skills are easily trainable. Most of the soldiers use the same skills to operate their systems in LIC as they do in HIC. Some MOS's (Military Occupational Specialties; jobs titles) use their soldier skills more heavily in LIC than was ever projected for HIC. It could be argued that among the soldiers of the Transportation Corps, for instance, the LIC has increased their soldier skill abilities, making them more likely to be successful in HIC, where enemy SOF (Special Operations Forces) forces are likely to target logistics capabilities, than prior to the LIC in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army has learned not to just throw a logistics soldier through BCT and then have them only drive the truck and pay minimal lip-service to soldier skills.

While Artillery and Armor branch soldiers often do not use their primary specialties while deployed, how long does it take to come back up to speed on their primary platforms? It could be argued that the breakdown in skills comes at a leadership level, where unfamiliarity with tactics and the challenges of coordination of efforts in HIC would cause inefficiency that would decrease effectiveness. The soldier and smaller units will apply their soldier skills and skills with their platforms in whatever environment they are tasked to perform them. TTP's generated over the last several HIC's are still retained at the institutional level. In fact, junior leaders are more challenged to perform the actions of maneuver and tactical operations independently now than in most HIC scenarios. So where is the lack of knowledge?

First, let's figure out where the skills begin to break down and seek to determine a program to address the atrophy where the potential for it occurs, instead of assuming that it is an enterprise-wide issue.

Another question; is the Army really and truly such a skilled practitioner of the type of warfare in which we are currently engaged, or are we basically muddling through this type of conflict with our eye constantly on the next war that is more institutionally enjoyable; the next HIC? Are we not engaged in a conversation that becomes an excuse for not focusing on the distasteful and more difficult challenge of becoming expert practitioners of the doctrine of the war in which we are engaged?

Is COIN trained at the lowest level of professional development? The answer is no. Galula is not even required reading at advanced officer courses. It is certainly not being trained at the junior NCO courses, even though junior NCO's are tasked with executing the doctrine without ever having been trained in it other than with TTP's. There is very little understanding of COIN at the junior leader level. The "strategic Corporal" is untrained in the doctrine. During the '80's and '90's, nearly everyone was an expert proponent of AirLand Doctrine. The Operations manual was introduced at the lower levels of professional education.

Soldiers love the kinetic fight, tactical maneuver, and strategy. COIN does not offer so much of these things that kinetically-inclined warriors love. I do not see the commitment to the doctrine of the current war that was present in the AirLand proponency. Are we talking ourselves out of becoming expert practitioners of the doctrine of the current war in favor of a fantasy of future conflict?

Our problems adapting to COIN in the current environment have, in part, come from a lack of institutional knowledge of how to conduct effective COIN operations. It took numerous years to even publish doctrine on the matter. This doctrine, only two years old, is now under attack as actually being bad for the Army. It could be argued that we have not, as an institution, mastered its practice before seeking to move away from it to the better-loved more purely kinetic fight of classical HIC warfare. Why is the question not, "Are we truly masters of the domain in which we currently operate?" I think that the answer, if we look honestly at ourselves and our Army, would be, "No." If that is the case, again the question arises, "Why are we looking so intently at the future when we are not even masters of the present?"

Is it too much for us to transition between LIC and HIC? It could be argued that the failure to adapt quickly to LIC/COIN has cost more in the past 50 years in terms of lives and treasure than the failure to readjust to HIC when the circumstances have required it. It could be further argued that the failure to plan for the likelihood or eventuality of LIC and the lack of any coherent doctrine (to the point that it took years to actually publish doctrine for COIN)has incurred such costs rather than the inability to project for HIC. This Army is undefeated in HIC. The same cannot be said for LIC/COIN.

At least we already have the most effective, proven HIC doctrine ever devised already in the bag. That's more than could be said for our COIN doctrine as of a scant two and a half years ago.

Let's break this down for simplicity. I have talked about the culture in the Army before. Our culture has heavily stressed the warrior ethos. We even create additional tags to go on the soldier's dog tag chains with the warrior ethos printed on it, as a talisman of our culture. Elitism is bred in. Everyone wants to be elite. Pride is part of professionalism. Physical prowess and tactical proficiency are key to the pride. Excellent players of strategy and tactical games have succeeded.

We even produced our own video game, "America's Army." It is a tactical shoot 'em up. Warriors tend to enjoy first-person shooters or classic games such as the "Close Combat" series of games. Hey, I've never in my life played "Dungeons and Dragons," either. I'm really good at "Steel Beasts," and I've kicked a lot of ass on "M1 Tank Platoon II."

COIN is much more like "Dungeons and Dragons" or "World of Warcraft." There is the first-person shooter aspect to COIN, but Verne Troyer's Mage character is likely to be more successful at engaging the local village leadership than any "Tom Clancy's End War" shooter.

"Launch kinetic strike!" is more our style than any circle-talking, wand-waving gnome in a pointy hat type stuff. It's also something we cannot do so much. Kinetic strikes are what got the Soviets to be so universally hated in Afghanistan.

That and godless communism, of course.

Getting an avid player of "Medal of Honor" to play "Dungeons and Dragons" is not easy, and the participant's enthusiasm level is likely to be low. Instead of knowing that he can lob a grenade or launch a missile into a particular target and achieve the desired result, he may have to cast a "Good Governance" spell combined with an "Information Operation" incantation backed with his multiplier card to move to the next level. Is it any wonder that our level of execution with COIN has been spotty?

That may sound insultingly simplistic, but I'm telling you that there is something there. See how close what I just said is to this:

It is as if our COIN doctrine, with all of its seductive simplicity, operates like a secret recipe: “do this, and then this, and at the right moment add this and ... you win,” as scholar Michael Vlahos shrewdly noted in a recent issue of Military Review. ~ COL Gian Gentile, Armed Forces Journal

None of this is easy, and some of it is actually distasteful. Add to it the aspect of doing things are not, strictly speaking, the Army's business, and you have spotty execution mixed with a complete mismatch of capabilities. Until we begin to address some of the non-militarily addressable issues with other, civilian-oriented, capabilities (most of which we have not even developed,) we are going to struggle.

Iraq came with a damaged existing infrastructure, an artificially-induced governance vacuum, and an existing economic basis. Afghanistan has the power vacuum, and none of the rest of it. Until we effectively address the other issues, some of which require a non-military response, we will struggle with containing the insurgency there. Add to that the spotty execution of effective COIN operations, and you have quite the struggle ahead.

I'm still giggling to myself over the image of Verne Troyer doing a key leader engagement; discussing village development with a Malik while dressed as a Mage in body armor.

Perhaps instead of, "Garry Owen!" it needs to be "Leeeeeroyyyyyyy Jenk-kinssss!"

COIN practitioners at work. This one's for you, O:

That reminds that I have to get the video up of our drive through the fields of Taliban Eggs. See? This stuff really is more like "World of Warcraft."

"At least I have chicken." ~ Leroy Jenkins


  1. C'mon,

    You mean you didn't like the 0400 get up battle cry from Leroy.


  2. I really love reading your blog. Particularly all of the "boots on ground" views of working directly with the ANA, ANP and general activities.

    It helps to gain a better perspective of our situation. Which apparently hasn't changed much in these last months.

    A question: A current discussion is underway concerning the use of CERP funds or other money to pay locals to essentially stay out of the fight. In similar context to what occurred in Iraq with security and infrastructure contracts to sheihks along with the development of CLCs, etc.

    Is this viable in Afghanistan or is this throwing good money after bad?

  3. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/24/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  4. That video game analogy is frigging brilliant. (Not to mention that it would be easily understood by today's generation of Soldiers who grew up on said games.)

    And the video at the bottom was hilarious. Thanks for this.


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