Great armies and navies are always tempted to fight the last war, especially if they won it. The British Army entered World War I wedded to the "up and at 'em" infantry advances of Waterloo—even though by the turn of the century the Maxim gun had made such tactics tantamount to suicide. Truly fearsome militaries prepare to fight the next war. Think of how the German Army used planes and tanks in a coordinated blitzkrieg to outmaneuver the Allies at the outset of World War II.
But what if a military must prepare to fight not one war, but two very different kinds of war? That is the challenge facing the world's greatest superpower at the beginning of the 21st century. The American military must continue to ready itself for high-tech warfare; it must still be able to fight "big wars" against rising powers like China. At the same time, it must anticipate what military planners blandly term "low-intensity conflict" but what Rudyard Kipling more aptly called the "savage wars of peace"—small, asymmetrical conflicts against determined partisans with wicked low-tech weapons like IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that have cost America so dearly in Iraq.
The tension over which war to prepare for has created a generational divide in the American military, particularly the U.S. Army, between old bulls who want to focus on all-out combat, drowning the enemy in precision firepower, and young upstarts who believe that in today's messy world of failing states, firepower is not enough—it is necessary to win hearts and minds. Many of the combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who are among the most capable and experienced young officers America has had in a generation, fall into the latter camp. But the uncomfortable fact is that the U.S. military may not have the resources to be able to fight both kinds of war with any assurance of victory. Though political leaders have barely begun to address the problem, the shape, size and funding of America's armed forces is one of the most pressing issues the next president will face.
The end of the cold war was supposed to give the winning superpower a breather. In 1999, the then presidential candidate George W. Bush spoke of his desire to "skip a generation" of weaponry, to move to a shiny new age of high-tech warfare in which sensors, satellites and computers would replace manpower. Among military planners, phrases like "network-centric warfare," "digitization" and "the transparent battlefield" were all the rage. The new thinking was given a partial test after 9/11 when the military invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's push to employ a faster, leaner, more-wired force worked well. In Afghanistan, Special Forces working with local warlords used their laptops to call in precise airstrikes and topple the Taliban; in Iraq, Gen. Tommy Franks could boast that "speed kills"—and Baghdad fell in less than three weeks.
Then came disaster. In Afghanistan, American forces and their unreliable allies were not able to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban survived to fight another day. The growing insurgency in Iraq overwhelmed U.S. forces and left a good portion of the American people and their elected representatives believing that the war was a lost cause. The military seemed caught by surprise, its high-tech forces unable to defeat a shadow army that wired bombs with garage-door openers and the sort of cheap electronic gizmos that could be purchased from RadioShack.
In retrospect, the military's unpreparedness seems puzzling. According to the Congressional Research Service, since the end of the cold war in 1990 the U.S. military has been deployed 88 times—to fight in a series of savage little wars of peace from Somalia to the Balkans to Sierra Leone. Didn't the Army learn anything from the experience?
The answer is yes and no. The older generation of officers—the generals who run the show—were trained to fight the Soviet Army as its tanks powered through the Fulda Gap in Germany. These officers were steeped in tank battles and artillery duels, and although the Big One never came, they did get a chance to fight a conventional armored conflict against the Iraqi Army in 1991, crushing Saddam Hussein's forces in less than 100 hours. After the gulf war, the Army shrank in size by about 40 percent. The officers who advanced to the top ranks tended to be conventional warriors; the outliers and mavericks—the few who knew other cultures, had trained Third World armies and had studied the small wars of the colonial era—were confined to the ghetto of Special Forces or let go altogether. The men who ran the lightning invasion of Iraq and the long, botched occupation that followed tended to be Desert Storm vets who knew little or nothing about counterinsurgency warfare.
Now, however, a younger generation of officers has been bloodied in the city streets of Iraq, fighting against hidden foes. (Some of these same officers were deployed on nation-building missions to the Balkans or Africa or Haiti in the 1990s.) In Iraq, these young captains and majors and lieutenant colonels have had to desperately improvise, to make up tactics as they go along. Naturally, some are furious at their higher-ups for sending them to war so unprepared. In May 2007, one of them, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, wrote a blistering piece in Armed Forces Journal called "A Failure of Generalship." He painted the Army's high command as a bunch of none-too-bright conformists. The promotions system, he wrote, "does little to reward creativity and moral courage." On the contrary, to move up, an officer "must only please his superiors." Yingling pointed out that no one seemed to be taking the fall for failure in Iraq.
He had a point: Gen. George Casey, who presided over the downward spiral between 2004 and 2006, was rewarded by being made Army chief of staff. By contrast, Gen. George Marshall, in his first year as Army chief of staff under FDR in the run-up to World War II, fired 34 generals and 445 colonels from an Army half the size of today's force. After war came in December 1941, he further relieved 17 division commanders. So why no comparable purge during the Iraq War, which has already lasted longer than World War II? More was at stake during 1941 to 1945, of course, but it is also true that the commanders in Iraq were following the policy decreed by Bush and Rumsfeld. The failure of imagination started at the top. True, more officers should have challenged their civilian bosses, but that is rarely the way in a U.S. military obedient to civilian control.
Under the twin pressures of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has dramatically changed its training for officers and soldiers. Now, at its National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California's Mojave Desert, infantry units are plunged into a nightmarish theater in the round: a network of a dozen "Iraqi" villages, complete with several hundred "Iraqis"—the leading roles played by a cast of Arabic-speaking extras supplied by a contractor.
But the real test of the Army's commitment will be whether the military retains and promotes the experienced young officers coming off the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. "One of the challenges we have as senior leaders is that ... we have to change the Army," says Gen. Raymond Odierno, the former No. 2 in Iraq who was recently named vice chief of staff of the Army. "We have to make sure we don't lose this." His boss in Iraq, counterinsurgency guru Gen. David Petraeus, says that the military is beginning to make accommodations for officers who are repeatedly deployed and can't take the war-college courses needed for promotion. Still, young officers were dismayed to see some of Petraeus's own "brain trust" of smart colonels passed over for promotion in recent years. The fact that Petraeus was brought back to Washington, D.C., last fall to oversee the most recent promotions board was taken as a sign that the Pentagon leadership recognized those frustrations.
But simply tipping the balance over to small-war fighting isn't the answer, either. The U.S. Army last week published a critique of the Israeli military's performance in its fight against Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006. It concluded that the Israelis, preoccupied with counterinsurgency efforts in Gaza and the West Bank, had neglected training for conventional combat and paid a heavy price. Yet if the U.S. Army needs to prepare for both Big War and Small War and nation-building postwar, how can it juggle the competing demands of each?
Counterinsurgency and nation-building in particular are labor-intensive; there is no substitute for boots on the ground. The current U.S. Army is stretched to the limit: after their third or fourth tours in Iraq, young officers are fretting about their stressed families. Partly because the Army has been decentralized to be able to fight in smaller, more-mobile units, there is a serious shortage of captains and majors. The minimum requirements for enlisting are dropping, allowing in more and more teenagers who never finished high school.
Some experts think that the active Army needs to nearly double to 800,000 or more troops. But where will the money come from? Every soldier now costs, on average, roughly $125,000 a year. At the same time, the centerpiece of the Army's current plans for the big war out there sometime is the high-tech "Future Combat System," a $300 billion family of vehicles networked into an all-seeing whole by sensors, UAVs and satellites. It will be up to the nation's political leaders to decide whether to make some hard choices or try to convince the voters that they need to pay for it all. Too bad this is a topic that is rarely discussed during the presidential campaign.