Is American Warfighting Doctrine Hardwired for Failure?

These pieces are papers that I believe to be still relevant; they were published earlier elsewhere under a pseudonym. They have been very slightly edited and hyperlinks have been checked.

NOTE 2017: I originally wrote this in February 2015; I haven’t seen anything in the last two years to make me change my mind. The, as Obama called it, “greatest military in the history of the world” is still no closer to “victory” – however you want to define that – in Afghanistan, Iraq or the innumerable other theatres of the GWOT. As to Russia’s warfighting doctrine, we can now add Syria to the Ossetian example mentioned below.

In my career, I never had much to do with the US Armed Forces in the field. Except once, in the early 1980s, when I saw the US Army on a big exercise in Germany and was pretty appalled. Lack of basic training, disorganisation, criminal behaviour (theft and the like), rogue units and an overall lack of military professionalism and competence. That was relatively soon after the Vietnam debacle and the US forces were at a nadir of their existence. Serious efforts were made (I saw a US unit commander summarily fired right then and there for incompetence) and the US forces are much, much better today.

My 35 year old observations serve only to illustrate that even armed forces with a good record can have bad periods after defeats. But armies improve – defeat is a good teacher – and the Americans have improved greatly since their defeat in Vietnam. Their operations in Iraq in 2003 were a masterpiece of logistical and operational perfection. No better illustration can be given than the fact that the Americans captured every single bridge. At every step of the operation, they were inside the Iraqi decision loop. Iraqi tanks were just targets.

But the Iraqi army was hardly a first class opponent and we cannot say that American forces have been up against first class opponents lately. And, if it takes 11 weeks to force little Serbia to give up, or over seven (seven!) months to overthrow Qaddafi, there must be some problem. To say nothing of Iraq or Afghanistan.

I can’t get two questions out of my mind:

When was the last time the USA won a war?

When was the last time US trained troops fought effectively?

Spectacularly successful at raining death and destruction in the first few weeks, something goes wrong later. Obviously there is something wrong in the way the USA fights wars. The expansion of political ends bears much responsibility for eventual failure. Consider, for a contrasting example, the 2008 Ossetia War. Russia had one clear aim and that was to roll back the Georgian attack. Postwar, its aim was to make another attack highly unlikely. It did the first quickly and assured the second by recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia and, under agreement, stationing troops there. Then Moscow stopped. There was no attempt to institute regime change in Tbilisi, to introduce Moscow’s notions of “democracy” or good government, to conquer Georgia, to turn it into a willing or unwilling ally or to attempt to satisfy any other grandiose desires. Moscow confined itself to the things that can be accomplished by violence and stopped when it had done them.

But what was the US/NATO war aim in Afghanistan? Knocking Taliban out of power – that was brilliantly accomplished, but then year after year of killing, dying and blowing things up to what purpose? Building schools? Giving women the vote? Afghanistan will never be a “Western democracy”. Whatever that is. (Neither would it have become a Soviet style “socialist state”, whatever that was). Knock over Saddam Hussein and destroy his forces? Brilliantly accomplished in short order. But then what? Again, Iraq will never be a “Western democracy”. And so the military achievement is squandered in pursuit of an ever receding chimera.

The fuzzy, but enormous, political aims tacked on after the first week or two destroy the soldiers’ victory. As Bismarck said, you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them. But Washington is always trying to sit, indeed trying to sleep comfortably, on them.

But it’s not just the ever expanding war aims that lead to defeat; I believe there is a problem at the heart of American warfighting doctrine. The early successes are based on assumptions that do not, over the long term, endure. It is precisely the initial success that encourages politicians to add the fuzzy political ambitions that lead, in their turn, to failure. The eventual failure is determined in the initial success.

I believe that this problem also answers the second question about the failure of US trained troops. We have just seen the Iraqi army that the US expended so much time and treasure training fold in front of ISIS warriors. The latest in a long string of failures. I believe that the answer to both questions is the same.

Air power and weapons.

Air power first. The US Armed Forces are used to operating in conditions in which almost every aircraft in the sky is friendly. Indeed, since the very first days of WWII, when have they ever had to fear air attack? And for decades now they have assumed, correctly, that every aircraft they see is friendly. They can go where they like confident that no one is tracking them from above, no one is sighting in on them from above and that, in trouble, they can call in tremendous destruction from the air. They kill their enemies – You Tube is full of videos – from the air without the enemy even knowing he’s taken his last breath. They operate confident that the enemy’s command and control system was destroyed in the first few days by air attack. And that, I believe, is the basic assumption of their warfighting doctrine – you never have to worry about what’s above you. And that’s what they – consciously or unconsciously – pass on to the armies they train. “If you get into trouble wait for the air to save you”. But you can only be certain of total air superiority against second or third class opponents. And only for a while: really determined opponents will figure out way to operate anyway.

Secondly, weapons. Americans believe that weapons win wars. And more sophisticated weapons win them faster and easier. But that’s not true. Obviously you need weapons to fight wars. Equally obviously Mongol cavalry with compound bows are at a severe disadvantage against Abrams tanks. But what really wins wars is fighting spirit, leadership, determination, organisation, adaptability. The moral factors. Mongol cavalry would soon learn to avoid the tanks and shoot the crews when they got out of them. And, indeed, we have seen this and the Pentagon ought to know it by now. Vietnam. Somalia. Iraq. Afghanistan. That’s enough, isn’t it, to prove my point? The determined little guy often beats the sophisticated big guy. Weapons are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. Senator John McCain believes that weapons are decisive and that’s why he wants the USA to send weapons to Ukraine. But first estimates say the rebels have captured 80 tanks, 100 other AFVs, 65 artillery systems and 500 tons of ammunition in Debaltsevo [in February 2015]. So, to arm Kiev is really, at the end of the day, to arm the rebels. Why? Simply because weapons are useless in feeble hands.

I leave aside the question of what would happen should the Americans come up against first class opponents and American aircraft start falling in dozens and American troops are subject to mass air attack. All with weapons which, while not perhaps quite as fancy as US ones, are rugged, adaptable and get the job done.

I won’t talk about careerism and ticket punching and what you need to do to be promoted in today’s American forces and the resulting quality of leadership. I don’t know anything about it and leave the reader to consider better informed pieces such as this one.

In short, I don’t think the Americans are nearly as good as they think they are – they’ve been spoiled by success (initial success that is) against second and third rate enemies which are swiftly overwhelmed by their air power and fancy weapons. Overwhelmed in the first few weeks; after that it’s different.

Maybe the US Armed Forces are a lot closer to what I saw in the early 1980s in Germany than is believed by the rah rah people in Washington.