EEI #10 Thinking about War – Mitigating and Accepting Risk

Essential Elements of Information for a Culture of Preparedness

This is the second in several planned posts under EEI discussing the impact on  how we fight in future war and conflict as a function of pending decisions related to mission definition, policy, and force structure . (The first post: EEI #6 discussing the F-22 cancellation)

Airliners flying into skyscrapers as a weapon in a new version of conflict/war - followed by horse-riding Special Forces “cavalry” calling in smart weapons air strikes by ancient B-52s in Afghanistan, shock and awe with tanks, Apache helicopters, and strike fighters, all moving North towards Baghdad along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, then vans filled with explosives in market places and hotel entrances, women with bombs strapped to their chests under burkas, unmanned aerial vehicles launching missiles at Taliban strongholds, and throughout it all, Grunts, infantrymen with rifles, dirty and hot, doing what they’ve always done moving to contact with the enemy one tiring step at a time – all these are representation of war and warfare in the 21st Century.

rescorlalzxrayWar is always violent, taking its toll on soldier and civilian alike, always messy, always complex whether the battlefield be at  Thermopylae, Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, or Fallujah.  But I would offer however, that both warfighter and citizen alike of the “Greatest Generation” understood well that the Battle of Britian was fighter warfare, the Battle of the Atlantic -submarine warfare, the war in the Pacific both aicraft carrier warfare and amphibious warfare. And of course whether island hopping or struggling through the snow at Bastogne, there was always the Soldier and Marine rifleman. Complex, yes, but also easier to understandand and put in context than the dynamics of events since September 11, 2001- in my opinion.

For this century we have created a somewhat confusing array of terms:  network centric warfare, fourth generation warfare, guerrilla warfare or counterinsurgency, all  mixed with conventional and unconventional warfare, all in context  with war on terrorism, and  further, now the attempt to differentiate with conventional warfare, there are irregular warfare and hybrid warfare.

While situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan have forced rethinking, then rebuilding – since warfighting in Vienam - counter-insurgency (COIN) capability, planning for future wars – structure, rolls and missions, and technology – require serious thought on what the next threat might be – state on state war (as in WWII) with an emerging China or rebuilding Russia, or more of the same  – mix of insurgents, terrorists, or non-state actor mix along with state on state uniformed force on uniformed force.

This series of EEI posts suggests strongly that understanding this process and the outcome is not only necessary for our government and military (at all levels), but also for a prepared community in acknowledging, mitigating, and finally accepting some level of risk.  As Col Frank Hoffman (USMC, Ret) states in closing the following article “The Sept. 11 funding spigot is about to be turned off, returning the Pentagon to the need to rethink its priorities and make tough choices. We no longer have the resources to simply buy everything and eliminate every risk. We will have to consciously wrestle with this challenge in the upcoming QDR (Quadrenial Defense Review). The time for hard calls has arrived.”

Col Hoffman’s article discussing current thinking, planning and multiple approaches is well worth reading in full under Striking a Balance on Armed Forces Journal. Key points are provided below.  For  further information and different opinions see:

Posturing the future force for COIN and conventional warfare (in part)


We are in another post-Iraq war debate about how to best posture our military investments for the future. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review will center on the critical question about the evolving character of conflict. Exactly what kinds of wars are we expecting to fight, and how should we allocate scarce time and resources to maximize readiness and deterrence while minimizing risk? The not-so-subtle groundswell of resentment, if not outright bureaucratic resentment, coming from Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ effort to allocate just 10 percent of the Pentagon’s investment account for irregular warfare suggests that this will not be a simple matter.

Today’s post-Iraq strategy and forces debate was first depicted in Andrew Bacevich’s tart Atlantic Monthly essay, “The Petraeus Doctrine.” He portrayed a stark choice between two competing camps in the U.S. military. At one end of the spectrum of conflict, he observed that there was a group which he derisively called the “Crusaders,” who were promoting an emphasis on counterinsurgency and irregular threats as the proper focus for our armed forces. At the other end of the spectrum, he identified a competing school of thought, which he labeled the “Traditionalists.” Bacevich personalized the ongoing debate by using two prominent contemporary authors, retired Army officer John Nagl and West Point’s Col. Gian Gentile, as the polar protagonists.

This “black and white” option set created a false binary choice that is great for media consumption but represents a gross oversimplification and distorted conception of America’s strategic options. It also created a caricature of the protagonists who offer much more sophisticated arguments when reviewed closely in context.

There are a variety of schools of thought on how to address this force posture problem. This assessment will examine a suite of four schools. In each school, the principal military threat and its probability and consequences will be identified. Additionally, the force structure requirements and posture shifts to support each school will be examined. The four schools include:

• Counterinsurgents, who emphasize the high likelihood and rising salience of irregular adversaries.

• Traditionalists, who place their focus on states presenting conventional threats.

• Utility Infielders, who balance risk by striving to create forces agile enough to cover the full spectrum of conflict.

• Division of Labor, who balance risk differently by specializing forces to cover different missions to enhance readiness.

(PWH note: The complete article discuuses each school in depth followed by analysis.  Here PWH just provides basic definition and Col Hoffman’s conclusion)


This school argues for a transformation based on today’s fights. The advocates here believe that Iraq and Afghanistan represent far more than a passing blip in the evolution of conflict. They contend that massed formations comprised of traditional arms and large-scale conflict between conventional powers is not a realistic planning scenario. They contend that the most likely challenges and greatest risks are posed by failing states, ungoverned territories, transnational threats and radical versions of Islam.

This school contends that the purpose of having a military is not to perpetuate its preferred paradigms; it’s about preparing for likely contingencies and securing America’s interests. They worry that the U.S. military culture will reject the primacy or even necessity for competency in irregular warfare as operations in Iraq wind down. They argue that this would be a strategic mistake, more reprehensible than the institutional memory dump that occurred after Vietnam, and perhaps even more costly.


The Traditionalists sit at the opposing end of the spectrum of conflict. This school seeks to re-establish the traditional focus of the armed forces on “fighting and winning the nation’s wars.” Its members focus on major, high-intensity interstate wars. They advocate against reorienting forces, especially ground forces, away from their traditional emphasis on large-scale, industrial-age warfare against states or an alliance of states.

This school does not ignore the frequency of irregular warfare or dismiss its persistent nature; it just believes that such scenarios are not amenable to military intervention and that these contingencies should not be the focus for the American military. Traditionalists want to retain the Pentagon’s current procurement profile and its emphasis on “the Big Guns” for a future they predict will be conventional in nature and for which a large and expensive military is strategically necessary.

This school is particularly wary about the newfound embrace of messy, protracted counterinsurgencies such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are rightfully concerned about the degradation of combat skill sets within the Army and Marine Corps because of the severe operational tempo of today’s conflicts. However, they also overlook the need to “win the wars we are in,” as Nagl has noted.

Utility Infielders

The third and most prevalent school, at least among American ground force commanders, is the Utility Infielder school. This school recognizes the need to deal with strictly conventional tasks and irregular threats. It seeks to cover the entire spectrum of conflict and avoid the risk of being optimized at either extreme. Instead, it seeks to spreads this risk across the range of military operations by investing in quality forces, educating its officers for agility in complex problems, and creating tough but flexible training programs.

The Utility Infielder school is officially represented in the Army’s new doctrinal manual, FM 3-0, which declares, “Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that must be given priority comparable to that of combat (offensive and defensive) operations.” This construct rejects the narrow mission profile of the Traditionalists and claims the Army must train its units in the application of “full-spectrum operations” to ensure it provides a balanced, versatile force to provide to joint and combined-force commanders. These “full-spectrum operations” emphasize the importance of adaptive, flexible forces able to fight and win in combat, whether facing a terrorist entity or the modern forces of a hostile nation. However, the real priorities of this school might be found in this crucial statement: Full-spectrum operations “will take us into the 21st century urban battlefields among the people without losing our capabilities to dominate the higher conventional end of the spectrum of conflict.”

Division Of Labor

There are a number of analysts that reject the fundamental premise of the Utility Infielders school. This alternative school argues that irregular and conventional warfare are markedly different modes of conflict that require distinctive forces with different training, equipment and force designs. This camp places a great emphasis on preventing conflict, on stability operations and on investing in indirect forms of security forces with a greater degree of specialization for security cooperation tasks and war fighting. Because this school specifically divides and specializes roles and missions between the services, it can be labeled the “Division of Labor” option.

A team from Rand Corp. has proposed a different approach that rationalizes roles and missions, and offers a means of guiding future defense investments. This study is worthy of serious examination. This team notes that: “The imperative to promote stability and democracy abroad will place the greatest demands on the Army, the Marine Corps, and special operations forces (SOF). The most plausible regional wars that U.S. forces might be called on to fight — involving Iran, China (over Taiwan), and North Korea — call for heavy commitments of air and naval forces and, in the first two cases, fewer U.S. ground forces.”

(Concluding comments)

False choice

The current bifurcation of the spectrum of conflict between irregular and conventional wars is a false choice and intellectually blinds us to a number of crucial issues. We need to assess our assumptions about frequency, consequences and risk far more carefully and analytically. The QDR’s options are not simply preparing for long-term counterinsurgency operations or high-intensity conflict. We must be able to do both and do them simultaneously against enemies far more ruthless than today’s.

Future opponents will exploit whatever methods, tactics or technologies that they think will thwart us. Canonical conventional scenarios do not help us prepare for such threats. We need to better posture our forces, reduce the risks we face and allocate scarce resources against threats that pose the most operational risk. I have contended that state-on-state, high-scale combat cannot be ignored, but hybrid threats are profoundly asymmetric and present the greatest operational risk to U.S. forces and to the attainment of America’s strategic interests over the near to mid-range.

This reconceptualization will have significant implications for military force design and posture. In a perfect world, our military forces would be robustly sized, and we would build distinctive forces for discrete missions along the conflict spectrum. We would have separate counterterrorism forces, a force for protracted counterinsurgencies, expeditionary forces and heavy conventional forces for those rare but existential interstate conflagrations. The training and equipping of these forces would be well-matched to their expected operating environments and threats. But we do not live in a perfect world, and we need to prepare and shape our forces with a greater degree of uncertainty and with fewer resources. “We have to be prepared for the wars we are most likely to fight,” Gates said on the Hill in May, “not just the wars we have been traditionally best-suited to fight, or threats we conjure up from potential adversaries.”

The Sept. 11 funding spigot is about to be turned off, returning the Pentagon to the need to rethink its priorities and make tough choices. We no longer have the resources to simply buy everything and eliminate every risk. We will have to consciously wrestle with this challenge in the upcoming QDR. The time for hard calls has arrived.

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