The Magazine

Preparing to Fight the Next War

From the December 1, 2003 issue: The blind spots in the Pentagon's new plans.

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By THOMAS DONNELLY and VANCE SERCHUK
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THE OLD BROMIDE about generals preparing to fight the last war misses the point: What military leaders can't resist is the impulse to plan for the war they'd like to fight.

The current leaders of the Pentagon seem particularly susceptible to this impulse. The idea of military "transformation" is catnip to them. Thus, even as the headlines daily report the realities of counterinsurgency in Iraq and terrorism around the world, there comes news that the U.S. military is revising its war plans for Korea, the Middle East, and elsewhere "based on assumptions that conflicts could be fought more quickly and with fewer American troops than previously thought."

So reported Bradley Graham in the November 18 Washington Post. He quoted Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying that "it has been shown so far that overwhelming force can be provided faster and with fewer individuals."

Pace is leading a study, called "Operational Availability," which attempts to calculate how increased precision striking power, information technologies, new tactics, and refinements in the positioning of U.S. forces abroad can be combined to implement what might be called the "Myers Doctrine." The idea, framed memorably by joint chiefs chairman Richard Myers in explaining the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is that "speed kills."

And so it does--ask the Republican Guard or the Taliban's army. Ask Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf--aka "Baghdad Bob," the Iraqi minister of "information"--how fast and how far American armored forces can move. Conventional military power is a wonderful thing; it destroys armies, captures capitals, and removes tyrants from their thrones. No nation has ever enjoyed anything like the conventional capabilities of today's U.S. military.

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thinks he can wring greater "efficiencies" from the force. Pace's study, according to the Post, has presented Rumsfeld with more than 60 ideas for such improvements, including a centrally directed system of force allocation--presumably to measure out units in times of crisis "just in time," as in the march to Baghdad.

The idea is not simply to win quickly, but to win without allocating unnecessary forces. The war games conducted as part of the Operational Availability study concluded that today's plans are just too profligate with troops. "We had too much," one Joint Staff officer told the Post, "and a lot of what we had never reached the battle anyway, because it was either placed in the wrong area or couldn't be flown or shipped there in time."

There's no question that speedier wars require fewer forces. The 4th Infantry Division--stymied in its planned maneuver through Turkey into northern Iraq, shipped too late to Kuwait, then racing north just in time to miss the fall of Baghdad--reflects precisely the problem described by the Joint Staff officer.

Yet if the division missed the battle for Baghdad, it has hardly missed the war; six months after speed killed the regime of Saddam Hussein, the 4th Infantry Division finds itself conducting Operation "Ivy Cyclone" in Tikrit, part of the latest offensive by coalition forces to suppress the Iraqi insurgency.

In Iraq as in the larger war on terrorism and the political struggle to liberalize the Middle East, sustaining American military power for years is as crucial as applying it instantly; it does matter how quickly we get there, but it also matters how long we stay. Yes, changing this region demands more than just military strength, but as the situation in Iraq makes painfully obvious, establishing security is the first order of business.

It is also painfully obvious that the civilian and uniformed leadership of the U.S. military remain resolutely fixated on battle and, it seems, willfully ignorant about war--the use of armed force for a political purpose.

It is true that the war on terrorism is global, or nearly so, as the bombings in Istanbul remind us. And the United States has worries outside the Middle East, as in Korea or across the Taiwan Straits. There are also threats, such as those from ballistic missiles, to which general-purpose forces cannot directly respond.

But military strategy and force planning are two sides of a single coin. The United States cannot remain the principal guarantor of a global liberal order simply by flitting about the planet like Peter Pan designating targets for B-2 bombers. Rumsfeld constantly talks about "reducing the footprint" of U.S. forces overseas, but for those who have long huddled under American protection, and for those newly freed states that cannot live without it, reducing the footprint sounds suspiciously like contracting the perimeter.

To be fair to the Pentagon, force planning for what the military calls "stability operations" is inherently difficult; there are few computer programs that model counterinsurgencies. The Clinton administration's attempt to plan in this area, a 1997 effort called "Dynamic Commitment," revealed the difficulty of quantifying open-ended small wars. Unfortunately, the lesson of that study--that force size matters a lot in extended, manpower-intensive missions--was unpalatable to Pentagon leaders. The results of Dynamic Commitment were summarily ignored.

It is further true that the amazing and improving ability of U.S. forces to strike with precision from long range can result in "efficiencies" across the armed services. There are some things--tactical aircraft, for example--we have too many of. But there are more things we have too few of--most pressingly, well-trained dismounted infantry.

Secretary Rumsfeld has said it is not possible to predict with precision where the next threat will come from. But we do know where our wars are likely to be fought in the near term. President Bush, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden are pretty much in agreement on this: It's the Middle East. Yet the Pentagon continues to cling to a "capabilities-based approach" in which all wars are created equal, and speedy wars are the most equal of all.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow and Vance Serchuk a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.