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Adam Elkus Headshot

Debate Some Doctrine

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If Barack Obama wants to truly improve American national security, he should encourage a wide-ranging -- and public -- debate over military doctrine and strategy. The outcomes of obscure debates waged by military theorists and think-tankers have far-reaching effects on national security and foreign policy. We ignore these intellectual battles at our peril, because how we think about war is just as important as how we fight it.

Iraq, for example, cannot be fully explained without referencing the military's post-Vietnam backlash against irregular warfare. Stung by defeat, the Army erased its institutional knowledge of counterinsurgency warfare. Leading thinkers such as Colonel Harry Summers argued that the US could have won if it waged conventional war against North Vietnam. Military thought instead focused on countering Soviet "deep battle" maneuver operations, and soldiers interested in "operations other than war" were marginalized. When the U.S. waged war in Iraq, the military had to relearn its irregular skillsets--at a steep cost.

The military's distaste for counterinsurgency also manifested itself in a knee-jerk suspicion of humanitarian intervention. The respective Casper Weinberger and Colin Powell doctrines established a checklist of nearly impossible perquisites to war--all in an effort to avoid foreign irregular entanglements and harden focus on conventional warfare against "peer competitors" such as the Soviets and Chinese. While this kept the U.S. out of war, it also ensured that America did little to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide abroad.

While the U.S. did intervene in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo in the 1990s, these humanitarian operations were unpopular among Vietnam veterans within the armed services and national security infrastructure. Somalia's bloody failure also ensured that Bosnia and Kosovo would essentially be fought from the stratosphere. In Kosovo, not even Army helicopters were allowed to engage enemy ground forces, a step that might have been more successful in halting ethnic cleansing.

The military's post-Vietnam focus on conventional warfare led to a kind of mini-tech boom of its own -- the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). According to the RMA's numerous boosters, revolutionary changes in technology foretold an epochal shift in the nature of war. Either go 2.0 or go home. Three high-tech military doctrines arose to meet the digital challenge: Network-Centric Warfare (NWC), Rapid Dominance Operations (RDO), and Effects Based Operations (EBO). NWC calls for a networking units, sensors, and shooters together, forming a kind of omniscient, all-powerful "system of systems." RDO and EBO are air-based doctrines that focus on the rapid destruction of the vital command, control, and logistical links that sustain the enemy's warfighting capability.

All three doctrines envision the enemy as a mechanical system whose responses to operational stimuli can be predicted through mathematical modeling. If you destroy X, Y will occur. But can we really predict how complex adaptive human systems react to shocks and disruptions, especially when the opponent's center of gravity is something as nebulous as the "hearts and minds" of the people? Needless to say, the RMA was of little use to American troops in Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, General David Petraeus, and his adviser David Kilcullen have focused American military strategy towards counterinsurgency and away from the RMA. Gates also favors strengthening tools of "soft power" such as diplomacy and aid, even if it means the Department of Defense gets less money. The intellectual ground has shifted from the high-tech RMA to those who favor a global counterinsurgency that utilizes non-military means of national power to advance America's position. But a focus on counterinsurgency has its own drawbacks.

Will training for counterinsurgency degrade conventional military effectiveness against peer competitors such as Russia or China? Does developing core competencies in unconventional warfare make the US more likely to engage in unnecessary wars? And most importantly, is today's counterinsurgency doctrine--developed with Vietnam-style insurgencies in mind--up to the intellectual challenge of networked terrorists such as the Mumbai killers?

None of these questions are purely academic. Regardless of what happens in Iraq or Afghanistan, we will continue to face non-state terror, criminal subversion, and threat of nation-state competitors at home and abroad. As we continue to face future security challenges, we owe it to ourselves to continually re-examine the way we think about security and strategy.