This article is part of the contribution made by the US Army War College to the series “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of the Competition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the series here.

Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.

Americans don’t like losing wars and especially not small wars with unclear objectives. Since World War II, the United States has spent over $9 trillion and incurred over one hundred thousand casualties during wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, only to walk away without achieving strategic success in any of them. After twenty years of operations in Afghanistan, the chaotic American withdrawal highlighted America’s difficulty in winning its recent wars. General Mark Milley even referred to the evacuation as a “strategic failure.” This track record might lead observors to wonder if there are ways for the US military, and particularly for the Army, to improve its performance in wars that fall short of large-scale combat operations.

Following most wars, the US Army faces difficult decisions about how to reorganize its doctrine and force structure to meet budgetary constraints and address current and future threats. After undesirable results in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Army refocused on fighting a conventional, large-scale conflict against the Soviet Union in Europe and neglected many of its hard-earned combat lessons from those wars. The United States most often deploys the Army in operations below the threshold of large-scale combat. However, whether due to mission biases, interservice budgetary battles, or other reasons, the Army usually refocuses on preparing for the “big one” after fighting wars that fall short of that construct.

Despite this tendency, the nation requires the Army to do more than win large wars. Current national guidance directs the military services to counter adversaries in the gray zone, negate their “win without fighting” tactics, and advance America’s national interests using tactics short of armed conflict. The Army now finds itself in the early stages of another post-war rebalancing effort following the post-9/11 wars, and, so far, the Army seems to be repeating its previous postwar alterations. If it shifts too far to refocus on large-scale combat operations, the Army might once again find itself out of balance to accomplish its myriad missions across the competition continuum.

Instead, the Army must now turn its competition concepts into reality to meet national and service guidance. It should create a force that can win in competition and in limited forms of warfare, and shape conditions ahead of armed conflict. Army leaders can draw lessons from prior postwar trends and current national guidance and service concepts to help them craft an Army that is more prepared for operations short of war. These changes will create an Army that affords policymakers a valuable means to pursue national interests, not just one designed to win large, conventional wars. Given the importance of the military instrument of power in US foreign and security policy, these changes will play a critical role in the future.

Regardless of what measures the Army takes, predicting the future will remain an elusive challenge. As Robert Gates said in a 2011 address to the West Point corps of cadets, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.” Today, the Army recognizes that the future will see increased competition between America and its adversaries. Army Futures Command predicts a future where Russia, China, and other actors challenge the United States for strategic and economic resources and influence. An Army balanced to meet this unpredictable future will give the United States an enhanced ability to win in competition and prevent competition from turning into conflict.

Prior Postwar Rebalancing

The Army exhibited three common postwar trends after the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It generally eschewed prior combat lessons, placed significant reliance on technologically advanced combat equipment, and primarily focused on fighting large-scale combat operations.

Following the Korean War, the Army quickly sought to put its failures behind it. Many leaders saw Korea as an anomaly and the kind of limited war that the Army would not fight again. The service altered its doctrine and force structure to maintain relevance in the atomic era, created the pentomic division, and developed new nuclear missiles to reclaim a larger share of the defense budget under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy. Although the Army provided material and training to thirty-five countries by the end of the decade, including advisors in Vietnam, it placed little value on these missions. Even as the specter of nuclear war pushed the Cold War front lines into the developing world, the Army still viewed conventional wars as its top priority.

After the Vietnam War, the Army did everything in its power to purge its experience there. Senior leaders like Generals Donn Starry and William DePuy developed new doctrine to fight Soviet forces in Europe. This new doctrine, known as AirLand Battle, put little emphasis on operations beyond large-scale war. Field Manual 100-5, Operations, only dedicated three of its 195 pages to contingency operations. Moreover, the Army allocated significant resources to develop its “Big 5” weapons systems—new game-changing, high-tech systems that would give it a qualitative advantage over the Warsaw Pact’s quantitative superiority.

The Army seemed to have cured its lingering Vietnam hangover and validated its conventional operating concepts with victory in the Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush even claimed that the “ghosts of Vietnam had been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.” However, the Army soon found itself enmeshed in counterinsurgency and stability operations in the greater Middle East yet again. Three decades later and after two strategic defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, critics have drawn sharp comparisons between America’s recent wars and its prior experiences in Vietnam. Regardless of policymakers’ inclination to deploy the Army in small-scale operations, the Army continually harkens back to its past large-scale victories and regularly gears itself to fight large, conventional wars.

Learning Lessons from Recent Small Wars

The Army can draw at least three main lessons from its past seven decades of war that can help inform its current modernization and rebalancing plans. First, the service cannot jettison its combat experiences. More importantly, it must learn from those experiences, institute change, and revisit those lessons periodically. The Army needs to extract all lessons, not just the ones it wants like it did after Vietnam when it blamed civilian leaders for failure yet overlooked many of its own shortcomings. Today, the Army might be tempted to turn its back on missions like security force assistance, given its lack of success in Afghanistan, even though this mission might prove effective during strategic competition. Just because a technique did not work in one instance does not mean that the Army should disregard its efficacy in other situations.

Second, lethal technology cannot solve every problem. While high-end, lethal tech designed to destroy or kill the enemy can undoubtedly give the Army a comparative advantage over an adversary’s conventional military, these technological advantages cannot guarantee success in all situations. Even so, the Army heavily relies upon the role of technology in planning and waging war. As General William Westmoreland discovered in Vietnam and Army leaders found yet again in Iraq and Afghanistan, firepower and body counts alone cannot achieve victory. Even though technology has limitations in many operations, such as irregular warfare and counterinsurgency, the Army’s modernization plan heavily invests in technology designed for lethal action. As others have stated before, technology is not a panacea that can replace effective strategy.

Lastly, an overwhelming focus on large-scale combat leaves the Army underprepared for missions that fall below that level. As Russell Weigley argued in The American Way of War, the Army prefers to win decisive battles and fight wars of annihilation rather than fight prolonged wars for limited objectives. Unfortunately, the Army does not get to pick its conflicts. The nation has deployed the Army for competition or limited warfare missions almost ten times more frequently than it has for large-scale combat operations in the past century.

Despite this historical trend, General DePuy’s viewpoint about Vietnam sums up a view held by many Army leaders about small-scale conflict or competition: “[Dupuy] feared that Vietnam had been an aberration in the historical trend of warfare and that the Army had lost a generation’s worth of technical modernization there while gaining a generation of nearly irrelevant combat experience.” The Army has repeatedly discovered that conventional forces are not optimally designed for many small-scale operations, and even limited contingencies require significant resources.

As it disengages intellectually from the types of wars it has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is once again glossing over recent combat lessons, refining its doctrine and future concepts with a focus on lethal technology, and preparing to fight a conventional war. However, national strategies indicate that policymakers expect the Army to play a lead role in strategic competition.

Strategic Guidance for Competition

Recent strategic and service guidance has placed a renewed emphasis on military competition. For example, the 2017 National Security Strategy outlined the threats that China, Russia, and other actors pose to the United States below the “threshold of military conflict” and called for a renewed US effort to counter these threats. The 2018 National Defense Strategy reiterated this view by stating that inter-state strategic competition is “the primary concern in U.S. national security.” 

The current administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance advanced these ideas by highlighting the myriad threats—state and nonstate actors, climate change, economic disruptions, extremism, and many others—that affect America’s security interests. Furthermore, this document gave clear guidance that the United States will reinvigorate its alliances and partnerships around the globe to contain this growing list of challenges.

The new National Defense Strategy will revolve around a concept called integrated deterrence, a term that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin first previewed last year. Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, expounded on what the Defense Department means by “integrated.” The concept means that the United States must integrate across all domains, theaters, and the spectrum of conflict with allies and partners and all instruments of national power. This new concept would help DoD better understand its missions in the gray zone and below armed conflict. These documents aim to catalyze the military services’ integrated deterrence efforts while further codifying concepts that the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning and a paper from the chief of staff’s office on the Army in military competition put forth previously.

In short, these documents show an increased Department of Defense commitment toward military competition and operations below large-scale conflict. However, what remains to be seen is how the Army will turn these nascent concepts into reality.

Moving from Concepts to Reality

To meet the demands of national-level guidance, the Army must bring sufficient capabilities to bear, whether in competition or conflict and regardless of the size and scope of future engagements. Doing so means that the Army would need to alter its modernization efforts, currently focused on large-scale combat operations, under its AimPoint Force 2035 initiative.

First, the Army should dedicate a portion of its force to focus on competition and limited conflicts. It would need to rebalance forces between its active and reserve components and between its combat and “competition” forces. Competition forces like cyber, information, protection, theater sustainment, psychological operations, and civil affairs units would still have significant roles in large-scale combat. However, many of these forces reside in the Army Reserve or have limited active duty personnel, constraining their ability to conduct daily theater-wide missions like information and influence operations or establish distribution and sustainment networks.

In addition to adjusting its competition force structure, the Army can also modify its current organizations that compete daily, particularly its cyber forces and theater armies and enablers. Army Cyber Command conducts information operations to gain and maintain dominance in cyberspace. At the same time, theater armies serve as the Army’s primary headquarters to oversee forces and competition activities as part of the geographic combatant commands’ campaign plans. These changes will require moving tactical combat troops, perhaps up to one division, to the Army Reserve to improve active duty competition capabilities. Having competition-focused units operating under the appropriate command structures allows the Army to effectively campaign in competition and quickly transition to conflict if needed.

Second, the Army should place its personnel training, education, and experience on par with its technological modernization efforts. It can increase education and training focused on competition and give personnel more operational exposure beyond tactical organizations. The Army can use competition-focused wargames or unit training rotations to bolster skills in these areas. For instance, the Army can incorporate more competition training scenarios focused above the tactical level in its Global Defender exercises. Professional military education institutions could amend their curriculums so that students understand how to build long-term campaigns to win in strategic competition. These changes would also meet the chairman’s military education policy. Likewise, the Army could adjust career paths so that personnel frequently serve in organizations that compete daily, like security force assistance brigades or combatant command headquarters. With these adjustments, the Army would create future leaders who are well versed in competing below armed conflict.

Third, the Army should reduce the separation between irregular and traditional warfare. The Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy states that irregular warfare is an integral part of US competition strategies and dispels the myth that conventional forces do not have a role in irregular warfare. Special operations forces and conventional organizations are most effective when working in tandem toward a common purpose. When campaigning together, these forces provide complementary capabilities that better deter adversaries from pursuing their objectives, either directly or indirectly. Russia and China prefer irregular approaches, and by combining its operational forces in a unified approach, the Army can deny its enemies’ continued success in the gray zone.

Furthermore, a combined Army approach to competition expands the service’s “landpower network” of allies and partners. Whether improving their ability to operate in large-scale conflict through combined exercises or working together to counter threat networks, boosting allies and partner capabilities provides a significant return on investment. The Army’s special operations and conventional forces gained considerable operational experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria that the service can build upon to win across the competition continuum.

There is no denying that the Army must remain fully prepared to fight and win the nation’s wars, especially large-scale ones. However, the Army cannot only focus on large-scale combat as it did after Korea and Vietnam. Partly because of this proclivity, the Army often finds itself underprepared for irregular and small-scale missions, even though policymakers use the Army most frequently in these types of missions. Furthermore, by keeping a majority of its active force focused on large-scale combat, the Army has put itself through multiple onerous and expensive transformations—shifting from counterinsurgency in Vietnam to conventional deterrence under AirLand Battle to nation building in Iraq back to conventional warfare under its latest operating concept.

Undertaking demonstrable steps to enhance its ability to operate across the competition continuum does not detract from or inhibit the Army’s ability to win in large-scale combat. If anything, adjustments to force structure, education, training, and doctrine would only improve the Army’s ability to succeed in competition activities, limited or small-scale conflicts, and large-scale combat. By maintaining what General Joseph Dunford referred to as a “boxer’s stance,” the Army places itself in an optimum position to thwart its adversaries in competition and defeat them in war if needed.

Major Justin Magula (@JustinMagula) is an Army strategist serving in the Strategic Landpower and Futures Group at the US Army War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Thomas Calver, US Army