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.

The strategic failure in Afghanistan is a clarion call for the United States Army to challenge its industrial age mental model of landpower. The loss demonstrates the ineffectiveness and lack of utility that large-scale conventional landpower has in low-intensity conflict. While the US Army may desire to leave low-intensity conflict behind, the United States’ state and nonstate adversaries will not stop using the very strategy that has rendered conventional landpower hegemony, as David Kilcullen puts it, irrelevant.

The US Army’s modernization and future vision of landpower is Multi-Domain Operations, conducted as a part of a joint force in the information age. Essentially, the vision focuses on a return to large-scale combat operations nested within great power competition. The fatal flaw to this is the assumption that the adversaries of the United States will fight in a manner suited to the United States’ strengths. They will not. Instead, adversaries will continue to employ asymmetric actions to deny decisive battle by rendering task-organized battle systems, such as carrier strike groups and armored brigade combat teams, inconsequential. They will then fight a deep battle in the gray zone below the threshold of war and exhaust the United States. Napoleon lost in Moscow not because he was decisively beaten, but because the Russians extended the struggle and denied him the opportunity to win. Napoleon’s exhausted forces eventually collapsed under the weight of winter, unable to survive in the barren Russian land while being harassed by the tsar’s forces.

The US Army must be careful not to selectively choose past history that fits its comfortable mental model—what Russell Weigley described in The American Way of War. More importantly, the Army must confront the hard history of its past failures for answers to the future—the United States’ adversaries are surely learning from these failures. The industrial age is over and ways of war optimized for it outdated. The Army must seek ways to repurpose its conventional landpower capacity to succeed in contemporary conflict, which will include substantial irregular warfare and low-intensity conflict.

Emerging as a conventional global power following World War II, the United States had significant success, notably during the Cold War. However, with the strategic failures of the Army in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, an opposite trend is obvious. Conventional landpower overmatch does not translate into success in low-intensity conflict. The 1991 Persian Gulf War, which seemingly washed away the US Army’s failure in Vietnam, was an anomaly, achieved by applying conventional power against an adversary in a way that, as John Nagl has observed, no one will ever let us do to them again.

More recently in Syria, success against ISIS was largely achieved when ISIS transitioned to a war of movement and exposed itself to American airpower. Yet despite this conventional success, the enduring defeat of ISIS remains at risk. The group has transitioned back to being a clandestine insurgency, perpetuating its struggle through low-intensity conflict and a strategy that extends the conflict and avoids American conventional power. The recent ISIS breakout attempt and subsequent battle at a prison controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces in Hasakah, Syria underlines this point.

This strategy is not a mystery. Carl von Clausewitz knew that many roads lead to success. When one party to a war is unable to destroy or annihilate its opponent, it will instead seek a strategy designed to use time to physically and morally exhaust its opponent. This is a theory most classically put into action by Mao Tse-tung, who used guerrilla warfare to perpetually extend the revolutionary conflict over time. By avoiding the opposing side’s strength, a belligerent survives and weakens its target through a protracted conflict. Military operational failure or success is inconsequential if the conflict lasts long enough to achieve the true ultimate goal of war, political success. This is precisely what Ho Chi Minh, Salafi-jihadists in Iraq, and the Taliban have all done to the US Army with significant success. Again, as Clausewitz knew, battles do not really mean anything because war is merely a continuation of politics by other means. Or, as T.E. Lawrence described the Arab Revolt, “Final victory seemed certain, if the war lasted long enough for us to work it out.”

Contemporary adversaries of the United States, including state actors such as China, Iran, and Russia, as well as nonstate actors such as Salafi-jihadists, transregional violent extremist organizations, and domestic terrorists all recognize this truth. In 1991, Martin van Creveld wrote that “the most powerful modern armed forces are largely irrelevant to modern war.” He recognized that unmatched conventional hegemony would drive adversaries to avoid decisive engagement and seek asymmetric strategies through low-intensity conflict. The United States’ Global War on Terror, the wars throughout the Middle East, and the Afghanistan War provide solid argument that Van Creveld was correct.

More recently, military practitioners and theorists have described a condition where state and nonstate adversaries of the West have solved the riddle of conventional warfare hegemony. Rupert Smith identifies that the paradigm has shifted and the classic utility of force no longer exists. David Kilcullen’s thesis is that the West’s adversaries have expanded the concept of war beyond the narrow boundaries of our traditional approach. By avoiding and denying engagement that suits a traditional conventional mindset and by engaging in complementary but uncoordinated disruptive activity, the West’s adversaries—Russia, China, Iran, and transregional terrorist organizations—are exhausting the West. All the adversaries of the United States need is time and they can deliver on a prolonged strategy to defeat the United States through a thousand cuts.

The US Army must challenge its own mental model that justifies and prioritizes a return to large-scale combat operations over irregular warfare operations such as counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. The Army’s development of corps headquarters and the modernization of long-range fires, combat vehicles, vertical lift, networked information systems, air defense, and more lethal soldiers will not solve the problem of low-intensity conflict. These modernizations thematically resemble General William DePuy’s 1970s “Big Five”: the Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Patriot air defense system, and the Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. Both the 1970s modernization program and its successor today center on updates to traditional conventional maneuver systems. But more critically than the Army’s choice of systems to upgrade are the underlying ideas that validate the modernization requirement. Today, that principal idea is that the US Army can converge its multi-domain conventional landpower capabilities to decisively defeat its adversaries. Historian Henry Gole has noted that in the 1970s, DePuy acted to guide the Army out of “wallowing in self-pity about Vietnam” by refocusing on its legacy strength. This was and still is conventional industrial warfare that brings to bear America’s way of war and the application of great wealth and resources in pursuit of an annihilation strategy. It is a maneuver-centric approach, with large maneuver formations seeking destruction of enemy formations.

It is logical that the US Army is now once again looking to put the bitter losses and struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq behind it by refocusing on large-scale combat operations through the modernization of legacy conventional systems and by getting back to basics. It is a desire to update systems and return the Army to a position of unmatched high-tech dominance. Just as DePuy’s reforms ultimately resulted in the unprecedented success of the 1991 Gulf War, the US Army now seeks to leave the low-intensity post-9/11 wars behind and gain conventional overmatch for tomorrow’s battlefield.

Unfortunately, the strategic loss in Afghanistan is a symptom of a larger problem. Smith describes it is as one where conventional power can produce local military tactical wins but fails to deliver broader strategic victory. DePuy’s Big Five seemingly made the US Army the premier global land power, but it is a force that has been routinely defeated despite its strengths and pedigree.

This does not mean that the US Army should abandon its conventional landpower capability or not modernize these systems. The United States’ conventional landpower hegemony has provided unmatched deterrence and protection from adversaries’ conventional capabilities. It has set the very conditions that have given rise to low-intensity conflict, an arguably more favorable way to fight than large-scale combat due to the reduced scale of destruction and casualties. The US Army should also be wary of overcorrecting through the dissolution of conventional capability and an overinvestment in irregular warfare capability.

Instead, the Army must seek to balance being prepared for the possibility of conventional large-scale combat while also respecting the lessons of the strategic failures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Low-intensity conflict will be a fixture of modern war between states and nonstate actors for the foreseeable future. The Army must recognize this fact and prepare for it. It must find ways to repurpose certain conventional landpower capabilities for soft power and irregular warfare purposes. This means in some cases offloading unnecessary, redundant, or obsolete systems to reinvest in new capabilities. In other cases, this means playing the odds that a traditional capability is unlikely to be used and can be repurposed for a less traditional task. Most importantly this is a mindset shift from units focusing on traditional rote tasks toward more agility and flexibility.

The Army must create capabilities that it can employ now in this competition continuum. It must have forces that can campaign in the gray zone to counter proxy and cyber threats, which are able to deter economic and political coercion. From the outside these scalable units could look like conventional formations while also having the capability to be agile, rapidly deployable, and efficiently sustainable. They should be capable of the execution of a combination of lethal and nonlethal activities. While they may have a basic background in a conventional warfighting function, more likely they will execute tasks and missions of a more unorthodox nature. They should be trained and educated to recognize cultural and political implications. Proficient in tactics and enabled with advanced technology, these units should be prepared to operate among partner units in permissive, uncertain, or hostile environments. They must anticipate and control information and psychological effects by toggling between minimal signature / low visibility and maximal signature / high visibility, as necessary. Most fundamentally, hybrid formations must understand the environment and be agile by developing and providing multiple options within the context of the mission.

These ideas and described capabilities are rooted in joint and Army special operations forces characteristics and imperatives. It is a flexible, agile, and moldable mindset that is suited to the contemporary operational environment. The advantage of Army ground-based units is that they can be whatever they are needed to be in the moment. This is only possible, though, if they are not mentally locked into a traditional conventional warfare mindset. The Security Force Assistance Command and Army Special Operations Command are good models for the mindset. Other good examples are the use of Army mechanized infantry units throughout northeastern Syria or the US Marine Corps’s Force Design 2030 concept. A complementary benefit of conventional Army formations operating with an irregular mindset is that special operations units will be free to evolve even further into unorthodox and creative methods.

The 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy is a good marker for institutionalizing a complementary low-intensity mindset. The annex recognizes that adversaries of the United States will seek to challenge it in the gray zone with hybrid warfare techniques below the threshold of war. Through alliances, diplomacy, aid, development, and cultural cooperation, supported by efficient hard power, the United States Army can compete with and defeat low-intensity threats. However, that efficient hard power must be mentally ready to fight in irregular and low-intensity conflicts. If the Army is only thinking about and preparing for large-scale, force-on-force operations, then our adversaries will take advantage of the cumbersome, rigid, and predictable nature of conventional formations.

In order for the Army to posture itself to compete and win in the gray zone, it should embed and reinforce an agile and flexible mindset into soldiers throughout their entire career. An example is for the Army to ensure that irregular warfare is taught in all levels of professional military education. This will facilitate leaders bringing the mindset to units and preparing the Army for long-term engagement in strategic competition. Conventional forces can prepare for strategic competition by thinking through three readiness questions—readiness for what, for when, and of what? By doing this, units that the Army maintains at a lower level of readiness can identify opportunities to influence in competition. The California National Guard’s relationship with the Ukrainian military through the State Partnership Program is an example of part-time soldiers making an impact on the battlefield while not in direct conflict.

The characteristics of agility and flexibility will further benefit Army units operating in an evolving joint competition continuum. Modern conventional war may not look how conventional forces expect it to look. For example, John Antal describes modern disrupters, including transparency, tempo, and autonomy, that are distorting how units engage each other. If Army units are too rigid and unable to adapt quickly enough, they risk being defeated before they recognize that they are in an engagement. The 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the persistent drone threats in Iraq and Syria all demonstrate this type of evolution. By obfuscating action, adversaries are able hybridize irregular and conventional operations. The 2018 Middle Euphrates River Valley Battle between Syrian pro-regime forces, supported by the Russian Wagner Group, and US and coalition forces demonstrates the fluidity of the modern battlefield. In this case US forces, both special operations and conventional forces, enabling Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS, had to rapidly transition to a conventional engagement against state actors that included conventional and irregular forces.

The principles of Mission Command can help all forces, conventional and irregular, respond to contemporary problems with agility and flexibility. If commanders and units trust each other, effectively communicate, and have shared understanding of their purpose and goals, they will foster agility and flexibility. This will increase their potential to operate with disciplined initiative when confusing, nebulous, and rapidly changing conditions manifest.

These ideas do not advocate a blurring of the lines between conventional and special operations forces. Instead, it is a call for flexibility. Just as special operations forces must be ready to take part in conventional war, conventional forces must be mentally prepared to take part in irregular war. Army special operations forces will continue to play their unique role throughout the full joint competition continuum. US Army Special Operations Command’s ability to specially select, train, equip, and prepare to execute sensitive missions ensures that it will remain a critical Army capability.

While the US Army is donning heritage uniforms that are a relic of the glory of a World War II industrial victory, US adversaries are setting conditions for continuous competitive success. The Army must foster a mindset that avoids these adversaries’ advantages and frustrates their strategies. It is imperative that the Army hear the clarion call of strategic failure in Afghanistan. If the service is to be a learning organization, it must recognize that the loss in Afghanistan and the trend of losses since Vietnam demonstrate the ineffectiveness and lack of utility of large-scale conventional landpower in low-intensity conflict. The US Army may wish to never again engage in low-intensity conflict, but that is not reality. It is a strategy that US adversaries, both state and nonstate, will continue to use as long as it is effective. The Army must learn from its failures and develop capabilities that are just as successful in low-intensity war as extant capabilities are in high-intensity war. The risk of not winning across the entire spectrum of conflict is a gradual exhaustion and an eventual political defeat.

Lieutenant Colonel Ned Marsh is a US Army Special Forces officer currently attending the US Army War College. He has previously served in joint and Army special operations units throughout the Middle East, European, and Pacific regions. He holds graduate degrees from the Naval Postgraduate School and the US Army School of Advanced Military 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. Michael L. Casteel, US Army