America’s problem with unconventional warfare

For more than thirty years, the US has sought to avoid deploying ground forces into protracted conflict. It has nevertheless done so in almost every single one of those years. Perhaps it is time to accept reality.

US troops salute. Credit: Bumble Dee / Alamy Stock Photo.
US troops salute. Credit: Bumble Dee / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay was originally published in War: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation in 2015.

Predicting the nature of future war is notoriously difficult but vitally important. The lives of soldiers, civilians and nations rest on how well a state has prepared for war before its outbreak. A state that has mistaken the nature of the conflict on which it embarks can sometimes recover from its error. The United States lost the first battle of every war it fought between 1776 and 1965 but went on to win all of them. The price of such recoveries is high, however, and states cannot always afford to pay it. The consistent failure of American military and civilian leaders over the past three decades to predict and prepare for the kinds of wars the US would fight is therefore worrisome. The US has already paid a high price for these mistakes and the ultimate cost is by no means yet clear.

The Wars We Want

The American military prefers to fight large-scale conventional wars. Most major militaries do. Doctrine for such wars is highly evolved, with centuries of theory and practice behind it. Mechanised air-sea-land warfare often appears to be relatively self-contained and isolated from the intricate complexities of the politics and social phenomena of the populations among which it is waged, as well as many other non-military or ‘soft’ aspects of human life. War college graduates who have learned how to mark unit symbols on maps can sometimes succeed in these kinds of wars. Mass and technology can often crush complexities underfoot, at least for a time.

Recruiting, training and equipping a military for conventional conflicts is also relatively straightforward. The military can develop plausible answers to the questions of most concern to legislatures that have to pay for it all: how many troops are needed? How many tanks, planes, ships, satellites? And of what kinds? Programmes can be designed to produce all of these people and things over decades. The whole effort comes to have its own tempo and predictability.

But conventional warfare is attractive to Americans and their allies primarily because it promises short, sharp and decisive conflicts with clear endings. The First Gulf War has become the archetype of the conflict Americans would like to fight. It lasted a few weeks, cost around a hundred casualties and led to a clear outcome. The enemy’s army was destroyed, the territory he had occupied was liberated and our forces were able, largely, to come home. The real outcome of that conflict, of course, was far messier and required the continued deployment of many thousands of ground forces and an active air war for more than a decade. But the intense conventional conflict of 1990–91 still lingers in the minds of many Americans as the only kind of war the US should really fight, if it must fight at all.

The American military has thus focused heavily on preparing for such short, decisive conventional war ever since. The services have fought one another for the wherewithal to build advanced aircraft, ships and ground combat vehicles suited for mechanised air-sea-land war. The scenarios against which procurement programmes were designed in the1990s were a repetition of the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, or basically the same war transposed to the Korean peninsula.

Theorists considering future war thought almost exclusively about how technology could transform conventional war. Aircraft and missiles with precision bombs and warheads, supported by an all-seeing con-stellation of satellites, could identify all of the targets that needed to be hit to defeat the enemy and ‘service them’, to use the slang of the USAir Force. Ground forces would not even be required. Once all of the requisite targets had been destroyed, the enemy government would sue for peace and the war would end. Critics of this view, including the author of this paper, tended to argue against it on the grounds of feasibility and suitability, rather than on the grounds that the US should not be focused on preparing for conventional war. We all knew what sort of war we wanted to fight and were arguing mainly about how best to fight it.

The Wars We Got

The American military has waged large-scale conventional warfare for about three months in the last three decades – all against Saddam Hussein. The conventional wars of 1991 and 2003 went very well. American technology and the skill of our warriors crushed Saddam’s forces twice, rapidly, and at very low cost in our own casualties. America’s preparation for those conflicts in the 1980s and the 1990s was excellent.

But US armed forces have been fighting unconventional warfare –humanitarian, peace-enforcement, peacekeeping, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations – almost continually since 1990. US troops participated in humanitarian operations in Somalia, until the ‘Blackhawk Down’ disaster in 1993. They enforced a change of regime in Haiti in 1994 and stayed for some time to manage the chaos. They launched a massive peace-enforcement operation in Bosnia in 1995, which became a peacekeeping mission that lasted for half a decade. Another peace-enforcement operation in 1999 brought down the government of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and started another peacekeeping operation in Kosovo that continues to this day. The 9/11 attacks prompted first an air campaign, then a counter-terrorism operation with limited ground forces in Afghanistan. That mission rapidly turned into a state-building and peace-enforcement operation, which, in turn, be-came a counter-insurgency operation in 2009.1The splendid little war of2003 in Iraq degenerated into a nasty counter-insurgency mission almost at once. Those are the conflicts that the American military has actually been fighting most of the time.

They have been unconventional conflicts, but not small ones. The US armed forces had nearly 170,000 troops in Iraq at the height of the ‘surge’ in 2007 and 68,000 in Afghanistan in 2010. Sustaining those force-levels imposed an enormous strain on American ground forces. Combat units saw their tours extended from 12 to 15 months to support the surge in Iraq, National Guard brigades were repeatedly mobilised and deployed into combat missions, large numbers of reservists we remobilised, Marine units were taken from their ships and committed to operations in land-locked Afghanistan and the Iraqi desert and the size of the active-duty ground forces was temporarily increased by roughly60,000 soldiers. These strains have caused most people to forget that the Army regarded itself as over-burdened when keeping a few tens of thousands of troops in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Waging these unconventional wars required the development and rapid fielding of unique technologies as well. Clever enemies relied on mines (known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs) to kill Americans riding around in unarmoured Humvees, so ‘up-armour’ kits were sent to help protect them. The kits were problematic, because they weighed more than the vehicles were designed to carry and because the enemy rapidly learned how to defeat them. But the US military leadership, still focused on preparing for conventional war, delayed fielding vehicles specifically to defend against this unconventional threat until Robert Gates took over as Secretary of Defense in 2006 and forced through the rapid delivery of Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs)which were ugly and problematic in many ways, but which helped protect soldiers and Marines in the war they were fighting.

Additional efforts went into technologies to detect and defeat IEDs, especially to jam the signals insurgents used to detonate them remotely. New drones with new sensors were also fielded to help protect American troops and solve the problem of locating and attacking enemies who moved as individuals or small groups and blended into the local population.

he need to try to win the population over to the support of a new government also sparked its own initiatives in the realm of human terrain analysis and innovative ways to allow troops to interact with the people. General Stanley McChrystal launched an effort to develop and retain real regional and cultural expertise within the uniformed and civilian components of the military, called ‘Af-Pak Hands’. This pro-gramme included language training, cultural focus and procedures to keep the programme’s members attached to units engaged in the conflict, fighting against the traditional military service tendency to treat all service-members as beans and assign them without much regard to any regional expertise they might have.

Unconventional warfare requires theory and doctrine of its own, and the US military published a new manual on the conduct of counter-insurgency operations in 2006 –FM 3­24: Counterinsurgency– the first revision of that document since the 1980s. Brilliant new theories and techniques for understanding insurgent and terrorist networks and using targeted strikes to degrade them were also constructed and deployed, although not formally published as doctrine.2These theories and techniques emerged alongside major organisational innovations, particularly within the special forces community, but spreading ultimately into the conventional forces as well.

The adaptations undertaken during conflict to adjust a military de-signed for conventional war to the requirements of unconventional war were staggering in their extent. In their complexity, pervasiveness and interactivity, they far exceeded the 1990s reforms focused on conventional war. The scale of these adaptations was so great because so little thought had gone into the problems they addressed before they were needed. That failure, in turn, resulted from the myopic focus before 9/11on the kinds of wars we wanted to fight rather than on those we were actually fighting, or were likely to fight.

Why Were We So Unprepared?

The civilian and military leaders, academics, think-tankers and other experts who got it wrong were intelligent, educated, devoted, patriotic people trying to predict what the future would bring, in order to prepare the country to face it. The stereotypes of stupid generals, incompetent officials, elected officials concerned only with keeping their jobs and sustaining the military-industrial complex are inaccurate. The generals (and admirals) were smart. The officials were experienced and competent. However concerned the elected officials might have been with keeping their jobs, very few votes ever rode on the question of what sort of war to prepare the military for. And the military-industrial complex, if one believes in that trope, could have profited from preparing for unconventional wars just as much as from conventional ones.

We got it wrong primarily because of Vietnam. Severely scarred by the experience of Vietnam, American elites decided in the 1970s that we would never fight a war like that again. Conservative elites suffered from this syndrome as strongly as their liberal counterparts, just under slightly different names – the Weinberger or Powell doctrines, for example. Americans conflated the many different traumas of the 1960s with the nature of the Vietnam War. It was an unconventional war; political and military leaderships insisted on applying mistaken ideas of how to wage it until the 1970s; and the US was defeated. That is all true, but it does not fully explain why the experience was so traumatic.

The deep pain of the war resulted from the fact that the US sent a conscript military into a horrible climate to fight a difficult war for which it was completely unprepared. The errors extended to ordering American soldiers to brutalise innocent Vietnamese civilians, which brutalisation was filmed by war correspondents and shown to the entire American public. The fear of being conscripted and then ordered not merely to risk one’s life, but potentially to perform morally repugnant acts fed a massive anti-war movement. The anti-war movement coincided with a major cultural revolution, generated massive and destructive riots and some domestic terrorism. Only some of these factors had anything to do with the unconventional nature of the war, but their result was that massive social trauma was attached to that nature in the minds of many.

The military felt this most acutely. Senior officers who had grown up in a country that venerated the heroes of the Second World War as its ‘greatest generation’ were horrified when American society seemed to have turned entirely against the military as an institution. Many attributed the turn to the fact that Americans just do not like wars like Vietnam and concluded that the survival of the armed forces required avoiding such conflicts in the future. The rise of the Soviet conventional threat in the 1970s made it easy to justify such a conclusion, without reflecting on the degree to which the problem had been the nature of the war itself. Military leaders such as Joint Chiefs Chairman General Colin Powell saw the first Gulf War as the cure for this disease. A clean, short, decisive conventional war had restored the American military to the position of honour and support it desired and deserved from the American people. Powell and many of his successors were determined to keep it there and they believed that avoiding ‘quagmires’ like Vietnam was part of the key to achieving that goal. They held to that belief despite American involvement in the quagmire of the Balkans, which nevertheless did not dent the position of the military in American society.

Vietnam syndrome persisted into the 2000s, however. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had first held the top office in the Pentagon in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War. He and those around him continued to believe that short, decisive conflicts were the only wars America should fight. They brought that belief to the planning for operations in Afghanistan in 2001-02 and Iraq in 2003. They then fought desperately to extricate the US from those conflicts as rapidly as possible, foreclosing the possibility of thoughtful preparation to fight them.

Vietnam syndrome has now become Iraq syndrome. The Iraq War was nothing like as traumatic as the Vietnam War, in reality. The US fought it with an all-volunteer force and never resorted to conscription. The entry into the war was accompanied by an extremely nasty debate caused in no small part by the fact that the Bush Administration had sold the war as necessary because of a weapons of mass destruction pro-gramme that Saddam Hussein had already dismantled. The military’s image suffered from incidents like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, but not enough to affect American popular support for, or belief in, the armed forces as institutions much. And American service members are still received and treated with honour on the whole, rather than with the scorn, let alone hatred, they faced in the 1960s and 1970s.

If the war was not traumatic for American society, except perhaps in a psychic sense, it was highly traumatic for American political and military leaders, however. It cost many elected officials their jobs, damaged and ended the careers of senior officers and created painful tensions within the military and between military and civilian leaders. Some of those who opposed the war have regarded themselves as having been vindicated so thoroughly that they now oppose all wars. The notion that a short, sharp invasion can be decisive and then end, moreover, has been destroyed. Americans now generally seem to feel that any military intervention will turn into an endless quagmire that will become unpopular and ultimately fail. This feeling, fed by a president who himself appears to believe it, has become a new dogma: ‘no boots on the ground’.

The triumph of this dogma makes thoughtful preparation for future war almost impossible. Studying the history of unconventional warfare, recent or distant, seems foolish when America dogmatically rejects the notion of ever waging war on the ground again. Arguments about the dangers of reducing American ground forces excessively are ineffective in this context – why do we need ground forces when our entire approach to war is to avoid ever using them? Iraq syndrome precludes even asking what the nature of future war is likely to be, because it insists dogmatically on what it will not be.

We Are Getting It Wrong Again

There are many reasons to disbelieve this dogma. The fact that the president most committed to it has found himself obliged to stop the promised withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan and recommit troops to Iraq is not the least. The role that ground forces will play in future conflict, or the conventional or unconventional nature of such conflict, is a secondary consideration at the moment, however. The most dangerous part of the current dogma is that it articulates a vision of future warfare based on what its advocates want that future to be, rather than on any sound assessment of what it will be.

The United States has sought for more than 30 years to avoid deploying ground forces into protracted conflict. It has nevertheless had such forces in such conflicts in almost every single one of those years. Now American elites seek to avoid deploying ground forces into any conflict at all. Yet ground forces have continued to fight all this time. Perhaps it is time to accept reality. Recent and distant history, the state of the world, current requirements and the behaviour of American leaders all conspire to show that the US military will be heavily engaged in protracted unconventional conflicts for the foreseeable future.

It may also engage in a small number of high-end conventional fights which are likely, in turn, to transform themselves into further protracted unconventional wars. Prudent strategic thinking, planning and preparation would operate on this assumption, rather than on the happier prospect that the world will conform itself, at long last, to our desires.


Frederick Kagan