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Lessons from the Past: Making the Army’s Doctrine “Right Enough” Today

September 7, 2006

No doctrine is perfect, but getting it “right enough” is strategically important. Dire consequences followed for France in the spring of 1940 because heavy investments in its high-tech Maginot Line failed against the German Blitzkrieg. French doctrine was based on flawed post-World War I interpretations of technological change and its impact on the nature of war. We also have learned from recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq that operating without applicable doctrine can have strategic consequences, and that the intuition of senior generals is of little value in the councils of state today. The quickly submerged November 2002 public dispute between Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz about the number of Soldiers required for the coming invasion of Iraq is often recalled to vilify the civilian side, but no one can claim that the resulting campaign violated accepted joint or Army doctrinal precepts. In fact, the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were conducted according to widely supported emerging concepts within the Department of Defense (DoD). We should take little comfort that events are proving the former Army Chief more right than wrong. Politicians are more likely to respect the intuition of senior Army leaders when they render judgments backed by a sound body of doctrine, especially one that is also respected and supported by the other services.

The lessons from the Army’s struggle to get the doctrine “right enough” after Vietnam are worth heeding as the present generation carries out the current revision of the service’s capstone operational doctrine. Because there are important parallels between the current period of military reform and the one just previous that began in 1973, ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lessons are relevant and numerous.

Achieving a “right enough” result took 13 years, and two Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, revisions—published in 1976 and 1982—were short of the mark; the 1986 manual 2 was the third evolution. In 1993, the Desert Storm Study Project, described in Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War, had this to say about the product of this last effort:

History all too often reinforces the familiar maxim that armies tend to fight the next war as they did the last. However, the Gulf War proved to be a dramatic exception. AirLand Battle, the warfighting doctrine applied by the American Army in Desert Storm, not only survived the initial clash of arms but, in fact, continues as a viable foundation for the development of future warfighting doctrine. The durability of the AirLand Battle concept is owed to three factors. First, unlike past instructions for the conduct of war, the 1986 version of AirLand Battle was a vision of what was possible rather than an owner’s manual for the equipment and force structures available at the time. In fact, if the 1986 edition of FM 100-5 possessed a fault, it was that some concepts were so far ahead of capabilities that many balked at their full implementation with the tools then at hand. Second, the conditions of combat and the dynamics of Desert Storm battlefields proved to be modeled with remarkable fidelity to FM 100-5. Third, and perhaps most notable, is that AirLand Battle represented a way of thinking about war and a mental conditioning rather than a rigid set of rules and lists to be done in lock-step fashion. Its four tenets, initiative, agility, depth and synchronization, are timeless, immutable precepts for present and future wars.

In retrospect, they were too generous. The world had already changed, and that, too, is a lesson. While AirLand Battle doctrine was found suitable for General Norman Schwarzkopf’s restoration of Kuwait’s territorial sovereignty, General Maxwell Thurman’s Operation Just Cause planners in Southern Command needed to address a host of considerations beyond this doctrine. Our criticisms could, however, be tempered by recognizing how well it addressed the one central strategic problem of the day—to contain the immense, dangerous and potentially aggressive military power of the Soviet Union and its allies worldwide. At the time, all other threats to national security paled in comparison. AirLand Battle doctrine was properly optimized for this unique set of problems, providing sound guidance and useful precepts for fighting a “counter-aggression” campaign in response to the invasion of an ally. It not only took into account a specific and very powerful enemy, but it also hypothesized that the host nation would tend to many very specific and very messy details that could be ignored by U.S. forces when the strategic aim is the restoration of territory and not “regime change.”

Since the Desert Storm Project authors penned the words above, there have been two revisions, and a renumbering, of the 1986 manual—the former FM 100-5 is now FM 3.0, following the numbering system of Joint Publications. Both were written before the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland. Thus, like the 1976 manual, the chief influence was the rapid advance of technology because the new strategic realities we face were less apparent at the time. One of the biggest challenges of the earlier period was framing the strategic and operational problem well enough to produce a useful doctrine; that continues to be the principal challenge today.

The Army of the early 1970s needed to address new and serious realities very quickly because Soviet forces had modernized and presented a formidable threat while most of the Army’s institutional attention was focused on the effort in Vietnam. To face that threat, the Army changed its orientation completely and, at the same time, reorganized from a large conscription-based force into a smaller, more effective, professional all-volunteer Army. It also needed to revise an outdated doctrine, and do it quickly.

The challenges facing the U.S. Army today are even greater, but similar. Besides being deployed and at war for several years in situations and against adversaries for which it has had little useful 3 doctrine, and facing novel conditions daily in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places less familiar, the Army is going through revolutionary changes. Not only is it reorganizing into a more modular force, but it is also radically reorganizing from a force that primarily mobilizes to meet sudden large strategic emergencies to one that meets steady-state strategic demands constantly. To meet such demands it readies, deploys and regenerates its brigades in three-year life cycles. It has become an expeditionary, rather than forward-based, Army. To provide the intellectual underpinning for current reforms, the Army is in the process of revising its capstone operational doctrine.

Doctrinal revisions since the 1991 Gulf War were heavily influenced by Army experiments in the power of digital communications and command and control systems and by the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA). The RMA captured the imagination of DoD officials and the public. During the 1990s, the RMA decade, the more technical services provided the intellectually attractive ideas that began to shape joint doctrine and concepts. From this enthusiasm over information technology-based weaponry, surveillance systems, networks and high-speed computers emerged a number of “bumper sticker” concepts that appealed to important audiences outside the services—“Shock and Awe,” “Global Reach—Global Power,” “Operational Maneuver from the Sea,” “Rapid Decisive Operations,” “Network Centric Warfare” and “Effects-Based Operations.” These ideas were attractive because they suggested that far fewer people would be needed, especially in the ground forces, and that such savings would pay for the required technological investments.

The Army, for many complex reasons, did not challenge the intellectual flaws in the groupthink of the time, even though active duty officers spoke out in print. Instead it put forward a technical solution that fit into the prevailing logic: first, shrink the tonnage of its heavy armored and mechanized divisions by reducing the combat platoon by one-fifth and replacing those Soldiers with “digitization,” then form medium-weight motorized brigades that could be transported to trouble spots by air more quickly within current airlift constraints. However, these efforts failed to change the essential flow of procurement funding over two administrations and eight congressional sessions. Moreover, until recently the doctrines of the Army and the advice of its leaders were heavily criticized by many in the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense for being behind the times and slow to respond to new opportunities. Even into the summer of 2003, many defense intellectuals advised reductions of up to two Army divisions to afford technical transformation, believing that the course of events in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq had vindicated RMA-based concepts.

Another similarity between the period of the transition from fighting in Vietnam to facing down the Soviet threat and the present one is the need to address new realities head-on. An important weakness of the early post-Vietnam doctrine was an incomplete framing of the problems the doctrine needed to address. Until 2002, the Army and the other services relied primarily on scenarios that were a mere down-scaling of the principal strategic problem of the Cold War for their investigations of future concepts and requirements. Countering the invasion of an ally by a regional power, as in 1991 when the Iraqi Army was expelled from Kuwait, would be the likely future scenario against North Korean aggression. These familiar paradigms left to the host sovereign the problems of public support, rear-area protection against unconventional threats, maintaining security and control of the population, humanitarian assistance, reconstruction planning and other messy complications. These were issues Cold War doctrine did not need to address. Changing regimes, enforcing peace and warring with angry and implacable transnational political movements introduce a host of new problems. Not only has the nature of major combat operations changed  significantly, but the insurgencies of the Cold War were very simple compared to those the U.S. Army is now facing. It is now time for the same kind of “full-court press” to counteract it. An important part of this effort should be recognizing what is different, what is new and how to create and express useful doctrine.

This essay has two purposes. The first is to offer lessons about how the U.S. Army arrived at a doctrine that was “right enough” for the closing decade of the Cold War. The second is to share insights of what “right enough” doctrine might be, and what it might be about.