Chicago Tribune Critics: Pentagon In Blinders Long before 9/11, the military was warned about low-tech warfare, but it
June 6, 2005
Critics: Pentagon In Blinders
Long before 9/11, the military was warned about low-tech warfare, but it didn't listen
By Stephen J. Hedges, Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Nearly 16 years ago, a group of four military officers and a civilian predicted the rise of terrorism and anti-American insurgencies with chilling accuracy.
The group said U.S. military technology was so advanced that foreign forces would be unlikely to challenge it directly, and it forecast that future foes would be non-state insurgents and terrorists whose weapons would be suicide car bombs, not precision-guided weapons.
"Today, the United States is spending $500 million apiece for stealth bombers," the group wrote in a 1989 article that appeared in a professional military journal. "A terrorist stealth bomber is a car with a bomb in the trunk--a car that looks like every other car."
The five men dubbed their theory "Fourth Generation Warfare" and warned that the U.S. military had to adapt. In the years since, the original group of officers, joined by a growing number of officers and scholars within the military, has pressed Pentagon leaders to acknowledge this emerging threat.
But rather than adopting a new strategy, the generals and civilian leaders in the Defense Department have continued to support conventional, high-intensity conflict and the expensive weapons that go with it. That is happening, critics say, despite lethal insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They don't understand this kind of warfare," said Greg Wilcox, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Vietnam veteran and critic of Pentagon policies. "They want to return to war as they envision it. That's not going to happen."
Wilcox is just one of a number of maverick officers, active and retired, who have been agitating for change. Others include Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, whose recent book on the subject is required reading in some units, as well as Marine Col. G.I. Wilson, currently serving in Iraq, and H. John Poole, a retired Marine who has written extensively on insurgencies.
Together they make up the public face of a much larger debate within the U.S. military over whether the Defense Department is doing enough to train troops to fight insurgents.
It is a debate with enormous consequences. Though most of the more than 1,350 American combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been caused by low-tech insurgent weaponry such as roadside bombs, the Army plans to spend more than $120 billion in the next decade on a future combat system of digitally linked vehicles, weapons and unmanned aircraft. It is based largely on conventional warfare theory.
The Army also is reorganizing its 10 divisions into 43 more flexible, 5,000-soldier brigades that can be plunked down in a war zone. But the weapons and training those forces receive still will lean heavily toward the traditional view of conflict, with heavy tanks, helicopters, close air support and terrain-holding troops.
Soldiers take initiative
The mavericks' Fourth Generation Warfare theory is about as far as one can get from current Pentagon doctrine. But many of the captains, corporals and privates fighting today have adopted the mavericks' theories and tactics.
"So much of it was validated that it's theoretically right on the money," said Jim Roussell, a chief warrant officer in the Marine Reserves who focuses on gang crime in Chicago as a sergeant in the city's Police Department. He recently returned from Iraq after leading a Marine unit against insurgents.
Army and Marine Corps officials in Washington declined to answer questions on the changes suggested by the mavericks.
But in November, the Army issued a revised field manual on fighting insurgencies that had not been updated in more than a decade. It has received a mixed reception.
"We really have a lot of institutional friction right now," said Lt. Col. Jan Horvath, the Army manual's primary author. "There are a number of junior officers who understand this." Senior officers, Horvath said, have been less accepting.
Still, some units are adapting. The Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, for instance, last month began its second tour of Iraq after months of innovative training, including a requirement that all officers and soldiers receive basic Arabic language and culture training.
"It's working," said Col. H.R. McMaster, the regiment's commander, who has lectured at U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and written a book about the failures of the Vietnam War. "It's a hard problem. Nothing is easy over here. But I'm telling you we're getting after it, we're pursuing the enemy, we are totally on the offensive right now."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office has given irregular warfare a "higher priority" in the upcoming 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, according to an excerpt of the document. But the report will not be completed until next year. Real war, the mavericks point out, is happening now.
Chinese war philosopher "Sun Tzu had it right," said one Army lieutenant colonel who spent a year fighting insurgents in Iraq and who requested anonymity. "If you know your enemy and if you know yourself, you'll never lose. We know about half of what we should about the enemy, and we don't know ourselves. We can't figure out what kind of Army we want to be."
The 1989 article that broached the rise of terrorism and insurgencies sprang from a group of officers who met regularly to discuss tactics and strategy. The group gathered in the Alexandria, Va., home of William Lind, a military analyst and former Senate aide who is director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Cultural Conservatism.
Lind already had written about the first three generations of modern warfare: Napoleonic-style lines of battle, World War I trench conflict and the swift-moving "maneuver" warfare that the German army displayed in World War II. In the 1980s, the Marine Corps adopted maneuver warfare as its official doctrine.
What, the group wondered, would be the next generation of war?
The group--Lind, Wilson, John Schmitt of the Marines, and Keith Nightengale and Joseph Sutton of the Army--put its collective answer in a short article in the October 1989 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. As the Soviet Union faltered, they wrote, new insurgencies and terrorist groups could erupt in countries with an "Islamic or Asiatic tradition."
"Mass, of men or fire power, will no longer be an overwhelming factor," they wrote. "In fact, mass may become a disadvantage, as it will be easy to target. Small, highly maneuverable, agile forces will tend to dominate."
The article marked a radical departure from military thinking. Until then, the word "insurgency" had been virtually banned inside the Pentagon.
In his 1986 book, "The Army and Vietnam," military analyst and Army veteran Andrew Krepinevich details just how reviled a fight against insurgents is among U.S. military leaders. Top Army commanders in Washington, Krepinevich found, brushed aside orders from President John Kennedy in the early 1960s to build a counterinsurgent capability in Vietnam.
And after the war, he said, counterinsurgency theory was purged from the Pentagon. Instead, the military returned to preparing for a conventional war with the Soviet Union.
"In a way, the lesson of Vietnam for the American people and the Army was `No more Vietnams,'" Krepinevich said. "Vietnam was a searing personal experience for the Army, incredibly negative."
After the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the mavericks argued that it was less a victory than it appeared. The war was "a throwback to World War II in Europe with updated weapons," they wrote in a 1994 Marine Corps Gazette article. U.S. claims of success, they suggested, masked the vulnerabilities of lumbering, heavy armor, a notion borne out in 1993 during the U.S. military's misadventure in Somalia.
The Pentagon, though, continued to equip for battlefield warfare, encouraged by a Congress that was more than willing to back big weapons, ships and aircraft programs and the jobs they create.
"There's no money in counterinsurgency," said Hammes, the Marine colonel, who served in Iraq and whose recent book, "The Sling and the Stone," has stirred more debate within the military. "It's about language skills. It's about people. It's about a lot of soft money moving over to [the Departments of] State, Commerce, Treasury, and there's no F-22 [fighter jet] in this program."
A 9/11 realization
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Schmitt, a former Marine and a co-author of the 1989 article, was at O'Hare International Airport on his way to Pittsburgh. Minutes before boarding his flight, he saw a television report that an airliner had hit New York's World Trade Center. He kept watching as the second plane hit.
"I was thinking, `We're at war here,'" said Schmitt, a military consultant based in Champaign, Ill. "This is the new warfare."
The Sept. 11 attacks, Schmitt and others hoped, would bring change within the Pentagon. Even an Al Qaeda terrorist Web site referred to the 1989 article, noting that "some American military experts predict a fundamental change in the future form of warfare" and that "this new type of war presents significant difficulties for the Western war machine."
But little changed. The U.S. forces that flowed into Afghanistan in late 2001 and into Iraq in March 2003 were largely conventional.
The U.S. military quickly toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. But after those successes, both the Afghan extremists and Hussein's sympathizers transformed into effective insurgencies.
The mavericks contend that the U.S. response has been a string of classic military mistakes, especially in Iraq.
U.S. forces took over Hussein's palaces and military bases, secluding themselves from ordinary Iraqis and cutting off lines of intelligence. Thousands of innocent Iraqis were wrongfully imprisoned in a ham-handed search for insurgents, breeding contempt for the American occupiers.
Training to fight insurgents lagged. Emphasis instead was put on finding technical solutions--another echo of Vietnam. They include devices that detect roadside explosives placed by insurgents, surveillance drones and the belated armoring of vehicles, which so far has cost more than $600 million.
"Here's an army that went into Iraq in 2003 with exactly the same set of equipment it had in 1991, with very few modifications," said Douglas Macgregor, a tank commander in the first Iraq war who wrote several books about reforming the Army before retiring as a colonel a year ago. "It hasn't produced anything new at all in 20 years."
Still, the mavericks argue that, even today, changes could have an impact on the way soldiers are fighting.
First, the mavericks call for ground forces to reorganize into distinct, small units--not large, lumbering divisions or expeditionary forces--that will live among Iraqis.
"Why are we still riding around in Humvees?" asks Poole, the retired Marine, whose Posterity Press has published books on counterinsurgent tactics. "In a war like this, you've got to get off the vehicle and into the neighborhood."
Second, more needs to be done to give soldiers language and cultural training, they say, something that officers in the Army and Marine Corps say has recently begun.
A third reform would prescribe a more judicious use of powerful weapons, such as tank rounds and 2,000-pound precision aerial bombs, especially in cities. Insurgencies exploit the deaths of civilians, the mavericks argue.
They say that the most important change would be a new command system, one that bases promotions on initiative rather than obedience and encourages taking risks, recognizing that mistakes will happen.
"One of the things we found in our experiments was the idea of strategic corporals," said Roussell, the Marine reservist and Chicago policeman. "The corporals are capable of doing it. We just need to empower them."
The military has taken some small steps toward change, and it is promising more.
Other units are following the lead of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and offering more language and cultural training, as well as a review of tactics.
Units rotating to Iraq now get several weeks of specialized training at the Army's two national training centers; tactics simulate life among Iraqis, including the use of Iraqi-American role players.
Additional focus has been put on running road checkpoints, detecting roadside explosives and protecting convoys.
But those efforts give new troops just a brief taste of the challenges they will be facing, and they put a heavy emphasis on defensive measures. According to officers who have been involved in counterinsurgent operations, there still is a reluctance among top commanders to acknowledge the nature of the enemy and what skills American soldiers need to fight.
"There's definitely the sensation that the Army's holding its breath," said one officer who recently took command of deploying forces, "that this will all blow over, and they can go back to what they want to do."
Changes in the field
At the same time, said the officer, who requested anonymity, younger officers with command of fighting units are making the changes they need to, whether the Pentagon approves or not.
"There's a way the institution does things," he said, "and then there's the way that things are actually done."
Receiving little notice inside the Pentagon, the maverick officers have continued to post their theories, criticisms and extensive PowerPoint briefings on unofficial military Web sites.
One notable article last year, written by Marine Col. Wilson, was titled "Iraq--Fourth Generation Warfare Swamp." The Marines denied permission for Wilson, who is in Iraq, to be interviewed for this article.
Although they differ on the particulars of changing the military, the mavericks agree that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan and Iraq has been a lost opportunity. At best, they say, the outcome of both conflicts is uncertain. Some say they are doomed.
"There's nothing that you can do in Iraq today that will work," said Lind, one of the original Fourth Generation Warfare authors. "That situation is irretrievably lost."