Counterinsurgency Dulling Combat Skills?

Thomas Ricks reports that Matt Matthews, a historian at the Army’s Combat Studies Institute, has written a new report concluding that “five years of fighting insurgents in Iraq may also have dulled U.S. soldiers’ skills at more conventional combat.”

The study, apparently, isn’t a case study of the U.S. military but rather the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war and Israel’s woeful performance.

The fight at Wadi Saluki, for example, revealed the failure of tank commanders and crewmen to use their smokescreen systems, the lack of indirect fire skills, and the total absence of combined arms proficiency. The IDF lost many of these perishable skills during its long years of COIN [counterinsurgency] operations against the Palestinians.


While the U.S. Army continues to perform irregular warfare operations throughout the world, it must not lose its ability to execute major combat operations.

Unfortunately, combat skills are not interchangeable. We spent years presuming that, if we trained to beat the Big, Bad Russians, we could handle anyone. Vietnam, Beirut, and other encounters proved different. Similarly, proficiency in maneuver warfare has only limited transfer into counterinsurgency or stability operations. The reverse, alas, is likely true as well.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I guess I might consider this to be more a concern were there someone… anyone… who had the capacity to take us on in a conventional combat role.

  2. Bithead says:

    Mmm. Let me break that out a bit;

    First, I’m not convinced there is what we are pleased to call a ‘conventional war’ on our horizon. There’s nobody at this stage with the military strength wage such a war against us, who actually would do so. Those with enough strength to do so, would undoubtedly use Nuclear weapons, instead. Those without the strength to do so would use the kind of insurgency we’re seeing now.

    Seondly, I submit that part of the reason those traditional skills have atrophied is because so much of our training, anymore centers not on fighting skills but on keeping the military trained as a ‘meals on wheels’, and on being subordinate to the so called “United Nations”.

  3. just me says:

    I think the types of war we are currently seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan are the future of warfare, so I am not sure this report is really a good or bad thing.

    Personally, I would rather our soldiers brush up on this style of fighting and know how to fight it, since it is currently the war we are in.

    War and how it is fought isn’t a historical constant.

  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    As opposed to sitting in the barracks in Texas hones ones combat skills. The IDF didn’t use all the force at their disposal, hence the results. Limited wars get limited results. If you enemy is a serious enough threat to call for the use of military force, all of it must be used. It greatly reduces casualties.

  5. DC Loser says:

    In the Israeli case, it’s a misnomer to call what they have been doing COIN. They have been performing occupation duty for the past 4 decades in the West Bank. As such, the morale sapping drudgery of doing checkpoint duty amongst a hostile population distracted from the real business of the Army.

  6. Beldar says:

    Dr. Joyner, I think this is an interesting observation that makes some intuitive sense.

    I’m genuinely curious: What suggestions, if any, do you have for addressing this problem?

  7. MichaelB says:

    I always get worried when people say we won’t need to fight a conventional war. Prior to both WWI and WWII the British allowed their major land combat capability to atrophy down to basically nothing. Both times they learned at enormous cost in blood that they needed those capabilities after all.

    These things take many years to build, and the need for them can emerge quite quickly. In 1929, after all, Germany seemed no threat.

  8. James Joyner says:

    I’m genuinely curious: What suggestions, if any, do you have for addressing this problem?

    I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion, which I’ve rejected for years, that we’ll probably have to segregate the Army into specialty units that primarily train for COIN and stability operations and others who primary do combat. I’m not sure if even that’ll work, though, for large-scale COIN ops like Iraq, which suck up so large a percentage of the force.

    This may be one of those situations that Don Rumsfeld used to talk about: “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”

  9. davod says:

    “WWII the British allowed their major land combat capability”

    The Brit land capabilities were always based upon the minimum required to do the job. Whenever there was a war they had to build up the army.

    They relied upon the Royal Navy to keep the peace.

    At the start of WWII the British had the most mobile force, using trucks and armoured personel carriers for troop transportation. They lost a lot of equipment at the fall of France.

    The problem with land forces these days, as with the sea and air forces, is there is little to no lead time to build up anything.


    How many troops are needed for COIN work? We have Delta, Green Berets, Seals, Airborne, Marine Recon, all of which to some degree were designed to be usefull for COIN.

    Ricks and others arguments sound logical until you ask what is a real war. What skills are being left in the drawer when a brigade goes into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan?

    How many times have we trained for the previous war only to be faced with a completely different scenario. How do you train for what you do not know? Basic fighting skills are used in any situation.

  10. MichaelB says:

    The Brits did have an excellent force at the start of both wars. The problem in both cases was that it was wholly inadequate in size. Substantially less then was needed to “get the job done” in large part because of a well-considered (but foolish) decision that “the job” would not need to be done. Both times they got creamed for a couple years at the start of the war before turning the tables.

    The very fact that Dunkirk happened at all sortof proves my point – at the outset of WWII, the Brits had decided “won’t need to do that again” about major land combat in Europe. Didn’t quite work out that way.

  11. DC Loser says:

    Well, it wasn’t the Brits’ fault that Dunkirk had to happen in the first place. The BEF did their part by going into Belgium, but it was the French Army that allowed the Germans to break out and encircle the French forces and the BEF north of Paris, forcing the retreat and capitulation.