Critics: Pentagon Still Not Adjusting to Insurgency

According to the creators of the “4th Generation Warfare” concept, the Pentagon has not adjusted to the new security environment despite having a nearly twenty years’ warning.

Critics: Pentagon in blinders (Chicago Tribune)

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.

There’s little doubt that the military has been incredibly slow to respond to the changing security environment. Even aside from counterinsurgency, which the Pentagon leadership has understandably been reluctant to embrace as a primary mission until recently, we were still preparing to face an absurdly improbable set piece battle against a peer competitor until a couple of years ago. We’re only now beginning to focus on upgrading military police, civil affairs, and other assets whose inadequate supply were obvious to me as a graduate student with comparatively little military training during the Somalia campaign in 1992.

That said, the military is indeed making substantial progress, with or without doctrinal guidance.

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.”

It’s not at all uncommon for such policy changes to be piloted and implemented from the middle and the propagated up the chain once proven successful.

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.

This may not be the way things are supposed to work, but it’s the reality of change in a massive bureacracy. That’s why grand statements such as this are flawed:

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.”

Nonsense. From the War for Independence through World War II and beyond, the American military always learns on the job. Even in Vietnam, which goes down in the record books as a loss, our soldiers had gotten pretty good at counterinsurgency by the late 1960s. Fighting against insurgents and terrorists while taking care to protect civilians is incredibly difficult but all signs point to our forces getting better at it by the day.

There’s no guarantee that the mission will ultimately be accomplished. It’s an ambitious one, to say the least. If it fails, though, it will be because of political decisions that didn’t pan out or a mission that was just not “doable,” not because of inadequate training manuals. Nobody reads those, anyway.

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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. anonvet says:

    And you sir, don’t really know what you are talking about as well. The U.S. Army did such a wonderful job of adjusting to counterinsurgency warfare, they were still trying to fight set piece battles through 1969-1970. However, you do have the tired fallback of blaming it on media, politicians, etc. instead of blaming the military for its repeated mistakes. Now we are in the same position again. As a member of armed forces who is serving here in Iraq, I can assure that we are not on the way to wonderful victory. For you to say that we will adapt is ridiculous. How can it be innovative for those fellows to have culture and arabic classes when they should have been doing that in the first place? I know where they are operating and I know about their success rate. If you call sweeping up all of the men in a village innocent or not as going after the enemy, well, it doesn’t take a genius to how the general populace feels about the presence of our forces. I don’t think we can adapt or will ever adapt fully. We want to fight the same set-piece battles against an enemy that is just bidind its time until we are nickle and dimed enough where our forces cannot sustain. All warfare is situational and if we fall back on the if and but argument, we will never win.

    P.S. is the bronze star for valor, or for just doing a good job at whatever. I remember distinctly during the gulf war that there was an orgy of awards given. My question is, does you bronze star hold up under the same scrutiny that you gave John Kerry’s medals? Just curious