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Funding the U.S. Counterinsurgency Wars

Author: Stephen Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
June 19, 2009

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As Congress turns to the defense budget, battles over constituency politics and cost overruns will mask a deeper story. Defense budgets represent the nation's effort to meet the demands of warfare, and this one in particular reflects an underlying debate over the future of war.

A younger generation of officers and civilian analysts shaped by Iraq and Afghanistan sees the future of war in low-intensity conflicts with non-state actors. Conventional wars between states are a thing of the past, they argue, so high-tech major weapon programs and heavy military formations are dinosaurs in a world of guerilla warfare and terrorism. The military (and the defense budget) should get on with it and transform to emphasize the low-tech weapons, cultural skills, and boots on the ground needed for a future of counterinsurgency and nation-building.

Traditionalists argue that this low-tech transformation agenda is actually a backward-looking program to win the last war rather than the next one. In this view, low-intensity conflict is the war of today but not necessarily of tomorrow. While the United States is bogged down in guerilla warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, they argue, states like China and even non-state actors like Hezbollah are acquiring new technology and innovative doctrines for higher-intensity warfare. In this view, if the United States fails to adapt, the real dinosaur will be the labor-intensive, undercapitalized military we built for the wars of this decade that cannot keep up with the new threats of tomorrow.

Ironically, the traditionalists are right about tomorrow, but the young Turks are right about today.

Even if the United States never again fights a state enemy, technological and political change is putting conventional war making in the reach of more and more non-state actors. The 2006 Lebanon campaign, for example, pitted an Israeli army that had reoriented to low-intensity conflict and policing in the occupied territories against a non-state actor, Hezbollah, that had acquired modern precision antitank weaponry and--more important--the skills to use it fairly effectively in conventional battle. Hezbollah gave the preponderant but misprepared Israelis all they could handle.

If the U.S. military does not remake itself to maximize effectiveness in counterinsurgency, it could easily lose one or both of today’s conflicts with potentially grave consequences.

Hezbollah in Lebanon is hardly the only example. Al-Qaeda fighters in 2001-2002 at Bai Beche, Highway 4, and the Shah-i-Kot Valley in Afghanistan used surprisingly conventional methods with considerable skill, as did Chechen infantry in Grozny in 1994-1995, Croatian separatists in the Balkans in 1991, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka since the late 1980s, and Rwandan rebels in 1994. These conventional methods enabled non-state actors either to defeat ill-prepared state armies (such as the Russians) or to sell their lives dearly in hard fighting at close quarters. Not all non-state opponents will be capable of this. But some already are--and others will be. State armies that fail to maintain skills for conventional combat or to exploit new technology of their own can expect to face real trouble against such opponents in the future.

The problem is that the United States is now waging two real wars against actual opponents who do not fight like Hezbollah in 2006 or Croatian separatists in 1991. The future is one thing--the present is another. The young Turks overproject today's demands into the future, but they get today's demands exactly right. And today's wars are extremely demanding. If the U.S. military does not remake itself to maximize effectiveness in counterinsurgency, it could easily lose one or both of today's conflicts with potentially grave consequences.

This means the U.S. military may have to transform itself twice. To avoid defeat in today's wars may require a more thorough conversion to the needs of counterinsurgency, going beyond training and operations (which are already heavily oriented to counterinsurgency) to weapon acquisition programs, military service budget shares, and even the promotion priorities we use to shape the officer corps and its skills. But the military that results will not necessarily be suited to the demands of the postwar world. Those demands could require a second transformation.

In this context, the Obama administration's budget proposal for fiscal year 2010 has it about right. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has shifted the balance in this debate toward the young Turks and their emphasis on low-intensity conflict. While he would still hedge to a degree against high-technology enemies, his focus is on winning the wars of today while accepting risks against the possible wars of the future. He is thus pushing a necessary transformation--but it may not be the last one.

A double transformation would be expensive, disruptive, and politically difficult. But it would also be much closer to the historical norm for U.S. war making. In the early 1940s the United States created a powerful conventional military virtually from scratch in order to win a war. It then demobilized it and started over again for Korea and again for Vietnam. This was hardly ideal. But it was also unavoidable. The traditionalist argument for retaining high-tech conventional capability in the midst of multiple ongoing low-intensity wars is like arguing in 1943 that we cannot transform to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan without hedging against a future war with the Viet Cong. Budgeting, like strategy, is about choices. In this budget debate, we may have to choose the present over the future.

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