In Gurjat, Helmand province, Afghanistan, U.S. Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment run toward a CH-53E Super Stallion, Oct. 28, 2013.

DoD photo by Sgt. Gabriela Garcia, U.S. Marine Corps/Released

In Gurjat, Helmand province, Afghanistan, U.S. Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment run toward a CH-53E Super Stallion, Oct. 28, 2013.

Five Takeaways from a Decade of War

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in a keynote address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week, signaled to military commanders that they should assume the across-the-board, automatic spending cuts imposed by sequester over the next decade will remain in place indefinitely. “We do not have the option of ignoring reality, or assuming something will change.” Before they decide how to shrink U.S. military forces and allocate scarce resources, however, uniformed leaders will have to decipher the lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to apply them to the coming era of austerity and global instability.

Hagel gave a preview of his own thinking when he argued that the Pentagon should protect investments in cutting edge technologies that are central to the evolving, network-centric model of warfare honed in those conflicts — to include space systems, cyber capabilities, “ISR” (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and special operations forces (SOF).

Following Hagel’s speech, three senior retired generals offered their own thoughts on battlefield lessons. Here are five takeaways from the discussion by Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of the Army; and Gen. Ronald Fogleman, former chief of staff of the Air Force.

The First Information Age War

Just as advances in weaponry such as the machine gun, armored tank and aircraft carrier changed war in the Industrial Age, so have rapid advances in computational power and data-crunching fundamentally changed military operations in the Information Age. And as the first extended conflicts for U.S. forces of that era, Afghanistan and Iraq were a critical testing ground. The U.S. military’s development of a more network-centric, intelligence-driven model of operations employing precision-strike capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan were an early attempt to leverage revolutionary technology with new doctrines and ways of fighting.

“The U.S. military used the exponential increase in computational power in our command-and-control and data analysis in ways that we never conceived of before these conflicts,” said Cartwright. “The days when we would send a rifle squad out in the field just trolling for the enemy are gone forever. Today we can be much more predictive about where that squad is going, what it will find when it gets there and where it is most likely to be ambushed. That represents a fundamental shift.”

That more network-centric model of operations empowered small units with the intelligence-gathering power that was once available only in division and corps headquarters. Frequently young officers and noncommissioned officers on foot patrol could tap into full-motion video supplied from unmanned drones and other surveillance aircraft flying overhead, or reach back in real time to massive intelligence fusion cells in the U.S. through the magic of satellite and fiber-optic communications. That gave rise to the phenomenon known as the “strategic corporal,” where potentially game-changing authority and decision-making was pushed down to front-line units whose commanders had to react to rapidly evolving circumstances on the battlefield.

“If you take the hunt for IED (improvised explosive devices) cells, that was a 30-day fight,” said Cartwright. The enemy would invent a fuse, U.S. forces would develop a counter to it and the enemy would respond by inventing another triggering device. “And if it took you longer than 30 days to respond to a change in enemy tactics, your people were dying.”

That compressed cycle of action and reaction also meant that with rare exceptions, U.S. forces had to rely on the major weapons platforms in their arsenals at the start of the war, and adapt them to a dynamic battlefield with changes in computer software and cutting edge sensors. “These battlefields were not driven by ‘platform solutions,’ because our major weapons platforms take 15 to 20 years to field,” said Cartwright. The exception, he noted, was the rapid fielding of the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored vehicles to protect troops from IEDs. “Otherwise, we turned a ‘maneuver force’ into an ‘occupation force’ in these conflicts, and did it without platform solutions.”

The New “Jointness”: Special Operations and Conventional Forces   

The 1991 Persian Gulf war revealed the immense power unleashed when the separate armed services began operating more synergistically in the post-Goldwater Nichols era, honing the U.S. military’s conventional war-fighting capabilities to an unprecedented edge.  Similarly, the post-9/11 “global war on terror” and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have created an unprecedented synergy between special operations forces, intelligence agencies and conventional forces that have profoundly changed U.S. military operations.

In the past, the rivalry that existed between special operations forces and conventional forces was so intense that special operations earned a reputation for not playing well with others. “To me the biggest and most surprising lesson of these wars was the close integration between SOF and conventional forces, especially in the realm of intelligence integration,” said Chiarelli. “That was something I had not seen in my 34 years in the Army, and it’s absolutely critical that we sustain that close integration as we wind these wars down.”

All-Volunteer Force Resilient and Expensive

The all-volunteer force was designed during the early 1970s, in the wake of Vietnam and at the height of the Cold War, as a core around which to build a draft army in the event of a major conflict. Instead, a relatively small all-volunteer force bore the weight of more than a decade of war on its narrow shoulders, revealing a resilience that surprised even many of its staunchest proponents.

“I was in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, when the plane crashed into it, and if you had told me then that we could sustain a decade of war with no retention problems, with troops doing multiple combat tours on a 12-month deployed, 12-month home cycle, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Chiarelli.

One of the key lessons of the last decade, however, is that in contrast to past draft armies the all-volunteer force is difficult to rapidly expand even in a crisis. “We learned in these conflicts that you can’t grow the all-volunteer force as quickly as a draft army,” said Chiarelli, who served as vice chief at a time when the service added 20,000 soldiers to help shoulder the load in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It took us a year and a half to recruit and field 20,000 new privates, which was really a slow process.”

With recent evidence indicating that the Pentagon is spending more than $2 million for every uniformed volunteer currently serving in Afghanistan, a number of experts also question whether the all-volunteer force is too expensive to fight extended conflicts in the future. The escalating costs result from a multiplicity of factors, to include expensive force protection measures in combat zones; the rising cost of contractors to help sustain that force in the field; and soaring personnel costs associated with increased pay and benefits. With advances in combat medicine having led to a survival rate of better than 90 percent for troops wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, medical costs are also soaring.

“The all-volunteer force served us very well in these conflicts, but the problem going forward is that it has become unaffordable at its present size and composition,” said General Fogleman, the former chief of staff of the Air Force. The Defense Department already spends roughly 40 percent of its budget on personnel, he noted, and that number will increase to 60 percent if costs are not contained. “I don’t begrudge a single thing we gave this all-volunteer force, but pretty soon personnel costs are going to squeeze everything else out of the budget. That’s not a sustainable course. ”

Precision Strike and Unintended Consequences

The ability to rapidly direct lethal force to anywhere in the battle-space, with GPS and laser-directed precision, has become a calling card of the U.S. military. Not only do guided weapons result in far less collateral damage and civilian casualties than “dumb” bombs, rockets and mortars, but the need to use far fewer of them to destroy a given target greatly reduces the burdens of moving ammunition through a globe-spanning logistics train.

And yet, just as the cost of an expensive all-volunteer force is driving up the price-tag of this new American style of war, so too are military formations that rely by habit on precision weapons. “I saw instances in the war zone when we were firing precision artillery rounds that cost on order of $110,000 each, when an unguided mortar round costing $60 would have done the job just as well,” said Chiarelli. “I watched as we fired three precision-guided artillery rounds at a IED cell, and thought, ‘Wow, that’s $300,000 worth of precision munitions going down range.’”

The broader implications of war fought increasingly by precision weapons at stand-off distances are also poorly understood. Air Force pilots who fly armed unmanned drones from bases in the United States have a higher rate of suicide, divorce and PTSD than pilots in theater, said Cartwright, perhaps because they have to take the emotional burdens of killing home to their families each night.

The greater reliance on precision weapons and a counter-insurgency strategy that emphasized protecting the civilian population, with the corresponding drop in the number of overall casualties, may also carry unintended consequences. “When historians study these conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will find that they represent the first time in history where the population of young men 17-35 actually grew, whereas historically that population declines during wartime until you reach a point when everyone is tired of the conflict,” said Cartwright. “When that population of young men actually grows during a conflict, I’m not sure what that means for ‘termination of conflict.’ But it could be important.”

Counterinsurgency a Long, Hard Slog

There is a reason that Afghanistan represents the United States’ longest war, with Iraq not far behind, and it’s a lesson the United States learned and then tried to forget after Vietnam: counterinsurgency wars are long and dirty conflicts, and they often take a decade or more to settle. They also involve nation-building tasks outside the core competency either of the U.S. military or the U.S. government writ large, and they risk U.S. forces becoming embroiled in another nation’s civil war.

“The integration of kinetic and non-kinetic operations are critical in these kinds of conflicts,” said Chiarelli, because the Iraqi and Afghan governments lacked the essential ministerial capacity to govern — to pick up the garbage, insure clean water and safe streets, to write contracts. The United States in both instances was forced to step in and try and build that ministerial capacity — a task which remains unfinished to this day in both countries — or else risk the insurgents winning over the population.

“The number one takeaway is that if you are going to intervene in another nation’s conflict as a third party, you better admit going in that it’s a cost-imposing strategy that will require an eight-to-ten year effort,” said Cartwright. “That’s the primary lesson of third-party interventions.”

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