04 June 2009

Nagl, Gentile and the Axe


There is a great debate in the military regarding what types of threats we should train our forces to fight. Many, such as General David Petraeus and retired Lt. Col. John Nagl believe that we should train our forces to fight counterinsurgencies. Their championing of the Counter-Insurgency (COIN) strategy has given their camp the name "The COINdinistas".

Others, such as West Point History Professor Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, believe that the Surge Strategy did little to improve security in Iraq, and that the US military is ill-equipped to meet conventional threats on the battlefield. Members of this camp feel that the US should move away from "small wars" and focus instead on major conflict against an organized nation-state.

The disagreement is fierce. Just observe the criticism hurled at Gentile by Col. Peter Mansoor, who was General Petraeus' chief of staff in Iraq. Col. Mansoor wrote an article in Small Wars Journal which attacked Gentile's "commute to war/big FOB" approach to war which seemed to dominate the period from 2003-2006. If you read between the lines, you might get the impression that Mansoor is accusing Gentile of COINdinista player-hating.

While I'm not going to get in the midst of the mud-slinging involved between these two camps—and it's tough to remain impartial since I've really always seen myself as a COINdinista—there is a middle ground which has remained unexplored. David Axe of War is Boring has mentioned a compromise between the two camps by discussing the need to prepare for "hybrid wars".

"Hybrid War" is one of those hot-button terms in defense policy, although it's very ill-defined. Some, such as Dr. David Kilcullen, have used the term in the strategic sense to describe a mixture of multiple forms of political and military phenomena in a certain area. For example, Kilcullen uses the term to describe strange combination of actors who engage in insurgency, terrorism, sectarian conflict and crime which added to the chaos in that country, particularly in 2006.

Others, however, such as Secretary Robert Gates, use the term to describe a blend of conventional and unconventional tactics. Well-equipped organizations like Hezbollah--which is classified as a terrorist organization on one hand, but as a political entity on the other hand—might employ small pockets of fighters in guerilla-style combat, but also use sophisticated anti-ship missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. David Axe also notes that many nations have already employed small numbers of obsolete tanks, armored fighting vehicles and primitive air forces.

Certainly, the US should have forces which can counter these new hybrid threats. In an age of relatively cheap unmanned aerial vehicles, air defense is not a lost art. That being said, do we need a Theater-wide high-altitude defense system and 700 F-22 Raptors to protect against UAVs? Hardly. What we need is a balanced force capable of dealing with these threats.

Gentile feels that the Army's adoption of COIN has eroded the US' ability to counter these conventional opponents. I disagree. America's battle-hardened Army is more proficient than ever before in its ability to shoot, move and communicate. Even though we may not be training to face the giant Red Horde like we were training to do in the 1970s, I would submit that the past eight years of constant conflict—even against opponents who were largely irregular—is probably better for preparation for combat than the Cold War Army had when their training focus was the occasional month-long exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Division Review and Post Clean Sweep (all you 82nd Airborne Division veterans will nod your head in agreement).

Focus: COINdinistas and Gentile-Men—start your flame war!

Photo stolen from Entropy at Small Wars Journal's Council.

2 comments:

El Goyito said...

Most will prob be moderates in this tussle - advocating a "balance" between COIN and conventional warfare. As for conventional armies one has to look no further than the KPA (N. Korean Army) with a standing force of 1.1 million (incl. 90,000 well-trained special forces)and annual expenditures of $6 billion USD. They are a lean and hungry force we'd have to fight on their home turf and, oh yeah, they have nuclear weapons.

Greyhawk said...

Good on you for taking the time to step back a few paces and inform people what the fundamental argument is about. As various camps entrench and discussions move to the specifics we need that from time to time. Well done.