18 April 2010

COINtras off their game

Yesterday, Small Wars Journal hosted two articles concerning the future of armored warfare. The first is a link roundup posted in World Politics Review, while the second is an article penned by noted COINtra Colonel Gian Gentile.

Col. Gentile's article--lamenting the death of the once-proud US armor corps--will doubtlessly become the more infamous of the two, so I'll concentrate on that one. Suffice to say, I expected better from the world's leading COINtra. Why are we just now seeing articles decrying the gutting of the armor branch? In case you've been living in a cave for the last few years, here's a list of some recent developments.

(Ed. note: You can tell I've spent too much time this last week making PowerPoint slides, as I'm compelled to use the bullet-point format for sentence fragments.)

  • The systematic re-configuring of heavy brigade combat teams into Stryker brigades or light brigades.
  • The tendency of heavy brigades in Iraq to leave their M1 tanks at home and fight as motorized infantry in MRAPs and HMMWVs.
  • The total absence of tanks from Afghanistan, now apparent due to the fact that Afghanistan is now in the media spotlight.
  • The apparent lackluster performance of Israel's Merkava tanks in the 2006 Lebanon War, largely attributed to an armored force which had hardly performed any individual or collective training in the Merkava since 2001. This situation, of course, has some striking parallels with the current state of armored forces in the United States. (Of course, it should also be noted that a recent CNAS paper by Andrew Exum noted that the terrain in Southern Lebanon was "infantry country" and poorly conducive to armored advances. It didn't help that the IDF also used the most obvious approach, either)
Yes, only now do the COINtras begin to raise concerns about the state of the US Army's armored forces. Truth be told, there is reason for alarm in the deterioration of the tank force. Although I would say that "small wars"--insurgencies, peace enforcement, peacekeeping, stability/support, humanitarian assistance, counter-terrorism, border conflicts, etc--will probably dominate the US military's future, "Black Swans" tend to make their way into the mix.
As a wise man once said, in the wake of his inability to see into the future, "always in motion, the future is".

Despite harboring legitimate concerns, Col. Gentile fails to address them properly. Let's dissect the one-page essay.
The Army has become decidedly infantry centric. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was a fighting kind of infantry centered army. But instead it is an infantry centric Army grounded in the principles of population centric counterinsurgency and Rupert Smith's view of war in the future as "wars amongst the people."

Listen up, everyone: we are no longer a fighting Army. To all you veterans of COP Keating and Wanat--you must have been doing nothing else but touchy-feely tea parties and absolutely no combat whatsoever.

To be sure the American Army will be told to do lots of things from winning hearts and minds in the Hindu Kush, to passing out humanitarian relief in the troubled spots around the world, to nation building in Iraq. But first and foremost it must be an Army grounded in combined arms competencies. This must come first, and not second or third after fuzzy concepts as “whole of government approach” and building emotional relationships with local populations. The latter may of course be important, depending on the mission, but those kinds of competencies must be premised on combined arms and not the other way around.

I recently heard an American Army General speak to a group of young men and women soon to become second lieutenants. The General's main point to these young men and women--what they needed to be good at when they went out into the field army--was establishing "trusting relationships" with local populations. One would have liked soon-to-be-lieutenants told that they must be proficient in their basic branch skills: infantry and armor, basic fire and maneuver with their platoon as part of a maneuver company/team; artillery, fire support; logistics, logistical support; and so on.

Certainly, counterinsurgency contains a considerable emphasis on population security, protection of civilian infrastructure, and diplomatic action. Nevertheless, it's important to place counterinsurgency doctrine in its proper context--FM 3-24 was written in a time when US forces were adept at killing insurgents and terrorists at the tactical level, but poor at understanding the operational impacts of COIN.

We place so much emphasis on understanding the "soft" aspects of counterinsurgency--as opposed to the more "kinetic" aspects--because virtually every single leader understands that they need to be tactically proficient. I don't need a general to tell me that I need to be able to employ forces in combat--that's a given. Maybe we're just amazed that we no longer talk down to our junior leaders like we used to.

Moreover, to state the obvious, the reason tanks and tracked vehicles are missing from contemporary "combined arms" doctrine might have more to do with the fact that we simply haven't used tanks in Afghanistan at all. The mountainous terrain is just not conducive to tanks. (Although this hasn't stopped the Canadians from sending 20 Leopard IIs)

Finally, one of the commenters, "Steve2", addresses the reality of the COINtra v. COINdinista debate.
Manpower and rotation times. Are there really enough to do both (COIN, Armor) at this time? It cannot be COIN or Armor for the foreseeable future, it must be both, but with the tight rotations of the past years, it had to be COIN. Maybe the drawdown in Iraq will provide enough of a breather.
True, true, true. In a perfect world, the US military would be prepared for every single threat. However, with the operational tempo being what it is--a year in combat followed by an incredibly hectic year of reset, re-equipping, re-training, re-integrating new troops, and, of course, resting--it's no surprise that we addressed counterinsurgency, as it's the highest priority right now.

Join the discussion at SWJ--WOI fan MikeF and commenters from around the world have joined in already.


El Goyito said...

I'm reminded of a line from "Hurt Locker" where the soldiers, passing by a line of parked tanks, one remarks (I'm big-time paraphrasing here): "Why in the world do we need tanks in Iraq?" To which SGT Sanborn replies: "Well I'd much rather be on the side with the tanks than on the one without them."

Hear, hear. Let's not do away with the big behemoths just yet.

Andy Kravetz said...

You know, this sort of reminds me of the debate several years ago of tracked vs. wheeled vehicles. And how the Army -- and by extension, the military the world over -- were trying to go more mobile at the expense of armor.

What, Starbuck and others, I think wwas the biggest thing about the 2006 Lebanon war was the weakness of the Merkva 4. Remember, these guys were designed to be people-first tanks as the IDF puts a high level on the safety of its troops. But if you look at the tactics of that war, the IDF was very over confident and didn't realize what they were getting into. Look at what happened in Gaza. Yes, Hamas aren't as organized but it is urban fighting. An RPG is an RPG.

gian p gentile said...

This is what I posted on Tom Ricks's blog earlier today as a response to your criticism of my piece:

"To Starbuck's points I would just ask that he read in one of the last paragraphs of the piece where I comment that American infantry platoons easily handle the kind of enemy that we face now in Afghanistan, with the implication that they can easily handle that enemy because of their skill and fighting prowess as American infantry platoons. My larger point which he clearly failed to see is that I am not talking about the courage and fighting skills of our infantry and scout platoons on the ground now in Afghanistan (because clearly as Wanat and Keating shows their is plenty of that) but the competency at combined arms at higher organizational levels like Brigade and Division and higher. And lastly with regard to Starbuck it is puzzling to me how he can say rather assuredly that out of nowhere now I pop off with a concern about the extinction of the armor corps when in fact for the last three years since my return from Iraq I have written many, many opeds, articles, and essays highlighting that very problem. Starbuck on his blog mentions the discussion occurring on this topic on SWJ blog; I would only point out in that regard that while there are plenty of folks who disagree with what I have to say there are also plenty of folks who find themselves in agreement with me too."



Rick said...

One year after moving into Helmand province, the Danes brought in four Leopard II main battle tanks (in October 2007) to protect their operating base. The tanks are still there, still operating.

Starbuck said...


I felt compelled to address your concerns. In short, I felt that your article in SWJ last weekend was, unfortunately, not your best. I feel you could have made a better case of the deterioration of armored fighting capabilities.

If you read more carefully, you'll find that I too find an atrophy of conventional warfighting capabilities disturbing. However, I have a one-year dwell time, and unfortunately, the war I will assuredly fight a few months from now now takes precedence over the one that might potentially fight at some undetermined time in the future.

It may seem short-sighted, but unfortunately, it's the best I feel I can do now.