Top Down Control-An Enduring Army Love Affair

The approval of a U.S. Marine armor company to Afghanistan by General Petraeus, after nine years of combat operations, generated lots of media buzz, recalling the rusted hulks of Soviet tanks from that ill-fated adventure. It also seemingly ups the ante for U.S. involvement, clashing with the President Obama’s desire for a near term withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the real story is the retreat from counterinsurgency doctrine championed by the “brilliant” Petraeus and the obvious, and overlooked fact, that tactical decisions residing at the four star level do not bode well for our efforts there.

Sometimes less is not more. Tanks are part of the ground forces toolkit and their employment should be unremarkable. However, U.S. strategists painted themselves in a corner by advocating a counterinsurgency approach that featured dismounted patrolling and minimizing civilian casualties in the doctrinaire view that this was how to “win hearts and minds.” Policy makers unfortunately further dictated capabilities commanders could bring to the fight, reminiscent of LBJ pouring over maps and picking bombing targets in North Vietnam. Mounting U.S. and coalition casualties and the fact Canadian and other coalition forces already employ tanks in Afghanistan made the move easier. But what took so long to get tanks to our ground forces. And why the Marines and not the Army as well?

In Helmand province where the Marines operate there are better fields of fire, less relief and chance of armor ambush by Taliban with rocket propelled grenades. In other words, good tactical reasons to employ tanks. The Marines are also the smaller ground force and less encumbered by bureaucracy and group think than the Army. This almost always equates to flexibility. It was U.S. Marines that helped set and exploit the Anbar Awakening in Iraq.

No understanding of the U.S. Army is complete without appreciating its obsession with doctrine. The training and doctrine command (TRADOC), headed by a four star general and employing thousands of soldiers and civilians, is responsible for the bulk of Army thinking. It’s central brain is the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which trains officers in doctrinal art and is commanded by a three star general. (Note: if you’re looking for fat in the defense budget, here’s a good place to start.) Every day army life is infused with the application of doctrine to standard operating procedures at all echelons. Army schools take a procedural approach in training students for increased responsibilities. The approved reading lists tend to reinforce senior leader bias and offer little opportunities for cross discipline reading in fields other than military science. In an essentially linear, and stove-piped approach to life’s complexity, this process focus, while satisfying to many, kills creativity on an army wide scale. What remains is a “by the numbers,” lowest common denominator approach that leave students even less inclined to think differently.

Thus, the “real world,” or the concept of context, becomes an abstraction only understood through an “accepted” process. For example, the mission analysis methodology METT-T (mission, enemy, terrain, troops available and time) is merely a tarted up term for context. Does an army planner really need to be told that he operates with real life constraints, concepts that should come easily to those applying military art in specific circumstances?

Consider the current counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine now in vogue, written by Petraeus and his “Jedi Knights” at Fort Leavenworth. These lessons learned from Iraq served as tactical and operational guidelines in Afghanistan for several years and have now been found wanting. One might have asked beforehand how a document written for Iraq can apply to a different place, people, culture, tribes, etc? How can any document address the non-linear dynamics, or almost infinite contingencies U.S. forces may encounter in the future? Doctrine is, after all, centralized thinking, usually far from the action. Nobody at the Pentagon designed and fitted hedgerow busters on our tanks in Normandy’s bocage country. And it’s no wonder that the old cliche about generals always fighting the last war, endures.

Most army people support a doctrinal system as an “essential point of departure” for operational art, perhaps not grasping the tacit admission of inadequacy that statement implies. And as expected, debate in an intelligence related forum I follow centered around whether doctrine supported tanks in counterinsurgency.

That is disappointing. Without a concerted effort to develop a free thinking and creative officer and NCO corps, we’re in for more of the same institutional stupidity.


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