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Is the U.S. Army ready for conventional war?

Focusing only on counterinsurgency and nation-building is unwise. It must prepare to fight other armies.

By Gian P. Gentile / September 2, 2008

Images of Georgian infantry moving under fire and Russian tanks on the attack show that the days of like armies fighting one another on battlefields are far from over.

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What does this mean for the US Army? As it considers its role after Iraq, should it be restructured for war and conflict along the lines of counterinsurgency and nation-building, or toward conventional fighting as represented by the Georgian war?

Armies trained to fight conventional warfare can quickly and effectively shift to counterinsurgency and nation-building. Contrary to popular belief, the US Army proved this in Iraq.

Its lightning advance up to Baghdad in the spring of 2003 happened because it was a conventionally minded army, trained for fighting large battles.

If the Army had focused the majority of its time and resources prior to the Iraq war on counterinsurgency and nation-building, the march to Baghdad would have been much more costly in American lives and treasure.

Critics argue that because the Army did not prepare for counterinsurgency prior to the Iraq war, it fumbled for the first four years of the war until rescued by the surge in February 2007.

Not true, according to "On Point II," a Army history of the Iraq war by Donald Wright and Timothy Reece. In fact, according to this book, the US Army very quickly transitioned from the conventional fighting mode. By the end of 2003, the Army – which spent much of the 1980s and 1990s training to fight large battles – moved into the successful conduct of "full-spectrum" counterinsurgency and nation-building operations.

There is more continuity than discontinuity between pre-surge and surge US Army forces in their tactics and methods in fighting the insurgency in Iraq. So if a conventional army like the one that started the Iraq war in 2003 can quickly and effectively make the transition, why reconfigure toward a hyperfocus on counterinsurgency and nation-building for future wars and conflicts?

History also shows that when states focus their armies on nothing but counterinsurgency and world constabulary missions to the exclusion of conventional warfare preparation, strategic failure can result.

In the summer of 2006 in southern Lebanon, the Israeli army suffered a significant battlefield defeat at the hands of Hezbollah, who fought with conventional tactics centered on small infantry squads using machine guns, mortars, and antitank missiles.