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.
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.
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.
Israeli scholar Avi Kober and US Army historian Matt Matthews have shown that the result was at least partly due to Israel's hyperfocus on counterinsurgency. The Israeli army's conventional fighting skills had atrophied due to many years of focus on counterinsurgency operations in the Palestinian territories.
The British Army after World War I chose to mostly forget about fighting conventional wars and instead concentrated their efforts on building an imperial constabulary army to police their empire. In 1940, however, as the German Army raced across France to the English Channel, the British Army alongside the French were defeated by the Germans who had spent their interwar years preparing for large-scale battles.
If the US Army is not careful, a similar fate may await. Already, there is proof that the American Army's conventional fighting skills have atrophied. Three former combat brigade commanders in Iraq recently submitted a paper to Army Chief of Staff General George Casey, outlining how the Army's field artillery branch has lost the conventional fighting skills of firing guns at an enemy in open combat due to many years of counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. They refer to the artillery branch as a "dead branch walking."
There are a range of scenarios that might include the US having to engage in heavy fighting. One of them involves a possible failed North Korean state. Focusing on counterinsurgency and nation-building operations will not prepare the Army for such a possibility.
The American Army must do what it takes to win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But good counterinsurgency tactics practiced by proficient combat outfits cannot compensate for flawed strategies and policies.
Considering events today in Georgia and the recent past of Israel in south Lebanon, the Army must soon refocus itself toward conventional warfighting skills, with the knowledge that if called on to do so, it can easily shift to nation-building and counterinsurgency as it has done in Iraq.
If it doesn't, it courts strategic peril.
Gian P. Gentile is an active duty Army colonel. He served in Iraq in 2003 and 2006. The views expressed here are his own.