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The Asymmetrical Fantasy: Are Conventional Forces Obsolete?

I don’t think there is a more widely believed proposition in the defense establishment and amongst laymen too, than that gearing our military for future asymmetrical warfare, and thus away from conventional armed forces…is the way of the future. I disagree strongly, and not just because I’m a tank guy.

In any discussion about military strategy or history with friends in the military, sooner or later they will say that “Byron, please…there are no frontlines anymore…no more clashes of bi…

  1. Johannes Allert

    Are conventional forces obsolete? The short answer is no. Mr. Jim Lacy recently touched upon this very topic on NRO. Here’s the link.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/286748/army-we-need-jim-lacey

  2. Johannes Allert

    By the way, I meant to add that I’m doing some back round research on the First North Dakota Volunteers and their participation in the U.S. – Philippine Insurgency War 1899-1902. What I’m finding while perusing the papers of the era are articles pertaining to the Boer War in South Africa side-by-side those concerning the war in the Philippines. Both were insurgencies, yet what followed in the next decade had little to do with what occured on the Western Front. 

  3. Jeff

    I disagree. The future model for our armed forced ought to be the United States Marine Corps MAGTF, not the Army heavy division. ( I may harbor similar biases as you.) Marine logistics are peerless. They combine the speed of armored and mechanized forces with close infantry combat capabilities. They can operate in all environments, in al times, on short notice, with independent logistics and support.

    With a smaller raiding force, the MAGTF can combine advanced intelligence and rapid maneuver to deny the enemy use of terrain even though Marines don’t occupy the terrain. Marines can conduct breaching operations from the squad level to the theater level.

    The Army heavy division is applicable for homeland defense, but as a projection of force instrument, a conventional deterrent outside our shores – it’s not going to work. The logistics and command structures are all wrong for the job.

    The future of aviation as practiced by the Air Force will go unmanned. The main constraint on air superiority fighters is the pilot’s body. Take it out of the plane and you can make planes that do amazing things.

    Our real worry is the impending obsolescence of the aircraft carrier weapon system.

  4. HVTs

    Your use of “asymmetrical warfare” needs refinement.  It means “unconventional approaches to circumvent or undermine our strengths while exploiting our vulnerabilities.” (1997 QDR)  There is nothing new in this; asymmetry has been used to advantage since warfare began.

    If our military consisted of only lightly armed counterinsurgency forces and someone launched an armored assault on us, that attack would be asymmetrical because it would employ capabilities that are unconventional to us as a way of exploiting our lack of countervailing capabilities.

    To avoid the problem of fighting the last war, one should not assume any given ‘convention’ of arms is permanent.  Armored forces and highly mobile artillery (e.g., in the form of aircraft) have represented the convention since the 1930s. But since WW II relatively few of our actual engagements have been the province of armored warfare in a manner resembling that conflict.

    If any single term captures the modern ethos of war it is “precision warfare.” This is why those unconventional Special Forces and drones are valuable and will continue to be: they place hot lead on foreheads with great discrimination, minimizing collateral damage.  The flip-side is minimizing own-force losses, another goal drones and SF promote.

  5. James Gawron

    Tecumseh, er I mean Byron, my reading of Military History is that the shallow fools always are fighting the last war whatever it was.  They cut the military generally and then over-invest in a strategy designed to defeat the last enemy faced.

    I’m no tank guy.  I’m more of a history book guy.  Would you please tell me what you think we ought to be doing now.  I need somebody who knows what the weapons do in the real world not just on paper.

  6. Crow

    My short answer is no, conventional forces are not obsolete. But they do need to change to become more modular and flexible.

    All the services seem to recognize that next generation platforms must be capable of being tailored quickly to the needs of a conflict whose nature will be difficult to predict, but the Navy and Marine corps have more experience assembling and deploying these kinds of ad hoc forces. I expect that the aforementioned MAGTF will be a model. 

    But, I’d also argue a MAGTF is not an ‘unconventional’ force. It requires amphibious assault vessels to deploy it and support it in the opening hours of a conflict. An LHA/LHD is vulnerable to the same threats as a CVN, and a few more that stem from the challenges of the littoral environment. The need for the kind of power projection we achieve through a CVN/LHD has not disappeared, and therefore the much heralded death of aircraft carriers/big deck in the near term, I think, has been overstated.

    Lastly, there is sometimes a bias in writing about asymmetric conflicts that they will not require holding territory. COIN in Iraq, I think, decisively disproved this bias.

  7. Jackal

    Jeff Younger makes good points, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the “advanced intelligence” of the Marines.  

  8. Skyler

    I couldn’t agree more with this post.  We have taken these low intensity conflicts and have concluded that this is all we need to do anymore.  We are no longer capable of integrating large units into a mobile and cohesive force.  We do everything at the battalion level or smaller.  In fact, when we get above a company level operation, we call it a major operation.  

    When we get an enemy that is actually competent and intent on hurting us in a very big way, we will be in big trouble if we don’t dust off those old books and relearn how to maneuver divisions and larger units.  I’m sure the Chinese, for instance, will continue to think of divisions the way we think of companies.

  9. wilber forge

     It is a given that the militrary has been retasked to be more effecitive on what somewould call the new challenges we face. The concept of reducing the engegments to surgical engagements sell well to the public, yet ignores one fact.

    Wars call for a massive effort to win and then the sustained visual presence and commitment to maintain to goals when won.

    We have become confused on this issue at our own peril. Understand the point well.

    Perhaps this will raise a few feathers here. A good start.

  10. Byron Horatio
    Johannes Allert: By the way, I meant to add that I’m doing some back round research on the First North Dakota Volunteers and their participation in the U.S. – Philippine Insurgency War 1899-1902.  · Jan 2 at 5:36am

    You might enjoy The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot.  Has a large section on the Philippine insurrection and a number of other colonial wars the US has fought since 1800. 

    My concern about the “unmanned future” of air power is what I stated earlier.  Granted, the technology is in its infancy.  But isn’t the scenario horrifying to imagine a whole theater of drones suddenly falling from the skies inexplicably?  I neglected to mention my big support of the Marine Corps as well.  They should be expanded and, as is happening now, should be returned to their proper role as an amphibious strike force, not as a second Army.

  11. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Worrisome, indeed.

  12. Byron Horatio

    @ James,

    To start with, I would not bank so much hope on the drones.  They are very impressive weapons, but as we saw a few weeks ago, they are highly vulnerable.  For the Iranians to have captured that drone in such good condition, it seems likely that they were able to hack into the computer on board and simply fly it to their own soil. 

    I’m no wonk on these matters, but I would double the Navy, and add 2 or 3 more carriers.  I’d resurrect Strategic Air Command (SAC), which was ended after the fall of the iron curtain.  I would not use “smart bombs” or outrageously expensive missiles like the ones used against Ghadaffi, which pushed a million dollars a pop.  I would also keep the Heavy/Light ratio of armor at the 70/30 mark.

    The military is very capable of sweeping aside small enemy armies, but my concern is that it will not be ready for a big showdown with Iran.  Not that we will lose, but that we will be needlessly hampered by our own unpreparedness and lose more men than we might otherwise.  

     

  13. Byron Horatio

    I would add as a historical example, that the US faced a horrific insurgency after annexing the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.  It would have been tempting conclusion to think that colonial police actions like that were the wave of the future.  (Having two oceans made a conventional war unlikely)  But the effect of drawing that conclusion then would not have been as critical as today, since the military of 1900 was so small and quite ramshackle by European standards. 

  14. James Gawron
    Byron Horatio: I would add as a historical example, that the US faced a horrific insurgency after annexing the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.  It would have been tempting conclusion to think that colonial police actions like that were the wave of the future.  (Having two oceans made a conventional war unlikely)  But the effect of drawing that conclusion then would not have been as critical as today, since the military of 1900 was so small and quite ramshackle by European standards.  · Jan 1 at 7:49pm

    Edited on Jan 01 at 07:50 pm

    I agree 100% on what Obama did in Libya.  Unbelievable waste of expensive resources.  Multi-million dollar cruise missles taking out toyota trucks with machine guns welded to them.  Stupid and wasteful.

    Of course this is what happens when there is the complete politicization of the military.  What comes to mind is Stalin’s relentless purge of the military before WWII.  The officer core was destroyed.  Hitler went through a huge well equipped force which had no leadership whatsoever.  Only the Russian Winter and the unbelievable ability of the Russian people to withstand punishment held the day.  Not a pretty picture.

  15. Jeff
    Crow’s Nest: My short answer is no, conventional forces are not obsolete. But they do need to change to become more modular and flexible. [...]

    But, I’d also argue a MAGTF is not an ‘unconventional’ force. [...]

    Lastly, there is sometimes a bias in writing about asymmetric conflicts that they will not require holding territory. COIN in Iraq, I think, decisively disproved this bias.

    (1) Agreed. (2) Agreed. It’s somewhere in the middle. Marines have historically rejected the special forces concept. If special forces training is good for one marine, why not provide it to all marines? That’s the idea behind the Corps’ Strategic Corporal idea. The Marines foresaw this a long time ago, and they were ready when the Army was not.

    (3) True, but that is a political issue wrapped in the debate over nation-building. If you don’t think nation-building is possible or not in US interests, then raiding is the natural alternative. Assuming, of course, the military instrument of power will accomplish the desired political objective.

  16. Charles Rapp

    The simple answer is that humanity is passing from the industrial age to the information age. And warfare follows in its wake. What you call conventional warfare is industrial age warfare. And so information age is superseding industrial war. The 1991 Gulf war was the last industrial age war. Its lopsided results demonstrated that industrial war reached its apex.

    The industrial age weapons are not invalidated by information warfare. A tank still is an awesome weapon but information allows a tank to be used more effectively. On the flip side, the Green Berets are even more effective in the realm of information age.

  17. James Gawron

     I have returned from my sleep, eat, work, and pray routine to get back to the discussion at hand.  I hope you are all still available.

    What I was driving at in my original post was the human element.  Creativity and initiative are the hallmark of a free people.  When Stalin destroyed all creativity and initiative by his horrific totalitarian perges, it didn’t really matter what equipment or training the Russians had.  The training and equipment were bound to be misused.

    Let’s look at the reverse phenomena where creativity and initiative overcome weak equipment or training.  At the start of WWII we had few pilots and very inferior fighters.  Our main weapon in the Battle of Briton was the P47 Thunderbolt.  This huge heavy plane could not turn with a Messerschmitt.  To try to dog fight with the German was to commit suicide.

    America’s air force might have done just that, sending pilots on suicidal missions for the sake of honor.  Or they could have simply sat it out and let the Britons win or lose on their own.

    Instead we created a strategy to use what we had in the most effective way. (cont.)

  18. Brian Clendinen

    Current force planning is fighting two peer militaries simultaneously.  The new QDR focus on 1 with more wide verity of non-conventional conflicts. This is a change that should of happened when the Cold war ended (early 90′s).  I think from a cost/benefit analysis this is a correct.

    I really don’t know enough about a future major conflict to know if going to a lighter more mobile force in the army is the correct procurement strategy. However, between the vast expansion of a single vehicles zone of control,  precision warfare,  improved battle field intelligence (Blue Field/JSTAR capabilities, Ect) and how important speed has been in wars over the last 2 decades, this seems logical to me.

    On procurement strategy I would agree. The army looks like it currently has it right now that it has canceled a lot of FCS   were the Air force and Navy have it wrong. The need to stop concentrating on radical improvements which we end up only buying a few units and purchase moderate improvement were we buy a lot more because the R&D and units cheaper.

  19. James Gawron

     (from #17 cont.)

    The P47 was a very heavy plane with great armor to protect the pilot and 8 fifty caliber machine guns.  With a huge powerful engine the P47 could only do one thing better then an ME, dive.

    Flying at extreme altitude the P47 formation would spot the ME formation from above.  They would dive from directly above.  Reaching a speed of 500 miles an hour (very fast for a prop plane) they would fire a single burst from their 8 fifty calibers and pass on thru the ME formation.  This technique often produced many losses for the MEs.  The P47s would keep on going and peel off at ground level.  The MEs couldn’t catch up to renew the fight.

    What to do with the rest of the mission?  Waste not want not.  The pilots were given initiative to find targets of opportunity.  A passing truck convoy or frieght train would get a lethal introduction.

    Later the idea pilots got a hold of this story and decided that the P47 was the first tactical fighter.  Hey, I bet the people doing the actual mission planning or the pilots flying them didn’t care what you called it.

  20. Robert E. Lee

    I think the F-35 is a money-sink without peer.  Only a committee of bean-counters could conceive the idea of a one-size-fits-all fighter-bomber-attack plane.

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