Western armies are good at destroying things. Can they be made better at building them?
ANOTHER debate to do with Iraq and Afghanistan is building in America, one that could have important consequences for the West. This debate is being conducted in the Pentagon—and it has to do with the future shape of America's armed forces. With its far-flung alliances and commitments, the superpower rightly wants a “full spectrum” of military capabilities to deal with everything from an all-out war to a small policing action. But precisely what the mix should be is increasingly contentious—and could prove expensive.
If the biggest threat comes from rising powers, such as a belligerent Russia or a pushy China, America and its allies will need to invest in aircraft, ships and advanced weapons to cope. If the greatest challenge is the fight against militants and insurgents around the world—seen by some as a new and different “fourth generation” of warfare (see article)—then they will need more boots on the ground and, crucially, different sorts of soldiers wearing them. Sadly for taxpayers everywhere, the emerging answer from America is that a modern power needs to prepare for both challenges. But there has been a clear swing towards manpower from technology.
The troops, they are a changin'
The change has been striking. The “transformation” advocated by Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush's first defence secretary, envisaged that the armed forces would be slimmed down and money invested in “smart” weapons, reconnaissance systems and data links. Speed, stealth, accuracy and networks would substitute for massed forces. The army's idea of its “future warrior” was a kind of cyborg, helmet stuffed with electronic wizardry and a computer display on his visor, all wirelessly linked to sensors, weapons and comrades. New clothing would have in-built heating and cooling. Information on the soldier's physical condition would be beamed to medics, and an artificial “exoskeleton” (a sort of personal brace) would strengthen his limbs.
The initial success in toppling first the Taliban in Afghanistan and then Saddam Hussein in Iraq seemed to vindicate such concepts. But the murderous chaos in Iraq, and the growing violence in southern Afghanistan, have shown that America is good at destroying targets, and bad at rebuilding states. Firepower is of little use, and often counter-productive, when the enemy deliberately mingles among civilians.
Robert Gates, Mr Rumsfeld's successor, is thus presiding over something of a counter-revolution. Technological tricks are not being abandoned. But the army is to get a bigger share of the defence budget and has been told to recruit more soldiers with it. Precisely because America is so powerful against conventional armies, Mr Gates expects its enemies to rely on asymmetric warfare. In other words, America must expect to fight protracted, enervating counter-insurgency wars that offer no clear-cut victories and risk the prospect of humiliation.
A new manual on counter-insurgency co-authored by the man now in charge of the war in Iraq, General David Petraeus, overturns the notion that America doesn't “do nation-building”. Counter-insurgency, it says, is “armed social work”. It requires more brain than brawn, more patience than aggression. The model soldier should be less science-fiction Terminator and more intellectual for “the graduate level of war”, preferably a linguist, with a sense of history and anthropology.
The indirect approach
In general, the shift from technology to manpower is welcome. Some sceptics will argue that America's first future priority should be to avoid smallish wars of choice altogether. Even if that were sensible, history suggests it is unlikely to happen: American troops have kept on getting involved in foreign conflicts. The military planners' job is to cope with the likely, not to restrict democratically elected politicians' options.
From that perspective, two doubts come to the fore. The first is whether the Pentagon is right to focus so heavily on creating more combat brigades. With American units serving 15 months in the field and a year at home at best, the army understandably wants more front-line soldiers to ease the strain. But large armies have often found it extremely hard to fight guerrillas in far-away places—ask the French in Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan and, not least, the Americans themselves in Vietnam. With the possible exception of the British in Malaya, it is hard to think of many insurgencies in modern times that have been crushed by a Western occupying power.
Post-colonial politics, stronger concerns for human rights, the rapid dispersal of news: all these (good) things make today's conflicts even harder to win for occupiers. So it may well be better to step back and work through local allies. Few insurgencies have unseated existing governments. In the “war on terror” most of the important al-Qaeda suspects have been rounded up for America by local allies. Strengthening local forces is the best way of salvaging Iraq and Afghanistan, and may help avoid the need for future interventions.
To be fair, the Pentagon talks about building “partner capacity”, but it may need more radical steps—in particular creating new specialist units to train allies, embed Western soldiers in local forces to improve their performance and be able to call in airstrikes, and help organise civil reconstruction. Generals complain about splitting the army, but they already oversee a myriad of specialist units. It is at least worth trying.
The other lingering concern with the shift in focus from destruction to construction has to do with skimping on conventional weaponry. At the margin, it is certainly worth putting more money into manpower at the expense of some futuristic projects. The prospect of an all-out war with Russia or China is distant for now; the risk of losing in Iraq and Afghanistan is acute. But raiding other defence programmes can only go so far. At 4% of GDP, America's defence spending is low by historical standards: it was 9% during the Vietnam war and 14% during the Korean war. The problem is worse in Europe: many of America's allies spend less than the 2% minimum target set by NATO. If the West wants to build a smarter army of the future, it will have to pay for it.
Not a thread for head-biting off, but the allocation of human capital v. technological supplementation seems to be a very pertinent issue, if not now, then for future wars, which I cannot see as wholly avoidable. I thought I'd ask in this fora since a lot of people here are technologically obsessed, and more so than more people I've asked in other fora and in person.