COIN V. CONV - A Significant Difference

I don't usually comment on a blog post that comments on another blog post, but I believe Matt Yglesias hits on an important issue in his observation

Suntzu

I don't usually comment on a blog post that comments on another blog post, but I believe Matt Yglesias hits on an important issue in his observations on Andrew Exum's interview with Washington Post reporter and author Greg Jaffe.

Greg Jaffe, speaking to Andrew Exum, says “This whole conventional vs. irregular debate is stupid.”

War is war. And we waste far too much energy trying to categorize it. I think most lieutenants, captains and majors are beyond this false conventional vs. irregular frame that we try to impose on war. I wish I could say the same for the more senior people in the Pentagon.

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. At the same time, just because things look one way to “lieutenants, captains and majors” and another way to “senior people in the Pentagon” doesn’t mean we should take a dismissive view of the senior people’s outlook in a rush to celebrate the insights of the practical warfighter.

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And when you get down to the guts of defense budget politics, these high-level strategic concepts matter a great deal. Nobody, of course, is going to say that the U.S. should somehow completely abandon its ability to fight conventional wars. But the choice between a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to scare China & Russia” or a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to intervene effectively in third world backwaters” has very real implications for what kind of hardware purchases look cost effective.

There is no doubt in my mind that the issue of "hardware purchases" looms very large in the minds of senior military and civilian decision makers. Conventional warfare means lots of tanks, armored vehicles, stealthy jets, next generation bombers, submarines, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. And let's not even get into the care and feeding of that massive military machine. Counterinsurgency operations, or COIN, is completely the opposite, with a focus on maintaining security and diminishing the insurgent grasp on the population without destroying real estate. Also a no-brainer that the DOD budget is already too bloated, and that in managing two wars, protecting the homeland, and trying to modernize its equipment, there's going to be some in-fighting.

But more importantly, the issue is also in the theory and execution of national strategy. The basic idea of military doctrine is that small military units execute tactics on the ground that must support the overall plan of operations within a theater. The theater commander needs to ensure that he has adequate numbers of personnel, that operations continue toward a particular set of goals, and that the logistics support those operations - and his operations must support the overall national strategy for that region. If your tactics and operations don't align against the strategic goals and expected outcome, then you're doing something wrong - even if you're General McChrystal.

Now under the Bush administration, strategic goals and outcomes changed every Friedman unit (six months), which made it difficult to effectively plan operations or execute tactics. But one thing that was certainly clear was that conventional tactics that destroyed the Taliban in 2002 and that took the Iraqi army out in 2003 didn't support the post-conflict goals. You can't prosecute military operations with a conventional frame of mind when what one really needs is an approach to irregular warfare. That's why we failed in Lebanon in 1983.

Greg Jaffe is a good journalist, and I look forward to reading his book. On the other hand, making a statement like "War is war. And we waste far too much energy trying to categorize it" is a remarkably stupid statement. Nuclear war is not the same as conventional war. Conventional war is not the same as irregular war. Our military needs to be able to operate across a range of different operations, and needs to be equipped properly to execute its operations quickly and efficiently. But what we really need is national leadership that understands the nature of war, that knows how to develop a strategy that is executable, and that knows when it's time to go. From Sun Tzu:

All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Thus ends the lesson.

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