Small Wars Journal

America's Greatest Weapon

Thu, 05/22/2008 - 1:16pm
America's Greatest Weapon

By Maj Gen Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., USAF and Lt Col John Nagl, USA

Where would one find the U.S.'s greatest weapon? Try traveling to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the home of the Army's War College.

You will enjoy the trip. The College's stunningly beautiful campus hosts historic buildings that reflect the service's proud warfighting history in a dignified yet refreshingly unapologetic manner. Just being there makes you stand straighter and -- importantly -- think clearer about serious subjects.

Clear thinking about serious subjects is what marked the Army's XIX Strategy Conference convened there in early April. The premier convocation of its type, the meeting displayed an often misunderstood aspect of how the U.S. military improves itself: by welcoming critiques from the widest variety of sources, and encouraging opposing ideas to collide with great force.

The ability to think, learn, and adapt is what makes America's military the finest in the world. Though it does not use these words, the Army exploits conferences like that at Carlisle to, in effect, tap into a concept from the Nation's powerful engine of change, its free enterprise system.

Free enterprise triumphs as an economic system because it respects and empowers competition. Competition breeds efficiency and innovation. Unfortunately, the competitiveness outsiders may see in military debates can be misread as mere parochial squabbling. Sometimes that's true, but more often the rivalry reflects honestly-held but differing beliefs as to how to use the military instrument most effectively in today's very complex environments.

The good news is that those differences can make the U.S. military a devilishly difficult problem for our adversaries. Increasingly Iraqi insurgents are finding themselves watched and targeted by the Air Force's unmanned drones linked to high-flying bombers. The satellite-guided weapon that lands precisely in their lair could come from aircraft they never saw or heard.

There is really no escape. Just when the insurgents think they've somehow outsmarted the Air Force's high-tech surveillance capabilities, a young Army captain could show up on their doorstep with a platoon of no-nonsense U.S. and Iraqi troops. How? Today's captains carefully cultivate information sources among the locals as the Army's new counterinsurgency manual teaches them to do. Schooled in the manual, such captains deliver offers the insurgents can't refuse: be captured or be killed.

These are exactly the kinds of dilemmas the U.S. military loves to impose upon our enemies.

To get to the point where differing approaches are meshed to produce battlefield success requires passing through a crucible where white hot exchanges of ideas are forged into joint and interdependent "steel". The process is not always "pretty", and certainly not for the timid, but is one that -- regardless -- works.

The Army's conference is central to this eminently "American" way of strategizing for war. Panels convened to wrestle with such questions as how can the interagency process work more effectively? What is the right balance of military forces? What is the role of civilian specialists? How can the armed forces optimize themselves for the future?

Moreover, the attendees, who represented a myriad of organizations in and out of government, showed no hesitation in challenging panelists with the toughest questions.

If you were hoping that at the end everyone stood and sang "Kumbaya" you will be disappointed. Disagreements still exist -- and may (should?) always exist -- but views do evolve. Military professionals know that being challenged intellectually forces them to re-examine their thinking. In some instances it will simply make views even firmer; in other instances, fresh information produces new insights. Both results are valued.

The finest military leaders want, indeed, demand, that differing ideas be ruthlessly explored. They expect and encourage vigorous debates. Can that process go awry? Sure. When it devolves into personal attacks and gets mired in finger-pointing, progress ceases. Accountability for the past may have its place, but it is vastly more important to look to the future. The stakes are too just too high.

Looking to the future is what took place at Carlisle. The American way of war is renewing itself. Our most powerful weapon - the competitive analysis of security issues by America's military - is taking the field. Our enemies ought to beware. And update their wills.

Lt Col Nagl was one of the principal authors of FM 3-24, the Army/Marine Corps' new counterinsurgency manual; Maj Gen Dunlap is the author of "Shortchanging the Joint Fight?" a critique of that same manual. These are their personal views.


Major Scarlet is probably right on the over-correction, but that's because of our herd thinking (which is driven by career and peer pressure more than any individual's flaws).

There really is enough money in the budget to fund running ranges at home station, and enough time as well.

Money: close the golf courses. Close down all those facilities we only see (and validate the existence of) when we in process and clear the facility. Close everything that doesn't pay for itself. The Pentagon comes to mind as well.

In other words start prioritizing, instead of trying to do everything for everybody (the entire Federal Governments problem).

Time: gee. Cancel all the PC mandatory classes that eat up so much time. Get rid of the entire TDA bureaucracy that task up so much time from the line units. GS personnel can handle that much more efficiently anyway.

Then you'll have time to go to the range, and money to buy bullets and shells to shoot.

A final note- this global conflict, and the two major theaters we are concerned with are the purpose of the military and its justification now. This isnt Vietnam. We walk away; we turn on the TV and see something terrible happening to our civilians. A campaign of terror on our soil (or maybe just one more large scale attack) will lead to social unraveling and unrest in the affected areas. We are not the British or Israelis. Or at least Im not.

I will not live like that, not passively anyway.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Sat, 05/24/2008 - 4:02pm

None of these are rhetorical quesitons...

Didn't Israel commit a mistake often deemed to be one of being overly "conventional" in that it was too heavy handed in striking targets in Lebanon? And didn't Nasrallah publicly admit that he miscalculated the response of Israel and, in private, acknowledge that Hezbollah took unexpectedly high losses? What is the rationale for the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah analogy? This is not the first time that it has been invoked at SWJ.

My impression was that Israel's mistake was in not considering the impact of their actions upon public opinion, waging a fight that was "too conventional" at the expense of stoking public outrage, whereas Hezbollah was the force that was too accustomed to limited war among the people and got an unexpected whooping, which seemed a high price for any public sentiments that turned in their favor. I understand that Israel took unexpectedly high casualties, but to regard those casualties as exceptionally high seems to measure them against a post-Desert Storm standard of extreme casualty aversion.

Major Scarlet (not verified)

Sat, 05/24/2008 - 12:44pm

it isn't about knowing about COIN that is the issue. it's about recognizing that the way we will fight wars has changed. we don't have a near peer competitor for force on force so the enemy has to seek a political win against us just like in Vietnam.

mark my words, we are going to over correct and be a COIN based military and in about 10-15 years when China shows up with an unmatched conventional force, we won't be ready and we will have to "transform" again. think it can't happen? it happened to the Israelis in 2006.

Major Scarlet,

One point: we've known how to to COIN since King Philip's war as a country. The Army has known at least since the Philipine insurgency. The USMC 1940 small wars manual has most of the basic questions answered.

We just don't like to remember. And I think the budget (big $$ items) drives doctrine as much as Carlisle.

"The ability to think, learn, and adapt is what makes Americas military the finest in the world."

I think we have some of America's finest minds, at least among those who care about the country (as opposed to the mindless pursuit of wealth the other fine minds devote themselves to).

The problem is we then have to filter it through the Pentagon and the Beltway, which is a bit like North Korea's Command economy trying to compete with This is why you could take issue that we are a learning organization. At the lower levels - brilliant. At the top, we can't seem to learn until the President suffers an electoral setback and forces change from above.

And with the greatest respect towards all; we may want to have a moratorium on the refrain "The finest Army in the World". That would be dangerous if we had all check marks in the win column. We don't.

And if we lose this one God help us.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Fri, 05/23/2008 - 3:39pm

<I>"Today's captains carefully cultivate information sources among the locals as the Armys new counterinsurgency manual teaches them to do. Schooled in the manual, such captains deliver offers the insurgents cant refuse: be captured or be killed."</I>

I think a better description would be to say that the FM has identified those practices that have worked best and that it is vindicated by the recent efforts and successes of those Captains (and others). As tactical leaders attempt to secure the population and separate it from the insurgency, they are not looking to an FM. They are looking to the successful examples of guys like COL McMaster, COL MacFarland, CPT Patriquin, and picking up area-specific TTP's from adjacent units and predecessors. That those approaches may be consistent with the FM does not mean that they were derived from it, nor is it likely.

The FM is definitely a good product and I hope that all leaders read it and understand it well enough that they can apply any of the abstract concepts to specific situations whenever appropriate. But I also know the no nonsense, hands-on, practical approach of my peers. So long as we have a real classroom to learn in, they are not going to be bookworms - they are do-ers. I think the true value of the FM will be realized when it serves as the foundation of a refined COIN doctrine that emerges from the lessons that we internalize as an institution after OIF and OEF conclude or simmer down, whenever that may be, and it educates the next generation of leaders during the next interwar period (or lull).

That said, I do not share the pessimism of some commenters. The inability or unwillingness to learn that they speak of is, in my view, a characteristic of those whose formative years were spent in the 1990s - the company grade leaders and not even many of the field grade leaders. If any leaders are averse to learning, it is likely due to the 90s mentality of safety, starch, and spitshines. Ground-guides, rodding weapons on and off the range, and 15-minute safety briefings about what biting insects one may encounter while in the bleachers waiting to fire one's 40 rounds for qualification. Give me a break. Our junior officers, junior NCOs, and E-2's are being thrown into an environment where they must adapt from the moment that they enter the force and they are adapting accordingly. If you think that we are not a learning organization then spend some more time down at the CO/BTY/TRP and even BN/SQD level and you will have a more positive outlook on life. Those guys get it and they're getting it even more everyday. Soon, they will be the organization and if it is not now a learning organization (I think it already is) it will certainly be one soon.


Fri, 05/23/2008 - 3:06pm

<b>"To get to the point where differing approaches are meshed to produce battlefield success requires passing through a crucible where white hot exchanges of ideas are forged into joint and interdependent "steel". The process is not always "pretty", and certainly not for the timid, but is one that - regardless - works"</b>

Agreed. As an intellectual process, it does work. When it is permitted to do so, which in my experience is very seldom.

Hierarchical organizations - not merely the military - are defined by a structure that is inimical to cultivating a culture of P2P intellectual exchanges. Even the "academic" world, whose reason for existence is free inquiry, debate frequently descends into "gotcha" conflicts over ego and ideology rather than substance.

What's required for success is developing a culture of egalitarianism and transparency - leaders who model self-restraint in the face of criticism and cultivate an ethic of innovation among their subordinates by putting everyone on the same level playing field when the time for brainstorming or self-assessment arrives.

Easy to say, hard to do but it gets easier when it's practiced.

Gian P Gentile

Fri, 05/23/2008 - 12:15pm

OK, let me be perfectly clear about what I said in my first post which, in my attempt to be funny and clever, might have taken away from my bigger point.

The article co-written by MG Dunlap and LTC Nagl is important not so much for what it said, although the points said were well taken and worthwhile, but for what it implied by having both of them co-write it. These are two serving officers, one in the Army and one in the Air Force, who both at times have had divergent views on national security issues. But in this case they come together as a team to point out that through vigorous debate and disagreement professional military officers as part of a greater defense establishment can still have the larger good in mind; which is cooperation to serve the common defense.

this is the point I meant to convey.

Thanks to the good general and colonel for writing this important piece.


Jason Sigger

Fri, 05/23/2008 - 10:28am

"Schmaltzy" is certainly one way to put it. Conferences at which people discuss defense issues are good things, especially when the topics are clear and the conversation is candid. Far too many conferences, especially around DC, are rote "organization 101" briefs on how great things are going. More to the point, how are these discussions going to shape the Army's institutions and to change doctrine and culture to where we need to be? That's far from clear.

I was not at the conference, cannot judge the quality of the discussion there, but I will note that there are no combating WMD issues discussed at Carlisle or at Leavenworth, which is a shame (yes, I know WOT is the flavor of the day, but supposedly this WMD thing is a "grave threat"). In fact, it is only in this year that Leavenworth will start having a combating WMD elective (not part of the core courses), and probably only because a CJCSI mandated such professional training take place at the senior war colleges.

We have a way to go, as MAJ Scarlet and Bill Keller attest.

Gian P Gentile

Fri, 05/23/2008 - 9:11am

My comments here are a bit less-noir and in the spirit of cross-blogging with SWJ battle-buddy Abu Muqawama (who did a bit of a pop-cuture movie riff on the article using "Ghost Busters") I posted the same comments on his blog.

Or AM, hows' about a riff on Dr Strangelove instead, perhaps along the lines of:

"Charlie Dunlap (aka Major Kong) and John Nagl (aka Colonel Batgwano) teamed up to prepare the American military in the years ahead

'to do irregular combat, toe-to-toe with the ruskies.'"

or something along those lines.

Seriously, it was nice to see the two come together and write an essay with implicit acknowledgment of the importance of maintaining a strong US Air Force in cooperation with America's sustained ground force, the US Army. Friendliness is important and it helps to move the debate along in a professional and cordial manner.

As for the essay itself, I thought it to be a bit schmaltzy; but that is a minor criticism to what is an important statement by the two of jointness in the years ahead.


Bill Keller (not verified)

Thu, 05/22/2008 - 11:28pm

I find that we have developed a confrontational style of an advocate. Conflicting thoughts run parallel but opposite trajectories. An each advocate must be of among the finest and historically the greatest. The consequence is that the style becomes the content.

Maj Scarlet speaks the frustration of one who is fielded in a environment that the advocates choose not to see or understand - unless an event dramatically alters their personal walled security.

Yet for those with immediate needs of decision, there does become an opportunity for imaginative action. Unfortunately, our organizational sclerosis and competing priorities hamper the time to field imagination. Our enemies in the chaos of OIF and OEF are not so hampered.

(Out of the military AOR, the drug, fraud, treasury and inner city protectors are equally challenged.)

Major Scarlet (not verified)

Thu, 05/22/2008 - 10:33pm

We are not a learning organization. It took us over five years to figure out how to fight an insurgency despite the fact that we knew since Vietnam that the nature of warfare had changed. We went to Iraq with the plains of Europe mentality.

I'll give you an example.. command messages stifle free thinking. We are an Army of careerist. When a GO says "interagency is the way to go" speaking out against this can be damaging. It is a fact that government agencies aren't funded, manned, or trained to support us but that is still the message.

And people wonder why our best and brightest are getting out.