Dr. Ucko's research is focused on how well the U.S. is absorbing the right lessons from today's ongoing conflicts, and how well DOD is institutionalizing the necessary changes across the doctrine, structure, training and education and equipment pillars of combat development. A student of American military culture, he notes our history of adapting to counterinsurgency campaigns, but then quickly discarding the lessons learned at the close of the war to return to our preferred conventional mode.
Ucko challenges whether or not DOD has truly embraced irregular warfare. "With the eventual close of the Iraq campaign," he asks "will counterinsurgency again be pushed off the table, leaving the military just as unprepared for these contingencies as it was when it invaded Iraq in 2003?" Thus, this essay fits into the context of the debate we have seen on these pages and in the Armed Forces Journal (Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh's "System Reboot") about whether or not the American Way of War will adapt or revert to form.
In his Orbis article, provocatively titled "Innovation or Inertia," the author recounts in detail the new directives and initiatives undertaken by the American military since 9/11. He suggests that the reforms point to "a potential turning-point in the history of the U.S. military." Yet the Pentagon's defense strategy and budget suggests otherwise. This leads Ucko to ask "what are the prospects of the U.S. military truly learning counterinsurgency"? Aside from rhetoric, how committed is DoD to the required changes needed to make America's military as dominant in COIN and other forms of irregular warfare as it currently is in conventional warfare?
One insightful part of this essay s discusses organizational learning and adaptation. Ucko makes a discerning point that military learning can occur on two levels: through bottom-up adaptation in the field or from top-down innovation at the institutional level. While the former suggests changes in tactics, techniques, and procedures implemented on the ground through contact with an unfamiliar operating environment, the latter involves the institutionalization of these practices through changes in training, doctrine, education and force structure. Both are necessary for long term success. Obviously, John Nagl's seminal Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife captured the former mode in Malaya. Just as clearly, the British Army failed to institutionalize the bottom up lessons. Oxford Professor Hew Strachan made this same point in RUSI's journal, noting how the same learning curve was repeated in Kenya.
The author acknowledges the creativity shown by Gen. Petraeus and our theater forces, but notes that the Pentagon's QDR and budgetary allocations and force structure remain "oriented predominantly toward high-intensity combat. In its budget requests, the DoD has continued to pour money into costly programs with questionable value in today's strategic environment." Ucko finds a palpable degree of resistance against those who are working to institutionalize the lessons learned from our fielded forces.
"Opposition to the learning of counterinsurgency springs from a combination of old, flawed and wishful thinking. In the first place, the COIN community faces resistance from the old guard, who have clung on to the conventional priorities, ''tribal'' equities and military culture typical of the U.S. military. Whether through inertia or conviction, large swathes of the DoD continue to view all ''operations other than war'' as an afterthought to the U.S. military's primary mission: major combat operations."
Ucko makes a number of observations about the Army's Brigade Combat Team plans, and similarly criticizes the Marine Corps for its failure to alter its force structure to cover those unique skill sets essential to effective COIN. Both Services seem to focus on Major Combat Operations against putative regional or peer competitors. The Marine Corps' plans for expansion include additions to a few low density units with great utility in stability-operations (military police, civil affairs and intelligence) but as noted in a report by the The Center for a New American Security, the additive Marine end strength increase is currently allocated to building conventional capabilities; artillery, tank units, and fighter squadrons.
Ucko wraps up by noting that "it is too early to say with any real certainty whether or not counterinsurgency will become a central priority for the U.S. military." He finds the evidence "emerging from its initial encounter with counterinsurgency in 2003 presents a mixed picture: on the one hand, a group within the DoD has driven an impressive learning process, featuring rapid integration of counterinsurgency in our doctrine, education and training. On the other hand, the U.S. military has remained structured for conventional war and, more important yet, emerging opportunities to change force structure or budgetary priorities have not been seized."
Dr. Ucko's bottom line is that, despite a long war and omens of a generational struggle, "the future of counterinsurgency within the U.S. military thus seems to hang in the balance, dependent on whether the message and cause of the COIN community is accepted and thereby gains momentum or whether it is rejected and pushed off the table."
I think this is an important article. One can argue about how much balance or specialization we need in our force structure to execute full spectrum operations. But there is little doubt in my mind that Small Wars, COIN and complex irregular wars are part of our future. However, given the emerging debate over post-OIF defense priorities, I am concerned that narrow, parochial preferences for big ticket platforms and stand off warfare will come out on top. Are we doomed to repeat history once again???
SWJ Editors' Links
David Ucko on Learning Counterinsurgency - Abu Muqawama
Innovation or Inertia? - Insurgency Research Group
Discuss at Small Wars Council