Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Rumsfeld's Revenge

Robert Gates was certainly more popular, but his predecessor was far more influential.

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Rumsfeld wins the doctrine war

2) Taiwan needs missile engineers, not more F-16s

Rumsfeld wins the doctrine war

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's retirement last week was accompanied by warm praise for his leadership style, his political acumen, and his judgment on critical policy issues. Gates left office widely regarded as one of the most effective defense secretaries since the office was created in 1947. This repute is in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who left the Pentagon in 2006 under a cloud of scorn from Capitol Hill, the media, and inside the department he ran. Indeed, Gates was brought in specifically to reverse many of Rumsfeld's policies, which many believed were causing the United States to lose the war in Iraq. Gates restored collegial harmony and got the Pentagon through a dark period.

But Gates's departure, the wide-ranging overhaul of Barack Obama's national security team, and, most importantly, the president's decision to withdraw 33,000 soldiers from Afghanistan by next summer shows that the "Rumsfeld Doctrine" is now the accepted standard operating procedure for current and future policymakers. In the end, Rumsfeld won the Doctrine War.

During the first Bush term, and even before the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld struggled with the Pentagon, and especially the Army, to create faster, lighter, more flexible, and more expeditionary military forces. Planning for the Iraq campaign in 2002 exposed the rift between Rumsfeld and Army planners, who preferred to replicate the slow massive buildup of armored divisions that had crushed the Iraqi army in the Desert Storm campaign in 1991. Buoyed by the success a handful of intelligence operators, special operations soldiers, and precision air power achieved in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld forced Central Command planners to rip up their Desert Storm-inspired war plan and opt instead for a much smaller force that would be supported by precision firepower and special operations forces.

Even as the Iraqi insurgency negated the campaign's initial success, Rumsfeld persisted in institutionalizing the "faster, lighter" expeditionary doctrine. In 2003, Rumsfeld brought Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who had spent most of his career in special operations, out of retirement to be Army chief of staff. Charged with implementing Rumsfeld's vision, Schoomaker's most notable innovation was the Army's conversion from the large division as the basic deploying unit to the smaller and easier-to-deploy brigade. As the insurgency worsened in Iraq, Rumsfeld resisted pressure to build up a larger and heavier U.S. ground commitment. He also resisted pressure to add to the Army and Marine Corps headcounts to relieve the strain on deploying soldiers, preferring that Pentagon funding remain committed to research and equipment modernization rather than be diverted to personnel accounts. The Iraq campaign had become a distraction to Rumsfeld's transformation agenda and, in his view, feeding more resources into it would only create Iraqi dependency.

Immediately upon entering office, Gates directed the Pentagon to focus on the present crisis in Iraq rather than Rumsfeld's goals of transformation for the future. Reversing long-held Rumsfeld positions, Gates ordered increases in headcounts for the Army and Marine Corps and implemented the troop surge and a protect-the-population counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

But the setback for the Rumsfeld Doctrine was only temporary. Obama now seems to agree with Rumsfeld that the long U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in an unhealthy dependency by the hosts -- Obama's speeches on Iraq and Afghanistan have always included his insistence that these countries take responsibility for their security within explicit deadlines.

Rumsfeld's and Schoomaker's redesign of the Army into a lighter, more mobile, and more expeditionary force seems permanent. Gone is the Cold War and Desert Storm concept of the long buildup of armor as prelude to a massive decisive battle. Instead, globally mobile brigade combat teams will provide deterrence, respond to crises, and sustain expeditionary campaigns. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the current Army chief of staff (and soon to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) recently described a sustainable brigade rotation system, an expeditionary adaptation that the Navy and Marine Corps have employed for decades. In addition, both the Army and Marine Corps have drawn up plans to shrink their headcounts back near the Rumsfeld-era levels. Rumsfeld's concerns about personnel costs sapping modernization are now coming to pass.

There now seems to be a near-consensus inside Washington that the large open-ended ground campaigns that Rumsfeld resisted are no longer sustainable. The former defense secretary's preference for special operations forces, air power, networked intelligence, and indigenous allies is now back in vogue. Even Gen. David Petraeus, who burnished his reputation by reversing Rumsfeld's policies in Iraq, will now implement Rumsfeld's doctrine in eastern Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the U.S. will counter the deteriorating situation there not by shifting in conventional ground troops for pacification, but with "more special forces, intelligence, surveillance, air power ... [and] substantially more Afghan boots on the ground."

Gates no doubt deserves the praise he has received. He came to the Pentagon during a dark moment and restored respect for the Pentagon's civilian leadership. If the battle is over management style, Gates wins in a knockout. But events, combined with experience gained through trial-and-error, have given the ultimate victory to Rumsfeld's military doctrine.

Taiwan needs missile engineers, not more F-16s

According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration is receiving pressure from some members of Congress to sell more arms to Taiwan, a subject the White House undoubtedly prefers would disappear. In play are proposals to either upgrade Taiwan's current fleet of aging F-16 fighters or replace them new models fresh from Lockheed Martin's assembly line in Texas. The Washington Post reports that Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) is holding up a confirmation vote for deputy secretary of state nominee William Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirms that the administration will grant Taiwan improved F-16s. Forty-seven senators signed a letter urging Obama to grant the request.

Cornyn and his colleagues intervened because the administration has already preemptively rejected the F-16 request. Last month, Taiwan's de facto embassy in Washington was preparing a formal request for the F-16 upgrade but was discreetly informed by the White House not to bother. Meanwhile, the clock ticks down for Taiwan's elderly jets, 70 percent of which will likely be retired over the next decade. And with no more orders from the U.S. Air Force and few prospects for additional foreign sales, the F-16 assembly line in Texas could close in 2013.

The Obama administration's January 2010 package for Taiwan, which consisted of exclusively defensive equipment, blew up the Pentagon's relationship with Beijing for over a year. An F-16 deal would undoubtedly be even more explosive.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have demurred on Taiwan's F-16 request and for good reason. As the Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power explains, China's ballistic and cruise missile force, which the report terms "most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world," is more than capable of crushing Taiwan's airfields, rendering Taiwan's fixed-wing air power nearly useless. Anticipating this, Taiwan has plans to fly its fighters from highways. But this is no way to generate enough sorties to confront a high-intensity attack from China; fighter aircraft need maintenance, fuel, ordnance, and much other support, all of which are efficiently located at modern airbases, not by the side of a highway.

What Taiwan needs instead is to mimic mainland China's missile program. Mobile launchers, which unlike airfields could evade detection and targeting, could support both battlefield and strategic missiles that could hold targets on the mainland at risk. Such a program could do a better job of restoring a military balance across the Taiwan Strait than would fixed-wing aircraft operating from vulnerable bases.

Taiwan has, in fact, long been pursuing a variety of indigenous missile types. However, the engineers have yet to get all of the bugs out -- a test last week of a new supersonic anti-ship cruise missile failed to find its target. This followed two more failed tests earlier this year of other missile designs.

The jockeying over the F-16 sale is about more than practical military utility. It also involves issues of symbolism and attempts to preserve the defense industrial base inside the United States. But Taiwan's struggle to adapt to the immense missile threat from the mainland -- over a thousand ballistic missiles are now aimed at Taiwan and a hundred more are added every year -- also applies to U.S. military strategy in the region. United States military plans can no more rely on fixed bases and concentrated surface naval forces than Taiwan can. In the meantime, Taiwan could use some missile engineers instead of more F-16s.


LPierson (not verified)

Sun, 07/10/2011 - 3:51pm

COL Maxwell,

You plucked the words right out of my mouth - failure to anticipate. Could not have said it better.

Whether we're heavy a la pre-desert storm/Cold War/ policy brinkmanship, or light highly mobile, deploy in 96 hours, seize initiative in 10 days, victory in 30; all we prepare for is a reaction. Generally a reaction because of failure to anticipate.

I agree with COL Gentile's tenaciously held view we lack strategy(s). This lack of, or at best a lack of policy coherence guiding strategy, will always cause the US not to anticipate. And that may be by design; to avoid the very appearance "of evil" by demonstrating through our lack of coherence that we do not have an official policy advocating imperialism. And thus anticipation is not operationalized.

When the US evolved from post-WWII doctrine of massive retaliation using nuclear weapon to deter aggression, to mutually assured destruction, anticipation was a military commodity cheapened. The MAD policy design is still with us, nothing has evolved. MAD policy is steeped in relatively open diplomacy, with negotiations built on a set of rules accepted by the negotiating parties. We don't have that environmant today. However this unevolved paradigm and still drives our strategy. I feel that is the reason we see the rise in "Lawfare" and why LE solutions to CT problems as preferred. Anticipation has been deemed the province of the negotiating table, not the battle plain.

My first read of the weblog you linked tells me we have a significant dilemma.


Roger on Cohen and Gooch. Points taken.

I am with you and I think we split the difference. I think the polar extremes of nation building and "strategic raiding" are both wrong when attempted to be applied as THE strategic concept (and silver bullets). We need to be able to do the hard work of developing a strategy and not trying to simply apply the pet concept to every problem. As I said I am with you on Cohen and Gooch and how the failure to adapt admonition can get misused; however, my real fear is the failure to anticipate - we seem to be getting locked into a single views of the future threats and those views seem to fit the notions of the concepts of employment of forces that are espoused by some on both sides of the spectrum. Again we are searching for the Silver Bullet when there is not one out there to be had. There is a pretty interesting entry at the Fear, Honor, and Interest web site on "the strategy of annoyance" at this link: _…

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 07/10/2011 - 9:43am


I am with you to a point.

But the problem with the Cohen/Gooch work is that the American military--especially the army--took it to mean that success in war can be achieved if only an army learns and adapts and gets better (in the right way) with tactics and operations. Yet war is not just about tactical excellence and better generals. To be sure those two things are important, but they are not the only things. War involves other variables like political leadership and decision, public and political will, resources, strategy, priorities, and so on.

Moreover the worst thing that can happen in war is when we allow an operational framework defined by the military to determine what is and what is not victory and defeat.

I submit that based on a recent article by LTG Caldwell in JFQ (posted a few days ago on SWJ) where he lectured political leaders in Washington DC that they must have the "political patience" to maintain American military presence in Afghanistan for the "indefinite future" is an example of a military that does not get it, and is stuck, trapped in its operational framework of nation building which prevents it from seeing broader issues of policy, strategy, resources, and will.



As I said in my comments it is all about balance and coherency among ends, ways and means and I am fully aware of the constraints we have on our means. But that does not mean we only have to develop one "doctrine" to execute ways with constrained means. I am not making an argument for heavy conventional forces over lighter, faster, more expeditionary" forces any more than I am making an argument that SOF and airpower is the answer to every future "nail"... er I mean problem.

What the so-called Rumsfeld Doctrine and you rightly term "the new SOP" gives us is a hammer to make everything a nail. It is not strategic and not a strategy and does not even effectively articulate ways and means. It is not substitute for strategy and is really the construct of amateurs.

And regarding Cohen's book. _Supreme Command_: I think it is problematic when we have people read it and fancy themselves as Lincolns and Churchills and other great civilian leaders and think they know better. That is the height of arrogance and folly and I think there are civilians in both administrations who may have misinterpreted that book and led us to where we are today. I am not talking about elected political officials who bear the ultimate responsibility for what happens to our country and get to make the final decision on policy and strategy. I am talking about those civilians who advise those political leaders who fancy themselves as smart as a Lincoln and Churchill. Their time would be better spent reading Cohen and Gooch's _Military Misfortune_ and learn that all military failures are the result of the failure to learn, failure to adapt, and failure to anticipate. While many tout the so-called Rumsfeld doctrine as forcing the military to adapt I would submit that it will be a failure because it fails to learn and fails to anticipate.

Robert Haddick (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 6:47pm

Dave and David, thanks as always for your comments.

"Lighter, faster, more expeditionary" is now SOP because that is what is now imposed by political constraints. Sec. Rumsfeld pushed for "lighter, faster, more expeditionary" in 2001 for different reasons but we've arrived at the same destination anyway.

Military officers responsible for war plans naturally want the broadest flexibility, as Dave Maxwell explains. But if their war plans don't conform to the constraints imposed by civilian policymakers, civ-mil conflict will result. The point of my essay was that after a decade of experience, planners will now have to plan under Rumsfeld's much tighter constraints. I suspect Eliot Cohen's "Supreme Command" has never been more popular inside the Administration.


Sat, 07/09/2011 - 2:13pm

Robert - You may be right about light expeditionary forces becoming a model, but I think you mean to limit the context of the model to conflicts in which light forces can prevail. In the future there could be other wars (with adversaries more symmetric in their capabilities) against whom we may need heavier forces.

It isn't clear to what extent the embrace of light forces could come at the expense of conventional capabilities. Giving light forces more limited aims and uses than in traditional nation-building counterinsurgency may not address the difficulty that reorganizing the Army into lighter units could still cause for other missions.

"Even as the Iraqi insurgency negated the campaign's initial success, Rumsfeld persisted in institutionalizing the "faster, lighter" expeditionary doctrine."

Yes, but I wouldn't see a contradiction if the purpose of the doctrine was to set aside forces for a different kind of war for which they would have been appropriate. The problem was trying to use a lighter footprint to resolve the civil war and insurgency in Iraq; only a larger commitment of forces did so. Now we are concluding that a lighter footprint may be better in Afghanistan. But I suspect that the shift there has less to do with a perception that lighter forces are a better way to win that conflict than with a perception that such forces are a better way to limit our goals.

I must respectfully disagree with Robert in his article below. I think it is counterproductive to look at employment of forces and doctrine as an either/or or one capability is more critical than another. And worse,if we are going to wrap ourselves around a single concept as the way of the future (e.g., "the light footprint" and SOF and airpower) then we re setting ourselves up for failure. Don't get me wrong, I am a big proponent of a light footprint when and where it makes sense. And I do believe that it provides us the ability to support a "Prevent Strategy" as Eric Wendt recently argued in his Volkmann Program article in Special Warfare Magazine. But we cannot bank on a signal concept of employment of force and we should never view one force or capability as dominant in importance over another. If we have learned anything since 1986 and Goldwater Nichols it has to be that the employment of Joint forces and capabilities is the superior form of operations (keeping in mind that this does not mean that every capability or service needs to be employed in every campaign or contingency - we just need the right ones in the right combination to achieve our objectives)

Despite my aversion to new terminology and concepts and I have been giving a lot of thought to Frank Hoffman and his writing on hybrid conflict lately. It strikes me that perhaps what we need to be able to do is develop hybrid concepts and hybrid doctrine and hybrid tactics. We need to be hybrid ourselves. I am thinking that our constructs of Conventional Warfare, Irregular Warfare and then Full Spectrum Operations (and offense, defense, stability operations and support to civil authorities from an Army perspective), while a good thought in theory may in fact be somewhat counterproductive. Frank's hybrid conflict concept (as I understand it and he can (and hopefully will) correct me and add some meat to this) is about the threat combining strategies, capabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures from across the spectrum of conflict employing them in a hybrid manner that seeks to provide him an advantage in accomplishing his objectives. Of course this should not be viewed as something new because a good enemy should always do that (although thankfully has not always). But we tend to respond in a more linear manner and try to determine if the conflict is conventional or irregular and then try to apply a conventional force or strategy and execute accordingly. But this gets us into the debate over which is the higher form and more complex when in fact we need to be approaching the problem with the age old precept of understanding the enemy, ourselves, the other players, determining the achievable ends that support US national interests and then apply the right mix of means in effective ways always trying to achieve that balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means.

This is a long way of saying that I disagree that there is any one dominant force within our military; there can be no single or dominant analysis of the future and that we need to get out of the useless debate of one form of warfare or force or capability is dominant over any other. The sum truly is great than the parts and Jointness works. But we cannot hand our hat on a single doctrine or concept.

Apologies for the stream of consciousness.

Mark Pyruz

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 4:12am


You're probably not aware of this but the indigenous deterrent missile force capability you're advocating for Taiwan is precisely that which has been adopted for some time now by the Islamic Republic of Iran.