Small Wars Journal

A Return to Core Competencies: An Argument for a Balanced Approach

Wed, 07/24/2013 - 6:43am

A Return to Core Competencies: An Argument for a Balanced Approach

Marc J. Sanborn

“The Army’s officer corps not only must prepare for the war that could begin today but must also anticipate the nature and evolution of future likely conflicts.”[1]  Though these words were written during the Cold War over twenty-five years ago, they ring truer than ever today.  Understanding the potential nature of future conflict must be at the forefront of every military leader’s mind so the United States is adequately postured to face future adversaries, defend the nation, and protect its global interests.  As irregular warfare and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan end, the United States must carefully consider its strategic future. 

Many have argued that the United States, as a matter of policy, should avoid situations that might involve irregular warfare or COIN and focus solely on conventional maneuver warfare.  As an example, Dr. Colin S. Gray, Professor and Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Reading, argued that Americans do not possess the political or military skills necessary for irregular warfare and should therefore focus its efforts on conventional, regular warfare.  He concludes that “it would be a political and strategic mistake to identify irregular warfare, COIN especially, as America’s dominant strategic future.”[2]

In addition, throughout the Army there is an eagerness to return to core competencies at the expense of COIN and irregular warfare training.  In the January-March 2013 issue of Armor, LTC Andre L. Mackey writes in an article entitled “How to Eat Steak with a Knife and Fork!” that “our maneuver force needs to return to training the core competencies” because “many critical combat skills of the maneuver force have atrophied.”[3]  The conclusion that the United States should put little strategic focus on irregular warfare and let skills developed over twelve years of war atrophy is imprudent.  The United States’ strategy must continue to include a significant element dedicated to irregular warfare in order to counter likely future threats and to retain hard won knowledge and expertise in irregular warfare. 

The current geopolitical landscape suggests that future threats to United States national security interests will, by their nature, involve irregular warfare.  The likelihood of conventional, large-scale warfare is less likely in an era of global economic interconnectedness.  In The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman describes the high financial costs for a globally connected country to go to war.  In the event of war, these countries would lose their place in the global supply chain and consequently lose their economic engines far beyond the length of the war.  As a result, states will be much more cautious in the future when deciding to use conventional military force.[4]   

By no means does the global economy eliminate the threat of conventional war between countries.  It does, however, reduce the likelihood of growing global powers such as Russia, China, or India going to war with their neighbors or the United States due to the potential for substantial economic loss.  In a sense, financial interdependence serves as the twenty-first century version of the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction theory.  On the other hand, countries disconnected from the global economy – Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and much of Africa – will “remain hotspots that could explode at any time.”[5] How will adversaries in these hotspots engage in conflict with the United States?

These adversaries are not likely to engage the United States in head-to-head conflict but will likely use other means to accomplish their objectives.  The United States is, and will continue to be, the most significant military power in the world for the foreseeable future.[6]  As a result, it is unlikely that any adversary will attempt to directly match American military power in a conflict.  It is much more realistic for state adversaries to employ a combination of regular and irregular warfare in order to capitalize on American military weaknesses.[7]  The hybrid threat implies that the United States must be simultaneously prepared for both regular and irregular warfare and be able to transition quickly between the two. 

In addition to state actors, the United States will continue to face non-state terrorists and criminal threats that will require the use of irregular warfare to protect our interests.  Terrorist networks will continue to take advantage of technology to organize themselves to attack the United States and its allies.  Friedman asserts, “Hell hath no fury like a terrorist with a satellite dish and an interactive Web site.”[8]  Criminal networks will also continue to threaten the United States’ national security interests.  For example, the ongoing Mexican drug war and South American drug cartels will continue to pose security issues for the United States.  Dismantling of terrorist and criminal networks requires irregular warfare and simply cannot be done with large-scale military operations.

Given the very real threat of irregular warfare in the future, the United States cannot afford to relearn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan in a future conflict. In the past, the United States pursued a similar strategic approach of focusing solely on conventional warfare with unfortunate consequences.  The United States military lost the irregular warfare and counterinsurgency lessons learned in the Vietnam conflict and had to painfully relearn them to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In his study of the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Thomas E. Ricks says that “after it came home from Vietnam, the Army threw away virtually everything it had learned there, slowly and painfully, about how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign.”[9]  After the invasion of Iraq, it took the United States nearly four years to redevelop and employ effective irregular warfare doctrine.  These lessons were relearned with significant tax dollars and many American lives.  

In the future, the United States may not have the fiscal resources or required expertise to quickly adapt to irregular or hybrid warfare from a conventional posture.  For the past decade, the American military enjoyed high defense spending levels and increased troop strengths in reaction to the events of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.  The era of unconstrained resources is over.  Defense budgets are shrinking and all of the services have or will be downsizing in the near future.[10]  In addition, as the national debt continues to grow the United States will face further fiscal constraints that could significantly impact future military spending.  Concurrent with these challenges, the military will need to be prepared to fight regular, irregular, and hybrid wars.[11]  Therefore, the United States should make every effort to retain the knowledge gained in Iraq and Afghanistan to be able to quickly transition to irregular warfare.  The unnecessary loss of American lives and financial costs are too great for the United States to have to fight for this knowledge again.

Beyond retaining the irregular warfare lessons learned, the United States must capitalize on them to overcome weaknesses in the American way of war.  Irregular warfare is not something that the United States inherently does well.[12]  For the United States to place little emphasis on irregular warfare because it is not something Americans do well, as Gray suggests, could prove disastrous in light of the potential future threats.  Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has military and civilian personnel with vast knowledge and expertise in irregular warfare tactics, operations, and strategy.  Therefore, the United States has a unique opportunity to overcome its irregular warfare weaknesses by institutionalizing that knowledge and continuing to improve its doctrine.  Combat training centers, professional military education, and home station training must continue to include irregular warfare components to ensure that leaders are adaptive, flexible, and prepared for a wide range of potential future conflicts.  This is only possible, however, if the United States continues to include a significant irregular warfare element in its strategic future. 

This is not to say that irregular warfare should be the United States’ sole focus.  Gray and Mackey correctly note that the United States is not currently postured for regular warfare after focusing for more than a decade on irregular warfare and counterinsurgency.[13]  Regular, large-scale warfare is the strength of the American military and in order to deter aggressors armed with weapons of mass destruction, it must continue to be.[14]  The United States’ strategic pendulum must swing back from a sole focus on irregular warfare towards the traditional American way of war, but not so much as to ignore the very real irregular warfare threat.

The United States must carefully consider its strategic future as its military resets after a decade of war.  That strategy must continue include a significant element dedicated to irregular warfare.  Due to the nature of the globalized world, the probability that the United States will face both state and non-state adversaries that employ irregular or hybrid warfare is much higher than a large-scale, conventional war. In light of these threats, the United States has a unique opportunity to retain and capitalize on irregular warfare lessons learned through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, to provide an effective deterrent to future aggressors, the United States must also be postured for regular, large-scale warfare.  In order to be prepared for this wide range of threats, the United States should pursue a balanced strategy that is prepared for both regular and irregular warfare.  The challenge for future military leaders will be to maintain competencies in both and be able to quickly transition between the two.

[1] Charles E. Heller and William A. Stofft, eds., America’s First Battles, 1776 – 1965  (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1986), ix.

[2] Colin S. Gray, “Irregular Warfare: One Nature, Many Characters” (paper presented at the Air Force Symposium on Counterinsurgency, Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 24-26 April 2007), 15.

[3] Andre L. Mackey, “How to Eat Steak with a Knife and Fork! A Return to the Core Competencies that Make Our Maneuver Force Indomitable,” Armor, January-March 2013, 7.

[4] Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 421.

[5] Ibid., 423.

[6] National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (Washington, D.C., 2008), xi.

[7] Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., “The Military’s New Hybrid Warriors,” National Journal, 14 March 2009, 31.

[8] Friedman, The World is Flat, 436.

[9] Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Group, 2007), 133.

[10] Ray Odierno, “The U.S. Army in a time of transition – Building a flexible force,” United States Army, (accessed 28 August 2012).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gray, “Irregular Warfare,” 26.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Joint Futures Group, “The Joint Operating Environment 2010,” United States Joint Forces Command (Suffolk, Virginia, 2010), 62.


About the Author(s)

MAJ Marc J. Sanborn, U.S. Army, is an engineer officer currently assigned as a student in the Command and General Staff Officer Course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  He holds a B.S. in civil engineering from the U.S. Military Academy, an M.S. in Engineering Management from Missouri Science & Technology, an M.S. in civil engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Bill M.

Thu, 08/01/2013 - 4:23am

In reply to by Sparapet

Bravo! Very well written.


Wed, 07/31/2013 - 5:43pm

I don't understand, and never have, the proposition that one must choose between irregular warfare (IW) and conventional warfare (CW) as the dominant model. IW will be and always has been part of all CW. Whether the form was Soviet Partisans behind German lines in WWII, VC in South Vietnam, Communists in WWI Russia, Armenian Dashnaks in WWI Ottoman Empire, Native tribes in the French-Indian wars, Moro tribesmen in the Philippines on the heels of the Spanish-American War etc etc etc. The land force will always be the entity charged with solving IW and CW problem sets, as it always has been. Why is this even a debate? We must have both competencies if we fancy ourselves as masters of the "spectrum of warfare". Specialists, in either IW or CW, are only useful in special cases. IW and CW are not special, they are both the norm, two sides of the same coin. Any force deployed for either type of operation must be prepared to transition to the other in the same breath, and maybe even in parallel.

To not be able to do so except by multi-year retooling of the entire force structure and training is moral failure of the profession of arms for the state that employs it. A Roman Legion did not need to retool completely to transition from fighting a local Iceni revolt escalated into a full-fledged province-wide rebellion...from IW into CW. Nor should our BCT's. That may be an ideal state, but that should be the goal of our force strategies.


Sat, 07/27/2013 - 10:42pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

"My prior comments about inappropriateness of Fort Benning as an armor training center, as well as the loss of warfighting intellectual capital within the Regular Army are more than supported by this trend."

Hardly. Ft. Benning isn't an inappropriate armor training area. Heck, the armor force started there. Based on sheer acreage Benning is a better location than Knox and the MASSIVE training complexes built equal and exceed what Know had to offer.

As for intellectual capital, that's not tied to a location and McMaster (the present head of the COE)isn't a mental midget.

Your comments above and repeated anti Infantry themes as well as blaming the Infantry among others for the failure of FCS as you consistently do on DoDBuzz more than support this trend and outright bias of yours. Some grunt must have really hurt your feelings in the past to be so butthurt.

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 07/25/2013 - 2:21pm

It is good to see that the Armor School has Armor magazine freely available online once again...otherwise, I wouldn't able to detect this misappropriate of the Mackey article. From what I can tell, there is not reference to "eating steak with a knife and fork" in LTC Mackey's largely uncontroversial piece, whose correct title is "Cavalry and Armor Functional Training: A Return to the Core Competencies That Make Our Maneuver Force Dominant".

Indeed, the entire subject of that article consists of speciality courses out of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, including the Cavalry Leaders Course, Army Reconnaissance Course, and M1 Master Gunners courses. Basics. As they have always been, and always should be.

More interesting as I dive through this edition of Armor is the fact that the Armor School is outsourcing its training to the National Guard, which is running six ARNG "Armor schools" across the country. This of course, is shades of the old USAR school system, and one wishes the Guardsmen well, as more and more of the heavy force gets pushed into the Reserve Component force structure.

My prior comments about inappropriateness of Fort Benning as an armor training center, as well as the loss of warfighting intellectual capital within the Regular Army are more than supported by this trend.


Wed, 07/24/2013 - 10:35pm

There is much said about not forgetting the lessons of COIN. Agree but at the BDE and below the COIN fight is a decentralized one just like the urban fight (granted different “combat multipliers”). What EXACTLY needs to be remembered that is fundamentally different than the conventional approach to combat? No one is listing those fundamental differences. I would posit they are very few.

Second, many comment of a perceived US military weakness in conducting COIN. The military isn’t so much to blame as our political leaders not setting specific or achievable goals and secondly not holding the governments departments accountable for providing the expertise necessary to stand up a country.

Finally, no doubt the enemy doesn’t want to attack our strength. The enemy has a vote but we have one also. Want to stop proxy wars? Exact a cost from those that resource them. A credible threat is key to deterrence. Next, just because an enemy wants to wage an irregular war it doesn’t mean we need to participate. We should be very careful where we deploy our forces to protect critical national security interests. I’d also respond that the enemy isn’t exclusive in their capability to employ proxy forces.

We should not have a reactionary mindset that may dictate our waging COIN. Instead we need to do what the enemy does and employ our strengths against their weakness.