Small Wars Journal

The Challenge of Fighting Small Wars While Trying to Adequately Prepare for Big Ones

Thu, 09/20/2018 - 2:51am

The Challenge of Fighting Small Wars While Trying to Adequately Prepare for Big Ones

Gary Anderson

Except for the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, America has been fighting small, counterinsurgency wars since 9-11. This begs the question of whether fighting small wars inhibits or enhances our readiness to transition to large, high-intensity conflicts against peer or near peer competitors? The answer is complicated and somewhat ambiguous.

The British and French situation at the outset of World War II is instructive. On paper, the two allies started the war in 1939 with two decades more combat experience than the Germans. None-the-less, the Germans thoroughly trounced the British and the French in 1940. What happened? It would be easy to say that the initial German victories were due to a more perceptive use of combined arms -tanks, radios, and aircraft. While this was part of it, it does not explain the overwhelming nature of the initial allied defeats. The Germans were ready for war, and the allies were not. The readiness failures were in the areas of adjusting tactics to emerging technology, training, and leadership.

The British and French small wars of the 20s and 30s were largely fought by colonial troops led by European officers. In the case of the British, the reason was economics. Native troops were cheaper to keep under arms. In the case of the French, the reason was both economic and legal. Conscripts were forbidden from operating outside of Metropolitan France by law. Only volunteer French and European troops such as the Foreign Legion and the Colonial Marines could be used in the colonies. These professionals and native troops were adequate for imposing French governance on the marches of the empire. Although the use of these colonial troops was relatively cheap and efficient, it had decidedly mixed effects in preparing both nations for readiness to fight high intensity combat across all three elements of readiness:

Adjusting Tactics to Emerging Technology. All sides in 1939 had approximately the same technology. The difference was that, in their colonial wars, the British and French were fighting enemies that could not match their superior technologies. The allies frankly got lazy in their application of those technologies. On the other hand, the Germans could concentrate on preparing to fight the British and French -as well as the Poles, Russians, and Czechs- consequently, all their efforts could be concentrated at the high intensity level of the spectrum of conflict.

Training and Doctrine. The British regular army was small, but highly trained; however, it was insufficient to fight a large continental war as the British had abolished conscription at the end of World War I. France maintained conscription but did it on the cheap as much as possible. The French depended on the doctrine of deliberate battle that had provided victory in the final stages of World War I. That doctrine called for a very “top down” approach to maneuver and did not allow for the kind of maneuver that could be possible if tanks, airplanes, and modern wireless radios were used in tandem.

Leadership. From the perspective of small unit leadership, the small colonial wars between the great wars provided excellent opportunities for company and field grade officers to get valuable combat experience. However, this was mitigated to a large extent by the fact that both the regular French and British armies were highly class conscious and officers with colonial experience tended to be looked down on as social inferiors and not readily welcomed into the elite regiments that produced much of the senior officer cadre of both armies.

In addition, when war broke out in 1939, the colonies still had to be defended, and many combat- experienced officers stayed with their colonial units. When such units were called to fight in Europe and North Africa, they generally did well, but they were a small percentage of both armies.

The German Model

In contrast, because of its defeat in World War I, Germany had no colonies to defend and could concentrate on future European conflicts exclusively. In addition, having been stripped of tanks and airplanes by the Versailles Treaty, the Germans were not saddled with legacy systems. This allowed them to build a modern army in peacetime and tune up mechanized logistics in the largely occupations of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Germany built a modern army from scratch. In this case, the Germans turned defeat into an opportunity to build a better mousetrap.

Adjusting Tactics to Emerging Technology.  Not having tanks or military aircraft of their own allowed the Germans to think about what the weapons systems of the future should look like and how tactics should change to accommodate emerging technologies. Although the German General Staff system was outlawed by the Treaty of Versailles, its shadow successor -the Troop Office- began shortly after the peace treaty was signed to make a careful study of what went right and wrong in the late war. They understood that tanks and aircraft were keys to final allied victory, and they also realized that there were more efficient and effective ways to put these technologies together both tactically and operationally than had been employed by the allies.

Training and Doctrine. The Germans made good use of war games and field exercises to examine existing doctrine and imagine how emerging technologies might change that doctrine. Imaginative use of what resources were available in peacetime training exercises allowed troops at all levels to imagine how they would use improvements in mobility, tactical radios, and the possibilities of aircraft to enable ground maneuver.

Experiments with radical new doctrine were encouraged whereas the French made their World War I doctrine of the deliberate battle sacrosanct and intellectually unassailable. The British tied experimentation with armor, but the likes of Liddell-Hart and J.F.C. Fuller were generally regarded as eccentric cranks who were taken more seriously by the Germans than Great Britain.

Leadership. Although elements of the old Junker class system remained at the higher ranks, the Germans developed some remarkably egalitarian approaches to leadership, recruitment, and promotion of leadership talent.

One of the best developments came because of defeat. Versailles limited the Germans to a paltry 100,000- man army. General Hans von Seeckt the head of the Troop Office demanded that those 100,000 be the best and brightest of the survivors of the Great War. Von Seeckt envisioned that the Reichswehr would be the leadership cadre of a greatly expanded future army. Every German officer, NCO, and soldier was trained to hold billets two ranks up from his official billet.

At the risk of saying anything good about National Socialism once they took power in 1933 they created a true people’s army and built it from the foundation of von Seectk‘s  Reichswehr. Hitler wanted officers selected for competence, not for noble birth. Some of the selection and screening methods of the Wehrmacht can still be found in US Army and Marine Corps Officer Candidate Schools today.

The American Experience

For most of its history until World War II, the standing US Army was a constabulary force in peacetime, and the United States counted on the Jeffersonian concept of using militia- later the National Guard- to be called up in a big war. This worked out for relatively limited wars such as the ones with Mexico and Spain but proved to be disastrous during the first battles of big wars.  HW Crocker III and retired U.S Army Major General Bob Scales have written extensively on this subject and demonstrate that the Jeffersonian model failed us at the beginning of virtually every major war in each of the three major critical area of readiness.

Adjusting Tactics to Emerging Technology. The simple bayonet was not available to the Continental army in the early stages of the revolution. Even when they would stand up to British regulars, continental militia were helpless against British cold steel and were forced to withdraw from close combat until 1777 when enough bayonets were finally captured or manufactured. Even then, the Americans needed the Prussian General von Steuben to teach the Continental regular line troops to employ the tactics, drill and discipline to stand up to the British and Hessians. Neither Union nor Confederate armies were ready to handle the improvements in rifled weapons at the beginning of the Civil War.

America was again unprepared when it entered World War I, but we were fortunate in that the British and French armies were on scene to buy us time to train and deploy a field Army by 1918. However, when the Americans did march into battle; they were largely with British and French planes, tanks, and artillery.

In the early days of World War II in the Pacific, the Americans were outfought in the air and on the sea. The Japanese Zero war far superior to American aircraft, and Japanese air crews had years of experience in combat in China. At sea, the Americans were inferior in gunnery to the Japanese in surface combat- this was particularly true at night. Our submarines were hampered with defective torpedoes which were far inferior to the Japanese Long Lance torpedo.

When Korea broke out, the US Army had again been reduced to near constabulary levels. With the nation depending on its nuclear deterrent. Conventional weapons, ranging from rifles to anti-tank systems were allowed to rust in the armories.

The exception to this was the Marine Corps, and the unsung hero of that organization was its irascible Quartermaster General, Major General W.P.T. Hill. As chief of logistics, Hill was ruthless in ensuring that weapons in all armories- regular and reserve- were kept at a high state of readiness and that supplies, and equipment were ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. This proved invaluable in the Marine Corps’ splendid performance at the Pusan Perimeter, Inchon, and in the Chosin Reservoir.

Training and Doctrine. The poor performance of militia units marred American combat effectiveness in the Revolution, the War of 1812 and on both sides in the Civil War. The south won the Battle of First Manassas only because its troops were marginally less unprofessional than those of the Union.

Until the Civil War, doctrine was pretty much Napoleonic as passed down by the writings of Baron Jomini, and the concept of matching tactics and technology was not adopted until American began developing war colleges in the late 19th Century.

Leadership. In most of America’s early wars, the leadership cadre produced by West Point and Annapolis were insufficient to the needs of raising large conventional armies. Until World War II leadership development was a slapdash of trial and error.


Vietnam was the first war that the US entered with a fully ready regular military establishment for a standpoint of numbers, technology, and a trained leadership cadre. Korea had taught Americans that a nuclear deterrent was not enough. The Cold War convinced the senior leadership of the nation that conventional forces were still necessary. Unfortunately, the military was trained and doctrinally ready to re-fight Korea. Instead it got Vietnam. Vietnam was a mix of conventional and unconventional war. American soldiers were prepared to break things and kill people, but they were not prepared to deal with the counterinsurgency aspect of the conflict.  One of the characters in James Webb’s classic Vietnam novel Fields of Fire complains that the generals are trying to re-fight Korea in Vietnam. We need to ensure that we don’t prepare to fight Afghanistan in the Balkan States or Fulda Gap.

Fighting Small Wars While Preparing for the Next Big One

The superb professionalism with which the American military has fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a source of pride for Americans, civilians and military alike. Members of the Obama Administration were fond of saying that we had the best military in the world, skeptics like me would often answer with; “how do we know that?” Despite the advanced technology we have applied to the battlefield for nearly two decades, there are two things we need to consider. First, most of the our most effective combat systems are over three decades old. Many of today’s pilots are operating air frames that their grandfathers were flying in the 1950s. The B-1 bomber is a relative newcomer at thirty-five or so. These legacy systems have been kept up to date with advanced precision weapons systems and electronics, but they are still old. Second, our potential peer and near-peer competitors have been carefully watching us and taking notes regarding both our strengths and weaknesses.

There will be unpleasant surprises in any war, but the best way to avoid the worst of them is to examine the three elements of readiness the way our enemies are probably looking at them:

Adjusting Tactics to Emerging Technology. Let’s begin with what we are doing right. A lot is being done by all the services to try to predict what technologies and tactics our opponents will bring to the next fight. War gaming is used at all levels -tactical, operational, and strategic- to imagine how the next war will be fought and what kinds of weapons will be needed. We know that our opponents are looking at military uses of space and cyber weapons as well as the use of swarm tactics to overwhelm our air and sea defenses.

Both we and our potential adversaries are looking at the uses of Artificial Intelligence (AI), not for just the previously mentioned swarming applications but for unmanned aircraft capable of exceeding human performance limitations for maneuver. We have made great strides in other areas of unmanned systems and robotics, particularly the use of the misnamed drone aircraft. However, when even non-states such as ISIS are using unmanned aerial systems (UAS), we have to assume that the big guys are heavily invest not only in advance and micro UAS, but also on how to shoot down ours.

There are areas of concern however. After nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is inevitable that money that could have been spent on research and development (R&D)   has gone to the near- term war effort. Some of this may be applicable for future high intensity conflicts, but we need to realize that – like the interwar Germans- our potential future peer and near-peer opponents have not been doing R&D with one hand tied behind their backs.

Based on what we know of Russian and Chinese R&D efforts, we should be putting as much money as possible into military cyber operations as well as the defense of our civilian infrastructure against cyber- attack.   We should also be spending resources on detecting decoy targets that might fool the precision guided systems that we depend on so much for modern warfighting. I’m confident that our military planners are aware of the challenge, but only hope the civilian leaders will fund the weapons development needed to meet it.

Finally, there is a question of whether we have resilience in our weapons resupply system. It is almost certain that future opponents will go after military space assets- particularly GPs and surveillance systems- Rapid replacement of these will require not only satellites, but the launch platforms to put them into orbit. Given the fact that both the Administration and Congress are contemplating a space force, I am reasonably confident that the importance of space is recognized. Hopefully the dollars will follow.

Training and Doctrine. Both the Army and Marine Corps are retooling their combined arms training centers to reinstate exercises that stress high intensity combat against a modern foe using armor and high-performance aircraft. It is imperative that our aircrews and naval personnel retain their combat edge. Training venues such as Top Gun, Red Flag, and the Marine Corps’ Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course are only as good as the proficiency and numbers of qualified air crews available to be trained. All of the services are challenged by the loss of mid-grade pilots to the airlines, and there is concern about the number of monthly flight hours pilots from all services get. The first weeks and months of a modern high intensity conflict will see heavy attrition on both sides. If we are not deep in regular and reserve air crews, we face the dilemma that the Japanese encountered after Midway when they lost a large percentage of their front-line aircrews. They were essentially one deep and had to keep the veterans flying until they too became casualties. There were no combat experienced instructors to train replacement pilots in current tactics.

Afghanistan and Iraq have produced a superb cadre of combat experienced infantry to train the next generation of grunts, but this is not the case with armor and artillery. Poor American performance in NATO tank competitions recently have seen levels of decreased readiness not experienced since the late seventies of the last century. That and the age of the Abrams tank should raise red flags at NATO and SACEUR headquarters.

The crisis in Navy seamanship proficiency that has been highlighted by recent accidents at sea in the Pacific should be a warning shot across the bow for the navy a whole in the area of training readiness. Although the Navy has not admitted it, there are dark rumblings in the Chiefs’ messes across the Navy about the performance of damage control parties throughout the fleet. Lacking a rigidly enforced physical fitness test program, there are sailors doing damage control not capable of doing the heavy lifting required. We are largely talking women here, but there are millennial males who simply lack the upper body strength required for damage control work. During the Obama years, it was a career ender to suggest that there are things some women just can’t do; that attitude may be politically correct, but it could potentially get people killed if it hasn’t already.

In the area of doctrine, the services as well as the joint world have a series of simulation driven exercises to test how well staffs can execute doctrine. The simulations are there to test the training points, but what they don’t do is test the doctrine itself against a thinking opponent who understands the doctrine as well as its strengths and weaknesses. These exercises should be true force-on-force war games with the Red Teams trying to defeat both the Blue commander and staff, but his doctrine. Without that, we face the real possibility of falling into the trap that the French did in the 1930s of making their doctrine theological in nature and above challenge.

We have still not developed a credible doctrine for degrading and defeating access denial strategies from potential future adversaries - let’s name names; China, Russia, and Iran- If this threat cannot be addressed, our super carriers will be will be pushed so far out to sea as to be irrelevant.

Finally, we must maintain the capability to fight small unconventional wars such as counterinsurgencies, and defeat threats in the grey areas between peace and war. Some on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) want to hand that job over to the Marine Corps as its primary mission. That would be a mistake. If there is a lesson about transitioning from small wars to large ones, it is with the Marine Corps between the two world wars. The Corps fought the Banana Wars while still experimenting with the amphibious tactics and techniques that Marines knew they would face in the coming war in the Pacific. All of our services need to know how to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Leadership. In the training discussion, we spoke of the need realistic force-on-force training, at both the tactical and operational levels of war. Unfortunately, in the past few decades, managerial skills, human resource sensitivity, and being an all-around socially acceptable human being have come to be just as important as tactical or operational proficiency in evaluating officer promotion potential -and that is even seeping into the non-commissioned ranks as well. The balance between gentlemanly conduct, managerial skill, and warrior capabilities has been a tightrope for western armies to walk for centuries.  But lately in the American military, warrior skills have too often taken a back seat to other things. If a combat arms officer can max the physical fitness test, looks immaculate in uniform, and had never had a human relations complaint against him or her, it is easy for a promotion board to overlook the fact that he has lost every force-on-force exercise he has fought in. That information is sometimes not even considered important enough to be made available to the promotion boards.

Combat arms officers and commanders of combat arms formations up to the fleet, corps, and joint task force level should have at least fifty percent of the fitness report or officer evaluation report judged on combat skill. An army of lions led by a sheep will quickly become flock.


It is hard to transition from decades of small wars or even peace into a high intensity environment, but it can be done. Small wars will continue. We won’t be able to hide from Islamic Jihadists, and all great powers in history have had to deal with brush fire wars even in periods of relative peace. The truly great powers of history have been able to do the small stuff and still handle the occasional large war when one becomes inevitable. America’s civilian and military leaders must decide if they want to be more like Rome in 100 A.D. or France in 1940.


About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.