Small Wars Journal

Shortchanging the Joint Doctrine Fight

Sat, 07/12/2008 - 9:30am
Shortchanging the Joint Doctrine Fight

One Airman's Assessment of the Airman's Assessment

by LtCol Buck Elton, Small Wars Journal

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The traditional, often bitter inter-service battle for resources has been taken to a new level in a senior Air Force officer's recent assault on service doctrine. In late December, 2007, Air University published a 111-page monograph written by Air Force Deputy Judge Advocate Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. entitled Shortchanging the Joint Fight? An Airman's Assessment of FM 3-24 and the Case for Developing Truly Joint COIN Doctrine. The study analyzes the pitfalls of accepting Army and Marine tactical doctrine as the joint solution and offers an Airman's perspective to deliver "fresh" alternatives for joint counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine development. This heavily referenced monograph (438 end notes) relentlessly attacks the Army and Marine Corps doctrine for its almost exclusively ground-centric perspective and failure to reconcile the full potential of today's airpower capabilities. Although General Dunlap discusses several interesting ideas regarding how the Airman's perspective can help shape joint COIN doctrine, his undue criticisms of Army philosophies, conventional approaches and dogmatic mindset distract from his argument and recommendations. Readers will likely focus exclusively on the unwarranted and erratically referenced land-power condemnations and accuse the Air Force of advocating a COIN solution that involves Airmen or airpower for their own sake, which the author half-heartedly adds as an imperative at the end of the essay. This Airman's assessment of "an Airman's Assessment" will provide an alternative perspective of Field Manual 3-24 and offer counter arguments to many of the monograph's criticisms.

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About the Author(s)


Charlie Dunlap (not verified)

Sun, 07/13/2008 - 4:46pm

I am pleased and flattered that Lt Col Buck Elton took the time to write such an extensive critique of my monograph, "Shortchanging the Joint Fight: An Airmans Assessment of FM 3-24 and the Case for Developing Truly Joint COIN Doctrine" which was published earlier this year. I am very eager to encourage Airmen, along with other members of the joint team, to engage in robust and thoughtful debate about airpower and other national security issues.

And I certainly do not expect people to agree with my views. Disagreement can be healthy, and itself be a stimulus for further intellectual development. That said, I respectfully encourage people to read the monograph to see what it actually says, and then compare it to what he thinks it says. The monograph is online at .

One of the aims of my writing is to provoke critical thinking, and Lt Col Elton is certainly frenetically provoked and wildly critical. More disciplined - and timely - research might, however, have made his commentary more constructive.

Instead, he is too reminiscent of a cavalryman of the 1930s in his frantic desire to rationalize outmoded counterinsurgency (COIN) models. It blinds him to the possibilities of todays technologies, to include modern airpower. Thus, his essay - which does have bright spots - is nevertheless too "in the box" for an era that requires "out-of-the-box" thinking.

His over-reliance upon studies of various counterinsurgencies of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s to assess airpowers capabilities in the 21st century mirrors FM 3-24s shortcomings. Todays airpower is, of course, vastly more capable than it was a half century ago. What Lt Col Elton misses are the "game changing" revolutions in persistence and precision of recent years that have completely redefined airpowers role in COIN.

Fortunately, ground-force commanders in the field "get it" as to what todays airpower can do. The success that U.S. forces in Iraq enjoyed in 2007 was marked by a sound rejection of the airpower "lite" tendencies of FM 3-24 that Lt Col Elton attempts to justify. Among other things, airstrikes increased five-fold, and the use of other forms of airpower expanded exponentially. The whopping 300% growth in demand for airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance is just one further example.

Still, apparently too few people are really aware of what airpower is actually doing in COIN today. Readers who may be interested in an examination of what might paradoxically be called the "ground truth" of airpowers emergence as a premier COIN capability in 2007 (and continuing into 2008) may wish to examine the article entitled "Making Revolutionary Change: Airpower in COIN Today" which is forthcoming in the Armys professional journal, Parameters.

Coincidently, retired Air Force Col Phil Meilingers fascinating and insightful article, "Counterinsurgency from Above," in the July 2008 issue of Air Force Magazine… operates as a devastating rebuttal to much of what Lt Col Elton believes about airpower and COIN.

Moreover, "Shortchanging" was not written in a vacuum. Early in 2007 drafts were circulated among experts in the various services. Though controversial, it generated useful discussion at several levels. Indeed, some in the Army readily embraced it. Army Lt Col Gian P. Gentiles review, "Listen to the Airman," published in the Armys Military Review is an illustration. It is found online at:… .

Regrettably, Lt Col Elton seems not to fully understand how to appropriately and productively debate differing theories of warfighting. It may surprise him, but one of the principal Army authors of FM 3-24, the recently retired Lt Col John Nagl, joined me in writing an article in SWJ about clashing warfighting perspectives. That essay is entitled "Americas Greatest Weapon" and it explains how the process of competitive analysis of military doctrine ought to work. It is available at

I am surprised, for instance, that Lt Col Elton finds it "alarming" that I, as an active duty general officer, would critique ongoing operations. In wanting to silence me he puts himself in a rather different category than his contemporaries in the Army.

In that service they have harshly criticized their general officer corps for not speaking out. First there was Army Lt Col Paul Yinglings article, "A Failure of Generalship," in the May 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal Next, in the June 2008 issue of the same magazine, there is Army Lt Col Bob Batemans article entitled "Cause for Relief" .

I firmly believe that leaders need to lead. In the case of generals especially, that sometimes means speaking and writing about doctrines which they find ill-serve the Nation by failing to fully utilize the capabilities of the whole joint team.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? In my nearly 33 years of service Ive experienced some terrible things - I can still recall, for example, the stench of rotting corpses in Somalia. Yet the most heartbreaking scene Ive personally witnessed was at the Dover AFB mortuary. To see the bodies of young American Soldiers neatly laid out in their dress uniforms - but forever to be silent - is something that will haunt me forever.

So too was visiting the Landstuhl hospital where Soldiers - again, very young - fresh from the battlefields of Iraq tried to rise from their beds to salute me as I entered their room. Severed limbs, however, stopped them from rendering the courtesy they thought their duty owed.

Do not we - all of us - owe such heroes our level best to try to find a better way? It isnt a "battle for resources" as Lt Col Elton evidently thinks; it is about trying to find ways to avoid putting young Americans at unnecessary risk. Im convinced that todays airpower can be exploited to maximize the chance that our precious Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen can come home safely to their friends and families.

I will not be silenced in that mission - nor should you.