Small Wars Journal


Analysis of a Decade at War

Mon, 06/25/2012 - 9:56am

On 15 June, the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis division of the Joint Staff J-7 published a report titled, "A Decade at War."  This report came in response to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Dempsey's guidance that we should make sure we "actually learn the lessons from the last decade at war."  The report can be downloaded in PDF format here.  An excerpt follows:


In the decade following 9/11, it became evident that the Cold War model that had guided foreign policy for the previous 50 years no longer fit the emerging global environment. Key changes included: 

  • A shift from US hegemony toward national pluralism 
  • The erosion of sovereignty and the impact of weak states 
  • The empowerment of small groups or individuals 
  • An increasing need to fight and win in the information domain 

In the midst of these changes, the US employed its military in a wide range of operations to address perceived threats from both nation-state and terrorist groups; to strengthen partner nation militaries; to conduct humanitarian assistance operations; and to provide defense support of civil authorities in catastrophic incidents such as Hurricane Katrina. This wide range of operations aimed to promote and protect national interests in the changing global environment. 

In general, operations during the first half of the decade were often marked by numerous missteps and challenges as the US government and military applied a strategy and force suited for a different threat and environment. Operations in the second half of the decade often featured successful adaptation to overcome these challenges. From its study of these operations, JCOA identified overarching, enduring lessons for the joint force that present opportunities for the US to learn and improve, best practices that the US can sustain, and emerging risk factors that the US should address. 

The report broke down lessons into eleven strategic themes, analyzing each one in brief and providing a way ahead on each.  These were:


  • Understanding the Environment: A failure to recognize, acknowledge, and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals. 
  • Conventional Warfare Paradigm: Conventional warfare approaches often were ineffective when applied to operations other than major combat, forcing leaders to realign the ways and means of achieving effects. 
  • Battle for the Narrative: The US was slow to recognize the importance of information and the battle for the narrative in achieving objectives at all levels; it was often ineffective in applying and aligning the narrative to goals and desired end states. 
  • Transitions: Failure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational transitions endangered accomplishment of the overall mission. 
  • Adaptation: Department of Defense (DOD) policies, doctrine, training and equipment were often poorly suited to operations other than major combat, forcing widespread and costly adaptation. 
  • Special Operations Forces (SOF) – General Purpose Forces (GPF) Integration: Multiple, simultaneous, large-scale operations executed in dynamic environments required the integration of general purpose and special operations forces, creating a force-multiplying effect for both. 
  • Interagency Coordination: Interagency coordination was uneven due to inconsistent participation in planning, training, and operations; policy gaps; resources; and differences in organizational culture. 
  • Coalition Operations: Establishing and sustaining coalition unity of effort was a challenge due to competing national interests, cultures, resources, and policies. 
  • Host-Nation Partnering: Partnering was a key enabler and force multiplier, and aided in host-nation capacity building. However, it was not always approached effectively nor adequately prioritized and resourced. 
  • State Use of Surrogates and Proxies: States sponsored and exploited surrogates and proxies to generate asymmetric challenges. 
  • Super-Empowered Threats: Individuals and small groups exploited globalized technology and information to expand influence and approach state-like disruptive capacity.