Leadership: The Curse Of The Big One


December 13,2008: The U.S. military is still trying to recover from the Cold War. During that four decade conflict, Russia and the United States concentrated on a potential World War III, that would largely be fought in Central Europe. This would involve a larger clash of armor than any in World War II, and the use of chemical and nuclear weapons. The battle never came to pass, as the Soviet Union faded away with a whimper, rather than a bang. But the potential for such a horrific clash focused the attention of military commanders that, even after the mighty Soviet armed forces melted away (from five million troops to about a million) in the 1990s, American military leaders, and their suppliers (the military-industrial complex) were not able to adjust. The "last battle of the Cold War" was fought in Kuwait in 1991, when an American led force quickly crushed a Soviet equipped and trained troops.

Despite the striking victory in Kuwait, American military leaders continued to maintain a force prepared to fight Cold War era battles. Along comes September 11, 2001, Afghanistan, Iraq and the international war on Islamic terrorists. Now U.S. troops are forced to fight a war very different from anything the Cold War promised. As American military planners looked to the future, some saw more irregular warfare, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, while other called for remaining ready for conventional (Cold War era) combat.

There were other factors at play. First and foremost is inertia. Military establishments always lean towards preparing for a large, conventional type war. Even though most of American military history consists of irregular warfare. Conventional wars were few, and brief. During the 18th and 19th centuries, most American military activity, at least in terms of years, was all about irregular warfare. Fighting Indians and frontier disorder defined the careers of generations of American troops. Even the American Revolution was largely irregular warfare, and often decisive irregular operations at that.

The first four decades of the 20th century was largely irregular warfare and peacekeeping for U.S. forces. After World War II, there was more still, including the decade long war in Vietnam. But through all this, the military leadership focused on conventional warfare, and deliberately ignored the valuable lessons learned in generations of irregular warfare. It was as if irregular warfare was considered an exception, and conventional warfare the only thing that mattered.

Another problem with irregular warfare is that, when these conflicts come along, the military establishment, and their political counterparts, proceed as if it's still peacetime. The military, especially those closest to the fighting, adopt a wartime mentality of urgency and immediacy. This causes friction with the military bureaucracy, who don't like to be hustled unless there is a national emergency they can identify with.

In a break with the past, the current senior leadership is at least contemplating adopting a different attitude towards irregular warfare. The military, especially the U.S. Army, has created a "lessons learned" organization that is capturing and preserving much of the experience gained in recent fighting. Thus, unlike the past, the battlefield knowledge will not be quickly lost, or at least buried. But the procurement and weapons development establishment is still willing to ditch this diversion into irregular warfare, and get back to preparing for the Big One.



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