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Iraq and Afghanistan have forced the American military to begin to think about 21st century warfare in a realistic way. Post-cold-war, the military gave lip service to the idea of reforming and rewriting how it fought wars, but actually continued down the same conventional path it had before. They talked about transformation but rarely backed up that talk. One of the ways in which that mindset was reinforced and perpetuated was in who got promoted (especially to the most senior ranks) and the doctrine put forth as the official way of war.

Thus, to be promoted in the Army, it was much better to have come from the Armor branch than the Special Forces. The former excelled at conventional war, while the latter focused more on counterinsurgency. As one army officer said “Everyone studies the brigadier-general promotion list like tarot cards — who makes it, who doesn’t. It communicates what qualities are valued and not valued.” [See here ] A most telling sign was the initial failure of H.R. McMaster to be promoted from Colonel to Brigadier General. McMaster, a University of North Carolina Ph.D, had led an effective counterinsurgency campaign in Tal Afar in the early days of the Iraq War. He was widely seen as a protege of General David Petraeus. But he was passed over twice for promotion from Colonel to Brigadier General, a message that other Army officers received loud and clear: “When you turn down a guy like McMaster that sends a potent message to everybody down the chain…the message everybody gets is: ‘We’re not interested in rewarding people like him. We’re not interested in rewarding agents of change.” [See here] That was it why the frequent publicity about General Petraeus and his emphasis on counterinsurgency in Iraq was somewhat been misleading. Though Petraeus lead an effective counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, the issue of whether those lessons got incorporated into the military mindset remained open.

But then something interesting happened. In 2007, the Pentagon appointed Petraeus to head the promotion board, essentially sending a message to the Army that the traditional ways were not acceptable. That led to the promotion of H.R. McMaster (and a number of other Colonels whose expertise was in counterinsurgency) to brigadier general. Essentially, the civilian leadership of the military was forcing the military to adjust to new realities, despite a fair amount of resistance.

And today we see more of this play out. McMaster has now been given the job of rewriting the Army’s Capstone Document, essentially how the Army views the future wars it will wage. The document was last rewritten in 2005 and was resolutely conventional:

The previous Army Capstone Concept was written in 2005 by now retired Maj. Gen. David Fastabend, who was a strategic adviser to Gen. David Petraeus during the 2007 surge in Iraq. Fastabend is an extremely smart guy. The 2005 document suffered, however, by giving irregular warfare short shrift and emphasizing the “aerial blitzkrieg” forcible entry concept and the “see-first, shoot-first” idea of perfect situational awareness. Both theoretical concepts were tied closely to the Future Combat System (FCS) program. FCS was to provide the Army with a better protected and more lethal forcible entry option than the 82nd Airborne; the “vertical mounted maneuver” idea runs throughout the 2005 document. So too does the “information dominance” notion. It says advances in sensors and networks will “enable transition to a force protection and survivability model no longer as dependant on the heavy armor and passive protection that characterizes modern mechanized forces.” The past eight years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have challenged both notions.

McMaster’s role in rewriting this Capstone Document is very much a sign that the Army that learned from Iraq is in the ascendancy, at least for now. Interestingly, McMaster appears to be trying to defuse the tension between conventional and counterinsurgency advocates altogether by using language that seems to privilege neither:

We have to be able to defeat the enemy, conduct security operations, and also conduct a broad range of activities while conducting stability operations – and be able to transition continuously across the spectrum of offensive, defensive, stability and civil-support operations

By emphasizing the “spectrum” of conflict, McMaster seems to me to be giving comfort to everyone in the argument and saying that their particular area will be nurtured. He was, apparently, more direct in a recent talk:

I heard McMaster speak at a Washington DC event recently where he said the ongoing debate within the Army between those who say the service must prepare for major combat operations and those who argue irregular wars are the future is a false one. Future opponents will not allow the U.S. military to define wars as it sees fit. All wars are different, so too are the lessons, and rapid adaptation is the key. He said the U.S. military takes an engineer’s approach to developing solutions to warfare, but the enemy typically does not; war is art, not science.

The doctrinal rewrite comes immediately before the Quadrennial Defense Review, a every-four-year Defense Department look at how America views the world and its security situation. McMaster’s discussion of a “spectrum” of combat echoes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ invocation for the 2010 QDR:

The strategy strives for balance…between trying to prevail in current conflicts and preparing for other contingencies, between institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and foreign military assistance and maintaining the United States’ existing conventional and strategic technological edge against other military forces

Gates’ hand in all this has been critical in forcing the services to confront something resembling reality, the Army not least of all. It has been, sadly, a radical concept that the military should aim to win the wars it is currently fighting and be ready to fight similar wars in the future; radical, but ultimately essential.

See also these earlier articles: 1, 2.