Wednesday, August 6, 2008

US Army and Iraq: Lessons for India

"The US Army and Iraq: the Unexpected Transformation, and its Lessons for India" By J. Price


Ralphy said...

Insurgency didn't win the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong were virtually finished after the '68 Tet offensive. After that, it was prcatically all NVA who infiltrated via the Ho Chi Minh trail. The NVA attempted to defeat S. Vietnam in '71 or '72 (I can't remember which year) by using conventional tactics (tanks artillary, etc.) and they were soundly defeated by a combination of US and S. Vietnamese forces. The introduction of the Tow missile system in that conflict showed that a tank invasion could be stopped. After all US forces left S. Vietnam in 1973, the NVA again invaded in 1975 with conventional forces and won the war because the US Congress had cut off all assistance to that country.

After the Vietnam war it was decided that the Soviet military was the main foe and therefore all US ground force development was directed to that perceived threat. That included a new tank, multiple launch rocket systems, new helicopters and a new airforce jet (the A-10) that could destroy a numerically superior Soviet foe. Oddly enough, this was started during the Carter presidency, not the Reagan presidency as is widely thought today. The rest is history for the European theater.

The US military is rather unique. It alone at the moment, has the mission to mount global expedtions. From scratch. Thus, it's army divisions are mostly composed of support troops and logistical efforts. An infantry division has about 3,500 combat troops but the division in total may have anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 troops depending on the mission. In summary, the US land forces are high tech, highly logistical and expedtionary oriented.

Insurgency is a weapon for the weak. It must be fought politically in order to win. Military alone can't do it. there are no conventional forces to defeat. Usually when the insurgents get larger than a platoon in size in a skirmish they are slaughtered by a combination of air power and/or pre-positioned artillary(although there are exceptions). I would remind everyone that in Vietnam, the US rarely lost any skimish at the company size level or larger, although again there were occasional exceptions.

As it now stands, the US military is not deemed domestically as a political force. It is firmly controlled by civilian politicians. The US military does not like political solutions which is what must be used to beat an insurgancy. They are warriors. They want the warrior solution. It is what comes natural to them. Therefore its leadership has to change from a helmet to a baseball cap in order to deal with an insurgency. And that takes a determined shift of psychology in order to accomplish.

So I am not sure what lesson you want India to take from all of this.

J. Price said...

Hi Ralphy,

- There's no question that South Vietnam fell to conventional PVA assault rather than insurgency.

However, there's also no question that the conventional US Army failed in the pacification role. The CIA's CORDS programme, Special Forces CIDG, the Marine's CAP programmes all had real successes.

The regular US Army just wasnt interested in fighting that way. It instead chose the politically disastrous and militarily misguided route of attrition against the VC. Enemy-centric rather than population-centric strategy; conventional means against an unconventional foe.

- The US Army until recently was geared to fight big wars, really really big wars.

Its speed of deployment, for example in Kosovo was entirely unacceptable to those it served. The result has been a shift t the operational level from building ground force components around divisions, to building them around brigade combat teams.

That doesnt even address the broader issue - armies do not chose what kinds of wars they can prepare for. They must instead prepare to respond to the range of situations that their political masters will call them to address.

And yet that is exactly what the US Army had stubbornly done, focussing on largescale conventional warfare despite pressure from Kennedy onwards to prepare for the full spectrum of conflict, from peacekeeping to counterinsurgency.

This was tolerated because the political and strategic leadership of this country hoped that the kind of irregular conflicts seen in Vietnam or Somalia were the exception rather than the norm. Wrong.

- The lessons for India are primarily in how to balance the demands between preparedness for both conventional and unconventional warfare, and what can happen if things swing too far one way or another. It has to be communicated to the political class that without sustained, balanced spending you can well end up with the capability to excel at only half of the kinds of wars one needs to fight.

Y I Patel said...

Mr Price is very correct in outlining that the transformation in Iraq came about through a fundamental rethinking of the strategy for stabilizing Iraq, a strategy whose implementation required introduction of greater number of American forces through the surge.

The rethinking involved moving away from fighting the insurgents and AQ-I terrorists to making them irrelevant by promoting security and stability. Thus, the shift from an enemy-centric to a population-centric strategy. It is no coincidence that the new commander in Afghanistan, Gen McChrystal, is now elevating the same principle of protecting the population as his first priority.

In practice, US forces relied on their 24/7 presence in population centers through small outposts, treatment of locals as potential allies rather than probable enemies, and continuous foot patrols as opposed to indulging in clockwork armoured vehicle patrols and sweeps mounted from large, fortress like bases.

This shift in the conduct of operations is in itself a valuable lesson for India, even if serves to reinforce lessons learned from India's own long and hard experience with insurgencies and terrorist movements.

Mr Price is familiar with India's conduct of counter-terrorist operations, and therefore he probably did not expand on this aspect as much as he could (or should) have. Another important question that he left partially unanswered is how this changed strategy required a far greater number of soldiers (thus, The Surge). While his point on importance of maintaining adequate force levels is very well taken, it would be very educative to hear from him how a greater number of US soldiers was (and is) necessary in order to achieve America's objectives in Iraq and beyond. How did lack of adequate numbers hamper previous operations? Would anything be done differently or better had more units been available, or had been made available earlier than they were?

One big question about the implementation of the new strategy is the need to rely on militias for promoting stability. While this has worked in the short term, it has opened up a longer term possibility for a sustained civil war once US forces leave Iraq. Was this reliance born out of desperation? Would US have been able to achieve the same objectives with greater assurance of long term stability, had it been able to call on its own soldiers rather than Iraqi militias to provide the additional boots on ground? And going forward, will the continuing shortage of American land forces hamstring operations in Afghanistan?

Indian authorities would do well to ponder on the issues Mr Price has raised. There have been calls by some highly regarded analysts like Mr Ashley Tellis, advising India to improve on its force posture by cutting back on numbers. Mr Price's article serves as an invaluable antidote to such well-meaning but misguided notions. India should certainly not let go of its principal source of strength - the enormous reach and staying power granted its security forces by their size.