FORT BELVOIR: Under the shadow of sequestration and a Navy/Air Force-dominated “Pacific Pivot,” representatives of the Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command met to discuss the future of what they’re calling “strategic landpower.”
Before I sat in on the first session of the conference, I’d thought “strategic landpower” boiled down to the conventional “Big Army” trying to yoke the politically more popular Special Operations Command and Marine Corps into a common argument for the continued relevance of ground forces, even in a post-Afghanistan era many see as dominated by high-tech air, sea, space, and cyber power. I was half-right.
I was right about the Marine Corps: There were remarkably few Marines in the meeting room at the Fort Belvoir Officers’ Club, and they were on the whole remarkably silent. If you’re familiar with mid-grade Marine officers, who tend to be outspoken warrior-humanists, the idea of them not leaping feet-first into a discussion of the military art is unsettling.
But while Marine leaders want to do right by the Army, with whom they’ve fought shoulder-to-shoulder for the last 12 years, at least some Marines are uneasy that embracing “strategic landpower” may hobble their longed-for return to seaborne operations. They are also uneasy that “strategic landpower” is often seen as an counterargument to “Air-Sea Battle,” the favorite concept of their parent service, the Navy. (“This had nothing to do with Air-Sea Battle, just to be clear,” said one Army officer wearily after I raised the subject. “Air-Sea Battle is a good idea.”) So everything I saw today reinforced my sense that the Marine Corps, collectively, is conflicted about Gen. Odierno’s effort.
Not so SOCOM. Officers from the Army slice of Special Operations Command were a numerous and outspoken lot on Monday afternoon — so outspoken, in fact, that when conference administrators warned there was a reporter in the room (me) and reminded everyone that all comments were not for attribution, the ranking special operator spoke up at once:
“I don’t believe in non-attribution,” said Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, the director of force management and development at SOCOM and a co-host of the conference. “Anything I say I stand behind,” he said. “You can quote me.”
The veteran special operator was well worth quoting. For example, when one participant said the strategic landpower effort was created in large part to institutionalize a decade of improvements since 9/11, such as better interservice cooperation and new skills in working with local populations, Sacolick — who was present at the creation of the concept — bluntly said, that’s wrong.
“It wasn’t built on 10 years of kumbayah on the battlefield; it was built on 10 years of frustration [and] not working together properly,” Sacolick said. “It wasn’t 10 years of wonderful success. It was 10 years of abject failure that we don’t want to repeat.”
“There is too much self-congratulatory talk,” agreed RAND scholar Linda Robinson, who also gave me permission to quote her by name. “Looking at everything that has happened over the last decade until now, we are not good enough at ‘shape and influence'” — the military terms for getting people, groups, and governments to do what we want without having to shoot at them first.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, said Sacolick, “most of our successes on both those fronts came not from shooting people but from talking to them…. living with people and talking to them in their native language.” That said, he added bluntly, soft-speaking won’t be taken seriously unless you have the proverbial big stick to back it up. “What makes my guys effective in Afghanistan is not their diplomatic skills, quite frankly,” he said. “It’s the threat of force.”
Historically, the conventional “big Army” has been all about the big stick, while the Special Forces were about speaking softly in the local language (and still shooting people when they had to). Having become deeply interdependent in Afghanistan and Iraq, the special and conventional soldiers are now converging on a concept called, tentatively, “the human domain.”
It’s the idea that long-term strategic success comes, not from blowing stuff up until the enemy surrenders, but from figuring out how other people think so we can influence their actions. The means of influence range from building schools to giving bribes to, yes, blowing things up — but only carefully chosen things.
“We went into Iraq with a target list and an order of battle [and] zero appreciation for the complexities of the human domain, the environment, that we were about to step into,” said one Army participant. “Others did, and it was dismissed.” The conventional military was wildly successful at destroying its list of targets and routing Iraqi units, he went on, but that turned out not to be enough. As a result, he said, the story of 2003 was “statue falls, high five, we’re done — oh, not so much.”
“We didn’t understand,” he repeated.
Destroying a particular target is a complicated but solvable problem of physics. Defeating a formal unit is a more complex but well-studied question of military art. It’s massively more complex — a “wicked problem” — to anticipate the reactions of an entire society, or even understanding them swiftly enough to realize what’s happening, such as an insurgency, before it’s too late.
Strategically, that failure to understand the human factor is the root of the “abject failure” that the Army, Marines, and SOCOM are determined not to repeat. Politically, because humans live on land and are best understood through face-to-face interaction with other humans on the ground, emphasizing human factors is central to the argument that ground forces remain relevant. And institutionally for Special Operations, which is all about face-to-face interaction with foreigners, it would be a big boost in status to have formal, doctrinal recognition that there is a “human domain” of war.
Or something to that effect: “I’m not crazy about the term ‘human domain,'” said Maj. Gen. Sacolick. But whatever we formally call the human factors, he said, “it’s got to be a planning consideration whenever we do anything.” Even when you’re not doing counterinsurgency, humanitarian relief, or peacekeeping, even when you’re simply deploying conventional forces in a conventional conflict, “maneuver has to be more than moving from point A to point B,” he said, “[because] there’s ten zillion non-combatants in between.”
“It’s got to be a planning consideration,” Sacolick repeated, “[but] we’re not doing it, we’re not teaching our junior officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers].”
Institutionalizing an appreciation for civilians and non-state actors is a huge challenge for an Army that still idolizes the heroes of World War II, the ultimate state-on-state conventional conflict. West Point itself was founded as a school for engineers, not social scientists.
Especially given sequestration, said one participant, it’s hard to get funding for linguistic, cultural, and socio-economic training when major weapons programs are coming up short: If we can’t make the case for human factors, he said, “it’ll all devolve to pure lethal [means]; our own culture will kill us.”
But as guerrillas, terrorists, and “hybrid” adversaries wage “war amongst the people” on fast forward with cell phones, social media, and the global internet, the Army cannot safely focus on big guns and big armies.
“This is such an existential challenge for the Army,” said Linda Robinson. “It has to face that it is a hierarchical institution that’s really been perfected for one kind of warfare and it’s not that successful against the network of amorphous threats….This is a big challenge for what kind of organization the Army must become.”