How Much Learning is Enough?

Col Gian Gentile‘s piece on ‘The Death of the Armour Corps‘ for the Small Wars Journal has reignited the discussion of how the US military’s focus on counterinsurgency is crowding out its traditional priorities and capabilities. At this point in the debate, most people recognise the need to strike some sort of balance, which is a common platform of sorts even if it does not get us very far (for where is the balance to be struck?). Still, it is an important discussion — and readers may be interested in the informed exchanges over at Small Wars Journal, or the reactions to Gian Gentile’s piece over at Wings over Iraq and The Best Defence.

In general, however, this is a topic prone to certain analytical and methodological pitfalls. More specifically, it is very difficult to say with any confidence whether or not the US military, or any military for that matter, is sufficiently, overly, or inadequately geared toward counterinsurgency. Why?

1) What is counterinsurgency? Because the concept can be understood in so many ways, even training that is ostensibly for counterinsurgency can be entirely unrelated to its stated aim, something alluded to in a previous post.

2) How is one to measure extant counterinsurgency capabilities? In the amount of hours devoted to counterinsurgency in specific curricula, or in the conduct of effective counterinsurgency operations in theatre? Is a military only good at counterinsurgency once it succeeds in counterinsurgency operations? Given the difficulty of such operations, this represents a potentially open-ended commitment to train for and study counterinsurgency.

And if the conduct of operations is the chosen metric, how does one separate the tactical or operational performance of various units from the broader political context in which such operations take place, and which in many cases determine their level of success, however defined? Put differently, is failure in a counterinsurgency campaign due to a lack of relevant training and education, or due to factors very much beyond the control of military academies and training centres?

3) The size of the US military in particular means that evidence both for and against a greater emphasis on COIN can readily be found. Anecdotal evidence is particularly convenient in this regard, and in my own research, I have been struck by how attempts to reconcile such ‘evidence’ can lead to very contradictory, almost schizophrenic, findings. One person will cite almost constant attention to stability operations in training and education; another will complain that the focus was on Fulda Gap-type manoeuvres, with little emphasis on the ‘human terrain’ or other ‘non-military’ aspects of ongoing campaigns. The sample space is just too big.*

4) Muddying the waters further, the discussion has become farcically polarised, undermining attempts to arrive at a common perception of current capabilities and capability gaps. Pride, parochial interests and previous positions have often turned the discussion into one of proving your camp right.

5) If we can’t figure out where the balance between disparate priorities currently resides due to the issues noted above, what are the chances of determining whether that balance should move slightly to the right or left? Without some consensus on the former, discussions of the latter are impossible (cart before the horse, etc).

Does this mean that the conversation should not be had. Absolutely not, but it requires greater specificity, a little less subjectivity and far more consensus as to where our priorities currently are, and where they should rightly be. More easily said than done. Still, maybe the next QDR, right…?

Another way forward is to think less of ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘conventional combat’ as diametrically opposed concepts. Too often, categories such as these are trotted out as if they have a rarefied equivalent out there in the real world. A better form of analysis may be to ask:

  • what are the features of the contemporary operating environment;
  • what are the skill-sets and capabilities required to meet the challenges presented by this environment; and
  • which of these skill-sets and capabilities should reside within the armed forces?

The approach is not particularly new: a similar tack was taken in the US Army’s recent Capstone Concept Paper, and to good effect. For me, this type of analysis suggests the enduring relevance of many of the capabilities and skill-sets learned as part of the recent reorientation toward counterinsurgency — particularly for future operations conducted in towns and cities, against non-state armed groups, among civilian populations, or to build host-nation capability. Still, borrowing again from the Capstone Concept, perhaps another area that requires special emphasis is adaptability: if the danger is not being prepared, or preparing for the wrong contingency, adaptability will be key to mitigating these shortcomings as they emerge.


* That is not to say that anecdotal evidence is not useful or important. To the contrary — and there is a lot of shared experiences in the comments section to Tom Ricks’ recent blog post on this matter that deserves close reading. The point is that anecdotal evidence, on aggregate, is often contradictory and unless analysed carefully, a dangerous foundation from which to draw conclusions.