Afghanistan 2050: Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time

In fiscal 2010, the U.S. government will spend between $880 billion and $1.03 trillion dollars on defense (depending upon how you finagle the numbers). This is, in a much ballyhooed percentage, around half of the world’s known defense spending. It is also between 6% and 7% of the $14,597.7 trillion U.S. GDP (as of the second quarter of 2010).

The United States of America has a population ~301,237,703 (give or take a few million). The U.S. Department of Defense directly employs ~700,000 civilians, ~1,418,542 active duty military personnel, ~1,458,500 reserve duty personnel, and who knows how many contractors. The U.S. has ~72,715,332 men and ~71,638,785 women of military age (between the ages of 18-49). Of these, an estimated ~59,413,358 men and ~59,187,183 women are actually fit for military service. An estimated ~2,186,440 men and ~2,079,688 women reach the usual minimum military age of 18 every year. The Selective Service has information on ~15 million men between 18 and 25 years of age, the first cohort that would eligible for conscription if a draft was reinstated.

The percentage of U.S. military personnel classifiable as combat personnel was about 25% of all forces engaged in Iraq in 2005. Very very very crudely applying the same percentage to the above manpower numbers, this means that the U.S. has about ~354,635 active and ~364,625 reserve combat personnel for a grand total of ~719,260 combat personnel. If we figure that only ~12.15 million (81%) of the 15 million men in the Selective Service database are fit for military service and that 100% were drafted (!), that would add another ~3.03 million combat personnel (25%). If we further strain credulity and expand that to the full ~59,413,358 males fit for military service and conscripted 100% of them (!!!), it would produce an additional ~14,853,339 combat personnel. There would be about ~546,610 replacements available yearly assuming 100% of young men eligible for military service were drafted, about a ~3% possible replacement rate annually.

Given even a conservative reading of such information and ignoring such small obstacles as resource constraints, political reality, or public opinion, why is it that so many defense commentators suggest that the United States military, especially the U.S. Army, can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?

I’ve referenced this podcast by the distinguished soldier and military commenter Col. Douglas Macgregor (ret.) before. Macgregor, who served in Armor, talks about the U.S. Army’s light infantry and its patron saint Lt. Gen. David “Make No Waves” Petreaus as if it was a mortal enemy of the Armor (as opposed to a real enemy like the U.S. Navy or U.S. Air Force). Counter-insurgency (COIN) in this world view is primarily a conspiracy by the light infantry to direct resources away from the Armor in order to kill it. On the other side of the debate, you have COIN advocates who labor under the impression that high intensity warfare is as dead as disco.

Even if disco came pouring through the Fulda Gap.

My question as an American taxpayer interested in getting the most bang for my defense dollar is this: why are we having this discussion at all? I’m no expert but, given the full range of active and possible threats that this nation faces, don’t we have a need for both high intensity capabilities like armor, motorized infantry, and artillery as well as low intensity capabilities like light infantry? Is it so hard to carve out the necessary resources necessary to sustain both high intensity and low intensity capabilities? Isn’t the logical solution to have some formations dedicated to maintaining high intensity combat skills and other formations dedicated to maintaining low intensity combat skills?

Before he turned to the dark side, Marshal Pétain summed up twentieth century warfare as “artillery conquers, infantry occupies”. This suggests a logical division of responsibilities for any post-World War I land force based on the more general principle that “fire conquers, infantry occupies”. The late Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie wrote in his classic Military Strategy that:

The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

In Wylie’s conception, control ranged from suasion through diplomacy to complete destruction. In a narrower military sense, destruction is a form of control and occupation is a form of control. Consequently, in war you try to control two human targets:

  • you control the fighting enemy i.e. enemy control
  • you control the target population i.e. population control

Last time I checked, every military in history has attempted to control both targets to whatever degree they select. Wylie himself made four assumptions about military strategy (as summarized by the mighty NerveAgent):

1. There may be a war, despite all efforts to prevent it. The reasoning behind this point should be self-explanatory, but alas, liberal internationalists consistently fail to grasp it.
2. The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy. This is one of Wylie most important points. With it, he explains the strategic object of war itself, above the operational focus of the Clausewitzian dictum of disarming the enemy. After all, as Clausewitz himself acknowledges, destroying the enemy’s army is a means to an end. The end is control. What “control” is will differ depending on the war itself and the value judgements of the parties involved. For the West, control usually involves the defeated being accepted back into the world community, but not as a threat.
3. We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves. Wylie would certainly take issue with all the rhetoric today that would have the U.S. abandon “obsolete Cold War thinking” in favor strategies geared primarily for irregular warfare. His point is that strategists must be provided with all the necessary tools from which they can craft plans to deal with individual contingencies, especially if official U.S. policy is to have full-spectrum capabilities.
4. The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This acknowledges that, if all else has failed, only land power can impose control upon the enemy.

Assumption four is particularly important. The man on the scene with the gun, whether that gun is an M4 carbine or a M256 tank gun, determines military outcomes. There are trade offs between different weapon systems and the training and organization needed to support them. Parking an M1A2 on every street corner is a less efficient form of resource consumption than parking a man with an M4 on every corner. There are other kinds of trade offs between the major forms of control and they shift as political, strategic, and tactical factors shift. For most of U.S. history, the U.S. Army has been somewhat Manichean in its tactical thinking: it’s either all one form of control with accouterments or all of the other. From 1775 to 1940, with brief exceptions, the U.S. Army focused almost exclusively on population control as a sort of heavily armed constabulary. Since 1940, it’s been almost exclusively focused on enemy control.

A major thread of recent American tactical thinking was a switch from manpower intensive tactics to firepower intensive tactics. The use of American infantry as cannon fodder in frontal charges during the Civil War and World War II was replaced with an emphasis on indirect fires and tactical air power in the spirit of Pétain. The U.S. Army from 1940 to the period of reform following Vietnam could be described as indifferently trained infantry coupled with the world’s best artillery and tactical air power. After this, however, the general quality of American infantry rose.

This emphasis on firepower was great until the enemy shifted tactics to counter them. Western and, to a certain extent, U.S. opinion shifted from the Lieber Optimum towards the more tactically problematic Protocol I Expectation. These shifts changed fortification design from:


The art of defending against Western attacks became as much a matter of cinematography as a matter of military engineering. A cheap motion picture/video or picture camera often had equal or greater effectiveness against a Western opponent than more expensive, explicitly weaponized technologies. Given deep domestic splits over war and its messy effects within the United States, this created a strategically enticing potential rift within any American war effort for any American opponent.

The American military responded to this new softer form of fortification by fielding organizations, training, and weaponry designed to apply firepower with pinpoint precision. This was supposed to reduce the blowback that bad publicity resulting from the massive casualties caused by superior American firepower. Unfortunately, it’s merely created a situation where any collateral damage resulting from American firepower is considered a terrible aberration and doubly condemned because of the contrast between the clinical image of modern American warfare and the more problematic reality. The result has been a move away from an emphasis on firepower towards an emphasis on the use of more intensive manpower with the hopefully lighter touch of the man on the ground with a rifle.

Col. Gian Gentile, another of our distinguished roundtable participants, has made the case that a shift to low intensity combat skills has eroded high intensity combat skills. This is part of a larger stressing of the force that has taken place over the past twenty years. The root cause is that America has the firepower to destroy a large country, the heavy forces to invade a medium country, and the manpower to occupy a small country. Firepower was supposed to replace manpower but many of the wars America has found itself in have not been firepower friendly. No adjustment has been made to compensate for this shift. Consequently, there is a strategic disconnect between the means available and the goals envisioned during this era of interventions.

While the ultimate resolution of this is political, from a general strategic perspective it’s logical to prepare for a full spectrum of possible threats. The United States needs a range of options between the extremes of high intensity forces and low intensity forces. Armor, motorized infantry, or artillery formations should not be seen as a source of potential light infantry replacements to be tapped as soon as dedicated light infantry formations reach maximum utilization. On the other hand, the existence of light infantry formations specializing in population control and its specialized variants like pacification, COIN, or law enforcement should not be seen as a threat to heavier formations.

To govern is to choose and choices must be made since power is finite while service agendas are infinite. But the radical Manicheanism between enemy control and population control that has found America caught between the extremes of a constabulary dedicated to population control facing a conventional opponent like in 1861, 1917, or 1950 or a conventional military facing an irregular opponent like in 1964, 1993, 2001, or 2003 should end.

There is no way to know the future, as Wylie pointed out in his third assumption. America’s military past provides few ironclad lessons except this one: be prepared. Some preparation is necessary or America’s wars will, as they so often have, start off badly and get a lot of young Americans killed. It seems that the selective amnesia of American military, with its wild shifts back and forth between population control and enemy control, is not an optimal solution. Maintaining balance by institutionalizing Big War Thought in Big Army formations and institutionalizing Small War Thought in Small War formations seems to be a much better solution. Fewer American soldiers will die of intentionally induced cognitive dissonance.

Render unto enemy control the things that are enemy control’s and render unto population control the things that are population control’s.

[Cross-posted at the Committee of Public Safety]

2 thoughts on “Afghanistan 2050: Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time”

  1. We can win 20 wars, if 18 are nuclear. We can do terrible, horrible things. We can chew gum and walk at the same time. But right now, one of those things, one of those amazing things we are doing is conducting operations in the field on a huge scale and with historically tiny casualties. Nobody else can do this. It is a unique capability both now and in history. What you are seeking is not that we do two styles of warfare that compete with each other for resources both material and mindshare but also operate both of them at levels that are so high that nobody else in the world can dream of keeping up.

    The professionals are not sure that it can be done. They’re pretty sure that the Congress won’t appropriate the money to get it done. And they know that if they try to do too much the give point is going to be on casualty figures. In peace-time we’re going to cut out the training necessary to keep casualties low. We’ll have a force that looks good on paper but it won’t be able to maintain the record low casualty figures we can do now. The professionals don’t want to be responsible for that.

  2. I’ve been reading some old books on military strategy lately. Vegetius, De Saxe, Frederick the Great and Napoleon all seemed comfortable with the notion of needing different types of troops for different roles. What do our generals think they know that they did not?

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