War is changing. We must adapt and learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan

The US's military engine is running hot. The British army’s is nearing meltdown. NATO and its respective populations are war weary. Where next for the army?

In an address to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) last week, General Sir David Richards, the head of the British army, outlined his arguments for increasing the numbers of soldiers in the army in response to evidence that the very nature of war is changing.

He is right to do so.

75,000 British troops, from an army of more than 100,000, have already served one, two or even three tours in Afghanistan. Hidden within these figures, 25,000 infantrymen will have borne the brunt of more than ten years of warfare by the time the deployment begins to draw down.

During this period some infantry units have been deployed every other year.

The Unites States’ military engine is running hot. The British army’s is nearing meltdown. NATO and its respective populations are war weary.

Although ongoing ‘Transformation’ in the US Army and an impending Strategic Defence Review in Britain may address their core re-structuring issues in the medium term, in the short term, a period of rest and recuperation will be needed in the infantry if they are to remain fully operational.

If this need is fully conveyed by military staffs to policymakers – and that is not a given in a career and legacy-conscious organisation – the result should be a short term unwillingness to commit large numbers of conventional ground forces to emerging conflicts.

Much of this is due to the evidence from both the Second Gulf War and Afghanistan that the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), in its purest, populist form, is dead. Precision weapons have not stopped the need for the infantry to close with and kill the enemy in combat.

There will be no more wars and interventions without casualties, as in the First Gulf War and Kosovo; the rise of asymmetric ‘wars amongst the people’ coupled with the decline of inter-state warfare have ensured this.

The Weinberger/Powell doctrines that accompanied the RMA and blueprinted quick, clean, military interventions in inter-state conflicts are redundant. While Rumsfeld’s ‘shock and awe’, a synthesis of these doctrines, may deliver tactical victories, Iraq has proven that it cannot deliver strategic victory in conflict’s changed paradigm.

Faced with the overwhelming and precise use of military force in interventions, the west’s enemies now seek refuge amongst the populations. This is nothing new. As a counter-measure it has historic precedent. What is new is the west’s method of continuing to seek victory, despite unfavourable operating conditions, for forces mainly configured to fight conventional wars.

In the US, Generals such as Petreaus and McChrystal have recognised this and adapted accordingly. They argue that the army can deliver strategic victory in wars amongst the people. Their population-centric strategies require infantry intensive forces and massive resourcing over protracted periods.

But evidence from Iraq and Afghanistan indicates that nation building itself is still beyond the scope of both western militaries and the political will of their masters. Such grandiose aims must be tempered to protecting the space within which national institutions, aided by deployable civilian experts, can grow, and on the training of indigenous security forces.

This is a more realistic mission but remains incredibly intensive in manpower, resources, funding, time and political will.

Thus, involvement in these ‘wars amongst the people’ holds greater risks for policy makers than ever before. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are not to get involved militarily if at all possible, because intervention will be lengthy and costly.

This is precisely what the Weinberger/Powell doctrines and ‘shock and awe’ were designed to avoid. They have failed. In war, there is no simple, safe, quick template answer anymore.

This does not mean the RMA in its wider form is dead. On the contrary, the military is wise to continue investing heavily in developing technologies that give the infantry an edge over an asymmetric enemy. Advances in drones, body armour, sighting devices and surveillance systems are force multipliers for the infantryman on the ground.

Evidence suggests interventions are different in each circumstance and require bespoke military training and resources. Therefore, both doctrinally and structurally, forces need to remain flexible and self critical. Britain lags behind the US in this regard.

In a recent address to a higher command course, the army’s next generation of leaders, a British general allegedly surmised his brief with the words ‘Basically, the army’s fucked for the next ten to fifteen years. Get on with it.’ At least some see through the facade, and General Richards’s observations contribute to the growing need for debate within the British army and the wider military.

As the Afghanistan deployment begins to draw down, the British army needs to reflect internally over what it has been good at and not so good at in the last ten years of fighting. Meanwhile, British policy makers need to reappraise their terms of, and aims for, the use of military force. Their decisions must be reflected in the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review.

Amongst other tough options, the Review offers cash strapped Britain stark choices between a light, specialist, expeditionary, sea-delivered force for short deployments or a heavier, more conventional force for longer deployments. In the past, faced with such strategic decisions, British policymakers have decided not to decide. This will not do this time around.

A decision must be made that takes heed of war’s changing paradigm. Our soldiers deserve nothing less.

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