Epic Landpower Fail: Lack of Strategic Understanding

The U.S. Army will not be very successful in the coming operating environment unless it develops a sense of strategic understanding in its officers (and senior non-commissioned officers). For the purposes of this essay, strategic understanding is defined here as: awareness, comprehension, and ability to communicate broad purpose for the use of force and the relationship between tactical action and national policy. Trends tell us two things that demand this characteristic: first, landpower is inherently attributional; second, the Regionally Aligned Forces model ensures that the American Army will go to more places, faster, in smaller numbers, than ever before. Inadequately preparing for these landpower trends will lead to both institutional and individual epic fail.

The Problem

Rosa Brooks recently conducted interviews at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait for the latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine (May/June 2014, p. 44). Ironically, it was raining while she was there, but that wasn’t the only striking thing about the discussions. Here’s a short selection from her experience:

“So what are you guys doing here?” I [Rosa Brooks] ask the young private next to me in line at the camp’s spacious Starbucks. “I mean, in Kuwait. What’s your mission here?”
He offers a sheepish shrug. “Got me, ma’am. That’s above my pay grade. I’m just trying to stay dry.”
“Ours not to wonder why, ours but to try and stay dry,” quips the lieutenant standing nearby, carefully maneuvering a lid onto his overflowing caramel latte.

This lieutenant’s response is a favorite in the officer corps, most likely due to its use by the infamous Corporal Oppum in Saving Private Ryan. I’ve actually heard it several times from cadets in the Military Strategy class I teach. In this case, the paraphrase of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was just a bit off — a more exact quotation would have been: “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.” Unfortunately, this line is often employed to propagate a great lie — that “the reason why” does not (or should not) matter to the uniformed military. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A depiction of bitter hand-to-hand fighting at Vicksburg, Miss., in 1861. Soldiers of the Fourth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment later played a crucial role in giving Union forces control of the war’s Western Theater. (AP)

“The reason why” matters, particularly in the landpower domain. For support, just spend some time with Civil War-era soldiers letters, as historian James McPherson did in his Lincoln Prize-winning book, For Cause and Comrades. In this case of sustained land conflict, morale mattered greatly in fueling unit effectiveness far beyond what most would predict. One review found that McPherson shows us “Confederate soldiers acted largely out of the conviction that they were defending rights and liberty, and that Union soldiers believed that self-government everywhere — and their own freedom in particular — depended upon upholding the Republic against division and anarchy.” Though this analysis of the American Civil War is not generalizable to all cases, this distinct sustained landpower combat provides a data point in favor of the importance of cause to armies.

Even if one remains skeptical — what follows are two facts about the contemporary landpower operating environment that ought to sway the uncommitted towards the importance of strategic understanding for all officers.

Sustained Landpower is Inherently Attributional

Consider the statement above in relation to the cyber domain, where attribution is either challenging or impossible. The most recent evidence comes from Russian intervention in Ukraine. It would be hard to imagine a more concerted effort to veil sustained landpower operations (which the Russians call Maskirova or “disguised warfare”). President Vladimir Putin continues to claim “There are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine.” This military deception may have been believable in another era, but Ukraine has called President Putin’s bluff with the release of photographs proving that Russian special forces are operating in Eastern Ukraine (see below).

Make no mistake, this is not mere anecdote — digital attribution ought to be considered the norm in an era in which “ten percent of all the pictures ever taken as of the end of 2011 were taken in 2011.” Everyone has a phone — so everyone has a camera — so everyone can be a land war correspondent. General Sir Rupert Smith is famous for describing modern warfare as “war amongst the people.” This phrase deserves an update; today, it is “war amongst all the people.”

Image Courtesy of The New York Times.

Landpower is Being Emplyed More Places, Faster, and in Smaller Numbers than Ever Before

In the Autumn 2013 edition of the U.S. Army War College journal Parameters,Brigadier General Kim Field (with two co-authors) wrote to describe “Regionally Aligned Forces” (RAF): “RAF is the [Chief of Staff of the Army’s] initiative for aligning Army capabilities to an expanded set of requirements for the Joint Force — post-2014.” In short, this means lower-level units will increase focus on the Army’s “shaping” mission and have closer habitual relationships with the geographic combatant commands.

Two examples were cited as emblematic of the new program: 2nd Brigade, First Infantry Division’s allocation to U.S. Africa Command, which has resulted in 79 missions in more than 30 countries from March to September 2013. Drilling down to the lowest level, consider the recent training mission to Niger. It was significantly smaller (22 people) and shorter (10 weeks) than the standard troop rotation of the past decade. As the paper concluded, this mission is “indicative of the new operating environment” and “proved popular as junior leaders were empowered to command.”

Sgt. 1st Class Grady Hyatt, U.S. Army Africa, leads an after-action review with soldiers of the Ghana Army, following training. The Army aligned the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, with U.S. Africa Command. The unit will serve for a year as the go-to force for AFRICOM. (U.S. Army Photo)

The Army intends to change the strategic context in which soldiers operate — at a faster pace than in previous eras. This becomes common sense after a quick glance at succeeding American military generations in major interventions: great grandpa deployed to fight one enemy (Imperial Germany); grandpa may have fought two (Germany/Japan — Korea); dad may have fought three or four (Vietnam — Gulf War — Bosnia/Kosovo — Iraq/Afghanistan); RAF likely expands this number further. Beyond the total, the conflicts, countries, cultures, geographies, missions and national interests will shift more rapidly.

When the strategic context moves, mistakes are more likely and will be broadcast to the world. The Army’s tactical doctrine for “mission command” is not enough — a sense of strategic understanding provides the balance necessary to be successful in this Rubik’s Cube of shifting environments.

RAF and Sustained Landpower Demands Strategic Understanding

Come back to the lieutenant in Kuwait. Whether he meant his comment as a joke or not will likley never be known (perhaps someone should ask Rosa Brooks). Either way, his response indicates a serious ambivalence to cause (“ours not to wonder why”). This is the professional compass of the mercenary. Most readers will not care about or be disturbed by this point, however, it seems the U.S. Army ought to be concerned.

But the organization need not worry for the sake of one sarcastic, expensive flavored-coffee drinking lieutenant. This is bigger: the U.S. Army will not be very successful in the coming operating environment unless it develops leaders with a sense of strategic understanding — both RAF and the ability to conduct sustained landpower missions are at stake.

Matthew Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army Strategist and editor of the WarCouncil.org, where this blog was originally posted. The views expressed belong to the author alone and do not represent the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Image courtesy of Life Magazine and the Modern War Institute (Vietnam History in Pictures).