March 1, 2010  

Expeditionary ethos

Shifts in global security landscape demand changes in force posture

The geo-strategist Halford McKinder once divided major states between Land and Sea Wolves. States that have an expeditionary capability are not limited to either/or status. They crossbreed their wolf packs to swim if needed and conduct operations ashore far from home when called upon. This expeditionary capability allows a state to apply strategic leverage across the physical domains. Most critically, expeditionary capabilities allow powers to deal with or minimize geographical and environmental constraints. Expeditionary forces allow maritime powers the opportunity to exploit their mastery of the seas to their advantage. Equally important, expeditionary forces can help offset the disadvantages of a purely maritime-based approach and provide even Continental Elephants the ability to project power when their interests are served by that capability.

The confluence of three ongoing “pivots” will impact the frequency and amplitude of conflict in the coming decades. Demographics and the certain shift to the urbanized littorals of the globe is one pivot. Emergent powers, especially on the Eurasian heartland, are another. The growing demand for energy resources is the third. Our geostrategic future lies at the conjunction of these seemingly distinct shifts. MacKinder understood “the great wars of history … are the outcome, direct or indirect, of the unequal growth of nations, and that unequal growth … in large measure is the result of the uneven distribution of fertility and strategical opportunity upon the face of the globe.”

The unequal growth today and the uneven distribution of opportunity present daunting prospects for peace in the coming age. Responding to these diminishing prospects for peace is further complicated by the range of threats we face. The evolving character of modern conflict poses challenges that range from Thomas Friedman’s proverbial “super empowered individuals” to rising superpowers armed with nuclear weapons and the full panoply of advanced conventional capabilities.

It is a safe wager that war will always be with us. What is not a safe bet is the character and frequency of war. The causes, character and consequences of wars in the future will be influenced by many factors. Historical patterns and future trends point to shifts in the character and forms of warfare. Some of these shifts are captured by the interest in “new wars,” net wars, and “n-th generation” warfare. Most of these frameworks reflect an interest in novelty, overlook enduring elements of conflict and are short on prescriptions. A myopic focus on purely conventional threats leads us to dismiss rising challenges and the confluence of modes of conflict that led to 9/11. These two extremes should be avoided when trying to determine how to best posture U.S. forces to cover an expanding threat and mission spectrum in the 21st century.

The evolving character of conflict can be described in terms of traditional, irregular and combination. Each form poses its own degree of difficulty and corresponding risk.

å Traditional challenges. The potential for major interstate warfare has been low, and will remain a rare but ever-present element in the international system. The fashionable presumption that interstate conflict is a thing of the past should be dashed with a clear understanding of history and human nature. “Over the past two centuries,” Donald Kagan noted, “the only thing more common than predictions about the end of wars has been war itself.”

The occurrence of traditional state-on-state warfare, featuring the use of national armies and high-end weapons, has declined statistically. But it remains a distinct possibility and must still be regarded as a dangerous and enduring threat. I emphatically disagree with John Mueller’s idea about the obsolescence of major interstate conflict. Writing in the World Affairs Journal, he said that “war, as classically defined, may be in the process of becoming a matter mainly of historical interest.” He may be confident in this bold assertion, but there is an awful lot of history supporting Colin Gray’s conclusion that war is “a permanent feature of the human condition” that should not be ignored. Additionally, the expected proliferation of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons compels us to devote substantial resources to defense and to field forces that can operate in battlefields where an enemy’s use of such weapons cannot be dismissed.

å Irregular challenges. It is recognized that our overwhelming conventional war-fighting capability induces others to explore and employ what we consider to be irregular methods and tactics. Our adversaries will likely employ a variety of means against us. Among them, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, protracted irregular combat operations, and cyber subversion impose the greatest concern. Decentralized, self-reliant, innovative and networked groups will employ terrorism to threaten our interests at home and abroad.

The growing trend of violent, transnational extremism is today’s most prevalent destabilization factor. The ability of small transnational groups to exploit the globe’s modern infrastructure and disrupt the highly interdependent networks of finance, trade, communications, transportation and energy distribution cannot be underestimated.

Irregular wars cannot be ignored. It might be true, as Gray argues, that “mischief of irregular warfare pales into mere insignificance compared to the potential for harm that resides in great power antagonism.” But the mischievous are getting tools and techniques that raise the stakes. The more we seek to overlook the messy and frustrating realities of so-called “irregular warfare,” the more we are going to face this threat and pay a steep price for relearning old lessons.

å Combinations. The neat distinctions or intellectual bins we make between conventional and irregular warfare are useful, but only to a degree. The future portends potentially aggravating circumstances that will make the neat distinction between state and nonstate moot, and the delineation between conventional and irregular adversaries irrelevant. Thanks in part to globalization and the rapid transmission of ideas and technology, there is a recognizable fusion or blurring of regular and irregular modes of combat, into what might be called “combinational” or hybrid warfare.

Hybrid threats incorporate combinations of different modes of warfare including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder. These multimodal operations display a novel degree of operational and tactical fusion in time and space. They may confound purely conventional approaches and kinetic solutions, and may also foil today’s emphasis on population-centric counterinsurgency strategies.

Hence, the paradox facing us is that we must maintain the ability to wage successful campaigns against both large, conventionally armed states and their militaries, against widely dispersed terrorists, and everything in between — generally at great distance from our shores. Therefore, expeditionary warfare has a bright or at least active future. We must prepare for this broad range of operations including traditional interstate war and complex contingencies without extensive warning time or extended training. Thus, we must be smart about our force posture and lean toward the highly agile and multipurpose expeditionary force. We cannot be wedded to a particular way or mode of war — there will be no silver bullets or formulas for military success.

We should not delude ourselves that our interests can be secured by merely dominating the global commons far from or high above the heartland. Such dominance is a precondition to success, an enabling and critical function not to be confused with the means of securing those interests. For this we will need to dominate and maneuver within the contested zones, in the littorals and in the urbanized rim lands of those strategic areas where our interests are most at risk. This will require the ability to fight and when necessary slay our nation’s enemies. Make no mistake about it.

As retired British Lt. Gen. John Kiszely so eloquently put it, our military forces must be prepared for “a kaleidoscope of different types of operation, remarkably resistant to neatness in delineation.” We will be presented with problems that are intractable and circular with complex interdependences and where solving one part of the problem can lead to different problems, or make the whole problem greater. Thus the future augurs for a new expeditionary era and the development of expeditionary capabilities with some sense of urgency. This is not an expeditionary impulse, but an expeditionary imperative.

A number of shifts and implications can be deduced from the principal drivers and projected changes in the character of conflict. These shifts include:

å From a static posture of waiting at home for crises to erupt to a forward deployed or deployable expeditionary posture.

å From an emphasis on formal state allies to an ability to form fluid organizational arrangements and information-sharing practices with multiple partners.

å From this follows the need to shift from a military-centric model to more comprehensive approaches that are multi-agency enabled in order to bring in the appropriate skill sets.

å From wishing for open fields of green to expecting complex terrain to be the norm.

å From investing in mass/quantity/technology to quality and human factors, including language and cultural competence.

å From a myopic preoccupation with precision, spending billions to extort a few more centimeters of accuracy with a stand-off munition, to a keen degree of discrimination which emphasizes acumen and a wider range of lethal and nonmilitary capabilities.

å From an emphasis on attrition in the physical domain to effects that cut across all domains and incorporate the need to win the battle of the narrative, not just the tactical combats.

å From practicing combined arms with artillery and close-air support to combined actions that blend maneuver forces, stability resources, economic development and information activities.

å From just getting someplace fast via strategic speed for illusionary short wars to a greater degree of endurance and rotation base.

å From an American predisposition with stand-off warfare to close contact with our enemies who will frequently embed themselves among noncombatants.

å Clearly we no longer have the benefit of a hierarchal/rigid adversary and now must deal with Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales’ nontemplatable enemies.

å From an emphasis on training our muscles to education and preparing the officer corps for an age of uncertainty.

å From rigid linear operations to more fluid, nonlinear or distributed operations.

å From the proverbial “modern major general” to Gen. Charles Krulak’s strategic corporals and small unit leaders.

There are three of these shifts that deserve greater consideration, force posture, expeditionary partnering and the expeditionary mindset.

The most significant implication for modern military forces is force design and force posture. We cannot afford separate forces for distinct threat types, even with our economic base. We will not field a million-man land army, at least with an all-volunteer force. We need to obtain a balanced force that serves to deal with the likelihood and character of future conflict as best as we can determine. This requires a degree of strategic prudence and open-eyed risk management. Force versatility and adaptability will be at a premium.

Strategic balance can be obtained in many ways. At the risk of being labeled orthodox, what seems to balance the strategic risk, with expected resources for force size and procurement, is an emphasis on mobile medium forces that are qualitatively improved for expeditionary service. These forces will have to be prepared to confront the likely irregular insurgent, the more complex and operationally challenging hybrid threats, and prevail against more conventional adversaries. They will have to possess some heavy shock power. They will not have the comfortable luxury of optimizing their structure, equipment and training regimen to a predictable opponent or battlespace. They cannot be prepared for just for conventional or irregular adversaries — they will face both, and sometimes they will do so simultaneously. They must be adaptable, strategically and operationally, to the conditions on the ground, without 12 months of preparation or perfect intelligence.

Strategic adaptability and aggregate utility are obtained by investments in forces postured for prompt expeditionary service across a fairly significant range of the conflict spectrum. Expeditionary forces, possessing both the maneuverist approach and the expeditionary mindset, posture our forces in such a way as to maximize their readiness for a widening range of missions, despite projected resource constraints.

Future operations will require participation from a greater number of partners. These partnerships cannot be sustained as “two tiered” relationships divided by those willing to fight and those not. A higher degree of interoperability at the operational level will have to be obtained between us and future allies. More importantly, the future will require a complementary mix of shared burdens for combat operations, and greater inputs on strategy and campaign design from partners. We need to eliminate the recriminating comments from Afghanistan where “I saw America fight” became the derisive moniker for ISAF.

Additionally, we also require common rules of engagement and a common Rule of Law (detainee management, interrogation, observance of international law) for future operations. The lack of common ground can degrade from the coalition’s legitimacy and strategic effectiveness. A great opportunity exists for our partners in developing this operational code.

Another significant implication is the need for an expeditionary ethos or mindset. Many military organizations use the term “expeditionary” to describe themselves or to label distinct units. But the term “expeditionary” encompasses far more than a mission involving actions beyond one’s borders, the official U.S. definition. Expeditionary is an institutional belief system that influences all aspects of organizing, training, and equipping to ensure a unit can deploy rapidly, arrive quickly and begin operating upon arrival.

It is also an institutional and military culture that does not look for too precise an artificial box around its mission set. Expeditionary forces are willing to “do windows” and are comfortable transitioning back and forth between violent action and humanitarian relief tasks. This flexibility has to be embedded and reinforced by personnel systems, training and the force design of an expeditionary force. Expeditionary forces must be imbued with the notion of doing more with less, of fighting and prevailing in an austere operational environment. They are prepared to use their own initiative and readily solve problems on their own with a minimum of guidance. They do not look for explicit instructions, formal doctrine, or tactical templates or checklists.

The future demands military forces that are agile and adaptive in approach to the unique conditions each conflict poses. Planners preparing forces for tomorrow cannot focus narrowly on only one threat or one kind of war. Gray has warned us against adopting narrow or preclusive visions or doctrine about future warfare. This is wise advice. American planning over the last decade has too often been dominated by such visions or idée fixe. Defense Secretary Gates’ courageous efforts in the Pentagon notwithstanding, there are enormous biases in our military-industrial-political complex to return to technological and illusory solutions for security problems. The ongoing fight over the secretary’s efforts to shape tomorrow’s forces during the Quadrennial Defense Review already makes that clear.

There are some who want to return to the good old days and focus on conventional forces, refusing to understand tomorrow’s threats and the corresponding requirements for military force. There are some who believe that Iraq and Afghanistan represent a passing blip, and that massed formations of traditional arms between conventional powers should be our sole focus. Others imagine that we can elect to “refuse battle” against challenges we do square up for our preferred conventional fights. I do not think we have that option, but I do hope that U.S. policy is far more discriminate in response. However, a “strategy of conflict avoidance” would be a strategic mistake. Preparing for an age of asymmetric wars is neither folly nor a matter of choice — it is a strategic necessity.

Of course, “complex expeditionary warfare” implies a notion of complexity presumed to have been absent in the past, but one can look back three and half millennia when the Greeks fought against Troy and find the challenges no less complex. Homer’s “Iliad” dramatizes the complex expeditionary circumstances faced by the Greeks.

The Greek expedition was no simple matter. The assembly of their swift black ships was not a simple task, and the navigator originally landed miles off target. Nothing new here to veterans from Gallipoli or Normandy. Landing and storming Troy’s beaches and boggy plain was not easy. Likewise, sustaining the mission was a logistics nightmare.

Troy’s dense battlements pose no less danger or challenge than the sprawling megacities of Asia or Africa today. Achilles’ debasement of Prince Hector’s corpse should be seen in terms of its influence on the population of Troy. This effective imagery cowed the defenders of the city’s battlements and their families better than a posted video of a beheaded prisoner by al-Qaida. Clearly, the famous Trojan horse represents one of history’s first examples of the cunning inherent to the expeditionary mindset.

Whether the warriors are wearing greaves and bronze helmets, or leather boots and Kevlar headgear, the complexity is always present. We can be sure that America’s expeditionary warriors, our modern day Myrmidons, must be prepared to face these enduring challenges. AFJ

FRANK G. HOFFMAN served more than 24 years as a Marine officer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do no necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or any institution with which he is affiliated.