Features

February 10, 2014  

Seduced by success

An Afghanistan tour can be tough duty, but it's not the kind of force-on-force combat that keeps upper-echelon leaders sharp, the author argues. (Army photo/Lt. j.g. Matthew Stroup)

Daniel L. Davis

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. And it’s an unreliable guide to the future.” – Bill Gates, “The Road Ahead

Conventional wisdom holds that the past decade-plus of combat has forged a group of Army leaders as good as any our country has ever produced. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went further in 2010, calling today’s Army “the most professional, the best educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle.” Can this be true? Or is it hubris?

In fact, the military conditions under which we’ve operated for the past two decades have been historically atypical. They have allowed too many in uniform to believe the hype. What happens when men whose whole professional life has known only success meet real challenges and the threat of defeat?

Most of today’s senior generals – division commanders up to four-stars — got their first taste of battle in 1991’s Desert Storm. Brigade-and-below commanders typically deployed first to Bosnia or fought in Iraq or Afghanistan soon after 9/11. All of these military operations were hailed as unequivocal tactical successes. But all military success is not alike.

The level of difficulty and set of challenges the Army has faced since 1980 isn’t comparable to those faced by uniformed leaders during World War II, Korea, and even the initial stages of Vietnam. Our senior leaders have spent virtually their entire careers in environments where they were able to schedule “war” as if it were a training event. They had the luxury of establishing deployment schedules, often times years in advance. Next-to-deploy units had predictable flight schedules, shipping timetables, and arrived in the combat theater to mature infrastructure. Troops frequently had on-base shopping malls (post exchanges), restaurants, coffee shops, and all-you-can-eat military dining facilities (typically featuring weekly lobster and steak nights).

Throughout Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, leaders at Regional Command and below have been able to conduct tactical engagements throughout their deployment window against Iraqi and Afghan insurgents with unprecedented certainty. Before the first boot hit the ground, leaders often knew exactly when their units would return. American troops were able to conduct tactical missions at a time, place, scope, and speed as they saw fit. If any conditions didn’t favor employment, U.S. leaders could choose to alter the fight timelines or cancel the mission altogether. The only time the enemy took the tactical initiative it was at something like platoon-level or below, and action of that nature was rare. Since the Vietnam War, no American combat leader above the position of company commander has faced a situation where his unit was at risk of defeat by an unexpected enemy attack.

Ever.

In fact, never since Vietnam has any enemy formation had any chance of inflicting a tactical defeat on U.S. forces. Not in Grenada, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, the conventional phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, nor any phase of counterinsurgency operations since 9/11.

Not one of our combat opponents over the past four decades has had a capable air force, effective tank, artillery, or infantry force, helicopter fleet, missile force, anti-air capability, or an effective logistic and supply chain. Owing to the overwhelming capability we have in all those same categories, any operation we undertook – whether the tank fights in the deserts of northern Kuwait in 1991, the drive to Baghdad in 2003, or every COIN-related mission in Iraq and Afghanistan – could only result in a tactical success. Whether the plan was satisfactory, brilliant, or outright foolish, it didn’t matter (at least tactically). The U.S. was ordained to win.

To be sure, a cursory look at U.S. casualty lists since 9/11 shows that more than 6,700 Americans were killed  and more than 45,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in contrast to the major battles of World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam, the vast majority of these casualties were caused by improvised explosive devices during mounted and dismounted patrols, sniper fire, hit-and-run ambushes, accidents and “friendly fire” from some Afghan troops. Only the few weeks of the conventional phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom offered any opportunity for a fight above company level (such as the “Thunder Run” by 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division that captured parts of downtown Baghdad).

As a result, we have convinced ourselves that all our plans, concepts, and methods of employment have been validated as effective. It is rare to consider how any given plan or action might have fared against a capable foe. The virtual absence of such critical thinking and the dearth of experience in true crises – those forced upon us by unexpected (and effective) enemy action — has created several levels of senior leaders of uncertain mental agility. Like the French and British in 1940, we may be mentally and physically unprepared for an enemy with tough and surprising tactics.

Imagine one of today’s division commanders finding himself at the line of departure against a capable enemy with combined-arms formation. He spent his time as a lieutenant in Bosnia conducting “presence patrols” and other peacekeeping activities. He may have commanded a company in a peacetime, garrison environment. Then he commanded a battalion in the early years of Afghanistan when little of tactical movement took place. He commanded a brigade in the later stages of Iraq, sending units on patrols, night raids, and cordon-and-search operations; and training Iraq policemen or soldiers.

Not once in his career did an enemy formation threaten his flank. He never, even in training, hunkered in a dugout while enemy artillery destroyed one-quarter of his combat vehicles, and emerged to execute a hasty defense against the enemy assault force pouring over the hill.

Perhaps our commander’s enemy similarly lacks combat experience. Or perhaps he has considerable combined arms field training. Either way, it’s the first time that U.S. leader has faced the profound stress of split-second life-and-death decisions.

How successful teams are built

Last January, the Florida State Seminoles faced #2 Auburn in the college football national championship game. Of FSU’s 14 wins, five were against ranked teams and three against teams ranked #7 or higher. This hard experience bred mental toughness: when Auburn scored with only 1:19 to go, FSU mounted a remarkable comeback and won.

More pertinently, perhaps, our World War II history shows how toughness is bred through hard training and the crucible of combat experience. “With the Old Breed,” Eugene Sledge’s remarkable account of fighting in the Pacific theater, describes troops in contact running out of water, ammunition, and other equipment; suffering withering fire from the enemy; losing countless battle leaders; enduring unexpected counterattacks by the enemy; and facing the horror and shock of violence few in uniform today have experienced. In subsequent battles against vicious and experienced Japanese fighters, this hardened U.S. force did not break even when surprised by tactics or outmatched in firepower.

Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers,” made famous by the HBO miniseries, details Murphy’s Law in savage effect at the Battle of the Bulge. In December 1944, intelligence indicated it would be four months before the 101st Airborne would next see action. Instead, the Germans attacked. Some American units were overrun, enemy units penetrated gaps in the lines, troops didn’t have proper winter clothing. They had inadequate ammunition, no medical evacuation services while surrounded, missing many key leaders, and unable to replace combat losses of any kind. Yet key American units had the tenacity and courage to stand. Both books show how tough and realistic training helped prepare the troops for hardships and the unexpected. Moreover, they carried a healthy respect for their enemy.

We must admit that very few in uniform today have had either the intense combat experience or training as tough as our World War II counterparts. At some of the Combat Maneuver Training Centers, Army forces do some good training. Some of the products and suggestions from Army Training and Doctrine Command are good on paper. For example, we often tout the “world class” opposing force that fights against U.S. formations, and features a thinking and free-fighting enemy. But I have seen many of these engagements, both in the field and in simulation, where the many good words are belied by the exercise. For example, in 2008 I took part in a simulation exercise in which the opposing forces were claimed to be representative of real world forces, yet the battalion-level forces were commanded by an inexperienced captain, and the computer constraints limited the enemy’s ability to engage.

Many may remember the famed “Millennium Challenge 2002” held just before Operation Iraqi Freedom. Retired Marine general Paul Van Riper, appointed to serve as opposing force commander, quit because the exercise was rigged. ”We were directed…to move air defenses so that the army and marine units could successfully land,” he said. ”We were simply directed to turn [air defense systems] off or move them… So it was scripted to be whatever the control group wanted it to be.” For the U.S. Army to be successful in battle against competent opponents, changes are necessary.

Recommendations

To be clear, it’s not the “fault” of any current leader in the Army we have not fought tough conventional foes. The Army obeys the orders given it by the civilian leaders of the United States and we fight who we’re told. That does not, however, give Army leaders a pass. Field training exercises can be designed to replicate capable conventional forces that have the ability to inflict defeats on U.S. elements. Such training should require leaders at all levels to face simulated life and death situations, where traditional solutions don’t work, in much more trying environments than is currently the case. They should periodically be stressed to levels well above what we have actually faced in the past several decades. Scenarios, for example, at company and battalion level where a superior enemy force inflicts a mortal blow on some elements, requiring leaders and soldiers to improvise with whatever is at hand, in the presence of hardship and emotional stress.

Simulation training for commanders and staffs up to Corps level should combine computer and physical exercises that subject the leaders to situations where the enemy does the unexpected, where key leaders or capabilities are suddenly lost (owing to enemy fire or efforts), yet they still have to function; where they face the unexpected loss of key communications equipment, yet still be forced to continue the operation.

Such exercises should not all be done in nicely compartmentalized training segments with tidy start and end times, and “reset” to prepare for the next sequence. Instead, some exercises should be held where there is a beginning time “in the box” and no pre-set start or end times until the end of a rotation two weeks or more later. In short, the training rotation should replicate the physical and emotional stress of actual combat operations in which there is no “pause” to rest and think about what happened.

If America wants a championship-caliber Army, we must subject them to much tougher training – both physical and emotional – and place our leaders under considerably more stress, exposing them to a much broader set of potential combat environments than has been the case for the past couple decades. Further, we must hold commanders responsible for how they perform under these stressful conditions, rewarding prudent risk-taking (even if the outcome of any given engagement might result in mission failure) and avoid rewarding performance that seeks the avoidance of risk.

Conclusion

Success is never assured. It must be earned by constant vigilance, hard work, and a healthy dose of humility. How many Super Bowl champions fail even to make the playoffs the next year? It doesn’t matter how great we were in Desert Storm or post-9/11 tactical engagements. The capabilities of potential opponents are constantly evolving, requiring an equally constant necessity for American forces to improve. Living on past glory without continuous reassessment of one’s capabilities could lead to failure. We must avoid this at all costs.

Today’s U.S. Army has the skills of FSU and the experience of facing only junior-college talent. If the Army doesn’t toughen up its methods of training and expand its study of war, we may one day find ourselves overmatched by an unexpectedly tough opponent.

The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.

 

 

 

27 comments
MiriamPia
MiriamPia

I really didn't know that.  I am grateful to know, but it isn't happy news.  I got involved due to doing research for a science fiction series of novels I am working on ...about an interstellar (para?) military organization and starring a young woman and a man plenty old enough to be her father...Good news / bad news, no romance ...etc.  I did not come just to plug my work.

GearHeadPatriot
GearHeadPatriot

+ FSU, c/o 98.

Having served almost 20 years, I've watched our war fighting abilities decline significantly.  Our training is watered down with ethics training, vice focusing on the martial defeat of our nation’s enemies.  Currently the Secretary of Defense's #1 priority is the prevention of sexual harassment.  There’s no way our military services can train effectively under those conditions.Our meat eaters are still the red blooded American’s you’d want on the line with you, but their ardor is tempered by a leadership class that lacks fortitude. 

Nam Marine
Nam Marine

U.S. Military..............WAKE-UP or perish!

Tim_McDonald_
Tim_McDonald_

While I agree with the general conclusion, I could hardly disagree more with the premise.  It's true that we ought not congratulate ourselves for a job well done simply because we endured a deployment, nor should we feel satiated simply because the Thunder Run proved successful. But these sentiments aren't the result of having not been "tested."  If anything, my experience as a leader of over 400 combat patrols is that these conflicts have been exceedingly difficult.  The vast majority of these patrols included little to no enemy contact (or so it seemed...as I'm sure I was almost always being observed by enemy forces), but those that did were often more of a fair fight than I would have liked.  My Paratroopers and I were on many occasions ambushed or deliberately attacked by a cunning and skillful enemy.  Our success in those endeavors stemmed entirely from rigorous training (and, of course, a little luck).  This end was my steadfast focus as a commander leading up to a deployment: ensure we could achieve squad and platoon overmatch--because our lives depended on it.


To be fair, the author acknowledged company grade officers may have endured similar experiences; so I'll get to the point. My deployments were challenging, and they demanded both leaders and followers exhibit tremendous grit.  This fact improved our ability to achieve tactical success as the months progressed.


But I'm still hesitant to pat myself on the back.  While I contributed to the destruction of anti-coalition forces and the bolstering of local capacity in two theaters, my efforts don't seem to have enabled more safe or prosperous host nations.  My inability to aid my commander and his commander connect tactical successes to lasting strategic achievements has precluded us from achieving decisive victory. To be sure, I'm not self-deprecating; I'm proud of my service and infinitely more proud of the Soldiers with whom I've served.  But I can't say to myself that we have definitively won.  And this I can't say even though we endured planned deployments with certain start and end dates; even though we maintained air superiority that ensured I could be resupplied in the highland desert; even though I could count on the cooks to have a hot meal prepared for us after a multi-day operation (I may have enjoyed steak and lobsters once on our small combat outpost).


Perhaps more rigorous training at brigade and above levels would enable greater success.  But, then again, so would better definitions of "success" and a firm commitment to the human dimension of war.  We're fooling ourselves if we believe a more thorough or unpredictable simulation in a Corps Joint Operations Center will help address the lack of economic opportunities faced by young Iraqi men who emplace IEDs because that's the only way to make $50.  And, what's more important, we're fooling ourselves if we believe our adversaries won't continue to engage us asymmetrically for the foreseeable future.  So while we must remain committed to proficiency along the full spectrum of operations, let's not abandon the simple truth that armies fight wars among people, and that winning depends not on how much stress you place upon me but by how well you plan and execute outcome driven strategy.  

Rimasta
Rimasta

Its true, we basically expect success. So your DI, when did he enlist? He can prove the articles point if he was post Vietnam. Is it likely? No. We somehow think that just because we are Americans, we can whip our weight in wild cats. How about asking your DI this, what if WE are attacked? Too much assuming we will have the strategic initiative. Even in WW2, the US Army that considered itself the best attacking force in the world, fought its best battles defensively and proved to be sloppy in the forest like at the Hurtgenwald, or our failure to close the Falaise pocket, the bulge, or the colmar pocket. Iraq and Afghanistan never had enemy forces able to coordinate movements above brigade level, that's including desert storm. I doubt the Chinese will convos fly line up for us and go along with out neat timetables. We are far, far from being invulnerable, the old Gods deplore Hubris.

bkmoody
bkmoody

So maybe we are just picking fights we can win?  Whats wrong with that?  There are very few forces to match the USA.  China does not want to engage us and neither do the Russians.  The North Koreans might be crazy enough to do it but would NEVER win...inflict heavy blood maybe but only if they shot their nukes.  We control the situations so we will be successful with as little losses as possible.  We do it because we can.  When we can't we can still fight with extreme effectiveness.  I don't see what you have your panties in a wad about?

ThomasConners
ThomasConners

Five years after we simultaneously defeated Germany and Japan we came within an inch of being pushed off the Korean Penninsula.  Unpreparedness and overconfidence were a large part of our undoing.  We as a military are all over the world much like the British in the 19th and early 20th century.  Engaged in expensive military endeavors to maintain their Empire, their industrial base at home declined and they were replaced by a growing and vibrant United States.  I often wonder, is the same thing now happening to us?  I tend to think so.

vorourke
vorourke

Since I was a Private I have been taught that there are 2 key components to leadership: Accomplish the mission and take care of Soldiers.  I offer that in the recent history of the All Volunteer Force these two tennants have come into balance.  This in no way negates the need for a tough, competent and mobile force but I have to direct your attention to the DI who said "if you find yourself in a fair fight you have not planned your operation properly".  I like to think from Squad Leader to Pentagon REMF we have made proper use of the resources given.

PatPatterson1
PatPatterson1

And who have the Russians or Chinese fought lately to make anyone think they could have done any better?  The fact that none of our enemies for the past years were great powers doesn't mean combat was a cake walk in Iraq or A'stan.

HalDonahue
HalDonahue

If the military can qualify its performance this century as success, then it is doomed. Given vast treasure in blood and money, what has this military to show for over a decade of wars? Time to ask questions and demand answers. US senior military leadership cannot even define its mission and identify the resources to accomplish that mission. 

Dagger
Dagger

I would also add that today's promotion rates have also not helped.  We've had year after year of automatic promotions to Major and 90% selection rate to Lieutenant Colonel.  Understand there are a large number that would have made the cut of earlier more competitve years.  However, I can't imagine that there is not a significant number of officers that are severly lacking at the Field Grade level. From a training perspective, I would suspect that today's Armor/Infantry Battalion Commanders have had little experience manuevering a platoon or company as junior officers so their abilities to conduct anything closesly associated to High Intensity combat operations are probably very limited.

JeremyChristopher
JeremyChristopher

This article is spot on...  Most Armor Commanders couldn't even maneuver their elements in the Contemporary Operating Environment.  The question becomes, will we face that combined-arms savvy enemy anytime in the future?  With the world so linked economically, wars like WWII may truly be history-the consequences are just too high. 


Great piece...

Jackrabbit
Jackrabbit

As I record in The Lost Battalion of Tet, our battalion in Vietnam was surrounded by a North Vietnamese Army regiment. We had no air or artillery support. We escaped in the dark leaving behind the dead and excess equipment. The division's commanding general had a nervous breakdown, paralyzing the division staff. The NVA kicked the crap out of us, so I agree that not all lessons are derived from success.

HalDonahue
HalDonahue

@bkmoody  The world is just watching us flounder and bleed blood and treasure to little avail. We can but not for much longer

EeroIloniemi
EeroIloniemi

@ThomasConners Hate to break it to you but you did not defeat Germany. You were part of a coalition that did, where the Russians bore the overwhelming brunt of the fighting. For every German division fighting the US and the UK there were four divisions fighting the Russians. Although the allies had a  5 to 1 advantage in manpower 10 to 1 advantage in aircraft and a 20 to 1 advantage in the size of the economy it still took 4 years.

Even at D-Day you had total air superiority, total naval superiority, and a 50 to 1 advantage in man power from day 1 and still it was hard fighting.

Rimasta
Rimasta

That's wasn't the point. The point was, above company level no US units were in any real danger, say of being overrun or surrounded by a pincer movement. Also, the Germans panzer divisions were untested when they conquered Europe, they trained for the next war, while the Allies prepared to fight WW1 2.0. The Chinese and the Russians are shaping their formations in such a way, they are introducing realistic training, and they are preparing to fight US forces and how to not play into our strengths. You completely missed the point.

HalDonahue
HalDonahue

@PatPatterson1  Is it a question of them doing it better or is it about how well the military performed to accomplish national goals? The later should be the criteria. Glad you mentioned the Russians, is the US squandering so much on defense/security that we are following the old Soviet Union down the militarized economy path. 

Luddite4Change
Luddite4Change

@JeremyChristopher


I think, however, that is changing fast as we move out of AF/PAK.  Units are again starting to do more full spectrum training at the CTCs.  Their leaders at O-6 and above still know what right looks like in this regard, the Army will get back there fairly quickly.  If we end up having to fire a few folks from those fat year groups along the way due to lack of competence of what the service needs now, that's just the price of doing business.




Rimasta
Rimasta

Thank you! I see our leadership in the Pentagon thinking in similar ways that French Generals did before WW2. All their plans rested on the Maginot Line, and when the Germans did the unexpected, they could adapt quickly enough, and the French Army was destroyed in detail. It's as if we expect the enemy to COOPERATE with our plans against them. I agree, great article.

Rimasta
Rimasta

Also note how General officers don't get fired, just retired? In WW2, we would cashier quite a few Generals and send them home in disgrace. We were an Army that had to learn how to hate, to be cold blooded, to win a global war of annihilation. We can to it again, but I fear a lot of our guys are gonna die before we get our act together.

bsylvia
bsylvia

@Jackrabbit Is this Charles Krohn?  I read your book.  Phenomenal lessons on leadership, tactics, and the human condition.  Was a great source as we prepared for this most recent deployment to Afghanistan.  You are one of my heroes!

Rimasta
Rimasta

And you don't see that WW2 wasn't battalion vs. battalion, it was a clash of systems. The Nazis couldn't even cross the channel whereas the US supplied a war effort on multiple continents. Then the Russians, close to 200 Wehrmacht divisions faced the Red Army from June 1941, to March 1945. Many don't know however, that Hitler, OKH, had a terrible habit of forming new divisions while other "divisions" could must've no more than a few hundred men and a handful of tanks. Then don't forget, the United States allowed the Red Army to become mechanized so they could exploit their battlefield success. That means we gave them trucks, tens of thousands. The Katushya rocket launcher was mounted on a GMC, those trucks and half-tracks allowed their infantry to follow their tanks so that the Panzers couldn't seal off a Russian breakthrough. Also, our lend lease aid allowed Russian factories to concentrate on several superb models of tanks. Now Normandy, German Wehrmacht and SS divisions suffered much much higher rates of attrition than they did fighting the Russians. I quote a Canadian near Caen after a SS counter attack, "they came at is like we were fucking Russians, and we murdered them for it." I'm gonna recommend some reading for you, "Panzer Leader" by Heinz Guderian, the Liberation trilogy by Rick Atkinson, and "Panzerkreig" by Peter Mcarthy. The US was part of a coalition yes you are right, but without American power, material, and life, that war would've ended very differently. I do concede that the decisive battle for Germany was in the east, and they should've tried holding the Allies at the Rhine instead of starting the battle of the bulge which was Germany's last breathe if you will.

HalDonahue
HalDonahue

@Rimasta  Of course WWII involved more than supply BUT what 'contributed most' was US war production I never denigrated US military forces (some from my family). Please attempt to read for understanding. The nearly inexhaustible supply of material, some of which you list in your reply below to @Eerolloniemi , was critical to success. 


The Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight. The US and its allies refused to meet their military spending and built the best defense - a strong and healthy economy.  The US and its allies maintained the forces strong enough to deter war. Reagan's spending push was just the coup de grace. 

Putin is no friend but neither is he the old Soviet Union.  


Battles are won by putting steel on target; wars are not. Case in point; when Hezbollah was confronted by overwhelming Israeli force, they built hospitals, roads, housing and provided safety. It took a generation but they drove Israel from Lebanon - twice. As far as who fires the first shot wins - the slave Confederacy disproves that theorem. 

As far as staying on topic, my reply was not addressed to you. Have a great day

Rimasta
Rimasta

Why do you think that? Oh probably because your unable to debate with any real level of maturity, someone proves you wrong, just act like an ass. Guess wisdom DOESNT come with age.WW2 wasn't just a war of production. We inducted 18 million Americans into uniform, I think we played a role in combat operations, not just make lend-lease material. I'm not expert on Reagan and unlike you I'm not going to pretend I know more than I do. Yes he out spent the Soviets but whether the credit is his, or if the Cold War even ended is a matter of debate. Putin doesn't seem like a friend to me, no more like a Joseph Stalin. No all I'm gonna tell you since you have all the answers is battles are won by putting steal on target and that victory tends to fly with side the fires the first salvo, and a second and third salvo never hurt the cause. Try to stay on topic if you want to respond, I honestly don't care about your personnel views, your problems are just that, yours, so stick to the subject and let's chat.

Trackbacks

  1. […] officer bloat.  Lt. Col. Danny Davis writes in Armed Forces Journal that our officers are “Seduced by Success” by winning, but only at the minor tactical level, against literally incompetent, almost unarmed […]

  2. […] yet again of the dusty old Hobbit View, and the Armed Forces Journal has now noted that the Army doesn’t really have much in the way of actual training nor truly serious combat experience. Makes me wonder how they’re going to do if called up to do something on the domestic front […]

  3. […] urbane and erudite sophisticate LTCOL P (supplying some cogent comments of his own), points us to a superb article in AFJ by Daniel Davis outlining the very real possibility that our immense advantages over our foes in the last two-plus […]