Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lessons From The Long War

I just read one of the best short articles I have read in a long time.  The piece deals with lessons from the last decade of war and is noteworthy for its outside-the-box, thought provoking conceptual observations.  It offers no solutions but brilliantly points out issues that are utterly basic at heart but, seemingly, beyond the grasp of institutional military thinking.

The author is Capt. Chris Barber, USMC.  He makes no claims of rigorous statistical validity for his assertions, offering only his own anecdotal observations but they are priceless.  Please follow the link below and read the piece.  I’ll now attempt to highlight and amplify some of his observations.

The first lesson concerns the attempt to apply very costly, high tech solutions to simple and straight forward, though deadly, problems.  The specific example in the article is the attempt to solve the IED threat via technology rather than simple tactics and training.  This observation is right on the money.  The US military tends to approach every problem from a technology point of view rather than considering basic level alternate solutions such as training, tactics, judgment, ingenuity, or simple enhancements of existing technology.  We spend inordinate sums of money to produce minimal gains, if even that, via technology when simpler approaches could work just as well.  Did we have to build the several billion dollar Zumwalt in order to provide fire support for troops ashore or could we have placed the already developed Mk71 8” gun on a Burke and been done with it?

The second lesson concerns networks and data.  Today’s military has access to huge amounts of data.  Of course, much of it is of no value and is not applicable to the problem at hand and the data that is useful is often not obvious among the thousands of useless bits of data.  It all comes back to the ability of the user to decipher the meaning of the data and then apply it in a useful manner.  The bottleneck remains the individual user.  All the data in the world is useless unless the user can make sense of it.  For example, every time there is a terrorist incident, investigation invariably reveals that the various agencies had sufficient data to prevent the incident but did not recognize the data for what it was among the reams of useless data.  Despite this, the military continues to pursue networks and data as the Holy Grail of warfare.  It’s not the data that’s important, it’s the interpretation and use of the data that’s critical.

The third lesson, while specific to COIN operations, offers the observation that a decade of small unit actions, largely peacekeeping and policing, have resulted in a generation of soldiers – and future commanders – who have no experience with large scale war.  We see this in the Marines/Navy attempt to relearn amphibious warfare.  We see regimental, battalion, and brigade commanders who have never commanded their entire units as a cohesive force even in exercises.  There is not a Captain or Admiral who has ever commanded ships or fleets in battle nor even exercised for a high intensity, theater wide conflict.  Our military has become specialized in small unit conflict and forgotten how to wage total war.

Capt. Barber’s observations are insightful, on-target, and totally at odds with our official military philosophy.  I can’t help but wish he was running the military!


  1. Remember the old saying:

    "For every problem ther is a answer that is clear, easy, simple, and Wrong"

    In this case, your answer for NSFS is one of those answer. Serch for discussion on this subject on other naval blogs to see why mounting a Mk71 8in gun on a Burke class hull is Wrong.

    1. GLoF,

      Please elaborate.

      Are you saying that NGFS is wrong (specifically guns are no longer effective), or that sending an Aegis platform to do NSFS is wrong, or that the Mk71 is bad?


    2. GLof, I've researched the Mk71/Burke issue extensively. There is no technical reason why the Mk71 couldn't be mounted on a Burke. Why do you believe it to be wrong?

      That aside, the point was the tendency of the military to pursue technical solutions over simpler approaches. Do you disagree with the main point?

  2. Right, but wrong.
    The problem with low tech solutions is they are manpower intensive.
    The low tech way to prevent IEDs is road security, and you do that by deploying a platoon every 1000m in four block houses.
    Just Kabul to Khandahar would need 456 platoons.
    23,712 men, just to watch the main road between the two main cities.
    You'd need 3x that to do the the ring road in full.
    On top of that, you would need a rapid reaction company every 30 miles (30mins travel time at 60mph), actually lets say 45miles and 90mph to make my maths easier, thats another 100 companies. Thats half the marine corps, and we've not even linked to the regional capitals yet.

    Manpower is HUGELY expensive.

    1. *300 companies to do the whole ring road, 100 just for Kabul to Khandahar

    2. TrT, you may be thinking a bit too literal. The author was suggesting that things like enhanced recognition training, avoidance of known danger areas, travel off-road, armor (which was done), sniper overwatch (not soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder for miles on end!) of key areas, use of small drones (which was done), random patrols, etc. could all prove as effective as the hideously expensive tech solutions that were pursued.

      Personally, I'd declare the roads off-limits to people on foot and have randomly placed snipers kill anyone seen near a road on foot. It wouldn't take long for the enemy to conclude that placing IEDs wasn't worth the price.

      I know of many high tech detection programs that were initiated at enormous cost but I never heard of any that produced much in the way of success. Anyone know of any?

  3. ComNavOps
    First, thank you very much for your praise. As my author blurb stated, I am no more than a simpleton who was taught to type, so I claim no special insight just a collection of expereinces that reinforced certain ideas.

    Your criticism seems relavitly binary and zero sum. High tech use does not need to come at the expense of smart tactics, and good tactics does not presume the use of masssive manpower investments.
    1. Almost any qualified criticism of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically states how we initially used too few troops (Re: Gen Shinsheki/Shock and Awe Criticism) and our FM 3-24 COIN response specifically called for and utilized mass increases in troop numbers( Re both surges). I would never advocate securing every klick of the ring road via platoons-but its hard to escape the fact that good COIN requires lots of bodies. Better we carefully decide how and when to apply COIN, and not make it a pancea to all low end spectrum conflicts

    2. My main criticism of high cost (not necessary high tech) solutions is that they come from on high with the suposition that they will work in all situations. During my first tour in AFG, we saw the widespread introductions of manpackable high tech counter IED solutions. They fit a limited threat spectrum and were great at specifically countering it. The problem was that the enemy adapted very quickly (as they do) and we saw that specific threat stop but others grow. HHQ still mandated the gears use at all times, and in doing so negated our small unit leader's ability to gauge and assume risk and more effectively complete his mission. Lots of tired Marines carrying gear they were not using and no fewer drops in overall IEDs just that specific threat band.

    3. Use high tech, use good tactics- but don't think piles of money equate to piles of effectiveness. Thats the arguement I was putting forth.

    Thank you for the critique though and again thanks for the repost.

    Semper Fi
    Capt Chris Barber

  4. ComNavOps
    Thats one every 23metres
    Excessive at peacetime perhaps, but imagine just a few hundred men attacking a section of line held with fewer bodies?
    Snipers would be a part of that, but they cant work on their own, they have pretty serious force protection needs.
    Dont get me wrong, dealing with IEDs is pretty much impossible.

    One of the reasons we know so little about the CIED successes is because they are deliberately kept quiet. No reason to tell the enemy, even if he will find out eventually. But they do exist, everything from low tech rollers to blow mines, jammers to prevent remote detonation, ir cameras to spot laser detonated mines, IR emiters to blow heat detonated mines.
    But each has its own weakness.

    I agree on most of that.
    The problem is, if you dont secure all the road, you as good as admit that the unsecured areas are outside your control. Not good for H&M or strutting politicians, although perhaps acceptable for the war.

    Bizarely the UK suffered the opposite problem, our top levels did everything they could to block the introduction of MRAPs, on the grounds that they were limited to roads, conveniently ignoring the fact that we were fighting a war for control of roads....
    Every solution was looked at through the prism of Fulda or Northern Ireland


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