Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine Grossman
July 22, 2004
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Army Plan For 'Asymmetric Warfare Group' Draws New Critiques
An Army plan to establish an “Asymmetric Warfare Group” aimed at combating new adversary weapons and tactics is drawing barbs from a number of military officers and outside experts who charge the effort is ill-conceived. Some critics say the effort — while well-intentioned — is insufficient to surmount existing and future threats, and instead much more sweeping changes in personnel and training are required.
Using asymmetric approaches, enemies may seek to bypass U.S. military strength and instead exploit American vulnerabilities, much as al Qaeda hijackers did in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, military experts say.
As envisioned, the so-called AWG will evolve from an existing Army task force that has trained ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan how to combat the improvised explosive devices that have caused hundreds of military and civilian casualties (Inside the Pentagon, July 8, p1). Early this month, the Army “G-3” operations office approved the AWG concept for implementation, an Army contractor said last week.
By next January, the new group will number some 200 personnel and may grow to as many as 277 by 2007, when it reaches “full operational capability,” according to the contractor. The AWG’s primary task will be to investigate incidents of asymmetric attack against U.S. forces and help troops devise countermeasures. It is to provide training to forces up and down the ranks, with the first priority going to troops overseas in harm’s way, officials say.
“I think it’s a good start but it’s nowhere near enough,” one Army officer said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity. Such a team must include experts in uniform who truly understand asymmetric thinking and can anticipate how an adversary might bypass the clear advantages the United States holds in military capability, this officer said. Continuity in the program as uniformed personnel cycle in and out of the AWG should not be left solely to contractors, as some briefings suggest may be the case, the officer said.
One retired senior Army officer suggested that leaving this critical role to a small group is wildly out of step with the magnitude and nature of threats posed by the war on terror. This former officer also spoke on condition of not being named.
“Wow!” the source exclaimed in mock admiration. “With millions of people in the Defense Department, we’re actually going to carve out a relative handful to focus on the only real threat the nation faces so the other 99 percent can focus on . . . threats we’re not facing?
“What’s next?” the retired officer continued. “A Department of Health and Human Services task force to focus on sick and injured people?”
The former senior officer lauded the Army for getting a start on the problem by creating the new team. “But,” this source added, “it would be foolish to think that anything will change in the Army as a result of their work.”
One active-duty Marine was not as pessimistic about the AWG’s prospects.
“I really do like this Army concept,” said the officer, asking to remain unnamed in this article. “The most important thing is that the institution makes an effort. After that, [its success or failure] will be personality dependent. A poor institutional framework can be overcome by putting the right folks into place, [while] a great concept can be ruined by some regimented thinker in the wrong place.”
Others say the task-force-like approach belies an Army failure to fundamentally understand America’s enemies, considering that armed forces throughout history have sought to undermine their opponents by seeking out their most vulnerable points. It should be no surprise that adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan employ hit-and-run methods — or even suicide attacks — against technically and numerically superior U.S. forces, some critics say.
Citing the Clausewitz dictum, “War is a continuous interaction of opposites,” one active-duty Army officer lamented, “It is as if we discovered suddenly that there are countermeasures to our technological advantages.”
To effectively combat an insurgency committed to undermining the new Iraqi regime and its U.S. protectors, nearly the entire Army approach to Iraq must change, says retired Army Col. David Hunt. He recommends a more nuanced approach that mixes increased cultivation of the Iraqi population, backed up by an impressive use of force when required.
“There are no lightning strikes. There’s no aggressiveness” to the U.S. approach in Iraq, he says. “It’s all meetings.”
At the same time, there is not enough Army effort to draw support and intelligence from the Iraqi people, Hunt says. U.S. Central Command has stripped special operating forces down to about 2,000 troops — about one-tenth their presence in Iraq during major combat — and left peacekeeping operations largely in the hands of tank platoons and infantry in armored vehicles, Hunt says.
To surmount the insurgent threat, U.S. troops must get out of the vehicles and patrol the streets, mingling with the locals to engender popular support — much like a cop on the beat, he says.
“How can an Army that uses a tank division in the middle of the city . . . suggest they need a group to study asymmetric warfare?” asks Hunt, a former Green Beret and airborne Ranger. “It’s the Army that wants to fight asymmetrically that is the problem. It’s us!”
He charges an overuse of armor in attempting to pacify the Iraqi insurgency is emblematic of the dominant role tanks continue to play among Army generals who came of age during the Cold War. But experts on insurgencies — largely in the world of special operating forces — are relatively powerless among U.S. forces in the region now, he says.
“A SEAL team kid knows more about insurgency than the Army generals,” Hunt says. “They’re not going to listen to him.”
Although Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker had a long career in commanding special operating forces, the law leaves service chiefs largely powerless when it comes to planning and conducting operations. Rather it is up to U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid — whose training and experience is more conventional than Schoomaker’s — to determine the kind of forces he needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hunt noted.
Not all ground force experts would agree that lighter is better when it comes to addressing the current threat. Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, a former cavalry officer, believes success against the Iraqi insurgency requires more armor and firepower, not less.
“For light infantry to succeed, it must be integrated with real mobility, devastating firepower, and armored protection so that it does not become a road-bound paramilitary police force subject to blockade and ambush,” he said in written testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last week (see related story).
“A tank coming down an alley is an amazing sight,” Hunt concedes. He agrees armor offers a potentially devastating physical and psychological impact against an insurgency, and should be used occasionally as a hammer to enforce order in Iraq. But Hunt opines that tanks could have been used to greater effect immediately after the end of major combat.
The use of more American tanks at this juncture would further steel the insurgency and enflame Iraqi public opinion against the U.S. presence, he says.
“The only people who know how to tie an insurgency and politics together are the special operating forces,” Hunt maintains.
Macgregor would agree on the point that heavy armor should have been used earlier in Iraq.
“Tanks have a big psychological impact,” he said at the July 15 hearing, in response to a question from committee member Rep. Robin Hayes (R-NC). “They are not the answer to everything in the future. They have long-term utility if they are used intelligently and integrated properly within the force.”
Still, there are those who say the Army may be onto a good thing with a small and flexible team dedicated to studying asymmetric threats and training forces on operational lessons already learned.
One retired officer, comparing the AWG plan to a Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities the Marine Corps formed in 2000, calls the new Army group a “good idea” that is “probably long overdue.”
Supporters and critics alike agree the new focus is necessary, following years in which the Army has been internally divided over its “transformation” for the future.
But many critics are frustrated with what they see as sluggish Army efforts to undertake more sweeping reforms.
In the fall of 1999, six months after the FBI issued a “Most Wanted” poster featuring al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s picture, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki ordered all soldiers to wear a black beret as a symbol the service was preparing for a new kind of threat, one retired senior officer told ITP last week.
“When he left office four years later, many soldiers had died because they lacked effective body armor but every soldier had two berets,” the former Army officer said.
— Elaine M. Grossman