“Over the last 9 years of doing irregular warfare we have eviscerated the Armor Corps to the point of its extinction… But what if the American Army has to fight somebody in the future beyond insurgents laying IEDs and small arms ambushes that is usually handled effectively by infantry platoons? What if a heavy Brigade Combat Team in Iraq was told to pick up and head east and do a movement to contact into a threatening country?”
So writes U.S. Army Col. Gian P. Gentile in a recent Small Wars Journal piece laying out his concerns over how the U.S. Army has become too fixated on irregular threats to the detriment of traditional combined arms skills. The debate in many ways mirrors the very messy, and very public fallout that occurred in Israel after its botched invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006. (The American debate, of course, is absent any sense of real urgency. Israel had just been shocked by the success of Hezbollah and the failures of the IDF in Lebanon, whereas the United States is pulling out of Iraq, and is still very much in the fight in Afghanistan. It’s not yet time for the postmortems.)
After you read Col. Gentile's piece, I suggest you check out another short paper: RAND’s David E. Johnson takes stock of the Israeli response to the war in Lebanon, and what it means for the U.S. Army’s own struggles to define itself for the future in a new monograph, Military Capabilities for Hybrid War: Insights from the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon and Gaza. He writes that the Israeli Defense Forces had such difficulties with the organized and well-trained Hezbollah forces in part because in the preceding years, the IDF focused so much of its training on countering the irregular threat presented by Hamas in Gaza, going so far as to focus “roughly 75 percent of training” on “low intensity conflict” and only 25 percent on combined arms and maneuver—a decision that would have grave consequences in the valleys of southern Lebanon. As a result, by 2006 “the Israeli Army’s almost exclusive focus on LIC [low intensity conflict] resulted in a military that was largely incapable of joint combined arms fire and maneuver.” Specifically, the IDF failed to properly integrate its air, ground, and fires assets when encountering organized Hezbollah units. After these failures in finding, fixing, and defeating a well-supplied enemy organized around small unit actions, the IDF reversed its training ratio to focus more on combined arms tactics, while scaling back on irregular skills.
Johnson says that the Israeli experience in Lebanon in 2006, and then in Gaza in 2009—where the IDF’s return to combined arms training paid off in a more successful military operation—is instructive to a U.S. Army that has also seen some atrophy in combined arms and armor training. He warns that “The U.S. Army, focused as it necessarily is on preparing soldiers and units for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, might be approaching a condition similar to that of the Israelis before the 2006 Second Lebanon War: expert at COIN, but less prepared for sophisticated hybrid opponents.”
And to sum all this up in a way I probably haven't here, check out Judah Grunstein over at World Politics Review on COIN and Hybrid War. This is something we're going to start hearing a lot more about, as it's a fight for the soul of the U.S. Army, and how it prepares itself for near and long-term threats.