This subject has been touched on before, many times, but with recent news about heat problems and onboard fires involving the massively delayed and over-budget F-35, and the news that DoD is now contracting Hollywood special effects artists to attempt to design the 400-lb TALOS “Iron Man” Suit, it bears repeating.
The common belief in the last few decades has been that US technological superiority has been the deciding factor in American battlefield success. The poster child for this success has long been Operation Desert Storm, where the concept of “push-button war” seems to have firmly taken hold of the political leadership’s imagination (though the idea is older than that; look up Victory Through Air Power).
Yet where are the successful victories that can be attributed to this overwhelming technological superiority? Desert Storm was a win due to the specific circumstances, and the very specific goals, of the operation. Just over two years later the folly of relying one hundred percent on our expensive equipment was graphically illustrated when a handful of Habr Gedir militiamen with weapons costing less than $1000 down two multi-million-dollar aircraft, and in so doing, precipitated the withdrawal of US forces from Somalia. The pattern of conflict since, as asymmetric and proxy warfare continues to dominate the sphere of armed conflict throughout the world, at least the sphere that the United States is actively involved in, has consistently followed the Somali model, not the Desert Storm model.
You wouldn’t know this from the actions of the US military, however. The F-35’s price tag is presently sitting at about $1.5 trillion dollars, has been in development for over a decade, and still cannot perform to its mandated standards. USSOCOM has already spent $10 million on a video game concept that will make any infantryman wearing it cut off from first-hand sensory input of the battlefield, not to mention too bulky and heavy to move in certain environments and quarters (not to mention the power requirements). Meanwhile, the US Army’s Operating Forces allotment (which is where training budgets come from) has gone down by $30 billion. A great deal of that seems to be increasingly tied up in the ever-growing piles of red tape that are now necessary to plow through to get any training done. A figure I’ve been given by those still involved in training in the Marine Corps is 3 months prep for 2 weeks of training.
Technology has also eroded ground-level leadership. As much as the loudest voices in the military might call out Pete Blaber’s axiom, “Listen to the man on the ground!” the reality is that those with rank, sitting in air conditioned TOCs, miles away from the action, believe that that Predator feed means they no longer have to listen. Three years ago, ground force commanders weren’t accepting reporting from Marine Recon teams on the ground without drone confirmation. The end result has been a massive loss of on-the-ground initiative (though there are other factors to this problem as well, which will be addressed later).
In 1961, in the farewell speech in which he coined the term so often quoted for political purposes “military-industrial complex,” Dwight Eisenhower said, “Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research — these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel. ” It appears that the “military-industrial complex” has decided to go exactly the route Eisenhower warned; feeling “that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.”
War is a human endeavor, and can only be fought effectively by humans, not by their tools. It wasn’t daylight precision bombing that ultimately brought Nazi Germany to its knees, it was filthy, exhausted infantrymen fighting and dying their way across Eastern and Western Europe. If not for the same filthy, emaciated, unkempt infantrymen bleeding and killing their way across the Pacific, the B-29s would never have been able to get close enough to drop the nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Without major strategic targets such as factories, dams, and bridges to hit in the current conflicts, the infantryman has become even more central.
And yet infantry training has degraded to horrifying levels. FOBs are placed at the bottom of narrow valleys, giving up the high ground to the Taliban. Maneuver has become minimal. Marksmanship is atrocious. The old standard for the rifleman was disabling first-round hits out to 500 yards. Leaving aside the appropriateness of 5.56 to do such damage at that distance, how much training goes on at 50 yards and in, without bothering to reach out much farther than that?
Nate Morrison, retired PJ and founder of RIKR Performance, has the following to say:
“So how do you build soldiers? Hell, that’s easy.
It starts with close order drill if you have the ability to train a lot of men at once. But for most it begins with a rifle, some ammunition and water. That’s it. Teach the man to use the rifle and keep him fed and hydrated. Once he has the requisite skill on the range with the rifle you start putting him into more and more complex scenarios with the rifle. You teach him how to march with it, ruck with it and run with it. You teach him to crawl with it, cross rivers with it and climb with it. Negotiate all manner of obstacles while engaging targets. Then you teach him to do it with one other man and then three other men, thus creating a base of small unit tactics. Make it so he and his 1-3 other soldiers can fight as a well-oiled machine. Then you add weight to his body in the form of essential equipment for surviving longer than 72 hours. What does a soldier really need for 72 hours? His rifle, ammunition, water and maybe a knife in addition to his uniform. When was the last time you went out for 72 hours with only those items? Too long I’ll bet.” Read the rest.
I am increasingly convinced that the decision makers who are in charge of our warmaking capability have as rarefied a view of war as the average teenager playing Call of Duty in his parents’ basement. They have lost track of the base principles.
The basic building block of war is the infantryman and his rifle (and SOF really boils down to highly trained, specialized infantrymen). When you concentrate on everything else, to the detriment of infantry combat, you doom yourself to failure.
Coming up, Part 2: Risk Aversion
Image: The Panzer V, or Panther, was considered the most advanced tank of WWII. The Germans still lost.