Autumn 2006 Parameters - Outfitting a Big-War Military with Small-War Capabilities by Colonel Michael Melillo, USMC.

It is a never-ending challenge for defense planners to develop the strategy and policies required to ensure American security when threatened by an enemy. Unfortunately, it took the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks and the challenges posed by an adaptive enemy for the United States to realize it was not prepared to fight war on terms other than its own choosing. Looking back now, four years into the Global War on Terrorism, one can plainly see the US military was blinded by its preference for conventional war and failed to recognize the threat posed by irregular enemies. The military culture has long been convinced that technological overmatch was the prescription for security—a continuation of the traditional American way of war. However, the character of warfare is changing.

Interstate wars, while not obsolete, are now less prevalent than direct threats from irregular forces. The US military’s conventional dominance has forced its enemies to seek other methods to challenge American hegemony. While conventional might is still necessary in an uncertain world, the American invasion and subsequent operations in Iraq have exposed the US military’s limitations and instigated changes that will make it more prepared to meet the growing irregular threat. Only by creating a force that is just as adept at conducting small wars against irregular enemies as it is at conducting big wars against conventional foes will the United States be able to ensure security in the 21st century.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has had to adjust to its role as the world’s only superpower. The Pentagon, while espousing a new world order, remained fixated on extending its conventional superiority and focused on an emergent China as the next near-peer competitor that could threaten US interests and security. Although events in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Haiti served as clear examples of the unconventional and uncertain challenges the United States would face in the new century, defense planners disregarded their significance. The US military was conditioned by decades of preparation for conventional interstate war, as well as by its searing experiences in Vietnam and Beirut. Emerging threats to American interests posed by ethnic and tribal rivalries, religious zealotry, transnational terrorism, and illegitimate or brutal governments were seen as nuisances, and humanitarian operations, peacekeeping, and “nation-building” were considered as “lesser included” missions. This tunnel vision prevented defense planners from recognizing the US military’s vulnerabilities against potential adversaries who could threaten American interests asymmetrically with irregular forces. The attacks on 9/11 changed that internal calculus, and military planners quickly recognized the need to face a more adaptive enemy. Irregular enemies are not new to American forces. But today, the US military is embroiled in Iraq and elsewhere facing a complex global insurgency where it finds itself struggling to prevail in a type of war in which the enemy employs irregular warfare approaches to achieve its political aims.

Why, then, is the United States, a country with the most highly skilled, best equipped, and most professional military in history, having such difficulty in Iraq? According to one military analyst, it is because American forces have a culture that seeks to ignore the requirements and challenges of irregular warfare, resulting in a requirement to relearn appropriate techniques with each new experience with this phenomenon.4 The US military has long equated conventional military operations as the acme of the professional art, ignoring more unconventional approaches. One analyst even castigated the American way of war as a “Way of Battles.”5 Overcoming this institutional preference for big wars and a preoccupation with high-technology conventional warfare are paramount for ensuring American military readiness in the future. To meet these challenges the US military needs to effect a transformation that changes its cultural resistance to nontraditional wars. Transforming the military culture will be a difficult task. However, the hard lessons of irregular warfare, as played out on the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah, and countless other towns in Iraq and elsewhere, are being learned. Capturing those lessons and translating them into policy, doctrine, force structure, training, and education can produce the transformation essential to the US ability to prevail in the uncertain world it will continue to face in the 21st century...