Adapting to the Evolving Strategic Environment – Applying the Lessons of the Global War on Terror to Future Threats

Army Spc. Grant Richardson stands guard duty in a tower at Forward Operating Base Hieder in the Ninewa Province town of Rabi'ah, Iraq, on June 30, 2005. Photo taken by Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert M. Schalk, U.S. Navy, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Army Spc. Grant Richardson stands guard duty in a tower at Forward Operating Base Hieder in the Ninewa Province town of Rabi’ah, Iraq, on June 30, 2005. Photo taken by Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert M. Schalk, U.S. Navy, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.


A career in the US Army in the last fifteen years has mostly centered on the fight against Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) in the Middle East. A citizen who commissioned or enlisted as a Soldier on September 12, 2001 would be within five years of retirement and would likely have from three to seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The unending process of deployment, combat operations, and redeployment from combat has taken a tremendous toll on Soldiers and their family’s lives as we conducted stability operations to support nascent governments. Even while conducting counter-insurgency operations (COIN), other conflicts were compelling us to get back to training and modernizing our capabilities for future fights. Regardless of the conditions, the US military’s core function is to fight and win on the ground, in the air, on or under the sea, in space or cyberspace. The central question for policy makers and military professionals is how many of the lessons-learned from fifteen years of war should we retain and how many do we archive. Over investment in the lessons from the past can leave us unprepared for the changing conditions of future conflicts.


Lessons Learned
In a scene typical in the War in Afghanistan, US Army Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division sit and meet with local villagers, over a meal of cookies and warm cream tea, in a village near Narizah, Afghanistan, during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Photo taken by US Army Spc. Eric E. Hughes, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

US Army Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division sit and meet with local villagers in a village near Narizah, Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom. Photo taken by US Army Spc. Eric E. Hughes, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The US military learned many lessons from a decade and a half of COIN, but among the most important is that achievable political objectives must be nested with supporting and complementary diplomatic, developmental, and military objectives. Military objectives cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Too often we achieved success on the battlefield, but failed to consolidate those victories into societal and political gains for the governments and populations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whether you’re integrating with your coalition partners, an interagency colleague or an indigenous military counterpart, relationships matter. We struggled to speak each other’s language (often literately), and understand each other’s point of view. The end result was the inability to coordinate our operations and align common interests toward achieving clear political objectives. Finally, people are the center of gravity and we struggled to understand the language, culture and beliefs of the people we were sent to protect and whose standard of living we were sent to improve. Insurgents, even if they had little support from the population, always had an advantage because they could operate in and amongst the population more effectively that a Westerner wearing helmets and protective body armor. In the 2016 film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, there is a scene where Tina Fey’s character, a journalist, learns that the women in an Afghan village’s are repeatedly destroying a well built by the US Marines because fetching water from a distant stream provided them opportunities to socialize that they didn’t often have in their male-dominated tribal structure. I sympathized with the disheartened (fictional) Marine Corps colonel overseeing the project because I had stood there and had a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) project officer tell me that every time I dug a well in one village, at least one neighboring village’s well dried up. We even came up with a term for these projects that didn’t benefit the social, economic, or educational needs of the population-“Developmental Fratricide.” A clear understanding of the political objectives to be achieved, a notion of how our supporting military objectives can (or can’t) contribute, mature relationships with partners organized around complementary supporting objectives, and a deeper understanding of culture and language are four lasting lessons about the human dimension of warfare that we can take out of The Global War on Terror. We should apply these lessons to problems other than counter-insurgencies, but show extreme caution applying COIN lessons to problem sets that are more complex, ambiguous, and fluid than counterinsurgencies. This caution is especially important since we have generations of military professionals whose only experience is fighting VEOs in the Middle East.

The Evolving Strategic Environment

The strategic environment refuses to stand still. The Islamic State (ISIL) has carved out territory in both Syria and Iraq. It has pressed Syrians and Iraqis, as well as thousands of non-middle easterners, into service as an oppressive army of occupation. ISIL employs conventional as well as insurgent and terrorist tactics to resist Syrian Regime and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) from retaking key population centers, strategic lines of communication, and oil fields. They have combined conventional weapon systems (often US equipment captured from the ISF) and tactics with improvised explosive devices (IED), snipers, suicide bombers, and vehicle-born IEDs (VBIEDs) to create complex strongholds that resemble the defense of Stalingrad. ISIL has also franchised their brand from North Africa to Southeast Asia and inspired terrorist acts across the globe. ISIL effectively uses social media to recruit and inspire. The Syrian civil war and ISIL occupation of large swatches of Syria and Iraq have exacerbated a refugee crisis in the Levant and through Europe. The application of COIN lessons-learned would be informative, but inadequate to defeating this “state-like” entity.

Aside from ISIL, the US armed forces also faces increasing challenges from other sources. Iran and their proxies continue to cause instability from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan. Perhaps contained in their nuclear ambitions, Iran continues to develop, field, and test ballistic missiles and rockets with unknown capabilities, threatening Israel and the US’s Gulf Cooperation Council partners. And they continue to sow instability throughout the Levant and Middle East through proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

An unstable North Korean continues to test nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and act generally petulant. It is difficult to predict what acts North Korea could trigger either deliberately or through miscalculation against one of their neighbors. Equally frightening would be the North Korean regime imploding with unknown nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons unsecured, and a humanitarian crisis that could swamp South Korea and China with refugees.

The Chinese themselves have acted increasingly assertive against their neighbors in the Asia-Pacific, attempting to change the status quo in both the South China and East China Sea, making the US’s traditional allies in East Asia nervous, but also creating strange bedfellows like the US and Vietnam and a contemplated return of US forces to the Philippines.

The most dangerous in the near term is Russia and their revanchist policies in Europe. Since 2008, Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, has invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, and fomented a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine using state-sponsored separatists. Russia has both modernized and reoriented its armed forces westward, under the stated aim of defeating NATO aggression. These reorientations have even included nuclear responses exercises. Russia has taken advantage of economic crises in Greece and used economic carrots and sticks to attack NATO and EU consensus-based decision-making frameworks. Russia has leveraged its position on the UN Security Council to block political solutions, targeted moderate opposition to the Assad regime in Syria that has exacerbated the refugee crisis, threatening European cohesion. President Putin has cleverly combined limited military actions, information operations and economic tools to further his political objectives while carefully staying away from redlines such as NATO’s Article V.

This short list of the problems facing the US doesn’t include the threat of global health crises, non-state actor Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation, or illicit trafficking in weapons, humans, or drugs. It doesn’t take a military expert to see that Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, has limited applicability countering current, emerging and future threats to our National security. America’s competitors are adapting in part by observing how America, its allies and partners have fought conflicts since 2001.


Adversaries Adapt and Find Asymmetrical Approaches

Taking a lesson from Iraqi insurgent’s development of IEDs to attack vulnerabilities in US combat vehicles, our military competitors’ key lessons-learned is don’t try to match US capabilities head on. Instead they are taking advantage of vulnerabilities in our capabilities, tactics, or strategic approaches. These asymmetrical approaches include the development of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities to counter the US ability to project military power far beyond our shores. Instead of developing squadrons of advanced fighter aircraft capable of countering the United States Air Force’s air superiority, countries are developing complex, but comparatively simpler, integrated air defense systems. Low cost and hard-to-attribute cyber warriors are attacking US command and control systems daily to hinder our ability to decide rapidly, link Intelligence, Reconnaissance, and Surveillance (ISR) platforms to ground, air and sea-launched strike capabilities, and assess kinetic effects back into the targeting cycle. In Europe, Russia has mixed conventional and unconventional forces (Russia’s so-called hybrid warriors or “Little Green Men”) with improved cyber, electronic warfare, and ISR capabilities to enhance the deniability of their actions. Although our adversaries are developing and procuring advanced technology to match our carrier strike groups and strike aircraft squadrons, and armored brigade combat teams, they are more effectively combining existing (and sometimes antiquated) weapon systems with new technology and tactics to address gaps in our capabilities. To prevent the United States and our allies from falling behind our adversaries we must inculcate the lessons-learned from Post-9/11, develop strategies and tactics for addressing current capability gaps and then look far beyond the near-term to develop our own asymmetrical approaches to future threats.


Adapting to a changing environment

Although my well story may sound trivial, it’s an example of the least-preferred method to learn a lesson–at your own expense. This is the same way that the US learned more costly lessons at Bull Run in 1861, the Kasserine Pass in 1943, and on the Korean Peninsula in 1950. America typically begins a war by refighting the last one with outdated doctrine, tactics and weapons. A less costly way to learn is to observe other party’s conflicts. Germany learned valuable lessons about Blitzkrieg tactics by training, advising and assisting the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War and the US gained insight into information-age warfare and the capabilities of advanced weapons systems by collecting lessons-learned immediately after the 1973 Arab-Israeli October War. Our adversaries learned many lessons by observing the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq and we most definitely are learning from watching the proxy war in the Ukraine.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work in a January 2015 speech at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) laid out the context for offset strategies and the rational for the “Third Offset Strategy”. He starts with a statement of fact, “it’s become very clear to us that our military’s long comfortable technological edge–is steadily eroding.” The first offset strategy was increasing the US nuclear arsenal in the 1950s to provide credible deterrence against a Soviet attack against Europe or the US. The second offset was the result of 1970s-era technological development that created precision munitions, digital command and control, advanced intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, competitive advantages that we currently enjoy, but are rapidly losing to our competitors. The DOD’s third offset program, the “Defense Innovation Initiative,” (DII) will attempt to “develop, and field breakthrough technologies and systems that sustain and advance the capability of US. military power.”

New technologies require new war-fighting concepts for integrating and employing those technological advances. The COIN fight of the last fifteen years won’t apply to future fights any more than mounted cavalry charges applied to the World War I battlefield. The Army’s contribution to the Third Offset Strategy is being addressed through a program called Force 2025 and Beyond (F2025B). Although F2025B predates the Defense Innovation Initiative, it is nested in DII’s goals to survey the future security challenges, use concept development and research and development, testing, and experimentation (RDTE) to leapfrog competitors.

Unfortunately, the future competes with current demands for constrained resources. Policy makers and military planners shape the military by balancing three competing demands. The first is how much force structure does the armed force need. That includes troop levels, but also how many carriers, submarines, fighter squadrons, marine expeditionary units and army brigades are the right levels. The second is how “ready” do you keep the force structure you have. Keeping military units manned, equipped, and trained is costly, if you want to have them ready to deploy quickly. Finally, how much of the finite pot of defense money do you want to invest in the future? Military research and development and the modernization of the current force is an expensive (and sometimes unproductive) investment in the future. Balancing those three demands is necessary to address current and emerging demands, but also address future national security interests. When the defense budget is constrained, hard choices between taking risk in the near or far terms have to be made. The art in national defense is understanding and planning for how much risk is acceptable and where you are willing to take risk.


The Way Forward

In the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, President Obama redirected America’s defense focus to the Asia-Pacific, forecasting that the economic, military, and diplomatic rise of Pacific Rim nations would figure more in America’s future than events in Europe and the Middle East. However, current threats are taking focus away from the Pacific. ISIL must be contained or defeated in the near term and Russia’s reemergence as a competitor is more threatening to US vital security interests.

In responding to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the US faced a challenge on how we can assure our allies of our commitment to NATO collective security with limited resources based in Europe and many competing demands. The Nation’s armed forces remain tremendously busy. Just in the past five years, the Army has removed an Army Corps headquarters, an Army division headquarters and two heavy combat brigades from Europe. Since 2012, the Army has downsized from 570,000 active Soldiers to around 470,000 and is projected to go down to 450,000 by the end of fiscal year 2017. These changes are occurring without a corresponding decrease in the demand for deployable Army forces in support of joint and multinational requirements. In mid 2016, the Army alone had 190,000 Soldiers deployed to 140 countries including continuing missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Creatively using military power with other instruments of state power could achieve our political objectives to deter Russia aggression and reassure our NATO allies without returning US forces to Cold War levels; military power that would be more effective addressing ISIL or achieving the President’s rebalance.


If the Russians are not intent on war and if deterrence, and not conflict, is our objective with the Russians, then US political objectives must be met with a mix of diplomatic, economic, informational, and military means. Despite our differences, there are areas where cooperation with our competitors generally, and Russia specifically, are in all of our best interests. We cooperate with Russia in counter-terrorism, anti-piracy, space exploration, and WMD non-proliferation. No one’s interests are best served by great powers that don’t cooperate toward the common good.

We could approach the problem with the application “Smart Power”, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and political science professor Dr. Joseph Nye’s approach of combining hard (punishment, coercion, economic carrots and sticks) and soft power (the attractiveness of our policies, commitment to liberal values and democratic principles). Nye also acknowledges “hard power can sometimes have an attractive or soft side…” An example of the soft side of hard power would be the Great White Fleet’s world tour to announce America’s arrival as a great power. Another closer to the immediate example would be the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift- in which the US and UK’s decided to maintain an air corridor between West Germany and West Berlin over Soviet-occupied East Germany after the Soviets blockaded road and rail traffic. This hugely resource intensive operation simultaneously assured the allies that America was committed to post-war Europe and deterred the Soviets from changing the status quo. Shortly after the Soviets lifted the blockade, the US and its European allies forged the NATO alliance, which has persisted to the present day. Periodically, the US has had to re-assure NATO’s allies that it is still committed to Europe’s security.

The European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) is the U.S.’s latest effort to demonstrate to both its allies and Russia that NATO treaty obligations are vital to national security interests. ERI is not a Cold War-like return of US forces to Western Europe. Military forces deploy to Europe for training exercises and military engagements alongside partnered-nations and return to the US states. It demonstrates both a willingness and ability to deploy US forces and increases interoperability and cooperation with allies. Of course the art will be clearly communicating the intent politically to prevent a reactionary arms race in Europe.


James Kitfield in his book “Prodigal Soldiers” told the story of Army officers who returned from service in Vietnam to find a broken Army. In that war, America failed to achieve its political objectives despite considerable (but uneven) military successes. Instead of preparing for the next counterinsurgency, those officers surveyed the changing environment around them like the October War and formed an army to address those challenges. The all-volunteer force, the combat training centers, the “Big Five” weapon systems, and Air-Land Battle Doctrine were among the most effective. Those forward-thinking Army officers, and their counterparts from the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps contributed to a joint force that in 1990-1991 decisively defeated Saddam Hussein’s Armed Forces in the First Gulf War. Military leaders of my generation face the same challenges after a decade and a half of counter-insurgency operations. The major lessons learned from the Global Wars on Terrorism are enduring. All wars are political and military power is just one means to achieving political objectives. With increasing urbanization, People will remain the prize in any struggle and military professionals will have to form partnerships and alliances to solve the increasingly complex problems we will be asked to solve in future conflicts.

Colonel Thomas W. O’Steen, United States Army, is a 2014-2015 Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Fellow. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.

About Author

Colonel Thomas W. O'Steen

Colonel Thomas W. O’Steen, United States Army, is a 2014-2015 Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Fellow. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.