Sunday, August 28, 2011

Libya Lessons: Supremacy of the SOF-Airpower Team… Or, why do We Still Need a Huge Army?

A number of interesting learning points have arisen from the Libyan conflict. Foremost among them for me is the need to massively downsize the United States Army. More about that heresy in a minute… Galrahn and Robert Farley have discussed the merits and shortcomings of airpower in relation to the US/NATO/various third-party countries' campaign against the Gadhafi regime. They both make some interesting points. However, what the Libya campaign best demonstrates, or more appropriately, reiterates, is the utility of the special ops-airpower team. And by airpower, I’m referring to service-agnostic airpower in all its’ forms, although biased towards the flexibility sea-based aircraft provide.

This lesson was best demonstrated in 2001 in Afghanistan, when relatively small numbers of US Special Forces combined with guerilla fighters and precisely applied airpower over-ran the Taliban. A similar unconventional warfare campaign was executed in Northern Iraq in 2003 when conventional US Army forces were prohibited from gaining access there via Turkey. Instead, Army Special Forces working in conjunction with Kurdish Pesh Merga fighters deftly defeated Saddam’s ground forces, including mechanized armor formations.

No US military boots deployed on the ground during Libya, but other nations’ SOF are reported to have participated, including those of the Gulf States, which by the way, have worked and trained extensively with US SOF the past several years. The rag-tag TNC rebels, supported by (primarily) US ISR, multi-national strike sorties, and foreign SOF – which came to the party somewhat late – were able to defeat a rather heavily armed force. Needless to say, had US SOF been involved, the game would have been over for Gadhafi many months ago.

So what is the role of the Navy in this construct? First, SOF’s capabilities are amplified when they are inserted, supported, and sustained from the sea (see Sep. 2005 Proceedings for elaboration), and Navy-SOF interoperability is as critical now as ever. Second, and more importantly, is that the United States has designed and nearly perfected a capability to defeat large conventional armies without employing our own conventional ground forces has huge budgetary implications that can be seen as favorable to the Navy (and Air Force).

Look at the range of expected combat missions over the next few decades:
-Overthrowing a dictatorial regime? Use SOF married to an indigenous force of irregulars supported by naval forces and air power.
-Want to defeat a large conventional army? SOF and ISR will target enemy ground formations for destruction by air power and naval fires.
-Need to counter an irregular threat? Apply SOF, naval, and air power. Rinse. Repeat.
-Steady state shaping operations? SOF excels at these, and the navy's forward deployed forces are always positioned to respond to emerging crises.

What’s missing from the above scenarios? The conventional army. In other words, there is little role for a large standing army in supporting the national security of the United States once we have pulled out of our manpower-intensive counterinsurgency fights. What does an armored force give us against an opposing armored force when air dominance allows us to slice and dice enemy armored divisions? (And if we didn’t have air supremacy, we wouldn’t commit large numbers of conventional ground troops to be slaughtered by an opposing air force anyway). How often do we use artillery to suppress threats in a collateral damage adverse world now that we have on call ISR over-watch and precision guided munitions? And why on earth would we deploy a large conventional infantry force for constabulary duty in another protracted ground war given the lessons (relearned) in Iraq and Afghanistan?

What about Iraq, you say? The routing of Saddam's army took over 100,000 US troops and GEN Shinseki said we should have used several hundred thousand more. Yes, but with a little more patience, a few battalions of US Special Forces supported from the air could have deposed Saddam's regime through an unconventional warfare campaign. This sort of effort probably wouldn't have destroyed Iraq's infrastructure and army to the point of bringing the complete disarray to the country that our "shock and awe" campaign required. But that sort of operation wouldn't have been appreciated by the conventional army generals running the war, would it?

Naturally, there are drawbacks to instituting major cuts to the army's force structure. Primary among these are the secondary effects on USASOC, which recruits the majority of its special operators from the conventional army. But unlike platform-intensive air and naval forces, or mature and highly trained special operations forces, conventional army formations can be reconstituted rather rapidly. And admittedly, there are times when a US ground force is necessary to conduct a larger unilateral raid or punitive expedition ashore than SOF alone could execute. Fortunately though, there is a magnificently self-sufficient, expeditionary, and flexible group of warriors known as US Marines, who are well-equipped and forward deployed to handle these sorts of operations; again, supported by naval and air power.

I realize the above concepts are controversial, but I also know that the US became a secure and strong nation and will remain powerful because of sea power, not land power. And a globally deployed Navy/Marine Corps team, combined with a robust range of airpower and special operators is the force we need to defeat just about any conceivable future threat. So why shouldn't the Army take a disproportionate share of the impending DOD budget cuts?

UPDATE: To save readers from going through 80+ postings and provide some clarity: what do I mean by "massive" cuts to USA force structure? How about at least 25% of active duty force structure? Honestly, I won't venture to put out an exact number, but I do know that 5% cuts applied to all services across the board is a disservice to national security. Designing a future force for "most likely" scenarios, as well as black swans doesn't mandate that we do things the way we always (or at least recently) have done them. And while 25% may not seem like a large number, when you put it in dollars and manpower, it's pretty "massive."

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.

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