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Is the Military Losing the Initiative in High-Intensity Warfare?

Despite my preoccupation with political war (or insurgency), I still think about high-intensity war or maneuver warfare. I fear that as we focus more and more on counter-insurgency operations, we risk losing our ability to use initiative to win in high intensity conflict.

While I believe all our future wars will be political, many will have high intensity campaigns. Operation Iraqi Freedom is a perfect example of a high intensity fight transitioning into political conflict. Unfortunately, it also changed the mindset of the modern U.S. Army. As we transitioned to daily counter-insurgency operations we became dramatically more static as a military. Majors and Lt. Colonels have spent the bulk of deployments behind computers fighting war through email and PowerPoint. In the nine years of counter-insurgency since 9/11, we have trained our officers to be static or complacent.

My battalion serves as an example. We have one human resources officer, a signal officer, a logistics officer, an assistant logistics officer, a operations major, an assistant operations officer, one assistant lieutenant for air operations, one chemical officer, one intelligence officer, one assistant intelligence officer, an officer for fires, and sometimes an extra lieutenant. An executive officer leads this crew and a lieutenant colonel leads this entire staff and the maneuver elements. Brigade staffs have three to four times as many officers. I haven't even mentioned the NCO counterpart to every individual mentioned above. To plan future operations, all of these disparate elements need to come together.

And, this organization applies to every battalion.

Obviously, this process is slow and unwieldy. Frankly, planning quickly is hard with multiple voices. Without rapid thinking and rapid acting, the initiative is lost.

The army is moving more and more towards static continuous operations because that is the life of counter-insurgency. The question is, how will this affect the military when again we have to move towards maneuver warfare? With the training of leaders to think in terms of static positions and running tactical operations centers (training extremely similar to daily garrison operations), our army will have a rude awakening if we do go toe to toe with China, Iran, North Korea or another determined enemy in maneuver warfare. If an enemy can figure a cheap solution to counter our air, ground and sea firepower, we could find ourselves in a precarious situation. Our leadership must remember the value of agility, initiative and rapid decision making; it must also remember that, more often than not, in organizations less is more.

nine comments

While I really don’t argue against your substance, why call insurgency political war, as though “high-intensity war” isn’t?

The political context of war is always vital, regardless of “type” of war, for instance, why a staggering tactical and operational victory in 1991 became politically and strategically something far less so. . .


NVM, should have read your explanation of why you call it political war first.

Though for the record, I still disagree with the term.


I welcome the disagreement. I understand how arrogant I come across for trying to coin my own term to describe a whole branch of war. I am not the first, though, and it seems like more come across every day.

I really see a difference between inter-state, high-intensity maneuver type warfare, like World War II, and pretty much everything else that came after it with a few exceptions, like Korea. Even when looking at just the wars of the US: Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, you can see a style of warfare that is different. It is inherently political, that is why I love that term.

I think that wars are incredibly malleable, and the Vietnam, Iraq and others move from high intensity to low intensity.

@ MattC86 – I struggled with why Michael C developed his own term for “political war”, but for me in the end why I agree with it is that World War 2, World War 1 and others are about winning/defeat, as opposed to changing ideologies.

I’m seeing a pattern unveiling with the over abundance of officers, each with an operation knowledge of one aspect of the conflict resulting in a muddled plan of action based upon multiple reports. Then of course you have officer attempting to fight this war with strategies from previous wars. The problem is, by the time officer who have knowledge of how to successfully fight this war reach a position to influence policy, we’ll be on to the next war.

It is a catch-22 about getting officers in place to win in this style of warfare. I know a lot of our readers have read Ender’s Game, its like they solved the problem by choosing a kid to fight their war for them.

Do I think the US Military has lost the capability to launch and succeed in a conventional war? No.

While we know that US taxpayer dollars aren´t spent as efficiently as possible in the military industrial complex, the amount of money the US spends on its military equals the amount of money the rest of the world combined spends on their militaries. How many carrier battle groups are there? There is currently no rival to American airpower right now (though there is some on the horizon) which is the key to winning in conventional manuever warfare. I think coventional warfare is the US militaries strong point.

There are some depletion effects from Iraq and Afghanistan and you can argue that the Army and Marines are being run ragged from a constant deployment cycle, but in the end for an actual invasion they often end up mopping up the remains in a modified old fashioned Blitzkrieg model of warfare. The conventional model can be refined though to improve the transition to a different type of warfare, for example the US should have been anticipating the high number of EPW´s they would have to process as Sadddam´s army surrendered, they should realize that a strategy like “shock and awe” may not necessarily be the best for the goodwill of the invaded nation, they should have a plan (hopefully a reconstruction plan) for after the invasion to implement as soon as the invasion is finished and not just send all the old government´s police home etc.

Yeah, by no means do I want to describe the end of our conventional capability. We certainly still have it, I just worry.

That said, your points about the effects of an invasion are the ones we always forget. Changing minds and ideologies is the heart part, not defeating another nation.

I’m reading a memoir on the invasion of Iraq, and I can’t believe every Iraqi in the country doesn’t hate us.