Army focus: conventional war or counterinsurgency?

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began the U.S. Army has been relearning how to conduct counterinsurgency and stability operations while also trying to maintain conventional war-fighting capabilities.

Last month 900 students in Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College conducted what’s called a Warfighter exercise, which focused on large-scale combat such as the D-Day or Operation Iraqi Freedom invasion. The exercise, using high- tech computer and digital technology systems, also involved some civil stability operations.

“It’s a conventional fight, but we set the conditions during the exercise,” said Bob Garven, an instructor who spent 22 years on active duty in the Army.

Some in the military think the Army has gone too far in the direction of counterinsurgency at the expense of remaining skilled at, say, firing an artillery barrage. How does the Army balance training for both types of warfare?

“I think what you’re hearing is a discussion, much like our political leaders discuss things,” said Lt. Col. John Russell, instructor at Fort Leavenworth. “There’s a lot of former military and still-serving military leaders taking part in that discussion. I don’t think we have reached a consensus one way or the other.”

There are young officers — majors — who may have been in Iraq or Afghanistan the past few years but who haven’t experienced large-scale warfare unless they were in the 3rd Infantry Division or 5th Corps during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“It’s difficult for them to visualize large formations on the battlefield,” Garven said. “You hear about it, read about it but you don’t experience it.”

Should there be two armies, one for each type of warfare? Garven and Russell don’t think that’s necessary. They noted that at the end of World War II the military switched from conventional combat to stability operations during the early rebuilding of Germany and Japan.

“Everybody forgets about the constabulary we set up in Europe, the government we set up in Japan,” Garven said.

Post World War II stability operations are included in case studies, Russell said.

Russell attended school at Fort Leavenworth in the mid-1990s, a time when it was still focused on conventional warfare strategies along with a smattering of peacekeeping operations because of Bosnia and Somalia, he said. He commanded a company during the 1991 Iraq war. In 2006-2007 he led a military transition team in working with Iraqis in counterinsurgency operations.

“I didn’t feel ill prepared for anything I encountered in Iraq because of the focus of the school,” Russell said. “There are certain principles that don’t change much, regardless of the nature of warfare.”