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New Army doctrine recalls an earlier make-over

This week at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, Army leaders unveiled a brand-new capstone operations manual. As its foreword acknowledges, the new doctrine is aimed squarely at what the Army calls "big war" - military threats "significantly more dangerous in terms of capability and magnitude than those we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan."

To counter those threats, the manual declares, "The Army and joint force must adapt and prepare for large-scale combat operations in highly contested, lethal environments where enemies employ potent long range fires and other capabilities that rival or surpass our own."

That language and the operational prescriptions that it introduces reflect a significant doctrinal reorientation, but one that could have been foreseen. The same reorientation has happened before, and for similar reasons.

In the 1970s, defeat in Vietnam found the Army materially and psychologically destitute. In 1972, a much-quoted book by one critical veteran bemoaned The Death of the Army. The following year, still another by two highly-regarded serving officers urged posturing the Army in Europe primarily to permit its successful evacuation in the event of Soviet invasion.

That a latter-day Dunkirk could seriously be proposed as a planning aim was a measure of the Army's post-Vietnam demoralization. And yet, 18 years later, in the first Gulf War, a revitalized Army demolished its Iraqi adversary in only 100 hours. Not without cause, President George H.W. Bush declared in March 1991 that "by God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all."

Helping to do that was a new Army doctrine designed to counter enlarged Soviet military power while repairing the damage to the Army's own conventional capabilities resulting from a decade of single-minded preoccupation with counter-insurgency.

Twelve years later, employing essentially the same doctrine, the Army repeated 1991's performance, destroying Iraq's regular forces in less than a month.

Then things went south and backlash set in. Confronted in Iraq with an insurgency that it hadn't anticipated and in Afghanistan with nation-building tasks for which it was neither organized nor trained, the Army found itself repeatedly attacked for having "discarded" the lessons of Vietnam, though not all could even agree on just what those lessons were.

Today's Army finds itself in an analogous situation, confronting potential adversaries whose capabilities have grown to equal or exceed U.S. conventional capabilities largely neglected for the past 15 years.

Admits the new manual, "As the Army and the joint force focused on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism at the expense of other capabilities, our adversaries watched, learned, adapted, modernized and devised strategies that put us at a position of relative disadvantage in places where we may be required to fight."

Accordingly, like their predecessors of forty years ago, today's Army leaders seek a doctrinal make-over. This time, though, sensitive to the criticism directed at those predecessors after things went awry in Iraq and Afghanistan, they've sought to hedge their bets.

Hence, while the new doctrine prioritizes large-scale operations against a conventional enemy, it also carefully acknowledges a much broader spectrum of potential Army challenges, from criminal activity and counter-terrorism to weapons of mass destruction. The result is a 360-page door-stopper of a book.

The new manual isn't the first such effort to be conceptually comprehensive. In 2009, a team under the direction of then-Joint Forces Command boss Gen. James Mattis published a capstone concept for joint operations that similarly attempted to address in a single ó albeit shorter ó document future challenges ranging from combat to humanitarian operations.

It survived less than three years before being superseded by still another equally short-lived effort to encompass the full range of potential military challenges within a single operational methodology.

There's a reason for those failures, and it goes to the heart of what armies are created to do versus what they're too often asked to do. Created to fight - to impose their will on an armed enemy by force - they've become in recent years a go-to resource for anything requiring disciplined manpower.

But the premises of armed combat are so different from those underwriting any other Army mission, from policing to security assistance, that efforts to apply a single doctrine to all of them invariably founder. Either something must be left out, or operational prescriptions must be so diluted as to become practically useless.

The new manual largely evades those penalties. But like its predecessor of 40 years ago, it does so essentially by relegating detailed treatment of lesser military challenges to other doctrinal publications. That's not a criticism. It's a necessary accommodation to reality.

Which won't prevent critics from complaining that the Army once again is discounting the challenges it actually will face in favor of those it prefers to confront.

Plus Áa change, plus Á'est la mÍme chose. 

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