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Adaptation By: Josh Manchester
The Weekly Standard | Monday, November 20, 2006


"Recent conflicts remind us that our enemies are human beings whose most dangerous weapons are their abilities to creatively reason and rapidly adapt. Though our enemies can employ multiple forms of warfare in varied combinations, our conventional military preeminence virtually guarantees future adversaries will increasingly adopt the tactics of the insurgent."
-Lieutenant General James Mattis, in the Foreword to Small Unit Leader's Guide to Counterinsurgency

There has been much discussion of the military costs of our engagement in Iraq, but relatively little acknowledgement of the military benefits--not least of which is that by staying in Iraq, the U.S. military is being forced to adapt to irregular warfare.

What is irregular warfare? The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review labels it "terrorism, insurgency, and guerrilla warfare." But that definition is probably too narrow. "Irregular warfare" is, by definition, "irregular." It might be easier to define irregular warfare in the negative: It is not conventional warfare, with set-piece battles conducted by the classic constituents of combat arms working in concert. Irregular warfare avoids such engagements, and seeks victory by other means. And the essence of irregular warfare--and of defeating it--is adaptation. The side that can adapt faster, keeping the initiative, will win. Bernard Fall, the French historian of French involvement in Indochina, once put this most succinctly: "If it works, it is obsolete."

Adaptation on the part of the American military has been, since the invasion of Iraq, too slow in coming. But it is gaining steam. Throughout the military, new initiatives, organizations, and techniques are undergoing an accelerating process of adaptation. For example, The Los Angeles Times reports that the Army, "is building a training base that by early next year will be turning as many as 2,000 of its most promising midlevel officers into military advisors every two months, most of them headed to Iraq." Two thousand new military advisors a month is no small number, and reflects a commitment to mastering the unconventional form of warfare that has developed in Iraq. Other innovative adaptations include the Joint IED Defeat Organization, which tested and evaluated vehicles with V-shaped hulls, specifically to deflect the blasts of improvised explosives. According to USA Today, a number of such vehicles are being rushed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army is also attempting a number of different methods of improving language capabilities in its forces. The Washington Times notes that it has spent $4.2 million on software created by Rosetta Stone which allows anyone in the active-duty Army, reserves, or National Guard to participate in online language learning. The head of the Army's E-Learning program reports that more than 64,000 soldiers are using the software. Between 2,000 and 3,000 new users sign up every month and two of the most popular languages are Farsi and Arabic.

There's more change in the works. A recent article in Armed Forces Journal, by Lieutenant Colonels John Nagl and Paul Yingling argues that the assumptions which underpin the Army's human resources and staffing processes should be questioned and changed entirely in order to foster a culture of adaptation. "To create a culture of innovation within the Army," they write, "we must develop a new pathway to success that is not beholden to any branch." Nagl is no normal colonel. He's literally written the Army's new book on counterinsurgency warfare (as well as the book Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife).

The Marine Corps is adapting, too. A Small Wars Center of Excellence has been established at Quantico; it serves as a repository of information about the sorts of irregular conflicts in which the United States most often finds itself embroiled today.

A focus on irregular warfare, small wars, and insurgency is not only important because of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, in the foreseeable future, almost all conflicts which America enters are likely to be irregular. David Kilcullen, the chief strategist at the State Department's Office for the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, spoke on this topic at the 2006 Defense Forum. "The U.S. has unprecedented superiority against every other nation in the world," Kilcullen observed. "We can incinerate any other nation on the face of the globe . . . It is no surprise that our enemies have moved out of that quadrant into quadrants where they can survive: irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive. Most of our other opponents lack the technological capability to pursue catastrophic or disruptive means, so they choose to fight us in the irregular quadrant."

Iran is the most obvious example of a state which uses irregular means to achieve its ends, often employing proxy fighters such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Mahdi army. Commentators usually use "non-state actor" as a euphemism for Al Qaeda, but there are many other such groups which are learning the lessons of irregular warfare. A recent congressional report, entitled "A Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat

at the Southwest Border," had this to say about the drug trade:

. . . Mexican drug cartels operating along the Southwest border are more sophisticated and dangerous than any other organized criminal enterprise. The Mexican cartels, and the smuggling rings and gangs they leverage, wield substantial control over the routes into the United States and pose substantial challenges to U.S. law enforcement to secure the Southwest border. The cartels operate along the border with military grade weapons, technology and intelligence and their own respective paramilitary enforcers.

It is not hard to imagine scenarios in which other sophisticated groups--who are thought of as criminal, as opposed to military threats--might collaborate with or be subverted by adversaries who wish to do harm to the United States.

Adaptation is the key to countering irregular warfare; and such flexibility is on the rise in U.S. military circles. Yet, if the United States leaves Iraq, our military's imperative to adapt and counter this threat will likely dissipate. Agility has historically been difficult in large bureaucracies such as the military, where budgeting, logistics, staffing, and equipment decisions are made years in advance, with opportunities for change very rare.

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Josh Manchester is a Marine veteran of the Iraq campaign. His blog is The Adventures of Chester.


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