The U.S. experience in Iraq confirms that old wisdom. But it has broad lessons for military procurement policies and the structure of the U.S. defense industry as well.
Through the Cold War, the U.S. military focused on its primary mission of expecting to have to fight a land war to defend Western Europe from the largest and most powerful military force in the world -- the Soviet Red Army boosted by its allies from satellite Warsaw Pact nations. This large conventional army and massive weapons structure remained in place for more than a decade after the collapse of communism.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came to power in 2001 publicly pledging to restructure the U.S. Army and make it lean and mean. He fought the 2003 second Gulf War with less than one-third the number of ground troops that Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf used to smash the earlier -- admittedly far more massive -- Iraqi army in the first Gulf War of 1991.
But Rumsfeld entirely neglected doctrines and preparations for counterinsurgency war. The U.S. Army started its occupation mission in Iraq woefully unprepared for the improvised-explosive device offensive that inflicted growing casualties on it during the next few years. The Army's Humvees could hardly stop a conventional bullet. They were useless against IEDs.
As we have noted in previous columns, Rumsfeld's 1,500 Defense Department planners did not find armor and protection sexy or "aggressive" subjects, though they are central to minimizing casualties and to operational effectiveness in any war. Limitless funds were devoted not just to practical ballistic-missile defense and space orbiting systems, but to research and development in any arcane concept, even if it could not realistically be developed into a useful weapon or surveillance system for a decade or more.
Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers were dying by the day because there weren't even enough funds to buy zero-tech steel plates for the sides and bottoms of their Humvees. Development of the new, much better protected MRAP vehicles crawled.
Now, with Gen. David Petraeus applying at last classic principles of counterinsurgency conflict in Iraq, the tactical situation there is somewhat better though the great strategic problem -- the total lack of credibility and effectiveness of the Iraqi government and armed forces -- remains as glaring as ever.
However, U.S. policymakers notoriously suffer from tunnel vision. Overwhelming energy, resources and focus are brought to bear obsessively on the pressing problem of the day, and everything else is ignored. Consequently, it can easily be forgotten that the need to protect soldiers and equip them to fight a counterinsurgency in Iraq must not distract Pentagon planners and procurement officials from the need to remain prepared to fight other kinds of wars as well.
The U.S. armed forces did, after all, conquer Iraq in only three weeks against difficult resistance. War is indeed transforming, as the Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld has pointed out, but it has not become obsolete. The Israelis still face a formidable conventional potential enemy army across the Golan Heights in Syria. Russia is pouring more resources into upgrading the equipment of its conventional military forces than at any time in the past 30 years. Russian and China now hold regular joint conventional exercises to develop such capabilities as joint interoperability of communications systems and problems of mounting an amphibious assault against a hostile defended shore.
The U.S. military was woefully unprepared for the counterinsurgency war it has had to fight in Iraq. It is belatedly getting the weapons it needs to do so. But this understandable switch in emphasis should not blind U.S. planners to the realization that big, old-fashioned conventional military campaigns remain options they need to prepare for as well.