Op-Eds by Jim

A New Doctrine for New Wars

November 30, 2001
by James Webb, The Wall Street Journal

For more than a decade, our military has been conducting its world-wide activities without a clearly articulated doctrine that would dictate the size and makeup of its forces and the acceptable uses to which they would be put. So long as the Soviet Union remained a threat, this glaring omission could be overlooked, since the military was sized and positioned in a way that could allow it to adapt to lesser contingencies. The buildup in the Gulf War was a direct product of this Cold War positioning, as many of the units deployed to Saudi Arabia were shifted from Europe.

Post-Cold War policies dramatically reduced the size of the military, even as debates continued regarding its missions. Lacking a traditional “threat” around which to build military forces, defense officials had great difficulty justifying the size and functions of the military to Congress and the media.

The recent focus on international terrorism raises the prospect that traditional deterrence, both nuclear and conventional, could be minimized in the public’s eye. In order to ensure that this does not happen, our leadership needs to articulate a clear national strategy that addresses all our responsibilities.

As a starting point, it should be remembered that an operational paradigm is not a strategic doctrine. The most egregious misuse of this term in recent years has been its application to the so-called Powell Doctrine, which called for the use of massive, overwhelming force whenever the U.S. military was put into play. The Powell Doctrine was little more than a “best-case scenario” for situations where the U.S. could respond at its own discretion, using a schedule of its choosing, against an enemy whose military makeup allowed such a response. But sometimes a nation must fight even when it cannot muster up an overwhelming advantage, as in the early days of World War II. And sometimes massive force is irrelevant, as in the anti-terrorist campaigns we are waging today.

The most useful strategic doctrine in recent decades was that announced by Richard Nixon in 1969. The Nixon Doctrine was based on three broad principles — that we would provide a nuclear deterrent to hostile powers, that we would actively defend allies under external attack, and that we would provide military equipment and other assistance to friendly nations battling insurgents within their borders. The great strength of the doctrine, which has not been fully superseded, was that it allowed discretion regarding whether to enter direct combat, while assuring friendly nations that we would not abandon them. Its principle weakness today is that it did not take into account the evolution of asymmetrical warfare, or the ability of terrorist movements to avoid direct affiliation with any specific state sponsor.

As we look at shaping a comprehensive new doctrine, two historic models come to mind. Both instruct us as to how we can meet the responsibilities of maintaining global stability while addressing the long-term need to directly combat asymmetrical movements such as al Qaeda. And just as importantly, both also offer a clear warning regarding the dangers of over-stretch if we ask too much of a military with only 1.4 million active-duty members.

Americans tend to recoil from the word “empire,” but the grand strategy of the British in the decades leading up to World War I is a relevant precedent. Britain’s diplomacy and strategy were based on a desire to maintain world-wide stability and to protect its commercial interests. Similarly, Britain was a dominant maritime power that made minimum use of its own ground forces. In Asia, it counterbalanced the maritime interests of other nations in part by developing an alliance with Japan. Despite an empire that required a military presence in hot spots that spanned the globe, at the start of World War I the British Army had only six active divisions. The U.S. has 13 today, including the Marine Corps, with a far wider spectrum of responsibilities than had the British a century ago.

In terms of how our military should operate with nations and movements that share our ideology, we should remember the successes of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War period. Until their invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets relied on a strategy of “cooperative forces,” assisting insurgent armies around the world in their bid to destabilize and demoralize the West. This involved supply and training, but the Soviets themselves never found it necessary to field an army against the Western powers. This surrogate approach was highly effective. It was a major reason that the U.S. found itself involved in lengthy wars in Korea and Vietnam, at a cost of more than 100,000 combat deaths, while the Soviets themselves enjoyed a period of relative calm.

Both of these strategies met their demise in wars that required sizable commitments of ground forces. The British commitment in World War I eventually bled a generation dry, with a loss of nearly a million soldiers, and empire died with them. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sucked up a large percentage of its army, and in the end demoralized the nation. Indeed, the war in Afghanistan may have contributed to the demise of the USSR every bit as much as the U.S. approach of outspending the Soviets on defense until they could no longer afford to compete.

The key elements of a new doctrine seem obvious. We must retain our position as the dominant guarantor of world-wide stability through strategic and conventional forces that deter potentially aggressive nations. We must be willing to retaliate fiercely against nations that participate in or condone aggressive acts, as well as non-national purveyors of asymmetric warfare. But we should take great care when it comes to committing large numbers of ground forces to open-ended combat, and we should especially avoid using them as long-term occupation troops.

The approach to our commitment in Afghanistan fits the above criteria, and should serve as a clear warning to other states that have condoned or supported terrorism. The Taliban were warned, and were offered the chance to rid their country of Osama bin Laden’s forces. Our military campaign has been conducted with lethality, relying on mobile naval and air assets and special forces units. The ground campaign has been carried out principally through local forces. Marine Corps infantry units were inserted at a time when the campaign’s objectives had been clearly focused, in order to perform specific tasks. And around the world, the U.S. military is still carrying out its functions of maintaining global stability.

This formula works, and as the campaign stretches, we should not be tempted by its very successes to change it. If we remain focused on the twin goals of deterring cross-border aggression and eliminating international terrorism we will prevail. If we move beyond these clear objectives, we risk running out of people, equipment, and the kind of clarity that maintains the national spirit.

Basil Liddell Hart, who was gassed as a British infantry captain in the trenches of World War I and became perhaps the greatest strategist of the 20th century, put it best. “A conservative state may defeat its own purpose by exhausting itself so much that it is unable to resist other enemies, or the internal effects of overstrain. . . . Economy of force and deterrent effect are best combined in the defensive-offensive method, based on high mobility that carries the power of quick riposte.”