San Francisco Chronicle September 07, 2006
911: FIVE YEARS LATER
Military transformed -- better gear, new goals
By John Koopman
In the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the United States military has taken on a whole new look.
Everyone has new uniforms, newer and better equipment and a new attitude about training. Changes also have taken place in the culture and attitudes of the men and women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
Probably the most significant change is in the mission of the military. For decades, the primary focus of all branches of the military was preparing for a major land war in Europe or Asia.
Now, it's all about little wars. The key phrase is "counterinsurgency on."
But nothing changes quickly in an institution that is older than the nation. It remains to be seen whether changes attributed to the new age will become permanent or will slip into the dustbin of memory.
"We were used to the old doctrine of warfare," said Marine 1st Sgt. Jean-Paul Courville, who has served three tours in Iraq. "The old way was, you seize an objective, usually a terrain feature like a hill or building, and then you defend it. Your opponent was another unit in roughly the same model and type as yours."
In Vietnam, the U.S. military became experienced in counterinsurgency tactics. But it didn't stick. Army Lt. Col. Jim Gavrilis said the bitter taste of that conflict sent mid-level and senior officers back to the Cold War-era model of army-on-army warfare. So when it came time to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, they had to start the learning process all over again.
Like Vietnam more than 30 years ago, the conflicts facing today's military are more complex than "see the hill, take the hill." Insurgents mingle among local residents. They strike and fade. Small unit leaders need to know how to work with the local population to get rid of insurgents and also deny them the use of homes and businesses as their bases of operation.
The phrase "winning hearts and minds" -- used extensively in Vietnam -- has come to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We've gotten extremely good at counterinsurgency tactics," said Gavrilis, who has commanded special operations units in Iraq. "We know how to gather intelligence and go on a raid. But we need to understand and to focus on all those other things that will bring an end to violence in Iraq. You can go on a thousand raids and still not help the situation."
Senior military planners -- generals who led American troops in the invasion of Iraq, such as David Petraeus of the Army and James Mattis of the Marines -- have reworked training programs to focus on counterinsurgency warfare.
In places like the 900-square-mile Marine base at Twentynine Palms (San Bernardino County) and the Army training center at Fort Irwin (San Bernardino County) in the Mojave Desert, Marine and Army units train for today's warfare. They built small towns to resemble Iraqi villages, and they hired Arab Americans and other Arab-speaking people to play the roles of residents. Troops who have been to Iraq, sometimes more than once, bring their experience to the mix and try to teach the new guys how to drive in a convoy, how to avoid getting hit by a roadside bomb or how to clear a house.
Now, it's not enough to see an enemy and kill him. You'll have to deal with his family and the community. Troops have to know better when to shoot or not. Officers must learn how to forge relationships with mayors and police chiefs and religious leaders.
"You don't have a forward edge of the battle lines," Courville said. "It's all mixed. You have interaction with Iraqi civilians, you're training Iraqi forces, you're setting up observation posts and traffic-control points. There are so many facets that we never thought we'd be doing."
Still, the Pentagon budget doesn't reflect this newfound focus on fighting the small wars. The Defense Department is still seeking big-ticket items for the Navy and Air Force that focus on the big wars, like advanced fighter jets and sophisticated missile ships.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military think tank in Washington, said one of the biggest changes in the military is the budget. Ten years ago, he said, the defense budget was holding at about $300 billion a year. Now it's about $500 billion.
"Ten years ago, that was unthinkable," he said. "Now it's not even controversial."
In a time of war, he said, no one questions the Pentagon's requests for money or equipment.
"Every piece of hardware that the military uses is undergoing a big-block change," Pike said. "We're looking at the first new design for an aircraft carrier since the 1960s. The DDG-100 Zumwalt, the new guided-missile destroyer, is just completely revolutionary. New amphibious assault vehicles. New maritime pre-positioning. The F-22, the F-35, the V-22 Osprey. You never could have done that on $300 billion."
The defense budget, Pike said, reflects a duality in the mission of the U.S. military: It has to fight the small wars like Iraq and still handle the nation's overall defense, which is to say, prepare for a major war with another country. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the next possible military competitor is China.
"We want to stay so far ahead of China that they won't even think about trying to compete," Pike said. "They're still 25 years behind us, and Mr. (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld has decided he's going to make damn sure they stay that way."
Gavrilis said the big question is whether the focus on counterinsurgency warfare will continue after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over. Military analysts say timing is crucial in defeating an insurgency. Much has been written and debated about the U.S. military's role in Iraq, and many of the problems associated with that conflict are thought to be the result of poor planning and little or no thought to counterinsurgency until it was too late.
Kalev Sepp, an assistant professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, said this has resulted in an erosion of the confidence of younger officers in their leaders.
"In my experience, there is a general feeling that most general officers have contributed to the difficulties in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan by trying to conduct unconventional warfare using conventional means," he said.
In the first and second years after the U.S. invasion, critics say, American troops were focused on kicking in doors and looking for bad guys, when they needed to take a softer approach to the local population. The military brought along civil affairs units to help Iraqis build schools and hospitals, but those efforts were often overshadowed by the damage done by air strikes and artillery bombardments.
That's not to say those methods were not necessary at the time, but analysts say the insurgency was strengthened because the soldiers and Marines used too much force too often. And they didn't simultaneously work closely enough with Iraqi leaders to provide security and to get the local population on their side.
"In other words," Sepp said, "fighting the war they were trained to fight in Central Europe against the Soviets and trying to apply those tactics and techniques in a wholly different kind of war."
One sign of change can be seen in the offices of the Marine battalion controlling the region along the Syrian border at Al Qaim. A sign on the wall says, "Win the war one Iraqi at a time."
Most of the changes in the military were in the works before the attacks on 9/11. That just made the military focus more on what it needed to do in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon planners have been calling the current conflict the "Global War on Terrorism," also known as GWOT. Others call it "The Long War."
Meantime, the military is trying to fulfill all its commitments without a significant increase in troop strength. Before the attacks on 9/11, members of the American military could count on regular overseas deployments. Now, the pace of those deployments has stepped up. Some Marine battalions, which serve in Iraq for seven months at a time, are now on their way to a fourth tour.
Because they're more likely to be going to Iraq or Afghanistan, the training is much more intense. So even though they may be located near family, they spend weeks or months out in the field getting ready to meet the enemy.
"That's the biggest change I've seen in the last five years," said Courville, now a company first sergeant at Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. "Everyone is either in Iraq or preparing to go."
Technology continues to advance and to help soldiers do more with less. There are unmanned drones flying overhead, night-vision devices and global-positioning equipment, better armor and laser-guided missiles.
"What we did in the western desert of Iraq gives a glimpse of the future of fighting," Gavrilis said. "We had a couple of Special Forces companies behind enemy lines, covering this huge territory, covering a lot of enemy forces and a lot of enemy facilities. But we had the best satellite communications and dedicated air power. So we were not only able to prevent any Scud missiles from launching, we were able to defeat a much larger force."
The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has been brutal and cost the lives of more than 2,600 American troops. But people in uniform say the fighting has actually produced a better and more efficient Army and Marine Corps because all the training in the world is not as useful as real-life combat. Practice makes perfect.
Rumsfeld recently used the term "battle-hardened" to describe U.S. troops. It was a controversial comment, but it is a paradoxical reality of the military profession.
"Battle-hardened; I love it," Courville said. "The reality of it is we have been there for a while, and that has made our military that much better. And it's just going to keep us that much better for years to come."
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