Even relatively small conflicts can provide lessons for the future development of the U.S. military. The war in Afghanistan is no exception. Although only four months old, this war has verified some long-standing truths about the conduct of modern warfare and presented U.S. defense planners with important new information and insights.
One of the clear lessons of Afghanistan is the continuing importance of ground power to the decisive resolution of most military conflicts. Given the extensive focus in the media on the role of air power in Afghanistan, it is not surprising that many observers have not recognized this lesson. Yet, ground forces were critical to the success the U.S. has enjoyed. Moreover, even as U.S. airpower becomes more powerful and lethal, the need for ground forces, far from diminishing, is likely to grow.
Ground forces in Afghanistan performed three critical functions. First, the presence of friendly ground forces demanded that the adversary concentrate his own forces, thereby making them lucrative targets for air power. Second, ground forces occupied critical territory, such as major cities and mountain redoubts, and denied the adversary freedom of maneuver. Finally, ground surveillance and intelligence were absolutely critical to the effectiveness of the air war. Ground-level observation confounded the adversary’s efforts to use concealment and cover. Without a strong friendly ground force presence, the Taliban would probably still be in control of Afghanistan.
U.S. adversaries are also learning lessons from recent conflicts and will take measures to reduce their vulnerability to American air strikes. They will exploit cover, concealment and deception, including the use of civilians as shields. They will attempt to disperse. They will continue to dig. Those that can will buy modern integrated air defense systems. If friendly ground forces are not present, the adversary will focus all his attention on defeating U.S. air power. Ground power may have to be employed to clear the way for air power to be employed en masse.
Afghanistan revealed a critical weakness in U.S. ground power. The United States currently lacks ground forces that are rapidly deployable, survivable and lethal. Heavy forces, with the requisite survivability were simply not deployable in time and in numbers. As a result, U.S. light forces in Afghanistan, both Marine Corps and Army have been restricted principally to guarding fixed locations.
The United States cannot rely on airpower alone to win its wars. Nor can it be sure that there will always be capable friendly ground forces available. Therefore, it must have ground forces that it is willing to place in harms way. These forces must also be strategically deployable, tactically mobile, survivable and lethal. In short, it must invest in Army Transformation. The Interim Armored Vehicle equipped Interim Brigade Combat Teams that will be deployed in the next few years are precisely the kind of ground forces the United States will need in the new century.
-Daniel Goure is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute.
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