September 09, 2011

Five Ways 9/11 has Transformed the U.S. military

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, fundamentally transformed the way the United States militarywages war. With the invasion of Afghanistan and, months later, Iraq on the heels of 9/11, the wars have caused the Pentagon to rethink the way it fights, how it spends money in times of crisis, and what it values in both its highest and lowest-ranking commanders. The Monitor asked experts to weigh in on the Top 5 ways in which 9/11 has changed the US military.

1. How the U.S. military fights on the ground

Early in the Iraq war, there was resistance to the idea that US forces in Baghdad were fighting a fierce and robust insurgency.

“I can remember the national intelligence officer for military affairs saying, ‘The boss isn’t going to like to hear this,’ ” says Wayne White, former deputy director of the US State Department’sMiddle East Intelligence Office, recalling an early meeting with US military and foreign-affairs officials.

The assumption up until that point, he adds, was that the military was simply fighting the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime, “Baathist dead-enders.”

Since then, however, the Pentagon has had to embrace counterinsurgency warfare: the idea that, in order to win any war, US forces cannot simply kill their way to victory – they must rather win hearts and minds of the local population.

There are two considerable minuses in this approach to war, however. It is expensive, and these sorts of wars tend to last a long time, experts point out. There are also opportunity costs, notes Mr. White, now a fellow at the Middle East Institute.

“The more you grind away at, say, a war in Afghanistan with a huge portion of your conventional forces, the less those units are capable of fighting, say, a major conventional war in the Korean peninsula.”

One of the largest questions facing the Pentagon and America’s political leaders is the extent to which the US will be willing to wage counterinsurgency warfare in the future. The battle in Libyaseems to offer a new model for the Pentagon, given the current political climate. It portends a lower level of US involvement, with America letting its allies lead the operation, while it contributes the sort of special technology – think radar-jamming aircraft – that other forces don’t have.

“Despite the cry over the US involvement in Libya, it was an incredibly cheap deal,” White says, with no casualties and “zero strain on our medical system.”

Along these lines, the Pentagon will begin preparing for “much more than peacekeeping, but significantly less than nation-building” in the future, predicts Nate Freier, a senior fellow at theCenter for Strategic and International Studies.

“This will involve conflict where [US troops] are fighting to reestablish order in a state that’s important to the US but for some reason has come undone,” he says, adding that in such cases US forces will likely be asked “to pursue much more circumspect objectives with much more limited outcomes.”

Indeed, the most crucial shift in the way the US will conduct wars in the future involves the hubris of leaders who send US soldiers into harm’s way, White says.

“When you really come down to it, this is a political matter. It’s the idea that we’re not going to go into a country and fix it. We’re going to be much more level-headed in assessing threats in the future,” he adds. “The idea that we can remake countries – that kind of political hubris has considerably diminished because of the stinging price we’ve paid.”

2. How it spends its money

After a traumatic attack on US soil, lawmakers were quick to authorize nearly unlimited funds for the Pentagon to rout terrorists who killed thousands of American citizens – and to keep them from ever doing it again.

The ever-increasing defense budget changed the way the Pentagon did business, and not always for the better. “In some respects, it lost the ability to prioritize and make the hard choices,” says Todd Harrison, a fellow at theCenter for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). “Instead of having to choose, ‘Let’s do this,’ or ‘let’s do that,’ it was, ‘We don’t have to choose, so let’s do both.’ ”

Without any pressure to make tough choices, Mr. Harrison says, the Pentagon’s budget has grown by roughly three quarters in real terms since 1991.

Today the Afghanistan war is the longest in US history. It is also the second most expensive after World War II, costing some $1.3 trillion adjusted for inflation, according to CSBA’s calculations.

Yet even with a vast budget, the Pentagon was initially slow to get US troops the equipment they needed to fight wars. For example, some US defense officials lamented their inability to get more heavily armored humvees to soldiers sooner. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gateslambasted the building he ran for favoring “exquisite” weapons systems over fast and simple solutions that could save the lives of everyday soldiers.

Far more quickly, but at great cost, the Pentagon began to shift its research and development process, rapidly fielding equipment for war fighters.

Today, however, with the enormous pressure to lower the budget amid the nation’s economic crisis – which, some note, has been exacerbated by the expensive wars America has waged during the past decade – the Pentagon is faced with some tough choices about how it will spend its money in the future. It may chose to forgo counterinsurgency operations, which are expensive in both blood and treasure, for campaigns like Libya, which is being waged at the relative bargain price, Harrison points out, of $1 billion through September.

The challenge, US military officials warn, is not making easy but, rather, smart cuts. “Now we’re quickly coming back to an era where you have to make the hard choices,” Harrison says, “about what we can do, or where we’ll have to accept risk.”

3. The role of women in the ranks

America’s post-9/11 wars have been unique in that there is no clear front line of fighting.

“In the past, you could say what was the front line and what wasn’t,” says Margaret Harrell, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “And distance from the front meant relative safety.”

So female US troops, who are barred from direct combat occupations, have been put in places that “were supposed to be safe” as nurses and supply officers. It wasn’t long, however, before female soldiers were “the ones driving the convoys that were getting ambushed.”

Pfc. Jessica Lynch became an early symbol of American heroism and, later, when the US militarywas found to have overdramatized parts of her story, a quiet yet powerful spokesperson for America’s treatment of its soldiers.

Today, “there are a fairly large number of women who wear the combat action badge,” says Ms. Harrell, who conducted a congressionally-mandated study on whether the Army was violating its own policies on how it used its female soldiers in Iraq.

Not only have they served in combat, women have also gone on to earn the Silver Star, one of the top military medals for valor. “When I talk to commanders, they say women are performing as well as their male peers, and that the services couldn’t proceed without women doing those jobs,” Harrell says.

As a result, a Defense Department commission recently recommended that all gender-based restrictions for women be removed. “That’s a big leap,” Harrell adds.

How quickly such restrictions could be lifted remains to be seen, but a number of senior military officials have said they support a reexamination of women’s role in combat. Harrell says she can imagine a time in the near future in which the Pentagon will fill field specialties based on need, rather than the gender of who fills them.

“I think there’s a growing recognition of what women can do. It would make the management of the system so much easier,” she adds. “I think that would be a huge cultural shift.”

4. Expanded use of Special Operations forces

Early in the Afghanistan war, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised US Special Operations Forces for the pivotal role they played in routing the Taliban. Later, as the Taliban returned to Afghanistan and the US military became mired in a protracted counterinsurgency fight, senior US officials once again turned to special operators. This year,President Obama publicly pointed to the traditionally hush-hush force’s role in killing Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

In the wars to come, their role is only likely to grow, says Mr. Freier of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Throughout the Cold War and up until 9/11, the Pentagon “insisted that Special Forces maintain an ability to partner" with the forces of other countries, he says.

Today, they have become premier irregular warfighters in their own right. As a result, they are less focused partnering with foreign forces and stabilizing those countries from within, “leaving a lot of that to the regular old military,” says Frier

That’s because in many ways the scale of the rebuilding task in Iraq and Afghanistan simply exceeded the ability of Special Forces. “It was almost a foregone conclusion that you’d have to involve regular ground forces in this Herculean task,” adds Freier.

The result: “It has really freed up space for special operators to focus on this ‘direct action mission’ – or targeted strikes on high-value insurgents. “This has always been part of their repertoire, but until 9/11 it was more discreet,” Freier adds. “It was not the normal routine of the Special Forces.”

In the decade of fighting America’s current wars, Special Forces have become “these fine tuned instruments,” he adds. Whether they eventually return to their traditional mandate of operating with the indigenous forces of partner states remains to be seen.

Yet their role in the future is likely not to be limited to the war on terror, Freier says. “My sense is that we’ve learned a great deal about the value of using discreet operators to handle some of these missions that require low visibility entry, discretion, and striking high value targets in the most discriminating fashion,” he adds.

Bombings through Predator strikes, for example, “can’t verify that you’ve got the target – that sort of positive identification is only possible face-to-face."

What is clear, Freier says, is that the demand for special operators “is going to remain quite high for some time to come.”

5. What it values in its leaders - and how it cares for them

As the insurgency raged in Iraq and began worsening in Afghanistan, the US militaryincreasingly turned to its young leaders in the field for ways to turn the tide of war. Military commanders like Gen. David Petraeus had pushed hard for the move towards counterinsurgency, but how, precisely, to best carry that out remained an open question.

Young commanders at small outposts were coming up with their own solutions. “War was no longer about overwhelming firepower. It was about working with local populations, and that presented amazing challenges that really required a lot of improvisation,” says Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

It also created a generation of officers more accustomed to decentralization than ever before. “Basically, what you’re telling these lieutenants is that in the absence of orders, figure out what the orders should have been an execute them,” says Mr. Dressler.

It was an approach that over the decade changed the culture of the military.

It also created a great deal of stress on the force, Dressler notes, particularly in the face of repeated deployments. Before 9/11, the military had touted high-tech efforts by the Navy and Air Force to reduce the need for manpower. Since then, it was reminded of the value of boots on the ground.

“One of the huge changes in the military is the much greater recognition that the ground-pounding warfighter had to be made a far greater priority,” the Middle East Institute’s White adds.

The post-9/11 period has also made Pentagon officials acutely aware of the need to dramatically improve the treatment of those in its care. This was particularly true after a scandal emerged atWalter Reed Army Medical Center, which showed the neglect of soldiers in the hospital's care. Likewise, in the years to come, veterans, too, will no doubt challenge America to do better by them that it has in its recent past, says Harrell of the Center for a New American Security.

For now, there is an outpouring of vocal support among senior administration officials for its new and far younger crop of veterans. The challenge in the future, Harrell notes, will be to maintain that attention years after the wars end, especially as economic concerns mount.

In an era in which less than 1 percent of the US population is fighting the current wars, many Americans are further removed from the armed forces than they were during the draft days ofVietnam.

“I’m not convinced that our country really embraces the concept of veterans,” Harrell says. As other national and world crises intervene, and as time goes by, “I’m not convinced they’ll still be embracing them 10 years after this conflict ends."

For now, the military is increasingly focused on how to continue to challenge its current crop of warfighters after the wars end, says Freier of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s going to be crucially important that we continue to challenge and empower these young leaders. Solutions in Iraq and Afghanistan bubbled up from the bottom,” he adds. “That communication from the bottom up proved critical in how we execute contemporary conflicts. We’re going to have to continue to capture that lightning in a bottle.”