Rapid Regeneration of Irregular Warfare Capacity

Published in: Joint Force Quarterly (JFQ) 78, 3rd Quarter, 2015, p. 32-39

Posted on RAND.org on July 16, 2015

by Stephen Watts, J Michael Polich, Derek Eaton

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JFQ 78 - There is widespread agreement among the public and in the foreign and defense communities that the United States should avoid "another Iraq" or "another Afghanistan"--that is, another large-scale, long-term, and high-cost stability operation. President Barack Obama's reluctance to put "boots on the ground" in Iraq is but the most recent example of this reaction against the high costs and questionable outcomes of the conflicts in those two countries. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates may have been particularly blunt when he declared that anyone advising a future President to pursue forcible regime change in the developing world "should have his head examined," but the sentiment is widespread.1Worse than having to fight another Iraq or another Afghanistan, however, would be if the United States were yet again unprepared for such a contingency--as occurred when it divested itself of counterinsurgency capabilities after the policy community united against "another Vietnam." This article considers the challenge of maintaining readiness for large-scale irregular warfare (IW) contingencies when the national mood has so decisively turned against such operations.The need to hedge against such a contingency is recognized in both the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Whereas both documents are widely interpreted as rejecting large-scale counterinsurgency and stability operations, they actually provide more nuanced guidance. Although U.S. forces will not be sized to conduct such operations, the QDR insists that "we will preserve the expertise gained during the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations protect the ability to regenerate capabilities that might be needed to meet future demands."2 It is less clear what this guidance means in practice. To sketch the outlines of such an "adaptability hedge,"3 we first review the history of large-scale IW operations to determine the timelines that intervening forces have historically needed to adapt to such contingencies, how quickly they have adapted in practice, and the costs of slow adaptation. Second, we examine the sorts of ground forces that are typically required for such operations and--using simple metrics--estimate the amount of time required to regenerate them. Based on this analysis, we suggest which capabilities could be regenerated relatively quickly for large-scale IW contingencies as the need arises and which would be priorities to keep in the ground force structure due to the long lag times associated with rebuilding these capabilities once they are lost. Finally, we briefly review the pipeline for regenerating IW capabilities and how to ensure the pipeline could function rapidly if needed.

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