Army officers warn of atrophy in critical skills

An internal Army report has concluded that the service's intense focus on counterinsurgency warfare has led to a decline in its ability to fight large conventional battles. Because soldiers' time in the United States is spent preparing to return to either Iraq or Afghanistan, the report found, they don't have enough time to train for other contingencies.

The report, obtained by National Public Radio, was prepared by three Army colonels who have commanded brigades in combat. They wrote that by letting "perishable skills atrophy, we are mortgaging not only flexibility in today's fight, but our ability to fight the next war as well." The loss of critical skills is most acute in the Army's artillery branch, which the authors said has been described as "dead branch walking."

There is a limited need for heavy artillery fire in counterinsurgency warfare, where minimal use of force is encouraged to win the support of the local population. In Iraq, artillery men spend most of their time patrolling neighborhoods as beat cops. Some Army units even leave their artillery pieces behind in the U.S. when they deploy to Iraq.

The paper said limited training opportunities have led to unsafe practices and a rising number of accidents when units do fire their big guns during pre-deployment exercises. The authors said the Army risks an exodus of artillery officers who are "increasingly dissatisfied" with their chosen profession because when they deploy to a combat zone, they are assigned to "hole-filler" duties. "They wanted to be artillery officers and ended up being anything but," the paper said.

Large-scale battles require the careful synchronization of artillery fire in support of fast moving units on a fluid battlefield, a skill set that is rapidly being lost, the report concluded. The authors warned that the Army risks suffering a fate similar to that of Israel's military in 2006, when it proved unable to defeat the militant Hezbollah organization in south Lebanon.

"Israel's years of [counterinsurgency]-focused operations in the occupied territories cost them dearly in South Lebanon," the paper said. The Israeli military's ability to fight large-scale conventional battles "had simply atrophied from neglect," the authors wrote. "We should consider ourselves fairly warned."

Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, a critic of the Army's focus on counterinsurgency, said in an interview that the service only will be able to restore balance among different fighting skills when the demands of the Iraq war lessen and soldiers have more time to train. "When a [brigade] is told when they get back [from Iraq] that they only have a year or year and a half to prepare for returning to Iraq, then they only prepare for counterinsurgency," he said.

Some analysts have concluded that large-scale wars fought on open battlefields are a thing of the past. The rapid pace of urbanization across the world means that future wars are likely to be fought in cities, where heavy firepower could kill innocent civilians and produce an angry populace.

In a speech last fall before the Army's annual gathering in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the service's overwhelming superiority in targeting and firepower means it is unlikely an enemy would choose to take on the U. S. in a stand-up fight. Instead, potential enemies are likely to imitate the tactics of guerrilla fighters in Iraq, using low-tech weapons such as roadside bombs.

Gates said the Army must strike a balance in preparing for future wars and warned against making the same mistake it did after Vietnam, when it focused on mastering conventional warfare at the expense of counterinsurgency. That decision, he said, "left the service unprepared to deal with the operations that followed: Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and more recently Afghanistan and Iraq -- the consequences and costs of which we are still struggling with today."

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