‘The American military is becoming a Wal-Mart’, according to Rosa Brooks, law professor at Georgetown University and a Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former counselor to the U.S. Defense Undersecretary for Policy from 2009 to 2011, in her recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine. More accurately, what Brooks meant was that American policy makers have increasingly regulated the American military to a one-stop shop for the world’s problems.
As Brooks noted, “At the Pentagon, you can buy a pair of new running shoes or order the Navy to search for Somali pirates. You can grab some Tylenol at CVS or send a team of Army medics to fight malaria in Chad. You can buy yourself a new cell phone or task the National Security Agency with monitoring a terrorist suspect’s text messages. You can purchase a small chocolate fighter jet or order up drone strikes in Yemen. You name it, the Pentagon supplies it. As retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno once put it to me, the relentlessly expanding U.S. military has become ‘a Super Wal-Mart with everything under one roof.’”
The list of the military’s problems isn’t shrinking either. What’s more, it faces a cross roads in long-term strategic engagement. On the one hand, the US military faces rising conventional threats from China and Russia. On the other, the US is dealing with numerous, asymmetric radical jihadists, ethnic militias, the aforementioned pirates, and numerous fragile states, which are rapidly imploding. At a certain point, the military will have to ask itself is this split mission sustainable? Is it the military’s primary role to engage in long-term counterinsurgency nation-building conflicts, or should the military focus on growing conventional threats?
In all likelihood, the military will have to do both, but considering the fractious threat environment of the 21st century, it might be time to consider a shake up of the military itself. Specifically, it might be time for the US to consider creating a sixth branch of the military whose sole purpose is to fight small wars. Leaving the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines to focus on conventional threats. While the idea of a sixth branch may sound ludicrous, it is not with out precedent and in many ways is already in effect.
Historically, several European governments have maintained a regular army and a colonial one. While the regular army trained for battle against conventional European foes, colonial formations served overseas, policing European colonies. In practice, this meant fighting a series of small wars and skirmishes against a variety of local militias, tribes, and rebel groups, while also building infrastructure such as railroads.
One nation that took the notion of a colonial army and ran with it was France. The French Foreign Legion, though initially formed as a military unit comprised of foreign volunteers, went on to become one of the most feared and respected military units in the world. This was due in large part because the Legion was always at war, fighting constant skirmishes with the native population of Algiers, at the time a French colony, or serving as the spearhead of numerous French military expeditions.
The Legion’s effectiveness isn’t confined to the pages of history. The French Foreign Legion has been integral to numerous French missions in sub-Sahara Africa including Operation Serval. After the French Army executed what is still considered a textbook intervention in a civil war, the primary French combat arms including the Marines and Airborne withdrew, leaving behind a small flexible combat group to support the new UN mission and local army with an armed intervention brigade. The force was spearheaded by the 2e Régiment Étranger d'Infanterie of the Legion.
That’s not to say the Legion or the French for that matter have the silver bullet. Rather, following their withdraw from Vietnam and their decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French military dedicated itself to being a more agile force which fielded small, elite combat units that could provide an effective tactical multiplier. France maintains about 3,000 troops in Africa that serve just this purpose. In fact, if you were to look at a map of French military deployments across the continent, you’d be hard pressed to answer if the colonial era was over. Most of these French forces are small units that can rapidly apply force when needed. A good example of this ability was during the Ivory Coast civil war, when an elite French contingent broke the back of forces loyal to would-be dictator Laurent Gbagbo.
The US has already started to copy from the French playbook, using small contingents of elite solders, i.e. Marines and Special Operations troops backed by drones and airstrikes, to provide backbone and serve as force multipliers for indigenous forces. In the US’s case, this means Kurdish militias in both Iraq and Syria as well as reliable militias in Libya, and government troops throughout Africa and Asia.
However, while this light footprint intervention is proving militarily effective, it is consuming an inordinate amount of the nation’s military assets and stretching things a bit thin. Moreover, while inter service rivalries and bureaucratic infighting are significantly reduced post 9/11, it would be fallacy to think any large complex organization such as the US military is free of such things. Getting five distinct branches to share intelligence, plan missions, and execute operations can be a burdensome task.
It might then be time to resurrect the Legion of the United States. The original Legion of the United States served from 1792-1796 and was the precursor to the modern US Army. What made the US Legion unique was its combined arms force consisting of mixed units of infantry, cavalry, and artillery when it was the practice at the time for each of these branches to serve in separate regiments. The Legion was a force designed specifically for Indian fighting which is to say operating on the periphery of what at the time was considered civilization. The Legion needed to be nimble enough to maneuver against a foe who used hit and run tactics, while also versatile enough to stand up in a conventional fight should the enemy choose to engage it in one.
The Legions other great qualifier at the time was its focus on building the infrastructure necessary to secure ground newly cleared of hostile forces. In the 18th century this meant building roads and Forts. In the 21st century it means building roads, dams, and bridges while also training a local military and police force to operate independently and prevent insurgence or terrorist from gaining a foothold in previously secured territory. A modern US Legion could serve as the nation’s small wars branch of the military, by resurrecting this nimble combined arms and infrastructure building mentality.
Imagine if you will, a reasonably sized force 80,000-100,000 strong that could combine all the assets needed to wage a small war. A core unit of special operations troops, a couple of light battalions to set up forward operating bases, call in airstrikes, and co-ordinate artillery fire, and an air wing consisting of drones and a new class of cheap ground attack aircraft. This hypothetical ‘Legion’ would also have units specializing in training of local forces, and engineering units who could simultaneously assist in combat operations, and execute the “hearts and minds” infrastructure development so needed in counterinsurgency and nation-building operations.
It isn’t much of a leap to see such a force being organized. In practical terms, it already exists. The aforementioned light footprint interventions being carried out in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, are being spearheaded by US Special Operations Command with input from Joint Special Operations Command and other US Commands. The actual combat components of these interventions are combined task force’s, which are supposedly temporary formations pool resources and personnel from all branches of the military. Considering that it is unlikely that the US will stop needing to fight small scale wars anytime soon, it may serve to formalize these task forces into permanent formations, allowing their personnel to specialize in their form of combat, while the rest of the armed forces can focus on more conventional missions.
While policy gridlock and the divide of bureaucratic fiefdoms means the creation of a specialized small wars branch of the US military is unlikely, the fact remains that the US Armed Forces face a consistent drift in mission, being asked to do too much in too many different contexts. So perhaps it is time for the military to consider making the low intensity conflict area of its responsibilities a separate branch, rather than forcing each branch to split their resources between low intensity conflicts and their primary mission. The face of war is changing, and the US military needs to adapt in order to better face the multitude of threats that infest the world today.