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Ever-changing army fights the longest-ever war

Senior military officials talk about how US troops are fundamentally different than 10 years ago.

US marines
U.S. Marines take a position during a joint landing exercise between the U.S. and South Korea in the southeastern port city of Pohang on Nov. 4, 2009. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — In an unusually high-level telephone conference briefing last night, senior military officers discussed with selected listeners the changing role of the armed services in this, the ninth year of warfare — not only our longest war, but the longest ever fought by a volunteer army, having now passed the war of the American Revolution.

Under strict ground rules, I am not allowed to say who the officers were, but here is what they had to say.

America’s armed forces are in a period of transition, which always happens in times of war. In 2001 the army was still focused on the Cold War necessity of big battalions and tank formations fighting on the plains of Europe. The Gulf War was a similar, big-battle war adopted to the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Today the shift is towards counterinsurgency, small unit operations — special-ops commando raids. It is a fundamentally different army than it was 10 years ago.

The Marine Corps has had to shift its traditional role of clear and move on, to clear and hold. They have, by necessity, had to move away from their specialty, amphibious landings, to adapt to the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of miles from salt water.

The Air Force, although it still flies about 400 sorties a day — 600 during the recent Afghan election period — has seen a tenfold shift toward pilot-less aircraft. This has produced wonders in intelligence, the ability to pin-point selected targets and let ground forces know what is over the next hill.

The use of drones is now a major part of U.S. airpower, and will remain so. But there is still a need — and there will continue to be a need — for pilots and conventional fighter planes. Drones are all very well when the enemy has no air force of its own, but wouldn’t last a minute in contested air space.

Although there have unfortunately been civilian casualties, precision and accuracy continue to improve dramatically. Eighty percent of civilian casualties were caused by the enemy, not by U.S. forces.

The Navy has 25,000 sailors in the Middle East and Central Asia, but the Navy also has to keep the sea lanes open all around the world. The Chinese navy was doing, what all emerging powers do. As countries become richer they invest in sea power because their trade depends on it. Portugal, Holland, Britain, the U.S., all did the same when they came of economic age. China is no different.

The anti-piracy patrols off Somalia give the American and Chinese navies an opportunity to work together and get to know each other.