Ever-changing army fights the longest-ever war

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.

When it comes to wounded personnel, the enemy’s signature weapons in both Iraq and Afghan has been the roadside bomb, resulting in the signature injury — brain damage. There have been 100,000 mild brain injuries, and this does not include the large number of post traumatic stress disorders, which can amount to 12 percent of forces engaged.

Surveys have shown that stress disorder rises with multiple tours of duty, so an effort is being made to limit the time in the field and increase the time at home. It takes at a minimum half a year to recover from deployment. The ideal would be nine months in the field and three years at home. Six months in the field would be too short to be effective, 12 too long.

The ideal is not yet achievable, and experienced veterans are needed to bolster new recruits.

Suicides are dramatically down this year, and the services are trying to combat the idea that stress disorders are a stigma and a matter of shame for soldiers. Nothing helps more than for soldiers to be able to discuss openly their feelings with other soldiers.

Last spring Afghan security forces were at the same level as Iraq in 2005. Therefore it will take at least three to five years before they are up and running.

Most vexing are: 1, the governance of Afghanistan, and 2, Pakistan and the ability of the enemy to move freely across the border.

The importance of local culture is now well understood in the U.S. military. It is taught right down to the corporal level. Alas, Americans schools do not train students to understand foreign cultures, and, although Dari and Pashtu, the languages of Afghanistan, are exotic, foreign language skills are now as important for the military as for State Department diplomats.

The senior military officers recognized that there was a perfect storm of capitalization, and that savings and budget cuts are inevitable. But aging equipment needs to be replaced, even in a perfect storm of capitalization.

As for the case of fired general, Stanley McChrystal, he allowed certain circumstances to put him in a different place than his civilian leaders, which simply cannot be allowed in the American tradition of command accountability. But, the officers said, he had served magnificently.