Continuing our series of blog posts and discussion, this weeks piece by Jill Russell @Jsargentr takes aim at the treasured value of “combat effectiveness.” We take for granted that we understand how to value and measure this quality, what is necessary for achieving it, and what issues positively and negatively affect it. Clearly there is something amiss in our approach, because “combat effectiveness” notwithstanding we are lagging at “war effectiveness.” Read the essay and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.
In the debate regarding women in combat roles and units, the last refuge of the land-power rejectionist camp in both the US and the UK is combat effectiveness , the vaunted tactical prowess of the combat arms, particularly the infantry.  The stakes – and the implied potency of the argument – rise as one moves from the basic to the special. And let us be clear, combat effectiveness is deployed in any number of policy debates in military affairs. According to many calculations it would seem they are on to something, as Anglo-American dominance of the elite end of the military spectrum is regularly reckoned to account for the top 3 or 4 of the world’s best. And insofar as the standards of combat arms skills go, the regular body of the land forces seem equally indomitable. Clearly this is an enviable position, certainly one worth protecting, regardless of the issue.
Or is it? Considering the record of the last two centuries, the US and the UK seem to do better with an army whose bulk is created as and when. Bear in mind that this alliance defeated the German army despite being the weaker side insofar as close in fighting technique was and has been concerned.  On the other hand, the post-WWII advances in tactical capability have not proved their utility, demonstrating instead increasing strategic irrelevance. Of course, dominance of this space, of being the very best individual and small unit fighters and military campaign planners and executors, seems entirely sensible. In reality, however, the diminishing returns to improve past “good enough” to superior have not justified the cost of the attempt, as this must be reckoned not only by the resources used in the pursuit and the record of success, but the opportunity costs of that which has been forsaken as well. Thus, we must accept that the focus upon combat effectiveness has not served the needs of contemporary war.
This paradox of tactical success nested within strategic failure is clearly on people’s minds. As the US and UK wrap up operations in Afghanistan, the equivocal nature of the results are giving pause. The latest comment last week from US Army Lieutenant General Dubik (ret) surveyed the issue and put the problem on the civilian-military nexus of strategy and policy.  And from that perspective he lays out a very convincing case regarding the problems at that level of war. But he never questions the wisdom of attaining or maintaining that tactical prowess, even as it does not deliver success. Assumed within his argument is that if we can only get the strategy and policy in line then we will be able to bring this capability to bear and start winning wars again.
I do not agree that this paradox is limited to the strategy and policy problems. In addition to the damage done by those issues identified in the general’s article, I would assert as well that the focus upon tactical superiority – in technique, application, and materiel – has incorrectly shaped our thinking. That is, rather than aiming for effective tactical skills combined with other capabilities that link to and support larger goals, tactical superiority alone as its own unquestioned aim and ideal reigns. So strong is the faith that it assumes the status of explanation, “because combat effectiveness.” Any discussion is meant to be nixed at the utterance of that phrase. Moreover, the further flaw of this focus is that “combat effective” has been defined in the conventional military wisdom as effectiveness AT the constituent parts of combat. Rather, I propose the more useful and relevant view would be that the ideal is the effectiveness OF combat, to the campaign, strategic and policy needs of the conflict. Whereas the former view of combat effectiveness concerns itself with capabilities in a vacuum, the latter forces the consideration to expand to include the relevance and utility of the capability to the larger goals, as well as what else might serve. That is, the goal is not the greatest infantry or the greatest fighters, but the greatest army, to win wars not battles.
As I have taken the liberty to question the very foundations of conventional wisdom I shall leave off specific questions and simply recommend a discussion along this broad theme:
Given the recent failure of tactical dominance to win wars, what really needs to be considered when calculating combat effectiveness?
“Tweet” your response with #CCLKOW
1 Combat effectiveness, as used in Ango-American military circles, refers to skills and capabilities at the tactical level which are integral to winning battles. These I generally think of as encompassing fighting abilities for the soldiers, cohesion for units, and planning and command for officers. Also referred to as “military readiness.”
2 Richard Kemp, “Female Soldiers Just Lack The Killer Instinct,” November 18, 2014, The Times; Anna Simons, “Here’s Why Women In Combat Units Is A Bad Idea,” November 18, 2014, War on the Rocks.
3 John Buckley has a very strong argument against the manner in which armed forces have chosen to define combat effectiveness in Monty’s Men, pp 13 ff.
4 Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, “Winning Battles, Losing Wars,” ARMY Magazine, November 18, 2014.
The Quadshot Warrior blog is hosted by Jonathan Silk, who is a Major in the U.S. Army. He has served as a Cavalry Scout platoon leader , and has commanded both a Tank Company and an Infantry Company. He is currently an Academic Instructor and serving as the Operations Officer for the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning (CALDOL) at the United States Army Military Academy, West Point, NY. He was a recipient of the calendar year 2009 General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. The views expressed in this blog are not representative of US Army or DOD.