What Kind of Forces for What Kind of War?

Nov. 1, 1956
O true believers, take your necessary precautions against your enemies, and either go forth to war in separate parties, or go forth together in a body.”

The above quotation, frankly taken out of context, is from the Koran. It was written many centuries ago. Yet in many ways it is pertinent to the situation in the Pentagon today. For as one reads the statements of the protagonists of the various services, it might appear that they have not yet made their choice between going forth to war “in separate parties” or “together in a body.”

Nowhere is divergence of opinion so evident as in discussions of the so-called “little war.” There is quite general agreement that the best way to win the “big war” is to avoid it altogether. And likewise there is little quarrel nowadays with the thesis that the best way to avoid it is the maintenance of a deterrent striking force of such strength that no aggressor can see profit in beginning hostilities. Whether we are actually maintaining such a force is a matter of considerable dispute, but the argument is one of degree rather than general principle.

Much of the current discussion hinges on the thesis, proposed by some, that we somehow can simultaneously be strong enough to deter or win the “big war” but not strong enough to deter or win the “little war.”

Mr. Quarles, the Secretary of the Air Force, touched on this briefly in an October speech to the National Guard Association. He said, “It seems logical if we have the strength required for global war we could handle any threat of lesser magnitude. Nevertheless, the very fact that total war has been deterred so successfully has served to spotlight the threat of local or peripheral conflicts.”

Certainly there has been considerable preoccupation with the little war of late—in public speeches, in the press, in testimony before Congress, and in Joint Chiefs of Staff meetings in the Pentagon’s E-Ring.

But few of these discussions—the public ones, at any rate—are getting to the heart of the matter. Allusions to the threat of peripheral conflicts have been largely quite general in nature, seldom touching on precisely where these conflicts are mostly likely to occur, what form they might take, the amount and kind of warning we might expect, or the type and scale of operations we should be prepared to counter.

But despite the absence of such specifics, too many persons are drawing from the little-war discussions some conclusions that are neither supported by fact nor by logic. If the threat of local conflict is, in fact, increasing, the growing credence being given these home-grown conclusions merits more examination and explanation than it has thus far received.

The Air Force view has been quite well outlined by Mr. Quarles, in the above quotation and in an address before the National Security Industrial Association. In the latter he said:

“From now on, potential aggressors must reckon with the air-atomic power which can be brought to bear immediately in whatever strength, and against whatever targets, may be necessary to make such an attack completely unprofitable to the aggressor.

“One occasionally hears the fear expressed that this strategy applied to limited war would lead, step by step, to total war. Let me say that I certainly share the view that limited war might graduate into total war. This is the main reason why we should exert every effort to prevent war in any form. But, if limited war is thrust upon us, the best way to keep it from graduating into total war is to end it quickly. United Nations forces had been fighting in Korea without atomic weapons for five months when that conflict was expanded and aggravated by the appearance of Communist Chinese forces. Obviously, not using atomic weapons is no guarantee against an expanded war.”

The implication of Mr. Quarles’s statement is an unexpressed fear of our becoming overly preoccupied with the little war, to the extent that our deterrent capability in terms of all-out conflict is in danger of erosion through increasingly heavy budgetary demands for organizations and equipment which contribute little or nothing to our basic deterrent posture. Like Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe, it could avail us little to win decision after decision in the global pennant race only to lose the “big one” when the blue chips were down.

The argument that local wars can best be won with conventional means (i.e., non-nuclear weapons and surface forces), is a convenient one for those services and individuals who even now are faced with ever-shrinking roles and missions. But is the basis for such thinking militarily sound, or largely a product of emotion and tradition?

Certainly, the military principle of economy of force requires that we be prepared to use our best weapons to the best advantage. Even the ancient code of dueling permitted the challenged party the choice of weapons. And if he were an expert pistol shot, if the pistol were his best weapon, it was most unlikely that he would choose the rapier. It would be equally unwise for us, as a nation, to renounce the use of our best weapons, even though they may not be conventional in the traditional sense. For that matter, the English long-bow was not a “conventional” weapon, but the French knights could take little solace in this knowledge as English arrows mowed them down at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt.

Even more important, so-called “conventional” warfare is wasteful of human life—a precious resource in the Free World but expendable in the thinking of the Iron Curtain crowd. By now, it is almost a cliché to say that we cannot match the Soviets man for man. But the point is not can we so match them, but need we?

And there is yet another danger. If we delude ourselves that little wars call for little weapons, we may well be extending an engraved invitation for aggression. No nation, large or small, is likely to deliberately begin a fight in which the potential penalties to the aggressor far outweigh the potential gain. Today’s nuclear weapons, coupled with our determination to use them if needed, can take the profit out of aggressive war, big or little.

How, then, has the thesis that we may need conventional arms for small wars developed? It appears to have grown out of another unproved conclusion—that the use of nuclear weapons in a local situation will automatically trigger a global atomic holocaust. This is another way of saying that the deterrent doesn’t really deter, that a tactical nuclear weapon exploded over a Communist troop concentration in Southeast Asia would bring down hydrogen bombs on New York.

History furnishes no specific clues in this matter, for nuclear weapons have never been used in such a role. But if our possession of nuclear weapons combined with the ability to deliver them now deters a major war, it is difficult to see how this advantage could be erased in a twinkling merely because some of the weapons were used on a local target. Either our deterrent is powerful enough to deter, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, all the “conventional capability” we might muster will not save us from the nuclear fireballs.

As Mr. Quarles pointed out, we have had a taste of the “conventional” little war in Korea. It cost us nearly 150,000 casualties. It dragged on to indecision after years of fighting. And our renunciation of weapons did not keep the war from being expanded by the Red Chinese forces. There is a large and not opinion which holds that judicious employment of nuclear weapons, or at the very least the evident will to employ them, would have made the Chinese Communists think twice about widening the conflict. And we would have had a better than even chance of stamping out the brush-fire on far more favorable terms than the present indecisive stalemate.

Another concept about little wars, put forth persuasively by Army spokesmen, is that the ground-fighting must be done by US Army troops. This is a handy package. It calls for a larger and vastly more mobile Army and, in so doing, furnishes a convenient stick with which to beat the Air Force for alleged deficiencies and lack of interest in Army airlift. It conveniently ignores the some 200 ground divisions of the Free World which we are helping to train and equip. And it baldly overlooks the combat capability of that grand American institution, the United States Marine Corps—a force of some 200,000 men specifically trained and equipped for brush-fire duty.

Herein lies the nub of the matter. For the danger is not so much that we have not made clear decisions as to precisely how to fight and win the little war. The real danger lies in overemphasis on special preparations for little war at the cost of our general-war deterrent capability.

For, if there is one unavoidable military fact of life, it is that we must achieve the highest order of military capability available within definite ceilings on both money and manpower. Lacking both the money and the men to be completely prepared for every conceivable eventuality, it becomes a cold-blooded matter of first things first. And the competition for high-priority missions becomes exceedingly keen.

Nowhere is such competition more hotly debated at the moment than in the matter of airlift. Now, when the Army says “airlift,” it means “Army airlift.” And when it says we are short of airlift, it means that we do not possess the kind nor the quantity that the Army thinks it needs for its own self-imposed, self-determined mission.

The main element in this self-imposed, self-determined mission is the airlift requirements that the Army says it needs for a “little war.” Admitting, in testimony on Capitol Hill, that their airlift needs foreseen for a general war could be met by the Air Force, Army spokesmen go on to say that, while they are not sure what their specific requirements are, the Air Force cannot fulfill the Army’s little-war needs of a US division in an area such as Southeast Asia. But they fail to prove either the need for a division-size force or, should this be so, the need for such a division being American.

Moreover, airlift is not a parochial requirement. We need airlift for the Army, we need it for SAC, for TAC, for many missions and many requirements. It becomes a national resource, like men and nuclear weapons. In terms of the over-all mission, it is a scarce resource, one to be parceled out prudently in terms of the nation’s needs rather than on an individual service’s desires.

Such decisions are the responsibility of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Hence it would seem logical to look at the JCS estimate of Army airlift requirements. Let’s turn once again to Mr. Quarles’s speech to the National Guard Association, in which he said:

“The Joint Chiefs of Staff have appointed certain airlift requirements which the Air Force is expected to provide to the Army. The Air Force is equipped and prepared to meet these requirements. Moreover, we are developing and procuring more modern and higher performance aircraft especially designed for Army assault airlift, and we will make a determined effort to meet the future airlift requirements of the streamlined Army divisions as they evolve.”‘

As the song says, “Who could ask for anything more?” Answer—Army enthusiasts. Army magazine, official journal of the preponderantly active-duty Association of the US Army, said in a staff report in its issue of August 1956:

“For many years the Army has pursued the avowed objective of making its divisions air-transportable. The reorganized 101st Airborne Division will come closest to this objective. But in view of the shortage [sic] of air transport and the lack of a program [sic] to remedy the deficiency it can be wondered if this air-transportable objective makes much sense.”

How can it happen that the Joint Chiefs are satisfied with the Army’s airlift while Army proponents are dissatisfied? One answer lies in the indiscriminate use of the terms “airborne” and “air transportable.” The newly activated 101st Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., is specifically designated “airborne.” Yet in terms of over-all goals the Army has had “the avowed objective of making its divisions air-transportable.”

There is no quarrel with the need for an air-transportable Army and, within the Joint Chiefs at least, little doubt that this requirement can be met in terms of any realistic war plan. Particularly if the Army pursues its streamlining in earnest, especially to the end of devising equipment that can be carried by air.

But airborne forces, with heavy emphasis on paratroopers and air-droppable equipment, is another story.

Number one (and this is like attacking motherhood), the tactical and strategic value of paratroops during World War II remains highly debatable. It is difficult to find a single campaign in which airborne forces, as such, played a decisive role, although they fought gallantly and well.

Number two—it is extremely unlikely that paratroop-type airborne divisions would be needed in the decisive stages of an all-out war. Certainly they could not be used until the air battle had been won.

Number three—a clear-cut need for airborne forces in a local war has never been established. The need under such conditions is to get forces to the scene quickly, but this does not mean they need to be air-dropped. Even in undeveloped areas a surface logistic system would be necessary for sustained operations. No one, even in the Army, bas argued this point.

Number four—airborne divisions do serve the Army purpose of generating an unrealistic requirement for airlift. Airborne forces (not “air-transportable forces,” mind you) require continuous jump training. This in turn requires Air Force troop carrier aircraft to be available on a near-continuous basis. Air transport training is not nearly so demanding. It is primarily a matter of furnishing transport aircraft on a periodic basis in order to maintain proficiency.

Thus when an air-transportable Army becomes equated with an airborne Army, a requirement is generated which neither the Air Force nor the nation can hope to satisfy under foreseeable fiscal and personnel ceilings.

Anyone who examines the matter from a practical standpoint realizes that a vast increase in our transport resources cannot be achieved within a military budget of between $36 billion and $40 billion and with manpower resources in the neighborhood of 2,750,000. At least, not without seriously crippling our deterrent posture.

What the Army wants, of course, is its own organic airlift. And if this would solve the problem, few would stand against it. But the problem would rather be aggravated. A completely new maintenance system would require added millions of dollars and added thousands of the kind of men who are already in woefully short supply. A new aircraft procurement organization would be another costly adventure in men and money. A vast new training establishment would be needed. Not to mention a new load on an already dangerously over-burdened base system.

It is to be hoped that the Army continues its streamlining program. Already it is agreed among the Joint Chiefs that if all divisions could be cut to the 11,500-man size of the new 101st Airborne, Army airlift requirements could be halved. It would appear that this is a most fruitful field for Army research and planning, rather than attempting to build its own Air Force. It is easier and cheaper to try to fit the Army into present and programmed airlift than it is to try and wrap unbuilt, unprogrammed airlift around a cumbersome Army.

But let us not forget, in summary, that Army querulousness over airlift is merely a symptom. The overriding consideration, involving slicing the taxpayer’s dollar, is what kind of war we are preparing for.

Are we strong enough to deter the big war and to win it should deterrence fail?

Is the little war the real threat that lack of clear-cut thinking is making it?

A little war where?

Under what conditions? Fought by whom