The Sept. 11 attacks jolted the U.S. armed forces into a new era of war-fighting in which commando strikes, intelligence collection and manhunts often overshadowed heavy armor and big bombers of yesteryear’s conflicts.
The attacks by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and Pentagon prompted President Bush to launch ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and send troops to other hot spots to confront terrorism.
“It put us back into combat,” said retired Gen. James T. Conway, the former Marine Corps commandant who led troops in the 2003 Iraq invasion.
“There had been a fairly lengthy hiatus there where we had been a peacetime force, training people for an eventuality we hoped would never come,” Gen. Conway said. “But it put us back on a war footing. We realized it from Day One. Things changed dramatically on 9/11 because we knew that our country would not sit still and let that go unpunished.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor ultimately made the U.S. the world’s dominant military power. The Vietnam War took it down a notch, a defeat that led to a “hollow force.” The Cold War saw it re-emerge in the 1980s, able to intimidate the Soviets and execute 1991’s Desert Storm in high-tech fashion.
Likewise, the 9/11 attacks fundamentally changed the way the U.S. military thinks, plans and fights.
New enemy, new tactics
The new enemy did not wear uniforms or march in formation or follow the rules of war. The U.S. military for the first time began a prolonged struggle against Muslim fundamentalists and Iraqi insurgents who used suicide bombers, roadside explosives, beheadings and ambushes to try to defeat Americans.
There was not much talk about such people before Sept. 11, 2001. But today at West Point or the Pentagon or any divisional headquarters around the world there is relatively less talk about big land wars across Europe or Asia. The brainstorming often focuses on “irregular warfare” - the counterterrorist and counterinsurgency missions that belatedly turned the tide of battle in Iraq in 2007 and promise to do the same in Afghanistan.
During the past 10 years, Mr. Bush’s declared “war on terror” ushered in huge Pentagon budget increases. The services got bigger, as did the tip of the sword - U.S. Special Operations Command.
In midwar, the military had to stop, reassess and change tactics. It produced a historic doctrinal shift in how to root out the enemy, village by village, city street by city street.
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel and military analyst, said the Bush administration made one big mistake. Unlike in World War II and Vietnam, the U.S. decided not to conscript a wide number of Americans to do the fighting.
Instead, it relied on the active, volunteer force and the standing National Guard and Reserve. The same units, and often the same troops, went back and forth from the U.S. to the war zone while the vast majority of Americans watched.
“We ignored our whole tradition and history and instead drafted the Guard and Reserve and sent them to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times,” Mr. Allard said. “In Vietnam, everybody went for one year. Now, people are going back three and four times. I never thought I would live to see a day in which we actually had more casualties from suicides than from the Taliban. We failed to mobilize. We sent other people’s kids to everybody’s war.”
Perhaps no service was jolted by 9/11 more than the Army. It reaped the benefits of developing a new way of fighting. But it also underwent the stress of fighting two wars at once and saw its suicide rate jump.
“The biggest change - the Army was really not an expeditionary force,” said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who was a top aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus during the 2007 Iraq surge.
“It operated from bases in Germany,” he said. “It operated from bases in the United States. It did not deploy a lot.
“But ever since 9/11, the U.S. Army has been nothing but expeditionary. And soldiers who have grown up in the decade since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have gone through multiple deployments and have fought two wars,” he said. “So the Army has become an organization that is stressed, yes, but has also become comfortable deploying around the world and operating overseas. I think that’s one of the big changes.”
Along the way, the Army learned a new way to fight.
Events were going badly three years into the Iraq war. Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane went to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and told him the U.S. would lose Iraq unless it changed strategy. Republicans got thumped in the 2006 elections, and Mr. Rumsfeld was forced to resign.
Percolating at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., was a new plan for fighting insurgents. Gen. Petraeus guided the new doctrine through the Pentagon and then got a chance to exercise it as the top commander in Iraq.
The big change: The Army used to stay in operating bases, launch raids into neighborhoods to kill insurgents, then return to barracks. Under the Petraeus plan, soldiers would set up shop inside insurgent territory to conduct strikes and protect civilians.
Said Col. Mansoor: “Counterinsurgents operate best when they operate among the people; … when you disperse your forces, getting them to live among the people, you generate a lot more intelligence and you insulate the people to a certain extent from insurgent violence and intimidation.”
Before 9/11, “we weren’t really thinking insurgency warfare, guerrilla warfare, irregular warfare,” he said. “We thought that was something we could pawn off on the special-warfare community. Since 9/11, obviously the U.S. Army has had to deal with it in a very serious way. And there have been a lot of growing pains in that regard, but the capabilities have increased enormously.”
Gen. Conway said that while the Army needed a new doctrine, the Marine Corps all along had been following a “small-wars manual” that had been developed over decades.
“It was new for the Army. It wasn’t new for the Marine Corps,” Gen. Conway said. “To his credit, Petraeus was always the best Army general at incorporating the things that we believe very strongly in. But the things he sort of brought to the Army were the things that we were practicing in stride.”
The irony is both of the nation’s land forces, the Marines and Army, had to switch roles. The Army became expeditionary like the Marines and then had to learn a new style of counterinsurgency. The Marines became a second land army, setting up shop in a foreign country to fight for extended periods.
“We’ve been able to morph into a second land army because that is what the country needed,” Gen. Conway said.
Counterinsurgency involves not only combat. A major challenge has been for the military to learn how to defeat improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the chief cause of casualties in Afghanistan. The Pentagon set up a new agency just for that purpose, pumping billions of dollars into electronic jammers, surveillance equipment, aircraft, metal detectors and robots.
Often the enemy countered by building devices that lacked metal parts and were ignited by pressure, not an electronic signal.
In the standoff, the outgoing chief of the anti-IED agency said the best defense was something as simple as a soldier and his trained sniffing dog.
As the wars’ death tolls rose, the military had to change again. It had to stop sending troops on patrol in relatively thin-skinned, multipurpose vehicles called Humvees. They were getting ripped apart by roadside bombs.
First, the military augmented the vehicles with more armor. But they remained susceptible. When Robert M. Gates succeeded Mr. Rumsfeld as defense secretary, he learned that the Marines and Army were building a new troop carrier that could repel explosions and save lives.
But why were they not out in the field? Mr. Gates demanded to know. He ordered the services to ramp up production of the vehicle known as MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) and sent them overseas.
Today, virtually every combat unit has MRAPs. The 9/11 attacks had led to a revolution in how troops move on the battlefield.
“We went across the border in Humvees that had canvas tops and sides,” Gen. Conway said. “We continued to get heavier as the enemy made heavier use of IEDs and mines that struck us from underneath. We certainly had to evolve our systems to try to stay ahead of what the enemy was doing.”
While 9/11 resulted in a gradual transformation for conventional forces, the al Qaeda strike brought immediate change for a backwater outfit in Tampa, Fla. - U.S. Special Operations Command (SoCom).
Created to correct flaws discovered in the disastrous 1980 Desert One rescue mission in Iran, SoCom was more bureaucrat than war fighter. It bought equipment and made sure that Rangers, Green Berets, SEALs and Delta Force were trained and ready.
All that would change - right away. As the Pentagon still burned, Mr. Rumsfeld was thinking of SoCom as the leader of the war on terror. Commando units were the perfect organizations to hunt down and kill an unconventional enemy who worked out of ungoverned territory, safe houses and mountain caves.
First, he awarded SoCom the prestige of being a “supported” command as opposed to its old role as a “supporting” one. This gave the SoCom commander authority to plan and execute what is called “direct action combat.”
“Donald Rumsfeld said it doesn’t make sense for us not to have a four-star command in charge of this war on terror, at least the coordination of it,” said retired Army Lt. Gen William G. Boykin, one of the first Delta Force members, who went on to become the Pentagon’s No. 2 intelligence director during the war.
Money started flowing to Tampa. The command brought in a whole new cadre of war planners and began enlarging all its special-operations components. And the Marine Corps for the first time joined SoCom and nurtured its own commandos.
“He gave them somewhere between $1.2 [billion] and $1.5 billion to take that headquarters and turn it into a war-fighting headquarters,” Gen. Boykin said of Mr. Rumsfeld.
The secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), home to Delta Force, had spent most of its time training for hostage rescues. Now, it and other commandos started preparing for how to find and hit an al Qaeda or Taliban hideout.
In less than two months, Army Green Berets were leading the invasion of Afghanistan, teaming up with anti-Taliban fighters in Pakistan and crossing the border via low-flying helicopters.
“It was a godsend because unconventional warfare was losing its luster,” Gen. Boykin said. “It was way down on the list of priorities. Afghanistan refocused attention on the [unconventional warfare] capabilities.”
Today, the command stands at 61,000 personnel, up from 45,600 on Sept. 11, 2001. It has added three Ranger companies, five Green Beret battalions, a special operations aviation battalion and an unmanned aerial squadron.
The growth is even greater when it is factored in that in 2007 the Pentagon shifted 11,700 civil affairs and support personnel from SoCom to the Army Reserve.
While the Pentagon built up SoCom, it also knew the expansion would be meaningless without intelligence on where terrorists and their leaders were located.
Mr. Rumsfeld created a new post, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, to coordinate information from the Pentagon’s various collection agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency. Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan now had a senior civilian to whom it could request intelligence assets for a particular mission.
In the field, it meant units such as the SEALs and Delta Force were fused into large task forces that included the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, a special military intelligence unit known as Task Force Orange, and the electronic eavesdropping National Security Agency.
The 2006 hunt for al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi illustrated the new alliance. The Delta task force intercepted communications that led it to a Zarqawi adviser, who in turn led it to his hide-out north of Baghdad. F-16s bombed the hut and killed one of the most ruthless al Qaeda operatives in the Middle East.
“They’ve really learned how to bring all the resources of the intelligence community into their operations to where the hard work is done really by the intelligence folks,” Gen. Boykin said.
The cost for all of this has been immense. The annual base defense budget since 2001 has nearly doubled to $570 billion. In addition, the wars themselves have cost an additional $1.3 trillion, according to the Congressional Research Service.
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