Rethinking Light Forces
May 15, 2006

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a concerted movement towards the development of “light” forces with agile support services. In the United States, General Shimada of TRADOC postulated that the majority of wars that would likely be fought in failed or failing Third World countries. Accordingly, there was no necessity for the US Military to ­maintain a “Cold War” army with heavy formations and the echelons of committed logistics support. It was a cause that was readily taken up by governments everywhere.

The various authors of this concept pointed to the events of Gulf War One where the coalition easily rode roughshod over an ineffectual Iraqi military. With an extensive preparatory program of intense air strikes prior to the initiation of ground combat, the Coalition Army attack achieved its goals in just a little over 100 hours (due in large part to the absence of an effective Iraqi counter to Allied air power.) Moreover, the casualty rate was extremely low in terms of the numbers of Allied wounded and killed which led to the overly optimistic view that Major Powers could easily defeat Third World powers on a conventional battlefield and win the war. These assumptions among others drawn from the conflict were to set the course of development for most Western militaries.

There is one minor problem. It is likely that the limited aims of Gulf War One seduced military analysts into believing that the campaign they had just fought would likely mirror the campaigns of the future. Certainly, to some extent, events between Gulf War One and the present have borne out some of those predictions. However, if one considers the ­history of warfare in any great detail, ­conflicts such as these are rare. Whether it is the “Subaltern” wars of Great Britain, or the Colonial Wars of the Europeans, such events were often no more than skirmishes in a larger war. In fact, one could forcefully argue that there was an Anglo-Indian War that lasted from the victories of “Clive of India” to the Earl of Mountbatten’s supervision of the dissolution of the Raj. The same argument could be made for all the other colonizing nations as well, especially the French.

What are we to make of these issues? First, that there is a nasty habit of nations rushing to cash “peace dividends” only to be forced to expend exorbitant sums to later overcome the problems associated with a diminished military. Secondly, that the governments’ often-continual reduction of military capabilities, equipment and personnel will inevitably cost, as Winston Churchill said, “horrendous loss of blood and treasure” when required to re-establish it again. It is a lesson that Canada has had to learn more than once.

It seems we fail to learn the lessons of our earlier misadventures. At this juncture some readers will be shaking their fists and shouting “Luddite.” But the fact remains that not all potential conflicts are going to be confined to either the Horn of Africa or the Middle East. There are other potential areas of conflict such as Eastern Europe and the Korean peninsula that could demand our participation as UN and NATO members. It may mean that we could possibly face an enemy that has sizeable, conventional, heavy forces that include armoured fighting vehicles, substantial air support, and a well-protected logistics support train. How would we deal with the crisis?

While no one can really object to the need for light forces, the fact remains that such a force only provides a narrow, tightly focused capability. As well, the overt reliance on as yet unproven technology which is designed to function within a low intensity conflict such as a counter insurgency operation, may prove problematic should we be forced into combat that current circumstances and capabilities will endure well into the future.

A more reasoned and flexible approach is required. Perhaps it is time to forget the lessons of the post Cold War and move toward a rational strategy for dealing with the potential battles that we may be forced to fight in the future. A number of areas remain to be addressed:

  • Balanced Forces – while there is a definite role for light forces, there is also a role for heavy conventional and ­specialist forces.
  • Strategic Resources – the self-deception game of providing support using a peacetime logisitics chain is seriously flawed. There must at all times be a protected and ready reserve of ­necessary spares and support items for operations.
  • Strategic Transportation – the assumption that a commercial supplier will be willing to provide strategic airlift, ships and ground transportation in an active theatre is equally flawed. If you don’t have it, you can’t count on it!
  • Internal Distribution Systems – as the U.S. Forces are learning in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a requirement to ­provide military transport, air and land, that is robust and capable of withstanding enemy ground fire. Not all armoured vehicles are operational ­vehicles; forces also require armoured support vehicles.
  • Strategic and Tactical Air Support – although air forces can be expensive to acquire and maintain, since World War II, commanders have realized that without your own aerospace forces you are at the mercy of your allies’ air forces and the assaults of the enemy.
  • While this article may seem overtly simplistic, it nevertheless serves to point out that before we scurry down the road to a military composed of only light forces, we must take time to reflect on the impacts some of these decisions might have. It should, at least, start a few discussions, and in doing so will have served its purpose.

Major Rob Day is a military historian and serving officer in the Air Force, working in Strategic Planning at NDHQ.
© FrontLine Defence 2006