Robert Scales admits he’s biased. He’s a ground soldier. He won a Silver Star as a 24-year-old artillery captain at “Hamburger Hill” in Vietnam. He commanded ground troops, and the Army War College, before retiring as a major general.
He’s a ground-combat theoretician with a Ph.D. in history and five books to his credit, including a well-reviewed new one, “The Iraq War: A Military History.”
[IMGCAP(1)] He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the 19th century British Army because he believed, in 1976, that America’s future wars would be close-combat encounters like Vietnam, not all-forces strategic conflicts like World War II or a World War III with the Soviet Union or China.
He still thinks that. Recent history bears him out, and he makes a compelling case that the U.S. government is misdirecting funds to “the wars we want to fight” — air, sea and space battles — rather than “the wars we have to fight,” on the ground in the Middle East.
“Since the end of World War II,” he said in an interview, “four out of five Americans killed in action have been infantrymen. Yet the Army gets only 23 percent of the regular military budget, and the top 10 items in the Pentagon procurement budget are five airplanes, four ships and the missile-defense system.”
Scales is worried that, despite some favorable signs, “techno-centric” programs will dominate the Quadrennial Defense Review just launched by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — a blueprint for military “transformation” priorities for the next decade.
Scales thinks that the United States faces “generations” of smaller wars in the Mideast. And to fight them, it needs 100,000 more Army combat troops, 30,000 more Marines and 20,000 more Special Forces, plus a modernization of their equipment, a reorganization of their units and a much better training regime for small-scale urban combat and intimate contact with foreign cultures.
Right now, he says, “we essentially have two services at war, the Army and the Marines, and two services at peace, the Air Force and the Navy. You can’t dispute that.
“We have the Army stretched to the absolute limit. Both the Army and the Marine Corps are tired beyond belief. We’re beginning to see cracks in recruiting for the National Guard and the Army Reserve. And we’re beginning to see bits and pieces of that in the active Army.”
Scales believes that the overall military does not need to be enlarged beyond its present 1.2 million personnel. He opposes a draft because “we don’t want an army of amateurs and units of strangers.”
He also doesn’t favor putting more troops into Iraq. “You know why? Because we don’t have them. If you include the Marines, we only have 36 combat brigades in the whole armed forces. Right now, 20 are in Iraq. If you believe in having one brigade in recovery and one preparing for deployment for every one in the field, we need 60 total. We simply don’t have them.”
Rumsfeld has proposed a semi-permanent increase of 20,000 troops, increasing the number of combat brigades to 43. “But that’s only 20 percent of the way we need to go,” he said.
Scales, who like me is a regular commentator on Fox News, is critical of the way the Rumsfeld Pentagon conducted the aftermath of the Iraq war, though he’s optimistic that “Iraqification” of the conflict will achieve favorable results.
“The ‘post-combat’ phase was just unplanned,” he told me. “The administration thought this would be like the occupation of Germany and Japan, a constabulary-civil affairs operation.
“They were surprised by the ferocity and skill of the enemy. They shouldn’t have been. Our enemies have learned they can’t beat us ship to ship and tank to tank. They realize they have to pull us into cities, where we’re least effective, and wear us down. How do you beat the Americans? You kill enough of them until they go home. Ho Chi Minh understood this in 1964. Our enemies do now, too. The more wars we fight, the more the enemy realizes that you defeat America at the tactical level,” he said.
Which is why, in Scales’ view, Rumsfeld should upgrade America’s tactical capabilities, with more combat troops and equipment such as new combat vehicles, aircraft to carry them and unmanned drone planes to provide pictures of the combat environment, even in cities.
Combat troops also need better communications and body armor, a new infantry weapon and munitions that will detonate above hidden enemy fighters and knock down the walls they hide behind.
But just as important, Scales says, soldiers need better training, both military and cultural. As demonstrated by the recent mistaken shooting of an Italian journalist at a Baghdad checkpoint, he said, “tactical decisions made by sergeants and lieutenants can have as much strategic importance as those made by generals and admirals.
“Every American soldier should receive cultural and language instruction,” he said. “Not to make him a linguist, but to make him a diplomat in uniform” who can deal with civilians and gather intelligence.
Scales is encouraged that Rumsfeld favors more “special operations” capability. But he’s worried that, overall, “transformation” will emphasize expensive high technology when America’s real enemies are fighting with rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.