- Historic Sites
From Saigon To Desert Storm
How the U. S. military reinvented itself after Vietnam
November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
It also went well because the armed forces had worked out a doctrine ideally suited for operations against a foe like Iraq. One of the U.S. Army’s most important innovations after Vietnam was the creation in 1973 of the Training and Doctrine Command to fashion an intellectual renaissance. Its first commander was Gen. William DePuy, a veteran of World War II and Vietnam who proceeded to obliterate the traditional American approach toward war. In his first operations manual, which came out in 1976, DePuy noted that traditionally the United States was “accustomed to victory wrought with the weight of matériel and population brought to bear after the onset of hostilities.” This had worked in the industrial age but it was no longer suitable for the dawning information age. Given the lethality of modern weapons, General DePuy did not think it was possible to lose the first battles and still push on to victory. “Today the U.S. Army must, above all else, prepare to win the first battle of the next war.”
This was an important innovation that was eagerly greeted by the Army. So was DePuy’s emphasis on realistic training, which led to the creation of the National Training Center. The actual strategy he ultimately crafted, known as Active Defense, was less popular. As its name implies, it was an essentially reactive approach that called for falling back in the face of a Soviet onslaught in Europe. Other ideas bubbled up at various military institutions; they included advanced schools devoted to the operational art, opened by the Army, Marines, and Air Force in the 1970s.
The eventual result was a new doctrine prepared by DePuy’s successor, Gen. Donn Starry, and adopted in 1982. His approach, known as AirLand Battle, was anything but static. It was essentially a variant of the German blitzkrieg or Russian “deep battle,” and a far cry from the attritional strategy utilized by U.S. forces in all of the country’s major conflicts going back to the Civil War. AirLand Battle called for attacking Red Army rear echelons, seizing the initiative, outmaneuvering the enemy, and utilizing a variety of weapons simultaneously to produce a counteroffensive that would be “rapid, unpredictable, violent, and disorienting to the enemy.” It was predicated on the assumption that the United States had superior weapons and superior personnel that could compensate for its inferiority in total numbers. The Air Force bought into this doctrine, and the Marine Corps came up with its own version, known as Maneuver Warfare.
This was, in essence, the strategy that America put to use in Desert Storm. Originally developed to counter Soviet tank armies on the plains of Europe, AirLand Battle proved ideally suited to fighting Soviet-style tank armies in the deserts of the Middle East.
The final element necessary to produce U.S. victory in the Gulf War was having the right organizational structure in place. Chaotic operations such as the 1980 Iranian hostage rescue attempt had revealed the pitfalls of interservice rivalry. This gave a boost to military reformers on Capitol Hill who wanted to create a more unified command structure. After several years of debate, Sen. Barry Goldwater, an Arizona Republican, and Rep. Bill Nichols, an Alabama Democrat, managed in 1986 to push through the most significant shakeup of the Pentagon since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947.
The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act emphasized “jointness”: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was made principal military adviser to the President and the Defense Secretary, sidelining the individual service chiefs with their more parochial concerns. To assist him, the chairman was given a vice-chairman (another four-star general) and an expanded joint staff of more than 1,000 officers. Service on a joint staff became mandatory for any officer seeking promotion to flag rank.
This legislation also established a clear chain of command running from the President through the Secretary of Defense to a unified field commander. The entire world was broken up into five vast regions—Europe and Africa (European Command), the Atlantic, the Pacific, Latin America (Southern Command), and the Middle East, East Africa, and Central Asia (Central Command, or Centcom)—each placed under the command of a four-star general who had complete authority over all U.S. forces within his jurisdiction. (Other commands were established for responsibilities such as special operations and transportation; they transcended geographical boundaries.) The Goldwater-Nichols Act gave the combat commanders unprecedented authority within their domains. It was power that General Schwarzkopf, who took over as Centcom’s third chief in 1988, used to marshal the forces that won the Gulf War.
Into the Storm
Viewers around the world were amazed by the spectacle that unfolded on their TV screens between January 17 and February 27, 1991. Video clips of bombs and missiles hitting with seemingly unerring accuracy obliterated once and for all the previous image of America’s “hollow” army. In its place came a new vision of an unbeatable superpower.
Yet just as victories can grow out of defeats, so too can defeats grow out of victories. The very prowess displayed by the armed forces in 1991 made future foes wary of challenging this new Goliath on its own terms. In the future, America’s enemies would use unconventional weapons—weapons like hijacked airliners and suicide bombers—to circumvent its dominance in conventional combat. And the U.S. military, superbly configured for a dash through the desert, would find itself ill suited for waging irregular warfare against shadowy enemies who did not present easy targets for smart bombs and Abrams tanks.