Commentary: Pentagon's shifting warfare focus makes sense

This editorial appeared in The Kansas City Star.

The Pentagon recently took the major step of elevating the military's mission of "irregular warfare" to a status equal to that of conventional combat. Irregular warfare involves efforts to root out insurgents or terrorists — missions that may sometimes be clandestine.

The Pentagon’s shift in emphasis makes sense, given the kinds of missions our troops have been given over the last several decades in places such as Vietnam, Kosovo, Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan and Iraq. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, the 1991 Gulf War — which involved traditional combat — stands out as an exception to that pattern.

The Pentagon directive, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, says the services must intensify their efforts to deal with unconventional threats. This will ensure that — unlike the aftermath of Vietnam — the military services won't discard what was learned about how to fight such wars.

The directive reflects a sense that the probability of large-scale combat is diminished relative to the kinds of deployments and missions that troops will actually face in the near future.

But the Pentagon must ensure that conventional capabilities do not atrophy. The long-term threats posed by Iran, North Korea and a larger-scale strategic competitor such as China are not about to vanish. The Pentagon must continue to train to maintain credible conventional deterrence.

Some officers are concerned that the balance toward unconventional warfare has already tipped too far. One is Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, a West Point professor, who told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year: "We've come to see counterinsurgency as the solution to every problem and we're losing the ability to wage any other kind of war."

Like financial markets, institutions overshoot. Pentagon officials must take care that the fears of officers such as Gentile are not realized.

The greater emphasis on counterinsurgency and irregular combat missions is wise but training for conventional combat should not be neglected.

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