Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who also serves as the commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, said the United States has lost some of its nuclear and conventional war edge in recent years, but remains superior on these fronts.
“We are not superior in irregular warfare,” he said in a speech at the Foreign Policy Research Institute here. “And that’s what we’ve got to be.”
Mattis discussed the need for the U.S. military to transform to a “hybrid” force that expands its nonconventional means without sacrificing classic warfighting competence.
Broadly defined, irregular warfare refers to conflict with an enemy that does not organize itself as a traditional military. As in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, this type of fighting entails stealthy attacks such as roadside bombings and ambushes, instead of direct military-to-military engagement.
In calculating how to establish greater balance among the two types of warfare, the general said, he noticed a common thread among past armies that morphed to meet a new set of challenges.
“Every military that transformed, that changed, that modernized, did so on the basis of one thing,” he said. “They identified a problem and solved it.”
These historical precedents are relevant today because the fundamental nature of war is unchanging, he added.
“If I was to sum up everything I’ve learned in 35 years of wearing this uniform, I’d do it with three words: improvise, improvise, improvise. And the more we anticipate, the more we try to get it right ahead of time, the less we have to improvise in combat,” he said.
To help quantify problems the military may face over the next quarter century, officials developed the idea of the Joint Operating Environment. This conceptual battlefield takes into account potential threats born out of competition for resources, economics, increased urbanization and the possibility of nonstate actors obtaining more deadly weapons.
Joint Forces Command released its findings in December in a report called Joint Operating Environment 2008. A follow-on document, known as the Capstone Concept, created with approval from Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will guide how U.S. joint forces are implemented.
“Today’s challenges and threats are not strictly military in nature, solved or countered by military means alone,” Mullen said last month. “We owe future generations a longer-term view of security. The concept is designed to help military and other national security leaders think about challenges and opportunities.”
Mattis said one certainty is that the United States will fight 21st century war among “hybrid conditions” and emphasized the need to maintain focus on the mixed-type of warfare and to make irregular war a core competency.
“If we don’t set up some kind of magnet to pull the [Defense] Department out of its good old ‘mano-a-mano’ conventional war focus, then we won’t shift the budgeting, we won’t shift the focus over where it has to go,” he said. “Really, we’re going to have to be able to fight hybrid enemies.”