Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Global Expeditionary Warfare

Global Expeditionary Warfare

There are two certainties at this time of writing: (1) our armed forces will maintain a significant presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future and (2) the threat from al Qaeda and similar aligned groups will not be going away anytime soon. The first factor increases the strains on our men and women in uniform— both active and reserve— and will keep the operational and personnel tempos high. The second means that our armed forces-along with other inter-agency actors-must continue to transform to meet present and future threats. Such transformation can be carried out through reorganization, new operational concepts, and technology.

Task Force 121 (TF 121), established recently by General John Abizaid, the Central Command combatant commander, is a unique experiment in reorganization and a new operating concept that is of great importance to the war on terrorism.[1] The unit-comprised of special operations forces, main force elements, and supporting personnel— is designed to track down high-value targets such as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Distinctively, TF 121 was created out of elements that were working separately in Afghanistan (Task Force 5) and Iraq (Task Force 20). Combined command and control structures allow the consolidated unit to streamline information sharing, among other things, and to operate throughout the region, apportioning forces to support mission requirements. Can this model of force employment be used by the rest of the military in the global war on terrorism?

The Geopolitics of Terror

Military forces may not be the only way to deal with terrorists and their state sponsors but they will continue to play a crucial role beyond Afghanistan and Iraq. And while it may be true that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are “non-state actors” who do not possess a physical country, they must still operate from terra firma and they require a certain amount of infrastructure to support themselves. Such ties to physical space make them comparable to past adversaries; they are tied to the real estate of sovereign governments. These governments fall into three categories: (1) those helping directly, (2) those who look the other way, tolerating terrorist activity, and (3) those who are incapable of acting against terrorists, either because they are “failed states” or lack historic jurisdiction— e.g., Pakistan and its tribal regions.

The United States should continue to work with countries within whose territory those terrorist groups base themselves, and offer assistance of various forms to cut off such territorial access. Depending on the level of terrorist activity, this could lead to various forms of assistance. Some of this aid may come as American diplomatic and law enforcement assistance to the host country, others by intelligence and covert operations, and still others by rapid, punitive expeditions of an overt but limited nature. If a third party country is unable to cope with terrorist groups on their territory, or unwilling to deal with them due to domestic circumstances, then the limited use of U.S. forces for expeditionary operations of short durations must become a serious policy option.[2] We may not be able to drain the swamps completely, but at least we can root out some of the denizens that pose a threat.

Global Expeditionary Warfare

A strategy of punitive strikes is not new. For instance, from 1798-1898 we used force abroad on 96 occasions. Of these, all but two (the War of 1812 and the Mexican War) were low-level operations that line up with the limited duration, punitive strikes suggested here.[3] More recently, both the Reagan (Libya) and Clinton Administrations (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan) used such tactics, although with mixed results.

Operationally and tactically such a shift in policy would best leverage current forces now heavily committed in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Who can do the job? While Army Special Forces teams and similar SOF assets may provide what Robert Kaplan refers to as “stealth supremacy” by their forward deployment to myriad locations with a low visibility, when acting alone they lack the firepower necessary for certain complex operations.[4] They could, however, provide useful intelligence—an imperative for punitive strikes—for the joint task forces that would carry out such missions. These task forces could be composed of special operations elements, main force elements (such as a Marine Expeditionary Unit or an Army airborne battalion or brigade plus supporting arms), and precision-strike platforms depending on mission requirements. The key is that only “boots on the ground” can show decisive will, react better to enemy uses of cover and concealment to obfuscate their positions and dispositions, and gather— and react to— on-the-spot intelligence.[5] Such task forces would be true first responders (or preemptors) in the war on terrorism.

Aside from economy of force considerations, there is urgent need for new organizations and operating concepts such as TF 121. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently stated in his “Global War on Terrorism” memorandum: “DoD has been organized, trained and equipped to fight big armies, navies and air forces. It is not possible to change DoD fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror…” Our current adversaries know that they cannot defeat us on the classic battlefield. Instead they seek to exploit the seams of our martial skill and technology in order to sub-optimize, counteract, or avoid our capabilities. In particular, they believe that inducing casualties will sap our will and thus negate our advantages. Their preferred forms of operations cost much less than field armies. As Rumsfeld continued in the aforementioned memo, “The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions.”[6]

Skeptics of reorganizing a portion of the force for global expeditionary operations may counter that such a move might detract from preparing to fight “conventional,” peer competitors. For instance, as Marine Corps Commandant General Michael Hagee said in a September interview with the Marine Corps Times,

First, quicker, faster Army, sounds good to me. I’ve never seen, ever, a crowded battlefield. When you look at the situations that we project in the future, it’s going to require quicker, faster forces. We’re a relatively small force. We do need a strong, heavy punch, Sunday punch type of Army, too… The Marine Corps doesn’t win wars. The Marine Corps wins battles. We’re too small. So we need that-we need that punch in case there is a peer competitor out there somewhere, somewhere in the future.[7]

Such reorganization, however, would not inhibit our forces in facing such a threat for two reasons. First, as stated, the majority of our main force units will be busy with deploying, preparing to deploy, or recovering from deploying to places such as Iraq. Second, the lessons and procedures learned from expeditionary operations will in all likelihood help us prepare for future opponents-peers and otherwise. We should remember that many techniques used against the Axis powers in the Second World War were invented or refined in such small wars locales as the Caribbean and Central America.[8]


Current operations in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq must not prohibit segments of our military— working closely with other government agencies— from focusing on the multiple areas where al Qaeda and like-minded groups plot and train against us and other regimes. While the reconstructions of Afghanistan and Iraq are vital in the current war on terrorism, we must work toward developing the capabilities and principles that will not only help us inch ever closer toward the goal of defeating terrorist groups of global reach but also to prepare against other potential and actual adversaries that may wish us harm. These adversaries understand our capabilities and will no doubt focus on ways to better match-up against us down the road. We must adapt and truly show our foes that there is nowhere to hide. One way is to establish credible uses of precise, short-duration, armed violence that conserves our national power while showing the world that the occupation of other states is not our only answer to combating terrorism. Global expeditionary warfare can do this.


While the views expressed here are those of the author’s alone, he would like to thank Mark Kohut, Mark R. Lewis, Chris Seiple, and Harvey Sicherman for their comments and suggestions.

  1. Thom Shanker & Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon Says A Covert Force Hunts Hussein,” New York Times, November 7, 2003, p. 1. [back]
  2. Stephen Peter Rosen also hints at such a policy option. See his: “An Empire, If You Can Keep It,” The National Interest (Spring 2003), pp. 51-61. [back]
  3. These numbers are compiled from Richard F. Grimmett, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-1999,” CRS Report for Congress, Order Code RL30172, May 17, 1999. [back]
  4. Robert D. Kaplan, “Supremacy by Stealth,” The Atlantic Monthly (July/August 2003), pp. 66-83. [back]
  5. See Stephen Biddle, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, November 2002). [back]
  6. The full-text accompanied: Dave Moniz and Tom Squitieri, “Defense Memo: A Grim Outlook,” USA Today, October 22, 2003, p. 1 [back]
  7. Quoted in C. Mark Brinkley, “Hagee Sees Some Overlap In Roles For Marines, Army,” Marine Corps Times, October 13, 2003, p. 15 [back]
  8. See, for example, Williamson Murray and Allan Millett, eds., Military Innovation in the Inter-war Period (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). [back]

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