Military Lessons from Desert One to the Balkans

By Skelton, Ike | Strategic Forum, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Military Lessons from Desert One to the Balkans


Skelton, Ike, Strategic Forum


Key Points

The performance of the Armed Forces has shown a marked improvement since its low point in the post-Vietnam era. Military leaders have deliberately sought out and internalized lessons from each succeeding conflict. The challenge for the next generation is learning the lessons of these past operations and building an even more effective, flexible force.

The military cannot pick and choose its missions. Their political masters may well decide that national interests require the use of force for more nontraditional missions or in situations that may be less than ideally suited to military solutions.

Force protection is critical; high rates of casualties can erode popular support and undermine the mission. On the other hand, excessive fear of casualties can erode the morale of the Armed Forces. The key is forging American leadership that understands the military risks involved.

Commitments to our allies may draw us into conflicts where U.S. national interests are limited, but where American leadership is essential to the vitality of the alliance.

Even a small operation conducted abroad requires an extraordinary range of well-trained forces, either highly deployable or already in theater.

Despite successes, the Armed Forces must address a number of challenges: urban warfare, weapons of mass destruction, tracking and destroying mobile targets, the need for lighter, more deployable forces, and the burden of ongoing operations.

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Military leaders are often accused, usually unfairly, of fighting the last war. It would be a pretty poor general, however, who failed to learn from what worked and what didn't work when military plans were actually put to the test. The task is to correct what went wrong and to build on what went right without losing sight of the fact that conflicts in the future may be quite different from those in the past. It is the premise of this article that a careful look at significant U.S. military operations over about the past twenty years--roughly the period the author has served in Congress--can help shape answers to a surprisingly large number of contemporary issues in defense policy. What follows is a brief review of seven of these military operations, followed by a discussion of some important lessons.

Iran (1980)

President Carter authorized an audacious military operation in April 1980 to rescue American diplomats held hostage in Tehran since the previous November. Although the operation ended in disaster in the Iranian desert at a site in Iran code-named Desert One, it ultimately had important consequences. It prompted a great deal of public soul-searching about the state of U.S. military readiness and, perhaps most importantly, it marked a turning point in popular support for military preparedness. The lessons of Desert One also contributed to steps that Congress took in coming years to strengthen special operations forces and clarify lines of command.

Lebanon (1982-1984)

U.S. Marines were sent to Lebanon in September 1982 as part of a multinational force (MNF) in response to a worsening civil war. The failure of the MNF mission, and the tragic loss of 241 Marines when a truck bomb was exploded at Marine headquarters in Beirut, imposed sobering lessons on U.S. policymakers. The mission was ill-defined from the beginning. It was not clear whether the MNF was a traditional peacekeeping force depending for its effectiveness on maintaining the consent of contending parties, or whether it was a peacemaking force empowered to compel adherence to agreements more assertively. The rules of engagement governing the conduct of troops in the field were ambiguous, and actions necessary to protect the force were not taken. As the security situation deteriorated, it should have become apparent that the size and composition of the force were inadequate, but decisionmakers failed to rethink the nature of the mission and instead allowed U. …

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