Since at least World War II, the U.S. Army has identified large-scale conventional warfare as its organizational mission. Since then, this choice has influenced the Army’s decision-making in both war and peace. An organizational mission, as described by James Wilson in his book Bureaucracy, is something created when an organization has a culture that is widely shared and warmly endorsed by the operators and managers. It creates a sense of purpose in its members, as well as a basis for socializing new members.

While the mission can focus the specialization of a group, however, it can also lead to reluctance or lesser capability to perform tasks not included within that mission. That is, it can inhibit change. Inability to change, as discussed here previously, can limit the types of operations the Army is competent to perform.

When World War II ended, the Soviet armies were in East Germany and perceived as a threat by the West. The Army’s organizational mission became the conventional defense of Western Europe against a Soviet invasion. The conventional warfare mission shaped important aspects of the Army’s doctrine, acquisitions, and ability to respond to other threats as it focused on this one objective.

Bounded rationality, developed by polymath Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon and defined as restrictions on the rationality of decision-making based on factors such as the cognitive limitations of human reasoning and time constraints, can influence the choice of organizational mission. The mission an organization chooses will be made within cultural and historical biases, and the inability to collect and process all relevant information. An emphasis on one mission that defines the organization can then constrain it when the optimal decision is outside of core missions. If the problem cannot easily be solved within the context of the organizational mission, the organization could struggle to adapt.

The Army exhibited this type of bounded rationality during the Vietnam War. Instead of defeating a conventional offensive on the plains of Western Europe, it had to suppress a guerilla force hiding in the jungles and villages of Southeast Asia. Some defense researchers, such as Andrew Krepinevich, say there is an optimal way to fight insurgencies that is different from conventional wars. Such a counterinsurgency doctrine focuses on separating insurgents from their base of support rather than destroying them in a battle. The Army struggled to adopt these techniques while continuing to view the conflict through the lens of conventional warfare, which focused on defeating guerillas in “search and destroy” operations rather than on isolating the insurgency from popular support. Eventually, the American public grew tired of the war and demanded a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Despite heavy losses and a lack of victories against American forces in conventional battle, the insurgency survived and aided North Vietnam in their conquest of the south.

After its defeat in Vietnam, the Army underwent a series of reforms. Despite suffering defeat at the hands of guerrillas, the Army’s reforms centered on improving capabilities for conventional war, especially against the Soviet Union. It included better, more realistic training where U.S. forces defended against an opposing force modeled on Soviet armored and mechanized units. The Army developed new technology such as the M1 Abrams tank and the Patriot surface to air missile, both of which have limited use in counterinsurgency operations. Finally, the Army modified its doctrine, eventually settling on one called AirLand Battle. It emphasized aggressive operations against the enemy’s frontline units while precise, deep strikes disrupted rearward formations. Perhaps it was a viable doctrine to defeat a numerically superior, mechanized army, but AirLand Battle did little to address problems with defeating an insurgency.

It is a common viewpoint that the ease with which the U.S. Army defeated the Iraqi military in the first Gulf War vindicated its reforms in the aftermath of Vietnam. After the Gulf War, the Army prepared for other regional conflicts similar in nature. It was not until the need arose to defeat insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Army moved away from a focus on conventional warfare.

This series of events suggests that the Army’s bounded rationality affects how the organization viewed its mission, and that the narrowness of the mission made adapting to other contingencies difficult. A problem that was not in the context of the organization’s primary mission, suppressing an insurgency, proved difficult to solve. If the primary threat is a conventional war, then it is rational to optimize forces to fight in such a conflict. The Army thought little about missions beyond the bounds of conventional military operations despite the possibility that there were better ways to employ forces in counterinsurgency. If the Army ultimately lost to an insurgency, it is unclear if the rational response was to improve its conventional capabilities in the war’s aftermath.

The point is not necessarily that the U.S. Army should have focused more on counterinsurgency capabilities, but that organizational issues made it difficult for them to do so. One could argue that the dire consequences of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe made it important to focus on conventional warfare to deter or defeat such aggression. There are also trade-offs in capability when switching or expanding mission focus. If the Army’s organizational mission was still conventional warfare, one could expect it to go back to preparing for such a war after its major counterinsurgency missions ended in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the Army has instead begun to emphasize the ability to fight across the spectrum of warfare. It remains to be seen if this is a genuine change in organizational mission or an attempt to revert to the organization’s preferred task.