The Last Stand of the American COINdanistas

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of attending the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting at the Washington D.C Convention Center. Amid the endless parade of uniforms and business attire, I wandered up and down observing the latest offerings of the premier nodes of the western military-industrial complex (very few Russians and Chinese exhibitors on the floor that day). Many impressive products, like the prototype of the Bell V-280 Valor, demonstrated that the future wars now being aggressively marketed by the Call of Duty franchise are not that far off, as do a bewildering assortment of automated missiles, guns, and guns that destroy missiles. Body armor, including the delightful shrapnel-proof boxers, combined with amazing digital optics, night-vision, laser sights, promises to get our soldiers looking more like the Borg in short order.

All in all, the show demonstrated the robust health of network-centric theory.  It seems there isn’t a problem computers can’t fix. While I was busy looking at Rafael’s signature “House of the Iron Dome” (and trying to make up a song based on House of the Rising Sun to set it to. “There is a house in Tel Aviv, they CALLLLL the IRONNN DOME”) I couldn’t help but notice how rather scaled down everything was. I had come expecting Tanks and F22 Fighter Jets, but the show should have been subtitled “Drone Storm Rising”.

Walking about with my neck craned up, it appeared any company worth its billion dollars of salt has a drone. Drones that spy, drones that bomb, drones that are of the air, drones that creepeth on the earth: General Atomic’s ones that shoot hellfire missiles at (mostly) terrorists in Pakistan, Israeli land ones for defusing IED’s (and delighting the few children who were there), small (fist sized) ones with HD cameras that look like the ones you can buy at the mall, and, my personal favorite, the Switchblade, the 2-ft long tube-fired reconnaissance drone that can be deployed by soldiers on the battlefield and with the potential of lethal munitions added.  Again, that drone with the 10 km range can fit in a backpack. I’m sure the militias at the Bundy Ranch are preparing accordingly.

It was hard, however, to ignore the elephants in the room: the hulking up-armored Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected Vehicles (MRAPS). The odd helicopter, construction vehicle and Stryker aside, these tan beasts sat in contrast to the gray and black of the missiles and drones, so sleek and rather petite. If you’ve never seen an MRAP, they look something like this:


Imagine a short schoolbus from hell. These vehicles sit a few feet off the ground, with the trade-mark V-shaped hulls to direct the blast from IEDs and EFPs outwards and not directly up into the passenger hold. The windows are covered with blast-proof glass and steel bars, the turret on the top often automated to prevent even the necessity of exposing the gunner. Armored (and sometimes up-armored with iron grating) at every point, the MRAP tells a rather unpleasant story. The metal behemoth is testament to the struggle American and Coalition troops have faced in the last decade: liable to sudden attack from propositioned IEDs and sprays of rockets and small arms fire. The HUMVEEs we took into Iraq were made for rapid maneuver, not getting repeatedly ambushed along regular patrol routes, and thus, tragically, many lives were lost to roadside explosives. The MRAP is a descendent of vehicles used to protect soldiers in South African bush wars against regional guerrilla insurgencies. When that became America’s reality in 2004, the Pentagon suddenly found itself unprepared with a stopgap against the IED.

The struggle to get these metal monsters in short order and in necessary quantity was a defining early struggle for the administration of Secretary Robert Gates, who ran into considerable difficulty getting the Army acquisition staff to stop focusing on next-generation platforms to invest in a mobile bomb-shelter. Thankfully, he did, and the investment no doubt has saved many lives. You can’t put a price-tag on that, though unfortunately fiscal management demands we acknowledge that the contingency program, which involved buying MRAPS off the market from every company that made them, did not come cheaply. The price-tag: $45 billion dollars.

Again, you cannot say it wasn’t worth it: these things worked, and could have saved many lives had we had them earlier. Unfortunately, as we all know by now, the Iraq War was not exactly a triumph of long-term planning. DOD didn’t make the investment beforehand because A. They didn’t see a point to lumbering land-boats in a shock and awe, in-and-out in five months, kind of war, and B. the budget after the Cold War wasn’t very generous for projects other than the latest-and-greatest. We spent money to beat the Soviets and their spin-offs, not on patrolling spreading love and goodwill (Freedom) to the AK-47 wielding peoples of the third world.

The military now faces something of a quandary: what to do with the roughly 27,000 MRAPs it bought for something like $600,000 and up, per unit. The answers have been to either pawn them off to countries where old mines are a problem (the Balkans mainly), scrap them, keep them in storage, or, delightfully, give them away to local police departments. The problem is that the sunk-cost MRAP doesn’t fit in to the hard-hitting, ship-to-shore (read anti-China), world of the high-tech brigade combat team armed with fast moving vehicles. An MRAP is not sneaky, quick, or light. It’s perfect for patrolling when you’re constantly surrounded by hostile light infantry, but run it up against a tank or a fighter-bomber and you’d be out of luck. It is, in a word, about controlling territory, but not about capturing it. Since America is mostly fighting expeditionary wars, the first part is only as good as the second (so thinking goes). The Marines, Navy, and even the Air Force is on-board, and the Army would like, for both reasons of budgetary protection and strategic relevancy, to drop the MRAP model and get back to where we were before we had to get involved in stability-building exercises.

This brings me to another thing I did at the convention: went to see three of my personal legends, Gen. HR McMaster, Rt. Hon. Sarah Sewall, and Max Boot, on a panel about land warfare. These were the people I had read about in my classes at King’s College and in Fred Kaplan’s excellent book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. These are the advocates of Counterinsurgency, COIN, and they represent, in flesh, the struggle in metal represented by the MRAP and the portable Drone. McMaster and Sewell worked closely with Gen. Petraeus to complete the FM-3.24 field manual on counterinsurgency, where as Boot, an unabashed neo-conservative author, is a historian of the small wars of earlier American history in which our small standing Army and Marine Corps projected American land power and influence in South America and Asia. They were joined by Dr. Viva Bartkus of Notre Dame and hosted by Lt. Gen. Charles A Cleveland of US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC).

COIN  is the art of controlling an area and the people within it. More specifically it is an approach of battling an organised armed resistance to the imposition of law and order by the occupying force, or in our case the local government we are trying to support or create. COIN involves many things, but it mostly requires a cultural literacy about the opponent, the individual or group that opposes you, and the people and places you are controlling. In order to make sure that the insurgent cannot hide in a population or sway it against you, you have to get to know the people, what they are about, and act accordingly.

It is a combination of carrot-and-stick approach, in which you have to build schools and also bomb insurgent strongholds simultaneously, and you have to be smart about where and when to do both so as not to disturb the balance of popular opinion or aggravate pre-existing points of contention. It’s a multiform approach more akin to life as a beatcop/land developer/head of neighborhood association/police academy instructor than it is to being Rambo or Goose. In Iraq we quickly destroyed the enemy army, but then spent 7 more years trying to get Iraqi Government to the point were it wouldn’t deflate immediately and trying figure out a way to destroy the insurgencies created by the occupation so we could leave.

The COINdanistas are advocates of strategic land power, that American military forces need to be numerous enough to intervene in, and if necessary occupy and secure, unstable areas in order to achieve American policy goals. Their approach to Iraq was the additional 30,000 troop Surge, and they are also the people who are trying to fight America’s wars the easier way by trying to bolster local forces with Special Forces advisers, building things that get people to like America and its local friends, and developing proactive cooperation between Defense and State Departments in order to keep weak states from exploding with radicals that threaten American interests. This is often called Phase 0 operations, with Dr. Bartkus quoting Sun Tzu (COINdanistas are usually Daoists) to say that winning without fighting is the best way.

The more technically-minded officers and soldiers might view this as somewhat hippie (COIN theory advocates are mainly liberal arts grads and PHDs), but it does make a rather cynical observation of the dangers emanating from weak states and recognizes the importance of holding and controlling territory to prevent its use by America’s enemies. AUSA likes the COINdanistas because they too are arguing for a large and active Army, and at a time when everyone fears the hacksaw of sequestration and budget reduction, the Army wants every weapon in its arsenal.

Yet, the problem for the COINdanistas, like the MRAP, is that they emerged with an expensive solution to a burgeoning problem. They are advocating a form of governance, a form of imperialism by accident, and nation-building (Max Boot, not caring what anyone else thinks, is the one who will call it that) in order to prop up American interests and contain either jihadist terrorism or foreign aggression. It also takes time, and America is a nation notably impatient when it comes to fighting wars or sponsoring long-term and expensive projects overseas. Yes, it is inexpensive compared to what might happen, but until Mosul fell to ISIS in June, most Americans would think anyone advocating keeping forces in Iraq after 2011 was either a warmonger or insane. It takes the will, and the public confidence in leadership who says that is an expense worth paying.

Now we have the wisdom to fight that kind of war, but not the will (and really not the resources). That COIN advocates wish to stop the spread of networks of Islamic jihadists in containment is correct, vital even for preventing further offensive jihadist terrorism. The problem is spending additional money on the problem of power projection, and many question whether it is our prerogative to be fixing every failing government and, after Iraq imploded, whether it actually works.

Many instead believe a minimalist approach is best, and the Obama administration’s pivot to the Pacific and the expansion of our low-grade counterterrorist operations suggests our role will be to put a stick behind allied land forces with the conventional deterrents of aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, subs, the rapid-reaction Marine Corps in Osprey Helicopters, and the like. This represents the sort of “continental sword” approach the English and British used for several centuries in order to participate in European wars without needing to actually raise large armies. These are wars of seapower, airpower, special forces, and drones. The Army too is focusing on regional alignment, which is a harmonium of understanding local conditions (a la COIN), while also integrating with local forces so that we can enable our allies to fight alongside us (meaning fewer troops required).

Many also know such a minimalist approach constrains options for independent action, and many authors were quick to nail the administration on the shortcomings of the airpower/local forces combo in Iraq or Syria, especially since we don’t control the secondary portion. That was the Libya model, and look how well that turned out.

On the other hand, you have the MRAP as a bitter reminder of what the boots on the ground option means: attrition and lengthy deployments. Even though statistically our forces killed and captured far more insurgents than we had American troops killed, we still had to see many servicemen and women killed and maimed by home-made weapons and unseen insurgents that rendered our billions of dollars of network-centric vehicles vulnerable or ineffectual. The MRAP is ugly, but as a mobile fortress it tells you something about what is needed to occupy foreign countries. One can almost imagine Legionnaires in Kepi Blanc peaking out from the top of it.

To be honest, I found plenty of photos of the Foreign Legion, but this one was the best.

To be honest, I found plenty of photos of the Foreign Legion, but this one was the best.

There is then the struggle for the soul of things in the Army. If the Army continues to shrink so we can be a lean and meaner force ready to intervene on the Pacific Rim, we may avoid the temptation to fight these COIN wars, though at the price of surrendering the ability to do so in future if we really needed to or unwillingly wound up doing so (as we consistently have since 1945 and may be about to again). The Army has got to be ready to patrol and keep enough personnel to be able to do it widely and consistently. This was the lesson forgotten at so great a cost after Vietnam, and that is why we need the COINdanistas to remind us that we need to think ahead if we plan on ousting authoritarian governments, and we need to have the forces big enough to do it.  This means spending more money on people rather than platforms (ILW’s logo is a Vietnam era infantryman who looks more Band of Brothers than Black Ops), and spending money on platforms that are unwieldy, but very well tailored to the local situation.

Yet, COIN does not in itself present a welcoming prospect because it takes time and lots of money, and unless you’re Max Boot who believes the price of global peace is perpetual low-grade (but still very expensive) wars of containment in the world’s trouble spots, you’re probably loathe to spend taxpayer money or American blood to do it. Iraq may be a proving ground for their argument, and certainly the panel was right to be critical of the decision to withdraw all troops by 2011 given what happened to the Iraqi Army. Yet, even as COINdanistas circle the wagons, the nation is weary of that kind of war. Given the blood and treasure already spent, it is not without cause that many would like to save the Army for the big fight (or to deter it) and let the drones do the talking in the meantime.

And unlike an MRAP, those drones can fit in your backpack.

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