Adapt and Achieve
“The world’s strategic environment has evolved toward one that is characterized more by Irregular Warfare activity rather than major nation state warfare.” -- Admiral William H. McRaven
Detractors of counterinsurgency have, among others, three preeminent reservations. One, that policy aims ascribed to counterinsurgency are grandiose on paper and in practice; two, that those policy aims are of an indeterminate scope (“stability”; “rule of law”) coupled with an unnecessary commitment of American personnel for an indeterminate amount of time; and three, that counterinsurgency does not serve the broader national security objectives of America, and can in fact be achieved by other, more palatable means sans the unnecessarily large logistical tail.
America’s national security commitments around the globe can still be met in a measured and responsible way, while utilizing the materiel, resources and personnel we already have. It has been suggested that America can no longer meet its national security objectives unless it retains the ability to fight two major theater wars (with whom?), become embroiled in large counterinsurgencies (for what?) and establish “rule of law”; (to what end?) the world over, all while pursuing bottom-tier adversaries in Asia. I reject this premise.
As the United States right-sizes its force structure around the globe the Pentagon and the White House expect this nations Marine Expeditionary Units, special operations and national mission force to stand up; not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Latin America, Africa and innumerable “unlit spaces”. Even in an age of supposed fiscal austerity, a global campaign of this magnitude will still require general purpose forces; including the National Guard and reserves, our so-called “strategic reserve”.
America’s commitment to deter, disrupt and defeat the enemy will not change. Rather, what should change is the manner in which we expend our own resources and political capital.
The basic tenets of this approach are a political, operational and institutional commitment to:
— Countering violent extremism’s influence and expansion
— Developing and maintaining synthetic partner nation capabilities
— Augmenting human and area intelligence
For too long, the Pentagon and the Fourth Estate have allowed policymakers to conflate pie-in-the-sky idealism with American interests. They are not the same. Not every revolution is worthy of American intervention, nor does every potential failed state necessitate a costly, overbearing and ultimately counterproductive conventional American presence. As operational tempos increase, the consequences of not resourcing varied areas of responsibility increases. To preempt a strategic deficit, greater attention must be paid to the employment of specialized capabilities in the same breath as partner nation synthetic capabilities in order for them to be exploited.
The width and breadth of this campaign must be commensurate with operational realities, asymmetric in both its inception and its execution.
Capitalizing on Counter-Network Operations and Building Sandcastles
Sandcastles can only be built on the beach, and no further. In order to combat resurgent and emergent threats, policymakers should invest in synthetic capabilities whenever possible, resulting in both minimal loss of American life and expenditure of political capital. Historically, a robust synthetic capability enhances the overall strategy. The political logic of asking general purpose and special operations forces to do more with less is detestable if understandable; the second- and third-order effects, untenable.
Back to The Future
In its simplest form, offshore balancing does not eschew the use of conventional military force to shape the global commons so much as it relies on allies and proxies to contain their dangerous neighbors — and do the fighting (and dying) in lieu of Americans. While morally questionable, one would be remiss if they did not see the advantages of partner nations countering the very extremists policymakers have pledged to defeat, with little to no loss of American lives.
The inevitable rebuttal by offshore balancing deniers is to point to an imagined strategic deficit and the realities of thrusting an all-volunteer force into an actual — rather than perceived — state of persistent warfare a la the Barbary Wars. The former is preposterous. The latter is a legitimate concern. There are some in the national security arena and academia who question America’s willingness to combat nation-states, their proxies and assorted non-state actors. This, too, is of legitimate concern. A pivot to a national security strategy reliant on tactics, techniques and procedures resulting in past American triumphs is preferable to the large-scale, manpower-intensive counterinsurgencies of the present.
Modern-day counterinsurgency — predicated on something colloquially referred to as “graduate-level warfare” — purports among other things that the only way to deter, disrupt and defeat extremism is to unnecessarily put hundreds of thousands of American servicemembers, their materiel and soccer balls in harms way for negligible, even non-existent returns. This would be lamentable, if not for the lofty rhetoric and faulty intellectual assertions articulated by some of the finest minds in foreign policy and national security circles.
A penchant for “new” doctrine and a culture that rewards risk-adversity coupled with overly restrictive rules of engagement in the face of asymmetric, emergent and conventional threats have led many to concede that victory is but a fleeting memory of years long past — and with it, America. This is a laughable premise, only because the plethora of assets a modern, joint force can bring to bear would deter even the most determined foe.
For too long, fear of shore- and ship-to-ship missile technology has laid at the heart of naval planners resistance to define any role in brownwater and littoral combat and has resulted in a Navy that has forgotten it’s there to fight, not meander thru the Mediterranean for a long string of port visits while delivering the occasional air strike. Air planners dislike utilizing naval assets due to the Air Force”s institutional bias. And the Army insists on more and more of an entrenched presence ashore vice a more balanced, expeditionary posture.
The only consistently forward-leaning and proactive branch isn’t –- it’s called the Marine Corps. Nations raise armies and navies to fight and win, not to stand-off at a twenty-mile-plus distance and eschew a tactical mindset in favor of local sensibilities and artificial operational constraints. Detractors of offshore balancing like to argue our nation is bereft of platforms and assets to wage an campaign close to shore, along the shore and ultimately on the shore. This is a falsehood.
The Navy maintains not one but four Riverine squadrons precisely for this application. The Marine Corps and, yes, the Army also have fleets on fleets of adaptable, agile craft that can take the fight to the enemy in the way that blue- and greenwater platforms cannot. The Army has so many ships sitting unused in the global war on terrorism it’s forced to mothball them at the Army amphibious base in Fort Story, Virginia.
Carriers and various amphibious platforms can be utilized as Afloat Forward Operating Bases, a proven while somewhat foreign concept to many outside observers. AFOBs have been employed in support of a Joint Special Operations Task Force innumerable times in Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa, - Philippines and - Caribbean and Central America. These can and have also been used in lieu of large, land-based forward operating bases peppered throughout the Middle East and greater Asia.
Dovetailing on these facts, it should be said that nothing is preventing the Air Force and Army from standing up forward detachments that are physically and administratively attached to these platforms. In the summer of 2007, a Joint Special Operations task Force supported by an aviation detachment from 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) embarked on the USS HARRY S TRUMAN for approximately one month. Amazingly, the world did not come to an end and doctrinal papers did not spontaneously combust. It worked. They worked in cohesion with the organic crew and embarked elements, and in turn we worked as a team — lethally so.
In that vein, embarking Joint Interagency Task Forces aboard carriers should be the next logical step. Additionally, barges can and have served as floating Contingency Operating Locations abroad, and the infrastructure exists in the private sector to buy or rent them as needed. Despite arguments to the contrary, it is fiscally sustainable to maintain a constellation of Cooperative Security Locations on the soil of both permissive and semi-permissive partner nations. It is the unnecessarily large, sprawling Forward Operating Bases and strategy they support that are fiscally unsustainable. Yemen, Uganda, Uzbekistan and Honduras are notable examples of existing Cooperative Security Locations.
It has been said America must scale back our ambitions globally, due to a real or imagined age of fiscal austerity. While the perils of a purely direct action centric approach as a strategic substitute cannot and should not be enumerated in an unclassified forum, they are readily available to those with access to policymakers, legislators or the requisite clearance.
Alarmingly, some of this nations leading minds have advocated America acquiesce to both rising powers and the existential threat of violent extremism – primarily, but not exclusively, by radical Islamists — and instead attempt to “influence” events, instead of shaping them in accordance with American interests.
Still others portend that we must come to terms that victory will not always be achievable and America must adjust its strategic objectives accordingly, a commendable policy position that stands in stark contrast to the intellectual underpinnings of modern counterinsurgency arguments.
There are even those that would have us formulate doctrine and policy options around a policy of non-intervention — a policy predicated on the idea that we should choose to lose by choosing not to fight to win. Most disturbingly, it has been suggested that the global campaign to combat extremism and any nation-state that enables it — via proxies, preferred non-state actors, special technical operations, clandestine actions or other morally ambiguous means — should be discarded in favor of containment and a more nuanced, and therefore timid, approach.
While some of these assertions are more egregious than others, they all share a common theme. Save for one, all are predicated on the idea that America is somehow passé. That is, America should accept a corresponding decline in American influence and the ability to shape events while simultaneously scrapping its efforts to counter nations states, extremism and their ideology. It is a dangerous path, one fraught with danger and ambiguous logic, and should be avoided at all costs.
Seizing A New American Century
As we embark into the second decade of the 21st century, policymakers, academia, the Fourth Estate and citizenry alike should be aware that the old paradigms have given way to a new normal. America’s willingness to counter violent extremism and combat nation-states in a decisive and asymmetric capacity is a vital piece of the geostrategic puzzle. We can and must do whatever it takes to maintain hegemony on the global stage, by any means.
The only viable solution in an age of real or supposed fiscal austerity lies in a force complemented by a roster of receptive (and not so receptive) host nations and synthetic capabilities. Such a force would be horizontally and vertically integrated with the interagency. But most importantly, such a force would be led by innovative thinkers with innovative ideas that result in new and more innovative ways to deter any enemy, disrupt any sanctuary and defeat any aggressor.
Policymakers should adapt to operational realities and apply measured and consistent pressure on legislators and private industry to achieve the policy aims of their choosing. Anything less is unacceptable and not only creates a courage deficit, it leaves America three steps behind instead of two steps forward.
America can achieve its national security objectives and reestablish hegemony over the global commons in line with operational, fiscal and geopolitical realities. It requires bold and decisive momentum and the return to an emphasis on equal parts direct action, foreign internal defense, and irregular (and unconventional) warfare.
This is the way forward. This is what winning looks like.
Robert is a veteran of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM-AFGHANISTAN, -HORN OF AFRICA and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and has worked at the tactical, operational and strategic level with the Department of the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as well as contracting and consulting with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Department of State and the interagency intelligence community.