First fireside of the new year!
For this week’s musing, I’m in a mind to talk about the tension between preparing for different kinds of war, in particular between counter-insurgency (COIN) and large-scale combat operations (LSCO), in part because that tension is animating a lot of security discourse in the United States, with the US military largely pivoting away from the COIN-emphasis of c. 2004-2016 to focus on LSCO, and in part because I am polishing my syllabi and teaching the Global History of Warfare survey again this semester which means thinking about where that course should end. When I’ve taught the course in the past, my last lecture focused on terrorism and insurgency as strategies to convert a military contest from a contest of arms the weaker party cannot win to a contest of wills that it can.
This year, it seems fitting to cap the course off with a discussion of the LSCO/COIN dichotomy. Although guerilla warfare, insurgency and thus COIN are often thought about or presented as ‘new’ (something I try to fight in my course structure, but not with as much success as I’d like), as today’s book recommendation, The Other Face of Battle (see below!) shows, for the American military, this is a problem that has always existed. Indeed, one could go further than that to note that as long as states have had militaries, those militaries seem to have been fundamentally torn between several missions: confronting peer militaries (LSCO), controlling populations (COIN) and also a third category of confronting external societies (often non-state) with militaries organized and fighting often on quite different principles.
That split mission is hardly new. Roman armies in the first century, for instance, found themselves engaging in what we might call ‘police actions’ (essentially COIN, waged with characteristic Roman bloody-mindedness) in provinces like Judaea, along with ‘asymmetric’ border warfare on the Rhine and Danube all while still preparing for potential confrontations with Parthia, a peer adversary ready to engage in conventional sieges-and-battles territorial warfare. None of these sorts of war are new, but at the same time the Roman experience speaks to how preparing for each involves difficult tradeoffs. Dispersed forces can engage in COIN more effectively, but armies need to be concentrated rapidly for LSCO. In the ancient world, cavalry was ideal for handling border raiding, but the Roman system for large conventional operations demanded a lot of heavy infantry (which in turn often struggled to respond to rapid moving raids). Indeed, as we’ve just discussed, even the fortification strategy changes as the threat profile shifts from primarily COIN, movement control and small-scale raiding to peer or near-peer adversaries. Much like with many modern armies, there was a strong cultural preference for symmetrical confrontations, but they didn’t make the asymmetrical challenges go away.
So why does COIN feel new? Well, as David Fitzgerald shows in Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq (2013), the United States military has generally responded to each period of anything but LSCO by deciding, whether it was successful or not, that it didn’t much like that form of warfare and didn’t want to wage it again, leading to renewed emphasis on LSCO that led to the lessons learned in previous conflicts to be forgotten. Nadia Schadlow, in War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (2017), makes much the same point focused on the ‘controlling a populace’ part of COIN and the degree to which the perceived low prestige of such operations as compared to LSCO makes it difficult for their lessons to be carried forward.
Yet at the same time, the pivot to LSCO makes a degree of sense. Potential peer adversaries do loom larger now than they did in the last couple of decades (though I find myself wondering frequently if the focus on LSCO by the army isn’t perhaps misplaced for conflicts that are perhaps more likely to be fought at sea, in space or in cyberspace). And there is a degree to which the choice between COIN and LSCO is a question of tradeoffs; weapons, training and doctrine that are ideal for one are often poorly suited for the other. I have to admit, the LSCO pivot is good for me, personally: I study a period (the Third and Second Centuries BCE in the Mediterranean) of large-scale combat operations between great powers engaged in strategic competition. The LSCO/GPC (Great Power Competition) pivot makes it a lot easier to explain the relevance of the sort of research I do in the larger military history/national security space.
At the same time, those other two missions – population control and facing asymmetric enemies – are not going away and yet I see too many signs that the pivot to LSCO is being taken in much of the US and broader NATO security establishment as a welcome break from the disagreeable task of COIN, another instance of “I’m glad we’re not doing that again.” But we almost certainly will be doing ‘that’ again, doubtless sooner than we think (or we’d like). Yet once again we seem to be ‘learning to forget.’
On to recommendations:
Over at War on the Rocks, the Net Assessment podcast did an episode on American naval global posture (plus a bit on the marines) which was quite interesting. While the podcast is focused heavily on the question of ‘presence,’ the discussion of force structure and posture is wide ranging and gives a good sense of many of the issues which motivate these sorts of discussions. This is an aspect of military affairs that doesn’t often seep into popular culture: the peacetime decisions which then shape the options available in a conflict. In particular, the dichotomy between the position that resources should shape posture (‘do what you have the money for’) and the position that requirements and strategy should shape spending (‘figure out what you need and then fund it’) is an important one. It puts me in mind of how the pre-WWI Royal Navy was forced to adopt both ships and force structure predicated on maintaining a global empire – forced, in essence, to work within mission constraints – whereas the contemporary German Kaiserliche Marine, lacking those requirements, could focus entirely on a single contest with the Royal Navy in the North Sea (albeit they lost that contest, in the event, regardless).
Picking right up on that theme, over on YouTube, Drachinifel has a great video on the modernization of interwar dreadnoughts. Once again what I really like here is how Drach first lays out the general concerns – what can you modernize and why are you looking to do so – and then discusses how each navy’s modernization programs fit within that framework. He gives a solid sense of the way that these efforts were shaped by treaties, by the other ships in the fleet, and by the expected role of the modernized ships. Once again, for post-industrial militaries, these sorts of acquisition decisions in peacetime often have a huge impact in shaping the zone of the possible during a conflict, but rarely get discussed in a public-facing way.
Meanwhile, because apparently we’re just doing a lot of national security themed stuff, I mentioned this recent Texas National Security Review article in last week’s Fortification post, but I wanted to bring it back here: Timbie and Ellis, “A Large Number of Small Things: A Porcupine Strategy for Taiwan.” The idea that Taiwan needs to ‘porcupine up’ is now a fairly common one in national security discussions, but what I think is really valuable about this piece is that Timbie and Ellis go into a good level of detail explaining what that looks like, including discussions of individual weapon-systems and capabilities which do and do not fit into the ‘porcupine’ framework. While the intent here is thus to advocate within the policy community for specific programs, I think the article serves very well as a primer for regular folks who want just a bit more detail about what a ‘porcupine’ strategy entails.
This week’s book recommendation, as mentioned is W.E. Lee, A.E. Carlson, D.L. Preston and D. Silbey, The Other Face of Battle: America’s Forgotten Wars and the Experience of Combat (2021). The title here lays many of the book’s cards on the table, in that this book is framed as part response, part expansion of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976), a classic of military historical writing. Much like Keegan, the authors here take an in-depth look at three battles fairly widely seperated by time; whereas Keegan looked at three ‘British’ battles (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme), The Other Face of Battle chooses three American battles, Monongahela (1755), Manila (1899) and Makuan (2010) which the authors insist were not all chosen because they begin with the letter ‘m’ and I almost believe them.
But where Keegan chose three symmetrical battles between armies in the same ‘cultural sphere,’ The Other Face of Battle is concerned with battles across systems of warfare and substantial cultural divides. The first battle, Monongahela, serves as a good reminder that not all ‘asymmetric’ warfare is COIN, featuring an army of mixed British regulars and colonials defeated in a pitched battle (albeit an ambush) by an enemy army composed primarily of Native Americans waging a different kind of war. In all three studies, the book makes a good point of showing “there is no universal soldier whose sensory system connects to the brain in the same way in all times and places,” a point on which I quite clearly agree.
Another useful innovation from Keegan’s model are the two short ‘interlude’ chapters, which provide brief institutional histories of America’s army between the battles. These both help the reader bridge the considerable chronological gaps between the case studies, but also serve to set up for the book’s conclusions in its final chapter, “The Other Face of Battle: Preparing for the Wrong War.” Noting the cultural preference for enemies that fight ‘traditionally’ (which is to say, symmetrically), the final chapter contends that Americans (and one assumes this could be extended to the armies of many other states) tend to under estimate the ‘other’ in warfare, that American reliance on local allies has been a near constant in warfare despite this, that America has tended to try to find success in technical and materiel superiority which does not always translate into battlefield results and that finally the United States, as it shifts to LSCO, may once again be preparing for the wrong war, with institutions like the Command and General Staff College pivoting decisively away from teaching and training COIN, even standing down the Asymmetric Warfare Group in 2020.
This book is going to be immensely valuable for both the specialist and also the lay-reader who wants to understand the ‘small wars’ that sit, often forgotten, between the ‘big wars’ that grab the popular imagination but which nevertheless make up quite a lot of what America’s army has been expected to do over the last two centuries. The book is accessibly priced, but more importantly accessibility written for a general reader. Each major chapter has good solid maps that orient someone unfamiliar with the terrain and also offers background on the battles for those unfamiliar with the history. Its a good read and a valuable corrective to the notion that the American military will just get to focus on its preferred, symmetrical mission from now on; the need to face asymmetrical opponents isn’t new and it isn’t going away.