British COIN: The Debate Continues

Dr. Andrew Mumford has released a monograph attacking what he view as the “myths” of British counterinsurgency as interpreted by American analysts–and in his view, some Brits themselves. However, history is a far from settled matter. The historians, soldiers, and analysts critiqued in Mumford’s monograph also are on the receiving end of a debate very much influenced by modern COIN campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (much as Vietnam hung over discussion of nonrelated or tangential political-military subjects in that period).

The outcome of these inquiries may be more useful for the US than, say, the back-and-forth about Galula and French COIN. While Britain and the United States have vastly different strategic cultures, they are still closer together and thus a better reference point for Americans than continental powers. As Alexander Hamilton noted, Britain and America’s geography as maritime powers free from continental threats provided a space for liberal political culture and similar norms. Additionally, both have waged expeditionary COIN as offshore powers.

Perhaps a debate hosted by Kings of War would be very fruitful for the analytical community.

If only I had a heartland…

It is no secret that Russia’s military forces, particularly the land forces, are reorienting themselves towards the “southern” front of the Caucasus and Central Asia. While so much discussion of these factors is couched in the language of neo-Soviet imperium and concern with Russian expansion, it bears remembering that the security dynamics of Central Asia are far less about a Manichean struggle of Russia versus the West than the US and commentators often choose to view it.

As Joshua Kucera points out at EurasiaNet’s Bug Pit:

Is Russia Training Kazakhstan’s Military To Protect American Oil From Iranian Attack?

That’s the provocative conclusion reached by the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which seems to have gotten a hold of a document discussing the scenario of the Tsentr-2011 military exercises between Russia and several Central Asian countries that wrapped up today. The newspaper printed a map, purportedly related to the exercise, which envisages a joint Russian-Kazakhstan force in the Caspian Sea repelling an attack from the south — from the southeast, “up to 70 F-4s and F-5s” and from the southwest, “up to 30 F-4s, F-5s and Su-25s.” Well, a quick look around the militaries of the southern part of the Caspian Sea that have those sorts of aircraft brings one to only one conclusion: it’s Iran. (You can see scans of the documents, in Russian, here.)

Now, this does not mean that the entire world is interested in joining the US in a crusade against Iran – far from it – but it does demonstrate that the calculations of Russia and CSTO countries in determining their security agendas is complex and contingent on the array of forces and threats within the region.

Unfortunately, it is easy for our preconceived assumptions to function as blinders in foreign policy. Continue reading

Libya: Airpower, SOF and the NTC Part II

What follows is the second part of my series of posts exploring the strategic effects of NATO’s entry into the war in Libya, the first can be found here. These will focus primarily on the effects of airpower, special operations forces (SOF) and the role of the NTC. Possible implications for NATO’s future may also be explored/questioned. This second installment looks to asses the way in which air power and SOF achieve strategic effects, the goal of which is to calibrate our understanding of, and expectations for potential future ‘small footprint’ conflicts.

I want to start this piece with a slight preface. In my last, and first, post I discussed the relative value of contributions made by the NATO assets involved in Operation Unified Protector. I discussed the relative values of their contributions in relation to the formation of the NTC. It occurs to me now that I wasn’t upfront about the manner in which I assessed relative contributions. When I rated the contributions of NATO’s combined airpower and the small but effective band of elite special operators on the ground I used the word significant. When seeking to emphasize the importance of the NTC’s establishment I used the word decisive. Both of those word choices were deliberate, in the words of my terrific former academic advisor, when writing academically only one factor can be decisive, everything and anything else can be significant but not equally superlative. Significant is a terrific and also terrible word for this purpose, as it can be both emphatically supportive and somewhat belittling.

While the distinction could be viewed as little more than semantics, it is, in actual fact quite a bit more than simple nuance. The point I was trying to make, is in many ways at the very core of why silver bullet strategic theories often falter when put to the test in actual wars. In particular it’s why wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq failed and its why if Libya succeeds it will have very little to do with the highly important contributions made by the special operations and air forces of NATO’s allied states.

As cliché as it’s become, the Clausewitzian dictum really is at the centre of this, the initial phases of the Iraq and Afghan wars failed for the simple reason that despite the brilliant tactical and operational performances of American (and allied) forces the political situation was not such that an expedited strategic result could be achieved. While nothing is set in stone yet with regards to the Libyan Revolution, it’s within the realm of possibility that an expedient strategic result can be achieved. At little cost of blood and treasure, at least to those who are not holding a Lybian passport. This is why it is important that the vital lesson from this conflict should not be that SOF and air power can win the day. It is however important to explore the way we can better understand the value of these contributors as they are vital. Additionally, both of these aspects are staples of modern conflict and both have often been criticized for a failure to live up to the hype and fanfare both their budgets and their advocates create.

Neither Special Forces, nor airpower alone can singularly win a war, yet both are incredibly valuable tools, both tactically and strategically. While the technical aspects of their contributions vary greatly, from the strategic perspective they can be viewed in a similar vein, certainly with regard to expectations.

Continue reading

Castex and the illusion of mastery

Being the backward-looking IR recalcitrant that I am, it should surprise nobody that I have been intermittently making my way through the English translation (abridged, and the only one available to my knowledge) of Raoul Castex’s Théories stratégiques. In the midst of the past few months’ discussion of sovereignty, maritime power, and the global commons, this passage stood out:

In peacetime, the sea is free for everyone. In war, it belongs to the strongest, who will chase both his enemy and any unfriendly neutrals from it as far as he is militarily and politically able… We can conclude with Richelieu’s observation that “of all the sovereigns’ domains, it is the sea on which they make the greatest claims, but the place which the rights of each are least clear. The true title to naval domination is force, not reason.”

[and in Castex’s note to that remark:] And we can be sure that, in the next war, the Americans, ready to fight to defend the freedom of their own commerce when they are neutral, will brutally uphold the other point of view when they are belligerents. Humanitarian imperialism is always problematic.

This was written during the 1930s by a Frenchman, yet many aspects of the critique echo in modern times. First of all, it is a reminder of ostensibly neutral concepts, such as freedom of the seas, are frequently viewed as polemical attempts at domination by foreign powers – particularly when they are Western, or as the continental Europeans would have it, Anglo-Saxon. After all, the doctrine of freedom of the seas seeks the neutralization of all the world’s oceans, in peace and in war. The idea of the sea as a blank, separate space for austere naval engagement is far from dead in the American political consciousness. What goes unremembered, of course, is how many times the maritime empires have launched a war or been dragged into one on the basis of a maritime incident. Continue reading