Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap, a respected but frequently provocative author, has critiqued the Army/Marine counterinsurgency manual in a commentary titled "We have a COIN shortage" in the May Naval Institute Proceedings. I would have normally dismissed General Dunlap's observations as a rare but poor example of discourse, as I have a lot of respect for him personally. But this commentary reflected more than just an inadequate grasp of irregular warfare. Having recently returned from a counterinsurgency symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base, it is clear that a broader misunderstanding exists about the nature of irregular conflict and FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 that needs to be cleared up.
General Dunlap opens with a tart observation that the Army/Marine Corps got a lot of publicity with the publication of the new field manual. Newsweek called it "The Book" on Iraq, which I think is a stretch but a natural reaction. He goes on to suggest that the publicity exceeded notable events such as the airstrike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last summer or the "yet more debilitating air attacks against al Qaeda havens in Somalia." This gives the reader an early hint about where our Air Force counterinsurgency theory is coming from.
General Dunlap goes on to lambaste the manual as the product of the nation's ground forces and a thinly veiled attempt to establish a Joint/national approach that is protracted, costly, manpower intensive, and inherently a "traditional land component solution." Such an approach is too costly for America, and is far too late for Iraq, the General adds.
While I happen to agree with his assessment about Iraq, the simple fact remains that the manual wasn't written or intended to satisfy one of today's insurgencies. It fills a 25 to 30 year void in our doctrinal library thanks to the Vietnam Syndrome and the Pentagon's insistence on only preparing for wars we would like to fight instead of those our enemies are prepared to wage. My normally coherent Air Force partner would like to continue that trend despite consistent historical evidence to the contrary. The field manual is simply operational level doctrine for two Services, no strategic agenda other than ensuring that today's ground warriors are ready for the most probable types of war that nation will face for some time.
My Air Force friends don't accept that assessment of future conflict. If you have any doubts, read this, "Real innovation for 21st century conflict calls for devising techniques that avoid exposing thousands of young Americans to the hazards of combat." Instead, General Dunlap argues that we should be seeking to exploit our technological genius and the "air and naval component's way of war" which are high tech and low cost. This is the same way Admiral Owens used to sell his "systems of systems" model as well. It's very attractive to naí¯ve politicians who do not know better and want to eliminate risk. The problem is that these approaches have great applications in high intensity conventional combat, and have worked in Kosovo, Afghanistan and in Somalia when matched with some ground forces.
General Dunlap's positive references to kinetic strikes in Somalia and Kosovo conveniently ignores a lot of history dating back to Britain's ineffective applications of airborne killing power in Mesopotamia 80 odd years ago, and more recently in Afghanistan. Kosovo was simply high tech, high cost, and extremely low in effectiveness. Yes, airpower was decisive in toppling the Taliban in 2001, with ground forces from the Northern Alliance helping force the Taliban to mass in defensive positions. But the record goes both ways, as on April 29 and May 9 this year a number of air strikes were conducted to counter the Taliban's preparations for an anticipated spring offensive. These strikes produced unexpected civilian casualties that have angered President Karzai and undercut NATO and Coalition efforts to secure the population's allegiance. (Of course, ground units have also produced accidental collateral damage as well.) General Dunlap is confusing regime destruction with the more constructive requirements of COIN. This approach certainly didn't do much for the IDF last summer against Hezbollah.
Down at Maxwell, the Marine and Army officers got an earful about the FM's purported ground centricity. The Air Force, which made a belated and limited attempt to participate in the manual's development, was unhappy that air power was relegated to an appendix vice a separate chapter. Frankly, I don't think it rates a distinct chapter or an appendix.
Airpower, properly understood, is an invaluable contributor to successful counter-insurgency operations as it is to most other forms of conflict. Most Marines understand their own Small Wars history and recognize the early innovative applications of aviation in Nicaragua in the 1920s as a form of fire support, logistics, and medical evacuation, and reconnaissance. It is not an accident that Jim Corum and Wray Johnson's Airpower in Small Wars is on the Commandant's PME reading list, or that Professor Johnson (a retired Air Force officer) is the course director for irregular warfare at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. A larger number of Marines have served in either OEF or OIF certainly recognize the critical contributions that airpower made to their own military tasks in theater. Aviation was critical to operational success in both fights for Fallujah and well as Najaf in 2004, including Air Force strike contributions. Many a Marine unit commander has told me that the sound of an AC-130 overhead at night is the best lullaby they've ever heard. Other forms of aerospace capability, like unmanned aerial vehicles, have also been noteworthy in both OEF and OIF. Marine commanders and their staffs recognize that air power is fundamental to the conduct of intelligence, fires, maneuver, and logistics in warfare in general, and to irregular conflicts as well.
Could that recognition have been more explicitly made in key chapters in the new field manual--sure. Was it critical to the Army and Marine generals and their respective doctrinal teams or school houses, apparently not. Senior Marines don't consider themselves ground centric, and embrace a more comprehensive view of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force.
The Marines and our Army brethren also understand that the center of gravity for a host nation under attack by an insurgency is generally the population. It's not about killing insurgents, or putting "warheads on foreheads." COIN requires constructive and indirect approaches, not just strike sorties. This has led American, French and British doctrine to focus on principles and parameters for the conduct of irregular conflicts that center on controlling or securing the population from harm or interaction with the insurgent. It's very difficult to do that from space or from a bomber. If success is ultimately tied to the people, I am sorry but they live on the ground. Their government operates on the ground, and people need to be secure to go about their lives. Until civilian populations take up residence in space or start to raise families at 10,000 feet, there will be limitations as to what airpower writ large, or the Air Force more specially, can accomplish.
Equally disturbing at Maxwell were comments from Air Force officers who bemoaned the nature of the fight in Iraq. I heard criticisms about Army dominance of the war's conduct, too little apportionment of sorties to "deep battle" targets, and about the Air Force being relegated to an Army Air Corps. Some worried that decentralized and flexible command practices resulted in "penny packed" uses of airpower. What I never heard was a constructive argument for another way of doing business, strategically or operationally. Nor did I sense that most Air Force officers understood the fluid nature of the competition or the need to adapt. Does airpower have to be employed the same manner across the full spectrum of combat, or can the Air Force adapt its tool sets and mindset to a wider range than just optimized for interdiction into "kill boxes."?
To advance its own development, as well as to better articulate its unique contributions to America's security interests I think my airpower friends need to change tack. Instead of badly mischaracterizing the Army/Marine Corps efforts to prepare their warriors for the complexities of modern counterinsurgency, I strongly suggest they devote their intellectual energy to developing its own Service doctrine, to engaging OSD/Joint forums where IW and COIN concepts are being debated, and in ensuring that Air Force perspectives are voiced. Right now it's living in a glass house. The Air Force should be more candid, it needs to catch up to what is now year six of a long war. A thorough articulation of Air Force contributions in irregular warfare, now in draft form, is obviously needed to ensure that it thoroughly understands and is intellectually prepared for the realities of modern irregular warfare. Until then, we don't have a COIN shortage, just a lack of common cents.
Frank Hoffman is a frequent contributor to most military journals, and was a contributing author to FM 3-24.
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