The Post-COIN Era is Here

The Post-COIN Era is Here - Mark Safranski, Zenpundit

There has been, for years, an ongoing debate in the defense and national security community over the proper place of COIN doctrine in the repertoire of the United States military and in our national strategy. While a sizable number of serious scholars, strategists, journalists and officers have been deeply involved, the bitter discussion characterized as "COINdinista vs. Big War crowd" debate is epitomized by the exchanges between two antagonists, both lieutenant colonels with PhD's, John Nagl, a leading figure behind the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and now president of the powerhouse think tank CNAS , and Gian Gentile, professor of history at West Point and COIN's most infamous arch-critic.

In terms of policy and influence, the COINdinistas ultimately carried the day. COIN advocates moved from a marginalized mafia of military intellectuals who in 2004 were just trying to get a hearing from an indifferent Rumsfeld Pentagon, to policy conquerors as the public's perceptions of the "Surge" in Iraq (masterminded by General David Petraeus, Dr. Frederick Kagan, General Jack Keane and a small number of collaborators) allowed the evolution of a COIN-centric, operationally oriented, "Kilcullen Doctrine" to emerge across two very different administrations. Critics like Colonel Gentile and Andrew Bacevich began to warn, along with dovish liberal pundits - and with some exaggeration - that COIN theory was acheiving a "cult" status that was usurping the time, money, talent and attention that the military should be devoting to traditional near peer rival threats. And furthermore, ominously, COIN fixation was threatening to cause the U.S. political class (especially Democrats) to be inclined to embark upon a host of half-baked, interventionist "crusades"in Third world quagmires...

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Pete,

I can assure you that 'firefights' continue on SWC, with some "light" moderating.

The issue COIN -v- MCO has repeatedly appeared and some regular 'firefighters' ensue. For an outsider and non-military person these incidents can be hard to follow.

I prefer 'firefights' to "wet blankets" otherwise few would visit SWC.

Does this men there will be no more firefights in the forums of Small Wars Council?

As we transition back from COIN operations to more of a focus on major combat operations or MCO, the United States Army should review what has made us successful in past conventional fights. In Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in the Modern Battle, (2004) Stephen Biddle argues the modern system is what makes militaries successful in conventional battles. The modern system consist partly of nonmaterial variables like force employment, doctrine, training and tactics that are crucial to shaping material factors in determining the winner or loser in conventional battle. Biddles theory only holds fast in conventional battles because they are more predictable (more quantitative) and have fewer variables than asymmetrical, irregular (more qualitative) fight. Some could argue that because he only focuses on conventional fights, his theory is obsolete today because our enemy will choose to attack us asymmetrically because of U.S.s conventional strength. Additionally, Biddle only discusses winning battles, not war. Governments must provide their militaries objectives that are in tenable and will achieve their strategic endstate. If strategy and military objectives are not in line, then the battle may be won, but the war lost. Regardless, he used multiple approaches to prove his point to include historical examples, computer simulations, statistical analysis and mathematical modeling. Biddle and his modern system provide an outstanding and valid understanding of keys to victory in conventional battles.
The modern system is the essence of force employment and is "tightly interrelated complex of cover, concealment, dispersion, suppression, small-unit independent maneuver, and combined arms at the tactical level, and depth, reserves, and differential concentration at the operational level of war." (Biddle 2004, 3) These are all variable that allow militaries to get the most out of their manpower and material resources. Numerical superiority is only decisive if the side employs the modern system for force protection. If the side does not use the modern system, it will negate his material/numerical superiority. Biddle argues the modern system emerged during the First World War, "that by 1918, a process of convergent evolution under harsh wartime selection pressures had produced a stable and essentially transnational body of ideas on the methods needed to operate effectively in the face of radically lethal modern weapons." (Biddle 2004, 28) While technology has changed, the modern system has change little since.
Biddle uses the unit of analysis for this theory the operation. The operation is a series of interconnected battles resulting from a single prior plan. (Biddle 2004, 6) He excluded "countervalue" violence, like strategic bombing, that is directed against hostile populations, economic center or political leadership.(Biddle 2004, 8) He did this probably because their effects are focused at the strategic level, whereas, he focuses at the tactical and operational level of war. In Chapter 2, he argues that preponderance and technology, while important, are not the only determinant of capabilities and if countries focus on them exclusively then they might be disappointed when they lose in battle. (Biddle 2004, 27)
He then explains three case studies that illustrate his argument about the modern system. In Operation Michael during WWI where new methods of force employment, neither technology nor numerical superiority, explains the Germans success of the offensive breakthrough (Biddle 2004, 107) Next Operation Goodwood during WWII where the German, outnumber, were saved against the allies for using the modern system. The operation illustrates closer correspondence with the new theory of the modern system over the orthodox alternative. (Biddle 2004, 131) Finally, he looks at Desert Storm where he concludes that the Coalition applied the modern system and technology superiority to defeat the Iraqis while suffering an extremely low loss rate. He downplays the role of technology by illustrating that while the Marine Corps did not have the same technological advances as the U.S. Army (M1A1 MBTs, thermal imaging systems, etc), they achieved the same level of success. (Biddle 2004, 149)
I found that Biddle underestimated some material advances in their implications to the battles conclusion. He states, "In practical terms, however, the margin of supremacy needed to trump force employment has never been available in the post-1900 era, and is unlikely to become so anytime soon."(Biddle 2004, 66) Air power and tank advancements clearly can have profound implications to the way battles are fought. Maybe it is assumed that nations as advance to create these technologies are advanced enough to implement the modern system. On the other hand, maybe technologies, like air or nuclear power, always have strategic ramifications, therefore are outside of Biddles purview of the operation and tactical level.
Another potential weakness of his argument is that it only focuses on conventional war. Because of the United States know convention supremacy, it is unlikely that the U.S. will fight a truly conventional war anytime soon. Our adversaries will look to fight us asymmetrically where they perceive us weakest. While Biddles analysis may be spot on, it may not be relevant to the future of war. Even China, some believe if we fight will conduct some sort of irregular warfare as illustrated through their attempts to shoot down satellites and conduct cyber war.
Biddles modern system is not a checklist for policy makers to use the military, as Clausewitz said, "as extension of policy by other means." (Clausewitz 1832) Biddle only tackles what makes militaries successful in battles and operations, not wars. Policy makers must ensure that operational military objectives are tied to the National Security Strategy. If they are divorced, as many argued in Vietnam (there was a conventional fight verse the NVA), then you could win ever battle at the tactical level, but overall lose the war.
Despite the minor discrepancies, Biddle provides a well thought out, researched, and backed up study of modern war where some intangible variables matter more than pure numbers and technology superiority. He adequately proved his modern war theory within his confines of the tactical/operational level, purely conventional battle. Time will only tell if the United States Army will ever experience the pure conditions necessary for the modern warfare to retain its value. My guess it will continue to get more and more complex with many more variable. The traditional set piece battles maybe outdated, but should be willing to take that risk and neglect completely? I say no, inherently the enemy will attack us at our weaknesses and if we neglect the modern war system, despite its possible irrelevancy today, than we are give the enemy and avenue to exploit. Therefore, we must continue to adhere to what has made use successful since World War I, the modern system of battle.

MAJOR E. Scott Walton
Student, CGSC, SG 11B
"The views presented in this SWJ Blog are those of the Author and are not and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government."