Small Wars Journal

CNAS: Don’t Forget COIN, Because COIN Threat’s Getting Worse

Fri, 12/11/2015 - 5:12pm

CNAS: Don’t Forget COIN, Because COIN Threat’s Getting Worse by Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., Breaking Defense

As the US military refocuses on Russia and China, it mustn’t forget the hard-won lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, because they’ll only become more relevant in future conflicts. With technology spreading, populations rising, and megacities sprawling, “war among the people” — whether it’s counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or just conventional warfare in an urban setting — will only get nastier and harder to avoid.

You thought roadside bombs were bad? Imagine off-the-shelf mini-drones bombing US troops. Homebrewed high explosives got you down? Imagine extremists with 3D printers and a database of weapon designs. Suicide car bombs? Imagine explosive-laden cars that drive themselves. US military transmissions jamming each other by accident? Imagine guerrillas getting cheap GPS and radio jammers online. Media revealing military secrets or reporting faux pas that get the local population up in arms? Imagine that local population, enemy informants included, tweeting video of everything US forces do…

Read on.


The article wasn't bad despite its idiotic title. What is a COIN threat???

Irregular and hybrid warfare on the other hand are not only far from dead, they have been reborn and empowered with new technologies that not only make them more lethal, but able to organize in new ways globally.

While we learnt many valuable lessons and adapted at the tactical level, we failed at the operational and strategic levels. If we confuse our COIN doctrine as viable doctrine we will fail again. I agree the military-industrial complex is seeking to create the misperception that all defense spending should go to large ticket items for obvious reasons. DOD needs to maintain a balanced portifolio of capabilities to deal with the full spectrum of war.

Dave Maxwell

Fri, 12/11/2015 - 8:20pm

Dear Headline writer. COIN is not a threat (unless you are an insurgent). But this illustrates the problem we have with our use of terminology.

Here is the link to the new CNAS report. “Uncertain Ground: Emerging Challenges in Land Warfare.”…

I would say what has always been a threat is revolution, resistance, and insurgency, yes these natural phenomena take place in the gray zone between peace and war. Yes we need to know and understand counterinsurgency but we need so much beyond that and our COIN efforts really need to be directed toward advising and assisting friends, partners, or allies in their fight against lawless, subversion, insurgency and terrorism. We should not be conducting COIN ourselves because as noted in the recent NDU publication" Lessons Encountered" on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: "A prudent great power should avoid being a third party in a large-scale counterinsurgency effort. Foreign expeditionary forces in another country’s insurgency have almost always failed." The two exceptions being Malaya and the Philippines (1899) both of which were conducted by the de facto occupying powers/quasi governments, the UK and US.

COIN was not appropriate for countering Russia in Ukraine and Crimea. And is not appropriate for countering ISIS and Iran. It is not appropriate for countering the Three Warfares of China nor for countering Al Qaeda.

Fortunately Paul Scharre only uses COIN three times in the text of the 35 page CNAS report and twice in this excerpt below. But after the last 14 years the popular press and pundits have adopted COIN as the shorthand for describing anything and everything that is not conventional state on state war even using erroneous statements such as those in the title as "COIN Threat's getting worse."

QUOTE: The Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command face a diverse array of challenges. From a resurgent Russia to a chaotic Middle East to a rising China, the evolving security environment presents a myriad array of possible challenges. Any number of these could involve the commitment of U.S. ground troops, potentially in large numbers and for operations that could be far different from the counterinsurgency wars the U.S. military has fought for the past decade plus. At the same time, the scope and character of possible ground operations has evolved beyond easy characterizations between counterinsurgency vs. traditional warfare, unconventional vs. conventional, irregular vs. regular. Non-state actors possess increasingly advanced weapons, such as anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), and low-cost commercially available drones. These will allow them to contest U.S. forces for control of terrain and impose heavy costs on militaries advancing into these low-end anti-access/area denial environments. Nation-states have also adapted their tactics, relying on “gray zone” or hybrid approaches that use proxies, deniable operations, propaganda, and cyber attacks to achieve their objectives without overt military aggression END QUOTE


Sat, 12/12/2015 - 8:09pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I just couldn’t resist the snarky quip; plus I wanted to let Dave D. know that I am still alive and kicking.

I agree that insurgency is alive and well, and I appreciate Dave Maxwell’s clarification of the article.

I still think however that places like CNAS still haven’t figured out that Coin is simply not that hard at the tactical level of war. The U.S. Army is right to be worried about fighting Russia since tactical mistakes there can have huge and immediate strategic ramifications. Tactical mistakes in Coin are much easier to recover from.

Yes for sure let me know the next time you are in DC, it would be good to finally meet and catch up.


Robert C. Jones

Sat, 12/12/2015 - 7:06pm

In reply to by giangentile

Gian, CNAS is lost, but insurgency is live and well.

Next time I am in DC we need to talk. First couple of rounds on me.



Fri, 12/11/2015 - 7:46pm

I guess CNAS still hasn't gotten the memo:

Coin is dead:)