Small Wars Journal

Legio Patria Nostra: A Blueprint For An American Foreign Legion

Sun, 09/03/2023 - 5:05pm

Legio Patria Nostra: A Blueprint For An American Foreign Legion

By Tom Ordeman, Jr.


A Review, and an Observation


In August of 2021, coalition forces - centered on a persistent NATO task force - orchestrated a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Before the international community could clear the last of their troops, administrators, and aid workers, the Taliban reclaimed de facto control of Afghanistan, signaling the unequivocal failure of a twenty-year-long engagement.


The coalition's intervention began as a near-flawless unconventional warfare (UW) campaign, and escalated into a conventional campaign before devolving into a disunited mixture of nation-building and counterinsurgency. As NATO divided Afghanistan into a series of fiefdoms overseen by individual member countries, the Taliban re-organized and re-infiltrated. By exploiting continuous missteps by the coalition, international community, and Afghan government, the Taliban managed to turn the coalition's scheduled evacuation into a rout. This largely mirrored other recent campaigns in Iraq, and later Syria and Libya.


This mixture of partial and outright failures contributes to a series of inevitable conclusions.


First: despite the special operations forces (SOF) community's earned notoriety, observations that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) was a "SOF war," and recalibration of the Joint Special Operations Command to meet requirements associated with irregular warfare, SOF units ultimately failed to significantly influence the course of two strategically critical wars, among other post-9/11 operations.[01][02]


Second: the transformation of disparate local militias into professional security forces is a generations-long process, often requiring significant social transformations that may be unrealistic or otherwise problematic. Building national cohesion by imposing homogeneity upon a heterogeneous military force does not produce the desired outcome in most applicable cases. Instead, success in Security Force Assistance (SFA), Foreign Internal Defense (FID), and UW campaigns typically depends upon the intervening actor enabling local actors in the conduct of their own styles of warfare, as members of the 5th Special Forces Group did in Afghanistan in late 2001.


Third: when properly executed, SFA, FID, and UW campaigns - sometimes executed in concert with one another - can win, and have won, wars of critical strategic importance. Irrespective of America's poor strategic performance in recent wars, several modern examples validate the successful employment of FID, UW, or both, at the tactical and operational levels. Victory is possible.[03]


Fourth: America's national capacity to train, equip, advise, and assist foreign partners has atrophied to the point that it no longer meets America's strategic needs. This results from a combination of insufficient capacity, inappropriate tasking, and inefficient organization. Whether for the purpose of future foreign interventions, or for managing proxy conflicts involving "near-peers" in the course of "great power competition," the time for a fundamental recalibration of how America engages with foreign partners has arrived.


Fifth: while they may specialize in FID and UW on paper, SOF units are unlikely to meet the short- to medium-term need for a dedicated SFA/FID/UW component. From Green Beret and SEAL teams' post-9/11 operations, to the formation of the Marine Raiders, to the Rangers' evolution into an ad hoc special mission unit, momentum throughout the SOF community suggests a sustained focus on direct action (DA) missions.


Sixth: foreign proxies with which the United States has partnered in recent years possess the capacity to conduct irregular warfare, and to train other American partners in these methods, to a much greater degree of fidelity than American units themselves are currently capable.


Seventh: two of America's closest allies utilize units of long standing, consisting primarily of foreign soldiers. These units offer both tactical and strategic benefits, and their historic records of success now constitute pillars of those nations' respective strategic concepts. America could benefit from a modified emulation of this example.


And finally, eighth: the "Big Army" establishment cannot accomplish the SFA/FID/UW mission. The U.S. Army failed to build sufficient partner force capacity in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. While the post-Civil War Army conducted nominally successful operations to manage the relationship between frontier settlers and the American Indian tribes, and although the Army's own Special Forces Groups represent the gold standard for these functions, Big Army's ethos and culture run contrary to this mission. This informs an additional conclusion: that an ensuing solution should fall under the auspices of the Marine Corps, which has been more amenable to adaptation to battlefield conditions than the Army.[04]


Indeed, the Marine Corps also deploys in a long-established and scalable structure: the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). In recent years, the Army and Air Force built similar organizations in the forms of the Brigade Combat Team and the Air Expeditionary Task Force. However, these formations do not scale like the MAGTF, and their structure does not meet the strategic need in such an elegant manner as the MAGTF.


Given the need to revitalize the military's SFA/FID/UW capabilities, and with the MAGTF as the appropriate force structure, Pentagon should enable Quantico to emulate two foreign examples in the creation of a long overdue organization: an American Foreign Legion (AFL).


Legio Patria Nostra: Building a New Brand Of MAGTF


Two of America's closest allies utilize units of long standing, consisting primarily of foreign soldiers, which provide templates for the successful construction of the AFL. These units offer both tactical and strategic benefits, and their historic records of success now constitute pillars of those nations' respective strategic concepts.


Against stiff competition, the British Army's Brigade of Gurkhas may earn the title of the World's Most Respected Military Unit. Having fought the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816 to a stalemate, and having developed a sincere respect for their Nepalese opponents in the process, British East India Company officers encouraged their tenacious Nepalese opponents to volunteer for service with the Company. Over time, and particularly owing to the British Crown's assumption of direct control of India in 1858, the two parties formalized this relationship. During the ensuing two centuries, Gurkhas have earned a reputation for unadulterated ferocity in battle, and for friendly professionalism in garrison.[05]


Figure 1 A soldier with the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles (2RGR) on patrol in Nad-e Ali, Helmand Province. Crown Copyright 2011

British recruiters and serving Gurkhas run prospective recruits through a grueling selection process in their native Nepal. If selected, Gurkha recruits train and pass out in the United Kingdom before receiving an assignment either to one of the Royal Gurkha Rifles' three battalions, or to one of the Brigade's support units - signals, engineers, logistics, and so on. Retired Gurkhas qualify for British residency and pensions, eventually making them eligible to petition for British citizenship. In addition to serving as some of the most sought-after private security personnel in the world, many former and retired Gurkhas who settle in the United Kingdom own and operate popular restaurants featuring their native cuisine.


The Gurkhas completed multiple deployments to Afghanistan, reinforcing their reputation for courage under fire. In late 2007, Prince Harry deployed to Afghanistan as a forward air controller, and Gurkhas acted as his security detail. In July of 2010, in the heat of combat, an unnamed Gurkha invited disciplinary action when he used his iconic khukuri dagger to decapitate a Taliban commander in order that his team might verify the completion of their mission. He was counseled, and cleared for return to duty.[06] In September of the same year, Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun single-handedly defended his patrol base against ten to thirty Taliban attackers. Having expended the ammunition from both his rifle and the guard post's machine gun, he finally resorted to hand-to-hand combat utilizing the machine gun's tripod. Pun later explained: "I did not care my life, just, I thought, before they kill me, I have to kill some of them."[07] Finally, in March of 2013, Lance Corporal Tuljung Gurung found himself under attack by two Taliban insurgents. Gurung was thrice knocked down: first by a bullet impact to his helmet, then by the blast from a Taliban grenade that he threw back, and finally by falling out of his sentry post while engaged in hand-to-hand combat with one of his attackers. Utilizing his khukuri, he drove the attackers away. Upon the arrival of reinforcements, Gurung lamented his failure to take either insurgent captive.[08] Both of them members of 1st Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles, Acting Sergeant Pun was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, while Lance Corporal Gurung received the Military Cross. As journalist Michael Yon noted in 2009:


"Many Gurkhas can speak Hindi, and so do many Afghans. I’ve been to many dozens of villages from which the Gurkhas are recruited and although their culture is very different from Afghans, the economic and development status are similar. Afghans and Gurkhas can communicate on social levels that transcend language."[09]


Discussion of the Gurkhas often introduces a similarly unorthodox, and equally historic, military unit: the French Foreign Legion (FFL). Established in 1831, all foreign troops fighting for France were consolidated under the Legion's banner. While the Legion's recruiting standards have tightened in recent decades, virtually any man can attempt to join the Legion, and the organization tends to draw recruits from countries experiencing socioeconomic turmoil. Legionnaires live and fight under assumed names, and after several years of honorable service, they become eligible for French citizenship. Some foreign recruits arrive in their late teens and serve their entire adult lives under the motto "Legio Patria Nostra" - "the Legion is our homeland" - before retiring to the Institution des Invalides de la Legion Etrangere, a convalescent farm reserved for the Legion's elderly and wounded.


Figure 2 Members of the French Foreign Legion 2 REP, in Mali during Operation Serval.


The Gurkhas carry a less controversial pedigree than the Legion: notably, the Legion's 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment was dissolved following their participation in a failed April 1961 coup attempt.[10] Nonetheless, the Legion offers a successful, durable methodology for the recruitment, assimilation, training, and employment of a diverse assortment of foreigners. Simon Murray, who achieved the rank of Caporal Chef while serving as a Legionnaire during the Algerian War, wrote of his own experience learning French at the Legion's former headquarters in Algeria:


"We are making some progress in spite of ourselves. My French is getting better with increased confidence and employment, and we are becoming quite accomplished singers. Tremendous emphasis is laid on the singing. When we return to camp after a day in the hills, we march proudly through the streets of Mascara, singing our guts out as we try to break the windows with our voluminous melodies. The slow marching plod and the sheer force of the body of men singing in deep ringing tones with improvised harmony is like nothing I have ever seen or heard before."[11]


Partly because they pre-date the applicable international treaties, and partly for the sake of their reputations, both units are exempt from international legal provisions either governing or outright preventing the use of foreign mercenaries.


Organizing The Legion: A Special Purpose MAGTF


Having already alluded to the MAGTF, we shall now review the Marine Corps' operational structure.


The MAGTF was codified in 1963 with the publication of Marine Corps Order 3120.3. A MAGTF consists of four elements, each of which can be drawn from various Marine Regiments for assembly like pre-fabricated components. The Command Element (CE), the persistent element to which the other elements attach, provides command and control for the wider MAGTF. The Ground Combat Element (GCE) comprises the MAGTF's combat arms units: infantry, artillery, and armor. The Air Combat Element (ACE) acts as a miniature, dedicated air force, managing and operating both fixed and rotary wing aircraft for combat, support, and logistics purposes. The Logistics Combat Element (LCE) provides additional supporting functions: engineers, communications, logistics, and such.


In its modern incarnation, a MAGTF scales to three levels: Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU), organized around a reinforced infantry battalion; Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEB), organized around a regimental combat team; and Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEF), organized around a Marine division. The MEU, MEB, and MEF deploy with enough resources to sustain themselves independently for fifteen, thirty, and sixty days, respectively.[12]


As an auxiliary to the Marine Corps, the basic MEU structure offers the best model for building, training, deploying, and sustaining the Legion. The Legion would largely mirror the MEU, with an initial target strength of three formations: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Legionary Expeditionary Units (LEU). Like those Marines in the MEU system, one LEU deploys, one trains, and one reconstitutes following deployment, in constant rotation. Unlike the MEU, the LEU's purpose would not be to act as a mobile emergency deployment force-in-waiting, mounting conventional amphibious operations - assaults, raids, demonstrations, and withdrawals - and select special operations. Rather, the LEU's purpose would be to train, and potentially lead, foreign partners in the style of low intensity, low tech warfare for which American units are no longer trained, equipped, or oriented. The Legion shall typically perform these duties prior to the outbreak of combat operations, or in the course of low intensity conflicts. With this in mind, the LEU differs from the MEU in several regards.


The CE changes the least compared to that of the MEU. The Force Reconnaissance Platoon and Air Naval Gunfire Detachment may only be necessary for limited mission profiles, but the remaining detachments serve a variety of critical purposes relative to the LEU's mission. In addition, some operational aspects will necessarily change. For example, pre-deployment training packages for CE personnel, such as those currently delivered at MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, would expand to offer a Foreign Training Mission option. However, by and large, the CE would serve a static battle space management function. The command and control (C2) tasks performed in support of a MEU are largely similar to those required for a LEU.


Significant changes begin with the LCE, renamed the Sustainment Element (SE). This becomes the primary repository for foreign recruits. In addition to earning the opportunity for American citizenship by supporting the national security mission, functions delivered by the SE - engineering, maintenance, supply, transportation, communications, and such - mirror the non-combat career fields in which Legion veterans could thrive upon their discharge. In addition, training prospective naturalized citizens in career fields beyond the combat arms could prove more politically palatable to American voters. Thus, the bulk of the Legion's foreign recruits would provide sustainment capabilities, rather than focusing upon warfighting; and their military service would result in direct preparation for follow-on civilian life.


Significant changes continue with the ACE, renamed the Aviation Support Element (ASE). Like the CE, the ASE consists largely of general purpose force (GPF) Marines. However, the ASE's mission and equipment differ significantly from those of the ACE. The ACE provides close air support (CAS), C2, medium and heavy airlift, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and aerial refueling on land-based standby. The ASE retains the ISR and airlift missions, with reduced aerial C2 and CAS footprints. The LEU's mission focuses on support to SFA operations, as opposed to combined arms maneuver, so the dedicated refueling assets may only be assigned on an as-needed basis, or potentially provided by remotely-piloted assets. Several mission profiles may involve a restructuring of the air wing's assets.


The most drastic changes fall upon the GCE. Presented very simply, this would consist of Kurdish militia members. One of the Legion's constituent units would be the 1st Kurdish Regiment, constituting four battalions. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions would consist of male Kurdish Legionnaires, while the 4th would consist of three companies recruited entirely from Kurdish women's militias. A deployed GCE would consist of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Battalion, augmented by one company from 4th Battalion. While deployed, the male troops would train their host nation interlocutors while members of 4th Battalion would engage with the local women - either training them to fight, or operating as Female Engagement Teams in more conservative cultures.


We now move our attention to the Legion's recruitment and administration. The Legion mixes three groups: Kurdish militia personnel, foreign recruits from around the world, and serving Marines.


The 1st Kurdish Regiment should be modeled after the British Army's Brigade of Gurkhas. The Department of State currently operates a consulate in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. As the Marine Corps provides security for America's diplomatic missions, providing a Marine contingent to the Erbil mission for the purpose of recruiting should prove to be relatively straightforward. Consistent with the recruitment process for the Gurkhas, the Kurdish Regiment shall require basic testing to ensure that recruits meet basic health, fitness, and Kurdish literacy requirements. Recruits must also demonstrate prior membership in a local militia, such as the Peshmerga.


Upon completion of an indoctrination course, all recruits would be granted the provisional rank of corporal. As the Kurdish Regiment's purpose is not to extricate Kurds from Kurdistan, but rather, to leverage the guerrilla warfare experience of one of America's strategic partners, Kurdish recruits would serve three-year enlistments before being discharged and repatriated. Promising candidates who could demonstrate English proficiency, and who chose to serve a second enlistment of four years, would be promoted to regular sergeant and, upon discharge, become eligible for permanent residence in the United States.


Whereas the Kurdish Regiment would function as an American corollary to the Gurkhas, the Legion's remaining foreign contingent would function as an American corollary to the FFL. The FFL receives prospective Legionnaires at Foreign Legion Information Centers, then transfers them to the Foreign Legion Recruitment Center in Paris, after which they transfer to the Recruitment and Selection Center in Aubagne. FFL recruits undergo between fifteen and seventeen weeks of initial training. By contrast, the Marine Corps could leverage existing border crossings, ports of entry, and overseas embassies, either stationing Legion-specific recruiters at these installations, or establishing regular visitation schedules. For example, one recruiter could circulate between New Mexico border crossings, while another could circulate between the various embassies in Central Asia.


Prior to 1962, prospective Legionnaires completed recruit training in Sidi bel Abbes, Algeria, and successful candidates were typically denied entry into France for the duration of their service. Ideally, the Marine Corps would make arrangements similar to these, emulating the pre-1962 model by either retrofitting an existing overseas facility, or developing a purpose-built site. Failing that, a sufficiently remote headquarters garrison, recruit depot, and apprentice-level training facility - for example, a remote desert facility such as MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, or perhaps a purpose-built garrison in a remote patch of Alaskan wilderness - could suffice. For the sake of discussion, let us refer to this installation as Camp James N. Mattis. Whereas the Kurdish Regiment's purpose is to maintain their identity and fighting style, the Legion's remainder must emulate the FFL's process of building esprit de corps in service to two subsequent objectives: turning recruits into competent troops, and preparing those competent troops to be productive members of American society upon discharge.


An enlistment in the Legion would last five years, entry into service being contingent upon successful completion of testing to confirm basic literacy in the recruit's native language, adequate physical health, and a due diligence background check. The FFL excludes recruits who are discovered to have committed significant crimes, but has traditionally accepted recruits who seek to put minor criminal offenses behind them. The Legion should follow this model, eschewing the "zero tolerance" mentality that prevails in the recruitment of American citizens into America's all-volunteer military. Upon honorable completion of one enlistment, a Legionnaire would become eligible for permanent residence in the United States; successful completion of a second would afford a Legionnaire the opportunity to petition for American citizenship.


Initially, and perhaps perpetually, each LEU element would necessarily contain a mix of Marines and Legionnaires. Both the CE and the ASE would consist primarily of Marines, as the CE consists primarily of command and intelligence personnel. By contrast, the GCE requires Marines only to fill commissioned and staff non-commissioned officer billets, and Legionnaires should comprise the bulk of the SE - again, with Marines supervising as commissioned and staff non-commissioned officers. On a preliminary basis, the single point of numerical departure arises in the CE: the Legion provides an excellent opportunity to replace contracted linguists and interpreters, as were used in Afghanistan and Iraq, with an organic cadre of native linguists. This excludes the supporting establishment that operates Camp Mattis, most of whom would initially be Marines, but many of whom could eventually be Legionnaires. The Legion would require a total brigade-sized element of approximately 5,000 personnel: approximately 3,375 deployable Marines and Legionnaires, and a static contingent of approximately 1,600 personnel to operate and maintain Camp Mattis and its associated infrastructure.


Utilizing existing Marine Corps administrative infrastructure makes the vast bulk of the Legion deployable. By and large, America's deployable units operate in thirds: one third deploys, and another third reconstitutes in garrison, while the final third prepares to deploy. With one third of the Legion deployed, the remainder would sharpen their own skills by acting as the opposing force against conventional units in Combat Training Center rotations. This would keep the Legion's skills razor sharp while leveraging their expertise to improve the conventional force's lethality.


So, where does the Legion find its initial cadre of 450 Marines to oversee the Kurdish Regiment, 2,025 Marines to oversee the Legion's remainder, and an initial contingent of 1,600 Marines to establish Camp Mattis? In theory, either the Marine Raider Regiment or Force Reconnaissance battalions would provide this cadre, as both communities are rumored to claim FID and UW among their core capabilities. In reality, these operators, like the rest of the SOF community, have focused mostly on DA missions in recent years, and lack a strong experience base in the SFA discipline. Nonetheless, Raiders and Reconnaissance Marines with post-2014 experience in Syria, and conventional personnel meeting the same description, could be tapped for tours with the Kurdish Regiment. For MARSOC personnel, a tour in support of the Legion - particularly for those Marines operating Camp Mattis - could count as a shore tour to allow for much-needed recovery from the operational tempo of normal SOF operations, while maintaining proficiency in SOF skills and supporting SOF mission profiles. The Legion needs its pound of flesh from the SOF community, but not at the cost of another disruption to the Marine Corps' SOF community following the raid on the Force Reconnaissance community that built the Raider community.


In Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, senior leaders allowed the vast bulk of American troops to operate at a disadvantage by absolving them of the responsibility of communicating directly with the local populace. Instead, troops relied upon thousands of contracted linguists and interpreters, who then became a strategic liability when American politicians ordered precipitous withdrawals from those foreign theaters. Thus, one additional caveat requires mention: Marines assigned to service with the Kurdish contingent would be required to learn functional Kurdish, in a manner similar to the process of Arabic instruction that British officers underwent in the 1970's upon receiving seconded orders to serve in the Dhofar Rebellion. According to retired Royal Marines Brigadier and Dhofar veteran Ian Gardiner:


"We were given twenty words to learn each day, and soon we were conversing. Our instructors were Arabs, and we took them out with us in the evenings to pubs and restaurants where the instruction continued. Each word was written down on a little card - English on one side, Arabic on the other - and we amassed pockets full of these, held together in piles with rubber bands. We would flick through them testing our memory, then turn them over and go through them again in the opposite direction. The beauty of this system is that you can do it almost anywhere: in a train, in bed, at a bus stop; and the pubs around [Defence School of Languages, Beaconsfield] were frequented by small groups of officers shuffling decks of little cards and uttering strange sounds."[13]


While many Kurds speak English, their native language should be considered an asset, and Legion officers should be conversant with their foreign partners in reality, as Green Berets are on paper. As noted above, those Marines overseeing the remainder of the Legion would have it easier: the process of learning English shall serve as one central aspect of building esprit de corps, just as French does in the FFL.[14]


Equipping The Legion: An Off-The-Shelf Force


As the LEU serves a different purpose than the MEU, so too should its Table of Equipment resemble that of the MEU only in very broad terms.


A flotilla of six to seven landing craft, supplemented by a fleet of rotary wing and tiltrotor aircraft, enables the MEU to move personnel, equipment, and supplies from ship to shore. Two additional rotary wing aircraft provide search and rescue capability, two KC-130J tanker aircraft provide ground-based airborne refueling support, and a standard MEU carries five RQ-21A Blackjack remotely-operated aircraft. Once ashore, the Marines operate from a fleet of HMMWV's, Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTV), MTVR and LVSR logistics vehicles, and engineering assets. The ACE's six fixed wing and four rotary wing aircraft provide combat aviation support, while the GCE's antiquated Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) and Light Armored Vehicles (LAV) provide armored firepower once the MEU makes landfall. Having long deployed M1 Abrams tanks, the Marine Corps recently divested themselves of these assets.


A key aspect of this discussion revolves around how the Legion might be transported to its various destinations. A key aspect of the Legion - in both transport and operations - would be its agility. While a traditional MAGTF may be agile compared to its conventional alternatives - particularly the Army's Brigade Combat Teams - the Legion must be more agile still. This means a lighter overall footprint, accomplished in part by utilizing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) assets. The Navy/Marine Corps team has also spent the last decade developing the Expeditionary Transfer Docks (ESD) USNS Montford Point and USNS John Glenn, and Expeditionary Transfer Bases (ESB) and USS Lewis B. Puller and USS Hershel "Woody" Williams, following the 2012 utilization of the refitted USS Ponce as an Afloat Forward Staging Base, Interim (AFSB-I). However, the Legion's needs may point to something more akin to repurposed cruise ships or roll-on/roll-off ferries.


USNS Lewis B. Puller departs Naval Station Norfolk. (35725832041).jpg

Figure 3 The Military Sealift Command expeditionary mobile base USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB 3) departs Naval Station Norfolk to begin its first operational deployment. Official U.S. Navy photo


The shift to these commercially-sourced transportation options gains additional context from revelations regarding the Legion's equipping paradigm. After 2001, save for brief periods during which SOF units rode pack animals, allied troops moved rapidly from soft-skinned HMWWV's and transport vehicles to expensive, heavily-armored vehicles. Meanwhile, the gold standard for guerrilla logistics and transportation since the 1970's has been the "Technical": a civilian vehicle - typically the globally popular Toyota Hilux, the American corollary being the Toyota Tacoma - with some type of weapon mounted in the bed. So, too, would the Legion operate deployable fleets of Technicals. Beyond simple ease of both use and transport, a Toyota Hilux/Tacoma takes up less space than a HMMWV, weighs less than half what a HMMWV weighs, and can traverse narrow roads that exclude a HMMWV's wide wheel base. In addition, the Technical is universal, making it easier to maintain and repair.


In a manner similar to the GCE, the Legion's unique role calls for different equipment for the ASE. First, the heavy lift capabilities provided by the Sikorsky CH-53 Super Stallion are no longer necessary. Medium airlift assets remain appropriate; however, Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft exceed the level of technological sophistication appropriate to the Legion's mission. While Afghan and Iraqi security forces seem to have successfully employed MI-8/17 Hip and MI-25 Hind helicopters, supplying a nominally American unit with Russian helicopters may not prove to be politically viable. Instead, Bell Helicopter continues to produce the venerable UH-1 "Huey" platform, and could be contracted to produce a maintenance-friendly version of the Marine Corps' original UH-1E aircraft.


Neither may combat aircraft be wholly necessary. However, if one assumes any such requirement, use of the UH-1 recommends the simultaneous use either of Huey gunships, or of the AH-1 attack variants: either a maintenance-friendly version of the AH-1 SeaCobra, or a version of the new AH-1Z Viper. Should the need for fixed wing aircraft also be identified, turboprop aircraft such as the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano would be ideal, as would the reconditioned North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco. Notably, the Afghan Air Force successfully employed the A-29 over the course of several years, and a 2015 pilot program successfully recommissioned two Vietnam era OV-10 airframes for service against DAESH.[15][16] The A-29 and OV-10 offer superior loiter times for irregular warfare missions relative to jet aircraft; and, when employed in sufficient numbers, propeller-driven aircraft represent a significant operational cost savings.[17] The OV-10 can also perform short takeoffs and landings on carriers and big deck amphibious assault ships without using catapults or arresting cables.[18] Depending upon the Legion's core platform, arrangements for launching and recovering the A-29 might also become realistic.


No heavy lift? How will the Legion transport all of that heavy equipment? The answer is simple: the Legion leads by example, and that means dispensing with some of the MEU's standard assets. For example, irregulars sometimes fire rockets or mortars, but the Viet Minh's use of artillery at Dien Bien Phu was legendary for a reason: artillery runs contrary to the very spirit of guerrilla warfare. So do armored vehicles. In fact, even the service rifles used by Marines - the M16A4 rifle and M4 carbine, currently in the process of being replaced by the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle - may require reconsideration. In a manner similar to the aforementioned choice of helicopter, the Legion's adoption of the guerrilla's gold standard, the AK-47, may not be politically viable; however, a compromise service weapon, such as the Galil, could meet the Legion's requirements. The Legion's existence as an irregular warfare training and advisory cadre, vice a self-contained combined arms maneuver force, requires a fundamental reconsideration of how American forces can operate abroad.


Strategic Considerations


Complications at the tactical and operational levels may be easily remedied, but several strategic considerations merit a cursory discussion.


Simply proposing the recruitment of Kurds to act as America's on-call irregular warfare instructors is easy. No shortage of commentators lamented the Trump Administration's seemingly abrupt 2019 withdrawal from Syrian Kurdistan. Commentators suggested that suspension of support to Kurdish guerrillas represented a fresh American betrayal of the Kurdish people, damaging America's relationship with these long-term partners. However, several key aspects of America's anti-DAESH partnership with the YPG/YPJ, most of them under-reported, add context sufficient to blunt this criticism.


First: the YPG/YPJ owe their ideological allegiance to Abdullah "Apo" Öcalan, and function as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Apo has been serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison since 1999, and both Turkey and the United States classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.[19] In more familiar terms, if the PKK equates to the Provisional IRA, the YPG/YPJ equate to a notional armed wing of Republican Sinn Fein. This makes them something of an outlier in Kurdish politics.


Second: as alluded to previously, it was political considerations - vice operational factors - that led the Obama Administration to choose the YPG/YPJ in the first place. Between 2011 and 2015, the Obama Administration refrained from intervening in the Syrian Civil War, partly for fear of disrupting ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, which acts in concert with Russia as the Assad regime's benefactor. The Obama White House chose the YPG/YPJ because of the groups' cordial relations with both Iran and Russia; and also because the YPG/YPJ were the only Syrian militia group that was solely focused upon annihilating DAESH, as opposed to seeking regime change as a solution to the Syrian Civil War's actual root cause.[20] In fact, other opposition groups whose agendas and ideologies aligned more closely with those of the United States were available at the time.[21]


Also, under-reported were the YPG/YPJ's efforts to leverage coalition support to extend their own zone of territorial control. International commentators focused on a narrative in which the Trump Administration abandoned the Kurds, wholesale, to a Turkish invasion; this commentary ignored the Obama Administration's role in altering the balance of power on a stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border, and Ankara's predictable response.


Based upon international commentary from late 2019, one might conclude that the United States could never recruit Kurds to operate as America's proxy. In fact, the events of late 2019 were inevitable, if abrupt: while the Kurdish-American partnership's expiration date was ill-defined, neither party expected the arrangement to be perpetual. In addition, and contrary to the often simplistic portrayal of the Kurds as a monolithic population, the partnership was limited in its geographic scope, involving a politically marginal militia that operates outside Iraqi Kurdistan, this being the longest standing area of Kurdish-American cooperation. Thus, the likelihood that Kurds might welcome an opportunity for a more persistent partnership with America may very well be greater than some would suggest.


In addition, engaging the Kurds in a more durable partnership could allow for an opening in the ongoing impasse between Washington and Ankara. Washington's new relationship with Kurdistan could act as a stabilizing influence, particularly if Washington publicly declines to recruit personnel who have previously engaged in offensive operations against Turkey. While the full scope of the Kurdish Regiment's impact on the strategic situation in the Kurdish heartland falls outside the scope of this publication, the potential to leverage the proposed relationship to influence a Turkish/Kurdish political settlement in the wider international interest merits mention.


As stated previously, the Legion's purpose is not to exfiltrate Kurds from Kurdistan. Assuming that the Kurdish Regiment proves successful, how can the Legion expand to match its capacity to the international demand?


In the wake of the chaotic multinational withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British Parliament suggested that Afghanistan's exiled commandos could be utilized as a sort of adjunct to the Gurkhas - an initiative that America has every right to seize upon.[22] Libya offers another potential option: as noted above, the NATO-led campaign in Libya left a failed state in its wake. However, from an operational standpoint, the intervention once again validated the warfighting concept of marrying Western intelligence and air support to guerrilla operations. Several years later, American SOF vetted various Libyan groups for potential partnership in the fight against DAESH's North African franchise.[23] Perhaps the 2rd Afghan and 3rd Libyan Regiments could eventually mirror the 1st Kurdish Regiment.


This model could also be leveraged to other strategic ends. Could the coalition's 2003 intervention in Iraq have played out differently if Iraq's government in waiting had been made to produce a regiment with experience operating under American leadership, to American standards? Could NATO partners leverage outright augmentation of American units as a demonstration of resolve, or even as a partial contribution toward their annual defense spending target? Forming an AFL would offer no shortage of opportunities.


What about the domestic considerations? The Legion's immediate, formational needs could provide a short- to medium-term surge in employment opportunities. American companies like Toyota's American arm, Bell Helicopter, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Boeing-Insitu, as well as various shipyards and small arms manufacturers, would be tapped to provide ground vehicles, crewed and remotely-operated aircraft, ships, and firearms. One might also note that if a Black Hawk helicopter or M1 tank fall into hostile hands, Americans notice; if the same happens to a late model Huey or a Toyota Tacoma, the potential political fallout is vastly less severe.


The FFL, and to a lesser degree the Gurkhas, also offer a strategic advantage in an era of historically low Western tolerance for combat casualties: while constituents tend to scrutinize high casualty rates among the ranks of citizen-soldiers, their tolerance for casualties among foreign volunteers tends to be higher. Furthermore, when a Legionnaire or Gurkha petitions for citizenship, no one questions their commitment, loyalty, or value to the country in whose ranks they have served. The same factors would be true of the AFL. The Legion also offers one potential opportunity to break the domestic political impasse surrounding the "Dreamers": individuals who arrived in the United States as minors, but who are currently ineligible for permanent legal status to remain in the United States. Dreamers could bypass this legal limbo by serving in the Legion. The legal framework for joining the Legion would differ from that of the conventional military; and while Congressional Democrats would likely balk at the suggestion that citizenship requires ten years of service, a single enlistment of five years could result in legal status. Otherwise, Congress could compromise on a variable set of criteria for "Dreamers". Nonetheless, this opportunity for adjusting course on foreign policy offers opportunities for adjusting course on several domestic issues of strategic importance.


Conclusion: A Time For New Solutions


America's investment of hundreds of billions of dollars, more than two thousand total American deaths, and more than twenty thousand Americans wounded, only to see the Taliban retake Afghanistan, should inspire the most serious introspection regarding American strategy, and America's methodology for realizing that strategy, since the Cold War's end or earlier. At present, this seems to have inspired little more than a renewed emphasis on the old ways of waging war, simply augmented by new technologies.


These recommendations may sound radical. Indeed, this reflects the radical changes required to re-invigorate American SFA, FID, UW, and other SOF efforts specifically, and American strategy more broadly. The time for a fundamental re-imagining of what America should expect to achieve beyond American borders, and how to do so, has arrived. An American corollary to the long-term success of the Brigade of Gurkhas and the French Foreign Legion can act as a key pillar of that new vision for America's future.




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About the Author(s)

Tom Ordeman, Jr. is an Oregon-based information security professional, freelance military historian, and former federal contractor. A graduate with Distinction from the University of Aberdeen’s MSc program in Strategic Studies, he holds multiple DoD and industry security certifications. Between 2006 and 2017, he supported training and enterprise risk management requirements for multiple DoD and federal civilian agencies. His research interests include the modern history of the Sultanate of Oman, and the exploits of the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War. His opinions are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any entity with which he is associated.