The Other Side of COIN
2ndLt Robert C. German
The War on Terror ushered in a new era of warfare for the United States and the Marine Corps. Gone are the days of Desert Storm-like conflicts when the United States could simply flex its muscle and use its technological advantages to bring an enemy to its knees. This muscle has now turned into the country’s Achilles heel, exposing it to devastating attacks from insurgents, cyber warriors, and the like. These enemies are not caught on a battlefield, but rather attack from the shadows, costing the country dollars and blood it cannot continue to pay. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the widespread adoption of counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics by both Army and Marine Corps units in order to mitigate this weakness. The question is: as Marines begin to leave areas of past conflict and move into the Pacific theater, where China's influence is growing stronger on a daily basis, how will these ideas blend into the ever-evolving problems of the region? The answer lies in COIN, which, if properly implemented, has the potential to enhance our fighting ability in this new environment for three distinct reasons. First, the age of unrestricted warfare makes big militaries open to small wars, which COIN seeks to solve. Second, the cultural understanding requisite to COIN provides unique solutions that are more adaptive to a changing environment. Third, COIN requires collaboration between the military and the government, aimed at the strategic alignment of policy and executive action, which will prove most effective in dealing with the threat China poses to the world.
In the seminal Marine Corps publication Warfighting, the concepts of center of gravity and critical vulnerability, well known to any Marine, are discussed at length. The center of gravity is, “what if eliminated will bend them [the enemy] most quickly to our will.” The critical vulnerability is, “[what] if exploited will do the most damage to the enemy's ability to resist us.” Enemies of the United States have realized, for quite some time, the nation’s center of gravity is making its enemies play by predetermined rules. The US military desires an enemy it can find and against which it can use time-honored weapons and tactics. The Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) is an effective force structure when the enemy plays by such clear rules. Therefore, the United States’ own critical vulnerability is its limited ability to fight a war in which it does not make the rules. For this reason, insurgents and guerilla warfare will continue to rise up against the US as long as it is a domineering military power. This leaves the country open to terrorist, cyber, and economic attacks – topics that training does not typically cover for most basic rifleman and military members. As two Chinese Colonels write in their book Unrestricted Warfare, which highlights the gaps in American defense moving into the 21st century, “the advent of bin-Laden style terrorism has deepened the impression that a national force no matter how powerful, will find it difficult to gain the upper hand in a game that has no rules.” This is why COIN is becoming more vital in areas outside the Middle East; no matter where the United States Marine Corps, military, or government goes, insurgency and guerilla warfare tactics will remain the easiest way damage US interests and allies. Enemies will continue to try to make conflict too long and too costly for the large, formally-trained United States to continue to fight. In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, the author discusses how British counterinsurgency efforts only really became effective in Malaya when “instead of massing troops, the army used small patrols” and began to “target select terrorists with the minimum force required.” These concepts can apply to the strategic level of warfare. While much of the Asia-Pivot strategy has been to show large force in the face of Chinese adventurism, choosing small, direct shows of force may be more strategic to prove our seriousness in an area where the Chinese continue to ignore limitations placed on them by the world. The Chinese know that the United States has carriers the size of cities, but showboating in the Pacific may mean far less than amassing allies around China, such as India or Mongolia. The Marine Corps should continue to partner with countries in this area, as it has in the exercise ‘Tiger Triumph’, the first Indo-US operation of its kind. The exercise included Marine Corps units as well as “components from India’s three defense forces” with a focus on, “amphibious humanitarian disaster and relief operations.” The Marine Corps should continue with similar, increasingly more combat-oriented operations in order to demonstrate the potential for action from US and Indian forces closer to home for China. Such actions on their border can subvert their control of sea lanes by threatening them somewhere they are not looking. The application of COIN tactics at an operational level could be the method by which the United States could unsettle the Chinese as they continue to ignore the current rules laid out by world powers. The Marine Corps should be taking the lead in this form of thinking.
General Berger’s new planning guidance discussed in detail how “in any future conflict, we will face challenges in maneuvering and operating inside threat weapons engagement zones.” On that topic the Commandant has put forward the concept of expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO), which will replace the aging Maritime Positioning Force which is, “quickly becoming not as relevant as in the past.” Being able to provide Marines the means to operate inside “weapon engagement zone” will signify more than offloading supplies and equipment. Surviving and thriving in this dangerous environment will require a knowledge of the surrounding area that only the local population can provide. The great steps taken by Marines practicing COIN in the Middle East and other countries can be applied here. Understanding the local population and culture and helping them could potentially lead them to assist future operations. In his book The Accidental Guerilla, COIN expert David Kilcullen speaks to this idea in reference to the surge in Iraq in 2007, saying that “by engaging with the local people, building local allies at the grassroots level, we could re-create the leverage we needed to stabilize the environment.” This is exactly what happened in 2007, and Iraq was saved from the brink of disaster as local populaces provided the necessary support to beat back al-Qaeda. This could easily be taken a step further, and this same leverage could be used to sustain troops, escalate their lethality, and possibly equip them in the Asia-Pacific region. This could realistically occur in a number of places and islands in the Pacific, such as the Spratly Islands, where China contests control with countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and others. If Marines wind up on these islands, the support provided from local communities will be key in giving the forces an advantage in that theater. In terms of cultural and political immersion, the application of COIN can generate considerable results for the Marine Corps. The OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop, often ineffectively summarized, instructs Marines to avoid simply living in pre-designed paradigms or models. COIN demands a corresponding mindset: Marines must continually rebuild their perception of the environment utilizing local populations and heightened precision. While this adjustment may take some time, it will prove the most enduring option.
However, the military alone cannot implement the concepts of COIN. As Clausewitz’s infamous quote suggests, “war is the continuation of policy by other means,” and if there is no policy behind it, the attempt of the Marine Corps will fail despite their efforts. One key weakness asserted by COIN naysayers has always been that the US military in its adoption of COIN was applying strategy without policy backing them. Colonel Gian Gentile, USA was one of the first to speak against COIN. In his article A Strategy of Tactics, he stated that he saw COIN operations as, “a total war without the commensurate total support of will and resources from the American people.” The military arm was missing the political force behind it. Consequently, the military was limited in how successful their operations could realistically be. The Marine Corps must avoid this dilemma and instead use the COIN model to work even closer with the government. Together, they should create a clear strategy, as well as use other, more appropriate resources to address the problems Marines meet in the Asia-Pacific region. Resources were not aptly utilized in the Middle East, and the United States struggled to fully and efficiently integrate non-government agencies. In How Everything Became the War and the Military Became Everything, the author states that, “at best, the military has a mixed track record when it comes to performing traditionally civilian functions as providing humanitarian assistance, government support, and development aid.” (96) Much of building alliances in the Asia Pacific region will revolve around building trust with local populations. Whether through humanitarian aid or civil affairs, the Marine Corps should look to involve such actors as aid organizations and the State Department, which can and arguably should be leading this charge to garner local trust and support. The War on Terror saw a shift as the Department of Defense as a whole began, “funding what they [the State Department] saw as classic public diplomacy projects.” Taking up such projects without consulting and failing to use the full range of tools the United States has to offer is a misstep of the United States government and the Marine Corps. It is especially so in this context: while Marines are trained for certain operations and a specific way of thinking, civilians and government professionals have different perspectives and experiences and can often provide solutions, which may be overlooked by a strictly military-trained mind. When operating in the Asia Pacific theater, media, public relations and outreach, and many other fields will become increasingly important. Thinking the Marine Corps is all-knowing in these realms, or that it can act as its own political arm, will lead to wasted energy and resources. The Marine Corps must embrace the system it resides in and humbly accept the tools provided by that system in order to accomplish the mission.
The Marine Corps must continue to be a force that remembers every lesson: counterinsurgency, amphibious landing, urban warfare, etc. Many modern political and military strategists desire to lay to rest the wars of old, along with their tactics and models. This may seem easy and straightforward now, in light of the painful lessons on counterinsurgency learned in the last 20 years, but the potential suffering of unsuccessful operations in the Asia-Pacific with a rising China would be much worse. The new challenges of today are more complex than ever before, and they require careful consideration of every perspective from history in order to succeed. Applying COIN is the only path which will give us an advantage while facing the beast of an enemy that is an accelerating China.
 Warfighting. U.S. Marine Corps, 2018, 2-24.
 Liang, Qiao, and Wang Xiangsui. Unrestricted Warfare. PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House Arts, 1999, 41.
 Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. University of Chicago Press, 2009, 105.
 Gurung, Shaurya Karanbir. “US Marine Corps, Special Forces to Participate in First Indo-US 'Tiger Triumph' Exercise.” The Economic Times, Economic Times, 25 Sept. 2019, economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/us-marine-corps-special-forces-to-participate-in-first-indo-us-tiger-triumph-exercise/articleshow/71286137.cms.
 Burger, David H. “38th Commandant's Planning Guidance” Marine Corps Publications, 17 July 2019, 20.
 South, Todd. “The Commandant Has a New Plan for the Marine Corps. Here's How Marines Will Get the Gear to Make It a Reality.” Marine Corps Times, Marine Corps Times, 18 Sept. 2019, https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2019/09/18/the-commandant-has-a-new-plan-for-the-marine-corps-heres-how-marines-will-get-the-gear-to-make-it-a-reality/.
 Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. Oxford University Press, 2009, 130.
 Clausewitz, Carl von, et al. On War. Princeton University Press, 1989, 81.
 Gentile, Gian. A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army. Parameters, 2019, 15.
 Brooks, Rosa. How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017, 96.
 Ibid, 87.
Berger, David H. “38th Commandant's Planning Guidance.” Marine Corps Publications, 17 July 2019, pp. 1–23.
Brooks, Rosa. How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017.
Clausewitz, Carl von, et al. On War. Princeton University Press, 1989.
Gentile, Gian. A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army. 2019.
Gurung, Shaurya Karanbir. “US Marine Corps, Special Forces to Participate in First Indo-US 'Tiger Triumph' Exercise.” The Economic Times, Economic Times, 25 Sept. 2019, economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/us-marine-corps-special-forces-to- participate-in-first-indo-us-tiger-triumph-exercise/articleshow/71286137.cms.
Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Liang, Qiao, and Wang Xiangsui. Unrestricted Warfare. PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House Arts, 1999.
Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
South, Todd. “The Commandant Has a New Plan for the Marine Corps. Here's How Marines Will Get the Gear to Make It a Reality.” Marine Corps Times, Marine Corps Times, 18 Sept. 2019, https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2019/09/18/the-commandant-has-a-new-plan-for-the-marine-corps-heres-how-marines-will-get-the-gear- to-make-it-a-reality/.
Warfighting. U.S. Marine Corps, 2018.