TDI Friday Read: Multi-Domain Battle/Operations Doctrine

With the December 2018 update of the U.S. Army’s Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept, this seems like a good time to review the evolution of doctrinal thinking about it. We will start with the event that sparked the Army’s thinking about the subject: the 2014 rocket artillery barrage fired from Russian territory that devastated Ukrainian Army forces near the village of Zelenopillya. From there we will look at the evolution of Army thinking beginning with the initial draft of an operating concept for Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) in 2017. To conclude, we will re-up two articles expressing misgivings over the manner with which these doctrinal concepts are being developed, and the direction they are taking.

The Russian Artillery Strike That Spooked The U.S. Army

Army And Marine Corps Join Forces To Define Multi-Domain Battle Concept

Army/Marine Multi-Domain Battle White Paper Available

What Would An Army Optimized For Multi-Domain Battle Look Like?

Sketching Out Multi-Domain Battle Operational Doctrine

U.S. Army Updates Draft Multi-Domain Battle Operating Concept

U.S. Army Multi-Domain Operations Concept Continues Evolving

U.S. Army Doctrine and Future Warfare

 

U.S. Army Doctrine and Future Warfare

Pre-war U.S. Army warfighting doctrine led to fielding the M10, M18 and M36 tank destroyers to counter enemy tanks. Their relatively ineffective performance against German panzers in Europe during World War II has been seen as the result of flawed thinking about tank warfare. [Wikimedia]

Two recently published articles on current U.S. Army doctrine development and the future of warfare deserve to be widely read:

“An Army Caught in the Middle Between Luddites, Luminaries, and the Occasional Looney,”

The first, by RAND’s David Johnson, is titled “An Army Caught in the Middle Between Luddites, Luminaries, and the Occasional Looney,” published by War on the Rocks.

Johnson begins with an interesting argument:

Contrary to what it says, the Army has always been a concepts-based, rather than a doctrine-based, institution. Concepts about future war generate the requirements for capabilities to realize them… Unfortunately, the Army’s doctrinal solutions evolve in war only after the failure of its concepts in its first battles, which the Army has historically lost since the Revolutionary War.

The reason the Army fails in its first battles is because its concepts are initially — until tested in combat — a statement of how the Army “wants to fight” and rarely an analytical assessment of how it “will have to fight.”

Starting with the Army’s failure to develop its own version of “blitzkrieg” after World War I, Johnson identified conservative organizational politics, misreading technological advances, and a stubborn refusal to account for the capabilities of potential adversaries as common causes for the inferior battlefield weapons and warfighting methods that contributed to its impressive string of lost “first battles.”

Conversely, Johnson credited the Army’s novel 1980s AirLand Battle doctrine as the product of an honest assessment of potential enemy capabilities and the development of effective weapon systems that were “based on known, proven technologies that minimized the risk of major program failures.”

“The principal lesson in all of this” he concluded, “is that the U.S. military should have a clear problem that it is trying to solve to enable it to innovate, and is should realize that innovation is generally not invention.” There are “also important lessons from the U.S. Army’s renaissance in the 1970s, which also resulted in close cooperation between the Army and the Air Force to solve the shared problem of the defense of Western Europe against Soviet aggression that neither could solve independently.”

“The US Army is Wrong on Future War”

The other article, provocatively titled “The US Army is Wrong on Future War,” was published by West Point’s Modern War Institute. It was co-authored by Nathan Jennings, Amos Fox, and Adam Taliaferro, all graduates of the School of Advanced Military Studies, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and currently serving U.S. Army officers.

They argue that

the US Army is mistakenly structuring for offensive clashes of mass and scale reminiscent of 1944 while competitors like Russia and China have adapted to twenty-first-century reality. This new paradigm—which favors fait accompli acquisitions, projection from sovereign sanctuary, and indirect proxy wars—combines incremental military actions with weaponized political, informational, and economic agendas under the protection of nuclear-fires complexes to advance territorial influence. The Army’s failure to conceptualize these features of the future battlefield is a dangerous mistake…

Instead, they assert that the current strategic and operational realities dictate a far different approach:

Failure to recognize the ascendancy of nuclear-based defense—with the consequent potential for only limited maneuver, as in the seventeenth century—incurs risk for expeditionary forces. Even as it idealizes Patton’s Third Army with ambiguous “multi-domain” cyber and space enhancements, the US Army’s fixation with massive counter-offensives to defeat unrealistic Russian and Chinese conquests of Europe and Asia misaligns priorities. Instead of preparing for past wars, the Army should embrace forward positional and proxy engagement within integrated political, economic, and informational strategies to seize and exploit initiative.

The factors they cite that necessitate the adoption of positional warfare include nuclear primacy; sanctuary of sovereignty; integrated fires complexes; limited fait accompli; indirect proxy wars; and political/economic warfare.

“Given these realities,” Jennings, Fox, and Taliaferro assert, “the US Army must adapt and evolve to dominate great-power confrontation in the nuclear age. As such, they recommend that the U.S. (1) adopt “an approach more reminiscent of the US Army’s Active Defense doctrine of the 1970s than the vaunted AirLand Battle concept of the 1980s,” (2) “dramatically recalibrate its approach to proxy warfare; and (3) compel “joint, interagency and multinational coordination in order to deliberately align economic, informational, and political agendas in support of military objectives.”

Future U.S. Army Doctrine: How It Wants to Fight or How It Has to Fight?

Readers will find much with which to agree or disagree in each article, but they both provide viewpoints that should supply plenty of food for thought. Taken together they take on a different context. The analysis put forth by Jenninigs, Fox, and Taliaferro can be read as fulfilling Johnson’s injunction to base doctrine on a sober assessment of the strategic and operational challenges presented by existing enemy capabilities, instead of as an aspirational concept for how the Army would prefer to fight a future war. Whether or not Jennings, et al, have accurately forecasted the future can be debated, but their critique should raise questions as to whether the Army is repeating past doctrinal development errors identified by Johnson.

U.S. Army Multi-Domain Operations Concept Continues Evolving

[Sgt. Meghan Berry, US Army/adapted by U.S. Army Modern War Institute]

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) released draft version 1.5 of its evolving Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) future operating concept last week. Entitled TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, “The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028,” this iteration updates the initial Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) concept issued in October 2017.

According to U.S. Army Chief of Staff (and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff nominee) General Mark Milley, MDO Concept 1.5 is the first step in the doctrinal evolution. “It describes how U.S. Army forces, as part of the Joint Force, will militarily compete, penetrate, dis-integrate, and exploit our adversaries in the future.”

TRADOC Commander General Stuart Townsend summarized the draft concept thusly:

The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 concept proposes a series of solutions to solve the problem of layered standoff. The central idea in solving this problem is the rapid and continuous integration of all domains of warfare to deter and prevail as we compete short of armed conflict. If deterrence fails, Army formations, operating as part of the Joint Force, penetrate and dis-integrate enemy anti-access and area denial systems;exploit the resulting freedom of maneuver to defeat enemy systems, formations and objectives and to achieve our own strategic objectives; and consolidate gains to force a return to competition on terms more favorable to the U.S., our allies and partners.

To achieve this, the Army must evolve our force, and our operations, around three core tenets. Calibrated force posture combines position and the ability to maneuver across strategic distances. Multi-domain formations possess the capacity, endurance and capability to access and employ capabilities across all domains to pose multiple and compounding dilemmas on the adversary. Convergence achieves the rapid and continuous integration of all domains across time, space and capabilities to overmatch the enemy. Underpinning these tenets are mission command and disciplined initiative at all warfighting echelons. (original emphasis)

For a look at the evolution of the Army and U.S. Marine Corps doctrinal thinking about multi-domain warfare since early 2017:

Army And Marine Corps Join Forces To Define Multi-Domain Battle Concept

U.S. Army Updates Draft Multi-Domain Battle Operating Concept

 

UPDATE: Should The U.S. Army Add More Tube Artillery To It Combat Units?

A 155mm Paladin howitzer with 1st Battery, 10th Field Artillery, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Liberty stands ready for a fire mission at forward operating base Gabe April 16, 2005. [U.S. Department of Defense/DVIDS]

In response to my recent post looking at the ways the U.S. is seeking to improve its long range fires capabilities, TDI received this comment via Twitter:

@barefootboomer makes a fair point. It appears that the majority of the U.S. Army’s current efforts to improve its artillery capabilities are aimed at increasing lethality and capability of individual systems, but not actually adding additional guns to the force structure.

Are Army combat units undergunned in the era of multi-domain battle? The Mobile Protected Firepower program is intended to provide additional light tanks high-caliber direct fire guns to the Infantry Brigade Combat Teams. In his recent piece at West Point’s Modern War Institute blog, Captain Brandon Morgan recommended increasing the proportion of U.S. corps rocket artillery to tube artillery systems from roughly 1:4 to something closer to the current Russian Army ratio of 3:4.

Should the Army be adding other additional direct or indirect fires systems to its combat forces? What types and at what levels? Direct or indirect fire? More tubes per battery? More batteries? More battalions?

What do you think?

UPDATE: I got a few responses to my queries. The balance reflected this view:

@barefootboomer elaborated on his original point:

There were not many specific suggestions about changes to the existing forces structure, except for this one:

Are there any other thoughts or suggestions out there about this, or is the consensus that the Army is already pretty much on the right course toward fixing its fires problems?

Status Update On U.S. Long Range Fires Capabilities

Soldiers fire an M777A2 howitzer while supporting Iraqi security forces near al-Qaim, Iraq, Nov. 7, 2017, as part of the operation to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. [Spc. William Gibson/U.S. Army]

Earlier this year, I noted that the U.S. is investing in upgrading its long range strike capabilities as part of its multi-domain battle doctrinal response to improving Chinese, Russian, and Iranian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. There have been a few updates on the progress of those investments.

The U.S. Army Long Range Fires Cross Functional Team

A recent article in Army Times by Todd South looked at some of the changes being implemented by the U.S. Army cross functional team charged with prioritizing improvements in the service’s long range fires capabilities. To meet a requirement to double the ranges of its artillery systems within five years, “the Army has embarked upon three tiers of focus, from upgrading old school artillery cannons, to swapping out its missile system to double the distance it can fire, and giving the Army a way to fire surface-to-surface missiles at ranges of 1,400 miles.”

The Extended Range Cannon Artillery program is working on rocket assisted munitions to double the range of the Army’s workhouse 155mm guns to 24 miles, with some special rounds capable of reaching targets up to 44 miles away. As I touched on recently, the Army is also looking into ramjet rounds that could potentially increase striking range to 62 miles.

To develop the capability for even longer range fires, the Army implemented a Strategic Strike Cannon Artillery program for targets up to nearly 1,000 miles, and a Strategic Fires Missile effort enabling targeting out to 1,400 miles.

The Army is also emphasizing retaining trained artillery personnel and an improved training regime which includes large-scale joint exercises and increased live-fire opportunities.

Revised Long Range Fires Doctrine

But better technology and training are only part of the solution. U.S. Army Captain Harrison Morgan advocated doctrinal adaptations to shift Army culture away from thinking of fires solely as support for maneuver elements. Among his recommendations are:

  • Increasing the proportion of U.S. corps rocket artillery to tube artillery systems from roughly 1:4 to something closer to the current Russian Army ratio of 3:4.
  • Fielding a tube artillery system capable of meeting or surpassing the German-made PZH 2000, which can strike targets out to 30 kilometers with regular rounds, sustain a firing rate of 10 rounds per minute, and strike targets with five rounds simultaneously.
  • Focus on integrating tube and rocket artillery with a multi-domain, joint force to enable the destruction of the majority of enemy maneuver forces before friendly ground forces reach direct-fire range.
  • Allow tube artillery to be task organized below the brigade level to provide indirect fires capabilities to maneuver battalions, and make rocket artillery available to division and brigade commanders. (Morgan contends that the allocation of indirect fires capabilities to maneuver battalions ended with the disbanding of the Army’s armored cavalry regiments in 2011.)
  • Increase training in use of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) assets at the tactical level to locate, target, and observe fires.

U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy Face Long Range Penetrating Strike Challenges

The Army’s emphasis on improving long range fires appears timely in light of the challenges the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy face in conducting long range penetrating strikes mission in the A2/AD environment. A fascinating analysis by Jerry Hendrix for the Center for a New American Security shows the current strategic problems stemming from U.S. policy decisions taken in the early 1990s following the end of the Cold War.

In an effort to generate a “peace dividend” from the fall of the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration elected to simplify the U.S. military force structure for conducting long range air attacks by relieving the Navy of its associated responsibilities and assigning the mission solely to the Air Force. The Navy no longer needed to replace its aging carrier-based medium range bombers and the Air Force pushed replacements for its aging B-52 and B-1 bombers into the future.

Both the Air Force and Navy emphasized development and acquisition of short range tactical aircraft which proved highly suitable for the regional contingencies and irregular conflicts of the 1990s and early 2000s. Impressed with U.S. capabilities displayed in those conflicts, China, Russia, and Iran invested in air defense and ballistic missile technologies specifically designed to counter American advantages.

The U.S. now faces a strategic environment where its long range strike platforms lack the range and operational and technological capability to operate within these AS/AD “bubbles.” The Air Force has far too few long range bombers with stealth capability, and neither the Air Force nor Navy tactical stealth aircraft can carry long range strike missiles. The missiles themselves lack stealth capability. The short range of the Navy’s aircraft and insufficient numbers of screening vessels leave its aircraft carriers vulnerable to ballistic missile attack.

Remedying this state of affairs will take time and major investments in new weapons and technological upgrades. However, with certain upgrades, Hendrix sees the current Air Force and Navy force structures capable of providing the basis for a long range penetrating strike operational concept effective against A2/AD defenses. The unanswered question is whether these upgrades will be implemented at all.

Drones: The People’s Weapon?

The DJI Matrice 600 commercial drone for professional aerial photography. Available for $4,600, a pair of these drones were allegedly used in an assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in August 2018. [Wired]

Last week, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that its military air defense assets had shot down 45 drones in attempted attacks on Khmeimim Air Base, the main Russian military installation in Syria. The frequency of these attacks were increasing since the first one in January, according to Major General Igor Konashenkov. Five drones had been downed in the three days preceding the news conference.

Konashenkov asserted that although the drones appeared technologically primitive, they were actually quite sophisticated, with a range of up to 100 kilometers (60 miles). While the drones were purportedly to be piloted by Syrian rebels from Idlib Provence, the Russians have implied that they required outside assistance to assemble them.

The use of commercial off-the shelf (COTS) or modified off-the-shelf (MOTS) aerial drones by non-state actors for actions ranging from precision bombing attacks on combat troops, to terrorism, to surveillance of law enforcement, appears to be gaining in popularity.

Earlier this month, a pair of commercial drones armed with explosives were used in an alleged assassination attempt on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq have been using drones for reconnaissance and to drop explosives and bombs on opposition forces.

According to Kathy Gilsinan in The Atlantic,

In 2015, Reuters reported that a protester flew “a drone carrying radioactive sand from the Fukushima nuclear disaster onto the prime minister’s office, though the amount of radiation was minimal.” Mexican cartels have used drones to smuggle drugs and, in one instance, to land disabled grenades on a local police chief’s property. Last summer, a drone delivered an active grenade to an ammunition dump in Ukraine, which Kyle Mizokami of Popular Mechanics reported caused a billion dollars’ worth of damage.

Patrick Turner reported for Defense One that a criminal gang employed drones to harass an FBI hostage rescue team observing an unfolding situation outside a large U.S. city in 2017.

The U.S. Defense Department has been aware for some time of the potential effectiveness of drones, particularly the specter of massed drone “swarm” attacks. In turn, the national security community and the defense industry have turned their attention to potential countermeasures.

As Joseph Trevithick reported in The Drive, the Russians have been successful thus far in thwarting drone attacks in Syria using air defense radars, Pantsir-S1 short-range air defense systems, and electronic warfare systems. These attacks have not involved more than a handful of drones at a time, however. The initial Syrian rebel drone attack on Khmeimim Air Base in January 2018 involved 10 drones carrying 10 bomblets each.

The ubiquity of commercial drones also raises the possibility of attacks on non-military targets unprotected by air defense networks. Is it possible to defend every potential target? Perhaps not, but Jospeh Hanacek points out in War on the Rocks that there are ways to counter or mitigate the risk of drone attacks that do not involve sophisticated and expensive defenses. Among his simple suggestions are using shotguns for point defense against small and fragile drones, improving communications among security forces, and complicating the targeting problem for would-be attackers. Perhaps the best defense against drones is merely to avoid overthinking the problem.

Security On The Cheap: Whither Security Force Assistance (SFA)?

A U.S. Army Special Forces weapons sergeant observes a Niger Army soldier during marksmanship training as part of Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, February 28, 2017. [U.S. Army/SFC Christopher Klutts/AFRICOM]

Paul Staniland, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has a new article in The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog that contends that the U.S. is increasingly relying on a strategy of “violence management” in dealing with the various counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and stability conflicts (i.e. “small wars”) it is involved with around the world.

As he describes it,

America’s “violence management” strategy relies on light ground forces, airpower and loose partnerships with local armed actors. Its aim is to degrade and disrupt militant organizations within a chaotic, fractured political landscape, not to commit large numbers of forces and resources to building robust new governments.

…Violence management sidesteps politics in favor of sustained military targeting. This approach takes for granted high levels of political disorder, illiberal and/or fractured local regimes, and protracted conflicts. The goal is disrupting militant organizations without trying to build new states, spur economic development, or invest heavily in post-conflict reconstruction.

…It has three core elements: a light U.S. ground force commitment favoring special forces, heavy reliance on airpower and partnerships of convenience with local militias, insurgents, and governments.

…Politically, this strategy reduces both costs and commitments. America’s wars stay off the front pages, the U.S. can add or drop local partners as it sees fit, and U.S. counterterror operations remain opaque.

Staniland details the risks associated with this strategy but does not assess its effectiveness. He admits to ambivalence on that in an associated discussion on Twitter.

Whither SFA?

Partnering with foreign government, organizations, and fighters to counter national security threats is officially known by the umbrella terms Security Force Assistance in U.S. government policy terminology. It is intended to help defend host nations from external and internal threats, and encompasses foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), counterinsurgency (COIN), and stability operations. The U.S. has employed this approach in various forms since World War II.

Has it been effective? Interestingly enough, this question has not been seriously examined. The best effort so far is a study done by Stephen Biddle, Julia Macdonald, and Ryan Baker, “Small Footprint, Small Payoff: The Military Effectiveness of Security Force Assistance,” published the Journal of Strategic Studies earlier this year. It concluded:

We find important limitations on SFA’s military utility, stemming from agency problems arising from systematic interest misalignment between the US and its typical partners. SFA’s achievable upper bound is modest and attainable only if US policy is intrusive and conditional, which it rarely is. For SFA, small footprints will usually mean small payoffs.

A Mixed Recent Track Record

SFA’s recent track record has been mixed. It proved conditionally successful countering terrorists and insurgents in the Philippines and in the coalition effort to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria; and it handed a black eye to Russian sponsored paramilitary forces in Syria earlier this year. However, a train and advice mission for the moderate Syrian rebels failed in 2015; four U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers died in an ambush during a combined patrol in Niger in October 2017; there are recurring cases of U.S.-trained indigenous forces committing human rights abuses; and the jury remains out on the fate of Afghanistan.

The U.S. Army’s proposed contribution to SFA, the Security Forces Assistance Brigade, is getting its initial try-out in Afghanistan right now. The initial reports indicate that it has indeed boosted SFA capacity there. What remains to be seen is whether that will make a difference. The 1st SFAB suffered its first combat casualties earlier this month when Corporal Joseph Maciel was killed and two others were wounded in an insider attack at Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province.

Will a strategy of violence management prove successful over the longer term? Stay tuned…

Another Look At The Role Of Russian Mercenaries In Syria

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin—who reportedly has ties to Putin, the Russian Ministry of Defense, and Russian mercenaries—was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on 16 February 2018 for allegedly funding and guiding a Russian government effort to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. [Alexei Druzhinin/AP]

As I recently detailed, many details remain unclear regarding the 7 February 2018 engagement in Deir Ezzor, Syria, between Russian mercenaries, Syrian government troops, and militia fighters and U.S. Special Operations Forces, U.S. Marines, and their partnered Kurdish and Syrian militia forces. Aside from questions as to just how many Russians participated and how many were killed, the biggest mystery is why the attack occurred at all.

Kimberly Marten, chair of the Political Science Department at Barnard College and director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, takes another look at this in a new article on War on the Rocks.

Why did Moscow initially deny any Russians’ involvement, and then downplay the casualty numbers? And why didn’t the Russian Defense Ministry stop the attackers from crossing into the American zone, or warn them about the likelihood of a U.S. counterstrike? Western media have offered two contending explanations: that Wagner acted without the Kremlin’s authorization, or that this was a Kremlin-approved attack that sought to test Washington while maintaining plausible deniability. But neither explanation fully answers all of the puzzles raised by the publicly available evidence, even though both help us understand more generally the opaque relationship between the Russian state and these forces.

After reviewing what is known about the relationship between the Russian government and the various Russian mercenary organizations, Marten proposes another explanation.

A different, or perhaps additional, rationale takes into account the ruthless infighting between Russian security forces that goes on regularly, while Russian President Vladimir Putin looks the other way. Russian Defense Ministry motives in Deir al-Zour may actually have centered on domestic politics inside Russia — and been directed against Putin ally and Wagner backer Yevgeny Prigozhin.

She takes a detailed look at the institutional relationships in question and draws a disquieting conclusion:

We may never have enough evidence to solve definitively the puzzles of Russian behavior at Deir al-Zour. But an understanding of Russian politics and security affairs allows us to better interpret the evidence we do have. Since Moscow’s employment of groups like Wagner appears to be a growing trend, U.S. and allied forces should consider the possibility that in various locations around the world, they might end up inadvertently, and dangerously, ensnared in Russia’s internal power struggles.

As with the Institute for the Study of War’s contention that the Russians are deliberately testing U.S. resolve in the Middle East, Marten’s interpretation that the actions of various Russian mercenary groups might be the result of internal Russian politics points to the prospect of further military adventurism only loosely connected to Russian foreign policy direction. Needless to say, the implications of this are ominous in a region of the world already beset by conflict and regional and international competition.

Are Russia And Iran Planning More Proxy Attacks On U.S. Forces And Their Allies In Syria?

Members of the Liwa al-Baqir Syrian Arab militia, which is backed by Iran and Russia. [Navvar Şaban (N.Oliver)/Twitter]

Over at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Jennifer Cafarella, Matti Suomenaro, and Catherine Harris have published an analysis predicting that Iran and Russia are preparing to attack U.S. forces and those of its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allies in eastern Syria. By using tribal militia proxies and Russian mercenary troops to inflict U.S. casualties and stoke political conflict among the Syrian factions, Cafarella, et al, assert that Russia and Iran are seeking to compel the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Syria and break up the coalition that defeated Daesh.

If true, this effort would represent an escalation of a strategic gambit that led to a day-long battle between tribal militias loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Syrian government troops, and Russian mercenaries and U.S. allied Kurdish and SDF fighters along with their U.S. Marine and Special Operations Forces (SOF) advisors in February in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. This resulted in a major defeat of the pro-Assad forces, which suffered hundreds of casualties–including dozens of Russians–from U.S. air and ground-based fires.

To support their contention, Cafarella, et al, offer a pattern of circumstantial evidence that does not quite amount to a definitive conclusion. ISW has a clear policy preference to promote: “The U.S. must commit to defending its partners and presence in Eastern Syria in order to prevent the resurgence of ISIS and deny key resources to Iran, Russia, and Assad.” It has criticized the U.S.’s failure to hold Russia culpable for the February attack in Deir Ezzor as “weak,” thereby undermining its policy in Syria and the Middle East in the face of Russian “hybrid” warfare efforts.

Yet, there is circumstantial evidence that the February battle in Deir Ezzor was the result of deliberate Russian government policy. ISW has identified Russian and Iranian intent to separate SDF from U.S. support to isolate and weaken it. President Assad has publicly made clear his intent to restore his rule over all of Syria. And U.S. President Donald Trump has yet to indicate that he has changed his intent to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

Russian and Iranian sponsorship and support for further aggressive action by pro-regime forces and proxies against U.S. troops and their Syrian allies could easily raise tensions dramatically with the U.S. Since it is difficult to see Russian and Iranian proxies succeeding with new Deir Ezzor-style attacks, they might be tempted to try to shoot down a U.S. aircraft or attempt a surprise raid on a U.S. firebase instead. Should Syrian regime or Russian mercenary forces manage to kill or wound U.S. troops, or bring down a U.S. manned aircraft, the military and political repercussions could be significant.

Despite the desire of President Trump to curtail U.S. involvement in Syria, there is real potential for the conflict to mushroom.

Should The Marines Take Responsibility For Counterinsurgency?

United States Marines in Nacaragua with the captured flag of Augusto César Sandino, 1932. [Wikipedia]

Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr recently reported in Breaking Defense that the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), led by chairman Senator John McCain, has asked Defense Secretary James Mattis to report on progress toward preparing the U.S. armed services to carry out the recently published National Defense Strategy oriented toward potential Great Power conflict.

Among a series of questions that challenge existing service roles and missions, Freedberg reported that the SASC wants to know if responsibility for carrying out “low-intensity missions,” such as counterinsurgency, should be the primary responsibility of one service:

Make the Marines a counterinsurgency force? The Senate starts by asking whether the military “would benefit from having one Armed Force dedicated primarily to low-intensity missions, thereby enabling the other Armed Forces to focus more exclusively on advanced peer competitors.” It quickly becomes clear that “one Armed Force” means “the Marines.” The bill questions the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) and suggest shifting that role to the Marines. It also questions the survivability of Navy-Marine flotillas in the face of long-range sensors and precision missiles — so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems — and asked whether the Marines’ core mission, “amphibious forced entry operations,” should even “remain an enduring mission for the joint force” given the difficulties. It suggests replacing large-deck amphibious ships, which carry both Marine aircraft and landing forces, with small aircraft carriers that could carry “larger numbers of more diverse strike aircraft” (but not amphibious vehicles or landing craft). Separate provisions of the bill restrict spending on the current Amphibious Assault Vehicle (Sec. 221) and the future Amphibious Combat Vehicle (Sec. 128) until the Pentagon addresses the viability of amphibious landings.

This proposed change would drastically shift the U.S. Marine Corps’ existing role and missions, something that will inevitably generate political and institutional resistance. Deemphasizing the ability to execute amphibious forced entry operations would be both a difficult strategic choice and an unpalatable political decision to fundamentally alter the Marine Corps’ institutional identity. Amphibious warfare has defined the Marines since the 1920s. It would, however, be a concession to the reality that technological change is driving the evolving character of warfare.

Perhaps This Is Not A Crazy Idea After All

The Marine Corps also has a long history with so-called “small wars”: contingency operations and counterinsurgencies. Tasking the Marines as the proponents for low-intensity conflict would help alleviate one of the basic conundrums facing U.S. land power: the U.S. Army’s inability to optimize its force structure due to the strategic need to be prepared to wage both low-intensity conflict and conventional combined arms warfare against peer or near peer adversaries. The capabilities needed for waging each type of conflict are diverging, and continuing to field a general purpose force is running an increasing risk of creating an Army dangerously ill-suited for either. Giving the Marine Corps responsibility for low-intensity conflict would permit the Army to optimize most of its force structure for combined arms warfare, which poses the most significant threat to American national security (even if it less likely than potential future low-intensity conflicts).

Making the Marines the lead for low-intensity conflict would also play to another bulwark of its institutional identity, as the world’s premier light infantry force (“Every Marine is a rifleman”). Even as light infantry becomes increasingly vulnerable on modern battlefields dominated by the lethality of long-range precision firepower, its importance for providing mass in irregular warfare remains undiminished. Technology has yet to solve the need for large numbers of “boots on the ground” in counterinsurgency.

The crucial role of manpower in counterinsurgency makes it somewhat short-sighted to follow through with the SASC’s suggestions to eliminate the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) and to reorient Special Operations Forces (SOF) toward support for high-intensity conflict. As recent, so-called “hybrid warfare” conflicts in Lebanon and the Ukraine have demonstrated, future battlefields will likely involve a mix of combined arms and low-intensity warfare. It would be risky to assume that Marine Corps’ light infantry, as capable as they are, could tackle all of these challenges alone.

Giving the Marines responsibility for low-intensity conflict would not likely require a drastic change in force structure. Marines could continue to emphasize sea mobility and littoral warfare in circumstances other than forced entry. Giving up the existing large-deck amphibious landing ships would be a tough concession, admittedly, one that would likely reduce the Marines’ effectiveness in responding to contingencies.

It is not likely that a change as big as this will be possible without a protracted political and institutional fight. But fresh thinking and drastic changes in the U.S.’s approach to warfare are going to be necessary to effectively address both near and long-term strategic challenges.