Small Wars

This Week at War: Qaddafi's Collapsible Military

Libya's army has completely disintegrated in recent days. It was supposed to. 

Qaddafi didn't need his army. He may not be the only ruler who thinks so.

In last week's column, I discussed whether there might be a gap between warfare in the 21st century and the style of warfare for which the Pentagon prepares. I wrote, "And with nation-states now having strong political incentives to avoid having their soldiers overtly engaged in warfare, their leaders may increasingly hire irregulars and anonymous proxies as their combatants." Little did I know then how well this sentence would apply to Libya's leader, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, now holding out in a last bastion around Tripoli. Despite his eccentricities, the colonel's views on the military and its role in protecting a modern state are not so different from those of major world powers, including the United States.

Although once a soldier himself, Qaddafi has had little use for his own military. The sudden rebellion in Libya has caused the regular army in Libya to collapse. This was a feature of the army, not a bug. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the military balance in North Africa described the poor state of the army's training, leadership, and logistical support. In particular the authors singled out the lopsided ratio of Libya's weapons supplies to manpower as "militarily absurd." Like all autocrats propped up on the tiniest sliver of support, the last thing Qaddafi would have wanted was a cohesive and functioning army patrolling Libya's streets.

Qaddafi has preferred mercenaries and street thugs rather than regular soldiers for his security. He has avoided keeping a competent army, an institution that would have been a threat to his rule. With few external threats and all of the biggest risks to his power coming from inside the country, Qaddafi rationally preferred outsiders for security -- as we have witnessed, they have less compunction pulling the triggers when necessary. The recent events in Egypt supported Qaddafi's security strategy -- Egypt's well-established and nationally respected army removed Hosni Mubarak from office relatively quickly.

The odds of Qaddafi surviving much longer, let alone re-establishing control over his country, seem very long. But his chances are still much higher than they would be if there was a cohesive security force, such as a competent army, opposing him.

As mentioned, Qaddafi could get away without a strong army because Libya faced few significant external military threats. The regular army was not a suitable instrument for the dangers he worried about. He's hardly alone in this view. Similarly, many other modern powers, including China, Russia, and most countries in Western Europe, have not been able to identify conventional military threats to their territories and have opted to reduce their traditional ground forces. By contrast, missile and naval forces in China, nuclear forces in Russia, and internal security forces everywhere seem to be growth businesses.

As for the United States, senior Marine Corps leaders are assuming that policymakers will not entertain any repeats of the stabilization campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan anytime soon. They seem to be presuming that a lesson from those campaigns is that conventional U.S. ground forces were not the appropriate tool for those missions. Thus, Marine Corps leaders are planning on a force reduction from 202,000 Marines to 186,800 or even lower. Based on similar assumptions, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, discussed plans to reduce the Army from 570,000 soldiers to 547,000 by 2014, with a further reduction to 520,000 possible.

These Army and Marine Corps generals are making plans to maintain smaller but high-quality and well-equipped forces when impending budget cuts arrive. Such planning seems only prudent. But to avoid even more dramatic cuts, these generals will have to convince policymakers that their conventional ground forces will be a relevant solution to the nature of security problems in the 21st century.

For the Marine Corps, it's nice to feel needed

In a recent column, I discussed the struggle the U.S. Marine Corps faces finding a sensible role for itself after it completes its work in Afghanistan. In that column, I discussed how modern guided missiles, now available to a wide array of potential adversaries, make the traditional Marine Corps mission of amphibious assault riskier than ever. Some analysts have suggested that the Marine Corps should instead focus primarily on training and advising foreign partner military forces. But this would set up a clash with the Army's Special Forces and with Special Operations Command, which already have the lead responsibility for that mission. With Pentagon spending inevitably getting a chop, it is a bad time for the Marine Corps to be without a viable mission and struggling to convince its sponsors on Capitol Hill that it should continue to be worthy of significant funding.

So it was not a moment too soon when Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, called for the Marine Corps to play a larger role in the Pentagon's new AirSea Battle Concept. The AirSea Battle Concept (described in depth in a report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments) was first officially introduced in the Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The QDR discussed a concern that future advances in adversary air defense systems, anti-ship missiles, and submarines could make it too risky for U.S. military forces to operate in certain parts of the "global commons" at sea, in the air, or in space. The AirSea Battle Concept will be a doctrine calling for the Navy and Air Force to integrate their services' unique capabilities into a joint strategy designed to overcome an adversary's attempt to establish such "no-go" zones.

In the post-Afghanistan era, the challenge presented by China's military buildup -- and the possibility that China will someday be in a position to establish "no-go" zones in the Western Pacific and South China Sea -- will very likely rank at the top of the Pentagon's priorities. Implementing the AirSea Battle Concept will thus likely be a major organizational focus of the Defense Department throughout the rest of this decade. The fact that Willard, the top field commander in the Pacific, has specifically invited the Marine Corps to the big Navy-Air Force party should be pleasing to Marine Corps leaders who otherwise might have wondered when the ax was going to fall on their service.

By calling for an increased role for the Marine Corps in a hypothetical air and naval campaign in the Pacific, Willard has saved the Marine Corps from having to convince skeptics why its amphibious capabilities are necessary. The task now falls on Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force planners to solve the guided-missile problem that continues to bedevil the prospect of landing marines on an even modestly defended shoreline.

In a recent speech, Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos explained how the Corps will return to amphibious and expeditionary missions after being essentially a second land army in Afghanistan. To make a relevant contribution to the AirSea Battle Concept, the Marine Corps will have to fix two major problems. First, it will have to fix its problem with landing craft; Amos declared that after the cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, the Marine Corps is starting from scratch on a new family of troop carriers. Even more important for Amos is to fix the highly troubled Marine Corps vertical takeoff and landing version of the F-35 fighter aircraft, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates has placed on a two-year stay of execution. Should Amos succeed in fixing this airplane, commanders will have a jet fighter capable of operating from a wide variety of amphibious ships, and not from just a few Navy aircraft carriers.

When he called for the Marine Corps to play a larger role in the AirSea Battle Concept, Willard likely concluded that the Corps' capabilities would reassure allies in his region and complicate the planning of potential adversaries. This could not have come at a better time for Amos and his Marines. But whether the Marines can fix their problems and make a useful contribution to Willard's plans remains to be seen.


Small Wars

This Week at War: A Conflict Without a Name

Is Mexico's drug violence an insurgency or a totally new kind of war?

What kind of problem does Mexico have?

On Feb. 15, gunmen on a highway in central Mexico stopped a vehicle with U.S. diplomatic license plates and shot the two men inside. Killed in the attack was Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent. A second ICE agent was wounded. In response to the attack, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) declared that "this tragic event is a game changer" that "should be a long overdue wake-up call for the Obama administration that there is a war on our nation's doorstep."

Should what's happening in Mexico be described as a war? On Feb. 7, U.S. Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal described Mexico's troubles as a "form of insurgency," an assertion that immediately provoked a strong rebuke from Mexico's Foreign Ministry. U.S. policymakers need to fashion a strategy in response to a dire security situation across the border that does not seem to be improving. But as Clausewitz advised two centuries ago, before doing so, they would be well advised to first understand what kind of conflict they face.

In a piece for Small Wars Journal, Robert Bunker, a researcher at the University of Southern California, discussed five conflict models by which analysts might classify the troubles in Mexico, encouraging experts on each of the models to cooperate with each other in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the situation in Mexico.

In Bunker's taxonomy, gang studies, the specialty of some criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, is one way to analyze events in Mexico. Students of gang operations analyze how gangs capture control of neighborhoods, prison populations, and local drug markets. Next is organized crime studies, also the purview of criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, but a level of criminal activity that would imply more organizational sophistication and broader territoriality than that implied by gang studies. A third classification is terrorism studies, a focus of academics and government officials at the national and international levels. Under a terrorism model, cartels in Mexico would use terror to compel compliance from rival gangs, government officials, and non-combatants. Insurgency studies are the fourth paradigm, currently an interest of academics and military planners. Under this model, cartels could ultimately form shadow governments either in parallel or inside the legitimate government. Finally, there are future warfare studies, a province of academics which hypothesizes the creation of new transnational organizational structures that could both combine and supplant governments, security forces, criminal organizations, and corporate interests.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government struggled against two problems. First, it failed to correctly characterize the initial nature of its adversaries, how they were organized, how their networks of relationships operated, and what tactics they would employ. Second, adversaries in both conflicts rapidly adapted to changing circumstances; U.S. planners were slow at first to understand these adaptations and adjust themselves, although they improved in this regard later in each conflict.

The Mexican government currently believes it has a straightforward organized crime problem, and as the Westphal incident illustrates, has little patience for alternate points of view. Should analysts and the policymakers on the U.S. side come to a different conclusion, it could make cooperation with their Mexican counterparts difficult.

Bunker arues that signs of all five models are present in Mexico. He also seems to have a lingering fear that the fifth paradigm and the worst-case scenario -- some new form of sophisticated, transnational, criminal-military organization -- may yet predominate. It is this scenario that neither the Mexican nor U.S. governments seem prepared to contemplate. Bunker's call for cooperation among the analysts sounds like timely advice.

Can the United States cope with 21st century warfare?

It's been nearly a decade since the 9/11 attacks and most Americans sense by now that warfare in the 21st century has turned into a frustrating slog. Many are likely sick of their government spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year on defense, yet failing to deliver decisive results against its adversaries or even delivering a sense of improved security. Is there a gap between the 21st century style of warfare and what the Pentagon actually spends its money and time preparing for? It may be time for a close examination of modern warfare and what adjustments U.S. society will have to make in order to cope with a new and seemingly inscrutable battleground.

In 2010, the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute organized a conference for just this purpose, the results of which were summarized in a long essay written by two of the conference's participants. The conference yielded conclusions on what kinds of adversaries are likely to predominate in the current era, what strategies and tactics they are likely to employ, who is likely to actually participate in modern wars, and what new challenges policymakers will face in organizing for modern security challenges.

Nation-states still prepare for traditional conventional conflict, if only to deter the recurrence of 20th century, industrial-scale bloodletting and preserve the geopolitical status quo. But those preparations have not stopped alternate forms of warfare from breaking out. At least one party in every ongoing conflict in the world today is composed of non-state groups: spontaneously organized militias, part-time insurgents, full-time terrorists, amateur cyberwarriors, professional mercenaries, or some other type of irregular combatant. Uniformed soldiers of nation-states still go to war, but almost never against uniformed soldiers from another nation-state.

There are several reasons for this denationalization of warfare. Most obvious is the strong incentive for combatants to avoid modern military firepower by acting as civilians and by living among the non-combatant population. Combatants also learned during the second half of the 20th century that it was possible to win a war of attrition against a wealthy nation-state by avoiding decisive military engagements and implementing political and propaganda strategies in support of an open-ended but low-intensity campaign.

Irregular combatants have recently learned to further improve their odds by remaining as anonymous as possible. Anonymous cyberwarriors avoid cyberretaliation; insurgents in decentralized cells avoid intelligence officers who are experts at disrupting organizations. And with nation-states now having strong political incentives to avoid having their soldiers overtly engaged in warfare, their leaders may increasingly hire irregulars and anonymous proxies as their combatants. An odd result of these layers of deception will be confusion over when a war has begun, when it has ended, or whether some security problems are really wars at all.

In the West, warfare has become a narrow technical profession, but this may change. For the United States, war is waged by a relatively tiny group of volunteer professionals who are supplied and supported by another sliver of specialized technicians. In many places, armed contractors outnumber the soldiers, which blurs the line between who is a combatant. At the same time, legal developments concerning war all trend toward restricting the military freedom of action of nation-states, a tendency that has encouraged the growth of unregulated irregular and anonymous combatants, actors to whom states may increasingly turn.

U.S. policymakers face steep challenges in coping with the modern era of warfare. Aircraft carriers, submarines, and stealth fighters are an insurance policy against very costly conventional combat, but the threats requiring these costly levels of insurance coverage may soon be too abstract for many taxpayers. Meanwhile, after a decade of frustration and indecision, there remain questions about whether the U.S. government is capable of sustaining an effective campaign against irregular and anonymous adversaries. Policymakers have to resolve these challenges if they are to convince the public they are still relevant to modern security problems.

Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images