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.