May 19, 2012

Dissecting the Offshoring of Counterterrorism draft

is wont to happen, the current forms of warfare the United States in engaging
in and preparing for lend themselves easily to misrepresentation and
simplification. As the U.S. appears to wind down the era of large scale
U.S.-led land operations, particularly ones in which the U.S. is bearing the
brunt of combat against insurgencies, the new form of U.S. operations against
non-state actors has unsurprisingly been described in terms such as drone wars
or components of an offshore or counterterrorism strategy, while conventional
platforms and capabilities are viewed in reference to the apparent "pivot
to Asia" and AirSea Battle. However, recent events in Yemen demonstrate
that such these sorts of small war operations, while they have a significant covert
component and often involve the use of remotely piloted aircraft, also involve
boots on the ground and the use of what are often conceived of as conventional
military platforms such as naval and aerial ISR and strike assets.

On Sunday, a U.S. special
forces trainer embedded with Yemeni troops suffered
a serious combat wound
. This came on the heels of a LA
 piece last week which noted that several
dozen U.S. military personnel were on the ground
 in Yemen embedded with Yemeni forces
and assisting with targeting for U.S. strike capabilities. Also notable is a
recent story by David Axe highlighting the work of bloggers who have publicized
the presence of a unit of F-15Es based
out of Djibouti
. All of these developments reveal some uncomfortable truths
about the nature of U.S. power projection.

Firstly, while drones are
undoubtedly a significant portion of U.S. operations in its counterterrorism
campaigns across the Indian Ocean rim, they are but one platform in one prong
of the effort. The phrase "drone war" might be accurate for Pakistan,
where by tacit agreement with the Pakistani government and military the U.S.
has restricted its strike operations to drone activities. But even in Pakistan
the presence of proxy forces such as the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams and
significant amounts of on-the-ground CIA and JSOC personnel supporting
targeting are a major portion of the campaign. In Yemen and Somalia, where the
U.S. has more flexibility diplomatically and geographically, expansions in
strike campaigns have meant more U.S. forces operating on the ground, as well
as the use of manned aircraft and naval vessels.

Despite the hype, even in
politically sensitive counterterrorism options drones remain but one instrument
in the U.S. arsenal. The primary perceived advantage of drones, that they keep
service members out of harm's way, is really not a significant concern in these
theaters. Pakistan is not in the habit of seriously defending its western
airspace, nor does Yemen or AQAP have the will or capability of imposing
significant military obstacles to U.S. standoff strikes. All these sentiments
hold even more true for Somalia. Indeed, as the crash of the U-28 in Djibouti
recently demonstrated
, pilots of fixed-wing aircraft are at a greater risk
for accidents than they are of being shot down in the Indian Ocean "shadow
wars." And indeed, manned aircraft are frequently employed - AC-130 gunships were frequent
features of U.S. operations in Somalia, along with helicopter gunships
JSOC assets. So too has the U.S. used cruise missiles to strike targets in
Yemen and naval gunfire to support U.S. special operations on the ground in

Ultimately, to a non-state
threat in a conventionally permissive environment, a submarine, frigate, Strike
Eagle or an AC-130 gunship is just as invulnerable as a drone, and offer a
variety of other strike options drones cannot provide. Additionally, the use of
manned aircraft such as the F-15E has likely allowed the U.S. to conduct mysterious
 in support of
Kenya's "Linda Nchi" incursion last fall, or conduct airstrikes which
seemed implausible for Yemen's organizationally beleaguered air force. Nor are
they necessarily significantly more costly. As Winslow Wheeler pointed out in
an excellent
series on the MQ-9 Reaper
, when the cost of the additional infrastructure
on the ground necessary to operate drones is factored in, similar overall
maintenance costs make them fiscally competitive with many manned platforms.

Secondly, offshore strike
campaigns are simply one prong of these so-called shadow wars. Supporting
offshore strike, of course, are personnel on the ground, and often ones acting
in support of foreign partner or proxy forces. As Daveed
Gartenstein-Ross and I noted earlier
, in Somalia, for example, strike
campaigns are simply one component of a larger effort that involved supporting
Somali intelligence, a proxy war using Somali armed groups, and supporting
partner nation counterinsurgency efforts. All of the thorny dilemmas of dealing
with COIN remain, even if most of the blood price of grappling with them is
passed on to foreign soldiers. While it may take longer for the U.S. to embroil
large formations of conventional forces directly into another insurgency or
civil war, the dilemmas of how to balance U.S. strike campaigns without
endangering counterinsurgency efforts still remain.

Additionally, any change in one
prong of the strategy necessarily effects the importance or execution of the
others. For example, in controversy about Yemen, the issue of signature strikes
has prompted understandable concern. However, improving intelligence products
contributing to offshore strikes requires greater resources being put towards
clandestine intelligence or special operations units acting on the ground, or
towards greater work with partner nation intelligence services. However,
partner nations often have their own agendas, and particularly in an era when
the U.S. is at least publically reticent to work with strongmen and unsavory
regimes for the sake of "stability," trading strikes for greater
support of regime security and intelligence services may end up having even
more debilitating - and long lasting - effects.

While offshore strikes in and
of themselves are far less costly and resource intensive than large formations
operating in land campaigns, they are not all that cheap or small, and they
exist only as part of a larger constellation of programs to feed intelligence
and address partner nation concerns. Counterterrorism is no more a strategy than
is counterinsurgency
. It is a capability, a set of tactical building
blocks, aimed at political objectives which, more often than not, require the
employment of other capabilities in a broader war strategy.

The new U.S. force posture does
not mean the death of U.S. support of COIN campaigns, but it does change their
character. The U.S. discomfort with the Arab Spring's outbreak in Yemen is
emblematic of this reality. Because the conception of counterterrorism required
working with partner nations, it required accepting regime stability, and
accepting regime stability required involvement in the regime's efforts to
maintain power against peaceful and violent attempts to overthrow it.

Thirdly, the prosecution of
multi-pronged military operations from an offshore and covert posture is a
reminder that rhetoric about AirSea Battle and the Pivot to Asia
notwithstanding, conventional military forces will remain major assets in
combat against irregular assets, and that these conflicts will continue to rage
outside PACOM, political rhetoric notwithstanding. This should not, of course,
be all that surprising. Hopes that reductions to land forces would somehow
starve the beast and reduce the U.S. appetite for waging wars against irregular
threats were obviously misplaced, and indeed the Asian "Pivot" really
serves to increase U.S. freedom of action for prosecuting such campaigns by
providing a host of platforms capable of projecting power into
navally-accessible regions and reducing the level of political attention and
controversy surrounding the Middle East and American activities there.

The supposedly offshore shadow
wars in fact involve major ground operations by partners, an active ground
presence by the U.S., and large amounts of conventional military assets.
Rhetoric and planning aside, for the near future the U.S. will likely remain
militarily engaged in and around the Africa and the West Eurasian rimlands
against irregular foes. These operations will likely also likely involve
greater degrees of ground combat troops in the future. As Brett
Friedman explains in an excellent post at the Marine Corps Gazette
, the USMC will likely take a larger
role in these small wars, as it did during the early 20th century. A survey of
British history also demonstrates that despite the portrayal of Britain as
dispassionately concerned with offshore balancing, it frequently engaged in
onshore warfare across its colonial area of interest.

Ultimately, fixation on
specific platforms or their elemental nature (land, sea, air), or specific
prongs and their shorthand typology (counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, etc)
obscures more about the nature of these conflicts than they reveal. Ignoring
this weakens quality and utility of the debate the debate for both proponents
and detractors of America's present military undertakings.