Andrew Davies at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently highlighted a fascinating work taking the long view of weapons technology development. The argument essentially goes that, as weapon power has increased exponentially in past millennia, so too has the density of combatants in the field appeared to decrease substantially. The relationship here is obvious, but also obviously not one-sided. The increased lethality of weapons raises the risk of concentrated formations, but additionally, technological advances in logistics, battlefield mobility and communications enable more dispersed formations as well.
Take, for example, this report from the Colombian think-tank CNAI (Esp.), which, among many, many other things, explains the shift in FARC tactics in response to Colombia’s use of light attack aircraft such as A-37s and Super Tucanos. FARC, for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, was able to operate in quasi-conventional formations and challenge Colombian forces for territorial supremacy in a number of provinces, as well as to construct large encampments. In certain terrain environments, the Colombian military was long impaired in bringing indirect fires to bear against FARC concentrations.
Contrary to the caricature of irregular war and COIN that rejects a role for heavy weapons and airpower, Colombia has not only exploited airpower quite effectively in destroying FARC force concentrations, but also made significant gains in putting it towards campaigns of high-value targeting, including (across borders when necessary). FARC, consequently, was forced to re-disperse its forces and adopt a series of newer techniques, tactics, and procedures in order to mitigate its vulnerability to Colombian fires. This all came at relatively insignificant political cost (perhaps excepting the 2008 Andean crisis), as Colombian public opinion appears to largely support or at least accept Colombia’s aerial campaign, though there is much more criticism of Colombia’s use of proxy forces and ambiguous ties with paramilitaries, or the human rights conduct of Colombian ground troops and intelligence services.
The pattern of counteracting concentrated firepower with forms of dispersal, then, demonstrates a significant degree of continuity between regular and irregular wars. In Kosovo and Iraq, target governments responded to air power by dispersing and camouflaging their forces to wage a protracted defense against Western military might. The response of Serbian Integrated Air Defense System to American air power was in many ways similar to FARC’s - the dispersal of forces, the decreased reliance on fixed rather than mobile combat assets, and a focus on attrition and harassment rather than outright contestation of the battlespace.
In irregular war, the “political” aspects of the war appear more salient because, in addition to geographic dispersal of the battlefield, there is also a social dispersal by the irregular force by adopting ruses and perfidy to disrupt the enemy’s ability to present concentrated targets. This includes not simply the disguising of combatants as noncombatants, but the integration of noncombatants more directly into logistical and other supporting functions - using unarmed noncombatants to courier information, provide intelligence, transport and procure supplies, et cetera. For countries obeying modern laws of armed conflict and especially those with modern liberal norms, dealing with that kind of dispersal requires non-military means by virtue of the counterinsurgent forces’ own political standards. The Lieber Code and other customary laws of war which sanctioned summary executions and reprisal measures through a wide variety of means and a wide spectrum of persons and properties, were ultimately political measures rather than reflections of the nature of the conflict per se.
Nevertheless, regularized or conventional forces frequently blurred these arbitrary lines in the past as counteractions to hostile combat power. Sherman and Sheridan were contributors to the American traditions of total conventional war and counterinsurgency both. That the application of massive conventional force to problems of insurgency does not simply reflect arbitrary political decisions, but also the military circumstances that limit the overwhelming application of superior firepower generally. The most powerful fires are not always the easiest to bring to bear, if geography, intelligence, and the logistical tail do not permit it easy introduction to the theater or a leading role in its operations. The sort of limitations that initially prevented Colombia from making good use of fires in its counterinsurgency operations also occur in conventional battlefields, albeit under different circumstances, and the response of dispersal will continue to frustrate firepower. The dispersal of a combatant in response to superior firepower can involve a transmutation in organizational form is a reminder that, in part, the configuration of a foe is, ultimately, a strategic choice bound by capability, rather than essence.