As 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 Times 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 gunshipsand 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 Somalia.
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 airstrikes 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.