Can a Gold-Plated Military Counter ISIS?

January 11th, 2015
in Op Ed

by Franklin (Chuck) Spinney, The Blaster

Lightly armed guerrilla/insurgent/terrorist forces are once again holding off the high-tech, heavily armed forces of the United States. A string of defeats is slowly accumulating at the strategic and grand-strategic levels of conflict, even though US forces almost always win battles at the tactical level, if they can fix the insurgents and destroy them with overwhelming firepower, particularly bombing. But when viewed through the overlapping lenses of the operational, strategic, and grand strategic levels of conflict guerrillas have advantages to offset US firepower.

Follow up:

Faced with the tactical threat of overwhelming conventional firepower, irregular fighters always strive to retain the initiative at the operational level of conflict by perfecting the arts of quick dispersal and blending in with the physical and cultural background, while relying on provocations (beheadings?), hit and run attacks, and the ubiquitous threat of booby traps to keep US forces on edge and increase our expenditure of effort. To paraphrase T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), the guerrilla’s operational level goal is to wage a war of detachment, presenting a threat everywhere, “never affording a target” and “never on the defensive except by accident or error.” [Boyd, POC, Slide 64] At the strategic level of conflict, guerrillas aim to wear down US forces by keeping them under continual mental and physical strain, while at the decisive level of grand strategy, their aim is to stretch out and increase the cost of the intervention to undermine the US political will at home, weaken its allied support, keep neutrals neutral or empathetic to guerrilla cause, and attract recruits.

In short guerrillas love protracted wars -- periods of apparent inaction punctuated by short, sharp fights — or in the naive lexicon of fascinated American counter-insurgency enthusiasts, guerrillas love long wars. That is because protracted wars create an unfolding stream of events that play into the guerrilla’s hands at the decisive grand-strategic level of conflict.

Juxtapose the guerrilla art of war to that described by President Obama in his declaration of a war on ISIS last September. Obama called for yet another high-cost, fire-power centric attrition strategy with the objective “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS “through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” This art of war at its core assumes the art is all tactical — i.e. destruction by bombing — and that this assumption of pure attrition is the only effect of military operations needed to eventually procure success at the operational, strategic, and grand strategic levels of war to “ultimately” destroy ISIS.

Put another way, the idea of a protracted military operations implicit in Mr. Obama’s words fits the guerrilla strategy like a hand fits a glove.

It is not as if the United States has not experienced the grand-strategic meat grinding effects of this kind of thinking. They clearly unfolded to our chagrin in Viet Nam. They are unfolding again in the perpetual Global War on Terror (GWOT), which, in terms money adjusted for inflation, is now by some estimates the second most expensive war in US history, requiring annual defense budgets far exceeding the annual budgets of the much larger, higher tempo Korean and Viet Nam Wars (see graphic).

One problem is that like guerrillas, the domestic political-economy of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (MICC) has come to love protracted small wars war for the obvious reason that high budgets enrich and strengthen the MICC’s iron triangle, thereby providing it with the political power and wealth needed to keep its game going, just as President Eisenhower feared over 50 years ago in his farewell address (January 1961). The explosive cost of small wars is a predictable consequence of the domestic politics of the MICC’s political-economy and its addiction to gold-plated weapons that naturally flow out of dysfunctional bureaucratic/political power games exhibited by the MICC’s well-documented decision-making pathologies. (a subject discussed throughout the variety of reports assembled here.)

Attached is a report that places the battlefield consequences of our addiction to high-cost gold plated weapons into sharp relief. The author, Patrick Cockburn, is one of the most astute reporters covering the violent politics now re-shaping the Middle East. Cockburn places these weapons into an effectiveness perspective for the protracted war du jour — Mr. Obama’s long war to “disrupt, and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Which may be possible ... if ISIS is stupid enough to put all its eggs into the siege of Kobani.

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