Can the Air Force Contribute to Counterinsurgency?

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 4 months ago

At the Small Wars Journal Blog there is an article and comment thread concerning air power and counterinsurgency.  My readers (who are not also readers of the SWJ) should drop by and study the article and responses.  The article by Frank Hoffman argues that the air force has been ham-handed in its formulation of doctrine and its application of force in counterinsurgencies.  Major General Dunlap responded in the comments section, and as part of this lengthy comment he made an astute observation that led me to post a followup comment, reproduced in its entirely below.

Thank you for the post, and thanks also to Major General Dunlap for his thoughtful rejoinder.  May a pedestrian make an observation?

Beyond the main subject of the post, General Dunlap introduced an ancillary subject, which serves as the raison d’etre for the attention on air power in counterinsurgency.  Dunlap observed that:

My view is, however, that such a dedication of blood and treasure for that length of time is wildly unrealistic. I don’t think that the American people will sign up for that for Iraq. Although Frank and others invested in the notion of COIN as the future of warfare for the American armed forces may understandably disagree me (it is something about which reasonable people may disagree) my sense it that we won’t see U.S. troops deployed for any COIN effort anywhere near the current size of that for Iraq (let alone the 500,000 troops FM 3-24 demands), for a generation or more.

True, if denied that level of commitment, the ground forces could repeat the mantra of all defeated armies: “if only we got the resources we could have won.” (There is an interesting article in the October 2006 issue of the Journal of Military History that speaks to the civil-military implications of COIN).

In any event, I believe that the people will not support that level of treasure and – more importantly – blood for anywhere near that length of time. Accordingly, I don’t think that FM 3-24 offers offer decisionmakers a realistic solution.

This is a remarkably well-crafted objection to FM 3-24.  I, too, happen to believe that FM 3-24 makes significant contributions, but suffers from a significant flaw.  In a previous post here at the SWJ Blog, I commented that one problem with FM 3-24 was the:

Failure to address how protracted engagements affect troop morale and public sentiment at home (not, by the way, a failure of the Small Wars Manual as I have written about in “Observations on Timeliness from the Small Wars Manual”). I do not believe that the nation will ever again give us ten years to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign. To the extent that FM 3-24 assumes this, our proverbial heads are “in the sand.”

I followed up on these thoughts later, where I pointed out that the Marine Corps Commandant is worried about the same issue.

“The difference in the time we in uniform need for success in Iraq and the amount of time our countrymen are prepared to invest is a disconnect that’s troubling,? Conway said …

But he said insurgencies typically take nine to 10 years to defeat.

“I think there is less of an appetite in our country than we, the military, might think we need to sustain that kind of effort over that period of time. That’s the basic disconnect that I was talking about,? he said.

It seems that the FM 3-24 should have been approached as a paradigm or model.  Before the model can be constructed, the boundary conditions must be known.  What does this model accomplish? why does it exist? what are its resources? what are the constraints on it? and what are the boundaries beyond which it need not or cannot go (beyond which the model is no longer valid).

The model in FM 3-24 is constructed for the classical counterinsurgency of ten to twelve years in duration.  It may work in certain circumstances in which we have a shorter duration with which to work, but it may not and is not designed to.  Shorter COIN campaigns are outside the boundary conditions for the model.

But beyond anything that a military strategist can add, it only takes an astute observer of American politics to figure out that public sentiment and cultural milieu will never again give us ten to twelve years to conduct COIN.  It is simply a figment of our collective imaginations to believe that any amount of people reading FM 3-24 will have their minds changed into either allowing it or putting their political career on the line by publicly advocating it.  Without public commitment, FM 3-24 is merely theory.

While not exactly the subject of Hoffman’s post, this subject was raised by Dunlap’s response, and it is a salient and powerful point, one that I have made before.  This is why Dunlap’s project is so interesting and important.  I believe that respectful exchange is the order of the day, and this exchange here has the marks of a meaningful contribution.  I wish General Dunlap well in his project, and if the wise use of air power can be done differently and reduce the duration of counterinsurgencies, then it was an important endeavor.


You are currently reading "Can the Air Force Contribute to Counterinsurgency?", entry #513 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Air Force,Small Wars and was published May 24th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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