Thursday, January 06, 2005

Welcome to Major Mike Blog/Winning Asymmetric War

Welcome to Major Mike Blog. I intend to elaborate, pontificate and illuminate on issues historical, military, political, and occasionally, cultural. I am a retired Marine Corps Major, with a B.A. in History (emphasis on American, Asian, and Russo-European), from the Harvard of the South (a little insecurity in branding here?), Tulane University. I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1978 via the NROTC program…big thanks to SSgt. (later SgtMaj) Raymond Edwards for his hard grizzled approach in taking a scrawny 17 year-old and turning him into a hard charging Leatherneck. I flew F-4s for ten years, AWS for a year, trained Lieutenants at TBS for 3 years, flew F-18Ds for 5 years, and finished up writing requirements papers for the Navy staff in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

For those in the culture of professional military publications, I have had eight articles published between Proceedings and The Marine Corps Gazette. Topics have included counter-point articles on comparative value of aviation weapons systems…I am 3-0 in defending the F-18 against all comers, CMC backed me up in Proceedings on one of these articles. I published two book reviews, including The Nightingale’s Song and Once Upon a Distant War; an excerpt from The Nightingale’s Song review is printed on the inset of the first edition paperback. I wrote a well received article on dovetailing and modifying the performance evaluation and promotion systems…this one came with a nice little email from DCS Manpower telling me what a great article it was, but no changes like that were going to be made. I was not overly shocked that none of my changes were incorporated in the modest modifications that took place in 1997/1998 as I was retiring from the Corps. I have also released for publication two articles that have not, and probably won’t make it to print, one challenging the efficacy of the current promotion board structure and operating schemes, and the other a leadership extract. Additionally, I have had an article published in Plant Engineering magazine on effecting change within maintenance teams.

Although, I don’t totally rely on editors to correct my many punctuation mistakes, I endeavor to minimize them. I keep my 12th edition Harbrace College Handbook at the ready, so tight criticism of my punctuational (new word) shortcomings will not be welcome.

I landed on my feet after retiring, getting a job as a maintenance manager with a well-known investment casting firm in the Pacific Northwest. I eventually was leading five departments, including two production departments, when I was contacted by a major sports footwear and apparel company, also located in the Pac Norwest, about taking over the facilities maintenance operations for their world HQ. I must admit, I overcame 20 years of Marine Corps indoctrination, and went for the opulent surroundings, and rarely miss the 120 plus temperatures found in the business end of a foundry.

What do I think? I am a daily listener of Hugh Hewitt at, who makes me use my brain everyday. I think Larry Elder has the best discussions on race in this country. President Bush is the right man to be President in this difficult war on terrorism. Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a great job of trying to guide the military into a modern, sustainable force capable of fighting myriad of threats with myriad of options. I think that our military is the best it has ever been, culminating a thirty-year drive out of the post-Vietnam doldrums, to a zenith unmatched in history. I credit the hard work of a lot of junior officers in the eighties, some brilliant staff work in the eighties and nineties, and the superb quality of the officers and men serving throughout the services today.

I think ice hockey is the best sport for kids. I think getting old sucks, but if you keep working out, you can delay its effects. I prefer bass fishing to trout fishing. I haven’t caught enough fish to let any legal catches go yet. I drink Tanqueray and tonic, but settle for Gordon’s when in a financial pinch…but I digress.

First topic…Winning an Asymmetric War in Iraq

There are several critical factors in eventually winning an asymmetrical conflict; adaptability, flexibility, tenacity and will, both on the battlefield and at home. Operational forces and national institutions must yield to these requirements in order to meet operational, tactical, strategic and national objectives in the asymmetric combat environment.

These simple truths should be of no surprise to Americans; our own freedom was won through a combination of conventional and asymmetric war. We won our Revolutionary War because the British failed to develop an operational strategy that would allow them as occupiers to successfully conduct operations against a strong-willed, popular rebellion. Although we were highly successful in winning our freedom through asymmetrical action, no one has yet developed an effective strategy in efficiently defeating such tactics.

Even our touted victories over Native American tribes show very little adaptation on the battlefield. Our eventual vanquishing of the Native American tribes and their asymmetric tactics was very much attributed to the offensive nature of our pursuit operations, but it was equally influenced by the offensive nature of our population push west. Although there we some notable pursuit/attrition operations in the west, fundamentally there were no major shifts away from basic cavalry operations, and hence there were few specific adaptations to the enemy or his tactics. We won simply because our industrial resources and population were able to wear down an opponent that was rapidly running out of maneuver room.

On to our national boogey man…Vietnam. I am going to move quickly through some big issues here, because I don’t want to get bogged down in pointing out the myriad of differences between Iraq and Vietnam. We learned some very important lessons about winning an asymmetric war from our experience in Vietnam, even though we couldn’t claim strategic victory. Tactically we have filled gaps in our operational capabilities. The proliferation of night vision devices has been key in denying the asymmetric enemy the full cover of darkness. Our technical surveillance capabilities across the broad spectrum of the electronic battlefield is garnering volumes more useful intelligence than was readily available to tactical units in Vietnam. Aviation weapons systems accuracy and response times have improved on a logarithmic curve, and they can provide unmatched firepower and accuracy in both the offense and defense. These improvements, among others, have greatly enhanced the ability of force commanders to adapt to the specific tactics of the enemy. We have the tools we need to adapt to today’s war.

Failure to adapt operationally and tactically means we will always be playing defense. The enemy will be dictating the action. We will always be back on our heels, rendered ineffective in our counter-punching. By playing defense we surrender the initiative and fail to master the most critical element of war…offense.

Could we improve here? I believe the answer is yes. While our casualties do not alarm me, I think we need to adapt in a couple of areas. Combat service support and logistical supply tactics need to evolve so that we are not exposing high numbers of men and material to low cost threats. Re-examination of MSR use and routing, aggressive patrolling of MSRs, and airlift strategies all need to be continually examined and refined.

Most of all, we need to get out of the “hunker down”, “compound” mode and get back on the offense. It is not OK for the Iraqi domestic forces to suffer 30 casualties a day while hunkered down in police stations all over Iraq. The responsibility here lies with the smart guys who attended the various Command and Staff Colleges throughout the Armed Forces and the operational S-3s. Tactics also need to evolve from those engaged with the enemy, and they need to be developed by those specifically trained to provide answers to difficult problems. It takes better intelligence, better coordination amongst the services, imagination, resolve, and ferocity, but it needs to happen before a handful of suicidal maniacs erode the national will of two countries. Urgency would be good here. We will be defeated if we are not routinely defeating the enemy. Adapt quickly, now.

Our forces are, and have been, inherently flexible. Reducing the basic maneuver element down to battalion level, repeatedly task organizing units to meet mission requirements, forward and mobile basing, and the purchase of multiple mission platforms (ships, aircraft, vehicles, munitions) have given the current military a nimbleness that can meet the current challenges in Iraq, period. Monday morning quarterbacks need to back away and let unit level commanders do their job with the resources at hand, and they’ll be amazed at what gets accomplished. Lack of armor on support vehicle for which it was never envisioned, is not an issue; it is a red herring…being stuck with B-52s to do precision bombing would be an issue. Move on.

Our forces MUST remain tenacious in the field. Deaths by indirect and unseen means are quick to erode unit confidence and morale. Small unit leaders and unit commanders MUST ensure that our troops in the field, and those preparing to deploy, are as tough mentally as they are physically tough. A demented, hateful, and murderous enemy will test their mettle. The knowledge of this alone should buttress the will of every trooper on the ground, but it will take a relentless focus on mission, continued training, and AGAIN, offensive operations to prevent an erosion of our fighting spirit. Second to the huge negativity the world press injected into our efforts into Vietnam, was the degradation of unit and individual morale that sealed our ambiguous fate in Vietnam. Regardless of what occurs here with our oft idiotic and biased press, it is imperative that unit and troop morale and ferocity remain intact. Timidity and reserve on the battlefield will beget an ambiguous outcome in Iraq.

The final, but most important factor for success in Iraq is to maintain and cultivate a strong national will. Sorry to say, but our individual and collective will have been in decline since we completed the settlement of the west. Our national will has indeed ebbed and flowed over the years, but each time it has been tested in the last fifty years, it retreats farther from its previous mark. This has largely been influenced by the now unabashedly, left leaning press, and the continuous stream of negativism that it spews. Americans MUST be convinced that the fight for peace and freedom is righteously occurring in Iraq. Americans cannot let their collective will be polluted by the anti-Bush negativism that is flowing like the Euphrates from Iraq through the US media.

The enemy has the Ho Chi Minh playbook, and they are counting on the American press to do their part,…and the press is. They are counting on the erosion of our unit effectiveness and morale,…this will not happen. They are also counting on the American public to do their part and become weary of this fight, righteous or not, in order to seal their victory and our defeat, this CANNOT happen. Toughen up America. Our future really does depend on winning in Iraq.

Got Will?

© Michael McBride 2005


Keaukina said...

Thank you for this very interesting site, Major Mike. I read your two posts today and look forward to many more. Very good points, all around. I would like to link to your blog at my humble blog, The One Star Blog

Cheryl said...

Welcome Sir,

I will be back. I appreciate your well thought out evaluation of where we are and what we need to do to win in Iraq and against terrorism. While I can in no way claim to have your knowledge or experience -- I'm a self-educated grandmother (young) who is a 100% supporter of our troops, I agree with many of the values you stated and am an avid reader of military history (not doctrine as that's really beyond my full comprehension). I read many non-fictional military publications, mostly focusing on WWII and now terrorism.

Where do I disagree -- the MSM will NOT be able to do to the American public what they did during Viet Nam. There is the Internet and bloggers such as yourself, and they are beginning to hold the MSM's feet to the fire.

I've got the will sir, and I will support our troops, not just in word, but in action and deed. I'll shout the truth from the rooftops and challenge those who for whatever reason take what the MSM has to say for granted.

I'm just a single voice -- but there are many of us out there.

Thank you for sharing. I look forward to reading more -- but please know, we are not so silent anymore and we won't allow the media to pull another Viet Nam.

God Bless and thank you for your service, Sir

Ralph in Mesa said...

Your comments on the "honker down" mentality are right on the money. There is no point in having a strong, fast moving, flexible force in Iraq (or anyplace else, for that matter)if you are just going to let it sit and wait for something to happen. That's what got 240+ Marines killed in Lebanon.
The problem is that the "smart guys" are not being very smart these days. An offensive now, before the elections, could go a long way toward providing a more stable environment on election day.

JLT said...

While improvements in basing, force mobility and logistics would be a step in reducing casualties, I don't believe they would result in success in an asymmetrical war.

Why? Consider the entities involved.

The US Army is an immensly powerful fighting force, fighting for a nation, in uniform and typically following the Geneva convention. They are a 3rd generation military.

On the Iraqi side there are a number of Sunni and Shi'a militant groups. They are largely drawn around ethnic divisions and are largely supported within their ethnic groups. They are, in contrast to the US Army, ununiformed, organised by ideology rather than a state, and unbounded by the Geneva Convention. They use secrecy, terror and confusion to overcome the technological gap. These groups are largely integrated with the population and it is largely impossible to distinguish between a militant and a regular Iraqi civilian.

The Iraqi militias are 4th generation militaries.

3rd vs. 4th Generation conflicts have resulted in either stalemate or victory for the 4th generation military. An early 20th century war, featuring promonent use of assymetrical warfare was won by a superpower; the Second Boer war. They did, however use 450,000! troops to deal with 20-30,000 Boer guerrillas, use internment in concentration camps and a scorched earth policy. I doubt that we could use the same "any means necessary" approach in Iraq.

The aims of the militias are complex. The Sunni militia's aims are three-fold.
(1) To disrupt and disorganize the country to the point where the US will decide its unsalvagable and thus leave. It also uses assymetric tactics, such as IEDs (in increasing technical sophistication) and sniping to directly kill US servicemen.
(2) To kill Shi'a Iraqi's, precipitating a civil war, changing the current political status quo of parlimentary rule by the Shi'a majority. They target soft civilian targets, aiming to not only kill but terrorise.
(3) Providing perceived security within their territory.

The goals of Shi'a militia's are
(1) To kill US troops, who they view as unwelcome occupiers within the country, using assymetric attacks.
(2) To kill Sunni's in reaction to Sunni attacks on Shi'ah's, targeting civilians rather than other militias in large part.
(3) To provide security within their territory. Also, in some cases, to enforce Sharia law within their communities.

Complicating matters, their are a number of al-Qaeda cells operating within Iraq, actively destabilizing the country too. They don't favor one side or the other, per se, but will attack to provoke the cycle of violence, causing the country to destabilize with the general goal of an Islamic calliphate in the region.

If open civil war happens, then the situation of the US within Iraq becomes untenable, and its likely that the country will be very unstable. Other countries such as Iran may openly intervene in the civil war.

The major cause of the move towards civil war has its roots in Iraq under Saddam, a Sunni nationalist. He imposed a dictatorial and repressive regime over the entire country, and brutally put down a Shi'a rebellion, causing massive resentment by that ethnicity within the population (much like ethnic backlash in the '92 Yugoslavian conflicts.)

There is a cycle of attack and revenge which is practically impossible to stop, without a complete and constant martial law, (which has been attempted, without success - attacks have continued unabaited.)

Given the nature of Islamic societies congregating to pray, there will always be ample and easy targets for covert attack.

A lack of a viable economy, and in some cases a lack of infrastucture and utilities (which were widely targetted during the invasion,) has caused a deep level of despair in the Iraqi people which has significantly exacerbated a move towards militant action.

There is no sign that the Iraqi government, comprised of a Shi'a majority is reconciling with the Sunni's within the government; indeed increasingly sectarian rhetoric is becoming commonplace.

The economic reality for Iraqi's which in part, fuels the popularity of the militias, will take a lot of time to turn around. Instability is inherently bad for the free economy, and the lack of a free economy makes the country more unstable.

You pointed out that all we needed to do is stay the course, become more nimble and the situation will resolve itself.

I don't see that as true. US troops cannot protect civilians against asymmetric attacks and thus cannot stop the spiral of violence. No amount of mobility or flexibility will enable a GI to distinguish a good guy from a bad guy.

If we solved the economic and political issues we'd have a chance, but the politics are largely intractible, and the army isn't suited towards economic development beyond contruction projects.

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Marine1971 said...

I think the book "For WHom the Bell Tolls" identified the problem. You cannot expect a conquered people to accept the conquering unless they are made to feel that they have more of everything that people care about as a function of being conquered. How can we do it? Religion is so important to these fanatics that the normal feel good characteristics sought by others pales in comparison. They cannot be passified - they can be killed - and separating those fanatics from the rest of the people is the difficult task. The people who are getting their needs met must be made to feel that the religious fanatics are going to be responsible for having the better life taken away from them. "no worse enemy - no better friend" is a motto that I think makes sense. If a person is belligerent - then he should feel the wrath of all that God has placed in our able hands.

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