What Baltimore and Ferguson can teach us about martial law

Seattle WTO Riots, 1999

Seattle WTO Riots, 1999

Washington, DC (TFC) – With the nation’s eyes turned to activities of the rioters in Baltimore, it is easy to miss the teachable moment hidden in the chaos. There has never been a clearer example of exactly how the US would deal with a situation in which the government orders a military crackdown. In this installment of Tradecraft, readers will learn the concepts of force assessment. Americans get a first hand view of the exact procedures that will be used to quell unrest.

It should be noted that nothing in this article should be taken as encouraging or condoning any militant behavior. This is a thought exercise that will allow the reader to accurately assess opposing forces in the future in the political arenas. After all, war is just the continuation of politics by other means. Understanding war means you understand politics.

Perceived Capability vs Actual Capability: When assessing a force or installation the largest mistake that is made is confusing the perceived capability for the actual capability. Military installations are often seen as impregnable. The reality is that most installations have miles of unmonitored fences. But a military installation is an obvious example. The White House is perceived as the most secure building in the United States. It’s not a place someone could just walk through the front door – except that it is. In 2009, a couple crashed a state dinner at the White House and got within two feet of the President of the United States. They simply walked through the front door and were waved through security by the United States Secret Service even though they weren’t on the guest list.

The lesson to take away is that the no matter what the perceived capability of a force is, the actual capability is likely very different. Learning a force’s actual capability requires studying previous actions by the force.

What has been learned so far:

It takes the National Guard roughly 24 hours to respond to civil unrest and governments use the threat of the National Guard to discourage militancy. Local and State Police attempt to retain control with just the threat of National Guard backing them up once the force arrives. The first move by government forces is to establish a curfew. Once the curfew is in effect, it can be extended to limit movement and resistance. Officers from surrounding law enforcement agencies are asked to assist under mutual assistance agreements between different jurisdictions. When engaging large crowds government forces tend to establish a riot line with an armored vehicle behind the line. The riot line falls back to surround the armored vehicle when tear gas is fired at demonstrators. Security forces have a decent intelligence network that is aware of activist and criminal element movements and decisions. Rather than risk injury, police departments will allow a segment of the city to burn while they focus on protecting government buildings. Overall, this paints a picture of a force that has a high capability. This is the perceived capability.

The actual capability:

As destructive as they appear the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore were limited in scope. In large-scale civil unrest, 24 hours is enough time to establish a secure area of operations that government forces would have trouble accessing. In the event of nationwide or even regional unrest that is truly violent, curfews will be completely ignored. By the same token, in situations where the unrest is isolated in one city, government forces have access to extra personnel from the surrounding areas. In a regional or nationwide incident, these additional law enforcement personnel are not available because they are dealing with issues within their own jurisdictions. The tactic of mixing mechanized forces in armored vehicles and officers on foot is cumbersome and slow to adjust to flanking maneuvers. This was the case in Baltimore and Ferguson. Any line, once flanked, immediately rolls and collapses. The tactic of closing in on the armored vehicle once it begins to fire is a good decision on the part of government forces. Most departments now have MRAPs provided by the US Army. There is a reason the Army is giving the vehicles away: they aren’t very good. While well beyond the scope of this article, those MRAPs can quickly be rendered immobile. Government forces are aware of this flaw and are using the riot cops to protect this weakness. As demonstrated by the speed at which government forces identified threats posed by local gangs and activists, the element of surprise is lost. However this was most likely due to criminal elements and activists using social media and not observing general operational security procedures (Operation Security will be discussed in depth in a future article). The decision to protect government buildings at the expense of private businesses is probably a pattern citizens can count on government forces continuing. This means that citizens have a very good idea as to where government forces will mass.

The actual capability of government forces against civil unrest is one that has given a large response time, masses in predictable areas, relies on resources that will most likely not be available in a large scale situation, and uses predictable tactics. Engagements are won by maintaining the initiative (being the side that determines when the fight occurs) and by achieving speed, surprise, and violence of action. In these situations, the militant has the initiative. Government forces are slow, have telegraphed their movements (thereby destroying the element of surprise), and have adopted tactics that do not allow for mobility or concentration of fire to an extent that provides violence of action. In short, the actual capability of forces tasked with combating civil unrest is poor.

“There are things we know, there are things we don’t know.”

There is a list of unavailable information that would be very useful in creating a clearer intelligence forecast of the situation. Information citizens should be trying to obtain is listed below:

Troop deployment: What numbers did the opposing force take to the streets in? Was there any discernible pattern to their deployment?

Weapons: What type of weapons did they carry? Were they limited to non-lethal devices? Was there a heavy reliance on specific weapons? Is there any terrain that would mitigate the use of these weapons?

Availability: Will the soldiers be able to assemble in a case of widespread unrest? Or will their travel to the staging area be cut off by other pockets of unrest?

Morale: How did the troops feel about policing their own citizens? Would they be susceptible to leaflets? In Baltimore and Ferguson how would a leaflet displaying one of the many unarmed veterans killed by law enforcement be received?

Communications: What type of communications were used? How did government forces interact with the press? Was there a media blackout or did they try to explain their activities to the press?

Tactics: How was the curfew enforced? Were there checkpoints? Were foot patrols deployed? Was it primarily enforced via surveillance drones?

Religious considerations: How did the government force deal with clergy that attempted to move throughout the city? What about organizations like meals on wheels?

The most important thing to remember is that if a potential enemy offers you an opportunity to observe their tactics in a live scenario, it needs to be analyzed and reanalyzed until you can accurately predict the opposition’s forces before the opposition knows what they will do themselves.