Washington, DC (TFC) – One of the overriding questions when discussing an insurgency within the United States has always been the debate over how the military would respond. Those who hope for the military to break ranks and join the resistance will be disappointed. Those who would believe the military will employ surgical strikes to remove dissidents through technology will be surprised. The American people don’t have to guess how the US military would respond any longer. Two respected academics chose to war game a scenario using the United States Operating Concept (2010) as a guide.
The first thing to understand about an insurrection is that it isn’t terrorism. The terms are often used interchangeably by the media, but there is a significant difference.
“insurgency is a movement – a political effort with a specific aim. This sets it apart from both guerrilla warfare and terrorism, as they are both methods available to pursue the goals of the political movement.”
As pointed out throughout this series, insurgencies that matured through the cycle of insurgency win. Always. There is a reason for this. Insurgencies, though typically weaker militarily, have great advantages over their adversaries. One of the greatest small unit commanders and unconventional warfare experts in modern times, Richard Marcinko, described three things needed to win in combat: speed, surprise, and violence of action. When transferred to the strategic and operational levels, the insurgency possesses these attributes. The greatest advantages of the insurgency are:
Mobility: The refusal to stay in a static location negates technologically advanced weapons systems.
Initiative: The insurgency is able to choose the time and place of most of the battles they fight.
Surprise: Because the insurgents have the ability to choose the time and place of the fight, they can select moments when the opposition is weakest.
Camouflage: The insurgent does not wear a uniform. As the father of modern insurgency, Michael Collins, said: “Our uniform will be that of the man on the street and the peasant in the field.” This makes distinguishing between friend and foe difficult for the opposition.
Unpredictability: A force that is unpredictable on a battlefield is dangerous. Field commanders train to fight conventional wars, in which both sides attempt to take and hold territory, the insurgent seeks destabilization of the opposition’s government, not land. Tactics designed to defeat a conventional army are useless against an enemy that doesn’t seek to hold territory. The value of remaining unpredictable has created an adage in military circles: “Professional soldiers are predictable, but the world is full of amateurs.” The implied meaning is that the amateur is more dangerous.
Factional divides: In a conventional military setting, a force should function like a well-oiled machine and have clear command and control. Insurgencies typically operate with loose alliances between factions who follow a particular commander. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they don’t. Just when the opposition gains a feel for the tactics and strategy of an insurgent commander, a new one arises. This leads to unpredictable actions being taken by the various factions, which increases their overall effectiveness.
Civilian sympathies: Insurgencies typically maintain a great deal of support from the local populace, which means the opposition can’t move without information detailing those moves reaching the insurgents. In a conventional conflict, the lines of battle hinder civilians from collecting intelligence and passing it to the opposing force. It can be done, but it is difficult. Insurgencies have no front lines.
Insurgencies maintain several other key advantages, but they are more nuanced and are beyond the scope of this article.
The US Army has adopted a doctrine of “Full Spectrum Operations”. Loosely it means the combination of offensive, defensive, and either stability operations overseas or civil support operations on U.S. soil. It’s a concept developed for conventional wars, with little application in unconventional conflicts. To produce a desired outcome (a US military win), the scenario has to be carefully crafted. The academics who published Full Spectrum Operations in the Homeland: A “Vision” of the Future were able to accomplish that. The scenario they present is:
The Great Recession of the early twenty-first century lasts far longer than anyone anticipated. After a change in control of the White House and Congress in 2012, the governing party cuts off all funding that had been dedicated to boosting the economy or toward relief. The United States economy has flatlined, much like Japan’s in the 1990s, for the better part of a decade. By 2016, the economy shows signs of reawakening, but the middle and lower-middle classes have yet to experience much in the way of job growth or pay raises. Unemployment continues to hover perilously close to double digits, small businesses cannot meet bankers’ terms to borrow money, and taxes on the middle class remain relatively high. A high-profile and vocal minority has directed the public’s fear and frustration at nonwhites and immigrants. After almost ten years of race-baiting and immigrant-bashing by right-wing demagogues, nearly one in five Americans reports being vehemently opposed to immigration, legal or illegal, and even U.S.-born nonwhites have become occasional targets for mobs of angry whites.
In May 2016 an extremist militia motivated by the goals of the “tea party” movement takes over the government of Darlington, South Carolina, occupying City Hall, disbanding the city council, and placing the mayor under house arrest. Activists remove the chief of police and either disarm local police and county sheriff departments or discourage them from interfering. In truth, this is hardly necessary. Many law enforcement officials already are sympathetic to the tea party’s agenda, know many of the people involved, and have made clear they will not challenge the takeover. The militia members are organized and have a relatively well thought-out plan of action.
With Darlington under their control, militia members quickly move beyond the city limits to establish “check points” – in reality, something more like choke points — on major transportation lines. Traffic on I-95, the East Coast’s main north-south artery; I-20; and commercial and passenger rail lines are stopped and searched, allegedly for “illegal aliens.” Citizens who complain are immediately detained. Activists also collect “tolls” from drivers, ostensibly to maintain public schools and various city and county programs, but evidence suggests the money is actually going toward quickly increasing stores of heavy weapons and ammunition. They also take over the town web site and use social media sites to get their message out unrestricted.
The scenario continues with descriptions of the activities of politicians prior to the military being involved, but the actions of the “insurgent” already guarantee a US military victory. In the presented scenario, the insurgents surrender every single advantage they have. They attempt to hold territory, losing the advantages of mobility, surprise, initiative, and unpredictability. Because they are operating openly and in a defined area, they have lost the advantage of camouflage. The battle lines established by the insurgents themselves at the checkpoints negate the benefits of civilian sympathy. They have a unified command structure that reduces unpredictability.
In the scenario, DOD responds to this threat by establishing a “show of force” to demoralize the insurgents. They then mount offensive operations by surprise to take down the checkpoints. Towards the end of the campaign, the military seizes power and radio stations and so on. It then begins mopping up operations once the civilians of Darlington have fled.
When faced with the realities of a modern insurgency, this response is completely fictional. There can be no “show of force” to insurgents who don’t take and hold territory. Because the insurgency would operate in a loosely defined area, it would be the US military setting up checkpoints (as in Iraq) that would be ambushed, not the insurgents. Wise insurgents would use mobile communications to spread their message, not a static radio station. The power stations would have been destroyed to foster a belief in the civilian populace that the government can’t even keep the lights on, much less defeat the insurgency. The civilians that conveniently remove themselves from the battlefield in the scenario will be in the line of fire during an insurgency because there is no front line. There is nowhere to evacuate to.
The academics responsible for this scenario specifically created a simple set of conditions that allowed them to explore the logistical aspects of the doctrine on US soil, without considering the real world applications. The US counterinsurgency doctrine is fundamentally flawed. Even when practiced in a foreign country, away from the intense criticism of the US media and populace, it failed to pacify Iraq or Afghanistan. In the US, the doctrine is worthless.
In the joint publication on counterinsurgency doctrine used by all branches, even before the table of contents, it spells out the expected failure. On page iii it states:
“US counterinsurgency efforts should provide incentives to the host-nation government to undertake reforms that address the root causes of the insurgency.”
In a US-based insurgency, the United States is the “host-nation government”. While the above scenario makes for a fun read, current US doctrine is to meet the demands of domestic insurgents, while protecting as much of its credibility as possible.