January 1, 2007  

Unconventional thinking

At a seminar on the subject of NATO and its further evolution, the basic premise was that the global situation had changed significantly and NATO must adjust if we are to succeed collectively in an era of instability. A number of high-ranking general officers in key NATO posts and respected academics and thinkers on military affairs were in attendance. One therefore would have reasonable grounds to consider this a useful gathering of the “wise men” to ponder the outlines of how we might adjust our approach. The discussion proceeded apace until I threw out a basic question: “Why would we even consider fighting an asymmetric situation with conventional forces?”

This was met by silence.

There was similar silence for the solution offered: that we shun, in its entirety, the employment of conventional forces against an asymmetric threat. Instead, we seize back the initiative and use similar tactics to the opposition’s, which are better suited to the operational environment. In short, we use unconventional forces against unconventional forces. Not one particular kind, but the full panoply of outfits, such as the British Special Air Service, Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 and U.S. Army Rangers. They would engage with long-range patrols, commando raids and airmobile raids. The key point is that we would engage with anything other than visible boots on the ground.

This is not a casual suggestion. Step back from our accustomed thinking and ponder the factors involved.

Recognize first the nature of the cultural environment in which we are operating. Disregard even the religious aspects. Consider instead what the presence of our “foreign” boots-on-the-ground troops means to cultures in which they operate. Many, if not all, of these cultures have a long history of xenophobia. It matters little to them whether we are actually doing some good, such as building a school or hospital, or restoring security to the village streets. Instead, at the most basic level, we are attacking their native pride because the message is that foreigners must do for them what they themselves cannot. Similarly, rather than prop up or restore the authorities, by our very presence we implicitly undercut the authority of the village elder, the provincial governor or the national authorities writ large. We are “they.” And this raises an understandable adverse reaction to our presence, regardless of the good we may accomplish in specific works.

Consider the nature of conventional forces. Regardless of how they are employed or their sophistication in terms of technology, sensors and weaponry, the inherent characteristic is one of “mass.” Consider how much in terms of mass or numbers this would require to be effective, not only in the short- to midterm, but also in the longer term. Just how large a presence would be needed for such forces to be effective? Would we need to blanket a country to smother the opposition? Could we perhaps settle for a series of safe hubs, which could be gradually expanded outward over time? No matter the approach, we are talking significant numbers of troops and a lengthy duration if they are ever to be effective.

Which brings us to the next imponderable for conventional forces: political will and the willingness of Western governments to “do the right thing” and decide whether to become engaged. Then there is the question of the willingness of those same governments to go beyond an initial surge of public support for their troops and remain engaged over the long term as the casualties mount and the graphic imagery becomes a daily presence in the media. Similarly, there is the question of Western governments’ willingness to bear the cost of protracted involvement offshore against competing budgetary pressures closer to home such as health care, education and the gamut of social programs — the classic political arguments of “guns vs. butter.”

So remove conventional forces from this equation, insert fewer numbers, make forces on the ground less visible and do it at less cost. Compared to current approaches, this sounds rather attractive in being able to commit with political will and public support over the longer term.

Reconsider other pressures, such as the imperative “to be seen to be doing something.” Yes, in the absence of large conventional forces, you have surrendered a certain level of security. Schools will be leveled, women raped and other forms of intimidation and repression committed by the opposition. But the alternative is to in some fashion solve the imponderable, fielding sufficient numbers that can somehow be in all places, at all times.

So what would unconventional forces do better and with a greater chance of success? There are many heads to this hydra, and we would gradually remove one head after another, incrementally, over time, for a cumulative effect. We would target and raid the recruiters, their training camps, their infrastructure and their leadership. We would select appropriate targets and strike them, the key being to do this on our own terms and at a time and place of our choosing. We would seize back the initiative. The enemy would never know who, when or where we would strike next. We would use the cover of darkness, employing speed and shock. We would be gone from the scene before the enemy had any chance to find us. The impact? A classic turning of the tables. And we in turn have become a cloud of avenging angels.

What about intelligence to locate these targets? To which the counter is: Would this be significantly different or more effective than the forms of intelligence we have with conventional forces? And the likely conclusion is: a draw.

What about basing locations? In or out of country, we get into the legalities of where to mount our operations from. The legal mandate remains the same, whether it be for NATO, the U.N. or some other form of coalition force. A key difference, however, is that locations must have an invisible footprint and lack visible boots on the ground. We would instead be at all times within the wire, in the form of a fortified Fort Apache. Our sorties outside would be largely invisible. The implication is the opposite of our present stance, and any basing would be in remote locations. Usefully, such a posture would also tip the scales where we require other governments’ consent for basing.

These are the main elements of a debate. There certainly are others. But it is sufficient for now for the West to collectively ponder whether we have been asking ourselves the right question. The questions are not NATO-specific. The situation is also not country-specific and is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan. Whether it could be applied in theaters where we are currently engaged would require contemplation within the context of losses and gains. In those postures, we no longer have the freedom of a blank sheet. But we could learn from these experiences before the next such engagement.

A cautionary note: The argument is not that the West can do without conventional forces. These will have a certain role to play in other scenarios. The point here is that conventional forces should be engaged against conventional threats; they are inappropriate for asymmetric warfare.