General James N. Mattis (USMC), Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command; and NATO Supreme Allied Commander
Using more machines in war may diminish a force's chance of success according to a new study authored by Jason Lyall of Princeton and Isaiah Wilson III of the US Military Academy.
We typically marvel at advances in technology, and the military is often on the cutting edge of these innovations. There is no question that machines and technology have transformed warfare, but the high-tech leader in conflict may not always have the upper hand.
The researchers began by looking at the outcomes of 286 insurgency conflicts occurring between 1800 and 2005. They observed that states (the incumbents) regularly prevailed through the first half of 19th century, but after that they began to lose to insurgents much more frequently. Whether the incumbents were Great Powers or not,states won about 80% of the conflicts before World War I, but only half as many in the period since then. In their study, Lyall and Wilson sought to understand the reasons for this dramatic trend. They believe that greater losses has a lot to do with the increased "mechanization"of military force.
They summarize their argument in the following way:
We argue that this trend can be best explained by the force structures of post–World War I militaries. Force structure refers to the specific mixture of materiel and personnel that compromises a military’s war-making capabilities. ....(w)e follow the lead of historians in dividing our 1800–2005 time period into two distinct eras according to prevailing patterns of warfare. Until WorldWar I, armies consisted mostly of infantry and were organized around the principle of “foraging,” in which the bulk of their supplies were obtained, usually coercively, from local populations. World War I ushered in a new era of “machine war” marked by the replacement of manpower with motorized vehicles -that is, tanks, trucks, and aircraft- to increase the mobility and survivability of military forces on industrial-age battlefields of unprecedented lethality.
The advent of mechanization would have deleterious consequences for a military’s ability to wage COIN. Foraging armies, often quite rudimentary in their level of technological sophistication, were forced to interact extensively with local populations to acquire their provisions -mostly food, water, and fodder. Frequent soldier population interaction generated high volumes of information that enabled foraging armies to be more selective in their application of rewards and punishments. Highly complex modern armies, by contrast, are isolated from local populations since conflict zones cannot provide either the type or quantity of needed supplies. Mechanized militaries therefore suffer a kind of “information starvation” that inhibits their ability to solve the identification problem. (pp 72-73).
Empirically, they find strong support for the core of their argument. Understanding that discerning any kind of "causes" in analysis of war and conflict is a daunting task, the researchers took great care to use the best available data (their new compilation of 286 insurgencies is, itself, a great contribution) with balanced and reasoned consideration given to competing explanations.
Machine War Era
Most conflict scholars agree that World War I marked the beginning of the "machine war" era. There is, however, often a conventional wisdom that the more sophisticated force with the latest gadgets will nearly always win a war. This research suggests that may not be true - and in fact, the opposite may be true. But the finding that incumbent militaries' increased use of machines was associated with more military losses in COIN campaigns is not the end of the story.
Why would a more mechanized force reduce the likelihood of success? Lyall and Wilson educe two key factors - effects on the population's perceived sense of security and on the military's ability to selectively use its kinetic force - getting the real bad guys, but not impinging on the innocents. These points are cornerstones of traditional COIN strategy.
The "take-away" message from this research is not that machines are bad or that they necessarily make militaries lose wars. Rather, that a side effect of using more machines - rather than troops - in a force structure is that there it creates less soldier-to-population contact. And it is that kind of contact that both affords the force access to information that helps them to separate the bad guys from the others, especially in a battlespace where they may be indistinguishable through the sites of an armored vehicle. Selectivity is a major driving force in determining whether a population will perceive the military as protectors or threatening invaders. Lack of selectivity emboldens insurgent recruitment. Better information leads to better selectivity. "With the innocent and guilty equally likely to be punished, rational individuals will seek security and predictability with insurgent groups" (p.77).
Lyall and Wilson also raise another possible effect of counterinsurgent-to-population contact - that is the notion of "shared risk." Though not a central point of the article, the authors make the following observation:
"Built to ensure that soldiers can move and survive on high-intensity battlefields, the modern military’s force structure privileges survivability and thus inhibits soldiers from assuming the same risks that fence-sitting populations face daily." (p.75)
This immediately reminded me of the current debate about the use of UAVs in Pakistan where some are calling for a ban or moratorium on their use, arguing that killing without assuming the risk of being killed offends the sensibilities of the population and is portrayed by some as being cowardly.
In exploring possible competing hypotheses, the authors make a couple of other other notable observations.
- First, that the declining trend in incumbent COIN success mirrors a trend in the democratization of incumbent nations. That is, democracies may find it tougher than autocratic states to prevail as incumbents. Democratic publics may feel more bound by international norms and laws and be more "averse to the casualties and moral compromises necessary to conduct COIN successfully."-
- Second, when the counterinsurgent is a foreign occupier, it may be at a particular disadvantage. This risk of loss for foreign counterinsurgents was especially evident in the Post WWI "mechanized" era.
To supplement their large-scale, historical analysis of COIN outcomes, the authors also did a more qualitative contemporary analysis, comparing two U.S. divisions in Iraq- the 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Air Assault Division—during 2003–2004 to explore how mechanization might have shaped information gathering.
These two divisions were chosen because:
Despite its name, 4th ID was the most heavily mechanized unit in the entire U.S. Army, with 1,690 M1A2 tanks and armored vehicles for its 17,000 soldier -or ten soldiers per vehicle. The 101st, by contrast, was one of the least mechanized units, with only 296 vehicles, principally unarmored HMMWVs “Humvees”,for its 20,000 soldiers - or nearly sixty-eight soldiers per vehicle.
The activity of the 4thID and 101st compared in the following ways:
- 101st used a police-style model of “walking beats”, averaging 200 to 250 patrols daily - mostly dismounted. They tracked sizable increases in the average volume of weekly tips provided by local collaborators from none in May 2003 to about 150 by September 2003 and 370 by January 2004. The reliability of these tips also dramatically improved. 101st was able to target insurgents much more selectively with raids that minimized inconveniences to the general populace, arresting 11 individual a day on average. The 101st averaged 5 attacks a day from insurgents. Attacks against them diminished over time.
- 4th ID had mostly mechanized patrols, and averaged about 169 of them daily. They measured their performance mainly by counting enemy casualties or the number of firefights. 4th ID’s intelligence-gathering efforts were criticized by other divisions and its commanders. Interviews and data suggest that these “presence” patrols only stirred up resentment, a fact even acknowledged by those generally supportive of such patrols (p.99). 4th ID averaged 33 arrests each day, and had the highest total of any division in Iraq (~ 10,000 over the course of its tour). They were considered to be struggling with selectivity. The Army Inspector General concluded that 4th ID was “grabbing whole villages because combat soldiers were unable to figure out who was of value and who was not." The 4th ID averaged 25 attacks a day from insurgent (highest of any known Army division). Attacks against them increased over time.
By the metrics used here, the 101st seemed to have more success in selectivity and in securing the population. But the greater population contact also had a substantial cost.
It also bears emphasizing that the 101st’s relative success in counterinsurgency was purchased at the price of suffering higher casualties. The 101st lost eighty four soldiers during its tour; the 4th ID lost thirty-four. The same force structure that proved flexible enough to enable the 101st to build its information networks through dismounted patrolling also left its soldiers more vulnerable than their mechanized counterparts. This suggests the existence of a bitter tradeoff: minimizing soldiers’ risk lowers the volume and accuracy of information obtained, thus lowering the probability of defeating an insurgency. Perversely, a higher casualty total— which in modern war terms is viewed as evidence of failure—is often evidence that the counterinsurgent has anchored itself astride the information networks that will ultimately improve its effectiveness" (p. 102).
This brings me back to the question of "shared risk." What role does the population's perception of "shared risk" really play in their perception of the moral authority of a protector? Or does increased per-to-person population contact really exert an effect mainly because of its informational advantage?
These questions of how to win the population's sense of security, and how to increase the selectivity of our "kill and capture" missions will be vital strategic points in future conflicts. Though there is a great deal of momentum behind the general idea of "cultural training" (which I use very broadly here) for military troops, we also must remember that this is not (or should not) be done simply for "political correctness" or for its own sake.
Insurgencies are wars. They are different, to be sure, from conventional military battles, but they are wars nonetheless. Insurgent forces kill people and in doing so often feel less constrained by international norms or by the explicit and implicit rules of engagement. They can be brutal, and force is often necessary to extinguish their brutality. But targeting and force deployment should be parts of a strategy, just as information gathering and engendering population security should be part of a strategy. We should thoughtfully consider why population awareness and interaction might matter and how they contribute to mission effects, including both benefits and costs. Only then can we achieve the kind of balance between kinetic and nonkinetic, and between hard and soft power to which our commanders aspire.
Lyall, J., & Wilson, I. (2009). Rage Against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars International Organization, 63 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0020818309090031