Masculinity and Martial Courage
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COIN: Do we need a proponent for COIN?

Wolf and I were on for yesterday's discussion with Lieutenant General Stephen Speakes on the Future Combat System.  I'd like to tell you a bit about what he said in terms of the system's utility for COIN operations. 

I'd also like to put it in context with a letter from Colonel David Maxwell, the G3 at USASOC, which he has graciously allowed me to reprint from his mailing list. 

The Colonel writes:

Just to play a little devil’s advocate here as people debate proponency. Why do we need a proponent for COIN? Why does it have to “compete” with Infantry, Armor, etc? Is there a proponent for Major Combat Operations (MCO)? Is there a proponent for offense or defense? Obviously, the answer to my rhetorical questions is no.

Why is that? Because every service and every component, and every branch contributes to those operations. COIN is the same way. I think this is counter-intuitive but if we want COIN to be equal to Major Combat Operations then we should NOT have a single proponent because once we do that we allow abdication of responsibility for it to studied and practiced by all the organizations that are not the proponent.

One of the problems I think we have with Foreign Internal Defense (FID) (and we should acknowledge that COIN is a part of FID but that is another discussion) has been that the Nunn-Cohen act established FID as a SOF Core mission in the law. Because of that there is a perception that FID is a SOF exclusive mission when in fact all services have always participated in FID in a variety of ways. But because FID is perceived as a SOF core mission few outside of SOF have given it much thought.

And the same will be true (and has been true) of COIN. No one really gave it much thought until post 2003 (except those of us who have been practicing it and studying it for many years before). Now COIN has become the new popular “shiny toy” to chase after and there are many that want to jump on the band wagon and as we have seen recreate the wheel.

Let’s be frank, there is very little in the COIN realm that we are doing or trying that hasn’t been done or tried before. It is a question of understanding the tools and organizations, and tactics, techniques, and procedures available combined with the proper assessment of conditions and then the correct application of those tools (and an understanding that we may not get it right the first time or achieve the effects we thought we wanted to achieve and we have to have the strength and confidence to get over such “failure” and adapt to complex and changing situations). We have people who think they are discovering something new when in fact as JFK said in 1961 it is “ancient in its origins”… but requiring …“whole new kind of strategy”.

We have to find the right balance of capabilities to conduct the full spectrum of operations. That is the hard task. If you want COIN to be on the same level with MCO (or perhaps not even on the same level, but on the right level with MCO) then it is going to require OSD, JCS, and Service direction and putting the right emphasis on it in our education and training systems and in our doctrine and force structure development and personnel assignment systems. No one proponent can achieve that across the services.

Yesterday, Wolf and I were on a call with Lieutenant General Stephen Speakes.  He emphasized that Secretary Gates has been on him to ensure that he doesn't get "futuritis," but that today's combat veterans agree that what he is developing will be useful to them in Iraq-like conflicts -- that is, not just in MCO conflicts, but COIN as well.

The system it involves a battlefield network that allows soldiers to be in a high degree of communication with each other, command, and ISR assets, as well as to call fires. 

As a system for MCO, it's fine, but it does have a clear parallel to COIN operations in its ability to let soldiers in the field access intelligence databases immediately, and populate those databases with new data as they uncover it, so that analysts can begin turning the information into intelligence. Bringing that capacity out to them has the potential to save a lot of lives, and to address the one key advantage insurgents have:  the ability to blend within the community, which requires us to use careful intelligence, pushed down to the level of the officer or soldier in the field.

I've heard a lot about the surveillance, the recon, the targeting side, but in terms of access to the prodigious databases of intelligence that we're building from day to day, what kind of capacity will this give the soldier in the field?

GEN. SPEAKES: It's a great question, and let me just put your question in perspective. What we're finding today is that an intelligence database that is isolated from the battlefield is simply not useful or effective. Let me use a couple of examples. In today's battlefield, it's the soldier at a checkpoint who is enabled with biometrics -- and let me put it in perspective -- so that I can take a thumb print of somebody who comes through a checkpoint, run that thumb print on a scanner, and run that against our database to see if we get a hit on that thumb print or not, or that we get a visual image of somebody's face and we run that against a similar database. That's the test that we're finding is the actual test of utility in today's combat environment. So what we have to do, then, is ensure that we're developing the capabilities in FCS to do that. The answer that we're seeing increasingly is a couple of things. First, we need to be able to put that soldier into the network. This is not a capability that is going to be resident at the brigade or the battalion level and be useful. We have to run the ability to get that information out to the soldier on a checkpoint to be effective.

The second thing we have to have is, whatever point of presence that soldier is has to be connected. So it's not just a soldier that we connect, but it's almost literally any soldier who's equipped with the particular hardware in this case to be able to operate. The distributed common-ground station is a key concept for all of this. That is the plan and the program that is inherent to FCS. Through Distributed Common Ground Station, what we're saying there is that we're able to take a variety of sensors and we're able to download them all in one place so that the soldier has access to the information. The challenge today is that we're still, as I mentioned earlier -- the word I use is "point to point" -- that we're still moving information today; what we're not able to do is mass it effectively as we would like.

And so what we'll see with FCS is much more ability to move information to the soldier level and to move more than one item of information to the soldier level but to bring whatever he or she needs. So that concept, then, of passing information and moving information to the lowest point of presence in the network, the soldier, which is the highest payoff, is inherent in FCS. I'd also mention something very, very important. That we have seen that what we call Ground Soldier System has been a concept that is borne out in combat in Baghdad. Ground Soldier System that in combat today, a combat infantryman can carry around, essentially on his or her back, the capability to enter the network, to be able to be populating what we call a common operating picture, and to be knowable to those that operate at higher headquarters. That's really, really important for us because we've proved now as a concept that we can put the soldier in the network, we're doing it on a mobile battlefield, and now what we have to do is work backwards to ensure that we are able to bring that into a more refined Army program that will bring this capability across the rest of the Army. So all these, then, are a way of assuring you that we understand the importance of getting the soldier connected, that we have to have the actual technology that delivers that, which we're seeing in combat today, and that we can deliver it through stable, mature Army programs across the rest of the Army over time.

That's an example of the "right sizing" that COL Maxwell mentioned -- our thinkers are starting to frame our purchases in terms of being useful for both MCO and COIN operations.  We are investing in ways to be better-able to address both kinds of challenges.

But there's another side to this.  COL Maxwell continues:

Too often we equate COIN and FID with simply train, advise, and assist and we want to establish a school for training advisers and we think that that will answer the mail on COIN, FID, etc.

But as we all know COIN is so much more than just training and advising indigenous forces. But by giving proponency to one service or agency we will never get buy in from all the services and agencies that need to conduct it. The feeling will be I am glad that service or agency had the rose pinned on them, now I don’t have to worry about it. But COIN (and FID) is too important to leave it to a single proponent. And then I would take issue with the people we are fighting the COIN fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and that we have to win.

We should not be fighting two active insurgencies as if we are the main effort. We have to be the supporting effort or the country in which we are conducting those supporting operations will never achieve success. We have to get out of the mindset of achieving US success. Our interests will be not achieved unless our friend, partner, or ally is successful in defeating its threats or eradicating the conditions that cause those threats to emerge. The Afghans and Iraqis have to win (it remains our responsibility to help them win but it is no longer our fight to win – we did that in 2001 in Afghanistan and in 2003 in Iraq).

It would be better stated that we are supporting COIN operations of friends, partner, and allies by conducting Combat FID in 2 countries of one theater (Iraq and Afghanistan) and we are conducting Direct FID in multiple other countries/regions (e.g., Colombia, Philippines, Trans-Sahel, Horn of Africa, etc) and we are conducting Indirect FID (security assistance, IMET, training or MTTs, small unit exchanges or partner to partner/military to military engagement all to help build capacity of friends partners and allies) ideally to help prevent an insurgency, or terrorism, or internal instability, or trans-regional threats, or ungoverned spaces.

The FCS is a remarkable development, and the concept of bringing a robust network to battle will have a massive impact on our MCO capabilities.  As discussed above, it will also be useful for COIN operations, as well as for the kind of small-unit contact that COIN often entails.  The intelligence capacity will increase our effectiveness at every level in COIN; the surveillence, recon, and targeting aspects will make it even more dangerous to clash with US forces than it already is.  Weapons like snipers and command-wire IEDs will be less dangerous, because the eyes in the sky will be more available to our men on the ground, and because they can call fires to back up what they see.

But there is a danger to be considered for the greater Foreign Internal Defense mission.  As Colonel Maxwell rightly notes, COIN is a part of FID, not the other way around.  The point of COIN missions is to buy space for a local government to form that is legitimate, has broad support, will treat its people justly, and has adequate security forces to manage on its own.  That is, the COIN supports the greater FID mission:  the mission of building new allies, just allies, and making them strong enough to remain stable and join the coalition of free nations.

FID works best when you can train the local forces to fight as you fight, just as our own soldiers and Marines "Fight as They Train."  We aren't going to be able to do that if our system of fighting is interwoven with tools local allies do not and will never have. 

You get a major benefit from FCS in the "doing it yourself" sphere, but suffer a potential liability in the "helping them do it themselves" sphere, which is the one that matters in the long term.  "We're going to teach you to fight the way we fought ten years ago" means you have to have people around who know how you fought ten years ago; that's either a retention issue, or an issue of having to train soldiers twice, once for themselves, and once for those they're going to teach.

That's not a reason not to pursue FCS, but it is a challenge that has to be addressed.  We must look at ways to ensure that we aren't taken out of the realm in which we can move from success at combat FID to indirect FID to final stability.  There are several options.  We might develop methods for ensuring that legacy forces remain interoperable with ours, while still being able to 'take the lead' as in Basra and Sadr City.  We might retain trainers who can teach the old ways.  We might be able to draw from some of our Coalition partners who already have experience interoperating with less advanced equipment.

It's something to consider as we move forward.