Why we shouldn’t assume the future will be all Counterinsurgency (COIN)

By Charles Miller


Imagine this same exercise had been carried out by British strategists in 1930 and they had been asked what the majority of wars would look like in the coming thirty years. Many of them would have answered that they would be ‘North West Frontier’ type campaigns, or what we today would call COIN. And they would have been right. The majority of the wars the British Army fought between 1930 and 1960 were indeed COIN, but one of the two sole wars which were not COIN – World War Two – had an impact which was far greater than any of the rest, bankrupting the country, almost leading to the extinction of national independence and costing over half a million dead.

Conventional wars are a low probability, high impact event – a ‘Black Swan’ as Naseem Nicholas Taleb would have it. Contrary to the beliefs of some, they have always been rare relative to other types of conflict. Conventional war has been getting somewhat rarer over the last few decades, but there have been decades in the past, as measured by the Correlates of War project, in which they have been even rarer, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of all wars. Moreover, in terms of human and financial cost they dwarf non-conventional wars and so prudent decision making would suggest the United States should not neglect conventional war fighting capabilities in order to beef up its COIN capacities.

Proponents of the view that the future should be all about COIN make two arguments. First, they project the immediate past into the future and claim that because most recent wars have been COIN, most future wars will be too. This is not only a great way to end up fighting the last war rather than the next one, but it also could be an example of the ‘availability heuristic’ – a cognitive shortcut which leads us to overestimate the probability of a given event occurring in the future simply because we personally have experienced and can recall it. The second point is that the United States’ overwhelming conventional superiority means that enemy actors will have no choice but to resort to unconventional means to fight it.

This argument is very attractive, however it ignores two points. The first is that America’s conventional superiority may not be as overwhelming in future as it has been in the past, with the rise of other potential great powers. The second is that unconventional warfare is in fact quite difficult to pull off – it requires a very high degree of trust in one’s subordinates to allow them to discard their uniforms and blend into the civilian population where you can no longer monitor whether they are actually fighting or not. This degree of trust eluded Saddam Hussein and could very well also elude Assad or Kim Jong-Un also. In fact, there are surprisingly few examples in history of weaker states foreswearing conventional resistance altogether and opting to fight via unconventional methods immediately.

None of this should be taken as suggesting that a future large scale conventional war is likely, or that significant defense cuts are not necessary. It is simply to remind us all that it would have to be almost certainly extinct for us to stop devoting some part of our capacity to thinking about and preparing for it. We have not reached that point yet and may very well not in the near future.

Mr. Miller is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Duke University.

7 comments on “Why we shouldn’t assume the future will be all Counterinsurgency (COIN)

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  4. This is an insightful post. To extend it further, I would argue that it is not just that we need to prepare for a high-intensity conflict, but one that is likely to be of a far different character than recent “conventional” conflicts. As I argued most recently in the pages of Daedalus, the growth and spread of precision weaponry is having a profound impact on the character and conduct of war. We’ve been the beneficiaries of a unilateral advantage in that area for decades, but as precision strike systems (not just weapons, but also sensors and command and control) spread, that edge is eroding. As a result, future wars are likely to look significantly different from those of the past, including the recent past. Imagine, if you will, what Iraq would have looked like in 2005-06 if the insurgents had been armed with precision-guided mortars. The Green Zone would have become a killing zone. Or imagine Afghanistan today under the same conditions. It would be extremely difficult to maintain the forward operating bases (FOBs) that have been central to our strategy. So yes, we need to be prepared for high-intensity warfare, but in doing so we need to be attuned to the trends that may change the character of those conflicts.

  5. Thanks for those very insightful comments.

    I will respond first to Seth. It’s hard to compress all my thoughts into a relatively short blog post and, given that I’m not an American citizen, I tend to shy away from making direct public comments on US political priorities. Nonetheless, when pressed, I do believe that the US could cut defense spending significantly without endangering its own or the planet’s security. Moreover, given the current economic and fiscal crisis, I think the US will have to.

    My point was solely that the US should not cut conventional capacities proportionately more than COIN, and certainly shouldn’t assume these capacities won’t be needed. Insurgencies generally do not involve the same kind of vital national interests which conventional wars do, and so should not necessarily receive priority even if they are more common.

    Second, Daniel you raise probably the best objection to my post which again I did not have time to elaborate on. The democratic peace proposition is one of the most convincing findings in political science, but we still don’t know precisely why democracies appear less prone to fighting wars with each other, there is some doubt in the statistical literature about how robust the DPT is and there have been a good number of near misses between democracies in history (eg the Ruhr Crisis of 1923). But let us grant that the democratic peace is well founded – there are still plenty of powerful states in the world which are not democracies (eg China, Russia). Moreover, there is a flip side to the democratic peace in that states which are democratizing (but not yet democratic) appear more likely to get involved in wars. If you look at the literature on the nationalistic blogosphere in China, you can see why this consideration still has relevance today

  6. Charlie raises some good points, not least among them the important observation that we don’t know what the next war will look like. For years, military strategists, policymakers, and others have had great confidence in their ability to wage war – conventional and unconventional – more efficiently than before. This has led to a number of unhappy surprises (see Iraq).

    Still, in an era of resource and budget constraints, to suggest that the US should not neglect conventional war fighting capability in order to beef up its COIN may require further dissecting. What exactly do we mean by neglect? Does the end of the two-war strategy and an increased emphasis on intelligence gathering and counterinsurgency, including increased funding for drones and other new technologies, meet this definition?

    After all, one of the points that Charlie makes is that America’s conventional superiority may not be as overwhelming in the future as it has been in the past, especially given the impending rises of other powers. The GT2030 report makes a similar point: “The US ability to maintain near-current levels of defense spending is open to serious question” (81). It seems to me that this is less of a question than a preprogrammed reality – which, again, brings up the question of relative decline. Obama has made clear, rightly, that the US will maintain its military predominance, but the gap between US military power and the military power of other nations is likely to continue to shrink in the coming decades.

    The question is where do we find balance – or how do we find balance? Was Obama right to give up the 2 war capability? How much choice did he have in this matter, given the constraints the United States is facing?

  7. While I’ll refrain from personally taking a stance on whether the U.S. should focus entirely on COIN in the future or continue to invest in the capacity for conventional warfare, aren’t you at least leaving out one huge aspect of the opposition’s argument Mr. Miller, namely Democratic Peace Theory.

    Democratic Peace Theory is one of the primary arguments utilized, if not the primary argument, for why conventional warfare akin to a WW3 will never again occur. And while you could argue that there are certainly plenty of countries left that are not democracies with whom a democracy could fight a conventional war (if you even cede that DMPT is valid), is it not possible to be bullish on the prospect for developing democracies? And if you’re bullish on the propsect of developing democracies and believe in the validity of Democratic Peace Theory, doesn’t that decrease the need to prepare for conventional war?

    So really this amounts to two points that I think relate to your argument which need to be addressed:

    1. The likelihood that democracy will flourish in the coming decades (this of course is related to the Arab Spring, future democratization of China, etc.)

    2. If the answer to #1 is no, that democracies will not flourish– how does that affect Democratic Peace Theory? Are there enough stable democracies currently in existence that we will not ever again engage in the conventional warfare of which you describe?

    Or if the answer to #1 is yes, that democracies will thrive and continue to replace other forms of government throughout the coming decades (a la The End of History), does this bolster Democratic Peace Theory and therefore mean that the U.S. does not need to continue to invest in conventional warfare capacity?

    Or, one could just ignore all of this entirely, and proclaim that the Democratic Peace Theory is not valid to begin with and therefore we should of course still prepare for Conventional Warfare regardless of the future prospects for democracy– but then why is the Democratic Peace Theory not valid?

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