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Anti-Access and Power Projection: Tactical Sketches

To expand and simplify some of the issues I raised in the last post, I want to explore in greater depth the idea of OPFOR conventional high-end asymmetric challenges. The point raised in many discussions of anti-access and denial challenges by “hybrid” threats is that conventional tactical challenges and defeats by a state or non-state OPFOR is more likely due to technology diffusion. But what would happen after tactical setbacks? What strategic effect would these have? The implicit idea, it seems, is that a tactical challenge of a modern “Task Force Smith” would result in strategic deterrence of the West. We can explore some of the problems with this in several tactical sketches.
      First, let’s take the by-now classic OPFOR victory, the setup of Lt. Gen (ret) Van Riper’s tactical surprise in Millennium Challenge 2002 and expand it to a generic scenario. There is a political crisis in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, with brutal political violence going on in the capitol, a port mega-city. The United States decides to intervene and sends a force (let’s say a Marine Air-Ground Task Force) to coerce a faction into compliance. The faction leader skillfully utilizes a series of conventional and irregular assets to surprise and attrit the MAGTF through swarming tactics the way Van Riper conducted the naval battle in MC2002. In our scenario we now have two possible options. The President, humiliated by this military disaster and harried by political opponents, might withdraw forces from theater. More likely is a populist call for revenge as well as the very real strategic issue of not permitting a non-state force to humiliate the United States in a force-on-force engagement. After a drawn-out, and bloody air-land battle the Marines kill a good deal of the faction’s fighters, destroy the port mega-city, and a drone vaporizes the faction leader as he tries to escape the killing ground through an underground tunnel system.
      Next, let’s take an internal scenario. In a Western country, an advanced narco-gang composed of a combination of militia, turf “shooters,” and mercenaries with extensive military experience combine to create a “no-go” zone in a “feral city.” The narco-group is networked and is capable of carrying out complex operations, and is armed with heavy infantry weaponry capable of engaging ground and air vehicles and dominating even SWAT firepower. When the police attempt to enforce order in the “no-go” zone the narco-group executes several bloody ambushes and complex assaults, Mexican-style. After an initial shock, the civil authorities call in paramilitaries and a National Guard unit. Block by block, the narcos are rooted out and killed as the state unleashes its full force in the confined space of the “no-go” zone. Militia, however fanatical, in the end do not stand up to trained, well-armed, and disciplined soldiers with all-arms support and superior numbers.
      In both cases there are more casualties than we are used to and a heavy amount of collateral damage. But the strategy of the faction and the narco-gang both is conditional on the assumption that state forces will give up after suffering tactical setbacks. Given that we have not suffered a major tactical loss since Korea (although we did suffer from tactical attrition in the mainforce war in Vietnam against the North Vietnamese conventional forces in jungle combat) it is difficult to envision a Kasserine Pass or Task Force Smith type scenario–and this accounts for some of the shock of the idea of the “anti-access” and conventional OPFOR challenge. But if we had been stymied by a foe capable of employing medium or advanced weapons against us would we really back down? It seems more likely that a conventional setback would trigger a more vigorous response.
      Now let’s take a look at a different tactical scenario. A Western state is forced to directly intervene in a proxy war in order to prop up a doddering client. The OPFOR, enjoying backing of a neighboring regional power, a cross-border sanctuary, and difficult terrain that provides cover from mass, artillery, and airpower, decides on a strategy of attrition. Utilizing conventional forces that make skillful use of existing assets to build an open-source combined arms force, they attrit the intervening force. They suffer retaliation and heavy losses, but use the terrain and their own mobility to evade destruction. Eventually, the public decides that the high cost and lack of strategic decision is intolerable. The Western force is either heavily drawn down or withdrawn completely. While the OPFOR may have been bled tactically, it is not something that they cannot eventually recover from.
      The difference between the three tactical scenarios is that in the first two the insurgent force made the assumption that it could win solely through annihilation-i.e a tactical blow with strategic consequences. This would supposedly turn the public against the government. But casualty aversion of this sort is a myth often spread by Occidentalists. In the American context, the public is not casualty averse as long as results are obtained. In the latter scenario, cobbled together from a mixture of Lebanon 2006 and Vietnam’s mainforce war, the OPFOR uses a strategy of attrition to convince the public that the costs of peripheral warfare are too high. This, combined with the inability to achieve strategic decision, results in a loss of political will. The problem with anti-access scenarios is that they seem to be based more on the idea of strategic paralysis or annihilation than attrition–which is where the danger really lies.
      For the past ten years, discussion of asymmetric threats usually is predicated on the assumption that they win through skillful political maneuver, as in the Flotilla incident. Another idea is that they frustrate the political designs of a third-party COIN force through political subversion, terror tactics, and popular mobilization. In neither scheme is the idea of a conventional challenge raised, so the recent discussion about conventional tactical challenges is welcome because it recognizes the potential shift in power to minor state and non-state groups. But we should recognize that if these groups are to maximize their tactical value it would not be through a couple of MC2002 set-piece battles but a drawn-out process of conventional attrition. The shock of a MC2002 battle, especially when the intervening power is politically determined, would be at best momentary. Preventing access is not enough in and of itself–raising the human and material costs to the intervening power through slow and ongoing destruction is more important.

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