Review by Dr. John M. Handley
The Role and Limitations of Technology in US Counterinsurgency Warfare, by Richard Rubright, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press (Potomac Books), 2015. ISBN 13: 978-1-61234-675-5, 328 pages (end-notes, references, and an index), $36.95.
Richard Rubright served five years in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He completed his doctorate at the University of Reading and is currently a professor at the Joint Special Operations University at USSOCCOM (US Special Operations Center Command).
This is a very well written and relatively easy to understand book, which is saying a lot for a doctoral dissertation that has been reworked into such a publication. It generally follows the normal approach to any thesis or dissertation with an introduction, literature review, methodology, findings and discussion, and finally the conclusion and recommendations. What Dr. Rubright has done is to take the dissertation’s introduction, literature review, and methodology and worked them into a single pre-chapter entitled “Strategy and Context.” The findings and discussion portion follows as five distinct chapters that will be dealt with below, while the conclusion and recommendation portion is entitled “Implications.”
For any book of this type, definitions are important and those are contained in the “Strategy and Context” section, including counterinsurgency warfare, counterinsurgency force, the revolution in military affairs, the military technology revolution, and American culture. Perhaps the most important definition is the concept proposed by the author of “the operational offensive, tactical defensive” role for counterinsurgency forces. The entire book is formed around this concept as it reoccurs in every chapter. The research question Dr. Rubright investigated is, “What is the most important role of technology in U.S. counterinsurgency operations and how does the United States best leverage its technical superiority to ensure harmony between military capability and sound strategic practice?” (p.3-4). The book hopes to add to current counterinsurgency literature an analysis of the appropriate role of technology and strategy (p.5). To do so, the author brings together the theoretical and strategic classifications of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Mao since together they offer universal principles to guide both insurgents and counterinsurgency forces (p.8). Throughout the book, the author argues that counterinsurgency warfare “provides a good environment for new technologies or technical capabilities to be developed and implemented” (p.20).
The first chapter briefly examines the historical case studies that demonstrate the viability of the operationally offensive, tactically defensive concept such as Gettysburg (a failure), Dien Bien Phu (another failure due to a lack of airpower), and Khe Sanh (a success due specifically to air power). Chapter 2 discusses the counterinsurgency in Iraq, starting with the 2003 invasion, the small number of coalition forces available to work with and protect the Iraqi population, the poor decision made in 2004 and 2005 by the Coalition Provisional Authority in general and Paul Bremer specifically that largely ensured the follow-on 2007-2007 sectarian violence, the successful measures used in Diyala Provence in 2008, and how “operation offense, tactical defense” could have worked had there been sufficient forces to conduct it.
Chapter 3 addresses the limits of the concept of counterinsurgency operations and current U.S. counterinsurgency operations. A successful counterinsurgency requires the population of the host nation to be receptive to the counterinsurgency forces. Without such a receptive population, the counterinsurgency force has three options: withdraw from the conflict and accept failure; change the narrative that defines the conflict; or apply force to the civilian population that supports in insurgency. The author explains at some length when any of these options might be implemented, but argues that the most successful option would be to change the narrative and he provides illustrations of how to do so, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Chapter 4 addresses the technology itself and the role it has played and will play in U.S. counterinsurgency operations. He enumerates a plethora of systems from sensors, to weapon platforms, to munitions, to air operations, and especially to the role UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and UCAV (unmanned aerial combat vehicle, aka drone) platforms provide units in a tactical defensive position.
Chapter 5 deals with contextual and other issues related to U.S. counterinsurgency operations. The author discusses the enemy’s tactics and strategy, how to counter enemy tactics, the manpower required to successfully conduct counterinsurgency operations, what to do about insurgent safe havens, how to keep coalition partners and when to operate unilaterally, how to maintain the national will, and the problems with political correctness and a risk adverse military and civilian leadership. His overall assessment indicates that a nation that undergoes a counterinsurgency war must be prepared for the long haul, probably a minimum of 14 years to in excess of 30 years. This is not a timeframe readily acceptable to most American citizens. The author concludes with “Implications” in which he lays out the proper counterinsurgency practice for the U.S. military. His recommendations include accomplishing the mission and stop worrying about casualties. This is war and casualties happen. Train line units to operate in a counterinsurgency environment. Use technology as a force multiplier for communications, intelligence, air support, resupply, and medical evacuation. Deploy military personnel to a counterinsurgency operation for a minimum of three years to ensure continuity of effort in winning the support of the local population.
As the author notes, the book provides a foundation to examine the roles of technology in U.S. counterinsurgency operations with the intent of addressing the gap in the literature of counterinsurgency operations in which the strategic relevance of technology is ignored (p.24). In my opinion, Dr. Rubright clearly has accomplished his objective but I fear his effort will not be well received by senior military leaders or their civilian overseers. The technology exists to ensure a successful outcome for any counterinsurgency in which the U.S. becomes engaged, but the political willpower to conduct such operations does not and will not as long as the U.S. population and both military and civilian leaders embrace risk adverse warfare.