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Warfare In Your Face

April 21, 2010

USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) was conducting routine survey operations in international waters 75 miles south of Hainan Island when it was harassed by five Chinese vessels.

Since at least the 1960s, and the America involvement in the Vietnam War, counter-insurgency, so-called 4th generation warfare has become an important mission for the US armed forces. Arguably it is the most important today but there are certainly 2 schools of thought on the subject:

  1. Avoid COIN Warfare at all costs School-This mindset says that by the use of overwhelming force, insurgents can somehow be preempted from starting in the first place. Usually this involves the deployment of massive conventional firepower, the Powell Doctrine of the 1990s, a clearly defined set of goals, and exit strategy. It is a good idea, rarely performed correctly that fails to take into account the Fog of War and uncertainty of any conflict.
  2. Prepare for Hybrid Wars School-Involves the design of flexible fighting forces that can transition from COIN to Conventional as needed. This also ideal solution has yet to be successful tried by Western armies, but nations like China, the Arabs, and Vietnam seem to do so effortlessly.

I would think that after 9/11 the subject would be closed on the controversy, yet there are still die-hards who refuse to let go of the first school that you can avoid COIN in a era of open skies, seas, and borders. Today the frontline is here at home. The Army has belated embraced  its leading role in the fight against the terrorist insurgent. The Air Force also is coming around, howbeit kicking and screaming. The Navy has yet to come to grips with warfare in a new era. Here is Jeff Stein at the Washington Post:

Military experts say the Fifth Fleet has come a long way since Iranian gunboats crippled it within hours in a notorious war game five years ago.
In fact, says John Pike, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Global Security Web site, the Navy was well on its way to solving the challenge of fending off the swarming swift boats before the war game began…But the Navy now has the MK 182, “the mother of all shotgun shells,” fired by 5-inch guns deployed on every major ship in the fleet, says Pike…

The notion that there is some type of silver bullet, technological solution to COIN at sea has given us the littoral combat ship (LCS). The acronym might just as well stand for Leave the Coastals Speedily, since with its high speed and long range weapons, it is not geared to come to close to the enemy, but avoid it at all costs. In this, it is carrying over from the 1990s the failed idea that you can somehow avoid conflict, that there is a safe inbetween that allows you to sustain trusted building practices and economical force structures in an era of uncertainty, where terrorists ram planes into buildings on a calm morning, or suicide bombers guide speedboats into battleships, presumably safely in port.

The Iranians also boast of their arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles.
But “the Navy doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about” them, says Pike. It has equipped its ships with a variety of “close-in weapons systems,” or CIWS, which are essentially Gatling guns firing 20-millimeter shells.

This type of combat is not fought from safe distances, where artillery can defeat America’s foes at long range. It is warfare in your face, reminding us of the brutal firefights of the Vietnam era, where the Viet Cong would get under the guns of the Americans, so close as to make it impossible to discern friend from foe. It is a shocking, brutal, and quick form of fighting, something all the best laid plans of the WW 2 veterans use to fighting civilized European conflict with like enemies never completely understood. The Marines who fought in Vietnam faired somewhat better, having experienced near-equal brutal conflict with the suicide-bent Japanese in the Pacific Campaign. But the Marines didn’t run the Southeast Asian War.

If one could transplant the insurgent style conflict to the sea, that often proves able to stand up to the world’s mightiest armies, what would it entail? The Navy almost gets it, having surged large forces for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, yet instead of small and shrinking numbers of advanced weapons, should precede their large ships with many smaller ones, able to meet small attack craft navies on their own territory, in their face. Instead of fighting from a distance with expensive, long range weaponry, we could take the fight to the enemy before deploying massive waves of vulnerable troops and their equally at risk motherships, giant amphibs, missile battleships, or aircraft carriers.

Americans whipped the Germans and the Japanese mainly through artillery. During the Korean and Vietnam War, our firepower consistently staved off disaster, but never actually won those wars decisively. Arguably it still remains our strong suite, even when joined by long-range rockets and air-delivered smart bombs.  With all our firepower in supercarriers, missiles subs, and stealth bombers, we have yet to find the safety and security from the swarming insurgent, who can get under our guns.


25 Comments leave one →
  1. Hudson permalink
    April 22, 2010 4:33 pm

    Something in the American military phyche loves bombers. The US produced an astonishing array of machines, culminating in the B-29 and B-36 (flying cigar), which was never used. The Brits produced the brilliant Dehavilland Mosquito and the lumbering “big Lanc”–the US was the only nation to field three heavy bombers in significant numbers: B-17, B-24, B-29.

    But, as Chuck Hill reminds us: To what effect? Was it a good ROI?

    Hard to say. Strategic bombing did not break the will of the English, German or Japanese people. It did wear them down and forced them to commit thremendous resources to the effort of defending against the bomber streams and repairing the damage they inflicted. In Germany, this meant building thousands of 88mm AA guns that could have been used elsewhere on the ground, like the Eastern Front, for example. Just as the bombing was inaccurate, so was the flak.

    The Germans did create radio-guided AA missiles, which our early Ajax missiles were based on, I believe. Albert Speer was of the opinion that the combination of the jets and guided missiles would have stopped the Allied bomber streams.

    I once asked my Old Man what he thought of the jets. He flew with the 379th Heavy Bombardment Group stationed in Kimbolton, England. He was reading the newspaper, turned the page, and barely gave it a moment’s bother. I’ll bet that was pride, and he didn’t see many of them, I don’t think.

    Anyway, the game-changer wasn’t a slightly better bomber or missile, but an act of man that appeared like an act of God: A giant, gleaming Superfortress with a fat piece of the Sun in its belly.

  2. Chuck Hill permalink
    April 22, 2010 3:27 pm

    Don’t think the Strategic bombing debate should be framed in terms of did it do any good. The campaign against the German fuel supply certainly did. The question should have been “Did this investment in men, money, and material provide the best return on investment?” My personal opinion is no, but it was hard to know those things then, and the situation, most notably the accuracy of the weapons, is certainly different now.

    It certainly would have beneficial for the Army Air Forces to have done some more tests to actually determine accuracy before commiting to such a huge program. As my son said the problem was an absence of pickle barrels since we knew we could hit them.

  3. Chuck58 permalink
    April 22, 2010 3:10 pm

    I think the key facet is that there is no one stand-alone weapon (system) that will win all wars… too much diversity for that. If someone were to ask me “Do we need _____”, referring to any category of weapon (system), I would say we do. Artillery, check. Strategic bombing, check. Submarines, check. [Well, I would actually be more specific: Nuclear missile subs, check. SSN’s, check. AIG boats, check, for example, but I think y’all get the point.] The tough nut to crack is paying for it all while still managing to adequately respond to all threats: we need those “battleships” and fleet carriers, just maybe not as many as we do now. Of course, when we purchase fewer of an item, we usually see the price increase….. Whew! What a vicious cycle!

  4. Hudson permalink
    April 22, 2010 2:54 pm


    Thankee, thankee.


    Not a panacea, but very destructive. The relentless interdiction of supply trains from the air did drive N. Korea to the negotiating table, by their own admission. However, the massive bombing of N. Vietnam, including spraying Agent Orange, accomplished nothing strategically–although one might say that the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong Harbor, ordered by Nixon, encouraged the N. Vietnamese to negotiate–but which failed to accomplish the goal of winning the war. And we lost a lot of B-52s.

  5. Chuck58 permalink
    April 22, 2010 1:36 pm

    X – I wholeheartedly concur.

    Hudson – great writeup and we certainly got our “money’s worth”. :-)

  6. April 22, 2010 12:17 pm

    I am one of those who subscribe to the “theory” that the strategic bombing campaign was less than successful. And for all those reasons that Hudson pointed out.

    Though the Germans may not have been present at D-day in the air it still took the Allies a best part of year (with total air superiority) to finish Germany off.

    I don’t think air power is a panacea.

  7. Hudson permalink
    April 21, 2010 4:41 pm


    You are correct that there is a body of opinion, especially held in the UK, that paints a far less rosy picture of the affect of the Allied bombing of Germany than was commonly held by Americans during the war. Many bombs did miss the target. It is also true that one industry after another became rubble under the weight of the bombing.

    Critics of the air war point to German statistics that show 1944 was the peak year of aircraft production in Nazi Europe. Perhaps. But after Big Week in Feb. ’44, against the German aircraft industry and planes on the ground, where was the Luftwaffe on D-Day in June? Two Heinkel light jet bombers flew recon over the beaches. The Battle of the Bulge stalled for lack of fuel, due in large measure to the destruction of the Romanian oil fields by B-24s flying at smokestack level just to make sure. In 1944, the Germans were making ME-262s with wood bodies. They were not Mosquitos.

    Then there were the Mustangs, Thunderbolts, Typhoons and Tempests that brought rail, road and canal traffic to a virtual halt.

    Sure, the Red Army smashed much of the Wehrmacht. Stalin called artillery the God of War. Cities like Budapest were destroyed by massed artillery. Nobody did artillery like the Red Army.

    One could make some case that the most influential American weapon of the war was the .50 caliber machine gun. It armed our fighters and gave our bombers a fighting chance against enemy fighters. Practically every ground vehicle carried one or more “fifties.” Amphibs hitting the beach also. It hit harder and at longer range than .30 caliber and could penetrate about an inch of armor. Billions of rounds were expended during the war. The origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards” was the length of the ammo belts required to replenish the six guns of the Mustang. At least, that’s what I’ve read.

  8. Matt permalink
    April 21, 2010 2:59 pm

    You don’t honestly think that we are fighting a ‘bunch of poor impoverished fishermen’ do you?


    Whoa there. I’m not trying to imply sympathy. These guys are criminals plain and simple.

    And that’s my point actually. These guys are criminals and opportunists… not hard-core insurgents of the Islamic or nationalist variety. If and when the risk-reward calculus becomes too unfavorable for the average Somali pirate, then he will find another line of work.

    This is what in the Caribbean in the 1700s, and more recently in the Straits of Malacca. There are indications that the same thing is starting to happen off Somalia – pirate incidents have actually dropped compared to the same time last year.

    I would take exception with calling them highly organized or to blowing their threat out of proportion. There have been some spectacular incidents, but the overall impact on global commerce has been negligible. I just don’t think we need to design a whole force structure to deal with Somali piracy.

  9. michael permalink
    April 21, 2010 2:37 pm

    You don’t honestly think that we are fighting a ‘bunch of poor impoverished fishermen’ do you.
    The weapons systems which they employ may be ‘laughable and third world’ to us but they are putting them to good use and holding the western world literaly to ransom.
    These people are Not poor impoverished fishermen as you put it,but highly organsised and ruthless criminal gangs who in the last couple of years have managed to earn tens of millions of dollars in ransom money.
    The outragess rules of engagement that are imposed upon the international forces policeing this area is ludicrous.
    We have numerous cases of Marine Criminals (Pirates is too romantic a word to use for thugs) being arrested having tried to hijack merchant ships only to be released after being disarmed.
    The sheer stupidity of this policy beggars belief,the Horn of Africa is awash with armaments of all descriptions so they sail away into the sunset rearm themselves and venture out for their next foray.
    Meanwhile we in the UK have two of our citizens a sixty years old married retired couple who where taken hostage aboard their own private yacht over seven months ago still in the hands of these criminals.
    The UK media has obviously given them up as of no monetary value to their sales,and whilst one assumes that the UK foreign office is hopefully trying to facilitate their release it does not say much for the ‘Power’ the west can assert.

  10. Orion permalink
    April 21, 2010 2:27 pm

    *And unless the lost city of Atlantis does in fact exist, there are no recognized nation states that exist on or under the sea. Therefore the whole concept of an insurgency at sea is somewhat suspect.*

    Aren’t nation-states recognized within their territorial waters, thus on and under the sea?

  11. Matt permalink
    April 21, 2010 1:52 pm

    1) I’d definitely overlooked MARKET TIME. And along the same lines, the British used their navy to aid in their counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya. But the point I’m trying to make that COIN at sea is largely a supporting role. In the end, insurgencies are solved on land — where the people are.
    2) I haven’t seen anything that suggests a link to Somali piracy to Al Qaeda or Islamic nationalism. On the contrary, everything I’ve read has refuted the existence of such a link.
    I really don’t think piracy in the Horn of Africa is anything more sinister than a bunch of impoverished fisherman trying to make a dishonest buck. I think we’re elevating their importance and our response way out of perspective to call what they are doing an insurgency. We all know piracy is a problem – there are real consequences to the global economy. But it’s neither existential nor monolithic.
    3) Yes I saw that posting on ASW and COIN. My response (as Hokie_1997) was as follows:
    I agree with Hudson. Modern ASW and COIN are only valid comparisons on the surface (pun intended).
    ASW does have some similarities with guerrilla warfare: use of guile/surprise by attacker, no clear battle lines, quick strike by weaker combatant against stronger, requirement of defender to guard long supply lines.
    However, guerrilla warfare is just a tactic which can be practiced by a conventional or as part of an insurgency. COIN is much broader strategy to counter an uprising by some segment of the people against a recognized gov’t. A good COIN strategy should encompass all facets of national power: military, legal, development, economic, etc. I don’t really think we see all of those facets in ASW.

  12. Chuck58 permalink
    April 21, 2010 1:47 pm

    “Americans whipped the Germans … mainly through artillery.”

    “and the strategic and tactical hammering of Nazi Germany from the air brought the German war machine to a standstill.”

    Not meaning to be snarky here, but the Red Army probably has something to say about that.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 21, 2010 1:35 pm

    In a practical sense, our strength was artillery. When ever we got into a jam, it was usually the artillery that pulled us out. Not demeaning anything else, the armor, or airpower, or infantry, but the artillery was darn excellent. Still is.

  14. michael permalink
    April 21, 2010 1:18 pm

    After all these years it is still open to debate (especially in the UK) as to how effective was the allied bombing of Germany.
    The allies carried out twenty four hour bombing of Germany, the USA bombed during daylight hours and the UK during hours of darkness (as a general rule) and there have been an untold number of books on the subject.
    I think that out of the hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives dropped on Germany,only a small percentage actually hit their intended targets such was the technology of the day.
    How much fire power did the USA use in Vietnam in trying to close the Vietcong supply routes,and still they kept running.
    IMHO although the ‘Surge’ carried out by the USA in Iraq seemed to have been succesfull I think that Afghanistan is a different kettle of fish.
    It would seem that ‘Special Forces Ops’ although by their nature under reported are having some excellent results,carrying the fight to the Taliban and using the same hit and run tactics as the enemy.
    It would appear that during the last few days in Iraq,their own special forces with the help of unnamed US forces have been succesfull in ‘taking out’ three senior members of AQ.
    This must surely be the way to go, they fight dirty so we fight dirty in small highly trained groups.
    The USA invented this sort of warefare in Vietnam with the Airborn Cavalry, albeit on a much larger scale.
    Fly in hit them hard and fly out without getting involved in lengthy and bloody battles as in Vietnam,with UAV coverage and lack of jungle to hide in it is working.
    So in this case, small is beautifull.
    Sorry for running on.

  15. Hudson permalink
    April 21, 2010 12:22 pm

    “Americans whipped the Germans and the Japanese mainly through artillery.”

    Certainly, artillery was an important weapon in the American arsenal in WWII, especially the 105mm and 155mm guns. Also, naval gunfire in the Pacific. However, I would say that the decisive blows were delivered from the air–the two A-bombs decisively ended the war with Japan; and the strategic and tactical hammering of Nazi Germany from the air brought the German war machine to a standstill.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 21, 2010 11:58 am

    ” it’s impossible to have an insurgency at sea.”

    For instance, if the land-based insurgent starts smuggling arms from the sea, which was the point of Operation Market Time in Vietnam, and the subsequent clashes involved in such a environment, wouldn’t that be considered COIN at Sea?

    My point is, I think the piracy off Somalia is an extension of the general nationalism and unrest in the Islamic world, so they use their very effective insurgent, or guerrilla tactics against our trade. The established navies seem equally flustered on how to deal with it as have the land powers faced with insurgent tactics.

    Some have called for the establishment of convoys, to deal with these tactics. I see this as a further sign of similarities between the two because you are still protecting the population (aren’t sailors people, their ships an extension of the land trade?). With little political will to push them in a new direction, as with the land forces in 2001 and 2003, they are forced to claim the problem can only be solved on land or the merchant ships must fight for themselves. Picture British Admiral Horton saying the same thing in WW 2.

    Perhaps my idea on this is a matter of opinion. That the admirals have a difference of opinion is too bad, since it is leaving them out the ongoing changes in warfare. In other words they are left with nothing to do, since no one has any giant ships to match us. Meanwhile, the land forces are rising in strength and influence, taking a disproportionate share of the budget.

    A while back I also wrote this:

  17. Matt permalink
    April 21, 2010 11:32 am

    Matt, could you please provide a source for your definition of insurgency, which you say “has everything to do with geography”? Certainly geography plays a role in how it is fought, but that is operations, not terminology.


    Mike, I apologize. I should’ve been more clear in my choice of words and definitions.

    Insurgecy : an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. (Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. DOD 2005.)

    I meant geography in terms of political control of terra firma – not in the sense of topography. I do believe that geography has an impact on insurgent operations, but that’s a different discussion…

    The point I was trying to make is that it’s impossible to have an insurgency at sea. Yes, we might face assymetric threats wielded by both state and non-state actors, but none of them fits the definition of an insurgency.

  18. B.Smitty permalink
    April 21, 2010 10:21 am


    An insurgent is a politically-motivated, non-state actor who often uses guerrilla tactics.

    Non-insurgents such as pirates and drug lords also use guerrilla tactics. Their motivations are profit and survival, not political change.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 21, 2010 10:13 am

    Smitty-If I am misunderstanding you correctly (LOL)-there is no difference in an insurgent and a guerrilla.

    Matt, could you please provide a source for your definition of insurgency, which you say “has everything to do with geography”? Certainly geography plays a role in how it is fought, but that is operations, not terminology.

  20. B.Smitty permalink
    April 21, 2010 8:41 am

    Matt said, “I’m not downplaying the importance of assymetric threats from a tactical and operational perspective. But I do think that conferring the title “insurgency” on what are not insurgent struggles is misleading and oversimplifying.

    Well said Matt.

    “Guerrilla warfare” is a more appropriate term, IMHO.

    It is in vogue to use the “asymmetric” label to describe guerrilla tactics, but “asymmetric warfare” really just means both sides use different strategies and tactics. The U.S. military is perhaps the largest practitioner of asymmetric warfare through its use of massed airpower, precision-guided munitions, high-tech sensors and command and control systems, and other advanced technologies.

  21. Matt permalink
    April 21, 2010 8:22 am


    An insurgency has everying to do with geography and territory. Insurgencies occur within countries. Countries exist on land.

    I think you’re convoluting strategy and tactics. An insurgency is a strategic means to an end – and not a tactic. An insurgent seeks to destroy or subvert the political power of the governing authorities in a population they seek to control.

    1) The Sea Tigers were a contibuting arm of the Tamil Tiger insurgent movement. But in the end they were a supporting force, using assymetric tactics to support the Tamil Tigers efforts to subvert the Sri Lankan government ashore.

    2) Who exactly are Somali pirates attempting to subvert? They’re not trying to win the political support of the merchant mariners. They’re trying to rob them blind or extort a ransom.

    3) Who exactly would the Iranians be trying to subvert in a conflict with the US? They already have their own country – it’s called Iran. If they fought the US they would undoubtedly use assymetric tactics, but that’s not the same as being an insurgent movement.

    I’m not downplaying the importance of assymetric threats from a tactical and operational perspective. But I do think that conferring the title “insurgency” on what are not insurgent struggles is misleading and oversimplifying.

  22. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 21, 2010 7:48 am

    Matt wrote “Therefore the whole concept of an insurgency at sea is somewhat suspect.”

    Insurgency has nothing to do with geography, as you pointed out: it is a “peoples war” and it goes where the people are.

    Your confusion on this issue is certainly shared by the naval leadership. I think that insurgency type tactics are applicable at sea, as we see with piracy flourishing in the same areas that the COIN is so crucial. Consider that the same Islamists, unable to contend with our conventional superiority on land, has devised tactics to at the very least stand up to Western armies.

    Now are these same people attacking our “people” on the sea, which is the merchant mariners. They are the same population of the sea which our admirals, unable to contend with a foe that doesn’t fight fair, that attacks where he wants instead of head on against our missile battleships, must tell the ships to fend for themselves. Another example may the the Tamil “Sea Tigers”, who were terrorists on land as well as the ocean.

    It is the same foe, transplanting proven, but definately manageable tactics to the population of the sea.

  23. Matt permalink
    April 21, 2010 7:35 am

    Mike, I sense some confusion in your definitions.

    An insurgency is by definition a struggle by a non-state actor against a constituted authority. Insurgency is also referred to as war among the people, since both the insurgent and counter-insurgent fight for control of the population.

    If we were fighting Iran – a recognized nation state – it most certainly wouldn’t be an insurgency. Iran would admittedly use assymetric tactics that are also common to an insurgency, but that’s not nearly the same thing.

    And unless the lost city of Atlantis does in fact exist, there are no recongized nation states that exist on or under the sea. Therefore the whole concept of an insurgency at sea is somewhat suspect.


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