In a world of irregular—and regular—threats and in a nation confronting fiscal austerity and seemingly showing an increased aversion to the large commitments of troops to the ambiguities of large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns after a decade of such wars how is a great power to advance and secure its interests under such circumstances? One approach that has been floated more and more recently is the light footprint model—or indirect approach—for dealing with irregular threats and challengers. To boil this down into two sentences, much like the famous slogan of the chemical company BASF,* such an approach would be: We don’t fight your insurgency or terrorists for you. We help you counter your insurgency or terrorists better.**
In a similar fashion to the opening discussion above, Lujan frames the strategic logic of his intervention model as:
Looming budget cuts, ground forces worn down by years of repeated deployments, and a range of ever evolving security challenges from Mali to Libya and Yemen are quickly making “light footprint” military interventions a central part of American strategy. Instead of “nation building” with large, traditional military formations, civilian policymakers are increasingly opting for a combination of air power, special operators, intelligence agents, indigenous armed groups and contractors, often leveraging relationships with allies and enabling partner militaries to take more active roles.
But he cautions that this approach is hardly a panacea. (He also warns that the American public and policymakers should not get too comfortable with the efficacy of drone strikes and commando raids.)****
He notes that
The specific tactics involved in these operations may vary, but the guiding philosophy is clear: Send tens or hundreds instead of surging thousands. Be patient and work quietly within the constraints of the existing political and social ecosystem. Help others to help themselves instead of doing the work alone. But when necessary, act unilaterally with lethal, surgical precision. (p. 7)
But such unilateral action should be used sparingly because
…while direct, unilateral action can be very effective in the short term, it should be undertaken sparingly and judiciously, balanced with nonkinetic civilian-led initiatives such as political reconciliation, reintegration or influence campaigns, and ultimately phased out over time to be replaced by efforts undertaken by local, indigenous police or military forces. (p. 15)
Lujan devises an eight-step checklist to the light footprint approach:
1. Prevention is the new “victory.” Preventing worst-case outcomes is the goal of light-footprint engagement and intervention, not decisive victory or transformation. Objectives should be modest, iterative and consistent with the partner nation’s historical and cultural context.
2. Build and preserve networks. Always build relationships, collect information and develop understanding about potential security partners, even if conditions do not support providing formal U.S. military assistance. Engage well before a crisis and never completely disengage; recognize the potential future importance of networks.
3. Partner with underlying interests and legitimacy in mind….
4. Less is more. Engage with the smallest, lowest profile military presence that can effectively foster critical indigenous security capabilities and protect U.S. interests….
5. Minimize and phase out direct, unilateral action….
6. Military engagement is a constructive tool, not a last resort….
7. Do not surge for faster results. Attempting to rush the pace of security force development and surge more resources than partner nation institutions can handle encourages corruption and decreases leverage because U.S. support will appear automatic and irreversible.
8. Be prepared to fail. Accept mission failure as a rare but normal outcome with abort criteria to support disengagement and prevent escalation in the event that the mission is no longer tenable or is not producing desired outcomes. Promote flat communications or direct feedback mechanisms between military and civilian leaders to continually manage risk, assess progress and refine the mission via an iterative, two-way planning process. (pp. 21-22)
One may quibble with one or more of the propositions above, but this is a sensible approach that doesn’t over promise.
What sort of forces should carry such an approach out? Well, that depends. In the main, particularly in higher threat environments, Lujan suggests that this sort of mission type should be carried out by personnel with the specialized training, language skills, regional knowledge, and operational experience to be able to operate alongside host nation personnel. To drive this point across he quotes LTG Charles Cleveland, the commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command: “To succeed in these missions, we need people who can wade into uncertainty, learn the key players and figure out the best way to influence outcomes.” (p. 23)
Lujan cautions about the Army’s plans—in anything other than permissive environments—for using the so-called Regionally Aligned Brigades for advisory duties. He notes, specifically about the testbed case of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division that will embed in Africa that:
This arrangement might be effective for more centralized, large-scale combat operations, but when piecemeal teams of 5, 10 or 20 soldiers are sent to various countries across the African continent, seasoned leaders run out quickly and the resulting lack of maturity or experience becomes a liability on the ground. Nothing will shut down a military engagement program faster than an international incident, and placing young, junior soldiers into isolated, embedded advisory roles with minimal supervision and training can be potentially counterproductive. (p. 30)
LTG Cleveland has also voiced concern stating that, “I have cautioned the Army about all of those things like [teaching soldiers] language. It’s expensive.”
Some may see these warnings as Special Operations Forces protecting their historic turf in the foreign internal defense mission from the Army. Of course, to prove that point, one would have to be able to convincingly answer as to why the Army has suddenly found religion and has embraced the advisory mission after not training, organizing, preparing, or resourcing for it well in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a veteran of this unpreparedness as a member of an ad hoc Military Transition Team in Iraq the cynic in me can’t shake that the RAB concept is about maintaining relevance and resourcing. Regardless of one’s view, if this type of bureaucratic fight emerged openly it could hinder the ability to implement a light footprint portion of a larger defense strategy.
In the next few months I will explore various aspects of this issue, further exploring and building off Lujan’s work and offering my own perspective on it, in this space. But with “Light Footprints” Lujan joins the ranks of special warfare***** practitioner-deep thinkers that includes folks such as COL (ret.) Joseph Celeski, COL (ret.) David Maxwell, COL (ret.) Alfred Paddock, LTC (ret.) Kalev Sepp, and COL (ret.) John Waghelstein—to name a few. With any luck we will hear more from him on this issue, and others, in the years to come. Hopefully the “quiet professional” culture of the SOF community will not silence him or cause his career harm from writing this insightful work.
*BASF’s slogan is: “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.”
** I first came up with this BASF analogy in: Michael P. Noonan, Complexity, Conflict, and Cooperation: The Micropolitics of American Civil-Military Relations in Small Wars, 1945-Present (Ph.D. Dissertation, Loyola University Chicago, May 2013 [defended in 2012]), chapter 5.
*** This report runs 40-plus pages. If you aren’t interested in that kind of a commitment you can read the abridged version at foreignpolicy.com.
**** He states “…recent media coverage of drone strikes and SEAL raids may also distort public perceptions, creating a `bin Laden effect’ – the notion of military action as sterile, instantaneous and pinprick accurate.” (p. 5)
***** COL (ret.) David Maxwell makes the distinction that American Special Operations Forces can largely be bifurcated into two camps: (1) special warfare and (2) surgical strike. Special warfare operators conduct missions—in the main—where American forces work through, with, and by foreign security forces (e.g., the armed forces of the Republic of the Philippines against the Abu Sayyaf Group) or rebels (e.g., working with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2001). Sometimes others refer to this as the indirect approach. Surgical strike operators tend to focus on the conduct of direct action raids (e.g., the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound).