The COIN Cycle

Courtesy John Robb, this interesting piece:

An Outsider’s Perspective (SWJ Blog)
Ucko wraps up by noting that “it is too early to say with any real certainty whether or not counterinsurgency will become a central priority for the U.S. military.” He finds the evidence “emerging from its initial encounter with counterinsurgency in 2003 presents a mixed picture: on the one hand, a group within the DoD has driven an impressive learning process, featuring rapid integration of counterinsurgency in our doctrine, education and training. On the other hand, the U.S. military has remained structured for conventional war and, more important yet, emerging opportunities to change force structure or budgetary priorities have not been seized.”

Dr. Ucko’s bottom line is that, despite a long war and omens of a generational struggle, “the future of counterinsurgency within the U.S. military thus seems to hang in the balance, dependent on whether the message and cause of the COIN community is accepted and thereby gains momentum or whether it is rejected and pushed off the table.”

One of the reasons to stay in Iraq is completing the COIN cycle. It is important that the US military gains not only the experience in taking a Counter-Insurgency (COIN) campaign from beginning to end, but also that the lessons learned be reflected in promotions. The article correctly points out that the Army will not have fully transformed into a COIN force until top-line spending priorities change. That is to say, the Army won’t be truly ready for SysAdmin work until it hosts a Military-Industrial-COIN-Complex.

To get that to happen, we need to complete the COIN cycle. We need to stay in Iraq.

Not only does winning in Iraq help us in all the typical ways (building up our correlation of forces, dissuading neutrals from being hostile to us, etc), it also gives us the COIN infrastructure we need for future conflicts.

We need to complete the COIN cycle. We need victory in Iraq.

18 thoughts on “The COIN Cycle”

  1. I wonder…

    – if this really does occur over the next few years….
    -how this will affect the Army in the inter-service budget battles?
    – the USAF and to a lesser extent the Navy are likely to run roughshod over the Army then in budgetary battles because COIN is by its natural manpower intensive, not technology/platform intensive and that is where the big dollars go. I don’t see how the military-industrial complex is going to go for less funding (via less contracts like FCS) in favor of more and better trained personnel. They’re just going to shift budgetary influence and power towards the USAF and the Navy. I.e. more planes and platforms, less people and even less training (this is a severe problem across all the services, I know first hand b/c of how stupid and self-defeating the push to reduce the numbers of people getting advanced training schools in the fleet).

    If you want, I’ll post and perhaps explain better.. this is a hell of a good discussion to start having.

  2. My fear is that the country doesn’t have the man-power to continue at this pace. Some people have done 4 tour in Iraq. One was good enough for me and I have no idea how people can stick it out with 4? I guess if I had kids to feed it would be different?

    My point is, how long will the “COIN cycle” last? When can we claim “victory” and go home? What will it look like on the ground at victory time? Where do we go next? Iran? Syria? East LA?

    We can’t just keeping bringing in gang members and illegal immigrants to man the force. My contacts at Sand Hill (Infantry Basic Training) have expressed concern over the quality of these troops.

    Not only will this hurt moral but more importantly it raises the risk of these soldiers using their skills against the American people. This has already happened and since the elites refuse to get control of the immigration situation, I’m not looking forward to a future where these troops lead a hostile insurgency against this country.

    Perhaps our “COIN” skills will be most needed in the US?

  3. The last people to try to build what we have to try to build where the British — and their efforts appear to have succeeded. They have a politically self-sustaining empire for centuries [1], which only fell when the financial burdens of two European civil wars became so great.

    How did they balance budgetary needs of the big-iron Navy and the light-footed SysAdmin?

    I wish I knew.


  4. The Brits’ army was much cheaper than ours. They had a rather small imperial police force, and of course they didn’t have to buy expensive airplanes or computerized systems, etc. Paul Kennedy’s “Rise and Fall of Great Powers” explains the macroeconomics of it pretty well I think.

  5. Adrian,

    They had a rather small imperial police force, and of course they didn’t have to buy expensive airplanes or computerized systems, etc.

    Certainly their didn’t seem to be a British version of FutureForceWarrior [1], though the Brits did have high-tech toys for their Leviathan. [2]

    I guess my question is was there an “iron triangle” supporting the British Empire, and if so through what mechanism?


  6. Seems to me that the Iron Triangle was simple jingoism. There’s that famous quote I can’t quite remember (regarding the naval race between the UK and Germany in 1900-1914) but it went something like “The Liberals wanted 4 dreadnoughts, the Conservatives wanted 5, so we compromised on 8” or something like that. It was like an arms race between the parties to see who could buy the most battleships.

  7. Adrian,

    I think you misread my question.

    An iron triangle [1,2] is a network of bureaucrats, politicians, and contractors that functions to support a government program or initiative. So the Dreadnought lobby, say, may have enriched the Dreadnought manufacturers, who employed folks who voted for pro-Dreadnought lawmakers, who provided funding and prestige for the Navy by enabling the purchase of Dreadnoughts, etc.

    Such an iron triangle takes an issue beyond ideological politics, so justifying a program no longer becomes an issue.

    If political will to maintain the Empire was “simple jingoism,” what maintained political will to spend resources on subduing restive natives, say, instead of building a stronger force to defeat Germany. There would have been the same Leviathan v. SysAdmin funding battles then as now, so what explains the degree to which the British SysAdmin politically survied for so long?


  8. You might want to check out Niall Ferguson’s Empire, which explains in depth how the British essentially inherited their Empire from the French and Dutch and how they managed the Empire for so many years.

    Some thought on your questions:

    Much of the British Empire was formed by ultimate systems admin force: colonization.

    The Iron Triangle may have been formed by British business interest (such as the British East India Company), missionaries and/or colonists and the Royal Navy.

    Once the colonists (in the America or Australia ), business people (Asia or Africa) or missionaries,(India, Africa, China) arrived in a given area it was fairly easy to justify sending the Royal Marines to protect them.

    As far as Germany goes, by the time Germany arises as a strategic threat the British empire had been running for a over a century. But it’s important to note that England took to empire building as a response to its previous strategic threats (Spain and France) and so it’s possible a British military strategist in the 19th century would have viewed the Empire itself similar to how Barnett views the Leviathan today: the ultimate hedge against a near peer.

    Today we say: You mess with us and we’ll flatten your city with a single warhead.

    1900 Britain said: You mess with us and we’ll drag you into a war of attrition where we’ll pull men and material from the four corners of the globe.

    And they never would have lasted in the First World War were it not for troops from the Dominions.

    So the long and short of it is: You want a sys admin industrial complex?

    You’ll need colonists.

    We have a million people in prison, right?

  9. It seems that the American sys admin is going to have the same problem that many American corporations have faced: How do you compete with cheap Chinese labor?

    And I think the solution is the same: Offer a premium service that is not easily duplicated by cheaper, less skilled and/or less educated labor while simultaneously outsourcing the most labor intense work to the lowest bidder.

    We already have one skill set (Leviathan) that would be difficult to replicate on the cheap. Unfortunately, I think politics, at this time, prevent America from offering China or India an overt bargain (I.E. We’ll smash Zimbabwe’s military and snatch Mugabe out of his spider hole; you guys rush in put the country back together). But since I know there are smart people in the U.S. dreaming of that scenario, I would assume there are smart people in India and China also hoping for the day such explicit cooperation is possible.

    Another premium service we offer is training foreign militaries. As I understand it, this will be one of the first priorities of Africom and besides building up local capacity to provide security it also provides the U.S. with an invaluable source of local knowledge. And India and China should want us to succeed at this mission; because the secure space created by U.S. trained local forces will provide great opportunities for Chinese businesses to move in.

    Along with that, I’d be all for inviting the Chinese military to participate in training local militaries but I’m not sure if politics (mostly on our side but a probably more than a few on their side) allows for any large scale cooperation yet.

    Based on what I’ve read about Iraq, another premium service America is developing is “human terrain mapping”. This could make America’s system admin eventually the most “culturally sensitive”, which could make America’s light footprint sys admin the logical precursor to China’s large footprint infrastructure projects in the most underdeveloped and disconnected parts of the continent.

    Going along with HTM and cultural sensitivity is America’s ongoing commitment to humanitarian work. President Bush has been widely praised for pushing for greater funding to fight HIV/AIDS and the next President could go give our sys admin a boost by pushing for an international effort to wipe out malaria within ten years. This is both a “hearts and minds” public affairs boost, and, because sick people can’t work as hard, should lead to real gains in GDP in the regions currently most afflicted.

    Ultimately, I think the U.S. military is poised to build the premier light footprint systems admin force with a primary focus on humanitarian aid, training local security forces, and generally “priming the pump” for large scale state building. This contrasts with the Chinese, who seem to operating a large footprint infrastructure building force. Neither model offers a complete solution to shrinking the Gap in Africa on its own, but each is an important part of the process that allows both parties use their respective comparative advantages.

    Maybe the model is the American West, where a relatively small # of American soldiers would build a small fort to keep the Indians at bay and make space for the settlers (mostly recent immigrants).

  10. Brent,


    So how do we build a structure that keeps up this important work. There were times in the Cold War, for instance, when there was bipartisan exasperation with the whole effort. However, the Iron Triangle of the Military-Industrial Complex kept the effort going. How can we similarly bullet-proof the SysAdmin to safeguard shrinking the Gap?

  11. So how did we build a Military-Industrial -Complex? It really didn’t happen until after WWII, so I’m guessing it starts with DOD. Once the Pentagon stands up as a buyer American business showed up to form the second leg of the triangle as a seller. Finally, I’d argue there was a moral element as well, made up of fierce anti-communists who were always ready to brow beat a politician if they saw him starting to waver. We can actually see the mini me version of the moral element in Miami WRT to sanctions on Cuba.

    Short answer: We have to get as many unionized, mid management pencil pusher types involved in the process as possible. Barnett calls it the bureaucratic center of gravity or The Department of Everything Else. John Edwards had an idea called the Marshall Corps. Rudy had another name for it but the point was the same. We have to get a cabinet level position that lobbies for this stuff all day long like we did with DOD.

    Once the cabinet post is up and running the other two legs fall into place. Bechtel, Blackwater, Verizon Wireless, KBR, there are plenty American businesses poised to make a mint off shrinking the Gap and if we get a secretary in charge of requisitioning gear the industries will know where to send their lobbyists. The moral leg is already in place, made up of everyone from Angelina Jolie to Bill Gates.

    One major difference between Sys Admin and DOD is that DOD, by design, was suppose to sit at home and buy stuff (can’t give the military a blank check to go around the globe and do whatever it wants; better they head out to the desert to play with their high tech toys). So they budget for acquisitions and receive supplemental for operations. I’d want Sys Admin set up exactly the opposite. I want them budgeting to go shrink the Gap and we’ll get them their toys on a supplemental. This gives the SECSYADM every reason to push for more American involvement overseas, even if we wind up with a SECDEF who wants to sit home and train a war with China.

  12. Two questions:

    a) How, practically, do we stand up a a large money-spending DSYADM? Do we just keep doing what we want to and hope for a miracle? Or are there specific areas we can focus on that make this large money-spending pork-distributing agency more likely to develop?

  13. Brent

    I am not sure what political forces you think would prevent the US from taking over Zimbabawe and handing it over to the Chinese or Indians to administer.

    The UN? Who cares?

    The American electorate are willing to fight a war if they believe it can be won. That is why Democrats have been consistent in pushing the meme that we are losing the war in Iraq and that it cannot be won. Some examples, like the doomsday reporting during the pause to let supplies catch up during the sandstorm in the three week sprint to Bagdahd are kind of amusing but the message has been consistent, “we are losing and we can never win.”

    What the American electorate is very bad at is sustained effort. If there had been polling in the spring of 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s numbers would have been in the toilet. It was only Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and march to the sea that turned around the voters.

    While I would personally prefer to send American forces into Iran to destroy the Iranian military and secure the oil and nuclear facilities while simultaneously ferrying in Chinese divisions to run the country after we pull out, Zimbabawe might make a nice test case and training mission for both American and Chinese forces. It would also make a nice warning for Iran.

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