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Cold Fury: Force Escalation in a Hybrid Threat Environment

To adjust to the operational demands of fighting wars in a hybrid threat environment, it is imperative to find a middle ground of strategic ground combat application that can seamlessly address multiple strains of threats at once.

Cover Image for Cold Fury: Force Escalation in a Hybrid Threat Environment
Delta Force Source: The Washington Times
Article byRule Johnstone
March 29, 2023

What most of the American public views as war is split between two distinct modalities: First, the Clauswitzian conception of decisive conflict between two large armies. Second, small-scale special operations raids that came into the public eye after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. But between these extremes of large and small scale operations, there is an entire spectrum of conflict necessitated by the exigent security threats of today. This is best encapsulated by former CIA chief James Woolsey, who presciently said that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States would simultaneously face both state and nonstate challenges; “not only dragons, but a bewildering array of snakes,[1]” as he put it. It took two decades of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Syria for our military to adjust to the operational demands of fighting nonstate groups. Now, with Russia and China resurgent as security threats, it is imperative to find a middle ground of strategic and operational methodology to seamlessly address multiple strains of threats at once. This will require institutional adaptation on the part of our security apparatuses to minimize bureaucratic impediments, which severely compromise response time, efficiency and effectiveness.

When making a strategic reconceptualization of force as Woolsey’s prescient quote demands, one must start with the basic building blocks of modern military force. This author was once told by a highly qualified Army special operator that special operations forces “despite what Hollywood might suggest, are just really, really good at the basics.” The basics to which he referred are the institutional mandate of the infantry: to shoot, move, and communicate, in order to close with and destroy the enemy. By this logic, special operators are more elite applyers of the basic tenets of ground combat whose expertise with these fundamental skills, when combined with heightened logistical support and “call for fire” capabilities (artillery and airstrikes) enable them to tackle more complex mission sets. In this light, in a “building block” reconceptualization of force application, for those policy objectives requiring force somewhere between large-scale conventional operations and small-scale special operations, there is a critical but largely unexamined “middle ground” of ground combat application.

This type of battleground was exemplified in the Syrian civil war, where a wide-conflict zone played host to seemingly innumerable armed groups. Some were independent nonstate groups, and while others were supported by the US, Russia, or Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps, the conflict was never strictly conventional in terms of its battlefield character. It serves as an ideal example to analyze this “middle zone” of kinetic conflict which will likely become more prevalent in the future. The following analysis is not meant to be exhaustive, but simply an example of the types of principles which will prove most fruitful if institutionally developed and implemented in the new “mid-tier” conflict modality as seen in Syria. This is environment-shaping at its optimum: when precise military and political objectives are not key, application of more broadly-based “shaping operations” tailored to the given security and operational climate can yield fruitful results. In short, this analysis focuses on how the US and partners could achieve maximum political objective development with the lightest yet most effective military and intel footprint possible in a geostrategic reality that precludes the feasibility of doing nothing.

One small but critically important engagement during the Syrian Civil War was the Battle of Kasham,[2] where a handful of US Delta Force operators held off a seemingly superior force of approximately 500 Russian Wagner group mercenaries and other Syrian rebels. This engagement is instructive because the tiny American force was entrenched, and while under fire in a small forward operating base, utilized superior gunfighting skills and the royal flush of American air power to obliterate a brawny attacking Force without suffering any casualties.[3] What this indicates is that in this middle tier conflict type, a small but highly proficient force can be modulated by kinetic reinforcements including air power but which could also include, for example, a quick reaction force of other elite operators who fight in higher numbers, such as Army Rangers. The point is that an outmatched small force in the modern era is able to modulate its destructive power considerably in short order when bureaucratic roadblocks are removed and combatants can immediately get the kinetic multipliers they require.

While it would be ideal to have access to the full suite of American airpower, this midlevel methodology should instead focus on the day-in, day-out engagements, and the most effective instruments of airpower available to ground forces. There are three instruments to focus on here: The AC-130 Spectre gunship, generally the most feared air asset in the US arsenal amongst foes, and most beloved by Americans on the ground. Additionally, the AH-64 Apache and A-10 Warthog have proven time and again to be extremely effective in ground support operations. Furthermore, the Apache’s unique capabilities enable it to serve in an anti-aircraft “route clearance” function (clearing a safe flight path by eliminating enemy anti-air in a way other aircraft cannot) for the AC-130, whose only real weakness is vulnerability to anti-air fire. Other than this, the Spectre’s carnivorous personnel destruction capabilities are unmatched, and it provides ideal dwell-time (how long an aircraft can stay in the air keeping watch over friendlies on the ground) and fire support, especially when complemented by UAVs to maintain a constant eye in the sky for ground combatants. While these aircraft require some kind of airbase to launch from, this is a far cry from the high-visibility of an aircraft carrier parked in the Persian Gulf launching a non-stop train of F-18s over sensitive Mideast borders. The aircraft mentioned here serve as an appeal for utilizing the maximum and most efficient fire support in the most quiet manner possible.

One notable operational analysis is a single Army Ranger battalion deployment in 2018, where in a few short months, the unit killed approximately 1,900 enemy combatants in Afghanistan while suffering single-digit casualties.[4] The modern combat utility of this level of effectiveness is staggering. While kill-ratios can be deceiving in war, the Rangers - left to ply their trade without unnecessary media scrutiny - did this in a fluid combat zone without conventional US battlefield dominance. But the Rangers exhibited a core building block of this analysis: when America’s best gunfighters are left to do their jobs, they excel. Given the quietness with which this occurred in the media landscape, one is left to conclude that this type of effectiveness provides a significant policy tool whose seamless application should be implemented more extensively in the usage of American force. Rangers have been employing this same level of effectiveness in Syria as well. When the situation calls for it, the surgical application of destructive power against both nonstate and state groups in an open and chaotic combat environment - which also avoids civilian casualties and media recognition - is a potent addition to the toolbox of American policymakers.

In terms of reallocation of personnel to inexpensively and expediently bolster capabilities for mid-level kinetic conflict, the US has a valuable resource currently misutilized and waiting for repurposing: the United States Marine Corps. When the War on Terror began to ramp up, there were tensions, both within the Corps and from higher leadership, regarding “special operator Marines.[5]” Now, however, the Corps finds itself without a defined purpose in modern war that matches its capabilities. But they would be ideal in this augmenting role - elite forces that deploy in larger numbers - to reinforce smaller SOF units such as Delta and SEALs when needed. First and foremost, precise rifle fire - the primary building block of infantry combat - has been long institutionalized in the Corps as a central cultural ethos. The ability to apply quality shooting to win gunfights is central to Marine units such as Scout Snipers, Recon, and MARSOC, making them ideal as augmenting forces. Other elite shock troops such as Army Paratroopers are already assigned to immediate crisis response duties, so the USMC’s availability makes all the more sense. As an added bonus, the Corps’ aquatic capabilities - able to insert stealthily by boat, submarine,[6] or scuba - offers operational commanders additional flexibility in quietly avoiding tricky border crossings, considering the wide range of littoral access in some variety the world over. The Dnieper in Ukraine is one current example of the importance of littoral access. In sum, the USMC provides a perfectly suited strategic asset tailor-made for a rapid augmentation assignment in mid-level kinetic conflict, if only policymakers would make the administrative effort to repurpose it.

Winning gunfights is the bread and butter of midlevel kinetic engagements, and it is the responsibility of the military and political establishments to put America’s best assets and shooters in a position to apply maximum operational and therefore strategic effectiveness. But this skill-derived utility can only be maximized when provided firepower augmentation in the form of additional personnel short of large-scale deployments, and appropriate air assets. A reconceptualization of force application could be an unparalleled tool for American policymakers. In the postwar American military outlook, our allies still want American assistance, they just “prefer American efforts that don’t make the news.[7]” A reconceptualization of how to utilize our most effective assets for mid-tier conflict may provide a methodology for frequent win-win scenarios, where our allies receive American assistance, and the US is able to provide muscle effectively and quietly.

[1] Kilcullen, David. The Dragons and The Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pg. 11.

[2] https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-trending/battle-of-khasham

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/battle-syria-us-russian-mercenaries-commandos-islamic-state-a8370781.html

[4] https://www.armytimes.com

[5] Moyar, Mark. Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America’s Special Operations Forces. New York: Basic Books, 2017. Pg. 281.

[6] Sciutto, Jim. The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America. New York: Harper, 2019. Pg. 219.

[7] Collins, N.W. Grey Wars: A Contemporary History of U.S. Special Operations. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021. Pg. 97.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.