Marines Must Embrace Counter-Insurgency Ops

By Second Lieutenant Nicholas Wilcox, U.S. Marine Corps

The character of war has changed in the 21st century. Because of increasing strike capabilities, such as guided missiles, drone strikes, and very powerful close-air support, frontal amphibious assaults are now vulnerable. Nearly every state in the world and many non-state actors, such as terrorist groups and criminal organizations, have access to sophisticated weapons. Marines in battle groupings make easy targets for missile strikes. Besides missiles, various other technologies can be employed to wipe out battle formations and amphibious assaults. 3

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the balance of power shifted around the world. Power vacuums formed in various overpopulated, impoverished, and frustrated communities. Tribal leaders took back areas formerly controlled by outside parties or large governments. Criminal organizations in the overpopulated and impoverished areas led to increased drug and weapons trades. These factors, combined with rising radicalization, such as Salafi jihadism, created powerful insurgencies. In the 21st century, war has begun to characterize itself as insurgency versus counter-insurgency.

An insurgency is an armed group that is not identified with a government or state but still seeks to advance its own political will. It is largely supported by a regional population to bring change to a current regime. These movements often are motivated by people who are willing to die for their causes while hiding within the region’s population. For these traits, insurgencies are complicated adversaries for the Marine Corps to face. With the current state of chaos in Syria and the rest of the Middle East and the increasing momentum of Boko Haram and al-Shabaab in Africa, insurgencies have demonstrated that they will not disappear anytime soon.

Although the Marine Corps appears reluctant to embrace this counter-insurgency mission, the Corps’ true roots are in irregular warfare, not amphibious assaults. As noted in the Marine Corps Gazette, “Continental Marines conducted offensive and defensive combat operations, protected Navy officers from mutiny, served as snipers in naval battle, and conducted amphibious raids and other operations short of war.” 4 In the Barbary Wars, the Marines’ adapted to capture adversary’s vessels. Just as the Marines adapted in World War II to amphibious warfare, so must the Corps today adapt to take on counter-insurgency operations.

Moving forward, the Marines must learn the hard lessons from dealing with insurgencies over the past 20 years and apply them to strategic goals to deploy Marines trained in counter-insurgency warfare. The Marines have learned many of the intricacies and difficulties of fighting an insurgency—e.g., knowing how to influence and make friends with the local population; employing the tactics of the insurgents; understanding extremist’s ideologies and motivations; and becoming experts in urban combat. Of all the challenges, learning how to engage local populations to have them want to be U.S. allies will reap the greatest rewards. The Marines must develop the tactics and procedures to help commanders build trust with local populations.

A lasting impact and strong relationship only will develop if a commander and his Marines work with a population and its leaders over time to create a bond of trust. To achieve this bond the Marines Corps will need to extend deployments past the regular six to nine months. Quicker rotations will leave tribal leaders frustrated and tired of starting anew with an inexperienced commander and fresh Marines.

To make this all work also will require funds to develop schooling on counter-insurgency warfare. Officers and enlisted Marines on the front lines must go through these schools, which must offer a demanding curriculum on subjects such as winning support of a local population; influencing leaders; understanding radical ideologies and motivations; and combating insurgents. While funding for these schools likely will be hard to find within the Marine Corps’ current budget, a solution could be to divert allocations earmarked for amphibious warfare to counter-insurgency instead.

To succeed in future wars, the Marine Corps must train to defeat an adversary with a new counter-insurgency capability and identity.


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Second Lieutenant Wilcox graduated and was commissioned from the U.S. Naval Academy on 26 May 2017. He will be going to the Basic School (TBS) in Quantico in October.
Photo Credit: Naval Institute Photo Archives




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