The Role and Limitations of Technology in U.S. Counterinsurgency Warfare

The Role and Limitations of Technology in U.S. Counterinsurgency Warfare

Richard Rubright

Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2015, 296 pages

Book Review published on: September 8, 2017

In The Role and Limitations of Technology in U.S. Counterinsurgency Warfare, Dr. Richard Rubright (a five-year veteran of the U.S. Special Forces and currently a professor with the Joint Special Operations University), advances a vision for technologically-enhanced small teams deployed to interrupt insurgent activity. He mixes strategic and counterinsurgency (COIN) theory, supported by historical examples, and is heavily influenced by Mao Tse-tung, Carl von Clausewitz, David Galula, Colin Gray, David Kilcullen, and Sun Tzu, plus his time on the ground in Iraq. He makes extensive use of, and maybe leans a bit too much upon, several case studies from Iraq. There is much to recommend this book, yet it leaves important questions unanswered.

Rubright advances a COIN strategy he establishes as “operationally offensive, tactically defensive,” deploying small numbers of technologically-enhanced teams of regular forces into enemy areas, protected by sensors, from the air, through (proposed) superior information networks, and with augmented quick-reaction forces. The intent is to disrupt insurgent networks and force them to engage where the U.S. military is strongest. In the second chapter of the book, Rubright develops the concept using historical examples that include Gettysburg, the failed French attempt at Dien Bien Phu (where airpower was not sufficiently brought to bear), and the more successful American effort at Khe Sanh. Further examples follow from Iraq.

Rubright believes that technology has been, or soon will be, developed to the point where it can protect small groups of troops deployed for village stability operations; their body-armor, sensor technology, airpower, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), vehicle armor, and networked technology giving the United States a decided advantage in both conventional and irregular operations. While he does note the tendency toward adaptability by insurgents, he seems to conclude that counterinnovation on the American side, bringing technology to bear (as with airpower, sensing, and the MRAP) will likely prevail, so long as military means are matched to sensible political ends.

One of the author’s more eyebrow raising assertions is support for the more brutal Russian COIN doctrine, seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He rightly concludes that neither the international community nor the American citizens give license to such a strategy, but he seems to wax wistful about the reluctance. Technology will be brought to bear, he concludes, to enable a more “hearts and minds” approach more compatible with Western values.

Rubright is clearly an advocate for COIN theory, yet he also sees firm limits based on the population’s potential for supporting the host-nation government. This is a significant limitation, and he is right to call it out and to argue, following Gray, that policy makers must match ways and means and account for constantly challenging assumptions. He repeats this theme throughout.

The biggest limitations to what technology can bring to the COIN fight that Rubright finds are (1) the impatience of the American population with long-term expeditionary engagements, (2) the tendency of insurgents to adapt, (3) the development of weapon platforms not suited to the irregular environment, and (4) limited focus by the service branches on irregular warfare.

He might have added the blowback that can accompany technological solutions, evidenced through the use of drones. Nor does he deal with the very real problem regarding the increasingly high cost of casualties, which makes Western expeditions casualty-averse. He points out the problem but seems to conclude that the technology will provide a sufficient shield to prevent such deaths; yet, in other places he notes that such deaths will occur and that political fortitude will be needed.

He is especially critical of weapon systems like the YF-22 and the F-35, maintaining a traditional opposition to “strategic” forces common to the ground perspective, apart from airlift, because it supports the ground effort. This is hardly surprising in a book that focuses on COIN operations, though Rubright does not deal with “Obama doctrine” conceptions of “remote warfare” as an alternative strategy, hewing rather toward the need for local security as a prerequisite for governance and development initiatives.

While key problems are left by the author, the text represents an interesting synthesis, uniquely positive about the effects of technology as enablers for the difficult expeditionary actions likely on the horizons for Western governments. The book might have said more about addressing the limitations, but he makes an excellent attempt at the Gordian problem of modern COIN.

Book Review written by: Brian R. Price, PhD, Honolulu, Hawaii