Skip to comments.The Civilianization of War
Posted on 04/11/2014 11:34:30 PM PDT by neverdem
On April 8, Ukrainian Interior Ministry troops recaptured a government administration building in the eastern city of Kharkiv from pro-Russian demonstrators. Over the previous weekend those demonstrators had stormed the building, along with government buildings in the neighboring cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. After taking the building, the protesters had called for intervention from the Russian army, which lurked just over the border with some fifty thousand troops, presumably ready for action after more than a month of training exercises.
Ukraines acting interior minister Arsen Avakov announced that the building in Kharkiv had been retaken without violence. This news was no doubt a relief to the interim Ukrainian government in Kiev, which undoubtedly wished to avoid creating a dramatic pretext for an invasion by the Russian army poised next door. However, the pro-Russian occupations in Donetsk and Lugansk continue, with the Ukrainian security forces vowing to use force if the demonstrators dont relent.
The simultaneous assaults over the weekend by seemingly well-drilled and hooded young men are widely viewed to be a follow-on phase to Russias recent seizure of Crimea, an operation that successfully employed similar tactics to capture Ukrainian military bases and government offices there. From a wider perspective though, Russias tactics in Ukraine demonstrate an expanded civilianization of combat operations. We have long become used to civilian militias mounting insurgencies to resist occupation armies. Now we can observe a nation-states employment of civilians (or special-operations soldiers acting as civilians) in the vanguard of offensive military operations designed to seize and hold territory.
Although perhaps a surprising development to many, this trend is a logical consequence of both the current media-saturated age and the incredible lethality of modern military technology. It is also a trend for which Western policymakers and military planners seem largely unprepared. That will have to change if these leaders are to avoid some damaging strategic setbacks at the hands of less scrupulous adversaries.
Why civilians are now the best assault troops
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his advisers may be hoping that the pro-Russian agitators in eastern Ukraine incite a violent clash with Ukraines security forces, thus creating a casus belli for an intervention into eastern Ukraine by the Russian army. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made this very accusation against Russia at a Senate hearing on April 8th.
Under this scenario, Russian army peacekeepers, in the form of traditional tank and mechanized infantry brigades, would assault across the border for the declared purpose of protecting vulnerable ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. Although certainly a possibility, Putin and his advisers likely realize that such an outmoded approach would stimulate a global backlash against Russia, especially by critical players such as Germany that have thus far largely accommodated Russias recent actions in Crimea.
Much more likely will be a steady and methodical civilian-led unconventional warfare campaign in eastern Ukrainian cities, funded and organized by Moscow and led in the field by Russias intelligence services and special-operations forces. The goal of this campaign will be to organize pro-Russian resistance to Ukrainian government institutions, gradually discredit the government in Kiev, intimidate neutral and pro-Ukrainian populations in the area into passivity, and ultimately create legitimacy for the idea of a pro-Russian region in eastern Ukraine under Russian sponsorship. This style of political-military operation very likely stands a better chance of achieving Moscows goals, compared to an old-style invasion by tanks, infantry and artillery. If successful, it would also show that civilianization of modern offensive military operations has come of age.
Ukraine is not the only example of this trend. In the South China Sea, it is Chinas civilian maritime services such as its coast guard, its maritime-surveillance agency, its fisheries-enforcement service, and its civilian fishing fleet that is attempting to establish the legitimacy of Chinas territorial claims over Scarborough Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, Woody Island, and other places in the Spratly Islands. The gray hulls of the Peoples Liberation Army-Navy may lurk over the horizon, just as the Russian army provided overwatch to the militiamen who took over the Crimea. But it is the civilians who in all these cases are leading the assault. And should Beijing decide to make a play for the uninhabited but Japanese-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, it seems highly likely that the first wave to storm these beaches will not be Chinese naval infantry but rather civilian nationalist activistsor at least soldiers dressed as civilians portraying Chinese patriotsthere to settle historic grievances. The PLA would no doubt not be far behind. But the first wave will very likely be civilians.
What explains the civilianization of modern warfare? We have long become used to insurgent militias that have sprung up to defend populations and territory from enemy armies attempting stabilization and pacification. Insurgent militias have used the local population for protection from modern military firepower, to hide from occupation forces, and for logistical support. The most advanced military hardware and well-trained conventional soldiers have proven vulnerable to insurgent weapons and tactics. When insurgent forces have enjoyed a sanctuary in which to organize and train and the support of an outside sponsor, they have usually been able to outlast the political patience of Western stabilization campaigns.
Such insurgencies are defensive responses to occupation and are a fixture throughout history. The offensive use of civilianized assault forces by Russia, China and others is an interesting new trend. Just as Western occupation armies have been understandably reluctant to employ their massive firepower during stabilization operations, the conventional military forces responsible for defending Ukrainian bases in Crimea or outposts in the South and East China Seas are similarly flummoxed when confronted by the sudden arrival of crowds of civilians, especially when armed with cameras connected to global media-distribution networks. All it takes is a massacre to squander legitimacy and political support, as former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych can no doubt explain. Bold and unscrupulous leaders have now learned how to employ civilians both as shields and swords. The modern media-saturated age has only encourage the expanded use of civilianized defensive and offensive military operations and even increased their effectiveness.
Ukraine has one choice
Ukraines only choice is to prepare for unconventional warfare, either to defend against Russian subversion in the east, or to resist an occupation by conventional Russian ground forces. Ukraines enfeebled army, which now relies on handouts from the population to get by from day to day, would stand little chance against the Russian army in an old-school air and mechanized battle. Nor for the reasons stated above is this likely to be the scenario Russia prefers. With Russia having good reasons to prefer a civilianized unconventional-warfare campaign in Ukraines east, Kiev needs to prepare for this form of warfare to defend its territory and interests.
Ukraines government and security forces will have to organize for a counterinsurgency campaign inside Ukraines eastern cities. This will require making an honest assessment of popular support for Kiev in Ukraines east, unlocking how Russias subversion effort is organized and sustained, and evaluating both non-kinetic and kinetic methods of suppressing pro-Russian groups. Perhaps most important, Ukraines government and security services will have to outperform their Russian counterparts at global media and information operations. The success of these operations is will be linked to the tactics the security forces ultimately employ against the pro-Russian groups.
At the same time, Ukraine would be wise to prepare in advance for a hypothetical Russian army occupation. Mounting a violent insurgency against an occupying army is a very costly choice and one that Ukraines population would ultimately have to see through. Should Ukraines people reach that threshold decision, conditions for a successful insurgency in Ukraine seem good. There are many paths for assistance from western Ukraine to reach insurgents in the east, along with an inability of Russian forces to isolate the battlefield in the east from support. Ukraines insurgents would benefit from sanctuaries in the west for training, an essential requirement for a successful insurgency. Ukrainian insurgents would likely find support from abroad and even inside Russia itself. There are large Ukrainian expatriate populations in the West, along with a large military adviser base in the U.S. and West with deep experience in irregular warfare. Should the U.S. and other governments opt to support an insurgency in Ukraine, they could do so for a relatively trivial expense.
Actively preparing for an insurgency, in full view of Russias intelligence services, may be the best method of deterring intervention by the Russian army. Preparing an insurgency for eastern Ukraine would be Kievs version of escalation dominance, that is, it would convince Moscow that escalation would be the road to its defeat.
Likewise in the East and South China Seas, Chinas neighbors must devise approaches to counter Chinas offensive civilianized operations aimed at legitimizing Chinas territorial claims in the two seas. As with Ukraine, the best line of effort for the countries resisting China should be media and information operations, with the goal of portraying China as the large bully that is aggressively using its power to steal from its weaker neighbors. A long multimedia story in New York Time Magazine in October 2013 (A Game of Shark and Minnow) described the unequal standoff between China and the Philippines over possession of Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys, and was a considerable information success for the Philippines. By contrast, Japans recent media stumbles over its behavior in Asia during World War II has been very much an own goal and will likely make repelling a Chinese civilian-activist assault on the Senkakus a more challenging information operation.
The rules of civilianized warfare
The United States and other Western countries need to better prepare for civilianized warfare. After over a decade of fighting large-scale insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, one would think they would be well-prepared by now. However, the lackluster results from those two campaigns indicates that something is still missing from the Western response to civilianized warfare. This is even more odd when one considers how much the United States itself has recently civilianized its own military operations For example, the civilian Central Intelligence Agency runs one of the larger and more efficient air forces in the world, while the Pentagon and State Department have been prodigious employers of active and heavily armed civilian security contractors.
Even so, the thought of civilianized military operations remains anathema to policymakers in the West. One of the great virtues of having organized and uniformed military services is to deliberately separate combatants from noncombatants in order to spare the later as much as possible from the horrors of modern warfare. That system, in place among Western combatants for several centuries, broke down as soon as those resisting a Western occupation army found themselves searching for any kind of competitive advantage.
The logic that drove defensive insurgencies to civilianize has now been taken up by those looking for better offensive options against modern military firepower. The deadly efficiency of military firepower has caused the role of civilians to come full circle. Civilians needed to be protected against firepower. Then insurgents used civilians as a shield against firepower. Now civilians are becoming a attacking sword, flummoxing the use of firepower. These are the new rules. The United States and its allies in the West will need to edit their rulebooks, or find themselves outwitted by the new rules.
Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In September 2014, U.S. Naval Institute Press will publish Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, Haddicks book on the rise of Chinas military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Good post. The author makes many good points.
Russia is playing monkey see, monkey do.
Isn’t this city where “so called locals” took over the Opera House because they thought it was the city hall and demanded the mayor surrender ?
They should grab these people throw them into the back of an open 6by tied face down and haul their asses back to Kiev. Do a thorough interrogation and examine every article of clothing to see where it originated from and if they’re Russian . Call for a UN hearing parade them before the UN then take them out and try them as spys or terrorists.
This seems to be the tactic being used by Mexico.
The author makes great points, but I must dissent on just how "civilian" the CIA Special Activities Division is. I don't classify paramilitary units as truly "civilian." Certainly a Coast Guard is not civilian-- it is a paramilitary gendarmerie.
But I do admire on a professional level how the Russians are conductign Information Operations. The whole Ukraine Crisis should be a mandatory War College case study if we can somehow survive the remaining Obama Years.
Recent events in Nevada seem timely and instructive.