Gangs and Conflict Redux

John P. Sullivan and I have a new piece in OpenDemocracy looking at conflict in border zones in the Americas. Key graph:

“While some have fretted that [border] zones could harbor jihadi terrorists, the real danger lies in the violence produced by bloody competition over these lucrative areas and the spread of criminal reach and power throughout the state and across frontiers.”

It is, in in essence, an issue of criminal competition and human security rather than national security. In related news, Sullivan was also interviewed by Danger Room on the similarities and differences between counterinsurgency and policing.

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No Study of PLA?

Thomas G. Mahnken argues in FP that we may be overlooking growth on Chinese doctrine and capabilities due to ethnocentrism and apathy:

“According to at least one high-ranking official, the United States has systematically underestimated the pace and scope of Chinese military modernization for years. On Oct. 21 in an interview with the Voice of America, the incoming Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), Admiral Robert F. Willard, USN, told reporters that, “In the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity, every year. … They’ve grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities. And, they’ve developed some asymmetric capabilities that are concerning to the region, some anti-access capabilities and so on.” Willard should know. Prior to becoming the USPACOM commander, he was in command of all U.S. naval forces in the Pacific; before that, he was Vice Chief of Naval Operations.”

I agree that emerging Chinese capabilities, specifically in anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, and anti-satellite weaponry as well as the general maturation of PLA in doctrine, C4ISR, and strategic reach needs more attention from a defense community still overwhelmingly focused on terrorism. However, I do not quite understand Mahnken’s point here:

“The United States needs to do more to understand the Chinese military. The PLA intently studies the U.S. military; the U.S. military lacks a similar curiosity about them. That needs to change.”

There is a robust and growing literature on Chinese military capabilities, doctrine, and theory and studies have appeared at the US Army War College, Center for Naval Analyses, RAND, and in the open source for at least 15 years. These studies rely extensively on primary Chinese sources, including the PLA campaign textbook Zhanyi Xue (On Military Campaigns). The more well-known Chinese work Unrestricted Warfare has, even, according to some, had an influence on US/UK/AUS military thinking.

That being said, there does need to be more translations and widespread distribution of Chinese military works, akin to the open-source translations of the Soviet military works on the 1970s and 80s.

Non-Maximalist Objectives

Sven Ortmann argues that we have internalized the late 19th/early 20th century (and early Roman, for that matter) thinking of strategic objectives of annihilation. Ortmann then proceeds to review a history of limited wars, ranging from the 17h-18th century “wars of maneuver” that Jomini and Foch so derided to the 1999 Kosovo Air War.

What is perhaps most disturbing about this review is how prevalent total war thinking is despite the fact that the US has been waging various form of limited or indirect war since 1945.

North Korean Special Warfare

Kyle Mizokami writes that North Korea is expanding its special forces, but for a reason contrary to the thoughts of most experts: layered partisan defense:

“[It’s possible the North Korean special forces are organized for defensive purposes and part of a larger, layered defense strategy to prevent regime change. Such forces could provide cadre for a domestic insurgency. In North Korea, they would have the home-team advantage, with plentiful supplies of arms and ammunition and a sympathetic population. The evidence of training in the construction and use of IEDs implies fighting in familiar terrain, not in unfamiliar terrain like South Korea. The objective would be to fight U.S. and South Korean forces with irregular warfare, and bleed them dry until public opinion in both countries forces a withdraw. (South Korea, with its low birthrate and intrinsic problem of fighting fellow Koreans, would be particularly vulnerable to adverse public opinion.) This new survival strategy makes even more sense considering the North can no longer economically support its over-sized conventional forces.”

Kim Jong II certainly isn’t the first to contemplate a “total” strategy. Partisan defense, however, has at best a mixed record. Saddam’s original fedayeen units, which Mizokami compares Kim’s commandos to, were not effective in putting up a partisan defense against US forces in the 2003 invasion phase of the Iraq war. Moreover, such a strategy also by definition results in the destruction of a nation’s heartland. That being said, Kim Jong II, like many other dictators, identifies the health of the state with his own interests. Thus Mizokami’s interpretation is certainly plausible.