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Views and Opinions

Are We Asking the Right Question?

by Lieutenant-Colonel M.W. Bullock

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While attending a seminar on the subject of NATO and its further evolution, the basic premise was that the global situation had changed significantly. Hence, there is a need for the alliance to adjust accordingly, if it is to collectively succeed in an era of global instability that appears to be stretching from now into the foreseeable future. This seminar was attended by a number of high-ranking general officers holding key NATO posts, as well as by some respected academics that regularly ponder military affairs. One would therefore have reasonable grounds to consider this a useful gathering of the wise men to consider at least the fundamentals of how we might adjust our approach. The discussion proceeded apace until the undersigned threw out a question – one that would seem to be quite basic:

“Why would we even consider fighting an asymmetric situation with conventional forces?”

The question was met by silence, as was the case for the solution offered, namely, that we shun, in entirety, the employment of conventional forces against an asymmetric threat. Instead, I submit that we seize back the initiative and use similar tactics to those of the opposition – initiative and tactics that are better suited to the operational environment. In short, we should use unconventional forces, not of any one particular kind, but instead the full panoply of resources available, such as the SAS, and, yes, our own JTF 2. As well, we should employ long-range patrols,commando raids, airmobile raids – essentially anything other than visible ‘boots-on-the-ground’ in the form of conventional forces.

This is not a casual observation. Let us step back from accustomed thinking, and ponder instead the factors involved.

We need to recognize first the nature of the cultural environment within which we are operating today, disregarding even the religious aspects. We should consider instead the presence with ‘boots-on-the-ground’ of foreign troops in these environments. Many, if not all, of these other cultures have a very long history of being xenophobic. And it apparently matters very little whether we are actually doing some good when operationally deployed. If we build a school or a hospital, or if we restore some safety to some of the village streets, these matter for little in such an environment. Instead, at the most basic level, we are attacking their native pride in themselves, and it appears to them that foreigners must do what they themselves cannot accomplish. Similarly, rather than either propping up or restoring the local authorities, by our very presence, we are implicitly undercutting the authority of the village elder, the provincial governor, or the national authorities writ large. There are other associated elements to this argument, but those singled out are sufficient to make the basic point, which is that we are ‘they,’ and not of their own. This raises an adverse reaction to our very presence, regardless of what actual good we may be accomplishing through specific deeds. Moreover, the reactions are perfectly understandable, let alone ones that are fostered and nurtured by hostile propaganda.

Consider the nature of conventional forces. Regardless of how they are employed, or the degree of sophistication in technology, particularly with respect to sensors and weaponry, the inherent characteristic of conventional forces is one of mass. One must consider how much in terms of mass or ‘numbers’ would be required to be effective in an operation, not only in the short-to-mid-term, but also in the longer term. Does one need to blanket a country to smother the opposition? Could we perhaps settle for a series of safe hubs, which could be gradually expanded outwards over time? No matter the approach, we are considering significant numbers of troops deployed for a lengthy duration, if they are to be effective.

This brings us to another ponderable for conventional forces – that of political will: the willingness of Western governments to ‘do the right thing’ in the first instance, and decide whether to become engaged. We must be able to go beyond more than the initial surge of public support for troop commitments, and to remain engaged over the longer term as the casualties mount and graphic imagery becomes ever present through media coverage, and the concomitant public debates. Similiarly, we must factor in our ability to support and absorb the costs involved against competing budgetary pressures far closer to home, such as health budgets, education, and the gamut of social programs – all the classic arguments of ‘guns versus butter.’

What about removing conventional forces from this equation, inserting lesser numbers, less visible, and at less cost? This sounds rather attractive to be able to commit with political will and public support over whatever mid-to-longer term might be necessary to ensure success. And we should never fool ourselves that most such ventures can be accomplished in anything but the longer term.

We also have to reconsider some other pressures, the urge ‘to be seen to be doing something.’ Yes, it is true that, in the absence of large conventional forces, one surrenders a certain level of security to the opposition and will experience schools being leveled, women raped, and other forms of intimidation and repression. However, these will likely occur in any event, until success is achieved – unless, of course, one could, in some fashion, solve the questions of mass and ‘numbers,’ and be able to be in all places, at all times.

So then, what can unconventional forces do to better enable success? Recognize first that there are ‘many heads to this particular hydra,’ and what we would seek to do is to gradually remove one head after another. We would do so incrementally, over time, for a cumulative effect. We would target and raid the recruiters. And the training camps. Their infrastructure. And their leadership. We would select appropriate targets and strike them, the key point being that these actions would be conducted on our own terms, at a time and place of our own choosing. We would seize back the initiative, and this would reap the benefit of the enemy never quite knowing who, when, or where we would be striking next. We would often use the cover of darkness, and seek to be gone before anyone could detect us. We would, if you will, become a Cloud of Avenging Angels. The result would be incremental and cumulative; the tactics employed becoming a classic turning of the tables.

What about the intelligence inputs required to locate these targets? The counter is, would this in any significant fashion be different from whatever forms of intelligence are needed with respect to conventional forces?

What about basing locations? In or out of country, one must confront the legalities of from where to mount operations. Again, this is perhaps no different than the same question being posed for the employment of conventional forces, and their practical and legal need to be based ‘somewhere.’ The fundamental difference lies in the use of a surgical tool, rather than a sledgehammer. Whatever legal mandate is required internationally remains the same, whether it is under the banner of NATO, the UN, or some other form of coalition commitment. A key difference, however, would be that any basing locations must effectively possess an invisible footprint, and lack a visible ‘boots-on-the-ground’ presence. We would instead be at all times within the wire, in the form of a fortified Fort Apache. Our sorties would, to the maximum extent possible, be invisible.

These are the main elements of a debate, discussion, or argument. There certainly are others, but perhaps this is sufficient for the moment for the West to ponder collectively whether we have been asking ourselves the right question with respect to this issue.


This discussion was not intended to be NATO-specific, but applied to Western nations in general. The hypothetical situation posed was also not intended to be country-specific, but instead can be applied more generally to the next ‘Situation X.’ Whether it could be effectively applied in theatres where we are presently engaged would require some further thought with respect to losses and gains. In those deployments, we no longer have the freedom of a blank sheet. However, perhaps we could learn from these experiences before the next such engagement occurs.

Nor is the argument advanced here that the West can make do without conventional forces. This is not so, and such forces will certainly have a role to play in other emerging scenarios. But the point is that conventional forces are best engaged against a conventional threat, and are inappropriate for all the aforementioned reasons with respect to asymmetric warfare.

This writer is not of a Special Forces bent or bias. Instead, my most recent operational tour was active warfighting operations in the Middle East within the context of a British armoured division. Dropping down from coalition operations to those conducted at the national level, this particular doctrine is, arguably, most useful to low-to-mid-ranking powers, such as Canada, and it appeals to our own relative lack of mass – yet acknowledges the quality of our forces at unit size or smaller, the initiative of our soldiers, and so on. On its particular merits, however, the thrust of this doctrine is equally applicable to more major powers, such as the US, the UK, and France. And collectively to whatever form a common undertaking will take, be it NATO or otherwise.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Bullock is the Chief of Plans (G5) of Joint Task Force West at Land Forces Western Area Headquarters.