Traditionally, the United States has been considered poor at strategic forecasting, and this view will likely continue. Ponderous bureaucracies in developed nations compete with intellectually agile adversaries, working with minimal infrastructure, often from sanctuary, unencumbered by process, procedure, and the need for consensus. Increasing globalization breaks down barriers to commerce, communications, and population flows. It also degrades national sovereignty, creating residents but not citizens; cultivates special interest groups that have divided loyalties; and makes societies vulnerable to physical and nonphysical attack. Technology will continue to contribute to a leveling of the playing field, but ever more so at the low end of conflict where relatively small investments in resources can garner disproportionate gains. This in turn will disincentivize most nations from ever trying to become peer competitors with the United States. On the other hand, near peers, the proxies of near peers, and other groups, even criminal gangs, will be encouraged to pursue capabilities through technological proliferation that negate American technology and force protection measures, while doing so at a considerable discount. Thus, these entities will attempt to hoist the United States on its own technological petard while, paradoxically, the fluidity and rapidity of change will make prediction more art than science.
Characteristic of the American approach, the initial response to the improvised explosive device (IED) will continue to be technological, since it promises quick success and it is easier to measure results, while training and education takes time. Furthermore, countermeasures to IEDs that favor tactics, techniques, and procedures do not readily lend themselves to quantification.1 But, the overriding need to protect U.S. personnel from the future IED threat will drive up defense costs and increase the weight and encumbrances of American forces on the battlefield or on expedition. Unfortunately, another characteristic of the American technological response is that it will be distinguished by a high failure rate. This occurs for several largely unavoidable reasons. First, the desire to protect personnel is so urgent that equipment is often sent to theater without being satisfactorily tested, or without being supported with enough proficient technicians—at least initially. Second, units that are trained on certain pieces of equipment are institutionally incapable of absorbing more new counter-IED gear part way through a deployment because of ongoing operational requirements. Last, the institutional architecture for research, development, procurement, and implementation struggles to keep up with the rapidly changing technological environment that is at the heart of the nature of the IED fight.
That said, significant and gallant efforts perpetuate to protect U.S. personnel effectively, regardless of the inherent inefficiency of the process. But, this in turn will tend to make U.S. forces less mobile, less expeditionary, and less deployable. Additionally, they will be at increased disadvantage in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, engagement, training, and conflict scenarios since personnel will become ever more vehicle and road bound and less able to interact with the local populations. Bearing this in mind, policy and decisionmakers will be increasingly reluctant to employ U.S. forces in situations other than those that affect the National interest. American operational and tactical reticence will therefore tend to cede the future low-end battlespace to low-cost, high-tech adversaries with strategic effect unless alternative approaches are pursued.
Because of the low investment costs, rogue states will always be inclined to use proxies to do their bidding, providing training, equipment, and sanctuary, while at the same time benefiting from the inability or refusal of the world community to hold to account outlier state actions. In this regard, the IED is the ideal weapon to use against developed world forces since it is frugal tactically, provides a strong element of plausible deniability to sponsors, while possessing significant beneficial operational, and sometimes strategic, consequences.
Faced with significant entrenched social costs, developed nations, especially those in Europe and North America, will increasingly accept risk militarily, and will trade that capability to protect coveted social programs. Without an existential threat, it will be increasingly difficult to mobilize coalitions of the willing, only of the unwilling; relying on these partners for unique capabilities they may possess against IEDs will be a significant operational risk for the United States.
The American people have not allowed employment of the IED to be seen as a lesser included case of counterinsurgency. Having afforded such primacy to the weapon, however, cedes considerable informational advantage to the enemy as each jarring attack occurs. Americans will always demand that their soldiers and Marines are protected to the fullest extent possible, and this will have implications for equipping and training U.S. military personnel, and for committing forces to crises and contingencies.
At the same time, U.S. foreign policy cannot, or rather should not, be held operationally hostage to the IED, and in the case of the Marine Corps specifically, this will flame debate between Marines focused on equipment to protect, and those inclined to use maneuver to avoid the threat. The nearest thing to a “solution,” however, must fall somewhere in between a maneuverist mindset, blended with better, lighter—but more expensive—equipment.
Wide-scale employment of IEDs, even by its most fervent proponents, is not entirely free of consequences, even for those with few scruples. Indiscriminate destruction, always a risk with the IED, certainly presents a dilemma in more developed societies, but in less advanced societies where government and infrastructure is less mature, and where less coherent social frameworks struggle to exist, it can be very effectively deployed. In areas where religious and ethnic divides are most stark, widespread and unrestrained “saturated” use of the weapons system can be expected. In more advanced societies, terrorist and insurgent groups will employ IEDs with greater reticence, aware that the political and security implications of their actions may alienate sympathizers and bring about concerted countercriminal and military action. But, such considerations also apply in some measure to the security forces.
Frustratingly, even countermeasures like “predetonation” can cause collateral damage that is often attributed at great political cost to U.S. or friendly forces, rather than to the IED planter. This reverse attribution will continue to be a valuable resource as part of the insurgents’ or terrorists’ information operations.
The struggle against the IED will remain a never-ending fight of measure, countermeasure, and counter-countermeasure as each side seeks an advantage. Importantly, Americans should recognize that each failure, like each success, is only temporary, and that the fight is without end and without victors. For the enemy, the cost will be relatively cheap, with failures unrecognized and successes woven into their information operations and strategic communications. For the U.S., successes against the IED will go largely unrecognized as nonevents, while episodic failures will generate recriminations and adverse effects out of proportion to their actual ability to strategically damage the Nation. This iterative process of combat development, by its nature, favors those who employ the IED within its narrow tactical confines over those trying to counter it.
Less developed countries, more likely targets of terrorist or separatist groups, will be cautious about having close links with the United States, since to do so compromises, to some extent, their sovereignty in the eyes of their own people. Consequently, any U.S. forces employed in support of stressed partners must tread lightly on that sovereignty. Moreover, since the future is so hard to predict and the next crises are likely to come “from left field,” to use the American vernacular, continued reliance on outdated operations plans and associated time-phased force and deployment data deliberately developed with a major theater of war contingency in mind will be of less utility in the world of “the most likely” crisis. Together, sovereignty issues and the moribund nature of deliberate plans based on forecasting means future U.S. forces must instead be rapidly expeditionary, flexible, with a weight-to-combat effectiveness ratio that heavily favors the “teeth rather than the tail,” when required.
U.S. inability to perpetuate this kind of contingency force into the middle part of the 21st century will be perceived as weakness, and will embolden, perhaps to rashness, nations that would otherwise have settled for a steady rise in a stable global system, and offer any number of potential adversaries seeking to gain or disrupt power the opportunity to advance their particular cause. Furthermore, given the chance to make strategic life difficult for the U.S. and its friends, rising regional powers will use proxies to bolster their own position while they destabilize others. The weapon of choice, facilitated by net-enabled migration of tactics, techniques, procedures, and expertise, will be the IED. The IED remains cheap, easy to produce from materials within even the most basic of economies, is often hard to definitively attribute, is technically mobile, and is increasingly expensive to counter.
Enemy forces will rely heavily on the IED and homemade explosives. Furthermore, these weapons will be constantly improved in an escalating response to U.S. and allied countermeasures. Technological improvements to the IED, more so than allied countermeasures, will migrate across the net almost instantaneously, meaning security forces will face increasingly sophisticated and varied IED threats at accelerating rates.
Littoral regions will be the future crisis centers as populations, urbanization, poverty, and competition over declining natural, food, and energy resources increase. Likewise, these areas will suffer disproportionately from natural and manmade disasters, and many will teeter in a constant miasma of discontent and unrest, punctuated by coups, revolutions, civil war, and the need for associated relief operations. Organizations antagonistic to the U.S. will attempt to exploit any vulnerability of American forces engaged in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations, for instance, and the weapon of choice will be the IED.
Because the danger of the IED threat will change from region to region, and even within regions, and because technology migrates so easily, expeditionary forces cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all approach to countering the weapons. Likewise, relying on protective equipment as the primary force protection measure impedes maneuverability— an operational balancing act that, in some circumstances, may be intractable. Considerable effort will go into the creation of the “golden hour” infrastructure so as to minimize fatalities and mitigate wounds. And, while this is both understandable and commendable, it does suggest a different mindset for medical care for amphibious expeditionary forces that quite possibly creates a slew of new requirements.
Therefore, expeditionary forces must rely on a balanced mix of protective equipment, technology, and training and education that transcends the requirements of the current conflicts. The enduring truth is that training and education for the individual Marine to counter the IED threat will pay the largest dividends over the long run. Consequently, IED training and education for an excellent, deployable-anywhere, general purpose force must be adequately resourced, institutionalized, and centralized so that it becomes part of the institutional fabric of the Marine Corps. Failure to do so will sway policy and decisionmakers to baulk at the employment of expeditionary forces, cede the operational advantage to a relative handful of adversaries, prepare American military personnel to fight the next conflict using previous methodologies, and endanger a central tenet of American strategy to preempt conflict where possible, support friends and allies, and fight and win when there is no other choice.
1. Contrasting views on the efficacy and cost effectiveness of the mine-resistant, ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle, for instance, can be found in Chris Rohlfs and Ryan Sullivan’s article, “The MRAP Boondoggle: Why the $600,000 Vehicles Aren’t Worth the Money,” available at www.foreignaffairs.com, and in David Axe’s response in “The Great MRAP Debate: Are Blast Resistant Vehicles Worth it?” available at www.defense.aol.com.