Today I’ve got something very special, an article written for Soldier of Fortune magazine where former Special Forces Officer Jim Morris interviews former Special Operation Aviation pilot, theorist, and innovator, John Robb.  I’ve been a follower of both of these men for a long time now and thought it was great to play the “fly on the wall” and listen into their conversation here.  This is cutting edge stuff and John Robb’s ideas about the future of warfare should be taught at the Special Forces Qualification Course and anywhere else that endeavors to teach our soldiers the art of unconventional warfare.

BRAVE NEW WAR

The Age of the Internet Ushers in the Age of the Merc

By Jim Morris

Recently LTC Robert K. Brown read Brave New War, by John Robb, a former Air Force officer with a Spec Ops background. Highly impressed, he asked correspondent Jim Morris, best known for his coverage of Vietnam and the guerrilla wars of the 80s, to interview Robb for an update on 21st Century guerrilla war.

SOF: Your book had the effect of making me rethink every thought I’ve had on the subject of guerrilla warfare since about 1962, and in that period about half my thoughts were on some aspect of guerrilla warfare.

But, as you have demonstrated, GW has changed a lot during that period, as has every other aspect of social organization.

A while back Ralph Peters did a piece on the new Guerrilla Warfare manual, in which he stated that everything about guerrilla warfare had changed. And, as your book so clearly demonstrates, it has. Open Source Warfare is vastly different than the War of National Liberation strategy we faced in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. But my thought when I read that piece was that all or most of these changes are in addition to, not in lieu of.

At the risk of tooting my own horn (a risk I frequently take) I’m going to quote a short passage from my book The Devil’s Secret Name, which was about guerrilla wars in the ’80s.

The Mao Model

“The basic tenets of Mao’s model for revolutionary warfare are easy to remember because they are organized in three sets of threes.

“There are three sine qua nons of guerrilla warfare. In all of recorded history no revolution, barring the occasional coup d’etat, has succeeded without them, and I know of none which has failed in which all three were present.

“The first is support of a significant percentage of the population. A majority is not necessary. Fifteen percent will do it. Of the majority it is only necessary that they be indifferent. It is also necessary that the guerrillas have secure areas from which to operate. A handy border to duck over, which government troops are forbidden to cross, is best, but an impenetrable swamp or mountain fastness will do in a pinch. The third necessary ingredient is help from a foreign government, which can provide arms, ammunition, medical supplies, money. Perhaps the most invaluable thing the outside force provides is legitimacy. Without it the guerrillas have the feeling that they are only bandits in an evil place.

“The revolutionaries themselves also fall into three distinct groups. First are the guerrillas, then the underground of spies and saboteurs in towns and cities, and then the auxiliaries, the aforementioned fifteen percent who provide the active support.

“Revolutions then proceed in three stages. The first is political organization. Second comes guerrilla warfare, small-stage raids and ambushes up to battalion size. Only in the third stage, when the guerrillas graduate into a regular conventional army, do they attempt to take and hold territory. By then the government troops are usually in rout, and territory falls easily into guerrilla hands.”

That’s the old model. In your paradigm I see two significant changes. First, the outside support does not have to come from a government, and second, the guerrillas usually do not attempt to graduate to stage three. Everything else above, it seems to me, still holds true. The guerrillas in Iraq hide in the warrens of the cities, rather than in a jungle, but they still need safe areas.

Many other things are true in the new paradigm as well. But I think that much of the old model still holds. Let’s find out how much you agree with where I’m coming from, and then we’ll go on.

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Brave New (Guerrilla) War

J.R. Excellent. Let’s break this down.

1) “The first is support of a significant percentage of the population. A majority is not necessary. Fifteen percent will do it. Of the majority it is only necessary that they be indifferent.”

Interesting twist here is that support can be shared across multiple groups. It might be better phrased with, “as long as the aggregate support for insurgents groups is a significant percentage of the population.” The smaller percentages can be pieced together.

It is also in the interest of the insurgency to create support for other oppositional groups (i.e. attacks on Shiites). The more divided in loyalties, the more participant groups.

2) “It is also necessary that the guerrillas have secure areas from which to operate. A handy border to duck over, which government troops are forbidden to cross, is best, but an impenetrable swamp or mountain fastness will do in a pinch.”

Much less true and increasingly urban. This is in part due to smaller group size, which means that “safe areas” may be much smaller and potentially only neighborhoods. They can come into being and flicker out very quickly (likely temporary zones of autonomy like Fallujah or Ramadi were at any given point).

3) The third necessary ingredient is help from a foreign government, which can provide arms, ammunition, medical supplies, money. Perhaps the most invaluable thing the outside force provides is legitimacy. Without it the guerrillas have the feeling that they are only bandits in an evil place.”

Not really true anymore. They can self-fund often via links to global black markets (which work two ways — inbound and outbound). If they do seek outside legitimacy it is often not with governments (i.e. with Saudi clerics for fatwas). It’s possible to gain merely by destroying the legitimacy of the government. Self-generated legitimacy often comes in the form of codes of conduct — Sharia law or gang law (ie. the PCC has a code that it uses in Sao Paulo). It doesn’t have to deliver services since it can parasitically provide them via the national infrastructure or via black markets.

4) “The revolutionaries themselves also fall into three distinct groups. First are the guerrillas, then the underground of spies and saboteurs in towns and cities, and then the auxiliaries, the aforementioned fifteen percent who provide the active support.”

In some cases. In other cases, the teams are assembled ad hoc via a financier.

“Revolutions then proceed in three stages. The first is political organization. Second comes guerrilla warfare, small-stage raids and ambushes up to battalion size. Only in the third stage, when the guerrillas graduate into a regular conventional army, do they attempt to take and hold territory. By then the government troops are usually in rout, and territory falls easily into guerrilla hands.”

This doesn’t apply anymore.

Bureaucracy is Obsolete

SOF: That was great. Okay, we’ve deconstructed the model that my generation of counter-insurgents learned and delineated what holds and what doesn’t.

Having observed some of the same phenomena you have codified I have come up with a few notions. One of those notions is that bureaucracy, at least bureaucracy as we know it, is obsolete.

In the 60s HUMMRO published a study which concluded that no one person could control the activities of more than five other people. That’s when they organized fire teams within the squad. Intuitively that principle is what led to the pyramidal organizational structure in the first place. But what seems to be true now is that (within the guerrillas) nobody controls anybody.

The individual and the pyramid have both been replaced by the flock, and, with everybody in communication with everybody else all the time, people take action through consensus, not by order. The top-down pyramid organizational structure is simply too slow and cumbersome to deal with that. And, that’s not just true in guerrilla warfare, but in all human interaction across the board.

Right away we run into the problem of what I call the “Iron Law of Bureaucracy”, which states that any governmental organization, no matter its ostensible purpose, exists primarily to enlarge its budget and personnel.

If we try to reconfigure to fight the current paradigm, we’re going to have to deal with a huge number of very pissed off and powerful people within the establishment. I’m pretty sure that DOD would react to a move to eliminate middle management by considering the attempt to fix the problem as a much more of a threat than the problem itself.

So, established society must find a way to determine what to abandon and what to adopt, and then find a way to actually do it. What are your ideas on this?

The Day of the Merc

J.R. You are exactly right. However, the solution is already in process. The security bureaucracy is slowly being outsourced in fits and starts (as are a growing number of nation-state functions). This trend line will continue.

Here’s some thinking about how this would work over the longer term: The reason we are outsourcing security is that one of the best ways to generate innovation is through a competitive marketplace. That said, the current approach of big lumbering companies and no-bid contracts is a failure. We need to build a market-based security platform (standards, core services, etc.) that will allow us to get small competitive players innovating. Once that happens, you have to police the marketplace and set the standards high. This means tough rules.

Reward innovation and success lavishly. Punish failure harshly.

How we get from here to this future situation is tough to envision, but something like this is going to happen.

SOF: The forces arrayed against it are formidable. Having joined Special Forces when it was barely ten years old, a lot of examples of resistance to innovation come immediately to mind.

And it’s understandable why the military is a conservative institution. If you make a mistake somebody, usually a lot of somebodies, dies. If you make it in combat they die immediately, and if you make it in training they die later. But that burden is crushing, and it makes senior leaders very cautious.

So, let’s jump forward, past the obstacles, and assume we can do this under ideal conditions. How? If you were putting together a start-up company, how would you organize it? Who would you recruit, how would you train them? How would you employ them, and how would your command and control functions operate? What gear would you use, and how would you fight?

Oops, sorry. I just asked you to write another book, and cram it into about 1500 words. Hey, what are friends for?

J.R. Wow! First off, obviously this won’t work in conventional warfare. It only works in the relatively low intensity operations of guerrilla warfare and counter-terrorism.

How would I build a start-up in this space? Hey, I’m not sure I would do anything different than the guys at Blackwater are doing in terms of recruiting, equipment, and training. The question is whether a private firm can do counter-insurgency, intelligence production, or snatch and grabs in addition to personal/facility security guards. I think that there is ample evidence that they can. However, the more limited and defined the mission, the easier it is to judge the effectiveness of the effort within a marketplace framework. Broad contracts without measurable goals = SNAFU.

Granted, there have been some growing pains with the industry, but it will get better if the proper framework is put in place. You are exactly right, there is room for a book on how to run private military operations across a broad spectrum of situations.

Problem Areas

Here are some more problem areas:

The military contracting system doesn’t appear even close to putting a system together to manage this fast moving marketplace correctly. This is a huge problem and the answers are difficult to discern.

How do we reconcile private military forces with the US military in theater? How do they respond to the military chain of command. Again, not sure how to do this.

The legal frameworks that define the use of PMCs in a variety of circumstance are sketchy. They need to be clearly defined and abuses need to be prosecuted. We want these companies tied to us as tightly as possible.

SOF: Let me play for a minute with my own question, and then let’s hear what you have to say about that.

If this were my deal I’d want to get as many high-level operators as possible, Delta guys, SEAL Team 6 guys, SF Operators, but also anthropologists, language experts, intelligence experts. Somewhere in that lot would be a smart, aggressive, charismatic guy who could hold a team together, hopefully more than one such person. But it would be understood; he, or she, is a focal point, not a dictator.

I’d start with something like the Special Forces ODA and add and subtract as necessary. I’d go on the theory that sometimes they’d be in a direct action role and sometimes they’d build a local force.

Government might not be the best place to start. When business, big or otherwise gets that government isn’t doing them much good in this situation they may want to hire their own shooters.

Government won’t like that. Government likes to think it has a monopoly on defending its people, even when it can’t or won’t do it. Well, as you observed, government isn’t very effective in this situation. We may have to go extralegal. Been there, done that.

But let’s say we have the team, the money and the gear.

I’d target each team to a specific guerrilla entity. AQ is now too diffuse to even address, but most groups won’t be. So, there are 75 of them in Iraq. We put a team on each of them, and the understanding is that the team will not be micromanaged. There is no B team over three or four As. There is no C team over three or four Bs.

The company has a logistics set up, a personnel set up, possibly an intel set up, but if there is an operational staff it’s function is advisory, not supervisory. There is one supervisor, the guy who owns the outfit, and he is smart enough to hire guys who know what they are doing and leave them alone.

The team can operate together, in subgroups, or as individuals. They have infinite flexibility. They either succeed or they fail.

They stonewall the press, period.

J.R. This is taking me a little further along in my thinking than what I wrote in the book.

I like that solution. Small and relatively autonomous civilian teams with diverse skill sets and extensive experience, the object being to eliminate the target group as a threat.

Also, I suspect there would have to be some geographic specificity and lots of sharing of data so there aren’t any blue on blue issues. Geographical specificity would also allow measurement of success (through a reduction of violence and improvement in economic indicators) as opposed to body counts (prone to inflation). Improvement in services (particularly in urban environments) would also need to become a focus to slow group formation, so local recruitment would be key at some point.

Software

In terms of coordination, it would be necessary to slap together a rapidly evolving software platform to handle data/information/knowledge sharing. Probably could be built in six months. Each team would generate lots of innovation and this would be one of the better ways to share it.

It would also be important to get the generic US Army out of the patrol business and back on the bases, focused on critical infrastructure protection, or border security so they don’t get in the way of these fluid ops.

SOF: I definitely like everything you’ve said here. I should have mentioned the software. The only reason the guy in charge should not be a dictator is that everybody is in touch with everybody and the team is likely to move forward more by consensus than command.

It’s already that way on good teams. In 1964 I commanded a good team at Kham Duc, and in the 3 1/2 months I survived before being wounded I don’t think I gave anybody anything that could be construed as an order. We just talked over how we wanted things to go over meals, and that’s how it went. My job, as commander, was to set the tone and unravel snafus. With the internet on your side you can do that over a much wider geographical area.

Thanks very much for doing this. I hope it helps your sales, and that your book has the impact it should.

This is a Brave New War (World) indeed, the Age of the Merc. Please, Brer Bear, don’t throw me in the briar patch.

So, as they say, don’t be a stranger.

J.R. It’s been entirely my pleasure.
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Jim Morris is a longtime SOF correspondent and former Special Forces officer. His SOF memoir The Devil’s Secret Name, is in print from St. Martin’s, and his novel, Above and Beyond, is in print from realwarstories.com.

A huge thanks to Jim Morris and Robert K. Brown over at Soldier of Fortune as well as John Robb.  I highly recommend his book Brave New War, it was one of the few books I had to put down every so often because the content was blowing my mind!

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