COIN and Hybrid War: The Demise of Armor?

A couple of inter-related items on the ongoing shifts in military doctrine and theories of war managed to jolt me out of a self-imposed blogging hiatus (needed to catch up on organizing upcoming feature issues).

The first thing that caught my eye was this post over at Information Dissemination on the U.S. Marine Corps’ experiment in company-size autonomous units. I’d noticed this back in December and wondered whether it might not prove an even more lasting impact of our current wars on the U.S. military than the COIN doctrine being applied to fight them. The network of autonomous small units suggested by the Marine experiment follows logically from the emphasis that COIN places on low-intensity combat after the initial battle. But the Marine Corps experiment is being applied to “over the horizon” landing teams, which shows how the concept is not necessarily tethered to the conditions that gave rise to it. As some of the comments to the ID post make clear, the shift is far from universally acclaimed.

Meanwhile, two other items serve as anecdotal illustrations of what I’ve previously flagged as another consequence of COIN-centric thinking, namely, the decline not so much of conventional warfare, as has often been posited, but of armor, in particular, as a central pillar of ground operations. According to Jean-Dominique Merchet, as part of a budget-induced reorganization of its armored regiments, the French army will be reducing some from four to three squadrons of AMX 10 RC light tanks. Meanwhile, Ajai Shukla reports that following successful tests against the Russian T-90, the Indian army will be increasing its orders of the indigenously produced Arjun main battle tank.

The contrast illustrates the kinds of environments in which tank commanders enjoy promising career perspectives. India and Pakistan seem like obvious bull markets, as does Russia. (Georgia, too, although the career perspective is somewhat mitigated by the less-promising outlook for life expectancy). But I’m not so sure the same holds for Western Europe or the U.S. Again, that’s not to say that we no longer need to prepare for conventional war with a nation-state, but rather that even in the conventional wars we’re most likely to fight, massive armored formations are unlikely to play a role.

But just as I was getting ready to pronounce the demise of armor, this brief and very readable RAND report (.pdf) on lessons learned from the 2006 Lebanon War and 2009 Gaza War suggests that armor will still have its role to play in the coming era of hybrid wars. The question the report left me with, though, is whether hybrid war wouldn’t be more accurately called “hype-bred war.” It’s true that Hezbollah punished the Israeli army, including its armored units, during the 2006 fighting, which according to the RAND authors led to a greater emphasis by the Israeli army on training for combined arms and high-intensity combat for the Gaza operation.

But how many paramilitary organizations worldwide currently enjoy the kind of support, training and terrain advantages, not to mention semi-state privileges, that Hezbollah does? Clearly, Hamas did not. And I’m skeptical that enough will in the future to warrant turning hybrid wars into a focus of training and preparedness. For all sorts of reasons, Hezbollah seems more like a boundary-blurring exception to the state vs. non-state actor continuum, rather than a model that can be easily reproduced elsewhere. So while it makes sense for the Israeli army to prepare for hybrid wars, I’m not sure Western militaries need be that concerned.