What Does “Small Footprint” Really Mean?

March 13, 2014

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There will be no more large-scale American counterinsurgency operations. At least, that’s what the Obama administration’s Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) of 2012 anticipates. While it maintains an existing emphasis on countering irregular threats and conserving hard-won skill sets, the DSG articulates a desire to do so not through large-scale counterinsurgency, but by maintaining a persistent, forward presence around the world and leveraging that presence to deter potential adversaries, respond to crises, and build the capacity of partner nations to provide for their own security. Specifically regarding the latter, the document states,

Across the globe we will seek to be the security partner of choice, pursuing new partnerships with a growing number of nations – including those in Africa and Latin America – whose interests and viewpoints are merging into a common vision of freedom, stability, and prosperity. Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives… [Emphasis in the original]

The “small-footprint approach” is a lynchpin of the DSG, and has led to a number of initiatives within the military services, such as the Marine Corps’ establishment of several Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces (SPMAGTFs) focused on Africa or the U.S. Army’s Regionally Aligned Brigades (RABs). Yet, the discussion of the implications of the emphasis on small footprint for U.S. foreign policy, and for the U.S. military, has only just begun.

When thinking about what “small-footprint” approaches might mean for the U.S. going forward, an immediate question that arises is: What do we mean by “small”? The DSG is not explicit on this point, but taking its preference against large-scale stability operations as a guidepost, it is reasonable to conclude that small means force sizes no larger than a few tens of thousands, the smaller the better.  So, what are the implications for U.S. foreign policy of a self-imposed limitation on the magnitude of our approach to international security and stability problems?

One is the increased emphasis that small-footprint approaches place on the non-military arms of U.S. power. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military’s large presence combined with its vast resources enabled it to engage in activities that are typically conducted by other government agencies. The reduction in size of the military’s engagements going forward will require greater coordination and cooperation between the military and other agencies to accomplish U.S. foreign policy goals. Not surprisingly, previous examples of how this approach has succeeded come from areas of the world in which the United States has invested only sparse resources over the past decade. The Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South) and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) are recognized cases of what can be accomplished with a small military footprint and close cooperation with other governmental agencies (along with the host countries and other local actors). In Robert Gates’ memoir, he bemoans the “militarization” of U.S. foreign policy that has taken place over the past several decades. An increased emphasis on small-footprint approaches worldwide has the potential to reverse that trend.

The reduction in size of U.S. military interventions will also likely increase our coordination with, and reliance on, coalitions and allies. It may also mean that the United States is not always in the lead when it comes to preventing or responding to crises. An example is the French response in Mali over the course of the past year. The United States had been involved in training Malian military forces in recent years, as had the French; yet, when civil war broke out in that country, it was the French who took the lead in assisting Malian authorities in putting down the terrorist and insurgent threat—with logistical support from the U.S. in the form of strategic lift of French troops and supplies. The reduction in size and scope of U.S. military approaches to instability is similarly likely to lead to greater coordination and cooperation with international partners (to include non-governmental organizations), and other bodies such as regional security fora.

A more significant impact of the emphasis on small-footprint approaches is, simply, the limitations it places on our ability to act decisively across the range of threats to international stability. By directing that military services no longer be sized to conduct large-scale stability operations, the DSG effectively limits the options for U.S. policymakers in the future. While some would argue that the military’s size and capability for stability operations could be regenerated if the need arose, our experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam shows that this is an expensive proposition, both in blood and treasure.

Given a lack of ability to rapidly engage in large-scale stability operations in response to crises of magnitude, prevention of such crises becomes even more important. Priority is given to prevention of state failure, civil wars, ethnic conflicts, and other unstable outcomes, along with the ways and means necessary to support prevention goals. The “ways” include building the capacity of institutions in weak states, engaging in diplomacy and development at local levels, countering corruption, and ensuring that judicial structures are functional and responsive. The “means” include military and civilian advisors in security and non-security sectors, development and other financial assistance, and myriad other programs that are within the U.S. government’s toolkit for supporting developing states. While these activities and programs are less sexy than the high-tech programs that the military traditionally embraces, in an era of small-footprint approaches, the “ounce of prevention” they represent is truly worth the “pound of cure” that are the high-dollar programs in the defense budget.

More narrowly, when it comes to counterterrorism, two additional points are worth making about the impact of small-footprint approaches.

The first point is on the increased use of drones. To some, drones have become a panacea for counterterrorism because they minimize our footprint on the ground and because they are purportedly very precise when it comes to targeting our enemies. While the former is true, there is ample evidence to suggest the latter may not be as true as many would like to think. The recent example of a drone strike on a wedding party in Yemen that killed tens of individuals—whose status as members of al Qaeda or as unaffiliated civilians remains in question—is but one of many. Whether drones are a counterterrorism “solution” or simply a low-cost, small-footprint means of “managing the problem” remains a point for debate.

The second point focuses on an increased reliance on special operations, covert, and clandestine forces. While the DSG does not state it as such, a parallel goal to minimizing the size of our military operations is minimizing the visibility of our actions. As David Kilcullen and others have pointed out, the presence of U.S. and other Western military forces in many countries serves as a polarizing magnet—often times attracting people that we don’t want to engage (e.g., violent extremists) while repelling those we do (e.g., local authorities and non-governmental organizations). Thus, the United States is likely to increasingly rely on its low-visibility forces to serve as a barometer for terrorist activity, and for instability more generally. Additionally, approaches that were more heavily relied on in past decades, such as the use of proxy forces and unconventional warfare, may come back into vogue.

Taking these observations more broadly, the United States will not have the ability in the near- to mid-term to effectively conduct large-scale stability operations on any kind of rapid timescale. As such, it will be more heavily reliant on prevention and early detection of instability and crisis—which in turn require access to the areas in which instability or crises might develop. Access to those areas will often be contingent upon trust—of host nation and local governments, of foreign security and diplomatic personnel, and of local populations. Admiral William McRaven is fond of saying that “trust cannot be surged,” and he is right. Building the requisite level of trust to allow for effective preventive actions and early warning of instability will require sustained, persistent engagement over time—by our diplomats, by our low-visibility forces, and by our military, though at a much reduced scale.

Perhaps the ultimate implication of an emphasis on small-footprint approaches is the recognition that we will not be “solving” problems of instability or “defeating” terrorist organizations on the timescales that we have become accustomed to thinking about. Rather, an emphasis on small-footprint approaches will require us to take a longer view of international security and stability problems, and a more selective view of the role we play in alleviating those problems. In an age of short-term goals and metrics and even shorter public and political attention spans, this might be easier said than done. Yet, according to the DSG, such is the future of U.S. foreign policy.


Dr. Jonathan Schroden, Director of the Center for Stability and Development, CNA Corporation.


Photo credit: US Army Africa

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5 thoughts on “What Does “Small Footprint” Really Mean?

  1. The current trend to RIF the military in the hope what’s left can provide a nucleus around which to expand in times of large-scale conflicts is indeed expensive and the reduced attention spans of both public and politicians a big concern.
    What is undeniable is that superpowers (at least the U.S.) tend to get judged hypocritically by the world at large and this in turn causes politicians to send in troops with insufficient numbers and equipment for the task. This plays into the hands of insurgents, who take a page out of NVA’s play book by ambushing small units with superior numbers- and the body bags which follow create the impression in the U.S. that the war’s going badly.
    It seems to me the problem is that U.S. is currently targeted by third parties (Iran and China) who support insurgencies with the aim of forcing it to withdraw from current areas of strategic interest, and if that’s the case, then a so-called “leaner, meaner military” might be a bad idea with deleterious effects on U.S. spheres of influence, general foreign policy and superpower status.

  2. Having worked in the U.S. Government and closely observed its military operations since 1962, I have no idea where Jonathan Schroden is coming from when he talks about the U.S. managing all instability in the world. We never did that. I have been tracking internal conflicts in the world since around 1989 — my list of countries is up around 55 (CAR bounced in and out of the list), and yet since the end of the Cold War (and only coincidentally with that event), the numbers of active internal conflicts have dropped dramatically, as endless studies show — though the troubles in the Arab world are new. The U.S. intervened with real fighting troops in only about 7 of those internal conflicts (peace in Africa was brought about mostly by UN troops). Only about 15-20 of the situations were of any strategic significance, i.e., sheltering terrorists, disruptive of global trade (tiny), or with really bad spillover. And the main strategic point is that hardly any were a threat to the United States’ national security itself, i.e., the defense of America. The U.S. has never tried to manage all instability with its forces — and when it did massively — in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it has been entirely unsuccessful. And now, given America politics and economy, it is going to have at best a flat defense budget for years to come — Shroden’s desire to put “a few tens of thousands” of troops into something is a weird dream, not be realized. But it is also not necessary.

  3. The idea of a small footprint strategy is somewhat unusual and interesting.
    But how can a foreign military presence instill in a local population the sense of respect and loyalty towards its national institutions (judicial-military-customs-police) they often despised or discarded in some ways?
    Moreover, if a part of the population is “converted” by this foreign military, this part may be labelled as “collaborating” for the rest of the group, creating thus a gap which did not exist before.
    About the feasibility of the small footprint, geography poses a serious threat to it: particularly in large and mountainous countries such as African countries or mountainous ones in Central Asia, which would require a larger amount of troops and logistics.

  4. Good article.

    But I am curious.

    With all the hoopla, controversy, and debate surrounding hybrid, low-intensity, and asymmetric threats, what do you the author of this story want to know, preciously? Can you explain your interest in as few sentences as possible?

    And you the reader of this article saw the title, were interested in the topic, and proceeded to read it or review it. What do you want to know more about? Exactly?

    Please let me know: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/irregular-threats-mitigation-techniques-where-do-we-begin-campbell?trk=prof-post

    Joe C.