Insurgency, not War, Is China’s Most Likely Course of Action

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It felt suspiciously like the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and not just because of the smell of baking fuel under the relentless sun at Twentynine Palms. At the Marine Corps’ battalion-level integrated training exercise this past summer, I spent two weeks preparing for a mechanized desert war. When I participated in the same exercise in 2015, sure we spent time assaulting Soviet doctrinal positions — but also days in a mock village with role players, working through the unique challenges of counter-insurgency. This year, though, training was single-mindedly dedicated to conventional maneuver and combined arms — on a desert battlefield utterly devoid of simulated (or even notional) civilians. Mechanized warfare is back in — and low-intensity conflict, from grey-zone warfare to counter-insurgency, is going unmentioned and untrained.

Driven by the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon has seemingly shifted to single-mindedly preparing for a traditional, conventional great-power conflict it is unlikely to ever fight — while drastically decreasing training for the proxy wars, civil conflicts, and insurgencies it will inevitably be called upon to help win. It feels like some leaders in the Department of Defense see China’s rise as heralding an end to fighting messy little wars in far-flung corners of the world.  Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s actually time to re-open and engage with the Counterinsurgency Field Manual to prepare for a future characterized by sophisticated, well-funded, and strategically targeted insurgency campaigns against the United States, its allies, and security partners.



The problem is not that the defense strategy prioritizes interstate strategic competition over terrorism. It correctly identifies China as the overriding strategic challenge for American interests. The problem is that the Pentagon is failing to make the critical distinction between preparing to win in traditional, conventional great-power conflict versus in great power competition. Competing with China might include a great-power war in the Western Pacific — but it’s almost certainly going to consist of fighting proxy wars and insurgencies around the globe where American and Chinese interests clash.

High-Intensity Conventional Maneuver War Is Out

A great-power conflict today would involve high-intensity combat that would make World War II pale in comparison. Great-power competition, on the other hand, is likely to involve a new era of messy global entanglements, ranging from economic rivalry to intelligence operations to full-on proxy warfare and insurgency campaigns focused on the world’s most critical lines of communication. To borrow the language of my Marine instructors at The Basic School, great-power war is the enemy’s most dangerous course of action, but low-intensity conflict driven by great-power competition is the enemy’s most likely course of action. By single-mindedly preparing for the most dangerous course of action, especially in ways reliant on capabilities the nation simply no longer possesses, the Pentagon is failing to prepare for the wars America’s soldiers and marines are most likely to actually fight.

Even if a U.S.-China war did not lead directly to nuclear annihilation, it would be unimaginably destructive. The emergence of new technologies — ubiquitous surveillance, anti-access/area denial systems, hypersonics, and cyber — has dramatically enhanced the destructive power of even conventional warfare. In this environment, conventional weapons are approaching a level of destructiveness that triggers the logic of mutual assured destruction — to say nothing of the possibility of mutual assured economic destruction. Furthermore, in this environment, hypersonic missiles, infrastructure-targeting cyber capabilities, or militarized quantum-based AIs are more likely to be decisive than infantry divisions.

This doesn’t mean that the Pentagon should ignore the age-old wisdom — quoted in the defense strategy — that “the surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.” That’s why the United States is making massive investments in these domains, as well as emergent fields. Deterrence based on maintaining supremacy in the decisive forms of combat is existential — and should be prioritized appropriately.

At the same time, however, the Pentagon is actively reorienting large-scale conventional forces toward the deterrence mission (see: my summer exercise) — even though their very access to the conflict theater, let alone ability to be sustained once there — is severely curtailed. An incapable or incredible deterrent is worse than ineffective; it actually helps China by consuming precious resources preparing for a type of warfare that neither side has any intention of fighting.

Great Power Competition Will Trigger a Renewal of Low-Intensity Conflict

Despite the emergence of great-power competition, the United States will never fight a great-power war in the traditional large-scale maneuver force-on-force way. A direct confrontation at the high end triggers the mutual assured destruction constraint.  At the lower end, emerging technologies all but preclude the possibility of large conventional forces reaching the conflict theater, let alone achieving mass once there. These dynamics make direct force-on-force war unattractive to both parties.

Instead, a period of renewed great-power competition will be characterized by an increased incidence of civil war and insurgency. This pattern has historical antecedents going back to the Greeks. Thucydides described this dynamic in the Peloponnesian War, noting that the Athens-Sparta rivalry triggered civil wars across Greece since “with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties.” The Great Game period of Britain-Russia competition led primarily to proxy wars and intelligence intrigue, with the brief and indecisive exception of the Crimean War. The Cold War is the most recent and relevant example — and led to a period when great-power involvement led to the emergence of insurgency as the primary mode of intrastate war.

Great-power competition with China will likely follow this historical pattern, if it hasn’t begun to already. Patrick Cronin and Hunter Stires argue that China is already waging a “maritime insurgency” in the South China Sea. As China increases in relative strength and audacity, it will likely go beyond provocation to support proxies who directly threaten U.S. allies or partners, from the Philippines (aided by the Chinese-supplied 5G network) across all of Asia to the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. To frustrate U.S. goals, China might emulate Russia’s behavior in Syria (taking apparent delight in supporting anyone opposed to U.S. interests). While direct Chinese support for terrorists feels unlikely in the near-term, China could sell arms to separatist groups or bad actor regimes. In fact, China has a long history of doing exactly that — including supporting North Korea to keep the Kim regime on life support as a strategic buffer, supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge to balance Vietnam, and propping up the Burmese military junta.

The Pentagon Is Repeating its Post-Vietnam Abandonment of Low-Intensity Conflict

If the United States is going to remain a global power, capable of projecting power and protecting its worldwide interests, its military should be capable of fighting and winning this sort of competition. However, as it did after Vietnam, the Pentagon is again developing a deep-seated cultural aversion to counter-insurgency and, by extension, all low-intensity conflict. This aversion has reached a point where two active-duty Army officers recently wrote, “counterinsurgency isn’t dead no matter how much the U.S. military may want it to be.”

As a result, today the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are not preparing most soldiers and marines to adapt to low-intensity challenges. Instead, they appear to be prioritizing a troubling paradigm for great-power conflict that involves large-scale, concentrated, conventional operations that ignore the modern world’s ubiquitous surveillance systems, not to mention nuclear weapons, while simultaneously turning their backs on what low-intensity conflict competency we have been able to buy dearly over the past 18 years.

Rather than take seriously the National Security Strategy’s guidance that U.S. security interests require “strengthening states where state weaknesses or failure would magnify threats to the American homeland,” the Pentagon appears to want to just duck the problem altogether. The National Defense Strategy conceives of the Pentagon’s role as “prioritiz[ing] requests for U.S. military equipment sales, accelerating foreign partner modernization and ability to integrate with U.S. forces.” By explicitly focusing on “train[ing] to high-end combat missions in our alliance, bilateral, and multinational exercises,” the defense strategy seems to sidestep the threat posed by state weakness or failure. Countries characterized by state weakness or facing the risk of failure almost by definition do not field militaries capable of training to integrate with the United States on high-end combat missions. Investing in the NATO partners and major treaty allies who can fight with us in high-end combat is important — but shouldn’t be confused with working to strengthen weak and at-risk partners.

The de-prioritization of stability operations is further reflected in the evolution of the Pentagon’s implementing directive on the topic. The 2009 version of the Directive 3000.05 governing stability operations described stabilization as a “core U.S. military mission that the Department of Defense shall be prepared to conduct with proficiency equivalent to combat operations.” The 2018 update is silent on stabilization’s appropriate priority — if any — except to emphasize the Pentagon’s “supporting” (rather than lead) role. While civilian leadership is essential, this language effectively provides top cover for the military to ignore stabilization. This de-prioritization occurred despite the conclusion of a RAND study, commissioned by the Pentagon to inform the new guidance, that “the U.S. government must retain, recreate, or improve its ability to participate in stabilization.”

The services have fallen in line with the department’s implied priorities. RAND reported that, as of 2016, the Army’s premier Joint Readiness Training Center exercises featured “no activities in any of the stability functions.” The Army’s new, dedicated advisory Security Force Assistance Brigades comprise six understrength battalions dedicated to filling an economy-of-force mission for “big Army.” Even their proponents acknowledge their primary purpose is to “free” the Army’s 56 conventional brigade combat teams “to focus on getting back to major combat operations as these tailored brigades partnered with conventional allied forces on everything from casualty care to logistics and basic patrolling.”

The Marine Corps — the proud inheritors of a long tradition of excellence in low-intensity conflict, from the Banana Wars to the Combined Action Platoons — has instead in the new Commandant’s Planning Guidance dedicated itself to becoming a force “purpose-built to facilitate sea denial and assured access in support of the fleets” that very explicitly is a “single purpose-built future force” that accepts risk rather than “hedg[ing] or balanc[ing] our investments to account for those [other] contingencies.”

Perhaps the essential tasks described above are implied within the commandant’s new guidance. If they are, how the Corps appears to be going about implementing the guidance — large-scale exercises in the desert reminiscent of Desert Storm — suggests the force has thus far failed to properly interpret them. In fact, a group of Marine authors made precisely this point in a recent War on the Rocks article, stating:

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance has the potential to radically transform the Marine Corps into a naval expeditionary force that is prepared to operate inside actively-contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations… Strangely absent from this new guidance, however, is a critical aspect of the Marine Corps – security cooperation and foreign security force advising.

Friends now serving as marine instructors have confirmed that the once best-in-class small wars training has been completely excised from the service’s culminating battalion-level integrated training exercise. On the advisory side, the Corps’ counterparts to the Army Security Force Assistance Brigades only constitute two reserve companies — hardly a matched capability for the Corps’ Indo-Pacific mission set.

There’s Nothing Impossible about Fighting Insurgencies

The United States has before and can again achieve its strategic aims in these types of conflicts. While some counter-insurgency fights may well be unwinnable, the same is equally true of some conventional wars. That doesn’t and shouldn’t stop the U.S. military from preparing for them, especially when its pacing threat is committed to fighting in this way. China has already demonstrated an adept capacity to asymmetrically offset American military strength. If the U.S. military declares a type of war unwinnable and chooses not to train for it, China will continue to take note — and present the United States with exactly these sorts of fights.

Despite the trauma of Vietnam, the U.S. historical record in low-intensity conflict belies the Pentagon’s aversion. A 2010 RAND study on 89 historical insurgencies reported that governments are slightly more likely to win than insurgents. In recent U.S. history, the United States has advised, supported, and conducted successful low-intensity campaigns, from the Philippines in the 1950s, to El Salvador in the late 1970s through early 1990s, to Afghanistan in the 1980s, and even the surge in Iraq in the mid-2000s.

Organize and Prepare for the Low-Intensity Threat

Now as then, however, winning in these messy low-intensity conflicts requires a balanced rather than single-minded strategy. The U.S. military can’t only invest in the high-end capabilities necessary to deter high-intensity great-power conflict. It has to simultaneously prepare its military — in conjunction with civilian agencies — to win on the difficult, complex battlefields characteristic of the low-intensity conflicts, proxy wars, and insurgencies to which they are most likely to deploy.

The language we use is part of the problem. Describing the conflicts as high- and low-intensity seemingly implies that low-intensity conflict is a lesser included or
“easier” version of high-intensity conflict. This myth is persistent and pernicious — the Counterinsurgency Field Manual notes that Western armies are prone to “falsely believe that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, unconventional ones.” They’re not. On the contrary, the manual notes, capabilities for operational maneuver and massive firepower essential to “conventional success … may be of limited utility or even counterproductive in COIN operations.”

Striking the appropriate balance will require the Pentagon to organize, devote resources and train to both distinct mission sets simultaneously. This effort will be an uphill battle because, as the field manual notes, the U.S. military has a strong “institutional inclination to wage conventional war against insurgents.” That said, over the past 18 years, the Army and Marine Corps have learned how to eat soup with a knife in counter-insurgencies. The Counterinsurgency Field Manual and the Small Wars Manual are evidence that experience’s costly lessons can be translated into doctrine. This doctrine can be and has been translated into training, whether for conventional forces in massive purpose-built “cities” in the California desert or for the special forces at Robin Sage at the JFK Special Warfare School. It’s possible for the Pentagon to retain and grow the capability to win these future low-intensity wars — but it takes concerted effort and institutional prioritization.

There are real organizational and fiscal hurdles to training simultaneously for both low- and high-intensity conflict. On the organizational side, investments in the low-intensity combat multipliers of training, people, and soft skills do not create natural constituencies on the Hill the way large, expensive weapons systems do. Even more problematically, no service or servicemember wants to be relegated to the less-important fight (the Marine Corps was not thrilled at the Senate’s proposal in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act to dedicate the force to low-intensity conflict).

However, the organizational challenges are solvable. The Close Combat Lethality Task Force is an example of how the Pentagon can re-prioritize force lethality against the political clout of acquisitions-heavy programs. And if I’m right that low-intensity conflicts will be the most common form of actual combat, then the services, with appropriate branching and manning reforms, should have no problem getting their most promising officers to volunteer for dedicated units. The model ought to be Special Operations Command — which continues to attract the best talent despite its disproportional share of casualties and demanding operational tempo. Put simply, in the volunteer military today, the best people would rather deploy to operational missions than train to be a theoretical deterrent — as long as the military manning system can reward and retain them appropriately.

Within fiscal constraints, investments entail tradeoffs, and next-generation weapons are not cheap. But paying for hypersonics out of the infantry small-wars training budget is the wrong tradeoff. Next-generation weapon systems should be paid for with budgets redirected from known ineffective (if politically popular) weapons platforms. We can afford to maintain the small but crucial investments in the close combat units which do the vast majority of the fighting and dying in low-intensity combat.

It’s beyond both my expertise as a company-grade officer and the scope of this article to offer specific prescriptions for how we should train soldiers and marines to succeed on low-intensity battlefields. However, it may be helpful to offer some illustrations of possible approaches. Perhaps the Marine Corps’ preeminent exercise should evolve from focusing on battalion-level, combined-arms maneuver to emphasizing company- or even squad-sized units operating independently, embedded in partner or allied forces, operating in an environment where shaping loyalties and perception are as important as shaping fires. We might build simulated sprawling cities on San Clemente Island, encompassing both concentrated centers and urban shantytowns, to simulate littoral cities in the Indo-Pacific, and create scenarios in which the city, the sea supply routes, and the air are all contested by both insurgents and counter-insurgents alike.

Yet maybe the U.S. military should use this opportunity to be even more bold in rethinking its conception of training more broadly. It could break the paradigm in which training happens on hermetically sealed bases in the continental United States and deployment happens “over there.” Instead of building simulation villages in California and hiring role players, why not fly a close combat platoon — by itself — to the Philippines for a continuously tactical, two-month-long foreign internal defense exercise against simulated China-backed insurgents. While the enemy has to be simulated, nothing else need be. The platoon can partner with the actual allied forces they would support in a crisis, work with, in, and around actual foreign communities that could be threatened by China-backed insurgents, and work through the actual friction of joint operations, language, and culture. It would be difficult, and a break from established practice — but if the military cannot independently distribute squads, platoons, or companies for exercises, how can it credibly claim to employ them in a distributed fashion in combat?

The Next War Will Be Low-Intensity – And It’s One the U.S. Can Win

Si vis pacem, para bellum. The U.S. National Security Strategy aims at peace, and on America’s terms. The U.S. military should therefore prepare for all the wars threatening that peace.

Losing in a great-power high-intensity conflict (the enemy’s most dangerous course of action) is an existential threat for the nation. This is why the Pentagon maintains close to 7,000 nuclear weapons and is investing heavily in next-generation weapons, and is adapting doctrine and technology to credibly counter the pacing threat. These capabilities help deter the existential threats U.S. adversaries present.

At the same time, though, the Department of Defense needs to invest in solutions to counter what history suggests — and the current actions of China, Russia and Iran indicate — will be U.S. adversaries’ most likely courses of action. China, per the National Security Strategy, seeks “to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” If China pursues a rational strategy to achieve these ends, it will rely more on bullying, proxies, and insurgencies than on hypersonic or nuclear interchange.

That means the United States needs an Army and Marine Corps capable of countering China’s most likely actions. The combatant commanders need divisions — not just specialized units — capable of winning three-block wars, conducting foreign security force advising, and implementing stabilization operations. These capabilities should be forward-deployed to key areas of the Indo-Pacific (and elsewhere) to deter, prevent, and counter bullying, destabilizing proxy wars, and fait accompli strategies. The service chiefs need to ensure these units are trained to work with U.S. allies and partners to take the ground which will be decisive in the low-intensity wars to come — the human terrain which defines control in contested regions. Otherwise the United States is merely ceding the field — its allies and partners — to the depredations of its global rivals.

Low-intensity conflicts individually may not be nationally existential, but great-power competition is. Winning in the emerging great-power competition requires forces capable of protecting U.S. interests during the coming period of renewed low-intensity conflict. This means the Pentagon needs to prepare soldiers and marines to win low-intensity wars.



John Vrolyk is a Master of Public Affairs student at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and a reserve Marine infantry officer. His previous experience includes a fellowship as a military legislative aide during the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, deployments to Northern Syria and Australia, and three years advising large companies on mergers and acquisitions.

The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: DVIDS (photo by Lance Cpl. Shane T. Beaubien)