Innovation or Inertia?


IRG member Dr. David Ucko has an essay in the current edition of Orbis (Spring 2008, not yet online), the policy journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Entitled Innovation or Inertia: The U.S. Military and the Learning of Counterinsurgency, it provides an assessment of how well the US is adapting to the lessons learned from its recent counterinsurgency campaigns, and the extent to which necessary changes are being institutionalised.


Following its encounter with insurgent violence in Iraq, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has sought to improve the U.S. military’s ability to conduct counterinsurgency. This effort suggests a potential turning-point in the history of the U.S. military, which has traditionally devoted its attention and resources to ‘‘high-intensity’’ or ‘‘conventional’’ combat. Given this institutional culture, what are now the prospects of the U.S. military ‘learning counterinsurgency’? In many ways, the ongoing reorientation is promising and targeted, informed directly by the U.S. campaign in Iraq. At the same time, Pentagon priorities still reveal a remarkable resistance to change, and this in spite of the radically altered strategic environment of the War on Terror. Given this intransigence – and the eventual fallout from the troubled Iraq campaign – the ongoing learning of counterinsurgency might very well fail to produce the type of deep-rooted change needed to truly transform the U.S. military.

Frank Hoffman has written a review of the essay on the Small Wars Journal site, available here.

The full essay is accessible below:

Innovation or Inertia: The U.S. Military and the Learning of Counterinsurgency [PDF]


2 Responses to “Innovation or Inertia?”

  1. Stéphane T Says:

    Nice piece.. I’ve recently wrote something similar for the “revue française de sciences politiques” (even if they do not answer negatively, I think it will be discarded… COIN and Iraq War are taboo in French Academic life).
    Two comments:
    FIRST: it would have been great to explain why and how changes have occurred (but maybe it will be extensively dealt with in Dr UCKO’s next book on this subject?)
    SECOND: I disagree with the current narratives regarding “operational learning”. It is too simple a view to consider 2007 the first year of “true” COIN ops. COIN is a mission that lies between two poles (enemy-centric and population-centric). But EC and PC COIN are actually ideal types and do not provide any accurate depiction of COIN in itself. Counterinsurgent have to be able to revert from “coercion” to “mastering of violence” (and vice versa). For instance, if Fallujah was an EC op at the beginning, it turned to be a PC op very quickly. As I previoulsy posted on my blog, operational “adaptation and learning” occurred through non-linear phases and in a cycle (with “gap years” in 2004/2006 at the theater level because of the flawed assumptions that previous procedures were primary reasons for insurgency to emerge in march 2004).
    David UCKO wrote a really nice piece, despite this :)
    Stéphane TAILLAT

  2. Blackfoot 6 Says:

    From August of 2004 to Mar 05 2005, 2nd Battalion 24th Marine Regiment conducted an aggressive COIN Campaign in the Mahmudiyan, Lutafiyah, and Yusufiyah areas. We pushed out of a single battalion FOB in Mahmudiyah to Combat Outposts in Yusufiyah, Lutafiyah, and eventually Jurf As Sukhr. This established active engagement with the people, facilitated humint driven operations supported by ISR and SIGINT, partnered the unit with two IZ battalions and neutralized the insurgency in that AO by mid-January. This was briefed to the CDR, MNF-I and was a very high interest area for both MNC-I and MNF-W. It was also in direct contradiction to the theater guidance at the time of consolidating into large FOBs to support the transition to IZ security. As we pushed for expanding our efforts and improving the FOBs, the MNF logisitcs cell was fighting our requests based upon a theater “BRAC” plan that had FOB Mahmudiayh (aka St. Michel) closing during FY 06. Somebody forgot to tell the enemy that and 2/70 AR and 48th BCT (GA ARNG) later paid the price. 2/10 MTN later occupied the battle space and established a more credible security presence. The soldiers they lost at an attack on a check point occurred in almost the exact place where we had a platoon outpost attacked in November of 2004. No surprises there.

    The problem in transitioning to true-COIN between August of 2003 and January of 2007 was not a problem of competency. It was a problem of policy at the highest level. Our forces will execute the orders they are given. If the Jan 2007 strategy had been published in Aug of 2003 or at any other date then it would have been executed. Instead, units “commuted” back and forth to work from the FOBs and a few leaned forward in the foxhole despite a strategy that did not support those efforts.

    If GEN Casey failed in his mission then he would not be the Chief of Staff of the Army. The higher-level policy failed.

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