Center for Strategic Communication

Andrew Davies at the Australian
Strategic Policy Institute recently highlighted a fascinating work taking the long view of weapons
technology development
The argument essentially goes that, as weapon power has increased exponentially
in past millennia, so too has the density of combatants in the field appeared
to decrease substantially. The relationship here is obvious, but also obviously
not one-sided. The increased lethality of weapons raises the risk of
concentrated formations, but additionally, technological advances in logistics,
battlefield mobility and communications enable more dispersed formations as

Take, for example, this report from the
Colombian think-tank CNAI

(Esp.), which, among many, many other things, explains the shift in FARC
tactics in response to Colombia’s use of light attack aircraft such as A-37s
and Super Tucanos. FARC, for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, was able
to operate in quasi-conventional formations and challenge Colombian forces for
territorial supremacy in a number of provinces, as well as to construct large
encampments. In certain terrain environments, the Colombian military was long
impaired in bringing indirect fires to bear against FARC concentrations.

Contrary to the caricature of irregular war
and COIN that rejects a role for heavy weapons and airpower, Colombia has not
only exploited airpower quite effectively in destroying FARC force
concentrations, but also made significant gains in putting it towards campaigns
of high-value targeting, including (across borders when necessary). FARC,
consequently, was forced to re-disperse its forces and adopt a series of newer
techniques, tactics, and procedures in order to mitigate its vulnerability to Colombian
fires. This all came at relatively insignificant political cost (perhaps
excepting the 2008 Andean crisis), as Colombian public opinion appears to
largely support or at least accept Colombia’s aerial campaign, though there is
much more criticism of Colombia’s use of proxy forces and ambiguous ties with
paramilitaries, or the human rights conduct of Colombian ground troops and
intelligence services.

The pattern of counteracting concentrated
firepower with forms of dispersal, then, demonstrates a significant degree of
continuity between regular and irregular wars. In Kosovo and Iraq, target
governments responded to air power by dispersing and camouflaging their forces
to wage a protracted defense against Western military might. The response of
Serbian Integrated Air Defense System to American air power was in many ways
similar to FARC’s – the dispersal of forces, the decreased reliance on fixed
rather than mobile combat assets, and a focus on attrition and harassment
rather than outright contestation of the battlespace.

In irregular war, the “political” aspects of
the war appear more salient because, in addition to geographic dispersal of the
battlefield, there is also a social dispersal by the irregular force by
adopting ruses and perfidy to disrupt the enemy’s ability to present
concentrated targets. This includes not simply the disguising of combatants as
noncombatants, but the integration of noncombatants more directly into
logistical and other supporting functions – using unarmed noncombatants to courier
information, provide intelligence, transport and procure supplies, et cetera.
For countries obeying modern laws of armed conflict and especially those with
modern liberal norms, dealing with that kind of dispersal requires non-military
means by virtue of the counterinsurgent forces’ own political standards. The
Lieber Code and other customary laws of war which sanctioned summary executions
and reprisal measures through a wide variety of means and a wide spectrum of
persons and properties, were ultimately political measures rather than
reflections of the nature of the conflict per se.

Nevertheless, regularized or conventional
forces frequently blurred these arbitrary lines in the past as counteractions
to hostile combat power. Sherman and Sheridan were contributors to the American
traditions of total conventional war and counterinsurgency both. That the
application of massive conventional force to problems of insurgency does not
simply reflect arbitrary political decisions, but also the military circumstances
that limit the overwhelming application of superior firepower generally. The
most powerful fires are not always the easiest to bring to bear, if geography,
intelligence, and the logistical tail do not permit it easy introduction to the
theater or a leading role in its operations. The sort of limitations that
initially prevented Colombia from making good use of fires in its
counterinsurgency operations also occur in conventional battlefields, albeit
under different circumstances, and the response of dispersal will continue to
frustrate firepower. The dispersal of a combatant in response to superior
firepower can involve a transmutation in organizational form is a reminder
that, in part, the configuration of a foe is, ultimately, a strategic choice bound
by capability, rather than essence.