Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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Weekend Reader: A U.S. Robotics Gap, a New COIN Debate, and a Global Spotlight on Nigeria’s Boko Haram

by Janine Davidson
May 9, 2014

drone aircraft carrier An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia, May 14, 2013. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)


As militaries gear up for a robotics arms race, the United States may well get left behind. This is the argument made by Michael C. Horowitz, an expert on military technological adoption, in the lead story for Foreign Policy magazine. Horowitz, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has literally written the book on the dynamics behind diffusion of military innovation. This same week, Shawn Brimley issued a warning against the Pentagon relegating drones to a “niche capability” and refusing to invest in advanced, carrier-based systems. This follows a February 2014 CSIS report that concluded, “With the effective 2014 end of the Afghanistan War, commitment within [Department of Defense] to explore the broader possibilities of unmanned systems is retreating.”

How can the military get ahead of this trend? It can start by not accidentally mailing its $350 thousand dollar drones to random college kids.

With release of new counterinsurgency manual, an intensifying debate over more than military just doctrine. The November release of Joint Publication 3-24 and impending publication of the updated Army/Marine Corps COIN field manual is set to spark renewed discussion about operational and strategic lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan—and how best to institutionalize them.  Critics like Bing West, writing in Small Wars Journal, demonstrate how this debate over tactical and operational COIN doctrine gets conflated with strategy and policy, and raise questions about the most likely types of future conflicts and whether the U.S. military should  conduct COIN at all.  West suggests the manuals “ignore reality” and concludes, “The COIN Pub does not suggest a better way the next time; it doubles down on what did not work for the past thirteen years.”

In contrast, Robert Cassidy offers a more tempered view and rightly differentiates tactics and methods from strategy: “There is indeed no such thing as ‘counterinsurgency strategy’ because counterinsurgency comprises the methods and approaches to render an insurgency ineffective within a larger strategy.”  The same might be said about policy, but discussions about policy are also inappropriate in a military doctrinal manual.  Still, Cassidy offers his own critiques to balance the praise, noting that the manual is too long (at 200 pages!), too filled with platitudes, but light-years ahead of where the United States stood in 2001.  Indeed, learning, not ignoring this experience, is the point.

Following social media campaign, a global spotlight on Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency. The April 14 abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamic militants of Boko Haram has now received worldwide attention thanks to a grassroots Twitter campaign. Boko Haram has terrorized Nigeria for the past four years (as this in depth profile reveals)—but this level of attention is new. Although the United States has vowed to dispatch military advisers, many aspects of a potential operation remain in doubt. Elsewhere, a young Nigerian woman—now a student in the West—recalls what it was like to grow up in Boko Haram’s shadow.

Russia’s schizophrenic military behavior continues. Putin claims that his forces are withdrawing; NATO makes it clear that this is not the case. Russia responds with a massive drill involving both conventional and nuclear forces:

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