The Role and Limitations of Technology in U.S. Counterinsurgency Warfare

  • Published

The Role and Limitations of Technology in U.S. Counterinsurgency Warfare, by Richard W. Rubright. Potomac Books, 2015, 282 pp.

Richard Rubright has mixed success in his attempt to reconcile US counterinsurgency strategy with rapidly changing technologies. In 2015 The Role and Limitations of Technology in U.S. Counterinsurgency Warfare joins a crowded literature.

Overall, the author’s core thesis is sound, as it falls in line with existing counterinsurgency literature. However, Rubright’s analytical approach includes an unclear strategic focus and poor use of historical examples. Still, the book achieves a consolidation of relevant literature through 2011 that may be useful for newcomers to research in this area of study.

The book fails to reach its goal to fill the specific gap of “an analysis of the appropriate role of technology and strategy” in 2015 (p. 5). There is a well-placed critique of 2011’s nascent literature; this, in part, spurs the author’s dissertation. However, the book is problematic because it does not recognize literature in the intervening four years between the dissertation defense and the book’s publication. A review of sources indicates only a handful of works cited after 2012, and, of these only one is consequential because it deals with development of body armor technologies. If the author seeks to fill a literature gap, the gap should exist around the time of publication. At the very least, in a preface or introduction, the author should acknowledge new literature during the lengthy period from initial review to publication. Though the work may not achieve its intended goal to fill gaps in existing literature, it supports extant counterinsurgency military strategies.

The work’s unifying theme is a nonbinding concept that Rubright refers to as operationally offensive and tactically defensive. The concept requires infantry units to facilitate the winning of hearts and minds while providing security to achieve this goal. Multiple infantry units move into an area as a part of an operational offensive then establish tactically defensive positions in key population centers. All other strategic lines of effort and technologies are meant to support the infantry. This is a seemingly sound concept. It is also in accordance with the metanarrative on counterinsurgency written by authors ranging from Sun Tzu to David Petraeus. However, Rubright fails to cement his analytical points because he does not clarify the type of strategy he seeks to analyze and uses poor historical examples that lean heavily on conventional warfare.

Generically, the book talks about counterinsurgency strategy, but a more nuanced explanation of strategy is appropriate to cage the reader’s mind to its analytical focus. By the end of the work, one is left confused as to whether Rubright seeks to cleanup military strategy and technology or grand strategy and technology; there is a difference. Rubright touches on subjects ranging from coalition warfare to managing public perceptions in the US homeland that are a part of grand strategy. On the other hand, he uses a variety of tactical and operational anecdotes to address military strategy. At times the switch between grand strategy and military strategy is dizzying. This unfocused strategic discussion hinders conveyance of the author’s worthy thesis. In addition to a meandering strategic discussion, Rubright’s choice of examples seems misplaced.

Half of the historical examples used to demonstrate his suggested counterinsurgency concept comes from conventional phases of major wars: the Battle of Gettysburg during the US Civil War, trench warfare during World War I, Dien Bien Phu during the War of Indochina, and the Battle of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War. Albeit illustrative of the operationally offensive, tactically defensive concept, they are less relevant examples of executing counterinsurgency strategy. The author does not exploit more useful historical examples which can be found in Algeria, Sri Lanka, East Africa, and the Levant.

Despite these shortcomings, Rubright captures many disparate concepts about counterinsurgency and technology in one volume. The concepts are not new, but his consolidation of the ideas is helpful, particularly to counterinsurgency newcomers. The book’s central thesis is hurt by an absence of literature references from 2011 to 2015, a waffling strategic focus, and misplaced historical examples. However, some readers will find his incremental consolidation of literature commendable. Novice researchers who focus on the interplay of counterinsurgency strategy and technology will also find this work useful. Conversely, the work does not achieve its intended goal to influence civilian and military leaders, nor does it enlighten seasoned researchers to any novel ideas.

Capt Jaylan M. Haley, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."