The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

The Use of Force in Urban COIN –Conclusions from the British Experience in Northern Ireland

A major lesson to be learned for the British experience in Northern Ireland is regarding the use of force. During the second phase of British operations in NI the British military strategy was a symmetric approach. The PIRA used force (bombings, assassinations, sniper attacks etc.) and the UK forces responded with increased overt security operations (raids, check points, patrols, arrests and detention etc.). British operations were focused on metrics which measured the military capabilities of the PIRA. Though not unimportant, this was not the center of gravity of the of the PIRA. The center of gravity of the PIRA was the support of the Catholic population of NI.

PIRA attacks against British targets rarely garnered popular support from the Catholic population (A). However, overt British security operations against the PIRA elicited great popular sympathy for the PIRA in the Catholic population (B). Over time, this gradually built up significant sustained support for the insurgency and provided a friendly population that reliably provided recruits and resources. This cycle could only be broken by systematically not responding to attacks with overt security operations. Instead, the response had to be covert –precisely targeted with little or no public signature. In addition, a very thorough information response had to be orchestrated. This response emphasized the illegality and immorality of the attack and labeled the insurgents as terrorists (C). This type of response decreases public support for the insurgency. Over time this strategy gradually weaned the population from supporting the insurgents. It also had the effect of greatly increasing the HUMINT provided by the population to the security forces (D).

The British security forces began to recognize this dynamic in the late 1980s. By the early 1990s a change in British strategy began to have effects on the situation in NI. By the middle 1990s Sinn Fein, the political arm of the PIRA, began to push for a change in strategy. The PIRA recognized that armed struggle was causing them to lose the support of the population and therefore it was imperative that they change their strategy to one of negotiation while they still retained significant popular support. Hence the negotiated cease-fire between the opposing factions in NI and the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

Another aspect of COIN operations illustrated by the history of the NI “troubles” is the definition of victory. Given that the current situation appears to be proceding to a democrat solution, who won? Did the PIRA and Sinn Fein achieve their objective of creating a means of uniting Ireland (through democracy), or did the British government win because violence has ended and democratic process are dominant?

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March 28, 2011 - Posted by | COIN, H300, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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