Economy Of Force

In Niger—and other African Countries, the United States Uses Smart Power

By —— Bio and Archives--October 24, 2017

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In Niger--and other African Countries, the United States Uses Smart Power
The recent deaths of 4 US Army Special Forces Soldiers in Niger have prompted questioning, some legitimate and some merely political posturing. Two articles, one in The American Conservative (What Are US forces Doing in Niger Anyway?) and the other in Politico (Niger Attack Fuels New Push for War Vote) ask two very cogent questions: “Why are we there?” and “What is Congress’ role?”

The purpose of this article isn’t to focus on the hypocrisy of these questions coming at this time. However, I would be remiss if I failed to point out that this particular mission originated under the previous administration. During Obama’s tenure, there appeared to be very little pushback (except perhaps from Rand Paul) about Congress’ role and authority to authorize foreign military adventures. Rather, the effort from Congress appeared to encourage such (I’m talking to you, Senator/Captain McCain).

What I’d like to do here is put our military efforts in Niger (and other locations in Africa) in their proper context and hopefully put to rest accusations of a nefarious, secretive plot to expand US combat operations worldwide. First of all, let’s begin with United States Army Special Forces, the “Green Berets,” the guys doing a lot of the heavy lifting out there. By the way, most of them don’t care for that appellation—“A Beret is a hat, not a Soldier.”

US Army Special Forces, SF for short, have 5 primary missions:

  1. Foreign Internal Defense (FID)
  2. Unconventional Warfare (UW)
  3. Direct Action (DA)
  4. Counter Terrorism (CT)
  5. Special Reconnaissance (SR)

The last three are what most Americans (through movies, TV, and Tom Clancy novels) tend to be familiar with—Special Forces units blowing up the quintessential “critical bridge” (DA), taking out a known terrorist (CT), or locating hidden SCUD launchers for later destruction by our Air Force (SR).  Due to space considerations, the above is a highly simplified description—I hope my friends in the Special Forces community will forgive me in that regard.

The real “bread & butter” of Special Forces operations are the FID and UW missions. Foreign Internal Defense or FID (what is now going on in Niger and other parts of Africa) is our effort to support friendly governments without having to deploy massive amounts of conventional or “heavy” forces—Armor, Motorized Infantry & Artillery. Unconventional Warfare (UW) is the mirror image of FID, where SF elements help anti-government (guerrilla) forces overthrow a government hostile to the US, as we did to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The basic Special Forces unit, the “A” Detachment, is composed of 2 Officers and 10 Noncommissioned Officers. These highly skilled, trained, and motivated Soldiers are capable of organizing, equipping, training, and advising or directing indigenous forces up to battalion size. This is what is going on in Niger and other parts of Africa, in support of governments friendly to the US. Multiple “A” Teams, with their supporting headquarters, are assisting friendly governments in fighting ISIS, Al Qaida, and other terrorist organizations, but without the involvement (and cost) of major US Combat Forces. That’s the “what.”

Now to the “why.”  Why do we have Army Special Forces Soldiers tramping around Niger—and many other places in Africa? The answer to that comes from the US Military’s Principles of War, derived from principles promoted by 19th Century Prussian Strategist, Carl von Clausewitz. One of the most important of these, especially in these days of tight budgets and even tighter political constraints, is Economy Of Force.

The US Army Field Manual, FM 3.0 (Operations), defines and describes Economy of Force as the ability to:

“Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts. Economy of force is the reciprocal of mass. It requires accepting prudent risk in selected areas to achieve superiority—overwhelming effects—in the decisive operation. Economy of force involves the discriminating employment and distribution of forces. Commanders never leave any element without a purpose. When the time comes to execute, all elements should have tasks to perform.”



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Put another way, we can use small elements to “keep a lid” on terrorist operations in Africa, while our “heavy forces” are either engaged in Southwest Asia, performing deterrence missions in South Korea, or Refitting, Re-equipping & Training back in the US for whatever other contingencies that may pop up. Using these small elements of Special Forces to train, advise, and assist Nigeran and other forces belonging to US African Allies, we are also able to avoid much of the political, economic, and human costs associated with deploying Division-sized conventional forces. Understanding that the operational tempo of today’s military has stretched Soldiers (and Sailors, Marines & Airmen too), their families, and their equipment to the breaking point, this type of operation can help ameliorate some of that.

Ultimately, it’s generally better for US taxpayers, relatives of Soldiers, and the Soldiers themselves, to help an ally help himself than to do the work (and shed the blood) for him. That—is the application of—Smart Power.

Now comes the tough part—What is Congress’s role in all of this? That, my friends, is the subject of another article.

Mike Ford is a retired Infantry Colonel who has commanded at Detachment, Company, Battalion and Brigade levels. He has experience in US FID operations in support of Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Turkey.

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Mike Ford -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Mike Ford is a retired Infantry Colonel. He has served in Europe, Central America and in Southwest Asia, commanding at the Detachment, Company, Battalion and Brigade Levels.

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