The Myth of Force Ratios as core to COIN

Randomly-selected COIN-themed header pic

“The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it. Benjamin Disraeli”  

This little gem was the random quote that WordPress threw up when I published the item on Definitions in COIN and never were truer words spoken – if all we get from the FM 3-24 revision project is a better understanding of the irregular environment (of which COIN is a subset), then it will have been a valuable and useful activity to have participated in…

Today we discuss the second issue paper produced as part of the project…IP2 Force Ratios…This topic really narks me as the presentation of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo (yes, that is a doctrinal term!!) as supportable fact…as you read on, you’ll probably get the impression that I’m not a big supporter of this concept…my comments are in two parts: the first refers to related questions in the original FM 3-24 Revision Questionnaire the responses to which lead to the three issues papers, the second addresses the content of IP2 itself…

Part 1 – Answers to initial review questions

The ratio of counterinsurgents to the population is one of the more oft-cited portions of the current FM. A study by the Institute for Defense Analysis concludes that twenty counterinsurgents for every 1000 residents in the area of operations leads to a 54% probability of success. If, however, the density increases to 40 for every 1000, the probability increases to 83%. Another study by the Harvard Kennedy School,  however, concluded that increases from 5 to 80 troops per 1,000 inhabitants caused the probability of success to increase by less that fifteen percentage points. Most studies caveat 2 results by stating that no level of force density will guarantee success. Based upon these studies and any others of which you might be aware, how should force ratios in the FM be adjusted?

The ratio model is an over-simplistic take on a very complex environment, driven by those seeking a checklist/template solution to COIN/IW. Even if it could be proven that  there is an optimal ratio of counterinsurgents to residents, we would then have to further define structural ratios within ‘counterinsurgents’, even first define what the optimal counterinsurgent is: in Baghdad 2005, the optimal counterinsurgent may be a heavily armed and supported combat soldier, whereas in Bamiyan 2005, it might be a CIMIC specialist. In most COIN/IW circumstances, the wrong type of force could be as damaging to the campaign as too little of the right kind of force.

The force ratio model does also not consider that the probability of success may also decline if the counterinsurgent/resident ratio is too high. The wrong sort of force or wrong ratio for any given COIN environment stands to contribute to creation of Kilcullen’s accidental guerrillas – while the book may have drawn some somewhat dubious conclusions, the concept of the accidental guerrilla is sound.

Should force ratios even be addressed in the FM? 

The force ratio discussion in the FM might be more useful in offering considerations for the internal force structure ratio for a given environment. Either way, the content should emphasise that there is no templated or generic optimal force ratio.

The current FM quotes Galula who posited “that revolutionary war was 80 per cent political action and only 20 per cent military.” The sentence that follows caveats that remark. Does the 80/20 ratio have any historical validity, other than being cited as noted?

As above, defining any ratio is only likely to do more harm than could and will encourage a template/checklist approach to COIN. Of greater importance and relevance is what might comprise, against a given COIN/IW environment the specific political/OGA/NGO and military components of the COIN force.

The key lesson to be derived from the Galula quote is that a successful COIN campaign requires a blend of military and other capabilities. DIME (diplomatic, informational, military, economic) and JIM (joint, inter-agency, multi-national) are commonly accepted constructs for effective campaigning and it is well accepted that there are few if any contingencies that might be addressed by only one branch of the service or by the military in isolation from other elements of national power.

If not, should there be any reference to a political/military percentage in counterinsurgency warfare?

Other than to re-emphasise that long term success requires more than a military solution, probably not: introducing any specific metrics into a publication at this level leads to the template/checklist mindset. The bottom line must remain that each COIN/IW scenario must be considered on its own merits.

One way of leading to acceptance and understanding of this might be to retitle the publication to “The Military Contribution to Counterinsurgency” – this would make it clear from the get-go that there are other aspects than purely military to this form of conflict.

Part 2 – Issues arising from IP2

Recommendation 1. The fact that the force ratio theory was mentioned in the 2006 version of FM 3-24, a publication drafted in some urgency in response to an operational crisis, is not sufficient reason to automatically include it in the updated FM. It is a common occurrence for doctrine developed against operational urgency to be substantially revised on first or subsequent revision. In the Australian Army doctrine development model, doctrine specifically identified as ‘developing’ is meant to be reviewed after twelve months and there is often substantial difference between the initial ‘developing’ version and the more enduring developed version. ‘We’ve always done it’ (in this case only since 2006) is more akin to dogma than doctrine.

The new FM 3-24 not only could work around the perceived constraint in recommendation 1 but it should and this can be achieved by simply noting the lack of any substantive evidence supporting either general forces to population or to insurgent ratios

Recommendation 2. The logic in this recommendation applies equally to identifying members of the population – it is a fair assumption that not all insurgents will be recorded members of a region’s population i.e. that they have deployed into that region because it offers some specific advantage or attraction from an insurgent perspective. Ergo, not all insurgents are locals.

The same logic also applies to determining optimum force ratios within the counterinsurgent forces – as it is often difficult to identify at any one point which is the most effective force structure for a given scenario, the usefulness of any discussion on force ratios, other than to discount the force ratio as a viable counterinsurgency metric or approach, is moot.

Recommendation 3. The same issues mentioned above under recommendation 2 apply to recommendation 3. That only the latest study of insurgency found a correlation between the number of counterinsurgents to population indicates that this theory is still unproven. Neither recommendation takes into account the physical geography or size of the area of operations which may offer a range of advantages or constraints to both insurgents and their adversaries.

Recommendation 4. If this recommendation is implemented, the publication must offer clear guidance on the considerations for determining the optimum force size and structure for any given counterinsurgency environment; and also for determining when that ratio may requirement adjustment up or down. Considering the example given involving host nation security forces, it should alos be considered that the state of those forces will also be a modifier on the optimum force ration e.g. if the host nation forces are ineffective and/or possibly corrupt, then this, regardless of the population size, may modify the counterinsurgency force to population ratio up. Conversely if the host nation forces in a given area are quite effective this may modify that figure down.

Some guidance on the granularity of the force ratio must also be given if these recommendations are adopted i.e. does the force ratio apply across the whole operating environment, across individual AOs or units, or across just the most contested areas?

Recommendation 5.  The proposed paragraph 1-67 promotes the employment of what remains an unproven theory that simply has too many variables to add value. The proposed paragraph 1-68 on its own provides adequate guidance on force ratios in counterinsurgency. Notably it offers no guidance as to the ‘optimum’ force ratio and leaves this to be determined by a robust planning/campaign design process which is where it should lie.

Bottom line: there is no templated shake’n’bake solution to force structures for COIN – each force must be generated against the specific environment that it is going to operate in….there is no substitute for victory thinking….

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Force Ratios as core to COIN

  1. Pingback: COIN questions | Travels with Shiloh

  2. Just a thought on force ratios (a theory still unproven)…the current ration of police officers to population in 2014 (last available data) was 515:1; in the UK, about 411:1 and in Australia, 431:1. to put that into perspective against the theoretical force ratios above, a ration of 20 counterinsurgents for every 1000 residents would be 50:1, or 10 times the ratio for conventional policing; 40/1000 would be 25:1, or 20 times the policing ratio.


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