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Low Intensity Conflict: The United States And The Future
AUTHOR LCdr. Thomas Bjelica, Argentine Marine Corps
CSC 1990                              
SUBJECT AREA Strategic Issues
                    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
THESIS:  The United States will be involved directly or
indirectly in the future low intensity conflicts of the third
ISSUE:   The United States is the leader of the Western World
because is the most powerful member after the Second World
War.  This means a responsibility in maintaining the balance
of power and the Western values around the world.
         On the other hand, the main threats to achieve these
goals are the Soviet Union revolutionary strategy and the
political, social and economical low development of many of
the Southern Hemisphere countries.  This combination is the
source and the frame for solutions of different level of
         The most of these struggles are included under the
broad scope of the low intensity conflict definition.  Each
conflict must be analyzed taking in account several factors.
         The low intensity conflict is an old way of fighting.
The up date is the special environment of political, social
and psychological facts that influence the results of the
CONCLUSION:  Keys of success are to have in mind the
different values of other countries and to avoid the
temptation for immediate changed.
             The military solution has many lever of
intervention and must be used in mutual support of other
resources.  Coordination of efforts and single command
contribute to necessary unity of effort.  To commit American
forces would be the last solution.
                            LOW INTENSITY CONFLICT;
                       THE UNITED STATES AND THE FUTURE
THESIS STATEMENT: The United States must analyze each
conflict taking in account not only its feelings and points
of view.
                  To be successful in low intensity
conflicts require the simultaneous and combined commitment of
political and economical resources supported by military
force of different level during all the process.
I.   Post war era.
     A.  Balance of power.
     B.  Decolonization.
     C.  Western influence in the world.
     D.  Interest in the third southern hemisphere.
II.  The meaning of low intensity conflict.
     A.  The high intensity conflict.
     B.  The middle intensity conflict.
     C.  The low intensity conflict.
     D.  Factors to define the level of the conflict.
III. The United States, conflicts and the future.
     A.  Deterrence in the northern hemisphere.
     B.  Problems in the southern hemisphere.
     C.  Low intensity conflicts in the third world.
     D.  Manifest destiny of the powerful nations.
     E.  The interventionist dilemma.
IV.  Political and social environment of conflicts in the
third world.
     A.  Point of view of the northern countries.
     B.  The other face of the coin.
     C.  Solutions to promote changes.
V.   The economical problem
     A.  To different views on the same problem.
     B.  The economical tool.
VI.  The military solution.
     A.  Levels of intervention.
     B.  Patterns of violence.
     C.  Case for success.
The post war era.
                  After the victory against the Axis the
United States became the first power between all nations
in economical and military power and as a consequence got
strong political influence in the world.
                  Great Britain and France, the former more
powerful western countries, were exhausted because of the war
effort and they realize that American help was the key of
their triumph.
                  The Soviet Union couldn't win without
American aid, but their effort in war was vital to defeat the
German Army  with three tools, the terrain, the weather and
the Red Army. Thanks to this sacrifice it possible to open
the second front.
                  Political agreements gave the Soviets the
control of Central Europe and the United States held forward
positions in almost all places except those places under
communist occupa t ion.
                  The most powerful weapon ever known had
only one owner in that time.  During many years nobody could
match that strength in the same arena.
                  The colonialist European countries came
under the pressure of the United Nations  to grant freedom
and self determination to people who in  most cases helped
them to achieve the victory during the war.  The process of
descolonization began in 1946 in the most of the colonies
located in Africa and Asia.
                  Some transitions were peaceful, but very
often long and bloody struggles preceded independence.  As a
paradox of history the most enthusiastic starters of
decolonization and traditional non colonialist country as the
United States became a supporter of colonialist wars trying
to avoid or delay independences of third world countries.
                  Neutral in the beginning , the United
States was forced to change its position because the
environment of the cold war . The help of marxism to the
liberation movements was a risk to the strategic balance of
power.  Revolutionary strategy of the Soviet Union tried to
profit by the opportunity of the decolonization process to
spread communism ideology around the world.
                  The response, in order to avoid the
communist crusade was to establish a security belt of
alliances around the Soviet Union and the conflicting areas
and give help to friendly governments threatened by
liberation movements.
                  The Marshall plan and NATO pact between the
most important agreements constituted a net including the
former enemies such as Japan and Germany forming a shield
against the new threat.  But at the same time that the East
West confrontation was going on, a social and economical
reality was dividing the the developed north hemisphere from
the low developed southern hemisphere.
                  Developed countries have vital and
secondary interests in the southern hemisphere.  Raw
materials such as petroleum and minerals needed for strategic
industries, choke points for maritime traffic, LOCS for
international trade, markets, etc..
                  Because the fear about consequences of a
nuclear confrontation in Europe, the Soviet Union challenged
the United States in the south using an indirect maneuver and
an indirect strategy, long, but cheap and with very low risk
using substitute fighters.
                  These are some of the reasons why the
United States a geographical and political isolationist
country during the second and the third decade of the century
became an interventionist power defending their interest and
their allies as the leader of the western world.
The meaning of low intensity conflict.
                  From the beginning of the military
intervention in the South East Asia new words increased the
military terminology in order to qualify a different way to
wage wars.  Expressions such as non conventional, insurgency,
revolutionary war, subversion and finally low intensity
conflict were used frequently in the media and
by the military studies and analysis.
                  Trying to avoid misunderstandings and
mistakes is interesting overview and explain some of these
                  Almost everybody agrees to define high
intensity conflicts as the kind of wars were all the
resources of the belligerents are involved in the fighting
because the national destiny is at risk depending on the
result of the war.  Is also very common to think that high
intensity conflicts are of course conventional wars like the
second world war and today probably with the intervention of
nuclear weapons.  The classic expensive wars that only the
super powers can fight. Similar to total wars.
                  Regional wars with conventional weapons
and regular armies involved, respecting laws of war are
considered middle intensity conflicts, like Iraq versus Iran.
                  It is believed that a low intensity
conflict is a none conventional war, in an insurgency
environment with guerrillas forces, sometimes with low level
of violence and always in the third world.
                  There are, however, a lot of examples of
conventional high intensity wars where non conventional
methods were used as a complement of regular armies.
Remember the Yugoslavian, Russian, French, Norway  and other
resistances movements.
                  On the other hand, Ogaden Campaign, Indo
Pakistan war and Vietnam began as guerrilla warfare and
transformed to middle intensity conflicts in the second
phase of the war.
                  Considering the kind of weapons used in
each war, too far in this century is believed that nuclear
weapons may be only used during "conventional" high intensity
conflicts.  The level of violence and the quantity of forces
employed during current low intensity conflicts change very
often, so the kind of weapons used, and a good example is the
Vietnam war, low but with high level of violence, with more
than half million soldiers only in one  of the army involved,
using massive strategic bombings with B--52.
                  Sometimes a low level action jumps
immediately to a risk of high nuclear confrontation such as
the Cuban missile crisis or the Berlin blockade; The Yom
Kippur war is also a good example of the risk of escalation.
                  One of the most important factors to
analyze a war is to consider what is the risk of vital
interests of the stronger country involved in a war.  For
instance, Vietnam and Korea didn't affect American vital
interests in the short time, and the effort of war was
partial considering the whole resources of the nation.  But
at the same time and in the same war, both Koreas and
Vietnams were involved in a total war, using all the national
resources and betting the destiny of the nation on the result
of war.
                  Another point of view is to think about the
self constraints and rules of engagement established by the
belligerents.  The more powerful sometimes restricts the use
of all his weapons fearing the reaction of other power
indirectly involved.  Also the constraint is related to the
geographic area of operations in order to avoid the spread of
the war.  On the other side, the weaker of both belligerents
sometimes restrict the use of terrorism, destruction of enemy
civilian and vital targets trying to avoid an a unacceptable
reprisal putting in risk more than they can achieve with war.
                  Finally the level of war depends often on
the reasons why they start.  Normally religious, racial and
social or ideological conflicts are total wars, long term
wars and very violent because they are low rational conflict.
                  Border problems and economic differences
are limited efforts where one country tries to obtain
something avoiding to lose more than he could win in the
conflict.  Is a high rational effort.  Each case of analysis
is different because sometimes wars have mixed reasons and
the formal excuse is the surface of others, as the Iraq and
Iran war.
The United States, conflicts and the future.
                  As far as it is possible to foresee, the
only army capable of challenging the United states is the red
army in a high intensity conflict nuclear or not.  But mutual
deterrance still works and probability to happen is low
because risk is not rational.  Retaliation is always possible
after the first strike, and total strategic surprise is not
possible to obtain.
                  There is not enough power threat to fight
against the United States, but it is possible his
intervention in support of a friendly country in a regional
conflict against other country  that may or may not be
supported by another super power.  Instead a risk of
escalation of this kind of conflict may occur when vital
interests are threatened, like the petroleum areas.  To
commit American forces may be the last step after trying all
the below level of pressure and violence.
                  The Northern hemisphere is still covered by
military defensive pacts, and deterrance plus the post war
agreements about balance of power  are working well in order
to maintain peace.  Border problems are being solved;
influence of racial and religious problems are decreasing
their importance, economical competence is played in the
economical arena, ideology is losing positions in favor of
economic realities and way of life is increasing.  However,
low intensity problems, instead his low influence on life of
the northern hemisphere are going on like the IRA in Ireland,
the ETA in Spain, Baaden Meinhoff in Germany, the red
brigades in Italy and others remaining that violence is still
settled in the old world.
                  Then it makes sense to think that most
conflicts of the near future will continue in the southern
low developed hemisphere, because the environment of social
injustice and unequal distribution of richness, illiteracy,
religious fanaticism, sick nationalism, border problems, deep
ideological differences , political intolerance and marxist
revolutionary theories plus the drug problem and undeveloped
economies give plenty enough reasons for violent solutions.
                  Very frequently southern conflicts travel
to the northern hemisphere area in order to call
international attention for a movement in the south, to kill
political enemies living in the north as refugees, attack
embassies and authorities or to punish a northern country
that they believe is the source and guilt of his problems.
Drugs, for instance are cultivated in the south and traded in
the north because is a better market than the south. Illegal
weapons trade has an in verse way.
                  Because of strong influence and wide
interests, the United States will be involved directly or
indirectly in all these problems.  Every problem small or
big will have a small or big influence in the world's balance
of power.  Sometimes the summon of small problems create a
big problem in the end when they are linked.
                  The Roman Epire, France, and the Great
Britain had in the past the same role as the United States
today.  To maintain a balance of power and leadership is a
manifest destiny for powerful maritime nations.  It is
neither bad nor good, simply is.  In diplomacy the moral
dilemma between interventionism and isolationism is always
actual.  Somebody must do it.  Empty places are always filled
by somebody.
Political and social environment of conflicts in the third
                It would be interesting as a theoretical
exercise to imagine the face of the world if the United
States would have decided a total withdraw from forward
positions overseas after the Second World War.
                Besides the material interest, the western
world believed it had and has the historical task to maintain
and extend the influence of its culture  philosophy  way of
life and values.  This perhaps good intention was and still
is today a very important cause of misunderstanding between
very old none western cultures who perceive this influence as
a threat to its own values.  This process can't be achieved
by force.  It is and educational effort and a long way
comparative show of the benefits of democratic system of
                Also, the new countries in the first steps of
their independent lives need time to improve the rules of
their society such human rights, elections, justice and so
                For example, don't forget that England, began
the improvement of its rights in 1215.  In spite of that,
Europeans killed Europeans because of religious differences
and people persecuted people because of racial differences,
in this century in northern developed countries.  Namibia has
only four months of life.
                The Communication revolution of the twentieth
century is one of the most powerful tool in the intent to
change the political face of the world. It is impossible for
a dictatorship regime to maintain the illiteracy of the
population about benefits of democratic system today.  But
changes are not easy.  Each step in the right way takes a
reason for violent solutions. Political and social injustices
are one of the best flags for revolutions.  Also it is an
excellent opportunity for the marxism, offering the magic
medicine for the illness in the world.
                The political problem for the United  States
is how to promote changes in the way they believe is right
and to influence some governments to change wrong policies.
The problem is more difficult when this government is a
strategic ally.  Most of the countries consider political
pressure as interference of internal problems.
                The dilemma is what to do when a legitimate
revolution starts.  If help is given to the government, the
movement goes sometimes to an antiamerican position and the
Soviet Union profits from the situation.
                On the other hand you can't put at risk the
credibility of the United States helping violent movements
against formal allied governments.
                Almost always middle class members are the
point of the spear of changes and influence them with the
American and western way of thinking.  Good intelligence
analysis is the only way to understand the political
situation of each case.  The analysis must be flexible and
try to understand and respect other cultures and values.
                Silent diplomacy is one of the best tools
to expand influence politically in the world.  Clear and
constant rules are necessary for success in international
relations.  The best way to make a mistake is to believe that
the world can be changed now.  All permanent change is slow.
The economical problem.
                Economical environment has a double axis of
analysis.  Ideology is the first and geography the other in
symmetry with the east-west and south-north conflicts.
                One of the most important differences between
socialist and capitalists worlds is the point of view and
solutions about economical problems.  Of course economy,
policy and social issues go very close as a philosophy of
                The majority of the northern countries have
development and prosperity under the capitalism system and
free market.  But the feeling in the southern countries is
very different.  They believe that prosperity of the north
was obtained because of the colonial status in the past let
them do an unequal and unjust trade in their benefit.  Today
external debt in benefit of developed countries is the
explanation of poorness, economical delay and social problems
in the mouth of all the revolutionary leaders.
                But economic aid to countries with corrupt
governments is not the solution to obtain loyalty for the
western side.  Very frequently, money doesn't go to develop
weak economies or improve the life of people because leaders
waste the money and in fact they love the American money more
than the American efforts to make a better world.
                In the same way as the political and
diplomatic tools, economical aid is a powerful weapon to
reward and punish in order to achieve political goals.  Under
the economic point of view, if you help somebody develop his
economy instead of fill his gaps, you get other customers for
trading for the benefit of both.  Poor countries can't buy
                The main question is about the convenience or
not to help a non democratic or corrupt government under an
insurgency attack  when this government is an American
ally.  The answer is not easy because money buys time and
sometimes time is needed for strategic reasons trying to
change disadvantage situations.
The military solution.
                  Though the military solution may be  the
last solution when all the other resources fail, it is not
absolutely true.  Sometimes the success of the other tools
depends on how to use the military power to reinforce the
other policies.  Nobody listens too carefully to  weak
governments and it is possible to be weak in two ways,
weakness of will and weakness of force.  After the Vietnam
experience the post war syndrome can affect the American will
because of the fear of public opinion against intervention in
conflicts.  Government should take in account that the best
way to gain the battle of public opinion at home and overseas
is to take the flag of the just causes.  The Lybian case is a
good example showing the black and the white position in the
broad gray situations in the world.
                  The media tool is one of the best ways to
present the truth if you know how to use it.  False positions
come back against you at the end.
                  The second kind of weakness can be avoided
having or developing the right weapons for each problem.
Nuclear missiles are not useful in insurgency wars.
                  Levels of military use in support of
external policy increases from:
                  Military training in U.S. schools
                  Military supply
                  Military advice and training in the country
                  Show of force
                  Technical, intelligence  and logistic aid
                  Deployment of forces
                  Security operations of U.S. property
Rescue of hostages
                  Special operations
                  Partial intervention of forces
                  Massive intervention in the fight
                  In an offensive role, advise and support to
freedom fighters is a very impressive  message of the
American will.  Something like the change of the tide.
                  Enemy threats in the low intensity
conflicts combine:
                  Rural and urbane guerrillas
                  Insurgency with or without external aid
                  Conventional or and non conventional
                  aggression across the borders
                  Success in the battlefield is not crucial
for insurgency success because the dual nature of the war
combining the political front with the military effort while
supporting the battle for hearts and minds
                  Low intensity conflict in the insurgency
style is almost as old as the world and the preferred way for
the weak to fight against the powerful.  It is well known
that when these wars have popular support neither massive
intervention nor terror rule are the best ways of success in
the long term.  Moral legitimacy is one of the best weapon in
the hands of the legal government to manage the will of the
population against the insurrection.  Tempo for needed
political and economical changes is vital for survival of the
system under an attack of insurgency.  Often, unjust
governments used the communist threat as an excuse for
domestic restrictions of freedom and for the United States
help in money and later as the dominant partner showing the
face in their place.
                  Each case of low intensity conflict is
exclusive and only political, diplomatic, economical,
psychological and military efforts working together at the
same time under the same command and control have a chance
for success.
KENNEDY, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.  New
York.  Random House Inc. 1987.
KLARE, Michael and KORNBLUH, PETER.  Low intensity warfare.
New York.  Pantheon 1988.
KIRKPATRICK Jane.  Security of the United States and Latin
America.  Interamerican Defense School 1982.
KISSINGER, Henry.  Memorias.  Buenos Aires, Plaza Janes 1977.
FURR, William F.  L. Col. USAF.  Low intensity conflicts
imperatives for success.  Army-Air Force center for L.I.C.
DREW, Dennis.  Colonel USAF.  Insurgency and
Counterinsurgency.  Air University Press 1988.

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