In this ongoing series (“American Shitshow”), various authors discuss prospects, aspects, and outcomes of civil conflict in the United States. Today, I am going to write about how you would expect the US military to be used in a domestic conflict – for the purposes of discussion, some kind of quasi insurgency or soft secession, security breakdown, political instability, etc. scenario, rather than a cinematic Blue vs. Grey CWII or a palace coup.
In 2008, there were approximately 120K federal law enforcement officers (certainly the number must have increased by now), and in 2016, 700K local police.
Compare that to an Army, Marine Corps, and their respective reserves of approximately 1.2M soldiers, split evenly between active duty and reserves / national guard. The vast majority of those are support personnel – what you care about for the purposes of analysis are the brigade combat teams and marine task forces that comprise your deployable combat units. “Readiness” is a ill-defined term, but even of the active duty forces, perhaps only half would be capable of going somewhere and effectively doing something on reasonable notice. If you back-of-the-envelope this, it leaves you with approximately 150K combat-capable warm bodies. That is approximately fifty people, or about one platoon, per county in the US, from White Pine Nevada to Brooklyn.
Layer on top of this that the US military has substantial overseas commitments that require active, combat elements, and the number of soldiers & marines available for domestic operations is actually fairly small.
And these are the optimistic numbers. In reality, I have a suspicion the first time a president has the bright idea of asking one of his zero-charisma, future Lockheed consultant, political generals to deploy a brigade domestically to a hostile environment, they will be told, gosh, it’s gonna take a really long time to get over there, not sure if it can be done at all, turns out our operational tempo is going to be very slow once we show up and we’ll mostly be chilling in barracks, ‘Nam machine broke come back tomorrow. No one who has played the game well and long enough to become a US flag officer, or who intends on doing so, has any desire to become the Butcher of Bakersfield.
But it’s likelier they’re never asked, because in a politically difficult situation, deploying the military domestically wipes out the majority of the US’s very robust anti-coup machinery. Normally, soldiers deployed in the USA are almost completely disarmed, unless they are actively running security, military police, etc. There is a separate base commander, distinct from and not reporting to the unit commander, who often has supervision of the storage of their armaments, fuel, transportation, equipment, etc. The major bases are far away from politically sensitive locations like DC and NYC. Discreetly equipping the 82nd Airborne and getting them from Fort Bragg to DC is effectively impossible. If you suddenly decide to deploy 10000 heavily armed troops to, eg, help pacify Real Virginia, suddenly there is an immense amount of possibility and temptation.
And finally we get into the low-level dynamics of domestic deployment, to areas with friends and relatives of soldiers who have their own political and social sympathies. Usually regimes attempting to use forces domestically vastly prefer to deploy quasi-foreigners or minorities with limited sympathy for the population – units from the hinterlands to pacify Beijing in 1989, Alawites in the Syrian civil war, Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, even so far back as Germanics in Byzantium. The US does not segregate units by geography like this, with the exception of the National Guard, which has generally lower combat readiness and stomach for long deployments (let alone domestically), a somewhat specialized mix of capabilities, depending on state and unit, and an alternate commander in chief in the form of their state governor.
(Although if you’re writing a piece of fiction about this, of course you’re going to have these guys as the ones that show up in your red area setting).
So in sum, 1) there isn’t that much domestically available military manpower, 2) you plausibly may not expect it to be used, and 3) it would not be expected to be tremendously effective if it were. As a commander, what do you do if, nonetheless, you’re asked to and decide to go along with it?
Unreliable and low-morale troops get used overwhelmingly for guard duty and checkpoints, where you need raw manpower and initiative requirements are low. “Stand here, don’t let anyone through without a pass, check cars for weapons”. This gives you, theoretically, a cordon you can work with. Meanwhile, remember those 120K federal paramilitaries, and however many locals you can scrounge up? They are the ones who actually form the counterinsurgency core. More on them in a further article.
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