All posts by Jack Miller

Jack Miller received his degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania with high honors in May 2014. He recently served as the Joseph S Nye, Jr. Technology and National Security Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington D.C. He has also spent time at the Center for Strategic and International Studies working for their Transnational Threats Project.

Reversing the Islamic Militant Revolution

Miller PictureThe evolution of Islamic militant groups into more adaptable and effective fighting forces over the last decade is a major military and political challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Militants operating in Iraq and Syria such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, and Hezbollah are arguably stronger than ever and have been enjoying repeated successes. In Gaza, Hamas continues to grow in strength and showcase asymmetric warfare innovations. In Egypt, militants operating in the Sinai frequently clash with government forces and make territory largely ungovernable. The Libyan and Nigerian governments are also confronting increasingly capable militant groups. These examples demonstrate how Islamic forces have shed the reductionist label of “terrorist.” These groups are no longer dispersed bands of fighters simply carrying out highly visible attacks on civilians or hit and run attacks on military targets. Rather, they are carving out territory and areas of operations for themselves with frightening success. This trend will not be reversed through targeted airstrikes or artillery barrages alone, as Hamas demonstrated in Gaza and ISIS has demonstrated in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, the U.S. and its allies must formulate a coherent strategy that combines carefully equipping local forces with humanitarian assistance.

The evolution of Islamic militant groups has involved the convergence of improved military technology, refined training, and organizational flexibility. These groups have become more sophisticated by adapting to the lessons from conflicts with state opponents such as the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Syrian Army, and American military. Operationally and strategically, forces like ISIS have shown adeptness for pivoting on multiple operational fronts in the pursuit of changing strategic objectives. At the tactical level, standard militant action previously consisted of sporadic hit-and-run attacks characterized by ineffective light arms fire or small rocket launches. Recently, ISIS militants have become more advanced, successfully deploying mortars for indirect fire support as well as maneuvering in teams ranging in size from squads to motorized convoys. Many groups have also demonstrated a high level of competence in tactical flexibility and directing fire through command and control systems, as in the case of Hezbollah in 2006. This has enabled militant groups to increase the complexity of their operational tactics and minimize their vulnerabilities to counterattacks. These militant groups have also acquired advanced weapons such as sophisticated anti-tank missiles and portable anti-aircraft systems, either from looted state stockpiles or direct state sponsorship.

Current strategic and traditional government counterterrorism efforts are largely ineffective against these actors that simultaneously combine regular and irregular capabilities. Similarly, the spectrum of warfare for which regular forces must be prepared is more complex and diverse than the fixed poles of counterinsurgency or maneuver warfare. Ultimately, a new form of military engagement requires a new type of strategic dialogue, as interactions between state actors and militant groups will continue to evolve. Facing more potent and capable adversaries makes the costs of tactical deterrence very high and complicates counterterrorism operations. A clear strategy is still required to reverse this revolution in Islamic militancy, ​but military planners and policymakers must be amenable to delicate regional dynamics and rapidly changing situations on the ground.

While technology has played a critical role as a force multiplier and tactical enabler for militants, it will prove to be much less effective for states combating these groups. Advanced state militaries such as the IDF and American military have relied heavily on airpower rather than ground troops in order to avoid casualties on both sides. However, militants have vastly improved in their efforts to ensure sustainability through various means including bunkers and tunnels, force dispersion, and the use of civilian facilities to avoid targeting. As such, airpower will only be effective in supporting ground operations. The basics of fire, maneuver, and combined arms warfare by local, on-the-ground operators are integral to defeating these evolved Islamic militant groups that have intimate knowledge of the terrain.

As such, the United States and regional powers must do more to ensure the strength of indigenous forces like the Iraqi Army, Peshmerga, and moderate Syrian rebels to achieve twenty-first century deterrence against highly motivated and now highly capable extremist groups. This does not imply indiscriminately arming local forces, since ISIS forces continue to seize American military gear originally given to the revamped yet inadequately trained Iraqi Army. Rather, there is a great need to enhance the combat capacities of our allies on the ground through sustained training and engagement. This should be coupled with humanitarian and support missions in the same area of operation, while integrating diplomatic efforts to ensure cooperation and situational awareness with regional partners. Despite policymakers’ best efforts, sustained and lengthy American involvement will be required to reverse the Islamic militant revolution.

Defining the Strategic Utility of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


A hot topic of discussion in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)—the legislatively mandated review of Department of Defense (DoD) strategies and priorities set to begin this fall—will be the future role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Representing an increasingly viable alternative for maintaining American military capabilities at cost-effective levels, UAVs have the potential to reshape how the world conceptualizes war. As such, the discussion on the future deployment of unmanned aircraft will not simply occur from a military-technological perspective, but in a social context as well. Because international norms have yet to solidify around UAVs, it is vital that the U.S. seize upon the QDR—which is chaired by the Secretary of Defense, and includes Pentagon leaders, representatives from each of the military branches, and civilian subject experts—to define the social construct of drones and set international precedent on their use before these norms are set for us. There are several key areas U.S. officials and military leaders in the QDR need to consider in order to do so.

First, the QDR must define what scenarios—ranging from attacks against non-state actors to border security or surveillance of civilian populations—are acceptable for the deployment of UAVs. The aggregate result of the increased use of UAVs, global communications, and the diffusion of military threats is that the nature of military engagement is changing. This necessitates a new understanding of the use of force as it relates to UAVs. As such, QDR representatives have an opportunity to create a new social construct surrounding drone deployments, one that is more conducive to national policy than the negative connotation that has surrounded drones for the past several years. By defining the means and ends of drone use within the U.S. force structure, the QDR will be able to build an international consensus on the future of drone use.

Second, the QDR must make clear who is an acceptable target for drone strikes. The rise of low intensity insurgencies and international criminal organizations has blurred the lines between combatants, criminals, and noncombatants. Members of the QDR must take the first step in restricting UAV targeting to enemy combatants in order to avoid a situation where nations are left to their own discretion in selecting targets. Without international norms in place, it would be possible for political dissidents or visiting foreign officials to be targeted by host nations. Defining acceptable drone targets would protect international norms and prevent nations from using armed drones for non-military purposes.

Finally, officials should formulate a plan for the oversight of drone systems in order to assuage both public and international fears of the abuse of such systems. In order to understand the military significance and potential of drones, there is a need to separate the platform from the public backlash and credibility gap the Obama Administration has faced due to the opaqueness of drone deployments in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. This would reconcile the growing rift between members of the “anti-drone” community whose sometimes baseless and uninformed criticism impedes the successful implementation of national policy and thus the achievement of strategic objectives. Thus the QDR presents an opportunity for the formulation of a new drone policy and social construction that will support the platform rather than hinder its utility.

UAV procurement is poised to grow dramatically as foreign nations seek to take advantage of the platform. Failing to capitalize on the QDR as outlined above would allow global competitors such as China and possibly Russia to develop their own drone policies. This could conflict with American interests and result in nations exercising less restraint in utilizing this weapon. For example, due to the relatively low cost of drones and the absence of risk to a human operator, nations may become quick to deploy UAVs to conflict zones or flashpoint areas. This could lead to a proliferation in the indiscriminant application of force while wreaking havoc on international humanitarian laws.

For a decade, the dimensions of the drone war have been driven by short-term objectives: the degradation of al-Qaeda and the prevention of a follow-on, large-scale attack on American soil. Given the rapid advancement of UAV technology and its global accessibility, it is time to define the future application of the platform. We are on terra incognita in terms of UAV usage and desperately need a new strategic framework for warfare that is characterized by rapidly advancing automated technological systems. This begins with using the upcoming QDR to outline a comprehensive strategic framework for the role of unmanned systems for the next several years. Doing so will have a stabilizing effect on the international use of UAVs as well as provide NGOs, lawmakers, and civilians with a shared understanding for a weapon system that will likely become a platform of choice in future warfare.