Low‐Intensity Conflict

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Low‐Intensity Conflict (LIC is the Pentagon acronym) refers to a level of hostilities or use of military power that falls short of a full‐scale conventional or general war. It includes peacekeeping, antiterrorism, assistance to foreign countries for internal defense, fulfillment of international treaty obligations, assistance to foreign law enforcement agencies, and commando operations.

Interest in LIC began in the years after the Vietnam War. In the immediate post‐Vietnam era, events overseas made it very clear that U.S. military power remained essential diplomatic currency. Major regional wars in Central Asia and the Mideast served as grim reminders that diplomacy alone could not stop potentially dangerous conflicts. The Arab oil embargo of 1973 emphasized the importance of the Persian Gulf to the economic existence of the industrial West. Washington watched with anxiety as Cuban troops moved into Angola and Mozambique, raising the possibility of major conflict between Soviet‐backed Havana and Pretoria. The dramatic rise in terrorism during the 1970s, much of it supported by hostile nations, posed a new challenge to the United States.

As these events unfolded, the Pentagon, regardless of the lingering effects of the Vietnam trauma, realized it was very likely that a limited use of military power would again be needed to support American foreign policy objectives.

In the late 1970s, when defense budgets began to climb again, much thought and planning inside the military was devoted to low‐intensity conflict. The military also altered its force structure to meet the demands of LIC. Some army divisions shed heavy equipment so they could be moved rapidly to areas facing limited threat. Because speed in LIC operations was considered paramount, the Pentagon invested substantial resources in flexible air deployment of ground forces. Sophisticated “smart” weapons, such as cruise missiles, although originally designed for general war with the nations of the Warsaw Pact, also proved ideal for a “surgical strike” against a lesser foe. The navy pointed to aircraft carriers, with their ability to “show the flag” or project airpower quickly, as excellent weapons for low‐intensity conflict. Sophisticated communications allowed tight control of complex operations anywhere in the world. LIC also required a high degree of interservice cooperation, accelerating the trend toward operational integration within the armed forces.

There were several examples of LIC during the Reagan and Bush administrations. The first was an inauspicious beginning for the return of the U.S. military to the world stage. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and surrounded Beirut. President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz agreed to send a Marine contingent to Beirut as part of an international force to escort elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization out of the city. That objective was completed quickly. However, despite strenuous objections from the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, the United States soon became involved in the Lebanese civil war itself. In October 1983, a suicide attacker drove a car bomb into the Marine headquarters and killed 241 Marines and 50 French troops. Lebanon, in the Pentagon's eyes, was developing into exactly the kind of situation they feared the most: an open‐ended struggle with no clear objective. Despite the humiliation (more Marines died in the bomb attack than were lost later by the entire U.S. force during Desert Storm), Reagan was wise enough to withdraw the Marine contingent.

The setback in Lebanon did not seriously concern Reagan nor did it harm his resilient popularity. The Caribbean and Central America were particular points of attention. In the late 1970s, the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua had taken a sharp turn to the left. Marxist insurgencies were building in both Guatemala and El Salvador. A pro‐Marxist government was in power on the small island of Grenada. Reagan believed, with some reason, that Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union were involved with all of these problems. When an extremist Marxist faction violently overthrew the government in Grenada, Reagan sent in the troops. In October 1983, two weeks after the suicide bombing in Beirut, American forces quickly occupied Grenada. In marked contrast to Lebanon, the Americans were treated like liberators by the local population. During the U.S. intervention in Grenada, the military put on a major show of force in Central America. The army airlifted men to Honduras and a large naval task force staged a maneuver off the coast of Nicaragua.

Both Congress and the Pentagon were very uneasy about a direct American military involvement in Central America. American participation in the conflict remained deep as Reagan sent economic aid to anti‐Communist governments in the region. The Pentagon stayed in the background, however. Except for a small team of military advisers sent to El Salvador, military training for Central American officers was done in the United States. The United States did funnel aid to anti‐Sandinista guerrilla forces, nicknamed the “Contras,” but this project was run by the Central Intelligence Agency and individuals inside the White House. The same was true of American aid sent to back up guerrilla warfare opposing Cuban‐aided Marxist governments in Africa. Later, George Bush extended covert aid to Afghan forces fighting the Russians.

In the 1980s, the American military became involved in some unfamiliar territory. Because the United States was Israel's strongest supporter, American civilians had become frequent targets for Arab terrorism. Unfortunately, it was very clear that many terrorists were receiving direct support from several governments—including Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. On 15 April 1986, the United States launched a heavy air strike against several targets in Libya. Since that time the Pentagon has developed extensive contingency plans for dealing with a serious terrorist threat in the United States or abroad. Indeed, many officials believe that a terrorist group procuring nuclear weapons raises one of the most serious threats facing the United States today.

The Pentagon also became entangled in the “war” against the illegal drug traffic first announced by Reagan and endorsed by all subsequent administrations. This is another area where the military has preferred to stay in the background. Nevertheless, military advisers have helped governments in Latin America operate various drug interdiction and drug eradication programs. Although the military views drug interdiction as a law enforcement problem, the Pentagon continues to play a role in this politically sensitive issue.

The stunning collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in 1991 caused a difficult reappraisal of the essential mission of U.S. armed forces. Fighting a massive conventional war with the old Warsaw Pact nations was no longer a realistic possibility. A nuclear threat remained, but the direct military confrontation that would trigger an exchange of strategic weapons became far less likely. The fall of the Soviet Union raised the possibility of ethnic conflict and political breakdown throughout the Eurasian landmass. The United States, by default, found itself the only major military power in a dangerous and disorderly world. Consequently, LIC became, outside the nuclear realm, the principal mission of the American military. Although it is impossible to foresee events, the Pentagon believes that LIC will continue to be crucial in the decades to come.
[See also Caribbean and Latin America, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Counterinsurgency; El Salvador, U.S. Military Involvement in; Middle East, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Nicaragua, U.S. Military Involvement in; Terrorism and Counterterrorism.]


Patrick Brogan , The Fighting Never Stopped: A Comprehensive Guide to World Conflict Since 1945, 1990.
Martin Walker , The Cold War, 1994.
Samuel Huntington , The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, 1996.
Lawrence E. Walsh , Firewall: The Iran‐Contra Conspiracy and Cover‐Up, 1997.

Eric Bergerud