The United States Armed Forces Police: The Force of Choice?

first time published in ÖMZ/6/2014

Bell, Raymond E. Jr.


Are the police organizations of the United States armed services really forces of choice? Indeed, the motto of the U.S. Army’s Military Police (MP) Corps is “The Force of Choice.” Yet, the actual and potential effectiveness of armed forces police in the type of combative warfare presently being conducted by the U.S. Government is too often misunderstood and under estimated by the American military community at large. Conceived by virtue of its name, military type police operations are most closely associated with law and order or prisoner confinement activities. But the Army’s MP motto, for example, implies that “choice of force” is central to its very existence and effectiveness. The employment of force in the execution of its military police soldiers’ duties is key to the execution of its doctrinal tasks.  Unfortunately, military police of all the armed forces operates in a rather inconspicuous manner which draws very little attention to their combat capabilities and consequently receives little emphasis and appreciation in conducting operations except in law and order situations.

The role of U.S. military police in Operation Iraqi Freedom is a case in point. Slowly awareness that the employment of U. S. Army MPs in Iraq after the defeat and dispersal of the Saddam Hussein’s conventional armed forces was clearly inadequate is even today at best slight. Indeed, at present there appears to be little effort in the U.S. armed forces to enhance the profile of military type police, especially in the U.S. Army.

Army Military Police in Iraq

An illustration of the U.S. Army’s lack of appreciation for the varied capabilities of its military police is its initial employment in the invasion of Iraq. The commander of the 18th Military Brigade, Colonel Edward Spain, is on record contesting the U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to limit the number of MP combat support companies to just three as an element of the invasion force. The brigade headquarters coming from Germany was prepared to field some twenty two such combat capable companies according to the original deployment plan. Rumsfeld, in an effort to dedicate a minimum combat force to the invasion, saw a much reduced need for a multi-capable MP contingent. Rumsfeld’s decision, however, was only part of the failure to employ a large military police force.

There was a misinformed assumption that the Allied invasion force would not only be welcomed but that there would be assistance in maintaining law and order throughout the country from the local police. It was felt that there would be minimum disruption to the lives of the populace. Instead, the people took advantage of the turmoil to vent their feelings about the defeated regime and chaos soon resulted.

The few MP combat support companies available to the force commander were bogged down in Kuwait and the border between Iraq and Kuwait performing traffic control duty, enemy prisoner of war activities, and convoy escorts. With an insufficient number of MPs on hand, the job of law and order policing in the major metropolitan areas was left to the combat troops who were not trained in law and order operations.

Colonel Spain has expressed the opinion that if the originally planned twenty two military police combat support companies had been available that the resulting chaos could have been successfully dealt with. His men and women, in peacetime, interface frequently with the local police of the country in which they are stationed. The MPs could have used such experience gained in the course of their normal duties to work with the local Iraqi police, had they been available. Unfortunately, soon after the formal fighting was concluded the former ruling Baathist Party functionaries who made up most of the police, were dismissed by the chief of the Civilian Provisional Authority L. Paul Bremer III in a move to “cleanse” the country of the Saddam Hussein regime.

While it is recognized that military police in securing a population are well prepared to conduct law and order operations, it is not widely known that army MPs are also trained to conduct all aspects of combat operations. Such operations are akin to those of mechanized cavalry formations or those of the RSTA (reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition) squadrons.

Combat support companies are equipped, organized, and trained to fight. Such a company is a very mobile organization which has not only the specially protected HMMWVs (high multipurpose mobile wheeled vehicles) armed with either machine guns or automatic grenade launchers, but the ASV (armored security vehicle). The ASV is a four wheeled lightly armored vehicle with a “v” shaped hull and armed with either a machine gun or automatic grenade launcher. The ASV’s hull served as the model for the MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicles which has seen effective service in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The ASV’s potential as an effective weapon’s system where improvised explosive devices were, and are, primary insurgent combat instruments, however, was not fully realized into well in the Iraqi conflict.

Because the combat support company will often operate in small independent subordinate elements such as ten military policemen squads every vehicle is equipped with a radio. This communications capability makes it possible for the entire company to operate over very long distances. Since area coverage is often extensive MPs must be independently flexible and especially competent to operate in small units and at times even alone. The basic team consists of three MPs each armed with a pistol and rifle, a HMMWV or ASV, a vehicular mounted machine gun or automatic grenade launcher, and a radio with good communication range capability.

A typical mission for a MP team of a combat support company could be to operate a vehicle or personal checkpoint or man a traffic control point. Where enemy prisoners must be escorted to confinement facilities or temporarily guarded, military police are the instrument of choice. But more and more in Iraq and Afghanistan individual teams have been attached to combat patrols of armored or foot troops. Composed of both male and female MPs such teams have been required where it became necessary to deal with indigenous women. In countries like Iraq and Afghanistan where native customs severally restricted male contact with females, a military police woman being present greatly facilitated indigenous female interrogation operations.

Unfortunately, because of the initial shortage of active Army MPs in Iraq and the unanticipated need for personnel in conducting police activities, it soon became necessary to increase the number of military police units in the country. There were not, however, enough military police in the active Army force structure to meet increased requirements. Part of the solution was to bring on active duty Army National Guard and Army Reserve MP units and send them to Iraq. But even with the additional Army reserve component military police formations brought into federal service there was a need for even more MPs. It became necessary therefore to cross train Army National Guard field artillery men to perform MP duties.

It soon became apparent that Army reserve component military police formations could add greatly to the effectiveness of their active duty compatriots. An example was the engagement of a federalized Missouri Army National Guard MP squad with thirty Iraqi insurgents. The three vehicle squad manned by nine military policemen, one a female MP, and an attached medical corpsman was conducting a patrol in the vicinity of a logistics convoy moving along a highway. Suddenly the insurgents were observed ambushing the convoy whereupon the MPs moved to intervene. In a matter of a few minutes the greatly outnumbered MPs killed 28 of the attackers and captured two. For their successful engagement of the enemy the squad leader was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s success second highest award for bravery in combat. The woman MP was awarded the Silver Star, the third highest wartime award for bravery in action. She was the first female to be awarded the Silver Star since World War II. When her Army National Guard MP Company returned to the United States she returned to her civilian life occupation of policewoman in a local police force.

Women have been members of United States military police organizations for many years. Those female soldiers desiring to engage in combat as active participants have found being in the army’s Military Police Corps, until very recently, to be the closest they could come to being a combatant such as an infantrymen or armor crewmen. On today’s asymmetrical battlefield, however, where the enemy is everywhere, it is immaterial whether or not a woman soldier is actually considered in combat or not. The U.S. Government decree prohibiting women from occupying fighting occupation specialty positions has recently been revoked so it remains to be seen whether or not women came be formally recognized as true combatants.

Before and after Iraq

The Army’s military police experience and performance in Iraq did not come as a surprise to the United State’s military hierarchy even if it was not widely heralded. The nation’s largest military police organization is to be found in the U.S. Army and its reserve components and it has been active in some form or other since the founding of the country. The Army’s MPs trace their heritage back to the American War of Independence. At that time military police functions were the responsibility of the horse mounted dragoons. Then dragoons also had to perform security duties for unit headquarters, conduct reconnaissance, and escort key personnel. Unlike British light cavalry the dragoons, with the notable exception of mounted troops at the battle of Cowpens in the American southern colonies, seldom engaged in mounted combat with the enemy.

It was not until World War II that military police became a separate branch of the U.S. Army. The MP function, which had been performed on an ad hoc basis, had not changed over the years with the handling of enemy prisoners of war being the major exception. Military police, as might be expected, were not popular with the rest of the Army. Enforcement of unpopular orders promulgated by commanders such as Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr. did not endear the MP to soldiers of the other branches of the army. The military police, however, had little choice but to perform such duties and gave rise to much displeasure for enforcing them.

Over time changes in the MP missions evolved to include combat operations. Today there are five basic missions. They are law and order activities, military prisoner confinement operations to include caring for enemy prisoners of war, traffic circulation control, information collecting for intelligence purposes, and combat operations concentrating on securing area logistical facilities. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan serve as a means of informing the execution of these missions.

Unfortunately, such execution has not always been of an exemplary nature. Whereas in the 1992 Gulf War the then U.S. Army Reserve’s 800th Military Police Brigade won acclaim for the way it handled thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war, in 2004 the brigade’s operation of the Abu Ghraib prison elicited severe criticism. The female brigade commander was subsequently relieved for incompetence in allowing renegade MPs in the brigade to mishandle Iraqi prisoners of war.

The brigade’s Army Reserve 372nd Military Police Company (Combat Support) was the subordinate unit charged with running the prison. But the unit was not trained in conducting confinement operations which led to certain of its members acting grossly inappropriately. In the 1992 Gulf War, on the other hand, the company had excelled in a combat role, a performance which was overshadowed in 2004 when members abused Iraqi prisoners of war who were considered possessing important information for intelligence purposes. The MPs, which up to the time of the unsavory abuse revelation, had not attracted much notice, now received a great deal of unwelcome attention. That another Army Reserve military police unit led by a very competent commander swiftly retrieved the situation has gone largely unnoticed.

The U.S. Army policeman or policewoman, however, as with the police of the other armed forces, enjoys special prestige even as their functions go under appreciated. Because of sensitivity of the military police position only the highest caliber individual is accorded the opportunity to become a member of the MP community. Whereas the infantryman or maintenance technician can focus narrowly on their job, the military policeman must be flexible, discerning, and multi-capable. He or she can often find themselves in situations where instant good judgment is required. An MP may be engaged in directing traffic on an overseas combat base one instance and in the next moment be engaged in combat taking aim at some insurgent firing at him or her. Going from a peacetime situation to a hostile one quickly and effectively is a situation that the policeman must be able to handle effectively.

That individuals assigned to the military police meet the highest standards required of them is often revealed in peacetime military competitions. Often when a military installation holds a soldier of the quarter of the month or of the year competition where all soldiers compete for the honor of being recognized as “above the rest”, military police personnel are frequent winners. In 2013, for example, the United States Army soldier of the year as determined in the annual Best Warrior Competition was Specialist Adam Christenson, a military policeman of the U.S. Army Pacific Command’s 472nd MP Company. One of the other twelve contestants in the worldwide competition was MP Specialist Jesse Kane assigned to the garrison MP company at West Point, the United States Military Academy. Such competitions consist of performing general soldier skills, interviewing by a board of senior non-commissioned officers, and closely examining the competitor’s military record and appearance. The high quality of performance demanded of these soldiers is evident in the face of the competition which is always very intense. This holds true for both male and female competitors.

The quality of those servicemen and women performing military police functions across all branches of the U.S. armed forces is uniformly high. Those men and women in those other armed services who are the equivalent of U.S. Army MPs demonstrate similar qualities which enable them to operate effectively in consonance with their fellow armed forces’ police or security persons in executing their duties.      

Police of the other Armed Forces

The United States Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard all have police organizations. Their nomenclature, however, is different. The Air Force formerly had security police which are now called security force or SF personnel. The Navy relies on the U.S. Marine Corps for much of its security operations work while law and order functions are performed by sailors temporarily assigned to SPs (Shore Patrols). The Marine Corps also has military police companies with law and order functions aligned with those of the Air Force than the Army. The Coast Guard is charged with port security in times of conflict or potential conflict.

The United States Air Force Security Force’s first mission is the protection of air force facilities and installations in both peacetime and hostile environments.  Their permit is generally restricted to the facilities and installations themselves. Outside these locations, security and protection is the responsibility of the U.S. Army military police.

The organization of Air Force SF units reflects what might be called an “inward look,” that is they are organized to accomplish missions specific to their location. In the context of its aerial mission the largest basic operational Air Force unit is the wing. It consists of a number of subordinate organizations called squadrons. The wing itself will have nomenclature such as a numbered airlift or fighter wing. The subordinate squadrons of a fighter wing, for example, could be two or three fighter aircraft squadrons plus other support squadrons whose purpose is not only to service the fighters but to protect and administer the operations of the air base or installation. One of the support squadrons would be a security force squadron which would not only secure the wing’s aircraft but other squadrons’ facilities as well as conduct law and order operations on the base. If two or more wings with each security force squadrons were based on the same installation, their functions would be coordinated by an appropriate higher headquarters.

Not generally recognized is that U.S. Air Force Security Force personnel are also accomplished combatants as well as law enforcers and force protection airmen. Although trained to control drivers and passengers transiting an air base’s portals they have skills which make them effective in combat. A recent addition to the ability of airmen to function as combatants is the organization of base defense groups which have base defense squadrons subordinate to them. These formations are basically security force organizations which are augmented by airmen from other ground support units.

An example is the establishment of a temporary airfield in enemy contested territory where security force personnel as members of a base defense squadron provide force protection measures. While army combat troops would probably first sweep the projected airfield’s location for hostile forces, in today’s battle environment that area cannot be considered sufficiently secured to enable the establishment of a viable air landing facility. The security force squadron or base defense squadron, augmented by armed personnel of other wing support squadrons, would first be deployed into the area. Upon being airlanded or otherwise inserted, the security force, equipped with tactical vehicles such as HMMWVs and weaponry ranging in size from small arms up to mortars would establish a perimeter large enough within which aircraft can safely land and be serviced. This might well include having to fight to secure the field’s perimeter. It could also require coordination with U.S. Army elements in the area in particular MPs who would integrate their efforts with the security force squadron to keep a hostile force well away from the proposed airfield.

In any case, a security force airman must be as accomplished not only with his or her personal weapon but with machine guns and mortars as well as being tactically proficient. In environments such as those in Afghanistan where airbases were, and are, subject to insurgent attacks, a degree of battle readiness is required. In such instances, the Air Force security force airman comes close to cloning the U.S. Army MP.

While the U.S. Air Force security force airmen can be considered both conventional police and war fighters, the U.S. Navy presents a different image. It is, however, more appropriate to refer to the Navy in terms of armed sea services and include the U.S. Marine Corps which is constitutionally a part of the Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard as well. The Coast Guard in peacetime is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation - not the Department of Defense. In times of armed conflict the Coast Guard becomes a part of the U.S. Navy as has happened ever since World War II.

Law and order police activities in the U.S. Navy are not the responsibility of a specialized subordinate entity. Such functions, shore patrols for example, are performed by temporarily empowered seamen and petty officers. They come from ships’ crews or navy shore installation departments and see that proper discipline is maintained on board ship or on shore within the confines of the naval base or adjacent civilian community where sailors are permitted to take shore leave. They are not combatants in the sense that Sea-Air-Land (SEALS) special forces sailors are. They have no fighter capabilities other than being trained to handle small arms such as a pistol or rifle.

Security functions on land and on sea performed for the U.S. Navy are conducted by the U.S. Marine Corps. In a hostile or wartime environment, the U.S. Coast port security units are responsible for protecting the water side areas of ports where U.S. naval vessels are docked. In Iraqi operations port security units were active in preventing suicide bombers in small fast moving craft from attacking not only combatant ships but logistical vessels bringing supplies to Iraq and also Kuwait where major logistical bases were and are located.

The other sea service, the United States Marine Corps, has particular police functions directly related to security operations. Like the U.S. Air Force these functions are more defensive than offensive. On board ship Marines assist the captain of the ship to maintain discipline, provide security for sensitive locations on vessels, and man ships’ cannon when ships are so armed. Marines also provide security functions at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. Such consular duties are generally mundane as in regulating access of civilians trying to visit United States overseas government offices. When an embassy or consulate is threatened or embattled, however, Marines are prepared to defend the building or building complex with the force of arms, an example of “the force of choice.”

The U.S. Marine Corps also has special security force formations which have the mission of protecting naval installations and state department facilities outside the continental U.S. and Alaska. The units are configured according to the size, location, and function of the naval base or facility. If located in a friendly country such as Japan, these organizations function in coordination with the host country.

On overseas Marine installations conventional Marine combat units provide base defense and security functions. Such is the case in Afghanistan where Marines operate in conjunction with U.S. Army units. In Afghanistan Marines conduct both defensive and offensive operations. Protection of Marine Corps aircraft facilities in hostile territory, for example, would be the responsibility of accompanying Marine ground troops as well as Marine air component personnel.

The Marine Corps has military police units in its four expeditionary forces. These organizations perform law and order functions and temporary confinement activities. As such they perform primarily as civilian police force counterparts and are not usually expected to engage in combat activities. But since all Marines regardless of gender or military occupation specialty have received basic infantry type training are expected to be able to fight if necessary.

Reserve Component Military Police

Discussion so far has been focused on military police of the active United States armed forces. Military police organizations in the reserve components also play an important role in U.S. police and security operations almost to the extent that when the active and reserve units operate together it is impossible to differentiate between the two.

This is because the same professionalism is required within both active and reserve components and the standards of performance are the same.

Those in the reserves, however, generally have certain advantages over those in the active organizations. The reservist tends to be more experienced and mature in that he or she has been in the same unit for the individual’s entire service and has many years of service in that organization. On the other hand, because of rotation policies, an active component policeman will most probably be a member of a number of different units and may not remain on active duty for an extended period of time. Many reservists are police officers or confinement guard personnel in civilian life and bring that experience to their part time military position. In addition, many reservists have served on active duty and while not wanting to be a full time member of the armed forces desire to enjoy the benefits of extended serve in the reserve component.

In recent years reservists have been, and presently are, brought into federal service to supplement active duty units. This has been particularly prevalent in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. In today’s conflict environment, because of the relatively small number of active duty Army MP units, it has often been necessary to bring into federal service and deploy Army reserve component military police units overseas. New York Army National Guard’s 222nd MP Company is presently serving in Kuwait. The Army Guard’s 107th MP Company recently deployed to the Guantanamo Naval Base prison in Cuba to operate as an element of an active duty MP battalion stationed there. Other New York Army National Guard MP companies such as the 105th, 206th, and 442nd MP Companies served on federal duty in Iraq during the years of the U.S. occupation in that country. The aforementioned Missouri Army National Guard military police company in which one of its female members won the Silver Star is another example.

Most of the military police units engaged in enemy prisoner of war activities are to be found in the U.S. Army Reserve. They are specially organized and trained to process and confine enemy prisoners of war. For instance the previously cited 800th Military Police Brigade, now the 333rd MP Brigade located on Long Island, New York continues to be ready to deploy subordinate units as it did in Iraq.

As part of the U.S. Air Force’s expeditionary force program, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve security force elements in federal status deploy on a regular basis with their active duty counterparts. The security force personnel also train extensively with active duty counterparts and subordinate units are integrated into active duty overseas deploying SF units with which they train. At present there are, for example, New York Air National Guard security force personnel serving in Afghanistan. In 2012 two New York Air Guard airmen of the 105th Security Force Squadron were wounded in action in that country when engaged in base defense operations. Staff Sergeant Todd J. Lobraico, a member of the same squadron, is a recent Air Guardsman fatal casualty having died of wounds in a fire fight near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan on September 11, 2013.

In the sea services, the principal reserve component element is the Coast Guard Reserve. Its members in port security units in active federal status served in Iraq and Kuwait waters. Presently reservists are also on call to assist in operations on U.S. rivers and lakes when required to supplement the active Coast Guard. Security and protection of nuclear power plants located on major American rivers, for example, are duties for which Coast Guard reservists can be called upon to perform.

In Summary

Having described the military police of the various branches and components of the United States armed forces and seen how they perform their functions and missions, can these police organizations be considered “forces of choice?” Certainly in matters of enforcing law and order as well as performing prisoner of war operations there can be no question. But in cases where their functions overlap with those of the combat arms, it is still an open question. Perhaps it is too much to credit these organizations with being “the” force of choice. Considering their unique talents, however, there are many instances where the police are the “preferred” force of choice.

Certainly while U.S. armed force police organizations do not have a large profile in the armed services, their presence is still very much needed and at times when called upon to perform definitely appreciated.  Yet there does not appear to be an appreciation for the multi-capabilities of such organizations. The terms “armed forces police” and “military police” principally conjure up images of those men and women who perform law and order functions in the armed services as do their counterparts in the civilian communities. While there are small civilian police organizations which are specially trained to act in a neo-combatant capacity, the civilian police forces are, as a general rule, not required to have its members conduct battle type operations. The interface between the civilian and military policeman is best found in the reserve components which constitute a large and professional supplement to the active force.

As hostile action has become more and more a matter of engaging unconventional insurgent combatants the combat role of armed forces police, it would seem, would be more in evidence. Certainly the combat potential, both in the active and reserve military police and security force establishments, as already demonstrated, is great. But the question is still valid, that although United States armed forces police maintain a low profile, perform effectively, and as in the U.S. Army military police like to claim to be “the force of choice,” are they?