Three retired US generals recently wrote about a possible coup attempt in the US. With the anniversary of the Capitol Hill attack on 6th January 2022, former Army Major Gen. Paul Eaton, former Brigadier Gen. Steven Anderson and former Army Major Gen. Antonio Taguba wrote in the Washington Post: “With the country still as divided as ever, we must take steps to prepare for the worst.” The retired generals believe US military ranks are brimming with potential mutineers, they demanded the Pentagon “identifies, isolates and removes” them from the force before it’s too late for purges. Assessing “the potential for a military breakdown” as “very real,” the generals wrote that they have been “increasingly concerned about the aftermath of the 2024 election and the potential for lethal chaos inside our military.” The Capitol Hill riots on 6th January 2021 have been described as a coup attempt, insurrection, sedition etc, but despite this it would be extremely difficult for the military to overthrow the state in a coup due to the nature of power in the US.
All coups have some key elements wherever they are undertaken. The first is the ceasing of control of the state whether directly or indirectly, this is through controlling and monopolising public information in order to create the perception that coup plotters are in control. Secondly, the plotters would need to capture symbolic targets in order to reinforce the message they are in control. Finally, the coup plotters would need to ensure no other element of the security services gets in the way and this is why the plotters would need to show force via broadcasting that their victory is inevitable and resistance to it is both futile and dangerous.
The advantages an officer in the US military has is the sheer implausibility of a coup attempt in the US. The US military is doctrinally focused on its global position and maintaining US influence abroad and as a result US domestic intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI, are not looking for signs of unrest within the military. Secondly, the sheer size and complexity of the US military means that a conspiracy involving those of sufficiently high rank could move substantial military assets without raising too many questions.
Unlike many other coup prone nations where the military play a major role in domestic politics or have been in power, a coup in the US would be difficult as the government and power is diffused far and wide. You have the White House, which is the national government and the Senate. The US is a federal republic and is composed of 50 states, each with its own governor, who has the same powers as the President within their own state. The national guard also comes under the powers of the state governor, although they can be federalised by the President in certain cases. This represents a major obstacle as the US military is not led by one person. If the coup comes from the top of the army, then they would not need to worry about much of the army standing in the way, but they cannot be guaranteed that officers lower in the hierarchy will carry out their orders. The US generals writing in the Washington Post gave the example of such “mutiny,” referring to the Oklahoma National Guard’s standoff with the Pentagon over the Covid-19 vaccination mandate, calling it “perhaps [a] more worrying” sign of a brewing military breakdown than members of the military taking part in the Capitol riot. Brigadier General Thomas Mancino openly defied the military vaccination mandate, promising that Oklahoma National Guard members would not be punished if they refused to get the jab despite the Pentagon’s threat to withdraw funding from the force. The coup plotters would need to capture as much of the government as they could, this can be arranged by the army calling a meeting of the government or when the government and Congress meet and arresting/holding the government. The military would need to deploy and take over key symbolic centres of power, to show it has taken over. This is where it would get complicated as the US is large and this would require a large force to coordinate in different parts of the US.
The advantages an officer in the US military has is the sheer implausibility of a coup attempt in the US. The US military is doctrinally focused on its global position and maintaining US influence abroad and as a result US domestic intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI, are not looking for signs of unrest within the military
There is also the issue of the sheer size of the US. The coup plotters would have to take over more than Washington DC, the coup plotters would need to seize the centres of political, financial and media power, it would also (at a minimum) need to secure Manhattan and large parts of Los Angeles. This would mean the coup will be large, require immense coordination and still need to be over quickly, before any other faction can organise a counter attack.
The major challenge for a coup in the US is how to broadcast the fact that the coup plotters have succeeded and resistance is futile. Nearly all of US public broadcasting is in private hands with corporations having their own infrastructure. This is unlike much of the world where broadcasters all rely on some element of public infrastructure or upon some critical infrastructure which acts as a bottleneck. The key to any successful coup is to create the expectations of success, this would then lead to it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The way to do this is to broadcast the fact that the military has taken over, its coup is already a success and anyone thinking of countering the coup, is doomed to fail. This is achieved by making an announcement via mass media broadcast. In many nations the public broadcaster headquarters is taken over by the coup plotters or broadcasting is all shut down by the coup plotters in order for their announcement to be made. The US has a huge media industry, which uses its own equipment to broadcast its media. Whilst it would at first sight seem like an insurmountable task to take over the media, or shut it all down, a nationwide communications blackout is easier to achieve than it sounds. Several reports, both private and governmental, have pointed out major weaknesses in the US power and utility grids, which were designed in an era before computers were routinely networked. This makes them extremely vulnerable to cyberattack.
A cyberattack could be staged to make it look like it came from a foreign enemy, and the narrative of a foreign attack could then provide the pretext for deploying troops on the streets. The National Military Command Center at the Pentagon is where the military’s own communications network is centred, any order to the US’s nuclear arsenal or conventional military must pass through there. Located at the heart of the Pentagon, this system operates continuously, and its most sensitive parts are manned by small crews; for the system to be not just taken but maintained, those people would need to be supporters of the coup, or at least compliant with it. If the leader of the coup was someone with military legitimacy – the Secretary of Defense, say, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – it would not be impossible to arrange this.
With the US, the key would be to ensure the government is quickly apprehended, symbolic sites are taken over, under the guise of a security issue, then making a broadcast, that the military has taken over, possibly even getting the US President and Vice President to come on TV and publicly agree to this. Once the military has taken over, it will have to contend with a huge US populace, this is a nation that has never had a successful military coup. It also has a population that believes in its right to bear arms, so a successful coup may find the coup easier than actually ruling over the United States of America.
On a final note the Capitol Hill attack did not see an illegitimate attempt to seize control of the state. Those involved in the rioting saw themselves as using legal and constitutional means to protest what they saw as a stolen election, there was no use of force to overthrow the state, despite how violent it got. Whilst there were retired and serving members of the military involved in the attack they did not see themselves as undertaking actions to remove the state, but wanted the state to listen to them and they wanted to make their point about the people having power. These are not actions of a coup but one of an insurrection, a violent uprising against the government. It’s incitement not a coup. All of this has brought the debate about coups into American popular culture but the chance of one taking place, let alone succeeding remains low as the public believe a coup is unconstitutional and even the army believes the country’s rulers, however bad they may be, they should be elected by the people.