For the first time since 2001, violent extremist organizations in the Middle East are not the key focus of the U.S. defense enterprise.
Amid the many uncertainties surrounding U.S. foreign policy after the 2020 presidential election, it seems great power competition (GPC) between the United States, China, and Russia will endure. In many ways it never left. After an extended period of what the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) characterizes as “strategic apathy,” the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), and the Irregular Warfare (IW) Annex to the National Defense Strategy turned away from long-held assumptions of the post-9/11 world. For most of the last two decades, quadrennial defense reviews (QDR) predicted an environment defined by efforts to counter violent extremism in which traditional state expansionism and Cold War-style military competition were ghosts of the past.
Despite colossal investments in exquisite platforms like the F-35 Lightning II during this period, the 2010 QDR still prioritized the acquisition of rotary wing airframes, unmanned aircraft, and “key enabling assets for special operations forces (SOF)”—trademarks of the various ongoing counterinsurgency and stability operations of the time. Russia’s 2014 incursion into the Crimea shattered this paradigm. If any illusions remained, the 2019 outbreak of a novel coronavirus and subsequent unmasking of the Chinese Communist Party’s global ambitions swept them away. It finally laid to rest any hope of placing great power competition into the dustbin of history. For the first time since 2001, violent extremist organizations in the Middle East are not the key focus of the U.S. defense enterprise.
Part of this strategic adjustment involves recognizing that China and Russia have been pursuing their interests with a renewed fervor in places where the United States holds little physical influence, such as parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Although flashy military technologies often steal the headlines, this new vision for competing in the twenty-first century is as much about building and sustaining relationships with U.S. partner nations (PNs) as it is exploiting emerging military-oriented technology. Tangible reflections of this change include the drafting of the IW Annex that describes how irregular functions will support GPC, and the commissioning and recent worldwide employment of the U.S. Army’s newly-formed Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs).
These developments notwithstanding, the broader GPC conversation typically revolves around capabilities and resources that would brand the DoD “ready” for competition to potentially escalate into armed conflict. Few have articulated how the department should compete actively in this environment while deterring escalation and shaping the theater should deterrence fail. Authors have spilt much ink trying to explain how IW could support U.S. strategic objectives, but this approach neglects the reality that in the competitive space between armed conflicts, Irregular Warfare is the DoD’s contribution to great power competition.
Defining IW in GPC
The Pentagon’s 2010 Joint Operating Concept for IW explains that, in addition to unconventional warfare (UW), stability operations (SO), counterterrorism, foreign internal defense (FID), and counterinsurgency, IW encompasses “a host of key related activities including strategic communications, information operations of all kinds, psychological operations, civil-military operations, and support to law enforcement, intelligence, and counterintelligence operations.” In the coming years, these once underemphasized activities will personify a greater deal of IW employment in the competitive space. They allow the United States to maintain a global forward presence and shape the environment without assuming the risk that comes with direct involvement in combat operations. In other words, the ‘W’ in IW should not be conflated with armed conflict.
Twenty-first century IW has become synonymous with low-intensity conflicts because recent wars have predominately associated the term with only one of its five core tasks: counterinsurgency. References to irregular forces or capabilities in U.S. National Defense Authorization Acts appear exclusively as a means of countering non-state actors or groups through PN forces. This results in narrow perspectives that view IW purely as a tool for fighting violent extremist organizations and thereby less relevant to interstate competition. It is true that all counterinsurgency is IW, but not all IW is counterinsurgency.
Although the United States has maintained for years that “IW is as strategically important as traditional warfare and DoD must be equally capable in both,” few would argue that this is now the case across the department. The IW Annex is the first concrete step toward finally operationalizing this concept, but it is by no means complete. Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland and Daniel Egel provide a compendium of challenges associated with the United States’ record of connecting IW activities to strategic objectives in their substantial 2020 RAND Corporation report, The American Way of Irregular War. The book builds on a general consensus from IW professionals across the defense enterprise that the United States is ill-suited for Political Warfare and must “go on the offensive” by growing its capacity to compete militarily below the threshold of armed conflict because its “adversaries are already on the offensive” there.
According to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, IW is defined as activities conducted “by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.” This definition makes it is clear that IW has a place in GPC, but the shift from insurgencies in the Middle East to interstate competition places IW at risk of becoming perceived by policymakers as a phase of contingency operations or simple ‘mil-to-mil’ engagements with PNs. Mil-to-mil is somewhat of a misnomer for what IW actually entails, which, more often than not, encompasses a litany of interagency efforts designed to achieve unified action between the DoD, its diplomatic counterparts in the Department of State, non-governmental organizations, and PN officials. Joint U.S. doctrine recognizes that most security cooperation programs are “integrated and synchronized with the other instruments of national power,” which makes cooperation and coordination with each of these entities an integral facet of IW with far-reaching implications for U.S. interests abroad. The manner in which the United States employs its IW architecture in competition will shape the theaters in which it competes—and if need be, fights.
IW as a Theater Shaping Tool
The initiation of hostilities, what some might refer to as the onset of war, is but a phase in the long arc of a nation’s statecraft. Theater or “regional” shaping occurs daily as nations exercise their instruments of national power abroad, whether it be through diplomacy, economic incentives, social influence, or foreign military sales and deterrence initiatives. It is this proactive shaping process that generates options and opportunities for decisionmakers if tensions escalate or deterrence fails. In other words, the decisions made at peace dictate the options and resources available at war.
Since what was arguably the benchmark great power rivalry between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BCE, competition between major powers has been a political reality that world leaders most often addressed in the form of a grand strategy. That is, a comprehensive and typically long-term strategy that exercises all mechanisms of influence at a state’s disposal. The Athenian Alliance and Sparta’s Peloponnesian League were both constructed and held together by various degrees of security cooperation that underpinned their strength and legitimacy. Thucydides explains how Greece’s rise as a regional power was foremost a product of Athenian naval prowess and the security it offered those traversing maritime trade routes. This stability drew scores of well-off Greeks to Athens’ shores, but it was not only security that made Athens the envy of Greece. Culture, too, played a role.
Athenians were the first to disarm and switch to what Thucydides describes as a “more relaxed and gracious way of life.” In the competitive space where ancient city-states struggled for influence and aligned their national interests with those of others, the Athenian system had a unique appeal that endured until Philip II of Macedon, a master of political warfare, systematically dismantled it in the following century. This framework of international systems and appeal warrants further review if we are to understand how IW serves as a theater shaping tool in GPC.
Deputy Director of the Snowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at The Atlantic Council, Matthew Kroenig, fires back at the popular view that the United States lacks a grand strategy in his new book, The Return of Great Power Rivalry. In it, he suggests that the United States has pursued for 75 years the same objectives of every other democratic hegemony since perhaps Athens: Build an international system, expand partnership within the system, and defend the system. Lacking a robust defense, surely, the system will eventually fail.
Irregular Warfare and its supporting tasks are designed to pursue these objectives directly or support them indirectly through persistent, global, and collaborative joint, interagency, and multinational efforts across the conflict continuum.
This framework compliments the purpose of such an international system as defined by Robert Kagan: “The measure of the order’s success is not whether the United States can tell everyone what to do. It is whether the order itself—the expansion of democracy, prosperity, and security—is sustained.” Kroenig explains the system’s defining tasks as follows: “To build the system, the United States and its allies should continue to provide stability and security to important geostrategic regions. They should proceed with past designs to advance cooperation through international institutions. They should continue to champion an open economic system internationally. And they should sustain efforts to promote democracy, human rights, and good governance.” Irregular Warfare and its supporting tasks are designed to pursue these objectives directly or support them indirectly through persistent, global, and collaborative joint, interagency, and multinational efforts across the conflict continuum.
Gen. James Mattis and Lt. Col. Frank G. Hoffman presented IW as a twenty-first century theater shaping tool in their 2005 Proceedings thesis describing a “four block war.” Expanding upon U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak’s 1999 “three block war” foundation, Mattis and Hoffman proposed that IW can carve out a competitive edge against regimes who use hybrid tactics in strategic competition with other states. Properly imagined and applied, IW concepts integrated into larger theater strategies can alter the decision-making calculus of state competitors by imposing costs in the psychological and information domains — what Mattis and Hoffman described as the fourth block. It took 15 years and several hard-learned lessons to mold that concept into the IW Annex.
Irregular Warfare is structured to promote political stability as much as military proficiency, which can modify the security makeup of regional spheres upon which revisionist or rogue powers rely to spread influence. Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies submits that a more robust IW architecture built to sustain the principles of “democracy, freedom of religion, and free markets” is as critical to setting conditions and outperforming authoritarian powers today as it was during the Cold War. It is only the last two decades of persistent contingency operations that has distracted from this underlying truth related to the military’s role as a cross-functional instrument of national power that can be as industrious in competition as it is in conflict.
IW in Competition and Conflict
Although many have traced the lineage of modern organizations with an explicit IW capability to the bilateral U.S.-Canadian First Special Service Force (1942), the first U.S. Special Forces units (1952), or the Vietnam War-era Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MAC-V), shades of IW have occupied American military thought across the conflict spectrum since it parted ways with the British Empire. Military historian Andrew J. Birtle, for instance, has gone to great lengths documenting this evolution of the American military tradition in operations short of conventional war. But prior to the 1940s, most of these engagements were reactive “small wars” intended to suppress a rebellion or establish order. It was not until Maj. Gen. William Donovan commissioned the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and sent his operatives parachuting into Italy and Nazi-occupied France, and building intelligence networks in Africa and East Asia, that the value of a permanent, worldwide forward security infrastructure became evident.
The 1962 edition of U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5, Field Service Regulations, Operations, contributed to this understanding by including reference to Robert Osgood’s “spectrum of war.” Osgood illustrated degrees of requisite military force ranging from the most extreme circumstance of nuclear war to peacetime, which he classified as a cold war. There is no shortage of discussions questioning whether the United States is on the brink of, or already in, another cold war with China and Russia. But according to Osgood and early army doctrine, a cold war is simply the natural state of competition between major powers when not engaged in open hostilities.
This take resembles eastern strategic philosophies personified by the likes of Sun Tzu and Mao Tse Tung by recognizing what Chairman Mao proclaimed in 1938: “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.” Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and retired U.S. Special Forces Col. David Maxwell put this best in a conversation with the author by inverting Clausewitz’s maxim: “Politics is war by other means.” Throughout its history, the United States and the DoD in particular have had trouble not only fighting this kind of political war but also recognizing when it is already in one.
That said, the specter of great power conflict rightfully absorbed the preponderance of the War Department’s and later the DoD’s attention during the Cold War, which pushed contingency doctrine and IW planning to the margins of military thinking despite powerful advocates for irregular capabilities, such as President John F. Kennedy. This approach to IW as a miscellaneous and secretive defense function fails to recognize that most overseas military exchanges since the Second World War have been cogs in a larger GPC machine.
Donovan’s OSS trained Chinese irregulars to fight the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, inflicting some 6,000 casualties and coordinating with a vast network of roughly 300,000 Chinese spies to support the broader war effort. A residual presence of post-war overseas military forces remained in Europe and Asia not to heighten tensions but to lessen them. In his indispensable and curiously rare 1965 book Waging Peace, President Dwight Eisenhower writes that his military strategy in the Middle East was designed to curb Soviet influence there. His 1957 letter addressing Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s concerns about a U.S. military presence in the region defines the competitive aspects of IW superbly:
When we speak of assisting in a military way, we mean only to help each nation achieve that degree of strength that can give it reasonable assurance of protection against internal rebellion or subversion and make certain that any external aggression would meet resistance.
President Eisenhower clarified that, rather than increase tensions, such a presence would “diminish, if not eliminate, any chance of [interstate conflict].” Decades later, the United States found itself in Vietnam because of concerns surrounding a potential domino effect of Communist regimes in Asia, not simply because North Vietnam posed the greatest security quandary to the western world. Fundamentally, it was a war designed to check the Soviet Union’s regional influence. This tendency to view IW as an afterthought that dwells in the shadow of largescale combat operations has resulted in reactive plug and play responses to threats in the gray zone that bleed generational talent critical to the IW function, squander gains, and limit the decision space afforded policymakers in uncertain or emergent operational environments. Here a paradox emerges related to the employment of IW as a deterrent to conflict rather than a prelude to one.
Part 2 will be published on 20 August 2021
Capt. Michael P. Ferguson, U.S. Army, has nearly 20 years of infantry and intelligence experience throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. He has advised foreign security forces from the tactical to strategic level and holds a Master of Science in Homeland Security from the California State University at San Diego.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier (right) assigned to 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and a Lithuanian National Defence Volunteer Forces (KASP) member observe provide overwatch during the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s joint forcible entry into exercise Saber Junction at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, 2018 September 19, 2018. Special Operations Forces worked alongside the KASP during Saber Junction 18 to conduct irregular warfare in enemy occupied territory to support the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade as they executed land operations in a multinational joint environment.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Benjamin Haulenbeek