April 14, 2024
WAR ROOM welcomes back Michael Ferguson as he continues to look at the future of irregular warfare (IW) and special operations forces (SOF) in great power competition. Ferguson ties together the specific attributes of IW as it plays out in the realm of political warfare and the avoidance of full blown warfare. He makes the case for greater incorporation of IW back into the next round of National Security and National Defense Strategies. This is the second part of a two part article.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an article released here on 19 August 2021

Paradoxically, a global retraction of U.S. forces in the interest of avoiding war would create a proportional reduction of sensors and human networks crafted with the very intention of mitigating in their infancy the conditions that precipitate armed conflict.

Breaking the Stigma

Former U.S. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster cautions against the return of “Vietnam syndrome” in his new book Battlegrounds. The fear of sleepwalking into another Iraq or Afghanistan, he submits, could have adverse effects that shy the U.S. government away from integrating comprehensive peacetime security cooperation strategies. Far from a tertiary capability, short of the DoD simply being “ready” for competition to escalate into war, and thereby trusting that such readiness will serve as a sufficient deterrent to escalation itself, IW is the DoD’s tool of record for competing proactively against what David Maxwell describes as the dominant threat in GPC: Political warfare supported by hybrid military approaches. Political warfare is the naturally occurring competitive exchange between states in the absence of armed conflict, so defined in a 1948 memorandum drafted by diplomat George Kennan: “Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace…[It is] the employment of all means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”

Paradoxically, a global retraction of U.S. forces in the interest of avoiding war would create a proportional reduction of sensors and human networks crafted with the very intention of mitigating in their infancy the conditions that precipitate armed conflict. Irregular Warfare in GPC could, and should, seek less to remake the world in America’s own image and more to prevent parts of the globe from deteriorating into an image from which none would benefit, save those revisionist powers eager to fill ensuing vacuums with malign influence. Skills cultivated through IW operations, such as regional expertise, familiarity with foreign languages, and joint, interagency, and multinational experience thereby become essential to realizing the DoD’s broader objectives in GPC.

Published in 2016, DoD Instruction 3000.11 recognized these needs by directing the department to refine its practices related to personnel who possess foreign military advising experience and capabilities. The document labeled such service members a “critical element of the DoD’s ability to conduct the full range of military operations in support of U.S. policy.” As the preferred tools of America’s competitors push the world further into a realm of interstate competition below the threshold of armed conflict, IW and its functions are likely to become critical strategic tools that both push and pull U.S. foreign policy. The IW Annex stated as much by declaring an end to the era of ad hoc reactions to situations short of war and commanding the DoD to “embrace IW as an enduring and fundamental form of warfare.” Special Operations Forces, or SOF, have and will continue to bear the brunt of this burden, but the Army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades, if properly trained and employed, present unique opportunities to connect tactical actions to strategic effects in the competitive arena.

Bridging the SOF-Conventional Gap

The SOF truths, joint doctrine, DoD instructions, and most recently the IW Annex all make clear that conventional forces are, or at least should be, an essential element of IW. Language in the annex commands the DoD to “institutionalize irregular warfare as a core competency for both conventional and special operations forces,” adding that IW is a “core competency for the entire Joint Force.” But despite these proclamations, the 2020 NDAA links IW exclusively to SOF. The U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) remains the proponent for all things irregular, and in 2008 the DoD designated U.S. Special Operations Command the proponent for its Security Force Assistance (SFA) programs. Yet the newly formed Security Force Assistance Command, which serves as the higher headquarters for the five-active duty SFABs, falls under U.S. Forces Command. The resulting capability gap is evident. Calls to brand IW a core competency across the joint force are eclipsed by the reality that outside of overseas contingency operations and multinational training exercises, conventional experience in IW exists largely by exception. This reality drove numerous studies of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to the same conclusion: The U.S. military as an enterprise needs to get better at theater-level IW campaigns.

Part of this endeavor involves bridging the capacity gap between a partner nation’s SOF—often trained by U.S. Special Forces—and its comparatively untrained but numerically superior conventional force. In many instances, the leaders of such forces will rise to become service chiefs or even heads of state in their countries. And if most U.S. special operations require non-SOF assistance to remain effective, then surely the same is true of partner SOF. Col. Michael Sullivan, a Special Forces officer and commander of the 2nd SFAB, emphasized this critical disconnect in a recent podcast with Maj. Gen. John Brennan, commander of 1st Special Forces Command, and now Maj. Gen. Scott Jackson, commander of Security Force Assistance Command. Both leaders see their organizations as “complimentary and symbiotic,” each delivering forward-deployed human sensors capable of de-escalating tensions through a presence-based deterrence effect or setting conditions in theater should deterrence fail. The IW Annex frames this capability as a “concerted deterrent and shaping effect” that imposes heavier costs on adversarial actions. There is doctrinal precedent for this outlook as well. Joint Publication 3-20, Security Cooperation, explains how the execution of security assistance activities “for shaping in the theater campaign may contribute to…a measure of deterrence to prevent the requirement for U.S. forces having to conduct a contingency operation.”

The reactive and ephemeral nature of the U.S. Army’s attempts to build a conventional IW enterprise in line with the type of advisor units first proposed by Lt. Col. John Nagl in 2007 has done little to help bridge this gap. The SFABs in their current composition seem to be the answer to Nagl’s question and the above DoD mandates for a conventional IW capacity focused purely on security assistance. That said, they are also the product of nearly two decades of counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East that often entailed various types of advising missions that either stripped Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) of their leadership, or threw BCTs abruptly into IW roles with little more than a counterinsurgency manual to guide them. Mixed results and in some cases “expensive to build but easy to crack” ‘Fabergé egg’ armies emerged.

Unlike the operational silos of Iraq and Afghanistan where NATO forces maintained an exclusive foreign military presence, the United States must now vie for influence with competitor states in numerous regional spheres.

Earlier organizational concepts, such as the U.S. Army’s Military Transition Teams and Security Force Advisory and Assistance Teams came and went, so it’s no surprise that the idea of another advisor unit elicited degrees of uncertainty. Although the primary logic driving Gen. Mark Milley’s intent to commission the SFABs focused more on freeing up BCTs to prepare for largescale combat operations than improving the Army’s advise and assist capability, that secondary function may prove more decisive in competition. Unlike the operational silos of Iraq and Afghanistan where NATO forces maintained an exclusive foreign military presence, the United States must now vie for influence with competitor states in numerous regional spheres. In other words, the West no longer has a monopoly on the security assistance market as other “suppliers” now flood the field.

The five geographically aligned SFABs supported by a sixth National Guard SFAB are in a position to demonstrate with a high degree of transparency U.S. commitment to partner nations and international stability. The unique and at times diplomatic mission of the SFABs is well known to most SOF, which makes coordination between the two communities essential to the successful implementation of SFAB advisor teams—a reality that U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) already recognized in its 2035 vision. As so-called “combat” deployments evaporate for western militaries, the DoD’s expanding IW capability should become the tool with which the United States chooses to exercise its military instrument of national power below the threshold of war.

Casting a Wider Net

As Hal Brands observed in 2018, the unipolar moment experienced by the United States after the Cold War has generally afforded it the luxury of sacrificing innovation in the competitive space (the most likely scenario) to pursue innovations that could pay dividends at war (the most dangerous scenario). The DoD can no longer afford such a tradeoff because the war for influence and access with revisionist powers is already here, and the United States faces clever, enterprising opponents who pursue strategies designed to “win without fighting.” A revolution in irregular innovation is long overdue.

If the current environment stands, it speaks to an urgent need to reform the DoD’s capacity to respond collectively to a broader spectrum of non-military threats, such as foreign malign influence on U.S. partners and allies. A more robust and integrated IW architecture could blunt these efforts by hardening communities to authoritarian influence campaigns and building joint, multinational operational capacity in their armed forces. In this way, IW’s tactical actions become tied to the U.S. government’s strategic objectives outlined in the NSS, NDS, and IW Annex. The DoD’s IW enterprise should consider the following actions toward this end:

  1. Work to align the mission windows and objectives of theater IW assets rather than employing them in a vacuum. This requires further coordination between U.S. embassy staff, conventional forces employed by geographic combatant commanders, and the corresponding Theater Special Operations Commands as outlined in USASOC’s 2035 vision and supported by DoD directives. As of this writing, SFABs do not have SOF liaisons or any kind of standardized exchange program to de-conflict with their SOF counterparts in theater.
  2. Incorporate key elements of the IW Annex into the next NSS and NDS, expanding upon existing guidance related to SOF-Conventional integration in theater-level strategies and tying related effects in the information space to national strategy.
  3. Recognize that political warfare is the historical tool of choice with which great powers compete and IW is its military vehicle. Acknowledge that the DoD must actively compete in this space by prioritizing security cooperation in strategically critical areas to de-escalate tensions while expanding influence and generating options for policymakers during periods of emerging crises.

Identifying IW as a joint core competency demonstrates America’s commitment to a mutually supporting international network of free nations as directed by the National Defense Strategy. The IW enterprise operates at ground zero of this effort to compete through a system of global security cooperation that builds trust between the United States and its allies, partners, and friends. Should it do so effectively, it may be able to sustain the ideals of prosperity and security it spent the last 75 years defending without seeing competition escalate into conflict.

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: U.S. and Australian Special Operations Forces (SOF) conduct a military freefall parachute insertion at night with zero natural illumination from 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) altitude, July 2019 during Talisman Sabre. By inserting behind enemy lines SOF conduct surveillance and reconnaissance to enable precision targeting. Talisman Sabre is a bilateral exercise that tests the two forces combat training, readiness and interoperability.

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photos by Lance Cpl. Nicole Rogge


  1. At the conclusion of my comment to “Irregular Warfare is Great Power Competition — Part I,” I suggested that the purpose of U.S./Western military assistance to other states and societies, this was best understood (a) less from the standpoint of “diminishing conflict” and (b) more from the perspective of understanding that conflict was inevitable; this, given (1) our and our partner nations’ “revolutionary” political, economic, social and/or value “change” goals and (2) the fact that the “conservative” elements of various states and societies — to include those such elements both here at home in the U.S./the West and elsewhere throughout the world — would stand against same.

    In Part II of Captain Ferguson’s “Irregular Warfare is Great Power Competition” paper above, a suggestion is made to that we should simply step back from our such “revolutionary” political, economic, social and/or value “change” goals:

    “Irregular Warfare in GPC could, and should, seek less to remake the world in America’s own image and more to prevent parts of the globe from deteriorating into an image from which none would benefit, save those revisionist powers eager to fill ensuing vacuums with malign influence.”

    The problem with this such “simply step back” concept, however, is that it fails acknowledge:

    a. The U.S./the West and our partner nation’s dependence on such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy; this, for our national security,

    b. Capitalism, globalization and the global economy’s dependence on such things as frequent political, economic, social and/or value “change;” this, so as to remain viable and

    c. The fact that a “use of force” — both at home and abroad — may routinely need to be applied; this, so as to deal with those “conservative” state and non-state actor elements — who would (a) stand against these such required changes and, thus, (b) jeopardize national security.

    As to the dynamic and relationship that I describe immediately above, consider the following three items from Robert Gilpin’s book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century;” therein, see the first page of the “Introduction” chapter:

    “Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. …”

    “This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.”

    “Threatened individuals, groups or nations constitute an ever-present force that could overthrow or at least significantly disrupt the capitalism system.”

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    From the standpoint of the “conflict environment” that I describe above — a “conflict environment” that would appear to be acknowledged by JP 3-22 Foreign Internal Defense below (therein, see Chapter II, Internal Defense and Development Program, Paragraph 2, Construct) — U.S./Western military assistance to other states and societies, this would seem to best be understood (a) less from the standpoint of “diminishing conflict” and (b) more from the perspective of understanding that conflict is inevitable; this, (c) for the reasons outlined by Robert Gilpin:

    “2. Construct:

    a. An IDAD program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires change to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in tern, promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place.”

    1. Addendum to my comment above:

      Looking at the quote from JP 3-22 that I provide above, if we thus come to understand such words therein as “growth” and “development;” these, more from the standpoint of national security-required political, economic, social and/or value “change,” then:

      a. From that exact such perspective,

      b. What does our U.S./Western irregular warfare approach look like?

      (An approach, thus, which must be designed to maintain conditions under which orderly political, economic, social and/or value “change” [i.e., “growth” and “development”] can take place — both at home and abroad — this, in the face of [a] “natural” conservative group resistance to such change and [b] “natural” exploitation of said dissident conservative groups by our great power opponents/competitors.)

      1. Two additional items, both from Samuel P. Huntington, may help us understand why we cannot accommodate Captain Ferguson’s “Part II” thought immediately below:

        First, Captain Ferguson Part II thought:

        “Irregular Warfare in GPC could, and should, seek less to remake the world in America’s own image and more to prevent parts of the globe from deteriorating into an image from which none would benefit, save those revisionist powers eager to fill ensuing vacuums with malign influence.”

        Next, Samuel P. Huntington’s thoughts:

        a. At Page 41 of his famous “Political Order in Changing Societies:”

        “The apparent relationship between poverty and backwardness, on the one hand, and instability and violence, on the other, is a spurious one. It is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder. If poor countries appear to be unstable, it is not because they are poor, but because they are trying to become rich. A purely traditional society would be ignorant, poor, and stable.”

        b. At the “Torn Countries” section of Huntington’s equally famous “Clash of Civilizations:”

        ” … Mexican leaders are engaged in the great task of redefining Mexican identity and have introduced fundamental economic reforms that eventually will lead to fundamental political change. In 1991 a top adviser to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari described at length to me all the changes the Salinas government was making. When he finished, I remarked: ‘That’s most impressive. It seems to me that basically you want to change Mexico from a Latin American country into a North American country.’ He looked at me with surprise and exclaimed: ‘Exactly! That’s precisely what we are trying to do, but of course we could never say so publicly.'” As his remark indicates, in Mexico as in Turkey, significant elements in society resist the redefinition of their country’s identity. … ”

        Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

        As can be understood from the Huntington quotes above, (a) the manner in which manner poorer countries believe that they can “get rich,” this is by (b) remaking themselves more in the U.S./the West’s political, economic, social and value image.

        And, as Huntington notes in BOTH of his quoted items above, this such effort — quite naturally and understandable — is almost guaranteed to lead to instability; this, as the more traditional/the more conservative/the more status quo elements of these states and societies “naturally” resist these such “modernizing” moves.

        Our irregular warfare approach, thus to be effective, must fully acknowledge — and not turn away from — these such realities. (And the reality that our great power competitors will — both here at home and there abroad — likewise “naturally” try to take advantage of these “resisting transformation”/”resisting further modernization” elements within both our own, and other, states and societies.)

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