Developing a mastery of irregular warfare

The U.S. military has failed to master irregular warfare above the tactical level.

This is not a new problem, and it is one that has been recognized by leaders at the most senior echelons of government. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated this perhaps most clearly when he admonished the Department of Defense (DOD) in his 2008 National Defense Strategy to “display a mastery of irregular warfare comparable to that which we possess in conventional combat.”

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A lack of focus on this form of warfare within the DOD may be to blame. Secretary Gates characterized this challenge in his memoir as the “military services’ preoccupation with planning, equipping, and training for future major wars with other nation-states, while assigning lesser priority to current conflicts and all other forms of conflict, such as irregular or asymmetric war.”

Previous efforts to address this challenge have struggled to gain purchase. The most noteworthy failure, perhaps, was that highlighted by Sens. Sam Nunn, John Warner, Edward M. Kennedy, and William S. Cohen in a 1989 letter to National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. In this letter, the senators highlighted their concern with “deficiencies in U.S. capabilities to engage effectively” in irregular warfare (which they referred to by the then-popular term low-intensity conflict) and that the “Executive Branch has blocked meaningful implementation” of the reforms related to low intensity conflict mandated in the 1987 Nunn-Cohen Amendment that resulted in the formation of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

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More recently, the 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy emphasized the need to institutionalize irregular warfare “as a core competency with sufficient, enduring capabilities to advance national security objectives across the spectrum of competition and conflict,” and detailed a plan for doing so. However, it too, seems to have failed: Irregular warfare is only referenced twice (and in passing) in the 2022 National Defense Strategy, and the intellectually adjacent concept of the “gray zone” is used only to describe adversary approaches. This apparent failure is highlighted by the fact that draft language for the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act once again restates the need for the “institutionalization of irregular warfare as a core competency of the DOD.” 

Developing a mastery of irregular warfare may be no small feat. History has shown that the U.S. military relies on the use of conventional force in almost all conflicts, seeking victory through attrition or annihilation of an adversary. In contrast, success in irregular warfare requires approaches that are informed by the enemy and the population around him, their attitudes, beliefs, frustrations, and the geopolitical periphery.

The momentum created by U.S. Congress in authorizing the creation of an Irregular Warfare Functional Center (IWFC) — which we documented previously — offers a unique opportunity at a pivotal moment in U.S. history to develop this mastery. The dual focus of the IWFC in (1) advancing knowledge and understanding of irregular warfare and (2) educating the joint force on the application of irregular warfare could address two of the major challenges that have impeded efforts to develop this mastery. However, we fear that the recent decision to establish this center within the security cooperation enterprise, even initially, could limit the potential of this opportunity.

We believe that there are two steps that the DOD could consider if it hopes to build on this momentum and develop the mastery of irregular warfare that the United States needs:

  1. Consolidate the development of irregular warfare knowledge and irregular warfare education within the DOD: In 1986, the U.S. Congress mandated that USSOCOM would be responsible for “developing strategy, doctrine, and tactics” and “conducting specialized courses of instruction” for many of the core components of irregular warfare – specifying that USSOCOM would be responsible for strategic reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, civil affairs, psychological operations, and counterterrorism among other activities. Thus, while it may be appropriate for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency to be involved in activities that involve working with allies and partners, it seems problematic that its new center purports to be the “central mechanism for developing the Department of Defense’s (DOD) irregular warfare knowledge and advancing the Department’s understanding of irregular warfare concepts and doctrine.” Consolidating the development of irregular warfare knowledge and education within USSOCOM by making USSOCOM the executive agent for this newly established Irregular Warfare Center could enhance efforts within the DOD to develop this mastery of irregular warfare.
  • Ensure that the IWFC is partnered with one or more premier academic research institutions: Historically, formal partnerships with America’s world-class universities have been critical in attracting the brightest minds and developing the foundational understanding necessary for the DOD to respond effectively to emergent national security challenges. This is true of both the physical sciences that underlie U.S. conventional supremacy, but also the social sciences that are at the heart of irregular warfare. Further, the Congressional language that authorized the IWFC directed the DOD to evaluate whether “universities and other academic and research institutions” could reduce the costs of implementing the IWFC.

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Several of America’s best universities have already signaled an interest and willingness to commit resources to support the IWFC in defense of the nation. Partnering with one or more of these universities could meet the Congressional intent of reducing the costs of executing the IWFC while giving the DOD access to the brightest minds and educators as it seeks to develop this mastery of irregular warfare.

Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland (Ret.) is an adjunct researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a senior mentor to the Army War College.

Daniel Egel is a senior economist at RAND.

Col. David Maxwell (Ret.) is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Global Peace Foundation and a senior advisor to the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy. 

Col. Hy Rothstein (Ret.) is a recently retired faculty member of the Naval Postgraduate School.

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