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Irregular Warfare gets an Upgrade

December 11, 2008


Security is the bedrock upon which prosperity must build. The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, remind us (as if we need reminding) that the world can be a scary place. Days ago, a luxury passenger liner in the Gulf of Aden escaped an attack by Somali pirates. These challenges are significantly different than those faced during the Cold War. Events of the past 15 years have refocused attention on small wars, insurgencies, and terrorism. I have discussed some of the transformations being made in the military that are being formalized in new field manuals on counterinsurgency and stability operations [see, for example, my post SysAdmin Force comes of Age].


My colleague Tom Barnett discusses two types of required forces — a Leviathan force for winning wars and a SysAdmin force for securing the peace. The first force relies entirely on military power (it blows things up and takes regimes down). The second force relies mostly on civilian personnel and soft power (it builds things up and strengthens regimes). Security during war often means conducting seek and destroy missions. Security during stability operations often means conducting serve and protect missions. It takes highly trained and discipline forces to move from mission set to the other (sometimes in the same day). Between war and peace there is the shadowy world of special operations that is required to prevent, mitigate, or respond to scenarios for which conventional forces are inappropriate. Those operations are the latest Pentagon focus [“U.S. to Raise ‘Irregular War’ Capabilities,” by Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, 4 December 2008]. Tom considers special forces as swing assets that move as required between Leviathan and SysAdmin missions. Tyson reports:


The Pentagon [has] approved a major policy directive that elevates the military’s mission of ‘irregular warfare’ — the increasingly prevalent campaigns to battle insurgents and terrorists, often with foreign partners and sometimes clandestinely — to an equal footing with traditional combat. The directive, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, … requires the Pentagon to step up its capabilities across the board to fight unconventionally, such as by working with foreign security forces, surrogates and indigenous resistance movements to shore up fragile states, extend the reach of U.S. forces into denied areas or battle hostile regimes. The policy, a result of more than a year of debate in the defense establishment, is part of a broader overhaul of the U.S. military’s role as the threat of large-scale combat against other nations’ armies has waned and new dangers have arisen from shadowy non-state actors, such as terrorists that target civilian populations.”


The “debate” has been between the “big war” crowd that wants to focus on China as a near-peer adversary and those who believe that irregular warfare is a more urgent and real threat. The latter group has not argued that conventional forces are unnecessary or that maintaining a prudent hedge force against a potential near-peer is not needed. Its proponents have simply argued that the military needs to focus more clearly on the near-term threat.


“‘The U.S. has considerable overmatch in traditional capabilities … and more and more adversaries have realized it’s better to take us on in an asymmetric fashion,’ said Michael G. Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities, and a chief architect of the policy. Designed to institutionalize lessons the U.S. military has learned — often painfully — in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, the policy aims to prepare the military for the most likely future conflicts and to prevent the type of mistakes made in the post-Vietnam War era, when hard-won skills in counterinsurgency atrophied. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has lobbied outspokenly for such a shift.”


Generally, big policy shifts are not announced during a transition period. However, with Gates remaining in his Cabinet position in the Obama administration, Pentagon leaders obviously feel confident that the shift in focus will be accepted in the White House.


“‘Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and more,’ Gates said in a recent speech at the National Defense University. ‘In fact, the first Gulf War stands alone in over two generations of constant military engagement as a more or less traditional conventional conflict.’ Gates warned that, for the near future, the United States will face the greatest threats not from aggressor countries but from insurgents and extremist groups operating in weak or failing states. ‘We do not have the luxury of opting out because they do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war,’ he said.”


It was comments like that that convinced President-elect Obama that he could work with Gates in his administration. Tom’s brief Weblog comment on Tyson’s article was about Gates staying:


Another example of the impact of Gates, who is described as having ‘lobbied outspokenly’ (odd construction) for the new policy. It’s why I was so eager to see him stay another year or two, because I see the lock-in on things like this being so much more profound on that basis.”


The new policy also supports the President-elect’s stated goal of focusing on the insurgency in Afghanistan.


The new, 12-page directive states that irregular warfare ‘is as strategically important as traditional warfare.’ Defined as ‘a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s),’ irregular warfare ‘favors indirect and asymmetric approaches . . . to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will,’ the directive states.”


Tyson reports that one of the major doctrinal shifts incorporated in the directive is the emphasis it places on training indigenous forces to carry the fight to the enemy rather than relying mostly on U.S. military forces. This shift matches the change in thinking that has been going on in the relief and development communities for the past decade or more. Building capacity is critical for sustaining success. It is as true for the military as for NGOs. The new policy also relies heavily on international cooperation, another theme that Obama sounded during his campaign.


Indeed, Vickers said he envisions that the Pentagon’s primary vehicle for carrying out irregular warfare operations will be a global network — already underway — made up of the U.S. and foreign militaries and other government personnel in scores of countries with which the United States is not at war. The network is designed to wage ‘steady state’ counterterrorism operations. The directive also requires the Pentagon to develop capabilities to conduct larger-scale irregular campaigns, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal of the network, Vickers said in a recent speech, is ambitious: ‘to create a persistent, ubiquitous presence against our adversaries … and essentially to smother them over time.’ The directive ‘should have a big impact on resources’ as well as military planning, Vickers said.”


In some ways the new policy is a throwback to pre-industrial age warfare — it is manpower intensive and requires boots on the ground. As a result, Tyson reports, “it is likely to shift more resources toward training the Army and Marine Corps, which are undergoing significant growth, in skills such as language learning and advising foreign militaries. … The policy also supports continued growth in Special Operations forces — elite troops such as Army Green Berets skilled in partnering with foreign forces and civil affairs soldiers who conduct nation-building.” The civil affairs personnel come closest to the military component of Tom’s SysAdmin force.


In other ways, the new policy clearly pushes the military into the information age. “In terms of equipment,” Tyson writes, “the directive supports the expansion of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets, as well as aviation assets for irregular warfare.” That the military is taking the lead in transformation is not surprising — but it is insufficient. The military is not the right organization to secure the peace, foster development, and promote growth. Nation-building, as the name explicitly implies, is about building. An interagency force with a specific mandate to build is required to complement the military’s transformation efforts. The transition between conflict and peace remains a difficult and complex affair.

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