Should we ditch unconventional warfare? A Special Forces officer would, and instead focus on support to Political Warfare

US Army Special Forces officer Doug Livermore recently published a critique of the term “unconventional warfare” over at War on the Rocks. The gist of his argument is that misunderstandings about the nature of unconventional warfare and what it can be expected to accomplish are hindering the effective use of this core mission of US special operations forces. Replacing the term with the more readily understood “support to indigenous resistance” and reconnecting it to the concept of political warfare would solve this problem, he argues.

While unconventional warfare served the United States well throughout the Cold War, the understanding of the term has become so distorted by policymakers that it is now essentially a “catch all” for many political warfare components that fall outside the purview of the Department of Defense.

This blog has made similar criticisms of the understanding of unconventional warfare in previous articles, in particular about the popular understanding of unconventional warfare. As Doug describes,

[W]hen the average American thinks of unconventional warfare (assuming they ever do), they likely imagine testosterone-fueled scenes of commando derring-do from movies like Rambo, Black Hawk Down, Inglourious Basterds, and Zero Dark Thirty. These fanciful interpretations of special operations capabilities and missions leave audiences with the inaccurate impression that unconventional warfare is mostly kinetic, often hurriedly planned and executed in an ad hoc fashion, and always requiring direct U.S. military involvement.

And he rightly points out that the lack of understanding is not limited to the layperson, but can readily be found in our defense leadership:

Many policymakers and senior military leaders misunderstand unconventional warfare to such an extent that the term is almost meaningless outside of the small Special Operations community that truly understands the real limitations of this doctrine.

Those few U.S. policymakers who actually understand unconventional warfare … also recognize it is a narrowly-focused Department of Defense mission. However, Pentagon leadership largely marginalizes unconventional warfare as a tool of little use in the sort of peer-on-peer conventional conflicts on which the department prefers to focus its attention.

This view of unconventional warfare as “a tool of little use in the sort of peer-on-peer conventional conflicts” may be changing, with the increased attention on non-traditional interstate conflict now known as the “gray zone.” But there remains significant misunderstanding of the capability, compounded by an institutional reluctance to stray too far from the traditional roles and responsibilities of the military.

Political Warfare

Doug’s point that unconventional warfare is inherently a part of whole of government political warfare is worth discussing in detail. But before we get to understanding the appropriate role of special operations in political warfare, we must first understand the outlines of political warfare.

The concept of political warfare originated in 1948, when George Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and largely credited with conceptualizing the Soviet “containment” policy, coined the term in a memorandum. He defined it as:

The employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives … They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures, and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.

This policy was designed to employ the full breadth of US national power to bear in confronting Soviet aims at expansion, but to do so without risking the catastrophic damage of a shooting war between two great powers. Unconventional warfare was only one aspect of this broader political warfare strategy, and arguably the one most sparingly employed (note the “and even” attached to “encouragement of underground resistance”). As the “hottest” of the forms of confrontation Kennan discussed, and clearly the most lethal, this reluctance is warranted to avoid the unintended breakout of direct warfare.

Unconventional Warfare in Support of Political Warfare

Originally conceived as infiltration “deep into enemy-occupied territory and organize the resistance/guerrilla potential to conduct Special Forces operations, with emphasis on guerrilla warfare,” this core mission of US Army Special Forces has not changed much in the intervening 65 years. It is currently defined in US military doctrine as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”

As Doug points out, these definitions do not cover the full scope of political warfare, but only the support to resistance movements. It must be paired with other elements of Kennan’s political warfare approach to effectively cause an adversary to change course, much less to cause a standing regime to collapse.

Without a well-planned, synchronized, and executed strategy that incorporates the other components of national power, it is impossible for the U.S. to advance its interests and address its most dire security concerns.

Is it Time for a New Paradigm?

Doug makes a great case that, shackled with the “misunderstood unconventional warfare mission, the U.S. government has largely abdicated its responsibility to design and execute coherent interagency strategies to address security challenges posed by adversaries’ political warfare.” While there are other, institutional reasons for this abdication, repairing the political leadership’s understanding of unconventional warfare as part of the broader context of political warfare would be a step in the right direction.

Developing an effective strategy to counter the political warfare waged by our adversaries requires a comprehensive, whole of government approach. As Doug argues, such an approach would likely include:

more intense diplomatic efforts to isolate perpetrators, integrated and expanded economic and financial sanctions designed to directly influence key decision makers in countries currently waging political warfare against the United States, increased international and national legal efforts to raise both the monetary and reputational cost of such disruptive activities, and an aggressive propaganda campaign intended to counteract competitors’ false narratives and weaken the corrupt underpinnings of their regimes.

In Doug’s view the misunderstanding and misapplication of the term “unconventional warfare” has created a situation in which the U.S. government has come to “over-rely on the Department of Defense, thereby avoiding development of more comprehensive approaches to countering competitors’ political warfare.” This is where the other, institutional reasons for the abdication of comprehensive strategy-making come into play. US Government agencies outside the Department of Defense tend to perceive their role in conflict as quite limited, if any. They are also generally biased against offensive application of their institutional capabilities. Even when they do decide to get involved in planning for political warfare, other institutional impediments arise, including bureaucratic walls between agencies, protection of “rice bowls,” and even simple differences in fundamental terminology (note the use of the term “assessment” in DoD versus State and USAID). By relying on the DoD to develop strategic approaches to complex international conflicts, these other issues can be blissfully avoided.

Doug argues that this predilection for reliance on the DoD can be overcome by replacing the term “unconventional warfare” with the more descriptive term “support to indigenous resistance,” which would in turn be a subset of the larger “support to political warfare” paradigm, as developed by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. This change in how we talk about unconventional warfare “would reinforce for senior policymakers the need to develop overarching interagency political warfare strategies that military initiatives would then support.” This, in turn, would allow the DoD, and its Special Operations Command in particular, to refocus on the capabilities required to conduct military operations in support of interagency political warfare strategies.

Armed with a better understanding of how U.S. adversaries wage political warfare, it is evident that unconventional warfare alone is incapable of protecting America’s interests. Rejecting the term will reset the discussion and force policymakers to approach this thorny dilemma with unbiased perspectives.

Realigning Political Warfare Strategy Development

If successful, this shift in responsibility for strategy-making would face considerable resistance within the DoD, as Doug admits, as it would curb the dominant strategy-making position within the U.S. government which it has come to enjoy, not to mention the increased funding priority which accompanies this responsibility. But the proper place for deciding national security and foreign policy matters is not at the DoD, which lacks the expertise and authority to employ the full range of national capabilities, but rather the National Security Council. The National Security Council’s charter makes clear that it is the principal advisory body to the president on all national security matters, as well as a clearinghouse for interagency coordination on national security concerns.

In Doug’s view, the “improper application of the unconventional warfare term to encompass a wide range of non-military elements of national power has allowed the Department of Defense to greatly expand its own influence within the interagency community.” While other factors, mentioned above, significantly contribute to this accumulation of power in the DoD, better defining the boundaries of the military contribution to political warfare would go a long way toward rectifying this lopsided development of strategy.

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