Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare: Counterterrorism Forces in Support of Counterinsurgency Operations

Irregular Warfare: Counterterrorism Forces in Support of Counterinsurgency Operations by William B. Ostlund, Institute of Land Warfare.

This Land Warfare Paper discusses the changes in the counterterrorism (CT) force profile and method of operating over the past ten years. As open coordination between battlespace owners and the CT force became necessary for the CT force's freedom of action, in January 2009 the CT force aggressively revamped its method of operating in Afghanistan. With this study, winner of the 2012 AUSA/Army Capabilities Integration Center writing contest, the author seeks to ensure that lessons learned regarding CT force transparency will be practiced and internalized.


Dave Maxwell

Tue, 10/23/2012 - 8:14am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Like Bill I believe that the "we-they" needs to cease. I think the new Army doctrine for SOF is a step toward that. The Army and USASOC are moving out toward better cooperation and integration of lessons learned as evidenced not only by this doctrine (which has consensus among Army SOF and the Army since this is approved Army doctrine) but also as evidenced by the new office for integration of all the Land power disciplines - focusing on SOF and ground forces collaboration (and I understand the Marine Corps is going to join this effort too). I am well aware of the all the rice bowls but there are many good people who are trying to break them and do the right thing for the entire force of Surgical Strike and Special Warfare forces including a couple of senior SF GOs at your HQs. We can parse names and argue about theories but this doctrine is a step toward being able to recognize and explain the full spectrum of SOF disciplines.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 10/23/2012 - 7:23am


Isn't Special Warfare simply that sub-set of Irregular warfare uniquely suited to and requiring the application of Special Operations Forces to accomplish (As Gen Odierno recently said when looking at a list of SOF Missions: "I do that."), and isn't "Surgical Strike" as much a part of Special Warfare as every other SOF operational capability??

I understand the energy at USASOC to distinguish the differences between what JSOC does and what the rest of the SOF force does; but more importantly I believe we should focus on clarifying the distinction between what SOF does as a whole and what the conventional force does.

(This is a hot - and important - topic, BTW and there is little consensus)


COL Ostlund was the ideal author to produce this excellent article based on his experience as both a BSO and a member of the CT force. The lessons he shares in the article are clear for those who take the time to read it, but I think there is an underlying point that also needs to be discussed that relates to learning organizations. A lot of people pay lip service to it, but the CT force is one of the few organizations (whether SOF or GPF) that have demonstrated the ability to learn and adapt continuously. Why?

Leadership certainly is a major factor. It is one of the few military organizations where you perform or you are fired. I think another factor is they were not burdened with a doctrine and culture that is resistent to change. They didn't champion their doctrine, instead they focused on getting results. I think another factor is their chain of command is relatively streamlined so they don't have too many layers of command may I make this change. The attitude is more along the lines, why are you asking, why didn't you change already?It is probably true you can't make chicken salad out of chicken crap, so there is something to be said about elite units focused on the most important aspect of their organization which is getting the right people in, and then enabling them to be effective; however, I think all units could improve significantly if their leadership adapted some of their learning and adaptive processes.

You'll hear comments by some that call the CT force hyper-conventional forces, but that is clearly based on a lack of understanding of how they operate. They are cutting edge special operations strike forces that also conduct special warfare that Dave describes below to the extent needed to facilitate their CT mission. How special warfare and SOF surgical strike forces can best compliment one another to achieve our nation's objectives can't be determined until we move past the two tribes issue. There is no reason at all why these forces can't combine to achieve a yet unrecognized synergy.

It is time we move our discussion about irregular warfare beyond our COIN doctrine. We can't afford to implement Iraq type COIN globally, but that doesn't mean we won't have to deal with irregular threats globally. There are lessons/prototypes in this article on how we can focus on neutralizing certain irregular threats with a small foot print deployments using the right combination of surgical strike, special warfare and conventional tactics where appropriate. That will require SOF to further adapt to actualize, fortunately we are getting the right leaders in the right places to make this happen.

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 10/22/2012 - 10:54pm

COL Ostlund provides a good overview of half of US Special Operations capabilities. He does a very good job of describing our Surgical Strike capabilities. He does not describe the other half – our Special Warfare capabilities. Below are excerpts from the new Army Special Operations doctrine (ADP 3-05) that was published in August 2012.

I think that it is important that we being to really understand our Special Operations capabilities and now that the doctrine for Army Special Operations has been published we need to be discussing our capabilities in terms of Surgical Strike and Special Warfare. Below are excerpts providing the doctrinal descriptions for Surgical Strike and Special Warfare from Pages 9-10:

27. Surgical strike is the execution of activities in a precise manner that employ special operations forces in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover or damage designated targets, or influence threats. Executed unilaterally or collaboratively, surgical strike extends operational reach and influence by engaging global targets discriminately and precisely. Surgical strike is not always intended to be an isolated activity; it is executed to shape the operational environment or influence selected target audiences in support of larger strategic interests. Although the actual strike is short in duration, the process of planning frequently requires interagency and host nation partnerships to develop the target and facilitate post-operation activities.

28. Surgical strike activities include actions against critical operational or strategic targets, to include counterproliferation actions, counterterrorism actions, and hostage rescue and recovery operations. Counterproliferation actions prevent the threat and/or use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its forces, allies, and partners. Counterterrorism actions taken directly and indirectly against terrorist networks influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks. Hostage rescue and recovery operations, which are sensitive crisis response missions, include offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, preempt, and respond to terrorist threats and incidents, including recapture of U.S. facilities, installations, and sensitive material.

23. Special warfare is the execution of activities that involve a combination of lethal and nonlethal actions taken by a specially trained and educated force that has a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain, or hostile environment. Special warfare is an umbrella term that represents special operations forces conducting combinations of unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and/or counterinsurgency through and with indigenous forces or personnel in politically sensitive and/or hostile environments.

24. Unconventional warfare is defined 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 (JP 3-05). Unconventional warfare operations are politically sensitive activities that involve a high degree of military risk. These operations require distinct authorities and precise planning, and are often characterized by innovative design. Army special operations forces activities are used to influence the indigenous population to support the resistance movement or insurgency.

25. Foreign internal defense is participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security (JP 3-22, Foreign Internal Defense ). Foreign internal defense activities provide a capability that is oriented on proactive security cooperation. Foreign internal defense activities shape the operational environment and prevent or deter conflict through sustained engagement with host nations, regional partners, and indigenous populations and their institutions.

26. Foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare may be considered conceptual opposites; however, the training and education provided to Army special operations forces to work with indigenous forces in the conduct of unconventional warfare is equally applicable in foreign internal defense. In both capabilities, Army special operations forces focus on interacting with and influencing indigenous powers to act. The ability for Army special operations forces to build insurgent capabilities during unconventional warfare is the exact skill set used by Army special operations forces when working with or through indigenous forces and host nation institutions to defeat an insurgent threat.