This Week at War: Do We Still Need Special Ops?

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Have the U.S. military's unconventional warriors defined themselves out of a job?

2) If you can't know the future, how do you prepare for it?

Have the U.S. military's unconventional warriors defined themselves out of a job?

What exactly is unconventional warfare? The U.S. military's special operations warriors have struggled with the definition for decades. To some, unconventional warfare encompasses the entire gamut of activities off the traditional battlefield, including support for foreign militaries, support for friendly guerillas, and behind-the-lines reconnaissance and raiding. Doctrinal purists object to this notion. To them, unconventional warfare means something very specific -- support for resistance movements battling governments hostile to the United States. Last year, the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School organized a conference attended by all of the stakeholders in the U.S. special warfare community for the purpose of finally settling on a definition. This they did. But in doing so, did they made unconventional warfare completely unusable as a tool for policymakers?

Here is the new approved definition: "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."

The idea of the United States supporting a resistance movement harkens back to U.S. support for French, Yugoslav, and other partisans resisting German occupation during World War II. During the Cold War, Green Berets prepared to drop into Eastern Europe to organize resistance if the Soviet army were to invade Western Europe. But the concept of unconventional warfare was later tarnished by the consequences of U.S. support for the Shah of Iran's overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, failed meddling in Cuba in the 1960s, and the Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Unconventional warfare has since had to achieve a very high burden of proof to defend its legitimacy.

With the new definition now written into various U.S. Army field manuals, special operations units will begin to implement training programs to prepare U.S. forces to execute such a mission if called on to do so. But if the special operators are preparing for something that is either politically unrealistic or that purposely avoids the most dangerous threats to the United States, will the unconventional warriors have defined themselves out of a job?

Col. David Witty, who led last year's effort to define unconventional warfare, rejects these arguments. He notes that the definition targets governments or occupying powers and not non-state actors, who many analysts believe to be the most dangerous threat. Witty asserts that the new definition in no way restricts the ability or means for special operations forces to attack, in alliance with a resistance movement, non-state actors like al Qaeda. According to Witty, such a campaign would fall under counterterrorism, an activity separate from unconventional warfare.

More broadly, is it politically realistic to believe that the United States might ever again "coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power"? For Witty, that is a decision for policymakers, and not soldiers, to make. He considers the use of unconventional warfare at least as likely as the clash of regular armies in open warfare, a scenario for which most would agree the U.S. military should also be prepared.

Although it has a troubled past, the appeal of unconventional warfare as a policy option is likely to rise. Supporting insurgents to overthrow an unsavory government seems like a bad idea. But that idea may seem much less bad when compared to all of the alternatives, especially those the U.S. government has tried recently and will wish to avoid trying again. The job for Witty and his special operations colleagues is to make sure policymakers have a usable option should they call for it.

If you can't know the future, how do you prepare for it?

After spending years retooling itself for counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the U.S. Army now unprepared for high-intensity warfare involving an adversary equipped with tanks, artillery, and missiles? In the summer of 2006, the Israel Defense Forces, having spent years immersed in counterterrorist constabulary duties, found themselves bloodied by highly skilled Hezbollah fighters armed with sophisticated weapons and prepared for high-intensity operations.

Some U.S. Army officers fear the United States may be similarly unprepared. The need for foot soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has diverted soldiers in the armor, artillery, and other branches to serve as infantrymen, depriving them of the experience they require to master their original fields. Three Army colonels, all very successful counterinsurgency commanders in Iraq, declared in a paper they wrote for the Army chief of staff that the artillery branch was nearly untrained and essentially unprepared for large-scale combat. Col. Gian Gentile, an outspoken combat veteran of Baghdad and now a history professor at West Point, declared that "The Armor Corps in the American Army is gone." Gentile asked:

But what if the American Army has to fight somebody in the future beyond insurgents laying IEDs and small arms ambushes that is usually handled effectively by infantry platoons? What if a heavy Brigade Combat Team in Iraq was told to pick up and head east and do a movement to contact into a threatening country?

Could we do it? It would be hard to do such an operation without the intellectual framework of an Armored Force that the American Army used to have, but of late has gone away. It will be hard, very hard to get it back. Competent field armies, skilled in all-arms warfare, are not made overnight.

Gentile's questions are mostly philosophical, addressing what he believes is a new and disturbing state of mind among top Army officers. But the questions raised by all four colonels also address specific technical questions for which the Army should have quantitative answers.

The Army should be able to tell the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (assuming they were interested) how many heavy brigade combat teams (those equipped with tanks, mechanized infantry, artillery, etc.) have demonstrated their proficiency in high-intensity combat to Army training standards within, say, the past three months. The Army should also be able to report how many additional heavy brigade combat teams would be similarly combat ready in one month, three months, six months, and so on, should a situation requiring that capability arise.

Hopefully, the Army has answers to these questions (which undoubtedly are secret). Whether the answers are alarming to officials in the chain of command or to congressional oversight committees are judgments in risk management. These judgments include assessing the size and qualities of potential threats, their probabilities, and their associated warning times. In 2006, Israeli policymakers either misjudged these factors or overestimated the high-intensity combat readiness of their forces.

The concerns raised by the four colonels are part of a larger question about the U.S. military's ability to adapt to strategic surprises of any kind. Retooling for counterinsurgency (which took at least four years) has left the Army much less prepared for other contingencies. Knowing how many units are ready for various kinds of wars is important. Perhaps even more important is building a military force that is specifically designed to rapidly retool itself regardless of the surprise.

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Your "accepted" definition of unconventional warfare as the new sort of warfare: "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." suggest that Special Forces are henceforth no longer bound by the rules of warfare nor to be defended as soldiers by the Geneva Accord, thus legitimately shot on the spot like irregulars.

Guerrillas are trained as they go. The longer they survive, the better they are as guerrillas. They are easily replaced, both at the start and as skilled veterans because the guerrilla forces really have the initiative. Special Forces are expensively trained before they go to battle, too often intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb, dependent very often on non-combat trained natives as guides and translators. They are thus a very expensive commodity that we cannot afford to leave to warfare chance selection. Dropped behind the lines in WWII Europe or Communist Eastern Europe, all it took to blend into the background was linguistic ability and counterfeit identification papers. But as I recall the US never used "Special Forces" for that but rather OSS and CIA personnel. Their job was technical and related to espionage rather than any military function as any guerrilla movements we helped or started only got people killed and were thoroughly infiltrated. In more current "3rd World" warfare, it is hard to imagine a very effective role Special Forces played behind enemy lines. In South Vietnam, their association with the Montagnards raises questions about their effectiveness, having to stand there helplessly as the autonomy encouragement our SFs gave led to ARVN forcefully rounding up these indigenous forces right before their eyes and disarming them. In the end several SFs were prosecuted in a public scandal and MACV never thought much of them.

Secrecy prevents detailed discussion of their role in the War on Terror. However, where we stand against Taliban and Iraqi militias is a terrible indictment by results of our "unconventional warfare."

The concept of highly skilled soldiers in reconnaissance and as sappers is one thing, but all these snatch and pop teams are of dubious value and may well serve to enrich the other side with revenge seeking well motivated perpetuating an irregular war that all the king's men and horses couldn't win over somewhere near a decade.

Courage is never the issue and combat skill is not either. Yet these forces are far more than sappers so the question of exactly what they have done in service of national policy is a real head scratcher.

Paul Tompkins:

Thank you for your response.

A careful reading of my essay will show that it was not a "dismissal of support to a resistance." In fact, at the end of the essay, I predicted that "the appeal of unconventional warfare as a policy option is likely to rise" and that "[t]he job for Witty and his special operations colleagues is to make sure policymakers have a usable [UW] option should they call for it." To me, that sounds like support for USSOCOM's preparation for UW.

In the essay, I noted that UW campaigns can be politically problematic, something that Col. Witty discussed in his essay. Assistance to the French partisans in World War II and the Northern Alliance more recently were not controversial. Using UW as a tool for current or future security problems is not likely to be such an easy call as those cases were. That does not seem like a controversial conclusion to draw. But it also does not mean that the U.S. government shouldn't prepare for UW campaigns, preparation which, as noted above, I support.

U.S Army Special Forces (SF) (those awarded the Green Beret after completing the Special Forces Qualification Course) have a number of "jobs" besides UW such as FID, COIN, CT, DA, etc.

SF were developed for multiple purposes but predominantly to work with and support foreign regular and irregular forces in accomplishing the hosts objectives where that accomplishment was in the national interest of the U.S. They have done so for the past 60 years by conducting FID, COIN, and UW. SFs method of operating is "through, by and with" which may be "unconventional" but it is not Unconventional Warfare. SF works through, by and with foreign regular forces to eliminate terrorism and lawlessness in FID and with irregular forces to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow an occupying power or government. Operating unilaterally is and always has been the exception not the norm.

Haddick's dismissal of support to a resistance as something that is grounded in WWII and has only been discredited since is historically incorrect. The Northern Alliance was a resistance organization that 5th SFG infiltrated into Afghanistan and supported allowing for the overthrow of the Taliban government. That operation is doctrinally correct to the new definition as is the support to the Kurds by 10th SFG in Iraq.
While the old definition of UW was generally a method of operating, the new one is a specifically defined activity in line with Title 10 of U.S. Code which lists UW as an activity. The new definition can also be used to describe what others are doing as well, Iran in Iraq etc. It is not U.S. specific.

Since for the past 60 years SF has been predominantly supporting foreign military and paramilitary forces in eliminating lawlessness and terrorism, it is unlikely that the change of a definition of UW will result in less employment.

I am working on a detailed response to this and will have it to the SWJ editors for posting as an article later today. Suffice it to say Mr. Haddick's understanding of UW is not the same as mine.

The first topic is a strange collection of thoughts. It smacks of creating a problem where none exists. US Special Operations people have not struggled with the definition of Unconventional Warfare for decades, one has existed for decades. The latest iteration, prior to the SWC Conference, was this from the DoD Dictionary:

"Unconventional warfare (UW). [JP 1-02] (DoD) (DOD) A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes, but is not limited to, guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery. Also called UW."

The new definition is designed with fiscal, not military, concerns in mind. It is problematic -- though not on the grounds cited in the article. Its major problem is that it is too restrictive. In its defense, it does remove some of the extraneous items in the old DoD version. That version itself created a problem with the phrase "organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source." Think about it.

In any event, the new one won't last that long. Next watch will want to invent their own...

Three points on the article proper:

- 'Green Berets' is not a term of choice to identify people, units or capability by most who legitimately own such headgear.

- The concept of unconventional warfare may have been discredited in the eyes of the academy, the media and entertainment industry and some politicians but essentially it was not tarnished so much as overcome by societal changes.

- UW by definition has never been legitimate so saying that it has a high burden of proof to defend its legitimacy is an oxymoron. I would also suggest that US UW does not have a troubled past, it has had some successes and some failures but its most obvious defect in the eyes of politicians is that it can be politically embarrassing. They hate that...

Colonel Witty is noted as saying that a determination for the US to employ UW against another State as the article implies is a political policy decision, not a military decision. Very true. A decision to employ UW takes merely political will so I do not see the new definition creating the slightest problem. Given UW actions and events today and over the past few years, I'd say that adequate will existed and exists in Washington.

This seems to me to be, as I said, an essay in search of a problem.