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by Sam Brannen, Small Wars Journal Op-Ed
With the release of its new directive on irregular warfare (IW) the Pentagon has demonstrated seriousness of purpose to fight the last war. The directive (3000.07) comes more than 7 years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and over 5 years after the invasion of Iraq, and it argues that the Department of Defense (DoD) should recognize that "IW is as strategically important as traditional warfare" and deserves similar preparedness and development of capabilities.
Beyond the statement of the obvious a day late and a dollar short, the directive incorrectly characterizes the future of warfare. Leading defense analysts—most notably Frank Hoffman and Steve Biddle—have argued in convincing fashion that the next wars the United States fight will be an undifferentiated blend of what the Pentagon has now formally parsed as irregular warfare and traditional warfare. In an analysis of the 2006 Lebanon campaign, Biddle and Jeffrey Friedman found that "Hezbollah's methods were...somewhere between the popular conceptions of guerilla and conventional warfare—but so are most military actors', whether state or nonstate." Hezbollah blended tactics and even strategic end goals of conventional and irregular warfare. The 2008 National Defense Strategy (NDS) rightly recognizes that "These modes of warfare [traditional and irregular] may appear individually or in combination, spanning the spectrum of warfare and intertwining hard and soft power." So why does the IW directive—which should be derived from the NDS—make no mention of this reality?
The IW directive is further contradictory to existing Department guidance in its categorization of stabilization operations as a subset of IW. For example, the Army's new Field Manual 3-07 on Stabilization Operations places stability operations on an equal footing with traditional warfare. FM 3-07 is in turn derived from DoD directive 3000.05 on Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations, which declared that stability operations "shall be given priority comparable to combat operations."
In his recent monograph on how to account for inevitable surprise in defense planning Nate Freier argues, "Senior defense and military leadership naturally err on the side of what is known and practiced at the expense of preparing for what is less well-known but perhaps more dangerous." Institutional change already underway, Freier observes, is pursued by the defense establishment despite research and analysis of the future security environment that may make a compelling case to prepare for something else entirely.
There is also the institutional issue of where the IW directive places most of the impetus for change related to irregular warfare: at the newly-established U.S. Joint Forces Command Irregular Warfare Center (JFCOM IWC) and with the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). These Combatant Commands have little actual influence over how the Services—and in particular, the Army—go about training and equipping their general purpose forces. Overall U.S. preparedness for this new strategic environment will hinge almost entirely on the commitment of regional Combatant Commanders and the Service Chiefs to the process.
Sam Brannen is a fellow with the CSIS International Security Program, where he works on projects related to defense strategy and policy, Middle East security (especially U.S.-Turkey and U.S.-Turkey-Iraq issues), and U.S. national security reform.