Small Wars Journal

Fighting Dirty: How the Marines can Sustain Versatility and an Irregular Warfare Edge Through a Dedicated School

Wed, 02/03/2021 - 9:01pm

Fighting Dirty: How the Marines can Sustain Versatility and an Irregular Warfare Edge Through a Dedicated School


By Nathaniel K. Lambert


If you Google search “reemergence of great power competition” you will get 731,000 hits. Search “NDS [National Defense Strategy] Irregular Warfare Annex” and you get less than 10% of that. This disparity reflects the current climate of military thinkers, despite the fact that insurgency is the most prevalent form of armed conflict since at least 1949. Throughout U.S. history, Irregular Warfare has been a reoccurring problem for the Marine Corps and recent trends suggests it will remain an important domain that the Marines must be prepared to succeed in. Any plans to prepare the service for Irregular Warfare, however, will have to compete for resources against the reemergence of great power competition - even though success in high-end conflict between the U.S. and a peer adversary will likely require conventional grunts to utilize some unconventional means. To achieve a more mature, agile, and capable total force, prepared for Irregular Warfare as well as strategic competition, the Marine Corps should establish an Irregular Warfare School that seeks to institutionalize the experience gained during the last two decades, capture emerging lessons from the current operating environment, and teach these concepts to Marine Corps small-unit leaders and tactical planners.


An Unbalanced Paradigm Shift


Irregular Warfare is defined by Joint Publication 1 as, “A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s).” It is an umbrella term that encompasses five core activities: counterterrorism, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency, and stability operations. Recently, such conflicts have been overshadowed by a shift in national defense strategy. The supreme menace to the United States - excluding the oblivion of nuclear warfare - has become the ability of China and/or Russia to gain regional hegemony and challenge the rules-based international order through grey zone strategies and potential faits accomplis that take advantage of an expanded anti-access area denial weapon engagement zone and perceived gaps in U.S. deterrence and alliances. This has gained mainstream attention through the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Chinese incursions in the South China Sea, and FICINT (fiction writing and intelligence) such as Ghost Fleet. The 2018 NDS leaves no doubt: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition.” The recent focus for the Marine Corps has been Force Design 2030 and its intent to build a force that can support combatant commanders in deterring and responding to this national threat.


But how is the Marine Corps designing a force to meet other, more likely situations? Skepticism directed at Force Design 2030 has claimed the Marine Corps is putting too many eggs in one basket, including from former Secretary of the Navy, Senator Jim Webb. This criticism is backed by the proven viability of irregular methods in defeating a superior adversary. During the past decades, nations and non-state actors alike have adjusted their approach to conflict with the U. S. military after watching the swift destruction of Saddam’s armies, as well as effectiveness of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan (along the way to the Global War on Terror’s $6 trillion price tag). Distracting and draining U.S. resources is now a much more appealing approach than risking an open conventional fight. Adversaries of all types, including peer competitors, will feasibly utilize Irregular Warfare methods to bleed the United States of blood and treasure, making General Vo Nguyen Giap proud. The Irregular Warfare threat remains high enough for the 2018 NDS to include an Irregular Warfare Annex that tasks the Department of Defense with maintaining Irregular Warfare acumen at every echelon across the Joint Force. This begs the question of whether the Marine Corps of Force Design 2030 addresses this requirement.


Risky Assumptions


The Commandant, General David H. Berger, has posited that forces capable of high-end strategic competition in the South China Sea or in NATO’s Eastern flank, “will also retain broad capabilities for forward deployment afloat in support of the range of crisis and contingency operations that have historically been the ‘bread and butter’ of the Marine Corps in the intervals between major wars.” Essentially, the Marine Corps of Force Design 2030 will retain the ability to adapt to meet any challenge. A task that is much easier said than done, more so now that civil conflicts are increasing in complexity with the proliferation of advanced technology which have low barriers of entry (thermal optics, unmanned aerial systems, electronic warfare, etc.). 


Assumptions regarding sustaining Marine Corps versatility, therefore, come with significant risk. U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq all serve as cautionary tales. As one Brookings Institute study noted, “During the Vietnam War, the military re-learned counterinsurgency, but took so long in adapting to the Vietnam environment that, although U.S. Forces arguably defeated the Viet Cong guerrillas by 1972, they failed to defeat the North Vietnamese regular forces before American people began to call for withdrawal.” Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom again proved that forces primed for a specific type of war could take several years to successfully adjust to a different one. The best an unprepared force can hope for is enough time, resources, and political will to adapt, which would likely come at a grave cost. 


The problem statement for the future force of the Marine Corps has thus become: “Given current and projected fiscal constraints, how does the USMC man, train, and equip a force that is prepared for both the most dangerous and the most likely threats?” Examining ways to increase Irregular Warfare readiness that also support the endstate of Force Design 2030 is key to unpacking this challenge. The answer is not to rely on Marine Corps Advisor Companies or an already thinly stretched Special Operations Forces (SOF) community. While both are important enablers, they lack the capacity to meet large scale Irregular Warfare demands. Field-Marshall Viscount Slim supported this argument when he stated, “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units.” Additionally, Force Design 2030 is divesting in Law Enforcement Battalions - a key Irregular Warfare capability - meaning grunts will likely have to fulfill those duties.


One Piece of the Pie


One avenue worth exploring is institutionalizing Irregular Warfare expertise gained in Iraq and Afghanistan to develop a resident specialization within the Fleet Marine Force.Currently, the U.S. military risks repeating the same mistake that was made post-Vietnam. Lessons learned from fighting an unconventional enemy were never institutionally ingrained and proficiency had to be redeveloped in the Middle East. Examples include overemphasis on offensive action (sweep and clear operations that became “clear and leave”), indiscriminate use of force, and prioritizing force protection over security for the local populace. Eventually, U.S. forces were able to adapt and “set a standard for an enduring approach” to Irregular Warfare but every year more veterans of those conflicts leave the force. Formal education and training will be required to preserve their expertise and to develop the human capital needed for a nimble Marine Corps. An Irregular Warfare School would be an effective means to ensure this vital tactical and operational know-how is retained, creating a needed degree of specialization in future generations of Marine leaders. 


Doctrine alone has proven to be insufficient. The Small Wars Manual came out in 1940 but too few military leaders read it prior to Vietnam and knowledge from the Banana Wars had to be relearned. The story of Afghanistan and Iraq was similar, despite a growing body of literature including studies into the Vietnam War, the British experience in Malaya, and the French in Algeria. With a shifting focus to China and Russia, the Marines Corps should be asking how many of its squad leaders or company-grade intelligence officers are keeping updated on counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. It is easy to picture many such publications already beginning to gather dust, facilitating the “boom-bust cycle” of Irregular Warfare that Secretary Mattis tried to end while in office. The risk is clear, however, that the U.S. military may once again forget lessons learned in blood.


Back to School


An Irregular Warfare School would finally change the record. Infantry battalions would already have the subject matter experts (SMEs) required to succeed in an unconventional conflict. Similar schools have worked in the past, such as the Far Eastern Land Forces Training Academy established by the British to teach effective tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) from the Burma campaigns to prepare forces for the Malayan Emergency. The U.S. established similar training centers in both Iraq and Afghanistan to impart hard-earned wisdom that were both effective and low-cost. There are eight lines of effort listed in the NDS Irregular Warfare annex, a dedicated Professional Military Education (PME) school would support six of them. It is time that a permanent Irregular Warfare School be established to prepare Marines for these types of future conflicts.


The mission of the school would be to train Irregular Warfare fundamentals through two distinct courses directed towards small-unit leaders and battalion-level planners. At the small-unit leader level, Marines would learn to balance the dichotomy of fighting and peace building,with a focus on principles such as: Irregular Warfare prerequisites, approaches, and activities; population-centric security; escalation of force; humanitarian development activities; working with an interpreter; tactical collections and exploitation; decentralized fires; Information Operations; and attacking the network. Since success for any unit in contemporary Irregular Warfare, especially COIN, requires a comprehensive interagency effort, the school should employ outside experts to teach topics such as SOF integration, utilizing intelligence enablers, State Department and NGO cooperation, exploiting the media, and the influence of culture (more than the typical pre-deployment “dos and don’ts”). The endstate would be real Strategic Corporals that can fight appropriately on all three blocks and thrive in the “Chaos Imperative;” coupled with platoon commanders and platoon sergeants who enable their squad leaders and own their battlespace.


The second targeted audience would be future battalion intelligence and operations officers. The focus would be on the operational art needed to design and integrate multiple lines of operations to achieve success in Irregular Warfare. The current preparation courses for these billets could easily be revamped with Irregular Warfare-focused material. These planners could then tie into the small-unit leader course for a comprehensive final exercise where their concepts of operations are executed in real time by the junior leaders against a capable opposing force.


The Good Idea Fairy


Critics may groan: “Great idea, another formal school that I need to send Marines to. I was wondering what to do with all the free time in my pre-deployment work-up.” Be that as it may, investing in Marines by sending them to Irregular Warfare School would pay beaucoup dividends for units. Marines will return as SMEs to train the rest of the unit and provide invaluable know-how in an irregular conflict. Irregular Warfare School should also count as a resident PME equivalent for advanced military occupational specialty courses to help with the balancing act of getting Marines to school and involving them in unit training. Not only should this apply to combat arms fields but to key support personnel such as intelligence, communications, and logistics.  

Two Birds, One Stone


Most importantly, Irregular Warfare acumen is highly relevant to the great power competition paradigm. Graduates of Irregular Warfare School will fit well within the contact layer required by the NDS “designed to compete below the level of armed conflict.” This includes capabilities like decentralized fires; use of unmanned systems; command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR); and camouflage, concealment, and deception (CCD). These TTPS will help develop the mature and capable force that can win the hider-versus-finder competition advocated in Force Design 2030. Additionally, Irregular Warfare proficiency can be used to support Foreign Internal Defense and Security Cooperation vis-a-vis potential allies struggling with internal conflict - winning future partners against peer competitors. Moreover, if a hot war with China or Russia breaks out, it is a foregone conclusion that conflict will be asymmetric, requiring Marines with Irregular Warfare savvy. Unconventional TTPs will be required to defeat these threats, whether in uprooting plain-clothed enemy SOF on an isolated island, defeating an enemy-contracted criminal organization in Eastern Europe, or securing an untrusting populace in North Korea. The ability to transition to stability postbellum will be critical to the success of any future campaign. Irregular Warfare School Marines would possess these capabilities.


The Marine Corps should not go about this venture alone. The risk of myopic focus on great power competition has also affected the Army, evidenced by the dissolution of the Army Irregular Warfare Center and Human Terrain System (HTS).  Both services would benefit by working together to hedge against irregular challenges. The Irregular Warfare School should incorporate ideas from the HTS, Army Asymmetric Warfare Group, and from the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, including using the vaunted Robin Sage exercise as a framework for training. Furthermore, the idea of courses teaching Irregular Warfare specialties nests with other concepts for developing the baseline skills of small-unit leaders. Advocates for a Joint Close Combat Leader Training Center have a convincing argument that Army and Marine Corps squad leaders need more advanced training to maintain an edge on the modern battlefield. An Irregular Warfare course would be a simple addition to such a Joint school and would go a long way in sharing the burden of resourcing and staffing.


Imagine a Marine Corps that perpetuates Irregular Warfare subject matter expertise throughout the uncertainty of an ever-changing security climate. It would be a force full of squad leaders, platoon commanders, and intelligence and operations officers who are Irregular Warfare specialists. These leaders would significantly increase the Marine Corps readiness for both the most likely and the most dangerous threats. They would give Marines an edge in the asymmetric domains of contemporary warfare and help dispense with the ad hockery in which Title X missions are executed. There are many obstacles, especially fiscal and manpower related, to creating an Irregular Warfare School but the overall benefits to the force would be well worth the investment. As LtCol (ret) John Nagl so aptly put, “The final tragedy of Iraq and Afghanistan would occur if we again forget the many lessons we have learned about counterinsurgency over the past decade of war, and have to learn them yet again in some future war at the cost of many more American lives.”


About the Author(s)

Capt. Nathaniel K. Lambert is a Marine Ground Intelligence Officer and currently serves as the Intelligence Officer for 1st Battalion, 1st Marines in Camp Pendleton, CA.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:00am

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Good analysis and article, however, I encourage you to critically examine the irregular warfare training and capabilities produced right now within the Marine Corps' own special operations pipeline and advanced schooling. Slim's pithy comments aside, your references indicate a dearth of understanding in current IW training within the MARFOR assigned IW tasks, which I believe is a common gap in education accross the USMC. A theory of victory to accomplish your insightful reccomendations might be to task MARFORSOC to lead and staff an IW school in support of the Service, drawing in lessons from not only other USSOF, but also foreign SOF and interagency approaches. Also, were the Service to implement your ideas, it should partner with the Naval Postgraduate School's Defense Analysis Department which provides arguably the most comprehensive IW education & curiculm available.

The bottom line is that the Marines already possess an IW school, however it surpasses the requirements identified in your article. MARFORSOC should be tasked and resourced to create a shortened version that meets the requirements you identify.

From the Army standpoint (and I suspect with the other services) as the Vietnam War started to die down, even the word Vietnam became taboo. Going through intel school in 1971, most of the training had gone back to the Fulda Gap scenario. At that time, we not only had 1/2 dozen Marines attending classes at Ft. Huachuca, but SEALS, as well. One of our instructors was a USMC captain and our class advisor was a gunny sergeant- both taught us things of use for those of us then going to Vietnam- 95% did, which we appreciated.

Given the rush to forget Vietnam and NOT use what we learned there only served to work against us in our later conflicts. Further, why not have more "jointness" when it comes to fighting guerrilla wars (probably not the latest thing to call it) in the future, including intelligence?

I read your article and couldn’t agree with you more. Since being medically retired as a Marine Infantry Unit Leader and being a seasoned combat veteran w/ multiple combat deployments to both AO’s. I have thought about all the Marines that got out or were medically discharged after those wars and all the raw talent and information that we could bring to the table for future Marines fighting the good plus it would give a lot of us that purpose again of making a difference in this world. It would cost money to conduct the program and create another PME or you could have a Unit of prior knowledgeable Retired Marine veterans composed of Infantry, Communications, Motor T, Logistics, and Intelligence that could be attached to the Units like cadres to teach the squad leaders and fire team leaders like a train the trainer not to mention stuff doesn’t always go as planned publications are great for references but they need to know how to think outside the box and adapt quickly.  The cadre then teaches and also grades utilizing practical  applications then the cadre grades them on their ability to teach it to their battalions then the battalion could get evaluated after conducting different Live exercises in order for the marines to get certified. Then every one wins and you know the money is not being wasted.