Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare Education “A Lifelong Process”

Mon, 07/17/2023 - 10:55pm

Irregular Warfare Education “A lifelong Process”

By Paul Burton

“If traditional Warfare is checkers with violence, Irregular Warfare is not just chess, it is nine simultaneous chess games where pawn to queen four in one game affects the other eight games, every move has a symbiotic relationship with each other”. Author Afghanistan 2004

Checker games are short, and although they do require a strategy the complexity in contrast with chess is incomparable. The complication of nine games of chess is significant, but if your peer competitor plays “Go” (Henry Kissinger), we now have game board disconnect.  How does the Department of Defense prepare strategic and operational level thinkers to link these board games and win? Can policy makers even define what winning is? The education process to enable successful Irregular Warfare (IW) campaigning is lengthy and does not fit into the traditional professional military education model, it is an iterative lifelong learning process that combines several pillars: a unique pedagogy, didactic, methodology, a form of classical liberal arts education, self-study, and experience. Those fundamental foundations provide the skills to think, plan, and execute in the realm of IW campaigning.

     The Department of Defense has educational infrastructure, the comparison of educational budget to training budget is clearly disproportionate. Additionally, decades of focus on Violent Extremist Organizations have created a dearth in intellectual thought with regards to IW. Many of our interagency counterparts lack the capability and capacity to advance IW education which inhibits the execution of IW campaigns against peer’s because they are integral to the execution in protracted struggles. This is particularly concerning since many of these agencies​'​ policy makers should help define the political objectives that the military will help accomplish.  I will delimit this article to a discussion primarily focused on Army Special Operations Forces (SOF) education not training.                       

      Where many of the recently published Department of Defense documents fall short is they do not discuss self-study and experience. I have been asked many times, what IW course should I attend? My response is any of them, the course will help frame some thoughts and hopefully provide some examples ​of ​successes and failures, but you won’t walk away from any two-week course saying now I understand IW. Pedagogy, the method, and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept is important in the IW learning process and helps develop a way to think and access problems in IW, especially at the operational and strategic level. Pedagogy generally focuses on the why whereas didactic focuses on the how, which more broadly fits in the U.S. Army construct of task, condition, and standard. Programs like the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs at Fort Liberty, NC and Naval PostGraduate School at Monterey are wonderful programs that provide students an opportunity to link theoretical concepts to operational realities, but unfortunately their student throughput is limited. That is why courses like the Irregular Warfare Planners Course, Fort Liberty, NC and courses at the Joint Special Operations University, MacDill AFB filled and fill different voids for different audiences in the education process for the community. Most Army courses are didactic with structured lesson plans, outline learning objectives, evaluations and tests, instructor presented lectures, limited group discussion, and structured schedules and this can provide a foundation, but can inhibit creative thinking. As a Captain during the Cold War a commander accusatorily said to me, “you color outside the lines” to which I responded “Sir, why are there lines​?​” To be sure there must be boundaries in IW, but most Army courses inspire the check list or school solution mentality, in IW there are only ways to approach the continuous cycle of challenges, you must think and reason. If you have not read several dozen books about your profession and the way the world interconnects, you are functional illiterate at the operational level in IW.

What are the subjects and approach to becoming “functional literate” in IW? First a broad understand​ing​ of history and events helps provide context, second an understanding of world and domestic economics including transportation and distribution networks and vulnerabilities, third sociology and cultural, fourth political science, especially the failures of totalitarian regimes, fifth logic, and critical thinking. Finally, IW case studies as a tool to project the film of the past to the screen of the future (Neustadt and May). The case studies should not just focus on the warfare aspect of the incident, but instead should also look at the geopolitical, economic, and sociological context that it took place across a broad spectrum of time. This is not an exhaustive list, but if the goal; is Irregular or Political Warfare understanding, what is important in ​the ​human domain of the country or region you are focusing on, a broad classical liberal arts education is advantageous.

      Experience developed through multiple different types of deployments helps build a repository that ​can ​be used to problem solve and coupled with IW education produces a SOF soldier that can make prudent well thought out plans or decisions. The different types of deployments add context to the decision-making process and progression for example, you could look at a slide on what a U.S. Embassy line and block chart and the different agencies that are represented in the chart are, but until you have been in a U.S. Embassy it is truly hard to understand the capability, capacity or lack of capacity compared to the Department of Defense. You learn the different equities of those different represented agencies by working with and talking to them in the country team environment. Additionally, you learn the abilities and limitations of your allies, partner nations and host nations by working with them. Taking theater headquarters assignments as well as inter-agency deployment and assignment opportunities is another. In the Army, they call them orders for a reason, and you go to serve where assigned; however, shaping an assignment to a Theater Special Operations Command, U.S. MILGROUP, or even a Combined Training Center can be a very beneficial experience that helps develop IW education. These experiences to name a few, help frame IW plans that are grounded in practice as well as the theory behind them.

Since most SOF soldiers will not have the privilege benefit of a 10–18-month education opportunity, at Naval Post Graduate School or the National Defense University at Fort Liberty, NC that leaves most of the task of education to be conducted through self-study. Trying to balance family, tactical proficiency, the day-to-day business of the Army and other demands makes the self-study pillar a daunting task. I would encourage the student of IW to go deeper than the 15-minute podcast and 15 second sound bite. Developing a private focused deep reading list is one portion of this program that is focused on the skill set needed for the pay grade and assignment.

IW education is a holistic iterative lifelong process that has different knowledge base requirements at certain points of an Army SOF career. I certainly framed problems differently in a country where I deployed as a Captain compared to my framing when deployed as a Colonel. As the community shifts to IW campaigning there is no short course that makes you an IW thinker, they merely assist in the sequence of study and experiences. These IW educational experiences cost treasure, but the exponential increase in campaigning effectiveness will ultimately save both blood and treasure. The Cold War plans and campaigns were developmental and adjusted through nine administrations. Mistakes in this present peer competition will be made, but IW education will help mitigate the number we make and will ultimately assist the United States in gaining the strategic initiative. There is no one or perfect course that can fix the shortfall in the SOF communit​y's​ lack of educational opportunities where our soldiers and leaders are given the opportunity to think about this type of warfare, which is the backbone of their profession. The greatest shortfall in the IW education are courses that link operational level planning to courses of conceptual theory. The goal of Irregular Warfare education should be to produce practitioners that can think at the master’s degree level and apply that thinking in the trade school of IW practicum.


This is the second in a series of articles on Irregular warfare.

The opinions expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not reflect any organizations' viewpoint.


About the Author(s)

Paul Burton is a retired Special Forces Colonel and is still active in the community.