Small Wars Journal

To Address the Irregular Warfare Elephant in the Room, Sacred Cattle Must First be Slain

Fri, 01/06/2023 - 9:16pm

To Address the Irregular Warfare Elephant in the Room, Sacred Cattle Must First be Slain


By Tom Ordeman, Jr.


In recent weeks, the topic of the DoD's mastery of Irregular Warfare (IW) - one flavor of this being counterinsurgency (COIN) - has received some long overdue discussion, initially in an article in The Hill penned by a team of authors including LTG Charles T. Cleveland (Ret.), former commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command; and COL David Maxwell (Ret.), a distinguished former Army Special Forces officer and Editor-in-Chief of the Small Wars Journal. Discussion continues in several contributions to the latter publication.


The initial article focused upon the DoD's long-term failure to master IW, and advocated for the designation of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) to lead the DoD's efforts to master IW, establishment of an Irregular Warfare Functional Center (IWFC), and supplementation through partnerships with one or more American universities. A January 3rd article by MAJ James Armstrong (Ret.) questioned the wisdom this arrangement, given USSOCOM's and Joint Special Operations Command's (JSOC) primacy in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, and their apparent failure to deliver on desired strategic outcomes. Armstrong's commentary invited several critiques, to include a formal submission by Charlie Black. Cleveland, et. al., highlight USSOCOM's role in IW, while Armstrong and Black seem to agree on what Black describes as "the U.S. Army’s rightful place to lead IW," a role underscored by Armstrong in his citation of the Army as the "primary land force."


With due respect to the aforementioned commentators, all of whom (save for Black; and Daniel Egel, PhD, one of the original article's co-authors) served in the U.S. Army, please allow a former contractor to slaughter two sacred cattle in the interest of taking aim at the proverbial "elephants in the room":


1) the U.S. Army's prolonged resistance to accept IW as a core function, co-equal to those conventional operations often described as "combined arms maneuver," also characterized in recent years as "near-peer competition"; and


2) the failure of the DoD to employ USSOCOM and JSOC assets in a manner consistent with the doctrinal functions that could have played a war-winning role in recent US Central Command (USCENTCOM) based operations. (The degree to which this is was a failing of top-level DoD leadership, or a reflection of USSOCOM's operational or parochial priorities, is ripe for debate.)


A central illustration of these factors can be summarized with a classic military adage: "Train how you fight." No one who witnessed a post-9/11 Army combat training center (CTC) rotation could say in good faith that the Army ever mounted a serious effort to pivot from a conventional focus to an irregular one. Soldiers were not made to learn Arabic, Dari, Pashtu, or Urdu. While Brigade Combat Teams were familiarized with some tactical skills relating to IW - notably, IED defeat efforts focused on force protection - no one would dare compare a two-week CTC exercise to the extensive training that Green Berets undergo before embarking on an A Team's core mission of training, advising, and assisting proxy forces. As Army aviator Crispin Burke noted in a 2011 blog post:


"At a US Army Combat Training Center, an informal poll of Observer-Controllers, many of whom had just returned from counterinsurgency conflicts and had advised units of counterinsurgency tactics, only twenty percent admitted to reading [COIN field manual] FM 3-24. Perhaps the problem with counterinsurgency lies with us, not with the doctrine?"


This failure to prepare in training continued with an overarching failure to adapt to the fundamental needs of the campaigns in question. For example, in a development predicted by critics in the academic community, the Army-led Human Terrain System turned into a de facto targeting program before ultimately being shuttered. COIN field manual admonitions to avoid ostentatious displays of wealth, and to provide equipment that could be serviced by the economies of developing nations, were ignored. Civilian casualties, often written off as “collateral damage,” became so prevalent that host nation officials managed to secure broad political support by calling for the expulsion of American troops.


This failure to take IW/COIN seriously was supplemented by an active lobbying campaign by influential Army officers, against continued focus on IW. As early as 2008, COL Gian Gentile, at the time a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy and now an analyst at RAND, became the figurehead for an influential cadre of Army officers - dubbed "COINtras" - whose sustained critiques lamented a perceived atrophy in conventional warfighting skills. Less than three years before America's ill-fated 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, CTC rotations had recalibrated to focus on hybrid warfare, the first step in a desperate effort to abandon IW. In his 2014 memoir, LTG Daniel Bolger (Ret.) claimed that COIN "had been tried and found wanting," and LTC Daniel L. Davis penned a December 2014 article in The American Conservative entitled "COIN Is a Proven Failure" - a claim that was deftly refuted in a 2015 Small Wars Journal article, on the grounds that the DoD's COIN manual omitted recognized COIN best practices and cases studies, and also that - as noted in the above quote by Burke - the Army in particular largely ignored the field manual’s contents when operating abroad.


By 2015, the Army's focus on force-on-force training had resumed apace. The DoD writ large, but particularly the Army - notably, in the 2015 Operating Concept, “Win in a Complex World” - have spent most of the preceding decade advocating for a wholesale abandonment of IW, premised upon perceived (but largely unsubstantiated) threats from "near-peer competitors.” This is generally assumed to be a euphemism for Russia and China, though the strategic credibility of the former actor in particular has suffered a fatal downfall since February of 2022.


This renewed focus on conventional operations seemed to intentionally ignore American experience during the Cold War, as well as comparable historical examples, which indicate that so-called "great power competition" against "near-peer competitors" is often waged through low intensity proxy engagements - essentially, irregular warfare. To his credit, Armstrong's narrative notes the apparent tension between the formation of the Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB), and the parochial interests of USSOCOM and/or U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). However, as Joint Staff policy advisor Dr. Austin Long noted in a 2020 interview:


"I think the SFAB was a good idea, but it was a good idea that was executed principally to preserve Army force structure in a post-sequestration environment. If you look at what they are, they're basically Army brigades. They don't have the stuff you would really want. So, I'll just highlight one: they don't have a huge counterintelligence or intelligence element, which is exactly what you need to do SFAB type stuff, right? So, they have all of these enablers that have to be hung on them to do what's their alleged job."


Claims that “Big Army” ever truly took IW seriously as a core function are simply not in evidence. If the DoD - or even a subset - can be expected to master IW, the Army has made it clear that they are not interested in playing a leading role.


This leads us to consider the post-9/11 exploits of USSOCOM generally, and JSOC more specifically. In theory, two concepts should be in evidence. First: that United States Army Special Forces, the "Green Berets," whose core mission is to train, advise, and assist proxy forces, were employed in this capacity during the post-9/11 era. Second: that other special operations forces (SOF) units - theoretically, the Navy's SEAL teams and the Marine Corps' Force Reconnaissance battalions - underwent reorientation in order to either supplement the Green Berets' efforts to train foreign proxies, or else absolve them of the responsibility to perform kinetic operations that might draw them away from these critical missions. Given the criticality of the training missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, one might assume that this key skill set was applied judiciously.


Of course, anyone who paid attention during the last twenty years knows that training, advising, and assisting proxy forces comprised a minority of the SOF community's remit. Navy SEALs and Recon Marines - the latter of which were notably pillaged to build the Marine Raider battalions, for whom engagement with proxies is not a core competency - lack training or tasking in the Green Berets' mission set. In recent years, they have been employed primarily in direct action (DA) and special reconnaissance functions. Notably, a 2011 article chronicling the exploits of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment's 2010 deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan, suggested that lower end DA missions could have conceivably been performed by conventional units, allowing SOF units to focus on more strategically valuable tasks. However, rarely was this the case.


For their part, Green Berets' utilization in their traditional training, advisory, and assistance roles - most notably, their partnership with the Afghan Northern Alliance in late 2001 - also appear to have been something of a rarity in USCENTCOM, though these missions continued in such locales as Colombia and the Philippines. Instead, they seem to have been tasked to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Forces (CJSOTF), in which they appear to have been treated as somewhat interchangeable with other SOF units. This tasking structure led to Green Berets' assignment well outside the critical foreign proxy support mission set, and included such documented examples as a Green Beret major hunting for Taliban weapons caches, Green Berets participating in the raid to rescue Private Jessica Lynch from Iraqi custody, and a Green Beret quick reaction force that reinforced an A Team under fire at the 2016 Battle of Boz Qandahari.


In cases where the Green Berets acted in their traditional training, advisory, and assistance roles, they seem to have spent most of their time training the most elite Afghan and Iraqi troops, whereas support to conventional proxy units fell to more ad hoc rotations of conventional Army and Marine Corps forces. To their credit, the Green Berets oversaw the development of the Afghan National Army Commando Corps and the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, both of which fought valiantly when called upon. However, in 2014/'15 against the Islamic State group, and later in 2021 against the resurgent Taliban, these units proved too limited in number to triumph - the apparent result of building small, bespoke units of extreme quality, rather than operationally significant units of adequate competence.


One might also question why, following the success demonstrated by A Teams partnering with Afghan militias against the Taliban, the influential USASOC community seemingly neglected to resist the unsustainable model of converting successful tribal militias into an ineffective Afghan National Army. Later, despite having qualified as a Green Beret himself, ISAF commander GEN Stanley McChrystal appears to have fatally misunderstood the nature of the conflict he was overseeing when he withdrew forces from hard-won territory in the Taliban’s rural heartland, in order to dogmatically apply David Galula’s Algerian “Ink Spots” concept by securing Afghan cities.


Mention of McChrystal raises the topic of JSOC. In his 2016 book, Sean Naylor documents McChrystal's reorientation of JSOC from its original focus on short notice hostage rescue scenarios, to a post-9/11 focus on intelligence collection and exploitation to drive an unprecedented surge in DA missions. Notably, having previously existed as an elite airborne infantry unit whose doctrinal roles included seizing enemy airfields and acting as a security element for first tier DA units (notably Delta Force), Naylor highlights the 75th Ranger Regiment's effective conversion into a DA unit in its own right.


Many Delta Force operators are drawn from the Special Forces Groups. One might reasonably question what might have been had JSOC been farmed for qualified 18 series personnel in a manner similar to the Marine Corps' harvest of the Recon battalions to constitute the Raiders; had these and other Green Berets been tasked with training Afghan and Iraqi conventional units; had the 75th Ranger Regiment reoriented to elite Afghan and Iraqi units; and had more DA missions been tasked to elite conventional units.


Thus, recent events compel us to consider alternative options. To this end, a sort of reverse precedent merits consideration: that of the British Army, prior to the First World War.


Prior to the Great War’s outbreak, a series of British officials had reformed the British Army, culminating with the Haldane Reforms of 1906 to 1912. Prior to 1905, British soldiers served largely as an imperial constabulary. Following the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, and influenced by the Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911 and the Balkans War of 1912-’13, Secretary of State for War Sir Richard Haldane recognized the increasing likelihood that British troops might be called upon to intervene in some conflict in Europe - between "near-peer competitors," as it were. His subsequent reorganization led to the formation of a British Expeditionary Force (BEF), whose focus was less upon colonial administration, and more upon a corollary to the conventional, force-on-force conflicts on the European continent. Despite punching above its proverbial weight during the initial days and weeks of the Great War, the BEF proved tiny by comparison with the armies of continental Europe. Many colonial units were subsequently recalled, retrained, and pressed into conventional service, either on the Western Front or in other theaters.


Thus, prior to 1914, the United Kingdom could be argued to have fielded, in effect, two armies: a small conventional force focused upon the direct threats from near-peer competitors; and a colonial force focused upon maintaining order throughout the British Empire - itself a function of great power competition, particularly against the Russian Empire. The Great War, and the subsequent threat from the Axis Powers that culminated with the 1939 outbreak of the Second World War, compelled British officials to expand and sustain their conventional force, while the postwar dissolution of their empire eventually led to the accompanying atrophy of their capacity to conduct small wars. At present, the opposite dynamic is at play in America: a recognition of the need for long-term mastery of IW, coupled with obstacles to right-sizing such a capability as co-equal with requirements pursuant to conventional readiness and deterrence.


Enter the United States Marine Corps, which has usurped the Army’s alleged rightful place as the service that should lead America’s efforts to master IW.


In contrast with the Army's record in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Marine Corps not only performed admirably, but also proved willing to adapt. It was the Marine Corps, operating in Iraq's restive Anbar Province, that recognized the opportunity posed by disaffected Sunnis, that was eventually exploited to build the "Sons of Iraq" movement that turned the tide in that conflict. Marines led the way in the procurement of MRAPs to meet a strategic force protection need, and in the implementation of Female Engagement Teams. The Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual proved easy to proliferate in the earlier stages of the insurgency, particularly in Iraq, because the Marines had re-issued it as recently as 1990, keeping it active as an article of Marine Corps doctrine. These are only a few examples of the Marines’ propensity for IW. Whereas the Army adopted a sort of temporary IW/COIN facade as a reaction to conditions in USCENTCOM, the Marine Corps committed to substantive adaptation in their effort to meet the strategic need.


In the aforementioned 2020 interview, Dr. Austin Long attributed this difference in culture first to the differing formative experiences of the Army and Marine Corps; and second, to the Marine Corps' pragmatic propensity to rely upon and partner with other organizations due to its comparatively modest size. The Army operates as a gargantuan, independent entity, reminiscent of their formative experience waging a massive total war against the Confederacy during the American Civil War. By contrast, the Marine Corps has been called "the State Department's Army" due to the Marines' close relationship with America's diplomats, a relationship that precipitated the Corps' formative experience fighting "small wars" in America's near abroad.


The acknowledged need for an organization to lead the joint force in IW comes at a pivotal moment for the Marines, who have having been pressed into service as a so-called "second land army" for two decades. Thus, the Marine Corps has spent more than a decade working to re-assert its independence and unique character relative to their Army colleagues. In a November 2012 address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Commandant James F. Amos sought to highlight the Marine Corps' role as America's crisis response force; and current Commandant David H. Berger has utilized the controversial "Force Design 2030" concept as a blueprint both for reforming the Corps, and for exerting its uniqueness. Acknowledgement both of the Marine Corps' traditional expeditionary character, and of their disproportionate success in modern IW/COIN operations, recommends a subsequent acknowledgement that it is Marines, rather than soldiers, whose "rightful place" it is to lead the DoD in mastering IW.


Additionally, the Marine Corps deploys in the scalable and customizable Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) structure, a formation whose versatility the Army and Air Force have tried, with only moderate success, to emulate. The MAGTF combines command, ground combat, aviation, and sustainment elements, and can operate independent of outside support for fifteen, thirty, or sixty days, depending upon the MAGTF's size. The modern incarnation of the MAGTF, particularly the Marine Expeditionary Unit (built around a reinforced infantry battalion), also boasts the capability to conduct a limited range of special operations. With some development, this model would be ideal for offering persistent support to America's IW/COIN mission footprint.


This would, inevitably, warrant further adjustments to an American force structure that has endured, with minimal evolution, since the end of the Second World War. To a great degree, the DoD generally, and the Army specifically, treats this force structure as sacrosanct. However, given the collapse of Russia as a credible opponent, and the likely limited and amphibious nature of a notional conflict with China, the Army's remit and force size may be more realistically scoped to conflicts approximating the 1982 Falklands War. Consolidation of the existing Special Forces Groups into the Marine Corps might also merit consideration, among other more fundamental changes. While such suggestions may seem controversial, if the DoD’s track record during the preceding decades isn’t sufficient grounds for the first fundamental reconsideration of American force structure in nearly three generations, what might merit such reconsideration?


In closing, several aspects of this discussion should be obvious:


First: the Army's decades-long track record of unequivocal resistance to deviation from conventional operations constitutes the de facto surrender of its alleged "rightful place to lead IW."


Second: the SOF community's apparent prioritization of DA missions, to the detriment of strategically critical SFA efforts, necessarily exclude them from leading the DoD in the mastery of IW, though certain elements may still play key roles.


Third: despite an American preference for what LTG Bolger described as "decisive conventional operations against a uniformed formed enemy," American forces are likely to encounter irregular challenges for the foreseeable future - either in the form of sub-state actors, or from proxies to "near-peer" and "great power" competitors. Thus, the Pentagon must succeed at mastering IW if Washington expects to maintain its indispensable role as the leading global power.


Fourth and finally: while force structures of long standing, up to the service branch level, may seem sacrosanct, the time for a fundamental reconsideration of these structures in light of recent events, pursuant to the continuation of American strategic dominance, is now long overdue.

About the Author(s)

Tom Ordeman, Jr. is an Oregon-based information security professional, freelance military historian, and former federal contractor. A graduate with Distinction from the University of Aberdeen’s MSc program in Strategic Studies, he holds multiple DoD and industry security certifications. Between 2006 and 2017, he supported training and enterprise risk management requirements for multiple DoD and federal civilian agencies. His research interests include the modern history of the Sultanate of Oman, and the exploits of the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War. His opinions are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any entity with which he is associated.


Hi James,

A few thoughts in response to your feedback:

1) I'd recommend a reread of my piece, as I did indeed address the push by SOCOM/JSOC toward direct action as opposed to embed/advise/assist. I argued that Army culture influenced this, as the Army (the service that fields the bulk of the SOF community) exerts a commanding influence over the SOF community. This push began prior to the the "reign of the COINdinistas" and does not appear to have been significantly disrupted by the casual shift by the Army, and deliberate shift by the Marines, toward a more population-centric COIN model of operations. My op-ed drew heavily from another piece that I'm working on that discusses how to fix that problem for future problems.

2) It seems that I should clarify that the model of British officer development in question - or, more accurately, the model of British force development - dated to the First World War. If Sandhurst has ever provided serious, emulable IW training, it has not done so for some time. I'd highly recommend Simon Akam's recent book, The Changing of the Guard (podcast interview linked below for those with limited bandwidth), which highlights how out of touch the Brits were in Afghanistan and Iraq - due in large part to a fixation on Northern Ireland that yielded unreasonable expectations, ineffective tactics, and a sustained institutional arrogance. At one point, a U.S. Marine general was sent to Basra to take command in order to "stop you [the British task force] failing." Some of Britain's best troops got so bogged down in Helmand Province that they - once again - eventually had to be bailed out by American Marines. Relatively recent, successful campaigns like the one in Dhofar in the 1970's (which was extremely similar to the war in Afghanistan, and for which there are many veterans still alive), were socialized to active troops only in passing, and only late in either campaign.

3) While you're correct that I didn't mention MTT and PTT efforts by name, you appear to have missed my sustained discussion of the assignment of unqualified conventional troops to do the work that should rightfully have been performed by Green Berets. I would respectfully suggest that your understanding of that history is flawed, and that you failed to read the sections of my response that dealt with this topic. Those teams failed in their missions to build competent conventional forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, arguably for two key reasons: because a) while they possessed conventional skills that Green Berets lacked, they themselves lacked the Green Berets' training and experience in working with host nation personnel, a prerequisite for success; and b) building a Western-style conventional force wasn't an appropriate course of action under the circumstances in question, particularly in Afghanistan where the prerequisites for such a force (national cohesion, education, advanced supply chains, among others) were conspicuously absent. In my opinion, for all of the attempts to pass the buck to the political leaders (who must also shoulder some of the blame), Army commanders - including SOF types like McChrystal - failed to advise Presidents Bush and Obama that this was a fundamentally incompatible approach. The SFAB formations that we both cite, as I noted in my piece, seem to have been constructed to preserve Army force structure, rather than actually being prepared to conduct SFA missions at scale; their existence reinforces, rather than rebutting, my criticism.

4) I'm bordering on being at a loss to address all of the misconceptions in your paragraph about CTC rotations, but I'll try.

a) I do not insist that the DATE scenario is a step away from IW. If you'll reread my piece, and also my linked article entitled "No, COIN is Not a Proven Failure," perhaps you'll recognize my argument that CTC rotations never focused particularly closely on IW to begin with, and that the Army then initiated a concerted effort to abandon IW training altogether.

b) You're correct that the Army loves discrete tasks that can be evaluated. That's great for conventional operations in which a tank's main gun needs to be fired effectively, or the NIPRNet connections in the TOC need to be managed. It's not a particularly effective model for conditioning troops for IW, which underscores my argument that the Army never really leaned into IW in the first place.

c) Your description of the "core elements of IW" contained in the DATE scenario indicate to me that your understanding of IW is fundamentally flawed.

d) You state: "In my experience, DATE resourced properly is a better training opportunity for IW than the COIN scenarios were." Putting aside that I've already questioned the quality of the COIN scenarios in question, on what grounds do you evaluate the DATE scenario as a training opportunity for IW? What aspects of your experience make you a credible judge of the relative quality of the respective scenarios? Shifting to DATE didn't make the Army more effective in either theater. One might ask forgiveness for suggesting that, as a former Infantry officer, you're merely reinforcing my case that the Army neither understands IW, nor wishes to do so.

e) You can claim to have participated in CTC rotations; between April of 2006 and July of 2007, when the seriousness of the Army's efforts to train COIN were arguably at their zenith, I participated in every NTC rotation. That included the two (I believe there were eventually at least three) rotations held at Fort Stewart. I can tell you that I was underwhelmed. I can cite a handful of Observer-Controllers who should have been fired on the spot for some of the things I witnessed them teaching rotational units. While the CTC rotations probably deserve credit for reducing battlefield casualties among American troops - it's questionable whether they reduced host nation casualties - the end states in both Afghanistan and Iraq act as a decisive indictment against the Army's conduct, which follows from the Army's training.

5) We're in agreement that "training ['human skills'] for conventional forces becomes a difficult problem." One might dare argue that, for an Army that doesn't want to deviate from combined arms maneuver, it's a difficult problem that "Big Army" is keen to avoid solving, because Army leaders believe that solving it might incentivize political leaders to task the senior service with the future IW missions that they wish to avoid. As I noted, the momentary "reign of the COINdinistas" was eventually ended by the stronger "COINtra" lobby, which argued that COIN/IW should be rejected because it was bad for the Army. This is why my argument calls for allowing the Army to focus on the conventional missions for which it is myopically focused, while allowing the Marines to shake the "second land army" stigma by becoming the nation's designated IW professionals.


James Armstrong

Thu, 01/19/2023 - 9:54am

I appreciate the length and thoroughness of Mr. Ordeman's argument. However, his details highlight quite a few problems that he doesn't address. The first of which is SOCOM's push towards more direct action during the "reign of the COINdinistas" This push from embed/advise/assist to direct action was a strategic mistake that was made in Vietnam as well, likely due to GEN Westmoreland's misunderstanding of what a Green Beret should be doing. 

I do like the reference to the British model of Officer development. As a military force with a long history as a constabulary force, the British Army includes much of what we consider IW in education opportunities like Sandhurst, while recent operations in North Ireland and Africa give older veterans relevant vignettes when mentoring new Soldiers. 

What is largely damning here is the complete omission of "Military Transition Teams" and "Police Transition Teams" purposely built to embed/advise/assist Iraqi counterparts to create a credible capability for the nation of Iraq to gain and maintain the legitimate "monopoly on violence." The Security Force Assistance Brigades grew out of that operational need to have something between Green Beret's embedding with guerilla forces and business as usual. After all, how many Green Beret's have the experience of being an Armor Battalion Commander or Staff? How many understand heavy engineering to advise a foreign Engineer Brigade on bridge laying, minefield clearing, or vertical/horizontal engineering? These gaps are inherently what we refer to as "conventional" rather than "unconventional" and the solution isn't more Green Berets.

Having been through a COIN focused CTC rotation, it was mostly Key Leader Engagements, learning how to integrate the Company Intelligence Support Team (COIST), utilize biometric systems, and other discrete tasks which could be evaluated. The move to the Decisive Action Training Environment with the hybrid threat, a move Mr. Ordeman insists is a step away from IW, is fundamentally wrong. The DATE scenario still contains the core elements of IW, integrating Unified Action Partners (USAID, ICRC, State Dep, etc) and evaluating townsets, interacting with populations, attempting to identify spoilers in the operational environment in the land domain and information domain. This more accurately replicates the complexity of a conflict like Vietnam where the NVA provided the "conventional uniformed" enemy while the VC provided the "hybrid threat" enemy. In my experience, DATE resourced properly is a better training opportunity for IW than the COIN scenarios were.

However, there is no "engagement range" at home station for units to practice Soldier Leader Engagements, so resourcing the "human skills" training for conventional forces becomes a difficult problem. And this is why my argument included the necessary METL changes to force the resourcing necessary to train those individual and unit proficiencies that will enable those forces to effectively conduct IW rather than "fight as they trained."


Sat, 01/07/2023 - 3:53pm

I've read all the articles in this string/topic, from the original from Cleveland and crew to now this one by Tom Ordeman -- none of them have been stupid!  Tom I think you make some very good points.  What I'd offer to the debate, and everyone reading this, is that many of us are miss framing the problem as one of tactics!!  That's true whether it's regarding (a) SOF units' over reliance on Direct Action based on the money, prestige, and focus on JSOC SMUs as the "Tier 1" or (b) criticism of conventional Army / USMC COIN (that was often flawed in AFG and Iraq). 

We (the US and coalition military) fought as we trained, but we trained myopically focused on tactical perspectives for the vast majority.  Irregular Warfare -- which extends significantly beyond COIN, and which we need to apply offensively today against our adversaries!! -- is more about strategy and operational art (a campaign sequencing specific tactical actions over long periods of time toward the goal of your strategy) than the specific tactics trained before any deployment.  The IWFC (an inartful but descriptive name) is about developing an understanding and conceptual framework of irregular conflicts (and "competition" since I believe the two cannot be separated and typically differ only in the viewer's role and perspective in the scenario).  Without a conceptual understanding that can then be applied to specific IW conflict/competition (& shared by a critical mass of US/coalition practitioners across multiple echelons), the probability of  generating good strategy and therefore good operational approaches (both the campaign and its tactics) drops substantially!  That is what the IWFC effort and debate is truly about

Which Service or DoD Component "owns" the IWFC is not critical, what's much more important is that a cross-section of personnel from all of the services, SOF and Conventional, military and civilian, DoD and USG, US and Alies/Partners cycle through (as students, faculty and researchers).  The US will also get little benefit from a set up with short-duration courses / exposure.  Finally on the research side, there needs to be a mechanism for Component leadership and IWFC member to work on common problems. As both are currently structured neither the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (and it's regional centers) nor the SOCOM's JSOU fit those criteria.  That means IWFC needs to be nested with some type of PME institution (e.g. war college or CGSC) or PME program (e.g. Naval Postgraduate School's Defense Analysis, SO/LIC program).  Beyond that, there are people and pockets of conventional and irregular/innovative thinkers (in the non-conflict, SOF/Conventional sense) in all the DoD Components. With regard to our 20-year campaign in AFG, Iraq, etc., there is more than enough fault to be allocated across the military, civilian and political participants; we all own some share that responsibility and blame that goes way beyond the IWFC debate. 



Hi JP,

Thanks for the feedback! I would encourage you to read the second section of <A HREF="">this essay</A>, which I wrote in 2013. I simply disagree on the threat from Russia, while we can agree to disagree, the historical record leans heavily in my favor. That goes for Russian performance, the quality of Russian kit and personnel, and the propensity of the Western defense establishment (RUSI included) to exaggerate foreign threats for the sake of justifying procurements (e.g., the infamous "Missile Gap"). In recent years, the Army and Air Force in particular have had an additional, ulterior motive: a very clear, unequivocal, poorly veiled effort to stack the deck against future inclinations to task them with IW/COIN missions that deviate from their preferred style of warfare. As I alluded to in two of my links, we saw the same behavior after Vietnam, and it cost American lives after 9/11 when the Army was unceremoniously dragged back into an irregular war that they had tried to turn into two repeats of Desert Storm.

I'd agree that Russia is remains formidable, but only insofar as Putin's persistence had, until recently, made him more shrewd than his Western counterparts. In recent years, Putin has done an admirable job of punching above Russia's proverbial weight, usually by carefully managing appearances, and supplemented through nuclear posturing (as discussed in the <A HREF="">2010 Nuclear Posture Review</A>); and more publicly with Russia's hacking shenanigans. I predicted nearly a year ago that Putin wouldn't invade Ukraine, and while I was incorrect about that, I was entirely correct in my reasoning: that if he did, exactly what has happened during the past ten months would happen, due to a chronic and catastrophic readiness gap in Russian forces. In 2022, Moscow seems to have thrown every conventional trick they've had up their sleeve at Ukraine, and in so doing, disabused anyone who paid attention of the false notion that their capabilities pose a serious threat to NATO. Personally, I think that there's a similar, albeit weaker, case to be made about the actual threat from China, but that's a tangent we can table for the time being.

I hope that no one is arguing that "small wars are what we do in the breaks between the big ones", and I don't agree that "winning small wars reduces the risk of big wars." In his 1999 book <A HREF="">Modern Strategy</A>, the late and celebrated strategist Colin Gray wrote rather eloquently about the need to balance conventional readiness with irregular readiness. In my mind, that's really the question at hand. Thus, the objective should be to make accurate appraisals of strategic risks, and to structure and resource the joint force accordingly. The answers carry with them important, and probably disruptive, ramifications for future force strength and structure. Exaggerating them because the Army would rather fire tank cannons at conscripts from Arkhangelsk than operate a joint security station on the outskirts of Ramadi may serve the Army's parochial agenda, but I have yet to hear a convincing argument that it serves America's strategic needs.



Sat, 01/07/2023 - 7:12am

While Tom Ordeman's IW arguments are convincing, his belief that Russia has suffered a "collapse as a credible opponent" and a "fatal downfall" is, at best, premature. Russia remains a formidable and still stronger opponent of NATO, and - to the extent that the U.S. remains engaged in the Alliance - of the U.S. 

To argue that the capacity for IW/COIN is critically important because small wars are what we do in the breaks between the big ones and since winning small wars reduces the risk of big wars, does not mean that the threat from Russia and other peer competitors should be belittled or ignored. (More about Russia here: ) 

Thank you for the article!

In 1971, I went through the Army's intelligence school where my class' instruction centered on the Soviets and the Fulda Gap. In addition to our normal instructors, we also had two USMC instructors who I will always be thankful for because both had gone to Vietnam and saw fit to provide inform about it, just in case. It was a good thing they did as almost the entire class went to Vietnam.

It is ironic though that I was deeply concerned with VC activity until we forecast the Easter Offensive of 1972, which would begin in I Corp/FRAC on 30 March with three infantry divisions, two tank regiments, multiple artillery regiments, numerous independent infantry regiments, and a water-sapper regiment. More divisions would follow.

It served me well, learning both conventional and guerilla warfare.

Break in the Chain Intelligence Ignored details these events.

Is this the right question?  I'm not sure compelling the Army is the correct answer. I want a robust Army capable of fighting at the Corps level. The question is to what scale & scope. I believe the joint force develop the capacity & capability to successfully operate across the spectrum and character of operations. For me this rests with the civilian leadership and secretaries making hard choices, providing directive programming, and communicating to appropriators a cohesive plan.  Otherwise, Service Chiefs build what they want or desire - perhaps what is necessary or in some instances completely unconnected to Strategy and COCOM efforts. 

I know this likely doesn't answer the question. 

Hi Charlie,

Thanks for the clarification! I'd pose a question to you. As I've outlined in my op-ed, I don't have any confidence in "Big Army," e.g. the conventional force, to give irregular warfare its due. It seems to me that the most reasonable approach is to adjust an expanded Marine Corps' focus to make them the designated lead for irregular operations; and to allow the Army, probably somewhat reduced in strength, to focus on the conventional operations that they seem dogmatically committed to. Given that you feel that this should continue to be a joint and inter-agency discipline, how would you compel the Army to make the sort of doctrinal and philosophical adjustments that they've resisted during and after the Vietnam era, and again during the longer post-9/11 era? Eager to read and consider your thoughts on this challenge, which seems insurmountable to me after more than fifteen years of close observation on this topic.


Nice article Tom. To clarify, I do not agree with Armstrong that the Army should be the lead for IW, I think each service, the Department and InterAgency, International and non-traditional partners can and should be integrated to in IW whether in strategic competition or no kidding war.   Keep writing!