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.