Small Wars Journal

The Art of Irregular Warfare Campaigning: A Job for Which Headquarters or Agency?

Tue, 06/18/2024 - 9:54pm

The Art of Irregular Warfare Campaigning: A Job for Which Headquarters or Agency?

By Paul Burton


      Irregular Warfare (IW) Campaigning is the art of using available resources by the Department of Defense and other Agencies in a series of linked actions, over an extended period, to eventually gain a marked advantage over your adversary, who will also be referred to as peer competitors. This long-term strategy requires continuity of desired end states through both political administrations and military command rotations. This was done by and large during the Cold War, albeit with course adjustments; the key was that the majority of America never questioned that the Soviet Union was our number one enemy. This basic common focus during the Cold War helped facilitate a unity of purpose and effort from different organizations, if not a unity of command and priority of tasks. So, the question is what agency or headquarters should take the lead in IW campaigning in the present multi-polar complex world?

      Campaigning for conventional warfare is complex, but campaigning for IW is rocket science.  Presently, we are without a school to teach this type of rocket science, and an organization to launch the rocket. The complexities of IW campaigning require staffs and agencies that understand IW. It necessitates that the organizations conducting the campaign design to make a mental and cultural shift from the last 30 years from what they have done. For example, there are only a couple of individuals on active duty that served in junior positions during the Cold War and the concepts of IW are not taught in sufficient breadth and depth by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the other agencies to staff the organizations that will be conducting the campaigns. It also implies that the executing organizations will underwrite risk and failures. Additionally, there is the age-old problem of different guidance and doctrine from different organizations and time periods. The new JP 1-1 published August 2023, states “Campaigning is the persistent conduct and sequencing of military activities aligned with other instruments of national power to achieve prioritized objectives over time through global campaigns, combatant command (CCMD) campaigns, and associated families of contingency plans. Combatant commanders (CCDRs) campaign to deter attacks, assure allies and partners, compete below armed conflict, prepare for and respond to threats, protect internationally agreed-upon norms, and, when necessary, prevail.” This implies that the CCMD is responsible for the regional IW campaign drawing on interagency support across the instruments of national power to win the campaign. Ultimately, the CCMD has the responsibility for their theater, but which sub-unified commander should be the main effort and in what phase? Additionally, should the DOD be a supporting agency short of armed conflict? This necessitates an agency that both understands the roles and missions of DOD resources and can appropriately assign objectives to the DOD in support of broader IW objectives.

       The first rule of campaigning is you start where you are not where you want to be. If your competitor has the operational initiative when the campaign starts, you must build capacity and capability to regain the initiative and enter their decision-making cycle. Easier said than done; however, the construct of time, space, scale, and sequencing provides a framework to accomplish this. In today’s environment, this construct must be synchronized in the following domains: air, land, sea, cyber, space, and human. Time is defined as the length of time for the campaign which drives the resources to achieve effects in the phases of the campaign. Two points of refinement. First, the new JP-5.0 says you don’t have to have phasing, but I beg to disagree. Phasing helps synchronizes your sequencing, provides intermediate objectives to accomplish to move to the next phase, helps define decisive points and decision points, and I never met a commander who did not want a phased operation. Secondly, phasing helps synchronize the transition of the designation of which HQ is the main effort. For example, if the Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC) a sub-unified command, was the supported command for the first three phases of a five-phase operation; preparation, build, and employ the TSOC would most likely try to transition the responsibility of being the supported command to a HQ with more and different resources during the stability and transition phase of a campaign.

      Space is the operational geometry of the campaign and the first thing you should do is get out an old-fashioned map, so you can understand the tyranny of distance. During GWOT, the U.S. and allied forces dominated space, but in a peer competition, control of space will be contested, making it more important than ever. Projecting effects and scale in the area of operations, for the IW campaigns in each theater, will not have equal resources placed against the problem, forcing prioritization and sequencing at the national level. In peer competition is about the level of advantage achieved at the desired space at the appropriate and necessary time. Every theater in IW is a theater of operation, including USNORTHCOM, which complicates the ability to force project.

      Scale is the term I use instead of troops, which is stated in the Joint Publication, because it is about the effect that can be achieved to gain a marked advantage or decisive point. Leveraging a cyber or space asset is not a troop. The Joint Doctrine is generally written for conventional campaigns and in IW campaigning the executor must apply art to the Joint Doctrine to effectively conduct the operation. Managing the scale is important not only because long term nature of IW campaigning and multi-theater requirements, but also because the goal is not to escalate into conventional combat operations. The scale applied is critical in maintaining the threshold of success to a level which does not induce a peer to launch conventional combat operations.

      Sequencing is not in the Joint Publication; however, it is vital for the following reasons:

First, to achieve the desired effect at the appropriate time, you must flow or leverage resources into the area of operations to support the campaign intermediate objectives. Second, the HQ in charge of the campaign must weigh resources that can counter the peer competitor or adversarial capability while building our own capacity and capability. Thirdly, in an environment of limited resources, especially air and sea deployment assets, wargaming should partially drive sequencing to mitigate risks and exploit adversarial weakness. The days of building huge ISBs with unlimited resources are probably in the past. Finally, sequencing is a larger concept than just flowing resources into the area of operation. It is about imposing costs on the peer competitor or setting a condition to provide United States or Partner Nations interagency with the ability to politically and diplomatically exploit the action to erode, degrade and de-legitimize our peer competitors.

      So, what agency or Headquarters should take the lead in IW campaigning? It is my opinion that the Theater Special Operations Commands should take the lead in the IW Line of Effort (LOE) in supporting the broader Theater Campaign Plan. The Theater Command should be the HQ that leverages the sub-unified commands to support IW activities that are not Special Operations Forces (SOF) missions. For example, disrupting a peer competitor’s fishing operations that is stealing fish protein from a partner nation’s waters is not a mission for SOF.  It could be the job of the naval sub-unified command. Additionally, the Theater Commands are better resourced to coordinate with other US and Partner Nation agencies to accomplish broad military and political objectives; however, one of the resources they presently lack are IW thinkers and planners. Undoubtably, the question will be asked, what about global and transregional plans?

       Clearly, the TSOCs can coordinate across theaters with each other, and USSOCOM should have a role in the inter-theater sequencing and distribution of resources through the Service components. In a perfect world, the State Departments Policy and Plans would outline flawless objectives for the next 50-year peer competitor challenge, but it did not happen during the 20-year GWOT, and it won’t happen now. This leaves only one agency with both capacity and capability available for the United States, the DOD, and within DOD it must be regional commands with Joint Staff oversight for prioritization and synchronization of resources.

This is the fourth article 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.