Small Wars Journal

Congress Has Embraced Unconventional Warfare: Will the US Military and The Rest of the US Government?

Tue, 12/29/2015 - 1:56pm

Congress Has Embraced Unconventional Warfare: Will the US Military and The Rest of the US Government?

David S. Maxwell

With the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 the United States Congress has embraced what Russia, Iran, China, Al Qaeda and even ISIS have long known and that is unconventional warfare (UW) is a form of warfare that is optimized for achieving national objectives in the space between peace and war.  Congress, in Section 1097, has directed the Secretary of Defense to develop a strategy to counter unconventional warfare being conducted by adversaries of the US.  Congress recognizes the US has a strategy gap between peace and war and the directive to the SECDEF is the forcing function necessary to develop a strategy and to bring new and creative thinking to the national security challenges we face.

What is Unconventional Warfare?

In Section 1097 and in joint US military doctrine it is defined as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area.”

However, our adversaries employ their own unique forms of unconventional warfare by effectively integrating conventional and special operations forces, all elements of their national power, and in particular psychological warfare, while exploiting conditions, to include resistance, in countries and regions around the world to counter the west and often the US directly in order to achieve their political and security objectives.  They take a more holistic approach to unconventional warfare and are willing to employ it as a matter of course.  In     contrast the US has long viewed unconventional warfare as something only Special Forces conduct and then only to be used in very rare situations when there are no other alternatives.  In short, in the past the US has shown it does not have the stomach for unconventional warfare.  Fortunately, Congress has recognized this shortfall in US security strategy.

Directive from Congress

DOD has 180 days to provide to Congress a strategy to counter unconventional warfare.  The clock is ticking.  It will be interesting to read the response to Section 1097.  One possible bureaucratic course of action would consist of reviewing what the Department is already doing and showing the metrics of terrorists removed from the battlefield and listing all the capabilities the Department has that are and can be used to counter-unconventional warfare.  The Department will even tout the new joint unconventional warfare doctrine from the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved in September 2015.  The purpose of this course of action would be to meet the Congressional requirement with minimal disruption to the department and thus get Congress off its back.  Another course of action would be to view this as an opportunity for Congressional support of a new strategy that would be based on a thorough understanding of our adversaries’ strategies and how they are employing unconventional warfare.  The question is how with the department respond?

My concern is that the department and the rest of the US government will continue to have no desire to have anything to do with unconventional warfare.  It is complicated, messy, time-consuming, and hard to measure effectiveness and success especially when compared to counterterrorism and surgical strike operations where immediate results are demonstrated in the number of terrorists removed from the battlefield.

Why Focus on Counter-Unconventional Warfare Strategy?

First, our enemies are conducting their unique forms of unconventional warfare; Russia, Iran, China, Al Qaeda, ISIS (I think AQ and ISIS are much broader than "simply" terrorist organizations.)  We need to recognize the strategies they are using and attack those strategies to effectively operate in the "Gray Zone” between peace and war.

Second, focusing on our enemies conducting their unique forms of UW should lead to the recognition that we have to operate in the Special Warfare realm and not just the Surgical Strike realm.

Third, focusing on terrorism has caused us to think too tactically while a focus on counter UW can drive us to think more strategically and holistically about the problems we face by understanding the enemy’s strategy which poses complex political and military problems.

The Future of Warfare in the Gap Between Peace and War: Past is Prologue

As I opined in 2012 before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee looking at the future of irregular warfare, we tend to prefer conventional conflict that can be defined as  "an armed struggle or clash between organized political parties within a nation or between nations in order to achieve political or military objectives.”  However, what we more routinely face is conflict that is “non-conventional” in nature.  It is something ambiguous and difficult to understand.  It extends the continuum of conflict.  Conflict in the conventional sense begins when the armed struggle begins; however, non-conventional conflict encompasses a broad range of types of conflict, starting with the threat or possibility of conflict and extending past conflict termination, because the conditions that gave rise to hostilities in the first place may still remain, though not visible or easily recognized.  It also includes armed clashes by unorganized groups that are not seeking to achieve any political or military objectives but may be exploited by external actors.  Non-conventional conflict encompasses the lawlessness of a society in which the governmental system has collapsed, but no organized group has risen to take its place.  Violence and terrorist-like activity can occur out of frustration with no identifiable purpose.  This type of conflict is non-conventional, because it is difficult to determine the objectives and methods of the actors, perhaps difficult to even determine the actors, and thus it is difficult to apply conventional elements of power.  This is the sensitive and complex environment that our adversaries seek to exploit through their unique applications of unconventional warfare.

Since 9-11 we have embarked on the search for new names of forms of conflict and doctrinal terms to address those conflicts and the ever evolving nature of conflict.  We rediscovered Counterinsurgency; we have tried Asymmetric, Hybrid, and Fourth Generation Warfare and now the Gray Zone.  We have invented new doctrinal concepts such as Security Force Assistance; Train, Advise, and Assist; Building Partner Capacity, Train and Equip Programs, Human Domain, and ultimately decided on irregular warfare as the way to describe conflict in the post 9-11 world.  If we examine the history of conflict at the Correlates of War Project we would realize the irony that what we are calling irregular in fact has been more regular than what we describe as conventional war.  Less that 20% of all conflicts since 1815 have been state-on-state conventional conflicts.  Or simply peruse Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History and Max Boot’s Invisible Armies to see that irregular warfare is the most prevalent form of warfare and is in fact pretty regular.

But at the heart of irregular warfare lies revolution, resistance, and insurgency.  These phenomena are taking place around the world but they are not new.  If you want to be a practitioner and strategist and operate in and develop strategy for the Gray Zone in the space between peace and war and conduct political warfareunconventional warfare, and counter-unconventional warfare, as well as operate effectively in the human domain then you must read, study, and internalize the fundamentals of revolution, resistance, and insurgency as embodied in the Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) project first produced by the Special Operations Research Office (SORO ) in the 1950's and 1960's. It now continues under the direction of the U S Army Special Operations Command and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory's National Security Division.  Most important it is unconventional warfare that can support or exploit revolution, resistance, and insurgency.

Russian, Iranian, Chinese, and US Approaches to Unconventional Warfare

Unconventional warfare has not been and is not now well accepted within the US military and the US government.  The most recent attempt to raise unconventional warfare as a strategic option for our national security strategy illustrates the issue.  Some 28 years after the establishment of the USSOCOM in 1987, the command produced for the first time a joint unconventional warfare doctrinal manual.  USSOCOM had to lobby for over a year to get joint staff approval just to write the manual and when it was completed and approved in September 2015 the Joint Staff decided to make the manual For Official Use Only (FOUO).  Although this is not a classification it in effect makes the manual unavailable to the public as well as to academia.   I can only speculate the on the rationale for this but some action officers have said that it is a result of the controversy surround the unconventional warfare exercise Jade Helm that took place in 2015.  The real impact of this decision is summed up in the words of one my mentors who said that the surest way to make a doctrinal manual irrelevant and useless is to make it FOUO.

While the Joint Staff allowed unconventional warfare doctrine to be marginalized our adversaries have been perfecting and employing theirs.  The following charts summarize the unique unconventional warfare approaches of the Russians, Iranians, and the Chinese.  The last chart summarizes the US approach to supporting a resistance or insurgency.  As you read these charts notice that the Russian, Iranian, and Chinese approaches provide a strategic framework for understanding how they will employ special operations and conventional forces and all the instruments of national power to accomplish their objectives while the US approach is very tactical and focused on “how to do” UW by Special Forces only.

Russian New Generation Warfare

FIRST PHASE: non-military asymmetric warfare (encompassing information, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic measures as part of a plan to establish a favorable political, economic, and military setup)

SECOND PHASE: special operations to mislead political and military leaders by coordinated measures carried out by diplomatic channels, media, and top government and military agencies by leaking false data, orders, directives, and instructions.

THIRD PHASE: intimidation, deceiving, and bribing government and military officers, with the objective of making them abandon their service duties.

FOURTH PHASE: destabilizing propaganda to increase discontent among the population, boosted by the arrival of Russian bands of militants, escalating subversion.

FIFTH PHASE: establishment of no-fly zones over the country to be attacked, imposition of blockades, and extensive use of private military companies in close cooperation with armed opposition units.

SIXTH PHASE: commencement of military action, immediately preceded by large-scale reconnaissance and subversive missions. All types, forms, methods, and forces, including special operations forces, space, radio, radio engineering, electronic, diplomatic, and secret service intelligence, and industrial espionage.

SEVENTH PHASE: combination of targeted information operation, electronic warfare operation, aerospace operation, continuous air force harassment, combined with the use of high precision weapons launched from various platforms (long-range artillery, and weapons based on new physical principles, including microwaves, radiation, non-lethal biological weapons).

EIGHTH PHASE: roll over the remaining points of resistance and destroy surviving enemy units by special operations conducted by reconnaissance units to spot which enemy units have survived and transmit their coordinates to the attacker's missile and artillery units; fire barrages to annihilate the defender's resisting army units by effective advanced weapons; airdrop operations to surround points of resistance; and territory mopping-up operations by ground troops.

Source: National Defence Academy of Latvia:

3 Principles of Iranian Unconventional Warfare

1. Leave a light footprint

Iran’s preference for a light footprint, especially covert operations, has been confirmed on numerous occasions since 1979;… “The Quds Force is not a front-line unit, but functions as a special operations group whose presence and leadership improves indigenous forces on the battlefield.” This preference, shaped by its experiences in the 1980s, coalesced into a more consistent approach in the aftermath of the killing of 13 Iranian diplomats in its Mazari Sharif consulate by the Afghan Taliban in 1998.

2. Partner with indigenous forces and use unconventional warfare

Iran has historically emphasized partnering with indigenous forces in carrying out its military interventions. While reliable publicly available information remains scant, these partnerships appear to follow a basic pattern epitomized by Hezbollah, though there can be important variations from case to case.

3. Create broad non-sectarian coalitions

In its military interventions, Iran has tried to legitimize its actions and weaken its opponents by creating broad non-sectarian coalitions, meaning that it often seeks to avoid overt sectarianism both in its discourse and actions, where feasible.

Source: Military Intervention, Iranian Style

China’s Three Warfares

1. Psychological Warfare seeks to disrupt an opponent’s decision-making capacity; create doubts, foment anti-leadership sentiments, deceive and diminish the will to fight among opponents.

2. Legal Warfare (“Lawfare”) can involve enacting domestic law as the basis for making claims in international law and employing “bogus” maps to justify China’s actions.

3. Media Warfare is the key to gaining dominance over the venue for implementing psychological and legal warfare.

Source: China’s ‘Three Warfares’: Origins, Applications, and Organizations

Source: A Leader’s Guide to Unconventional Warfare

As we compare the unconventional warfare frameworks with ours we might recognize that our adversaries have more in common with George Kennan’s 1948 Policy Planning Memo in which he described the need for the US to be able to conduct political warfare.  His concepts are summarized in this chart:

George Kennan Political Warfare 1948

Political warfare is “the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace.”  While stopping short of the direct kinetic confrontation between two countries’ armed forces, “political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command… to achieve its national objectives.”  A country embracing Political Warfare conducts “both overt and covert” operations in the absence of declared war or overt force-on-force hostilities. Efforts “range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures…, and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.” 

Source: 269. Policy Planning Staff Memorandum, Washington, May 4, 1948.

What he was advocating was to have a comprehensive strategy built on statecraft and employing the full range of US national power to achieve our objectives to include what we would call today information and influence activities as well as support to indigenous resistance.  If he were assessing the conditions in the 21st Century he would most surely call for a strategy to counter the unconventional warfare being conducted by our adversaries.

So what is counter-unconventional warfare?  The US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) describes it this way in its 2014 White Paper:

“…operations and activities conducted by the U.S. Government and supported by SOF [special operations forces] against an adversarial state or non-state sponsor of unconventional warfare.’ These SOF-supported government initiatives can “decrease the sponsor’s capacity to employ unconventional warfare to achieve strategic aims.” As C-UW campaigns are likely “protracted and psychological-centric in nature” they should “comprehensively employ political, economic, military, and psychological pressure” in order to degrade both the will and capability of an adversary to sponsor unconventional warfare.”

The most important point of this definition is that it is not military centric and it requires a whole of government approach integrating all the elements of national power.  This is also recognized in another important USASOC White Paper that incorporates counter unconventional warfare: SOF Support to Political WarfareThe phrasing of the title is important.  SOF does not conduct political warfare but can only provide contributions.  The graphic below illustrates the relationship with the concepts of political warfare and strategy in the gap between peace and war.  The White Paper seeks to respond to this problem statement:

How does the United States counter and deter the asymmetric and hybrid warfare employed by our state and nonstate adversaries during both “war” and “peace” across the spectrum of conflict?  How can the U.S. respond optimally to hybrid and asymmetric challenges while accounting for fiscal limitations and political sensitivity to large-scale operations?  What is the best means to fully synchronize Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) responses to hybrid challenges?

The action officers in DOD are asking how do we develop a counter-unconventional warfare strategy. They should turn to Fort Bragg which has historically been the intellectual center of gravity for unconventional warfare.  As noted USASOC has produced important white papers on political warfare and counter-unconventional warfare and the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School has initiated Project Gray to stimulate critical thinking in this area.

I know we are deathly afraid of terminology such as political warfare and unconventional warfare.  I often hear from military personnel that the civilian leadership and congress do not look favorably on such terms as people recall the friction over the re-invention of irregular warfare post 9-11.  However, we should note that Congress has a different point of view and we should recall Congressman Thornberry's recent words in this article with his emphasis on UW).  

The common refrain from those in the military who are opposed to the use of political warfare and UW is that our civilian interagency partners do not want to be associated with "warfare."  However, last spring I attended a conference that was composed of US government civilian and military leadership from desk officers (military and civilian) to assistant secretaries to general officers and ambassadors and I was happy to hear senior civilian US government officials not only using political and unconventional warfare terminology but embracing the concepts.  Chatham House rules prohibit naming names but I was gratified that there was no pushback among civilian officials on the use of warfare -  political, unconventional, and conventional.

The two primary SOF activities that support counter unconventional warfare strategies are surgical strike and special warfare and are defined this way in US Army doctrine (ADRP 3-05 Special Operations):

Surgical Strike is the execution of activities in a precise manner that employ special operations in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover or damage designated targets, or influence adversaries and threats.

Special Warfare is the execution of activities that involve a combination of lethal and nonlethal actions taken by a specially trained and educated force that has a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain, or hostile environment.

We have raised surgical strike in support of counterterrorism operations to a high art form. We have national mission forces that are master of the conduct of the hyper-conventional raid.  We have captured and killed numerous high value targets and developed our networks to defeat networks.  The concept of F3EAD – find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze and disseminate - has led to the removal of many of the most dangerous terrorists from the battlefields.  The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) has become our nation’s center of gravity for counterterrorism operations employing our surgical strike capabilities with incredible effectiveness and has become the most effective organization to manage interagency operations on a specific mission.  It is much more effective than the National Security Council for developing counterterrorism strategy and orchestrating operations.

However, it is special warfare that will make a long term contribution to political warfare and counter-unconventional warfare. The results of surgical strike are highly visible and easier to measure while the effects from special warfare require time and are often not easily seen or immediately understood.  But we should not be mistaken here – we need both special warfare and surgical strike applied appropriately to security challenges to support national strategy.

The contributions by USASOC and USAJFKSWCS should assist DOD action officers in understanding the phenomena we are facing in warfare:  it is hybrid, unrestricted, political, and unconventional resting on a foundation of revolution, resistance, and insurgency that of courses uses terrorism as a way to further objectives.  This is what we routinely experience in the gap between peace and war.

The Way Ahead

Fundamentally our leaders need to answer these four questions:

1.  Are we as a nation and government going to get comfortable conducting special warfare in the space between peace and war that is described by the gray zone and political, unconventional, and counter-unconventional warfare?

2.  Are we willing to do strategy in that space to achieve our policy objectives?

3.  Are we willing to inform the national leadership that we have the will and capability to conduct special warfare in that space between peace and war and conduct our own forms of political and unconventional warfare as well as to counter our adversaries who are conducting unconventional warfare?

4.  What new organizations or adaptions to current organizational structures may be necessary for effective special warfare operations?

What Should the Action Officers and Principles in DOD Do? 

1.  Read and study the publications outlined above.  Develop a deep understanding of revolution, resistance, and insurgency and the unconventional warfare strategies being employed by our adversaries.

Because a strategy must be developed for each type of threat, focus instead on developing a strategic framework that can guide the development of specific strategies for the varied threats.

2.  Request support from the interagency to develop a whole of government strategic framework for counter unconventional warfare.  Consider resurrecting President Decision Directive (PDD) 56 for the Management of Complex Contigency Operations from 1997 to use as a methodology for interagency planning.

3.  Determine what if any new organizational structures are required to support counter unconventional warfare.  Examine the NCTC, its structure, and its methods for lessons that might be applied to an organization that could focus the government on counter unconventional warfare and when necessary our own unconventional warfare operations.

4.  Determine new personnel policies required for designated SOF personnel to be deployed for long periods of time in order to gain deep understanding of the situation and conditions where future revolution, resistance and insurgency may occur in the future.

5.  Develop new methods of operation for SOF and intelligence personnel and units.  As an example, elements of the US military and Intelligence Community must continuously assess potential, nascent, and existing resistance organizations around the world on a day-to-day basis.  Assessments will contribute to understanding when US interests and resistance objectives can be aligned and provide the intellectual foundation to determine if a UW campaign is warranted or if opponents’ UW campaigns should be countered. 

6.  To find an example of a modern political warfare policy for the US action officers should examine the work of Dr. D. Robert Worley and his draft US Policy For Political Warfare, January 2015 that can be accessed here.

7.  Finally, examine the authorities and resources required to conduct counter unconventional warfare.  However, do not recommend programs.  Instead understand that the key military contribution will be through effective operational art that will translate the policy guidance and national strategy into effective operations.  The determination of the necessary operations through campaign planning will drive the request for authorities and resources. 

To conclude we should consider the opportunity that Congress has provided.  It is time to shift from a myopic focus on terrorism and understand the characteristics of conflict in the 21st Century.  We can move from a tactical focus to a strategic focus and as Sun Tzu would have us do, attack the strategies of our adversaries.  While there are those who will oppose unconventional warfare in the US, we should think about Trotsky’s famous dictum, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  Today we should consider that some in the US may not be interested in unconventional warfare but unconventional warfare is being practiced by our adversaries around the world.  The question for us is whether we can devise a strategic framework and the supporting campaign plans to effectively operate in the strategy gap between peace and war or the gray zone.

About the Author(s)

David S. Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Previously he was the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.


Dave Maxwell

Wed, 12/30/2015 - 11:05am

In reply to by JulianaGeranPilon

Thanks Juliana. I regret that I did not add this comment from my blog when the law was passed in November.

"4) I am disappointed that the NDAA focuses on DOD but of course that is all the HASC can really influence. I think that USASOC's White paper makes it clear that DOD cannot be the lead in Political Warfare (which includes counter unconventional warfare) but that SOF makes a unique DOD contribution to its conduct."…

Also regarding black and white. I think that is important to understand especially in terms of conventional and special operations forces; statecraft and military operations; and public diplomacy/strategic communications and psychological operations/warfare. We tend to take a black and white approach to each of these pairings (and many others like these) with is the "either/or" construct. What we really need is the "both/and" construct which changes black and white to gray. :-)

If you think think only in "either/or" instead of "both/and" you will not be able to "do strategy."


Wed, 12/30/2015 - 10:21am

This is an excellent account of the challenges and opportunities before us. It is indeed necessary to recalibrate the nation's approach to the complex post-Cold War environment. The deceptive simplicity of the ideological polarity that defined the years when the USSR was our main enemy has exacerbated the American penchant for black-and-white foreign policy. Thwarting our adversaries' strategy, however, requires that we first figure out who they are, and not pretend they will be appeased by our generosity. Great recommendations for the military. Now if only someone would pay a little attention to the civilian tools of statecraft, like State and USAID (maybe the BBG too). Surely they aren't a complete disaster, are they? Please say it ain't so.

I am grateful for both the article and the recent bureaucratic shift towards UW threats(better late to the UW re-invention party than never).

With Information & Influence Activities at the core of the Grey Zone diagram as well as suggested emphasis on C-UW I'm surprised there isn't more content in the article links regarding Broadcasting Board of Governors(BBG), the successor entity to USIS.

Is the BBG effective in mitigating and countering non-kinetic information subversion of the US and its allies/interests?

If not, does this pre-social media and pre-global UW war(both kinetic and non-kinetic) patchwork entity(BBG) represent the optimal highly integrated(and real time proactive operational structure) required to effectively counter long term opposition UW information campaigns?


Also in terms of influencing operations, does the existing structure of FSOs, OGA officers, and ODAs provide sufficient capacity to deal with current and expected future sovereign(black/white) national/local and high threshold NSA(grey) liaison and negotiation?

Is there a place for 2nd career(prior service SF and OGA with high specificity language, culture skills) civilian "grey diplomats" focused on the non-kinetic political warfare and NSA liaison and negotiation(discrete, rather than clandestine) role if additional capacity is deemed necessary?

If not, will the rise of NSAs compel the need for new diplomatic doctrine and TTPs on the part of Department of State shifting from a focus on black/white national sovereignty towards one of local grey legitimacy?