Developing Mastery of Irregular Warfare is a Pipe Dream if the DOD is Forced to Rely on SOCOM
By James Armstrong
This opinion piece is written directly in response to the words of LTG(R) Cleveland, himself a former commander of US Army Special Operations Command, Special Operations Command Central, Special Operations Command South, and 10th Special Forces Group.
I will point out the first great big elephant in the room, “Irregular Warfare” is largely the responsibility of the US Army as the primary land force for the DOD. The US Air Force, US Navy, and US Marine Corps do have a role to play, but by large the personnel and resources for waging any warfare where “the human dimension” is the critical factor reside within the US Army’s “campaign quality.” People mostly live in the land domain, and that’s why the US Army must master irregular warfare. Any push at professionalizing the Department of Defense on irregular warfare, we must first professionalize the entire US Army on irregular warfare.
The second great big elephant in the room is failure. The last twenty years of war have shown “irregular warfare” as led by SOCOM have proven incapable of delivering operational and strategic victory in Afghanistan. The entire United States Army collective unit training and validation pipeline shifted from a near-peer high intensity fight to “Counter Insurgency” which SOCOM claims to be a “core activity” of SOF personnel and units and defines it as “The blend of civilian and military efforts designed to end insurgent violence and facilitate a return to peaceful political processes.” source: https://www.socom.mil/about/core-activities
We should view the creation of the “Irregular Warfare Functional Center” (IFWC) not as a validation of SOCOM competence, but as a failure of SOCOM to deliver. As a side note, it is the history of Joint Special Operations failure at Desert One that led to the creation of USSOCOM as a combatant command. From an organizational perspective when failure leads to more resources you have a very good reason to fail. This is what economists would call a “perverse incentive.”
Now it is my opinion that the war in Afghanistan was never “winnable” without multi-generational US force presence to stabilize the country and that Desert One was a good and noble attempt complicated by conditions beyond the control of SOF planners. However, the “occupy Afghanistan forever” option became unacceptable to our duly elected political leadership, and what had the potential for “victory” or at least “maintenance of the status quo” became a full on retreat and ceding the territory of Afghanistan to violent extremist organizations (to use the current JP 3-24 term). However, that might as well be putting ointment on cancer as Afghanistan highlights a few fundamental problems that are solely within SOCOM’s ability to fix in the short term.
1. Education. There is not a lack of curriculum on irregular warfare within the SOCOM training and education system. Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), or the Special Operations Captain’s Career Course are both examples of training and educational opportunities offered to Special Operators but largely not offered to the rest of the United States Army. In 2013 the Special Operations Captain’s Career Course stood up at Fort Bragg, NC to save time and money creating 18As. This served to further isolate the Army SOF community from conventional captain’s career course cross pollination opportunities, one of the “intangibles” of professional military education.
2. Proponent push off. In 2014 US Army Training and Doctrine Command published TRADOC Pamphlet 525-8-5 “U.S. Army Functional Concept for Engagement” in which “Engagement” would be a new “Warfighting Function” as well as TP 525-3-7 “The U.S. Army Human Dimension Concept.” Both documents were designed to guide future doctrinal development towards educating and training the force on winning wars within the human and political arenas. The proponent for developing “Engagement” as a warfighting function was given to the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). Both documents were rescinded on 27 September 2019 due to “obsolescence.”
So, this fundamentally highlights a big problem, USASOC had proponency for functions that the entire US Army requires to get better at irregular warfare and did nothing. This is because SOCOM has a “perverse incentive” to keep the “regular Army” from conducting “irregular warfare.” In the “limited pie” mentality, any increase in irregular warfare expertise by conventional forces represents a loss to SOF. If you want to see this mentality in action, simply search through the web about SF thoughts about the creation of the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) in the regular Army. This was seen as a direct threat to SOCOM’s primacy in “period of competition” operations, and still is.
I personally enjoy the honesty of this quote: “SF troops are already smarting from the higher-ups who are closing the Special Forces Museum, which they feel (correctly so) is impinging on their legacy. Now another part of their legacy (the counternarcotics mission to Colombia) is now going, going, gone to the SFAB.”
In closing, historically the SOF Community has worked very hard to protect their “special missions” to the detriment of educating the entire force. If the IWFC is placed in SOCOM it would be most reasonable to assume that the same outcome would occur in that any value from IWFC would only go back into the SOF community. If we truly desire an Army that has some level of irregular warfare mastery that must come through updates to TRADOC professional military education, updates to Combat Training Center rotational exercises, and likely a directed change to unit Mission Essential Task List (METL) directed by the DA G-3. All these changes should of course be informed by validated operational requirements, of which the IWFC may provide some utility if not locked away inside of SOCOM.