Small Wars Journal

Developing Mastery of Irregular Warfare is a Pipe Dream if the DOD is Forced to Rely on SOCOM

Tue, 01/03/2023 - 8:39am

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:


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.



About the Author(s)

With over twenty two years of active service and four deployments to the CENTCOM AOR, MAJ James Armstrong is a former Infantry Officer currently teaching Cyber Electromagnetic Operations at the US Army Cyber and Electromagnetic Warfare School.


Greg Banner

Mon, 01/23/2023 - 9:12am

James Armstrong wrote “Developing Mastery of Irregular Warfare is a Pipe Dream if the DOD is Forced to Rely on SOCOM” in response to a piece by Cleveland, Egel, Maxwell and Rothstein (“Developing a mastery of irregular warfare”).    I found bits and pieces of both articles useful but also missing the mark, so without addressing points directly I will very briefly make my own attempt at defining “our” problem and possible solution.   

First of all, USSOCOM and US Army “Special Operations” leadership was long ago taken over by the conventional Infantry Army.  As much as they like the title “Special Operations,” those whose expertise is tied to the Ranger Regiment or JSOC are focused on only the direct action type missions.  They are admittedly among the best in the world at those missions but neither their training nor professional education gives them any real insights into the topic under discussion – unconventional warfare.  They go back and forth easily to conventional Army assignments because that is their fundamental skill set.  The relatively small parts of the special operations community which learn about, practice and operate much of the time in the UW arena were relegated to subordinate places in the hierarchy long ago and so only have a limited voice on the topic.  Being able to plan and execute the most successful raid to kill terrorists or rescue prisoners does not give an organization the insights into developing counter-insurgency campaign plans.     USSOCOM therefore, and most of the officers who have USSOCOM assignments really don’t know UW and systemically the organization only has a very, very limited baseline knowledge in that area.  

There is a fundamental part of leadership and management which requires the assignment of responsibility and authority for a given task.  In practice, from Vietnam to now, UW in our big events has been given to the conventional Army at the time.    When we decide and have to go in with large conventional forces, the conventional Army is the only piece of DOD with the assets to do that, but nobody is forcing them up front to prepare to do that mission right.   The elements of “Special Operations” which know UW can do really good work when the scale is limited but our fundamental failure is that nobody has assigned the mission of conducting major UW campaigns, in a concrete and realistic way, to the force that would have to execute.  Neither think-tanks, doctrine writers, academic programs or offices buried in the DOD can prepare and lead a real UW capability.   The only solution is to force big-Army to accept the major UW mission now and have parts of their structure really get their heads, hearts, and training into that mission so they can do that right when they have to do it again in 20-30 years.   (But the challenge is to know that winning a full-on conventional fight is still the core mission.  UW is so different, though, that if at least a part of the conventional force doesn’t take it on full-time, there will never be the right leadership and forces to do that mission when needed.)    At the cost of much blood and repeated failures we somehow have not grasped the reality of this need and solution.   Getting the big Army over not wanting to do this mission is of course a huge part of the challenge. 

Touching a nerve means that my argument threatened your worldview, leading to the natural defensive argument to avoid having to suffer the discomfort of a paradigm shift. 

Since you bring up JP-1, here's what it has to say....


Irregular warfare (IW) has emerged as a major and pervasive form of warfare. Typically in IW, a less powerful adversary seeks to disrupt or negate the military capabilities and advantages of a more powerful, conventionally armed military force, which often represents the nation’s established regime.

The context of irregular warfare (IW) is marked by a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will. Our enemies may be loosely organized networks or entities with no discernible hierarchical structure....

​​​​​​An adversary using irregular warfare methods typically will endeavor to wage protracted conflicts in an attempt to break the will of their opponent and its population. IW typically manifests itself as one or a combination of several possible forms including insurgency, terrorism, information operations (disinformation, propaganda, etc.), organized criminal activity (such as drug trafficking), strikes, and raids. The specific form will vary according to the adversary’s capabilities and objectives. IW focuses on the control of populations, not on the control of an adversary’s forces or territory. The belligerents, whether states or other armed groups, seek to undermine their adversaries’ legitimacy and credibility and to isolate their adversaries from the relevant population, physically as well as psychologically. At the same time, they also seek to bolster their own legitimacy and credibility to exercise authority over that same population. The focus of IW operations is on employing subversion, attrition, and exhaustion to undermine and erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will to exercise political authority over a relevant population. What makes IW “irregular” is the focus of its operations – a relevant population – and its strategic purpose – to gain or maintain control or influence over, and the support of that relevant population through political, psychological, and economic methods. Warfare that has the population as its “focus of operations” requires a different mindset and different capabilities than warfare that focuses on defeating an adversary militarily. When engaged in irregular warfare, the US response will vary according to established national and coalition objectives, the specific type or combination of operations required (such as counterinsurgency and counterterrorism), and other situation-specific factors.


These are all great words, but applying them is still the function of the joint staff. currently Joint Doctrine still gives us four defeat mechanism (destroy, dislocate, disintegrate, isolate), and four stability mechanisms (compel, control, influence, support) to plan operations. And those words are so broad that it could rather strongly that the Counter Narcotics mission in Columbia is a supporting operation of a larger IW campaign for the regional security and stability, so that the Columbian cartels do not gain and maintain political power over Columbian citizens. 

The fight for "information dominance" within the cognitive layer of cyberspace is a supporting function to traditional and irregular warfare. From the technical perspective the actions are the same, but the targets, payloads, and purpose are different. Much like a mortarman cares very little if the round he hangs is going after a conventional or irregular target. And as much Cyber support as the counter-ISIS coalition has received, that operation remains ongoing (although possibly due more to mission creep to counter other regional actors than any other factor at this time).

My point still remains the same, people live in the Land Domain. The US Army is the DOD's lead force for land domain operations. To get the DOD to have a mastery of IW, we have to update the Army as a whole rather than shove off the responsibility to SOCOM (and each Service will need to figure out their own updates to doctrine and training). This isn't to say that the "Triad" of Space, Cyber, and Special Operations will not continue to evolve and provide more efficient and effective capabilities to combatant commands, only that we still need SFABs, and regional engagement with conventional forces, as well as professionalizing our junior planners to understand concepts such as "sources of instability" and "spoilers" so we can work effectively with the State Department to achieve the desired outcomes.


Paul 10 7

Tue, 01/03/2023 - 8:54pm

As I read this article, my hopes that this could be the beginning of a great discussion between special operations and non-special operations thinkers, was quickly dashed after I read the second paragraph.  I should have stopped reading, for the remainder of the article devolved into nonsense with a misrepresentation of the facts and a complete reversal of where the blame for failures over the past 20 years should be, that is if blame is to be assigned.

As I mentioned in my opening line, the author demonstrated quite clearly in his second paragraph his lack of understanding of Irregular Warfare, and I would argue that this thinking is prevalent with in the US Army and is one of the reasons the Army failed to learn in both Afghanistan and Iraq, in fact I would take it all the way back to Vietnam.  His lack of education in Irregular Warfare is not his fault.  The services in many respects, treat Irregular Warfare not as a type of war but as a type of operation.  This is quite evident in the resent effort in the Pentagon to change the definition of Irregular Warfare from a form of warfare to a form of operation such that it is another tool to be used by the services to identify required capabilities for justifying budget lines and requesting funding from congress.  When in fact Irregular Warfare is a form of warfare that requires a strategy, and the art of Irregular Warfare is underpinned by a completely different science.

Joint Pub 1 identifies two types of warfare, Traditional Warfare, and Irregular Warfare.  Traditional Warfare is one nation state forcing its will on another.  The mechanisms of victory for Traditional Warfare are to be close with the enemy, to destroy his will and capability to fight and to occupy his terrain.  When you have achieved these three conditions you have victory.  Traditional Warfare occurs in the physical domains, it is about the terrain.  The education system in the department, regardless of the service, is focused on traditional warfare and all official education is based on the study of the science of traditional warfare.  Irregular Warfare is a competition for power between a governing authority-whether the legal government or occupying power and an element of the population.

This type of warfare, while many actions occur in the physical and cyber domains, is waged in the minds of the people.  Irregular Warfare is about the population, the mass base, not about the terrain.  A long-standing principle of resistance forces is not to hold terrain.  The mechanism of victory in IW for both the opposition and the governing authority, while not described in the Joint Pub, is to obtain the active support of most of the population and to use that weight to force the desired outcome.

As I argued in my February 2017 SWJ article, The Science of Resistance, waging this type of war is based on a different science that results in applying a different art than the one used for Traditional Warfare. While traditional warfare predominately occurs in the physical domains, Irregular Warfare occurs in minds of the effected population, it is about the narrative, the story being told by each side, and to convince or force the mass base to engage.  I would call this the Human Terrain not the Human Dimension as mentioned by the author which if I remember correctly is primary focused on the human condition of the enemy’s soldiers and maybe dealing with refugees within the context of Traditional Warfare.  We have seen the results of applying the wrong art to the war we are engaged in; it is time we start getting it right.

Aside from the glaring lack of understanding of the roles, responsibilities, and authorities of USSOCOM, the conflation USASOC and USSOCOM, and the lack of historical context (Desert One is a landing site – the mission was Operation Eagle Claw) for this argument to have purpose, there would have to be interest at the Secretary of the Army level in a large-scale investment to “professionalize the entire US Army on irregular warfare."
Since we haven’t seen calls for this from senior Army leadership, shouldn’t the author’s concern be with who doesn’t want to do IW, and not with who does? 

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 01/03/2023 - 9:32am

(My comments: needless to say I disagree with many of the allegations made in this article - namely this one: "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." There was no irregular warfare proficient campaign headquarters leading the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan - and USSOCOM certainly was not in charge of the wars. But this makes a useful contribution to the debate. The bigger issues are - 1st - irregular warfare is the military contribution to political warfare - where was the overall political warfare strategy? and 2d, most look at IW as countering enemy/adversary/competitors​'​ activities -e.g., defensive in nature - e.g. COIN based - what we have long lacked is a proactive IW campaign in support of a political warfare strategy that is offensive and seizes the initiative.)