Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare Strategy Policy Friction: Perpetual Disruption is not Victory, or is It?

Wed, 08/16/2023 - 10:06pm

Irregular Warfare Strategy Policy Friction:

Perpetual Disruption is not Victory, or is It?

By Paul Burton


      Policy, in its relation to traditional warfare, is arguably most influential at the beginning of and near the end of the conflict, but what about an Irregular War (IW) that is protracted? Policy and its relationship to IW, sometimes called Political Warfare, blurs the lines, both in its relationship to strategy and its weight during campaign execution. Options for Irregular Warfare policy present challenges as well as opportunities, and framing the problem properly is vital. Military planners are successful when they can match means to objective, and end states are clearly defined. In this current peer conflict, the policy of containment will not be sufficient, and that is why a policy of flexible “constrainment” is needed.  Flexible “constrainment” is defined as a multi-country or regional policy to disrupt peer competitors in multiple areas across the instruments of national power, simultaneously imposing a calculated cost for a long duration. In the Cold War, the conflict was viewed in terms of East versus West and the delineation of the Iron Curtain created a bifurcation of ideology. Today, there are ethnic diasporas, super interdependent economies, and other influencers that make that simple bifurcation impossible. Additionally, with the ascension of China in some areas and signs of decline in others, the world has transitioned from a unipolar world to a complex multipolar construct, causing all the associated friction that comes from macro level power re-distribution.

 Policymakers present a grave danger to current IW policy when they reduce strategy framing down to weapons, information dominance, and technology, negating the importance of sustained campaigns, the human domain, and the relationship of supporting strategy to policy. The Global War on Terror was conducted by linking small tactical actions together across a country or region; peer competition cannot be conducted that way. As stated in the first article, “This is not your Father’s Cold War,” Special Operations Forces (SOF) have three options [ways] to approach the re-emerging challenge of peer competition below the level of armed conflict therefore supporting strategic policy. First, SOF can set the conditions to enable the General-Purpose Force (GPF) to be successful in high-intensity traditional war. This is largely accomplished through engagement with partner nations and supporting groups. Second, they can resist and disrupt peer competitors by conducting activities that would be considered strategic and operational-level disruption, including proxy wars. Finally, they can use a combination of approaches that apply the degree of emphasis on Unconventional Warfare or Foreign Internal Defense depending on the regional and trans-regional friction points that can be applied. Simply put, SOF seeks to create pockets of stability or instability. Policy and policy decisions should dominate strategy, but if the policy is disruption of a peer competitor, what is the level of disruption to be achieved, and are there actually termination or success criteria that has been developed or do we need to be comfortable with disruption as the end state?

In the first option, pre-conflict small SOF deployments build relationships, provide forward presence, build irregular capacity, and provide operational-level situational awareness. Once the conflict has started, SOF essential roles in the deep battle and stay behind to continue to set conditions for the larger GPF. In this strategy, SOF are the supporting force. The level and location of SOF engagements become a critical part of this role; in order to support broader objectives that support pre-conflict GPF preparations.  Until the recent high-end proxy war in Ukraine, few people entertained the idea of high-intensity, conventional war in Europe.  One of the reasons that Ukraine is still competitive in the present war is because of the pre-crisis engagements and changes, that were generated because of the 2014 conflict, that helped set the conditions for effective defense.

The second option consists of purposely creating areas or pockets of disruption, instability, or conflict to deny access to key markets and materials, thus slowing or denying expansion, or “imposing costs” for a purpose. Disruption is an important activity in competition, but a strategy of perpetual disruption against a peer does not relinquish policymakers from establishing clear, attainable political objectives and effectively articulating them to other agencies for execution. Additionally, in some instances, competition and disruption are being used as a synonym and that is not the case in irregular warfare. The problem should be articulated using the construct of ways, means, ends, and now also risks and costs; the delineation of these categories should not cross over. Too often, political leadership poorly defines the objectives for IW campaigns and then changes the objectives without sufficiently resourcing the means to achieve them. This challenge is further exacerbated by many senior military leaders who don’t understand the problem or who have poorly defined the military’s contribution to political objectives. How many times have we heard a senior leader say, “I don’t know what I want, but I will know it when I see it,” which I find professionally negligent. The military’s role and understanding of the art of Political Warfare, or IW, and its ability to clearly define intermediate objectives or conditions to be achieved in the campaign’s end state have atrophied. The skill level of policymakers and executors to understand and clearly identify IW objectives is like planning a mission to Mars. Recent examples of atrophied skills and changing objectives can be found in strategy framing of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Not only are some leaders struggling with what to do, but slow campaign timelines, two-year political cycles, and short command tours further complicate the long IW campaign. Our adversaries are not hindered by these constraints. Strategic policies that are not effectively transmitted to the theaters for operational-level execution are empty concepts on paper. Traditionally, the United States (U.S.) has traded space and/or time to build capacity, which I will refer to as “scale.”  The Joint Planning JP 5-0 uses the term “Forces,” but in IW, it is about achieving multi-domain effects, so “scale” is more appropriate, thus the application of art to the science. Lastly, layering the first two options onto a balanced approach that manages the threshold of success in the disruption action, so as not to trigger an escalation of response by the peer, until it is in our interest is one of the campaign challenges.

In the context of a flexible “constrainment” strategy, winning a short campaign might not be the goal but rather a strategy of continued theater disruption to impose costs. The U.S. sponsored support against the USSR in Afghanistan is a successful example of correct application of this strategy. Operational-level art is just that-art and understanding the science to support the art, there must be an appropriate level of professional intellectual understanding for application. IW education is foundational, but without the tools to apply it to the theater campaign, it is just education. Phasing these regional campaigns with conditions that lead to decisive points is a key portion. The mission or activity conducted should be viewed as the short-term contract between the policymaker and executor, whereas the intent should be viewed as the long-term contract in the campaign. If the political intent is not properly conveyed or understood, there is danger in the execution of campaigns that thresholds of success could lead to conventional conflict. If the transition to conventional conflict is a branch or sequel in the campaign plan, it should be executed in a sequence that is advantageous to the U.S. or the regional partners that work with us.

Whatever the timeline of our peer competitors’ accession or regional disruption campaign, there is an urgent need for political leadership to understand the nature of the policy that should be dictated for implementation. Simultaneously conducting an irregular warfare campaign that has well-defined intermediate objectives that set conditions for long-term goals or end states is critical. If the definition of victory is disruption for denial of resources or access to markets that must be clearly articulated. In reading recent national-level documents, you could draw the conclusion that we are at the beginning of a long competition, or phase one, and policy should set the foundational context for the campaign. Our peers are in phase three of their campaign, and there is no time to lose in the engagement and education of policymakers. As mentioned in the second article, IW Education a Lifelong Process, The Irregular Warfare Center engages audiences daily to influence minds to think in the realm of IW by developing select senior U.S. government leaders from across departments and agencies to collectively understand and apply IW as a tool of U.S. policy. Their task is monolithic and unachievable with the present resources. The Department of Defense needs a more robust mechanism that can engage policymakers to educate them on the strategy of IW, which might require the placement of personnel in these agencies as liaisons. Unfortunately, it too often takes a failure like 911 or Pearl Harbor to energize policymakers and, by that time the cost in blood and treasure could be great.

This the third 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.