Small Wars Journal

Proposal of an Unconventional Warfare Strategy to Dominate the Human Domain

Mon, 03/07/2016 - 1:10am

Proposal of an Unconventional Warfare Strategy to Dominate the Human Domain

Carole N. House

Though civilian and military leadership have placed great emphasis on the need for the U.S. military to maintain technological and conventional forces overmatch against its potential adversaries, there is little mention of the need for unconventional and political warfare supremacy.  Unconventional warfare[i] and political warfare[ii] offer valuable strategic options beyond traditional military means to achieve national policy objectives.  They are especially useful in their suitability to target the human domain, where the psychological and moral dimensions of war reside.  A war of insurrection is a battle for the national will, for popular support between the insurgents and the host nation government.  Many enemies of the United States have already spent years expanding their influence across human terrain within their spheres of influence to shape the international stage in their favor.  It is time for the United States to catch up.

The different elements of power can provide one nation an advantage over others: economy, geography and resources, national will, military force, and political structure.[iii]  For a national grand strategy to be successful, it must integrate all of them into a comprehensive approach that brings the force of the entire country’s capabilities to bear against the enemy.  The United States seems bound by a tunnel vision regarding unconventional warfare that brings policy makers to believe it belongs solely in the hands of Special Operations Forces (SOF).[iv]  This mistake wastes the incredible capacity of the rest of the U.S. government to bring about massive change and influence domestically[v] and internationally.  There is also a prevalent climate of reactionary rather than proactive foreign policy, especially in the realm of unconventional warfare.  In this sense, the U.S. position is more a reaction to the foreign policy of aggressor nations and non-state organizations rather than a definite and cohesive American foreign policy.  This leaves the United States reacting to threats as they rise rather than proactively and pre-emptively engaging the international community, target nations, and local populations to shape social and geopolitical environments that are conducive to U.S. foreign policy objectives and that help prevent the development of threats.  The United States must combine the full weight of its national power to achieve long-term strategic success with unconventional warfare efforts and countering those of its enemies.

For a strategy to be complete, it must include both ends and means: the desired political objective and the method to achieve this strategic end.  All of the national tools of power (means) fall subordinate to the policy objectives (ends) set forth by the President and, to a lesser degree, Congress.  Therefore, the first step in strategic planning must be that decision makers issue clear guidance on the foreign policy goals that the military and diplomatic strategies have to support.  The next step requires development of infrastructure to support joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational (JIIM) efforts to support whole-of-government planning and execution of an unconventional warfare strategy.  In this paper, I define critical restructuring needs of the U.S. government and propose strategic lines of effort to facilitate a comprehensive national approach to the conduct of unconventional warfare and countering its use against the United States.

Strategic Context and Challenges

In order for the United States to use its diplomatic and military tools most effectively, decision makers must understand the current operational environment and the threats standing against the United States.  Unconventional warfare is not new, but the effectiveness and scale in which other nations are engaging in it and achieving successes counter to U.S. interests are troubling.  Chinese “Unrestricted Warfare” and Iran’s support of Hezbollah have caused the United States a great deal of grief, and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine currently stands at the center of the international stage.[vi]

Russia’s concept of “hybrid warfare” in Ukraine works in parallel conventional, irregular, political, economic, and information lines of effort that create a “combined power projection” much more formidable than a single unsupported dimension of operations.[vii]  Many of these operations can be low-footprint and offer deniability, which has enabled Russia to conduct an array of operations that oppose U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) objectives but that sit below their threshold for action, as has happened in Estonia, Georgia, and now Ukraine.  After its “deniable” covert action supporting separatist rebels and subsidiary information operations, Russian conventional forces moved in a full-scale invasion and occupation of Crimea with no military repercussions from the West.  Russia has invested in a “model of force and of war that can effectively cripple a state and achieve key strategic goals before [the world] even register[s] what is happening.”[viii]

In the same way that Russia has used unconventional warfare to support its goal of deterring eastern NATO expansion, the United States can take a lesson to use unconventional warfare to help set conditions for political strategic success.  Multilateral political and unconventional efforts, combined with the ability to counter the enemy’s, can help prevent enemy influence and future conflict; can shape the international stage to support U.S. interests; and can win against enemy insurgents and totalitarian regimes.  This combination of political, economic, information, technological, and low visibility military campaigns offer U.S. (and NATO) leadership a tailor-able and scalable response to adversarial aggression without resorting to full-scale war.

Despite the opportunities that unconventional warfare presents for U.S. foreign policy, it also faces some challenges: 1) a cultural aversion to non-measurable outputs; 2) the need for extensive joint intelligence preparation of the operational environment; 3) a lack of infrastructure to support JIIM cooperation under unconventional lines of effort; and 4) the absence of strategies for whole-of-government unconventional and counter-unconventional warfare.  The American public and political leadership prefer lethal counterterrorism efforts such as drone strikes because they produce quantifiable data: number of strikes, number of enemy killed in action.  Unconventional and counter-unconventional operations are more difficult to achieve significant results and are extremely hard to measure.  The U.S. government lacks the will and patience to establish and assess measures of effectiveness over the long-term, as is necessary to accurately evaluate the successes and challenges of strategic unconventional operations.  This should by no means deter decision makers from developing unconventional warfare strategies that support U.S. foreign policy objectives, but it is worth pointing out that these efforts may not always be popular.

With the requirement for strategies to be context-specific in order to be effective, massive intelligence collection and analysis must provide high levels of detail on the operational environment.  Intelligence support to counter-unconventional warfare is especially difficult since it requires collecting against enemy operations that are often low visibility or covert.  The United States must be able to identify its enemy’s various efforts to spark subversion and support terrorism.  This requires an intimate understanding of the socio-political and cultural conditions on the ground.  Building an expert organization dedicated to unconventional warfare should improve intelligence support.

As discussed earlier, unconventional warfare belongs to more than just SOF.  The U.S. government must direct the full scope of its capabilities to support foreign policy objectives in a unified way.  In the following sections, I will propose solutions to infrastructure and strategy development challenges as part of a comprehensive unconventional warfare approach.

Organization: Building the Infrastructure for the Unconventional War Effort

The U.S. government in its current form does not hold the capacity to engage in long-term strategic unconventional and political warfare efforts.  Success here requires organizing a new unconventional warfare body, establishing oversight authorities to maintain accountability, and driving a bureaucratic cultural shift within the U.S. government to reshape it as a unified strategic community.


To ensure unified action, a central authority must oversee and synchronize JIIM unconventional and political efforts and collaboration.  U.S. Army Special Operations Command highlighted the need for a Political Warfare Coordinator in the National Security Council (NSC), which permits direct synchronization with presidential policies and coordination of activities across the government.  The State Department must also build a strategic headquarters (an Office of Unconventional Warfare [OUW]) to coordinate interagency efforts and lead the whole U.S. approach in political warfare that persists during times of war and peace.[ix]  While the name may require changing for political and public image reasons, the purpose of this department will be to provide expertise in the planning and coordination of cross-agency unconventional operations in support of long-term U.S. strategic objectives.

The head authority for unconventional warfare efforts must lay within the State Department, which is ultimately responsible, after the President, for the accomplishment of U.S. foreign policy objectives.  This will inevitably present some challenges upfront with countering opinions that the SOF community should take the lead.  Although SOF has immense experience working in unconventional warfare, the United States must put forward a major synchronized effort to transfer that expertise from the military to civilian leadership.  Without this transition of authority, the strategy will never be a comprehensive whole-of-government effort but will remain only in the military arena.  Ultimate decision-making authority and power to direct the effort must sit with those who make policy: i.e. civilians.

Figure 1: Office of Unconventional Warfare Strategic and Regional Headquarters

The OUW should stand directly under the Secretary State and lateral in position to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to establish a complete spectrum of equally weighted foreign policy initiatives under the State Department: international development, diplomacy, and the integrated whole-of-government approach of the OUW to proactively further U.S. foreign policy interests against adversarial aggression (see Table 1).  While the NSC constructs foreign policy objectives, it should not be the home for the OUW as it lacks the action arm of the subordinate government agencies and the continuity of personnel and planning that exists within the State Department.  The NSC changes dramatically with each new presidential administration, which establishes the premier strategy-developing entity in the U.S. government as beholden to the partisan dynamics and inconsistency of election cycles.  The OUW must stand separate as a strategic organization that plans for and cultivates long-term outcomes.  Appointing the Ambassador of Unconventional Warfare for a ten year term, such as is done with the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would establish a standard of continuity to maintain strategic unconventional, counter-unconventional, and political warfare efforts.

The NSC will play a role in the OUW through establishing foreign policy objectives and with OUW representation on the NSC staff through the creation of a Political Warfare Coordinator.  The NSC Political Warfare Coordinator will function as a planner and liaison between the NSC staff and the OUW to ensure synchronous OUW lines of effort in support of the President’s foreign policy objectives.  The Ambassador of Unconventional Warfare should also usually participate in the President’s NSC meetings.  As the lead coordinating body with special expertise over efforts to counter U.S. adversaries’ strategic political and unconventional warfare programs, the OUW, although subordinate to the Secretary of State, should actively participate in and receive guidance as part of the NSC.

An effective strategy must spell out discrete policy objectives as well as the ways and means necessary to accomplish those goals.  The U.S. National Security Strategy is notorious for providing ambiguous and abstract objectives without clear implementation directives.  The OUW will fill this void of a comprehensive, cross-agency strategy.  Specifically, the OUW will identify and prioritize the foreign policy objectives whose achievement unconventional and political warfare measures can support, develop subordinate operational objectives, and determine the decisive points and resources necessary to complete these campaigns.

Liaisons from across the U.S. government will work under the State Department’s new OUW to ensure a unity of effort (see Figure 1).  The strategic headquarters will ensure prioritization of efforts and coordination of resources for global efforts.  An Unconventional Warfare Council (UWC) will be the primary entity for developing political, unconventional, and counter-unconventional warfare strategy to support presidential and NSC-directed foreign policy objectives.  Representation on the UWC should include the Ambassador for Unconventional Warfare, the Chief of Staff, the Chief of Strategic Operations, the NSC Political Warfare Coordinator, Department of State offices (USAID, Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and Counterterrorism), the Department of Defense (including U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Strategic Command [STRATCOM]), the Department of Justice, the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Treasury, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA),[x] and the leads for each of the Operations Directorates.

The Headquarters Operations Directorates will ensure direct synchronization of planning and execution of operational campaigns.  The Chief of Staff will act as the Ambassador’s second in command, direct and oversee inter-office and interagency coordination and assessments, and manage resourcing requirements.  The Chief of Strategic Operations will lead the development of operational plans based on the UWC guidance and the regional headquarters’ input.  The Regional Affairs office under Strategic Operations is the voice of the regional headquarters at the strategic echelon, responsible for assisting coordination and assessment of unconventional warfare operations in their assigned region.  The Operations Directorates at the strategic headquarters will each lead the planning, coordinating, supervision, and assessment of interagency unconventional and political warfare efforts under their responsibility that support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives (see Table 1).  The already-existing government agencies will be responsible for the execution of the political and unconventional warfare tasks that are determined within the OUW.  The OUW will serve as the integration and oversight mechanism to ensure that the government agencies move forward along mutually supporting lines of effort.

Table 1: OUW Operations Directorate Roles and Interagency Representation

In addition to the contiguous U.S.-based headquarters for planning and coordination, there must be a global network to facilitate the implementation and integration of joint and combined operations supporting the U.S. strategy.[xi]  Subordinate to the strategic office, six regional headquarters will reflect the organization of the military Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC).[xii]  At each regional headquarters, representation from the State Department, intelligence agencies, the GCC, and the embassy country teams will partner to develop and refine strategies for political and unconventional warfare within the region.  They will have direct representation in the Strategic Operations office through liaisons under Regional Affairs.

The diverse capabilities at the strategic and regional headquarters will integrate national directives and policy goals with customized approaches crafted by expert country teams in order to conduct effective unconventional and political warfare among unique cultures and populations.  With all of these capabilities together under one lead authority, the OUW can develop and enforce cohesive unconventional and counter-unconventional warfare strategies and bring discipline and focus to efforts that are innately messy.

Congressional Oversight and Support

The unique and strategic effects of UOW operations require government oversight and support in order to be successful and legitimate.  First, Congress will have to pass legislation establishing this office under the Department of State and delineating interagency participation and responsibilities, including presidential authority to appoint an Ambassador of Unconventional Warfare for ten years.[xiii]  The UOW will report on operations and expenditures through the State Department to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.  SOF and conventional military forces conducting operations in support of unconventional and political warfare initiatives will report through the Department of Defense to the Armed Services Committees.  The UOW will also provide an annual comprehensive briefing on U.S. adversaries’ unconventional and political warfare efforts against the United States to the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees to benefit Congress’s situational understanding.  Less directly, Congress will also play a role in unconventional warfare on occasions such as passing treaties, sanctions, and trade deals that government agencies pursue in support of political warfare operations.

There must also be leaders in Congress willing to champion the need of a unified unconventional and political warfare strategy in the United States.  The establishment of an OUW would greatly benefit from the support of an insider on an Armed Services Committee or a Foreign Affairs Committee.  Since 2011, Congressman Mac Thornberry from the 13th District of Texas has supported the consideration of adversarial state and non-state actors’ unconventional warfare as a persistent threat to U.S. national security.[xiv]  As Chairman, he continues to lead the House Armed Services Committee’s efforts focusing on unconventional warfare by non-state actors as well as U.S. state adversaries.[xv]  Pairing with an influential figure on a Foreign Affairs Committee, such as Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ed Royce, would be especially effective in garnering support and understanding of the civil and military natures of political and unconventional warfare.

Strategic Culture Shift

For the UOW to be able to plan and implement effective strategy, the bureaucratic culture in much of Congress and the government agencies much significantly evolve.  Political culture in Washington, D.C. is risk averse and focused on election cycles rather than countering long-term strategic goals of U.S. adversaries.  Turf wars and tunnel vision plague interagency relationships, and tensions between civil and military leadership create barriers to cooperation.  Some concrete measures can facilitate unconventional warfare strategy development.  The President and the National Security Advisor must empower the State Department and the OUW to enforce coordination of long-term interagency efforts supporting American foreign policy.  This requires special selection and development of adaptive leadership that is willing to work together in creative, closely coordinated, and synchronized operations under guidance by the State Department and the National Security Council to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives.  The Council on Foreign Relations suggests the creation of political warfare career tracks in relevant government agencies, which would establish a trained community of political warfare expertise in the government to help sustain long-term operations and planning.[xvi]

Some broader changes necessary to support long-term strategic operations are more elusive to accomplish.  Most government agencies and military leadership will resist working under to the State Department’s direction.  U.S. leadership must engineer a transformation of the traditions of tension into a tradition of cooperation and respectful understanding of each element’s role in accomplishing the mission.  Establishing a regular rotation of joint assignments among government agency and military personnel could support interagency understanding and repair relationships for the conduct of joint operations.[xvii]  The State Department must also accept its role as the institution responsible for achieving all U.S. foreign policy objectives and the task of leadership within the government inherent in this responsibility.  All of the other departments must embrace their critical role in supporting U.S. foreign policy with direction and expertise in political warfare provided by the OUW.

Unconventional Warfare Strategy: Developing Leaders, Motive, Opportunity, and Means

Although strategic requirements will always be case and context specific, the definition of unconventional warfare helps to clarify the goals of JIIM efforts.  Under a national policy decision to “overthrow a government or occupying power,” the OUW will engage in an operational campaign plan to “enable a resistance movement or insurgency.”[xviii]  While SOF and covert efforts will often work at the tactical level through a guerilla force, integrating military, diplomatic, economic, information, and technological capabilities under OUW leadership will produce more far-reaching results and increase the likelihood of a successful uprising.

The basis for strategic lines of effort to support the insurgency is in the current U.S. Counterinsurgency Operations doctrine.  It identifies the root causes and conditions necessary to support an insurgency: leaders, motive, opportunity, and means.[xix]  Identifying and developing strong leadership will provide direction for a headless organization and create an icon for unity of the movement.  By helping leadership construct and disseminate an appealing and convincing narrative to a sympathetic and neutral population, a unifying motive draws a wider base of support and, in a discrete population, reduces support for the enemy.  Delegitimizing and targeting the functionality of the state and local authorities will help provide an opportunity for insurrection.  Finally, assisting recruiting while providing financial and armament resources will help establish the means necessary for victory.  The OUW must organize efforts of the Operations Directorates under these four lines of effort to be mutually supportive and work toward the ultimate political goal of disrupting or overthrowing the regime in power.

Countering Unconventional Warfare Strategy: Fighting Two Enemies with Irregular Warfare

A strategy for countering unconventional warfare is even more complex than for conducting unconventional warfare.  Rather than supporting one insurgency against one enemy target government, both an insurgent force and an aggressor nation are targeting both a friendly national government and U.S. interests.  A general counter-unconventional warfare strategy should incorporate political warfare efforts with four of the five irregular warfare activities: Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Counterinsurgency (COIN), Stability Operations, and Counterterrorism.[xx]  Dependent upon the specific intervention, options for escalation with targeted lethal and non-lethal offensive operations against the adversarial nation are valuable considerations for each strategy.

The Operations Directorates of the OUW and the supporting interagency initiatives must be aligned against three COIN-FID-oriented lines of effort and two subversive nation lines of effort: 1.a) protect the population from insurgent violence; 1.b) strengthen the legitimacy and capacity of the host nation government; 1.c) isolate the insurgents physically, psychologically, politically, socially, and economically[xxi]; 2.a) disrupt and degrade the aggressor nation physically, psychologically, politically, socially, and economically; and 2.b) deter any future aggression.  The host nation government must lead COIN and FID operations, with U.S. government support remaining covert or maintaining as low visibility as possible to achieve the greatest chance of success.  Identifying each of the threats posed against the United States and her allies to determine a course of action for countering will require an incredible JIIM integration and intelligence effort by the OUW.


A strategic hub of unconventional and political warfare expertise within the State Department and integrating all critical U.S. government capabilities under it provides the greatest hope for the United States to attain global unconventional supremacy.  Only a lean but widely representative initiative will enable the United States to bring to bear the full weight of its national strength against its adversaries.  The lack of a comprehensive standing unconventional warfare strategy or a counter-unconventional warfare strategy leave the United States and her allies vulnerable to state and non-state aggression and further long-term consequences of inaction.  A whole-of-government effort with coalition partnerships is necessary for ultimate victory in the unconventional battlespace.  U.S. civilian and military leadership must grow a strategist’s instinct and build a workshop for strategic collaboration in an OUW.


Clausewitz, C. (1976). On war. In P. Paret & M. Howard (Eds.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Commons Defence Committee. (2014). Russian forces (Defence and Security Review). Retrieved from cmdfence/358/35805.htm#n30

House, J. M. (2008). Why war? Why an army? Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.

Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2013). Counterinsurgency (JP 3-24). Retrieved from

Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2014). Joint operations (JP 3-05). Retrieved from doctrine/new_pubs/jp3_05.pdf

Kennan, G. F. (1948). The inauguration of organized political warfare (Memorandum). Washington, DC: U.S. State Department. Retrieved from http://

Kofman, M., & Rojansky, M. (2015). A closer look at Russia’s “hybrid war.” Kennan Cable, 7. Retrieved from

Maxwell, David. (2013). Unconventional warfare does not belong to Special Forces. Small Wars Journal. Retrieved from

Starks, Tim. (2015). New House Armed Services Chairman plans focus on unconventional warfare. Roll Call: Five by Five. Retrieved from

Thornberry, Mac. (2011). Institutionalizing irregular warfare capabilities.  Statement to the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

U.S. Army Special Operations Command. (2014). Counter-unconventional warfare (White paper). Retrieved from

End Notes

[i] JP 3-05 defined unconventional warfare (UW) 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, and guerrilla force in a denied area” (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2014, p. xi).

[ii] George Kennan defined political warfare as “the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace…the employment of all means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives” (Kennan, 1948, p. 1).

[iii] House, 2008, p. 5

[iv] Maxwell, 2013

[v] The fight of national wills is not just in the target country but is also at home in the United States.  Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are testimony to the effect that keeping or losing domestic support can have on the American war effort.

[vi] USASOC, 2014, p. 29-36

[vii] Kofman & Rojansky, 2015, p. 1-2

[viii] Commons Defence Committee, 2014

[ix] USASOC, 2014, p. 13

[x] There must be CIA representation in addition to the ODNI because the CIA is the only agency legally permitted to conduct covert action, which is often a key element in any political and unconventional warfare strategies.

[xi] USASOC, 2014, p. 11

[xii] U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Northern Command

[xiii] Appointments of the Ambassador of Unconventional Warfare should require a simple majority Senate confirmation.

[xiv] Thornberry, 2011

[xv] Starks, 2015

[xvi] USASOC, 2014, p. 13

[xvii] This would have to include embedding civilian personnel to support military units as well as assigning civilian and military personnel to tours in agencies outside of their field of expertise.

[xviii] Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2014, p. xi

[xix] Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2013, p. II-3

[xx] USASOC, 2014, p. 10-11

[xxi] Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2013, p. I-3


About the Author(s)

Carole House served as a Captain in the United States Army until November 2014.  She holds a B.A. from the University of Georgia and is currently enrolled as a graduate student in Georgetown University's Security Studies Program.  Carole served in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, with the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division as assistant chief of operations and intelligence collection manager from 2012 to 2013.