Small Wars Journal

Refuting the Irregular Warfare Pipedream

Tue, 01/03/2023 - 9:31pm

Refuting the Irregular Warfare Pipedream


(Response to “Developing Mastery of Irregular Warfare is a Pipe Dream if the DOD is Forced to Rely on SOCOM”)


By Charlie Black


Let’s begin with stating that this forum is great for candid debate. I applaud James Armstrong who came out swinging in his recent rebuttal to an article authored by LTG Cleveland et al. Unfortunately, his article mischaracterizes the many causal factors of a two-decade long war and misplaces blame for associated military failures that are shared by many, elected and appointed.


First, war of any character is ultimately pursued for political purposes with the uniformed military as only one among many instruments to achieve desired outcomes. This is especially stark when conducting an irregular war. Armstrong’s first elephant isn’t. No executive department and certainly no single military service has “the” responsibility for irregular warfare (IW). Additionally, we are reminded that the development of IW capabilities and the conduct of irregular warfare are two different roles as clearly delimited between Warfighters and the services. Ultimately the responsibility, authority, and accountability reside with the Commander-in-Chief. 


Second, there is also no 2nd elephant. We can argue for eternity about the numerous success and failures consequent to the employment of joint forces over the past twenty years. It has been a long war with well-known and lesser known operations conducted across the globe. There are many tactical to strategic level examples of success and failure over the conduct of many campaigns.  A broad and deep exploration of this episode of war might best be distributed to the academe and military schoolhouses, conducted by scholars and military practitioners alike.  There is much to be learned and the new Irregular Warfare Functional Center (IWFC) has a key role to that end no matter where its final home.


Placing blame on any single Combatant Command, especially USSOCOM as a functional command, for the many failures in our recent war experience comes off as parochially naïve. The overarching theme of his rebuttal reads as if USASOC, seen as a proxy of USSOCOM, has somehow displaced the US Army’s rightful place to lead IW. We should be cautious not to conflate irregular warfare and the subordinate role of special operations within such an undertaking. Most troublesome is an invalid attempt to simplify cause-effect that ignores the irreducible complexity of war, shows a misunderstanding of jointness, and undervalues the contributions of partners.


To be clear, I do agree that the U.S. has often failed to achieve political outcomes in over two decades of conflict.  We might avoid framing our recent “war” as a single coherent policy- clearly it was not. Perhaps an alternative interpretation is to frame this war period as the aggregate of campaigns and operations with different geography, time, constraints, enemy, and purposes.  We’ve too often conflated and oversimplified. There is much to be learned by the uniformed military, policy makers, appropriators, and American citizens. In my view the IWFC should not be subordinated to a service or unified command. Both Cleveland and others have offered propositions worthy of consideration. The IWFC has a role to inculcate the entire Department in the ways of irregular warfare, as well to be a bridge to and from a broad range of partners for IW endeavors.

About the Author(s)

Charlie Black is the Managing Partner of Xundis Global, an advisory firm that helps partners successfully navigate complexity and change.  He is a retired Marine Corps Infantry and Special Operations Officer, who draws on over thirty-five years of diverse executive to tactical level experiences across the Intergovernmental, Defense, Commercial, and Academic ecosystems. His research endeavors include integrated statecraft, social resilience, human security and the future of special operations.


James Armstrong

Wed, 01/04/2023 - 9:48pm

I would say that Mr. Black is in violent agreement with myself that the IWFC shouldn't be held in USSOCOM, as that is a common conclusion of both our opinion pieces. Mr. Black's writing unfortunately suffers from two egregious logical fallacies, an ad hominem of my ignorance to joint operations, and a straw man that claims the intent of my opinion is to make the Army the sole proprietor of IW. 

To be fully clear, my position remains that to change the Army to gain some level of competence at irregular warfare it must be pushed down to the Company grade education level, and provided with training time and space.  I don't have an opinion on how the Space Force or Navy get after the same problem set, but I fully expect that every Service will have it's own unique organizational challenges, and each Combatant Command will need to tailor their plans to address the reality of "war by other means."  However any intellectual progress made on by the IWFC must necessarily result in educational changes or the efforts will be purely theoretical. To change the entire Department of Defense will be easiest by educating the young Officers and NCOs who fill the junior joint staff billets today, and will be senior leaders tomorrow. 

And to quote Yogi Berra, "In theory there's not difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is." So we must practice whatever theory we embrace, to proof it against the friction of real operations. Otherwise IW will become what "vertical envelopment" or "victory through air power" were to previous generations.  Very attractive ideas that didn't deliver the desired results.