Small Wars Journal

The Two Special Operations Trinities

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 11:08am

The Two Special Operations Trinities


David Maxwell


(Note: This paper is adapted from remarks presented at the Joint Special Operations University in January 2020.)

The National Security and National Defense Strategies prioritize great power competition and conflict.  The United States faces two revisionist powers, China and Russia, and two rogue powers, Iran and North Korea, and the enduring threat of global violent extremism.[1]  These threats are likely to persist for decades to come and it will be up to the U.S. national security apparatus to deter, contain, cope, manage, and where possible, defeat these threats.


Special Operations Forces (SOF) must continue to focus on high end counterterrorism (CT) operations. Given the new security environment SOF must also focus on a new modern SOF trinity of irregular warfare (IW), unconventional warfare (UW) , and support to political warfare.   Advanced CT and other high end SOF capabilities combined with this SOF trinity is where SOF must invest in organization, manning, equipping, training, and education.  Not only must we outfight our enemies the U.S. military and interagency partners have to outthink them.  As T.E. Lawrence said, “irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge.”[2]


 All great concepts come in threes:  Fear, honor, and interest; Passion, reason, and chance, (or people, government, and the military); life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; federal democratic republic; the legislative, executive, and judicial; federal, state, and local; presence, patience, persistence; political defiance, political resistance, and political violence; ends, ways, and means; strategic, operational and tactical, and many more.  It is time for SOF to have its own “trinities.” As previously stated the first is an overall SOF construct: irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, and support to political warfare.  The second is the comparative  advantage of SOF: governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces and populations. 


The national security community will never break from the proliferation of new doctrinal terms. This often leads to terminology paralysis as doctrine and concept writers seek to create a new term to describe conditions and concepts that are often rooted in already existing ideas.  Examples include:  Gray Zone, Hybrid Conflict, Unconventional Warfare, Counter-Unconventional Warfare, Revolution, Resistance, Insurgency, Terrorism, Civil War, Asymmetric Warfare, Network Centric Warfare, Effects Based Operations, Security Force Assistance.[3] All these terms and many others apply across the spectrum of conflict to include Great Power Competition.  The military will never be rid these terms and the quest for new ones, however, they may be useful to think about how SOF operates in the 21st Century.  Many of the core missions and historical capabilities of SOF are as relevant as ever.  They simply need to be modernized for evolving conditions.  However, first it is necessary to consider the strategic environment.


Great Power Competition and Forms of Conflict in 21st Century


The focus on great power competition and conflict has been interpreted as justification to return to organizing, equipping, and training the U.S. military for major combat operations and theater level war against peer or near peer competitors. There is no doubt that war with the revisionist powers is the most dangerous threat to the U.S. and may even be considered existential. Therefore, it is logical and justified to invest in the military capabilities to defeat these threats.[4]


However, the reverse is also true.  Such wars will be existential threats to the revisionist and rogue powers.  While this may temper their desire for large scale conflict, these powers have the common objectives to weaken the U.S., reduce the U.S. spheres of influence, alter or destroy international institutions, force the U.S to withdraw from contested locations, undermine the U.S. economy, separate the U.S. from its allies, and when possible inflict casualties to affect domestic support for overseas presence and operations.  At the most basic level, U.S. adversaries turn the historical Clausewitzian theory on its head.  Most national security practitioners will tout that “war is a continuation of politics and policy by other means.”  However, for U.S. adversaries it is “politics is war by other means.”[5]


This is more than semantics or a change to the order of words.  It is the essence of Sun Tzu in three ways: (1)“all warfare is based on deception;”  (2)“supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting;” and (3) “thus the highest form of generalship is to attack the enemy’s plans (strategy).”[6]  U.S. adversaries have different views of warfare.  For them the psychological or influence operations take precedence over the kinetic and influence may or may not be supported by kinetic operations.  The U.S. places priority on kinetic operations.  It has a strong aversion to leading with “influence.”  This is evident in a common PSYOP officer lament:  It is easier to get permission to put a hellfire missile on the forehead of a terrorist than it is to get permission to put an idea between his ears.  U.S. adversaries have no qualms about maximizing their ability to operate in the human and information domains. 


Military professionals and national security practitioners should know better.  Napoleon said in war “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”[7]  In my opinion, in the 21st Century, “the psychological is to the kinetic as ten is to one.”  Unfortunately, there is no constituency in Congress for influence operations and there is no huge budget line that translates to congressional districts for influence operations. There are only critics and naysayers who view influence mistakes as somehow more damaging than kinetic ones.  Getting a message wrong may be embarrassing but the U.S. can recover from it.  Getting a kinetic strike wrong is unrecoverable, particularly for those on the receiving end.


Assuming U.S. adversaries seek to win without fighting (or with fighting that will be below the threshold of war) and achieve objectives through influence how should this be characterized?  First, the U.S. absolutely must recognize that this form of “warfare” is dangerous and prone to miscalculation by any party involved. This could result in major combat operations.  Therefore, the U.S. cannot sacrifice high-end military readiness.  The U.S. must maintain a force that is capable of fighting and winning high intensity conflict at the theater and global level.  This capability is critical for deterrence as well as information and influence activities. Yet it must also maintain the ability to compete with and counter the revisionist and rogue powers below the threshold of major combat where they prefer to operate.  They seek to maintain competition and conflict in the so-called gray zone.[8]  They want to achieve influence and dominance, and accomplish their objectives below the threshold of conflict to prevent a kinetic response. The U.S. must be able to strategically operate in this gray zone.


The U.S. also cannot be afraid to call this warfare. It is fashionable for national security practitioners to say the military wants to make every competition and conflict a war.  Some say Foreign Service Officers do not like the use of war and warfare to characterize the national security environment.  It should not be forgotten that it was a diplomat who emphasized the requirement to conduct political warfare during the Cold War, George Kennan.[9]  However, it is not the U.S. who is using politics as a continuation of warfare by other means.  U.S. adversaries believe this and operate this way and policy makers and strategists ignore this to the peril of America.  They must strive to see the world as it really is and not as they would wish it to be.  The fact is U.S. adversaries are doing everything they can to undermine the American and western way of life and the international system which has maintained a relative and sufficient order since WWII.  They seek to harm the U.S., and its friends, partners, and allies and it would be the height of irresponsibility for the U.S. to not have the capabilities to defend America in this realm and to counter and defeat adversaries.


This is a way to describe what is taking place in the 21st Century.  From the Gray Zone to Great Power struggle is a spectrum of cooperation, competition, and conflict in that space between peace and war.  The U.S. seeks and desires cooperation, it has to be able to compete, and while avoiding conflict it must prepare for it.  One of the important forms of conflict can be described by revolution, resistance, insurgency, terrorism, and civil war with adversaries from AQ to ISIS to the Russian Little Green Men to the Iran Action Network or China’s PLA and the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State of North Korea all executing strategies of modern unconventional warfare.  Each have their own unique characteristics to include the application of conventional force, to exploit the conditions of political resistance to achieve their strategic political objectives.  The U.S. must wage irregular warfare in this environment against these threats.


This is a way to characterize U.S. SOF in this environment: The U.S. faces competition, not only among state and non-state actors but also in two competing ideas - one is the national interest to maintain a stable international nation-state system based on respect for and protection of sovereignty.  This idea can be supported in part through the application of one of the major special operations activities: foreign internal defense in which SOF, conventional forces, and other U.S. government agencies seek to assist friends, partners, and allies in their own defense and development programs. This is to support them so they can defend themselves against lawlessness, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism that would threaten their sovereignty.  The other idea is a fundamental human right which is the right of a people to seek self-determination of government. This can be supported by the one of the core special operations activities: the application of unconventional warfare. These two competing ideas must be reconciled through the correct application of national statecraft (e.g., political warfare), supported by SOF in the gray zone.


However, the bottom line problem is this: The U.S. faces threats from political warfare strategies supported by hybrid military approaches that exploit the political resistance found in the human domain.


In considering the 21st Century security environment, national security and defense practitioners have to avoid the mistakes made in the post-Vietnam era and in the 1980’s when the special operations community tried to ensure SOF, and in particular Special Forces, relevance to the conventional force and major combat operations.  SOF focused on direct action and special reconnaissance in support of ground maneuver forces rather than the core competencies of unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense as well as information and influence activities and governance at the strategic level.  Special Operations Coordination (SOCOORD) cells were even established at Corps Headquarters to facilitate SOF in support of tactical conventional operations.  Basically, SOF sold its soul to ensure it would have a role in all war plans.[10]


Today is different. First, there is no doubt of SOF relevance across the spectrum of conflict.  Second, there is a lot of work for SOF, in fact there is too much work.  In the past SOF would have been threatened by the Army Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB). Not so today.[11]  We focus on using the right forces for the right missions and applying each force’s comparative advantages.


SOF Comparative Advantages

SOF has its comparative advantage in a number of areas.  As previously described, over the past two decades there is no force with a greater capability to capture and kill high value targets than U.S. SOF. But it is not just kicking down doors that makes SOF world class. It is the creative employment of high and low tech equipment, from UAVs to cyber to electronic warfare to immediate sensitive site exploitation and much more.  These capabilities continue to evolve as units develop new concepts and SOF R&D develops new equipment.  And most important is the SOF operator on the ground who can establish requirements and solve problems.  The essence of all SOF operations is simply the ability to solve problems.  Sometimes it is a targeting problem.  Sometimes it is an intelligence problem.  Sometimes it is an infiltration problem. Sometimes it is a breach problem. And sometimes it is about solving or contributing to solving complex political military problems. 


Setting aside the major theater combat operations against near and peer competitors, the following concepts and ideas will have applications before, during, and after major combat operations.  SOF’s greatest contributions will come both before and after peer and near-peer conflict (as well as in the gray zone) though it will make significant contributions during major combat operations as well.  However, in addition to capturing and killing high value targets and all the complex operations surrounding that mission, SOF has a comparative advantage in three areas:  governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces and populations.  These areas are represented by civil affairs, psychological operations, and selected SOF from all the services which are optimized to conduct unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and counterinsurgency.


It is governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces and populations that play the greatest role in modern irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, and support to political warfare.  SOF may be best described today along this spectrum of capabilities.  First and foremost, SOF is designed to solve or assist in solving problems in the human domain which no other branch or service of the U.S. military can solve.  These are complex political-military problems that are strategic in nature.  Second, SOF conducts operations to prosecute strategic targets. Third, SOF conducts irregular warfare, advises and assists friendly resistance movements or helps defends against hostile resistance movements or insurgencies, and provides support to the U.S government’s political warfare strategies.[12]


Irregular Warfare

What is irregular warfare?  The 2007 DOD definition is lacking: “violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.”  The DOD Directive 3000.7 says IW consists of UW, foreign internal defense (FID), CT, counterinsurgency, and stability operations (SO).  This was a compromise definition because at the time there was such controversy about the use of warfare within the interagency. [13]


Congress suggested a better definition of irregular warfare in the 2018 NDAA:  U.S. military forces and the interagency conduct operations “in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.”[14]  This is describing operations in the so-called gray zone below the threshold of major conflict and combat operations and is designed to support specific U.S. strategic objectives.  This is where the competition with the revisionist and rogue powers is taking place.  And this is the fertile ground for violent extremist organizations.


Unconventional Warfare

The joint definition of Unconventional Warfare is 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 or guerrilla force in a denied area.[15]


The essence of UW is found in revolution, resistance, and insurgency and may manifest itself eventually in civil war.  It is about seeking political change.  It is about Robert Helvey’s political defiance, it is about political resistance, and it is about political violence.[16]   Another term for political violence is terrorism.


Bruce Hoffman defines terrorism as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence. Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instill fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider `target audience' that might include a rival ethnic or religious group, an entire country, a national government or political party, or public opinion in general. Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale.[17]  Terrorism is not something separate to be treated outside of irregular warfare and unconventional warfare.  It is an integral part of both.


What is the fundamental aspect of UW? It is political resistance by disaffected groups who are seeking a change in governance, usually from an oppressive government or a government that does not meet the terms of the social contract.  It is all about governance. Yes, it is a fight for legitimacy and a huge component of that fight is influence.  The revisionist and rogue powers are exploiting the conditions of political defiance, political resistance, and political violence to create conditions that support their strategic objectives to create instability, weaken U.S. influence, and tear down international institutions.  For the U.S., it either supports those resistance movements or insurgencies that align with its interests or selected forces advise and assist friends, partners, and allies to defend against them.  The revisionist and rogue powers are exploiting these conditions and conducting their own forms of unconventional warfare.  The Russians are conducting New Generation or non-linear warfare.[18] Policymakers should be well aware of the Iran Action Network and the UW conducted by the IRGC/Quds force.[19] The Chinese conduct unrestricted warfare[20] and its “three warfares:” psychological warfare, media warfare, and legal warfare or lawfare.[21]  And there is the subversion, coercion, and extortion conducted by the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State of North Korea.[22]  This is why in the 2016 NDAA Congress included Section 1097 directing DOD to develop a strategy to counter unconventional warfare conducted by U.S. adversaries.[23]



This leads to the third leg of the trinity: political warfare.

Political Warfare

In 1948 George F. Kennan defined political warfare as “the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace.”  While stopping short of the direct kinetic confrontation between two countries’ armed forces, “political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command… to achieve its national objectives.”  A country embracing political warfare conducts “both overt and covert” operations in the absence of declared war or overt force-on-force hostilities. Efforts “range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures…, and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”[24] 


Paul Smith defined political warfare as “the use of political means to compel an opponent to do one's will, based on hostile intent. The term political describes the calculated interaction between a government and a target audience to include another state's government, military, and/or general population. Governments use a variety of techniques to coerce certain actions, thereby gaining relative advantage over an opponent. The techniques include propaganda and psychological operations (PSYOP), which service national and military objectives respectively. Propaganda has many aspects and a hostile and coercive political purpose. Psychological operations are for strategic and tactical military objectives and may be intended for hostile military and civilian populations.”[25] 


Political warfare is not a SOF mission.  It is a national mission. It is statecraft.  SOF provides support to political warfare.  It applies its comparative advantages to support national objectives: contribute to solving complex political military problems, applying influence, supporting governance, and advising and assisting indigenous forces and populations. [26]  In short, irregular warfare is the military contribution to the national level strategic effort of political warfare.


In addition to SOF, the joint force,  and selected DOD organizations conducting irregular warfare, a 2018 RAND study on political warfare identified two other elements of an American Political Warfare capability:[27]


First is expeditionary diplomacy: DoS and USAID would become the proponents for expeditionary diplomacy, which would entail diplomats working in “fluid situations without a strong central host government or U.S. embassy infrastructure to promote the local government’s rule of law, reconstruction and economic development, and delivery of services.” This would include support to military forces during military operations and as part of a whole-of-government approach in pre-conflict or post-conflict settings, functioning as a “form of asymmetric warfare in crisis countries, particularly those with crumbling regimes or new unstable governments.”


Second is covert political action: The Intelligence Community remains the proponent for covert political action, which would cause “economic dislocation, distortion of political processes or

manipulation of information.” In addition, the Intelligence Community would continue to provide intelligence to support operations in situations short of armed conflict; however, this intelligence collection and analysis may become increasingly focused on understanding how civilian populations and partner forces may be influenced using nonlethal means.


The 2015 USASOC white paper on SOF support to Political Warfare described SOF and DOD’s role in this way:


A whole-of-government endeavor, Political Warfare is best led by agencies beyond DoD and can only succeed if it is conducted in a way to “elevate civilian power alongside military power as equal pillars of U.S. foreign policy."[28]  


SOF is well suited to lead DOD's contribution to Political Warfare’s activities, because they are relatively knowledgeable experts in this form of warfare.


The overall Political Warfare effort relies on persuasive and coercive diplomacy, economic coercion and engagement, Security Sector Assistance (SSA), Unconventional Warfare (UW), and Information and Influence Activities (IIA).



Everything outlined in this paper already exists within the SOF community. SOF needs to employ its comparative advantages in support of the National Security and Defense Strategies.  SOF leaders and operators must continue to innovate.  The 21st century security environment is complex and dangerous. SOF has all the tools and capabilities and most important the trained and educated force to operate in this environment. The SOF community should consider using the “trinities” as organizing principles both to frame special operations and communicate how the force supports the national strategy.   Governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces and populations are the comparative advantage that provide the foundation for the trinity of irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, and support to political warfare.  This is all in the DNA of SOF. 



[1] United States National Security Strategy, The White House, December 2017,  Summary of the United States National Defense Strategy, Department of Defense, 2018,

[2] T. E. Lawrence, 'Evolution of A Revolt' Army Quarterly, Vol. I, No. 1, October 1920,

[3] David Maxwell, “Threats and the Words We Use: A Thought Experiment,” War on the Rocks, November 8, 2013, See also David Maxwell, “Considerations for Organizing and Preparing for Security Force Assistance Operations,” Small Wars Journal, March 15, 2008,

[4] Hal Brands and Evan Braden Montgomery, “One War Is Not Enough: Strategy and Force Planning for Great Power Competition” The Texas National Security Review, Vol 3, Iss 2 Spring 2020,

[5] Julian Reid, “Foucault on Clausewitz: Conceptualizing the Relationship Between War and Power,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2003), pp. 1-28,

[6] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, (Translated by Lionel Giles),

[7] James B. Stockdale, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, Hoover Press, 1995,

[8] United States Special Operations Command, The Gary Zone, White Paper, September 9, 2015,

[9] George Kennan, “The Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare,”  1948,

[10] David Maxwell, “Special Forces Missions: A Return to the Roots for a Vision of the Future,” U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1995,

[11] Tim Ball, “Security Forces Assistance Brigades Vs. Special Forces,” War on the Rocks, February 23, 2017,

[12] United States Army Special Operations Command, “SOF Support to Political Warfare,“ White Paper, March 10, 2015,,03,10%20arsoc%20support%20to%20PW.pdf

[13] DOD Directive, Irregular Warfare, Department of Defense, August 28, 2014 (incorporating change of May 12, 2017),

[14] Public Law 115–91 115th Congress, National defense Authorization Act of 2018, December 12, 2017,

[15] DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, January 2020,  For a slight modification to the DOD definition see, NDAA 2016, Section 1097, DOD Strategy for Countering Unconventional Warfare,

[16] Gene Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” The Albert Einstein Institution, 4th Ed. May 2010,

[17] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 3d Ed., Columbia University Press, September 2017,

[18] United States Army Special Operations Command, “Little Green Men:” Russian Modern Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014,”

[19] David Asher and Scott Modell, Pushback: Countering the Iran Action Network, September 5, 2013, Center for New American Security,

[20] Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999,

[21] Stephan Halper, “China: Three Warfares,” Office of Net Assessment, May 2013,

[22] David Maxwell, “A Revolution Against North Korea’s Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State,” Real Clear Defense, March 29, 2019,

[23] Public Law 114-92, 114th Congress, National Defense Authorization Act of 2016, November 25, 2015,

[24] Ibid, Kennan.

[25] Paul Smith, On Political War, National Defense University Press, December 1989,

[26] Ibid, SOF Support to Political Warfare

[27] Charles T. Cleveland, Ryan Crocker, Daniel Egel, Andrew M. Liepman, David Maxwell, “An American Way of Political Warfare: A Proposal,” RAND Corporation, July 2018,

[28] Ibid, SOF Support to Political Warfare

About the Author(s)

Dave Maxwell is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy (CAPS) and a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea). He is a 30-year veteran of the US Army, retiring as a Special Forces Colonel. He has worked in Asia for more than over 30 years, primarily in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Colonel Maxwell served on the United Nations Command / Combined Forces Command / United States Forces Korea CJ3 staff where he was a planner for UNC/CFC OPLAN 5027-98 and co-author of the original ROK JCS – UNC/CFC CONPLAN 5029-99. He later served as the Director of Plans, Policy, and Strategy and then Chief of Staff for the Special Operations Command Korea. He commanded the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P), served as the G3 for the United States Army Special Operations Command and culminated his service as a member of the military faculty at the National War College. Following retirement, he served as the Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Colonel Maxwell is a fellow at the Institute of Corean-American Studies, and on the Board of Directors of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the International Council of Korean Studies, the Council on Korean-US Security Studies, the Special Operations Research Association, the OSS Society, and the Small Wars Journal. He earned a B.A. in political science from Miami University, and an M.A. in Military Arts and Science from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and from the School of Advanced Military Studies, and an M.S. in National Security Studies from the National War College. Colonel Maxwell teaches Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations for Policy Makers and Strategists.