This is a good, thought-provoking piece I found a couple of days ago on the International Relations and Security Network website run by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.  I liked it because the report the author is reviewing echoes my own views and thinking – in fact, I wrote a backgrounder piece on Asymmetric Warfare for the UK Defence Forum back in 2001 that supports the perspective taken here.  I’ll have to dig that piece out and post it up here too…  Meanwhile, enjoy this:

Normalizing unconventional warfare

In an era of persistent irregular conflict, one Washington think tank proposes to make special operations the norm, Peter A Buxbaum writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Peter Buxbaum in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch

During the 2004 US presidential campaign, Democratic Party nominee John Kerry accused President George W Bush of missing an opportunity to capture Osama bin Laden when he “outsourced” the battle of Tora Bora to local Afghan warlords. The accusation set off a debate over whether bin Laden was actually present at Tora Bora at that particular time but skipped the issue over the outsourcing of US military operations.

The US military has partnered with surrogates in the past, but the history of this practice is a limited one. That may change, however, if the ideas of a Washington think tank expert hold sway.

Robert Martinage, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), advocated in a Washington briefing last month an expanded role for US special forces, including, as in the battle of Tora Bora, the “use of non-state actors against other non-state actors.”

The field manual for US Army special operations defines partnering with irregular forces as “unconventional warfare” during one of the missions of US special operations forces. Martinage’s proposal is in sync with army thinking: The special ops field manual, which was published in September 2008, emphasizes unconventional warfare over other special operations missions such as civil affairs, foreign internal defense (which involves direct aid to local government forces), information operations and psychological operations.

The historical examples of unconventional warfare given in the field manual – support of Nicaragua’s Contras and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s – represented conflicts with government, or regular, forces. Therefore, Martinage’s notion of partnering up with regular forces against other irregular forces is something relatively new, and is born of a global environment characterized by a persistent conflict against Islamist radicalism.

The same environment informs the approach taken by CSBA in other aspects of its recent briefing, which was designed to publicize the organization’s 15-volume series, “Strategy for the Long Haul,” through which it hopes to influence Pentagon and Obama administration thinking.

Besides Islamist radicalism, CSBA’s analysts believe the primary strategic challenges the US faces include hedging against the rise of a more openly confrontational China and preparing for more state and non-state entities possessing weapons of mass destruction.

If CSBA’s analysis is accepted, special operations forces – elite, highly trained military units that conduct operations that exceed the capabilities of conventional forces – will become increasingly mainstream in responding to all of these emerging threats. One reason is that the US does not have a good track record of predicting where military intervention will be required, according to Andrew Krepinevich, CSBA’s president and a retired army officer.

“If we can’t predict future conflicts,” he told ISN Security Watch, “we’ve got to adapt quickly to emerging threats.”

The flexibility and maneuverability of special operations forces, so the argument goes, provides one answer to that challenge.

Krepinevich posited an approaching era of “persistent irregular conflict” with an emphasis on manpower-intensive operations. He criticized the US Army for attempting to handle a full spectrum of military conflicts from high-intensity conventional combat to low-intensity irregular warfare. By trying to make the army equally effective in all conflict types, “it risks becoming marginally competent in many tasks, and highly effective at none,” Krepinevich said.

The answer, for Krepinevich, is that as warfare becomes increasingly complex, the army should produce specialized soldiers. That specialization should be weighted toward irregular warfare, he added, to improve the army’s ability to rapidly build partnerships with allied and indigenous forces.

“The army must maintain a significant standing training and advisory capability that can be deployed on short notice when necessary,” he said.

Along the same lines, Martinage recommended refocusing the deployment of special forces from an episodic basis to a persistent one.

He also explained how beefing up special forces would help the US meet the emerging threats identified by CSBA.

Defeating terrorist groups “will require a multifaceted approach,” Martinage said, “one in which the military instrument will often be far less important than effective foreign assistance, public and private diplomacy, strategic communications and covert action.”

Special operations forces can be postured, according to Martinage, to conduct sustained manhunting and disruption operations; to build ground, air and maritime capabilities among US partners around the world; to generate air and maritime surveillance in areas not under central government control; and to conduct unconventional warfare against terrorist groups and state sponsors of terrorism.

In the event of a future US-China relationship characterized by competition and conflict, the US would need to dissuade China from investing in capabilities that threaten US and allied interests in East Asia and to deter Chinese aggression. Special operations forces could be called upon, Martinage said, to conduct unconventional warfare operations on China’s periphery; clandestine reconnaissance missions to locate hidden or mobile targets; and information operations focused on penetrating communications and information systems.

In the effort to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction, globally distributed special ops units could provide an intelligence collection infrastructure and act as a response force to interdict the movement of WMDs.

Special operations forces “could potentially conduct unconventional warfare to bring about regime change in states aspiring to develop WMDs,” Martinage said. “They will also need to be prepared to conduct counterproliferation operations against critical WMD-related infrastructure.”

Special operations, special implications

This kind of strategic thinking embodies some important implications for the future of the US military and will be the subject of some key decisions the Obama administration will have to take in its first year or two in office.

During his campaign for the presidency, Obama endorsed a plan to increase the army’s ground strength by 65,000 troops – a program that would cost US taxpayers US$100 billion over the next four years.

Krepinevich said Obama should forget about beefing up the army’s troop strength. The army depends on manpower more than on military equipment, Krepinevich said, and reports of the decline in the quality of recruits means that increasing the number of troops would be illusory.

Instead, the army should focus on quality over quantity, according to Krepinevich, and that means enhancing the kinds of specialized capabilities offered by special operations forces.

“There are risks in reducing the army’s projected force structure,” Krepinevich acknowledged. But the greater risk lies in “the flawed assumption that an army heavily weighted toward conventional warfare can easily shift to conduct irregular operations.”

An emphasis on the personnel capabilities of special operations forces also leads to a de-emphasis on technology, in Krepinevich’s thinking. The Obama administration, he said, should reconsider Future Combat Systems – the army modernization program which seeks to marry light and maneuverable vehicles with a next-generation communications and information network.

“So much of the success of Future Combat Systems depends on technology that has never been demonstrated,” he said. “As FCS is optimized for conventional warfare, it is not clear it represents the best use of resources in this era of protracted irregular warfare.”

Of course, shifting the US military’s orientation from conventional warfare to special operations will easier said than done. As Martinage pointed out, over 80 percent of special operations capabilities are now tied down in the US Central Command – in other words, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to array these capabilities against the future threats CSBA foresees, US special forces will require a major overhaul.


Peter Buxbaum, a Washington-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for 15 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Defense Technology International, Homeland Security and Computerworld. His website is

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4 Responses to "Normalizing Unconventional Warfare"

  1. strikehold says:

    Thanks Matt – I think you’re absolutely right.

  2. Matt Rowe says:

    I think we need to keep in mind that even if we “normalize” UW…which I am all for….we need to normalize how the US Department of State deals with UW too.

    We likely have more sailors on a single US Navy aircraft carrier than we do State Department officers who make a career of understanding and dealing with insurgencies.

    As it has been made very clear by Gen. Dave Petraeus and others, political capacity is the exit strategy for these types of conflicts.

    In other words, we must have a much more “locally active” foreign policy that far exceeds the amount of military effort we put into these conflicts in order to be successful.

    War is an outcome…not a root cause. Eliminate the root causes and you can significantly reduce the need for combat.

  3. Skytale says:

    Increasing the quality of specialised troops cannot arise just from the standard training by the usual instructors. The quality of skills that are learned depends upon the special skills that the teacher or trainer has and also on those trainers’ ability to teach.

    Specialised skills, that may be of great use in battle and covert ops, are scattered amongst various individuals all over the world.
    A hunter who is expert at hunting a highly elusive prey (a prey with keen senses of defence and adept at camouflage in its local environment), would have developed specialised skills that may be of value or may be adaptable to use in irregular warfare. Some divers who specialise in hunting the location of sunken ships for treasure and the retrieval methods used may have created individual and unusual answers to overcome the problems that they meet.
    Some monks and yogi have skills of self control, the ability for their body to be immobile in a fixed position for long periods, control of heart rate, survival at high altitudes, resistance to mountain cold wearing only a light robe, ability to retain alertness over long periods of time, methods to quell fear etc. Some of these skills may be of use to snipers if not to other special troops. Anyone who is successful in their field, or in the field, has skills and knowledge of use to others, even if it is only of a successful method of outwitting their opposition or competitors. If it succeeds, it is real, it works.

    Specialists everywhere in the world develop unique skills to carry out their specialised tasks, and these persons may be relatively unknown except to their peers or local colleagues.

    What I propose is that research be deliberately undertaken to locate those skilled individuals wherever they may be, individuals who may have evolved techniques of interest, and a database be compiled of them. Those individuals may be available for teaching short courses of their skills and knowledge. Although the use of outside or civilian specialist teachers is already done in such programs as combat training, knife fighting, martial arts, etc, perhaps a greater effort could be made to expand on this. As talented individuals die their specialised methods (perhaps unique to them) can die with them. This is commonly seen in the martial arts where lost methods have to be re-invented all over again.

    This resource of actively compiling lists of persons of specialised knowledge and skills for the purpose of teaching those advantages, can ultimately lead to the possession of enough intricate advantages that it may affect outcomes in irregular warfare. It is a possibility that does not seem to have been fully utilised at present.

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