WASHINGTON — The Defense Department doesn’t want to lose its irregular warfare edge, honed through more than a decade of conflict across the Middle East, even as it directs its armed forces to refocus on state-level adversaries.
Retaining the U.S. military’s hard-fought knowledge of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism was a priority for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who helped design a new national defense strategy in 2018 that prioritizes countering peer-level adversaries like China and Russia.
“Sec. Mattis specifically wanted to end this boom-bust cycle in IW [irregular warfare] that we’ve all experienced,” Owen West, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said at a defense industry symposium Tuesday.
The boom-bust cycle refers to the U.S. military’s preference for fighting traditional, high-end forces, rather than insurgents, according to Andrew Knaggs, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.
“This default setting has left the DoD unprepared for irregular conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq,” Knaggs said. “We have often been slow to recognize the irregular character of these conflicts and have forced conventional approaches as the first response."
“It seems we’ve also been prone to overstay ourselves,” Knaggs added. “When ultimately given the opportunity to right-size our approach, we have too easily discarded our ability to wage IW in favor of conventional readiness and traditional warfare."
This pattern leaves the U.S. military unprepared for the broad spectrum of global affairs challenges the country faces today, Knaggs and West both said at the symposium.
After all, even state-level adversaries have the potential to stoke conflicts outside their borders that resemble irregular warfare.
Retaining the knowledge
The current joint force is more skilled in irregular warfare than any past generation, and it’s a core responsibility for the Pentagon to “consolidate these gains for future generations," Knaggs said.
The Pentagon intends to preserve a baseline of expertise across the full range of IW, including counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, that can be scalable if the need arises, according to Knaggs. Current operations in North Africa and the Middle East will become less important over time, but the ability to harness local partners to wage war on the U.S. military’s behalf will actually grow, he added.
The focus will also be on training “the entire joint force” and not simply special operations troops.
“Conventional forces have proven essential in bringing sufficient mass, scale, and lethality to the fight," Knaggs said.
Even if the number of troops operating in places like Afghanistan and Iraq decreases, specialized units that have developed expertise there, like the Army’s security forces assistance brigades, won’t be discarded wholesale.
“Irregular warfare expertise will remain crucial, even if we choose to reduce the emphasis given to certain missions that have become important to countering VEOs [violent extremist organizations],” Knaggs said.
“We want to establish a certain baseline and training so we’re preparing a certain part of the force always to participate in irregular warfare,” West added.
But the past use of irregular warfare has been costly, and it has often required long logistical supply trains that sapped resources from other theaters. Ideally, that won’t be the case in the new approach.
Irregular war is cost-effective war
U.S. Special Operations Command doesn’t intend to lose its global footprint and network of local allies.
As the Pentagon works through the new national defense strategy priorities, cutting missions in Africa, for instance, could occur. The U.S. military does want to keep its forces engaged, just at a cheaper rate.
“The key to this will be the local grass roots partnerships,” West said.
Partner forces that can be raised from a local population, trained and equipped, and then dispatched to fight threats within their own country, has long been a staple of U.S. special operations.
Those units act as a force multiplier for American troops on the ground. And “from my perspective as an administrator, it’s also cheaper,” West said.
The push for retaining irregular warfare capability includes “right-sizing” the Pentagon’s approach, so the money spent on these initiatives makes sense.
Rather than using a $90 million F-35 joint strike fighter to bomb insurgents in dirt buildings, for instance, the Pentagon has been looking at cheaper light attack aircraft to wage war in theaters where the enemy has no air defense capability.
“It will be a cheaper, more effective way to take on many of our enemies than we do with, say, the high-generation platforms that we do today,” West said. “It’s amazing to probably hear from me that in 2020 a propeller airplane could be effectively employed on the modern battlefield in the hyper connected age, but it’s really cheap and in some areas it’s highly effective."
“Most important, many of our local forces can maintain these aircraft,” West added.
Light attack aircraft, like many of the programs and operations the Pentagon is looking to sustain the fight against extremist groups, could be fielded to local partners to embolden them to take on more without constant U.S. assistance.
That will free up some special operations troops to focus on old foes.
What will SOCOM do against China and Russia?
“Specifically, I can’t answer that here. I’ll get in deep trouble,” West said at the defense symposium, adding that much of what special operations forces are involved in is necessarily classified.
When looking at competition between the United States, China, and Russia, it’s important to recognize that the Pentagon is developing ways to deter adversaries “short of armed conflict,” West said.
“I think it’s got to be global; it’s got to be cheap," he added. "And there’s a risk component that you got to mitigate and I think SOF does this really well for the nation.”
During the Cold War, the last time the Pentagon seriously focused on peer-level threats, a lot of special operations forces trained for sabotage, strategic reconnaissance and the employment of specialized weapons.
That focus is already back.
“We have some folks who are very good at [unconventional warfare], and obviously the actions of Russia over the last 15 years has the globe’s attention, but especially our partners in the Baltics and throughout Europe,” West said. “But when you talk about sabotage and other forms of tactics, I think those have taken on different forms.”
“Our [Army Special Forces teams] are training to blow up bridges and do conventional sabotage, but I think what’s impressed me is how the force has shifted even in [unconventional warfare],” he added. “Many of our Green Berets are practicing other forms of sabotage. ... And we’ll leave it at that."
China, though, has been identified as a greater long-term challenge to the U.S. defense strategy than even Russia.
Identifying how unconventional warfare would look against China’s military is a basic question that SOCOM must answer, West said.
Those answers may be tough to find for U.S. special operations forces, compared with similar units from China and Russia.
Those two adversaries don’t necessarily play by the same rules or abide by the same democratic ethics.
“In my judgment, we clearly have adversaries who are playing by a different set of rules,” West said. “That will never change at some level, because as the beacon of the free world, we would never sully our reputation. It’s too important.”
“But on another level, we have to at least understand the rules under which they operate,” he added. “And somewhere in this Venn diagram or space, we certainly have to enter and play. And I don’t think it compromises the nation.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.