Thursday, October 23, 2014

Do We Really Understand Unconventional Warfare?

Do We Really Understand Unconventional Warfare?

by David S. Maxwell

Journal Article | October 23, 2014 - 11:34am
Do We Really Understand Unconventional Warfare?
America May Not Be Interested In Unconventional Warfare
But UW Is Being Practiced Around The World By Those Who Are Interested In It
David S. Maxwell
The United States has the most powerful conventional military force and the strongest nuclear deterrent in the world. It remains the sole superpower because it is well prepared to fight and win in state on state conflict.  Yet the majority of wars, conflicts, and threats in the 21st Century are unlikely to be purely conventional or nuclear.  In the 21st Century we are more likely to experience kinds of warfare for which scholars have been hard pressed to find a name. Scholars have used many names including irregular warfare, hybrid warfare, 4th Generation Warfare, and of course the post 9-11 rediscovery of insurgency and counterinsurgency.  Yet despite all these various names the one overarching form of warfare that encompasses all is unconventional warfare (UW). However, the fundamental question is do we understand unconventional warfare?  And if not, why not?
We know that the Department of Defense (DOD) defines unconventional warfare as “activities to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”[1]  Although this was designed by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) UW working group in 2009 to be a broad definition and apply generally to this form of warfare and not specifically from a U.S. centric perspective it continues to connote a very narrow description of warfare (e.g., the overthrow of a hostile government) and has often been relegated to the province of Special Operations Forces and more specifically Special Forces.[2]  Furthermore many political leaders either fear the blowback from such operations or, perhaps worse, have unrealistic expectations of the efficacy of UW.  However, as I have argued before, if the United States is going to consider employing unconventional warfare as an option in support of policy and strategy then it is imperative that policy makers, strategists, and theater commanders and staffs have sufficient understanding of and appreciation for unconventional warfare not only if UW is to be conducted by the US government but also for when the US government must develop policies and strategies to conduct operations to counter unconventional warfare executed by opponents of the US or our friends, partners and allies.[3]
Although this definition now resides in the DOD dictionary there is no DOD or joint level doctrinespecifically for unconventional warfare.  There is no national policy for unconventional warfare.  There is Army Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Special Forces doctrine[4] but, as we know, few people in uniform or out really read, study, internalize, and practice the concepts published in our doctrine.  USSOCOM has been working over the past year to remedy the lack of joint and DOD doctrine and will soon publish the first ever joint doctrine for UW; however, that is unlikely to solve the problem of policy makers and strategists not appreciating and understanding unconventional warfare and all that operating in that realm of warfare entails.  There seems to be an insufficient intellectual foundation in unconventional warfare.
Before addressing the lack of intellectual foundation let me state for clarity the essence of UW.  Definitions and doctrine aside, unconventional warfare at its core is about revolution, resistance, and insurgency (RRI) combined with the external support provided to a revolution, resistance, or insurgency by either the US or others (who may or may not have interests aligned with the US and may in fact be opposed to the US and our friends, partners, and allies).  This is a type of warfare that is timeless, timely, and something that we can expect to occur over time in the future.  It is both political in nature and at times violent – even as violent as conventional warfare in some cases.
What makes me say that we do not have an understanding of and appreciation for unconventional warfare?  Two recent articles from the New York Times and the Daily Beast illustrate this.  In the first Mark Mazzetti writes about a classified CIA report that alleges that the US has rarely been successful in training and equipping rebel forces and because of this report the US Administration was reluctant to arm and train Syrian rebels.[5]  Christopher Dickey takes issue with the report and claims there have been some successes despite there often being an “acrid aftertaste” as in the case of the Afghan war in the 1980s.[6]
What the Mazzetti and Dickey articles (as well as simply the emphasis on “train and equip" by government spokespeople and pundits) illustrate is that policy makers really do not understand the nature and conduct of unconventional warfare.  It is neither an abject failure in every case nor is it a war winner in almost any case but it is a viable strategic option if used in the right conditions at the right time by the right organizations.  But most importantly it is both risky and hard and what makes it most difficult for policy makers and the public is that it is time consuming.  It cannot be employed "in extremis" in most cases (in the fall of 2001 post 9-11 being an exception) and really requires long-term preparation, thorough assessments, and relationships with key players to have chance of being successful.  And most importantly it must absolutely be part of and in support of a coherent policy and strategy.
Again to restate the problem there is little intellectual foundation for unconventional warfare.  Yes there are some important books to ready from Max Boot’s Invisible Armies to John Tierney’s Chasing Ghosts,to John McCuen’s The Art of Counter-Revolutionary Warfare as well as works by Hy Rothstein and Thomas K. Adams and one of the most prescient studies by the late Sam Sarkesian from 1993:Unconventional Conflicts in a New Security Era.  These are all important to read and I would commend them to any policy maker or strategist; however, what the all lack is how to think about the strategic application of unconventional warfare because they do not delve sufficiently into the common “principles” used to conduct unconventional warfare (save perhaps McCuen’s work).  There is only one time in the history of the US military that unconventional warfare was sufficiently studied to provide the necessary knowledge to policy makers and strategists and that was in the 1950-1960’s with the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) and the partnership between the Army and the Academy. 
We have a number of contemporary examples about UW that are worth examining to illustrate both our lack of understanding as well as the continuing importance of UW.  We have only to look at both Libya and Syria from a US perspective and how we either “led from behind” or are now focusing only on train and equip.  We have thoroughly adopted such concepts as “through, by, and with” and “train and equip” and “building partner capacity” as ways in our strategic calculus.  But we do not understand the complexity, the difficulties and the depth of operations and activities necessary for the conduct of effective UW and we expect to simply apply building partner capacity and train and equip to problems that may require an understanding of UW to support a strategy.  This is most prominently illustrated by the public statements of our political leadership and pundits who only focus on training and equipping rebel forces as if this action is enough to succeed and achieve our interests.  The second example we have comes from competitors and opposition.  We are seeing variations of UW conducted by the Russians and their New Generation Warfare,[7] the Chinese and their Three Warfares,[8] and the Iranian Action Network.[9]  And finally groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are conducting variations of UW (though ISIL might be said to have completed its UW campaign and is now functioning like a quasi-state).  Interestingly the roots of these strategies and campaigns can be found in George Kennan’s political warfare that he described in his 1948 memo to the Policy Planning Staff:
Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz's doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP--the Marshall Plan), 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.[10]
Kennan describes the realm of revolution, resistance, and insurgency that can contribute to coercing, disrupting or overthrowing a government or occupying power.  These are truly strategic actions and objectives but the question remains: do we understand what it requires to implement strategies with campaigns that either support or counter-revolutions resistance, or insurgency. 
To graphically illustrate our lack of understanding of unconventional warfare we can turn to two charts from the Assessing Revolution and Insurgency Strategy (ARIS) project.[11]  The first depicts the relationship and relative size of the fundamental components of UW: the underground, the auxiliary, and the guerrilla or armed military force as well as the public component.
For some years in Syria we have been focusing on training and equipping the “armed component” (and until recently provided only limited non-lethal assistance).  Yet it is the underground that provides the key to understanding the motivation, objectives, interests, methods, and strategy of the leadership of a revolution, resistance, or insurgency (RRI).  It is through the underground that we can not only vet members but also try to determine one of the most important questions of “what comes next?” after the organization achieves success.  We really need to assess all the organizations of an RRI and not solely the armed component, which seems to always be the focus of our strategy and activities.
Another chart illustrates the scope of activities in an RRI environment and in particular the underground.  We tend to focus only on the “tip of the UW iceberg.”

(Continued at the link below)

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