Irregular Warfare (IW) – Commentary (January 2021)

Saber Junction 18 - KASP and 20th SFGA personnel conduct mission planning. Photo by 1st Lt Benjamin Haulenbeek; SOCEUR, Sep 19, 2018.

The last several years the term Irregular Warfare (IW) has gained increased prominence within the national defense community. It has become a buzzword meaning different things to a variety of people and organizations. Irregular warfare consists of unconventional warfare (UW), counterinsurgency (COIN), counterterrorism (CT), foreign internal defense (FID), and stability operations (SO).

The U.S. recently published the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy – which clarifies the role of IW within the Department of Defense and other government organizations. Since the IW annex has been published (Nov 2020) national security commentators have provided their perspective on what it means for the US defense establishment. Some of their more recent articles are provided below – with a brief synopsis of the article and link to the author’s article or publication.

Reimagining IW. A career Department of Defense civilian serving in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD SO/LIC), Kevin Bilms, expresses his views on how “Irregular Warfare” needs a new market strategy that will eliminate some misconceptions and assist others in recognizing IW’s potential value in great power competition. Read “What’s in a Name? Reimagining Irregular Warfare Activities for Competition”, War on the Rocks, January 15, 2021.

From CT to IW? Jason Criss Howk notes that the U.S. is moving from a narrow focus on counterterrorism (CT) to a broader focus on irregular warfare (IW). He says that the shift to a larger view of IW and all the tools in the government tool box is also part of a natural evolution of how CT is conducted. “From Counterterrorism to Irregular Warfare: What Does That Mean?”, Clearance Jobs, January 15, 2021.

Critical Thinking in the Military. Steve Ferenzi, a strategic planning officer at the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), shares his thoughts about red teaming and critical thinking in the military. He argues that “traditional American military culture diametrically opposes divergent thought.” For the US military to lead through influence and tools short of armed conflict it needs a tectonic cultural shift to harness the power of divergent thought. Read his article “The Death of Critical Thinking in the Military? Here’s How to Fix It”, Real Clear Defense, January 14, 2021.

IW and a Pentagon Bureaucracy Change. The introduction of great power competition has brought back (for some) the importance of irregular warfare (IW). The Defense Department has placed more emphasis on IW as part of a broader effort to counter Russia and China. Despite the emphasis on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency over the past two decades the US still has an overwhelming conventional force advantage with its near-peer adversaries. For that reason, Russia and others are using political warfare and irregular warfare to advance their strategic interests. It is time for the US to step up its IW game as well. The Pentagon has recently turned the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office into the Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate. Read “A small bureaucratic change at the Pentagon hints at a major shift for US special-operations units”, Business Insider, January 11, 2021.

Dave Maxwell on IW, UW, PW, and CT. A retired Special Forces officer provides his perspective on the way forward when confronting Russia and China (as well as Iran and North Korea) in this new era of great power competition. He believes that SOF needs to focus on CT as well as on irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, and support to political warfare. He advocates some new principles both to frame special operations and communicate how the force supports the national strategy. “The Two Special Operations Trinities”, Small Wars Journal, January 6, 2021.

IW in Competition. Kevin Bilms states that “Irregular Warfare” is not a perfect term, but it helps to understand strategic competition short of an all-out war. He proposes that IW “. . . represents one way the military can apply its power complementarily with diplomatic, economic, financial and other elements of government power to secure strategic outcomes.” Read more in “Better Understanding irregular warfare in competition”, Military Times, January 1, 2021.

CA and IW. Three Army officers collaborate in an article on the role that Civil Affairs can play in bridging planning gaps and seams between convention and special operations forces in an irregular warfare environment. See “Building a Bridge: Cultivating an Irregular Warfare Mindset in the 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion”, Eunomia Journal, The Civil Affairs Association, December 28, 2020.

PodcastBreaking the Boom-Bust Cycle of Irregular Warfare. David Maxwell (retired SF) and Deak Roh (of the ASD SO/LIC office) examine the IW Annex to the National Defense Strategy of 2018 and its relevance in an era defined by great power competition. Modern War Institute at West Point, December 18, 2020, 45 minutes.

Embracing IW. David H. Ucko, a professor at the National Defense University, believes that the release of the IW annex to the National Defense Strategy is insufficient to influence the reform and change needed to bring IW to the forefront within DoD and the US government at large. “Nobody Puts IW in an Annex: It’s Time to Embrace Irregular Warfare as a Strategic Priority“, Modern War Institute at West Point, October 14, 2020.


Photo: A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier assigned to 20th Special Forces Group and a Lithuanian National Defence Volunteer Forces (KASP) member conduct mission planning during exercise Saber Junction 2018 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany. The exercise provided the opportunity to conduct irregular warfare in enemy occupied territory. Photo by 1st Lt. Benjamin Haulenbeek, SOCEUR, Sep 16, 2018.


Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy, DoD, 2020

Summary of the National Defense Strategy, DoD, 2018

Special Forces and Irregular Warfare (IW)

“Book Review – The American Way of Irregular War”, SOF News, August 4, 2020. In this book LTG (Ret) Charles Cleveland provides an interesting look at the past 40 years of history of U.S. special operations. He provides recommendations for the restructuring of the U.S. special operations community and its approach to irregular warfare.

About John Friberg 201 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.

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