Irregular Warfare Center

Get Moving on That Irregular Warfare Center, DOD Leaders

Stalled by bureaucratic indecision, the Pentagon is operating its new center in an interim capacity that risks dangerously narrowing its field of vision.

It’s hard to list all the ways our friend and fellow veteran, John McCain, left his mark on our country, especially when it comes to our national security. He saw a lot of things more clearly than others, not least of which was that in 2014, Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to rebuild the Russian Empire went far beyond Crimea. But John saw something distinctive in the strategy that Russia deployed to invade and eventually annex Crimea: with their intelligence branches funding and organizing Russian sympathizers, they destabilized the region and set the stage for invasion. John recognized a reality that now stares us all in the face, that in order to outcompete our adversaries in the 21st century, it’s not enough to just have more and better missiles, ships, and aircraft. We must also compete before the war, in the gray zone of irregular warfare.

We all talk a lot about great power competition, but the practical details of what that means and how we engage in it are less understood. When it comes to irregular warfare, it’s not just Russia with their tactics in Crimea and sweeping disinformation campaigns. It’s also Iran employing proxies in an effort to eliminate the Jewish State and gain regional influence. It’s China trying to coerce foreign governments into economic deals in Asia, South America, Central America, and Africa—the latter of which we saw during our travel there in February. Often without a shot fired, our adversaries are trying to build their influence in a way that can displace our own critical relationships around the globe and put our troops at a disadvantage if a conflict ever came to pass. How we understand cultures, use information, and shape relationships in competitive spaces is critical to achieving our national security goals against these adversaries, without starting a war. 

In 2021’s defense policy bill, Congress authorized the creation of what is now called the John S. McCain III Center for Security Studies in Irregular Warfare. The vision was a center that would synthesize our recent learnings on irregular warfare and improve upon them as a whole-of-society effort. To accomplish this, the center would draw upon critical national expertise in our civilian universities, non-defense agencies, and our partners and allies around the world. 

The point is not to have another think tank that publishes high-minded reports no one reads. The McCain Irregular Warfare Center will synthesize learnings across a vast network of partners and build them back into our own defense policy to our military’s advantage. 

Done right, the McCain Irregular Warfare Center will leverage the strongest attributes across the various elements of our society and expertly incorporate them for success. We need the innovation and broad viewpoints that reside in our university and civilian communities to pair with the expertise and authority of the Defense Department. 

But three years later—as the Wagner Group, Russia’s private military, sows discord in Africa and commits war crimes in Ukraine; and China stretches the bounds of international order in the Taiwan Strait—that vision for the McCain Irregular Warfare Center has yet to be carried out. Stalled by bureaucratic indecision, the Pentagon is presently operating the Center in an interim capacity in an internal office that risks dangerously narrowing its field of vision before takeoff. We can’t afford the mistake of limiting perspectives to the ones we already have. And we shouldn’t be reinforcing the existing bureaucracy that has been unable to comprehensively tackle this challenge. We need to be scanning the horizon and reaching outside our comfort zone, not talking to ourselves in the mirror. 

If you look back to the original authorization in 2021, Arizona State University, or ASU, is explicitly highlighted as a potential location in the accompanying report. And that’s for good reason. Regularly recognized for being among the most innovative universities in the country, with a proven track record of transdisciplinary success and a vast network of global partnerships including among our closest allies who are necessary partners in this work, ASU has always been a sensible home for this critical initiative. ASU is nationally ranked in DOD research expenditures, leads a Center on the Future of War, and hosts the online platform for Air University, to name a few reasons they are well suited to lead this initiative.

What’s more, there is no better way to honor and further John McCain’s legacy in this arena than to locate the center that will bear his name in his home state of Arizona. 

Congress has been watching closely and has given the Pentagon a clear mandate. From our positions, one of us on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the other on the Appropriations Committee, we have repeatedly issued guidance in federal legislation and provided the resources necessary to get the Center back on track. 

The stakes are high. If we want to succeed in maintaining our competitive edge over our adversaries, we need to try something we haven’t tried yet. Congress has backed a good bet with the McCain Irregular Warfare Center, but it can’t be allowed to get lost in the maze of bureaucracy. It’s past time to execute this vision of bringing the best of our civilian and military resources to bear against the challenge of irregular warfare that may well define our success in the 21st century. 

Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. Senator from Arizona. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, is the senior U.S. Senator from South Carolina.