Italian Army Rangers with the 4th Alpini Regiment enter a building during a mission at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, April 25, 2018.

Italian Army Rangers with the 4th Alpini Regiment enter a building during a mission at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, April 25, 2018. U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Benjamin Haulenbeek)

As irregular warfare comes to a crossroads, Congress chips in

IW proponents are wrestling with how to bring their domain into a new era—and to convince others it’s still needed.

Twenty million dollars doesn't usually change much in the U.S. military, but lawmakers hope it’s enough to usher the Pentagon’s irregular-warfare efforts into a new era. 

A provision in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act provides $20 million and “funding authority, direction, definition, and Congressional reporting requirements to make permanent SOF’s ability to conduct Irregular Warfare by, with, and through our partners,” according to a statement from the office of Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.

Many military observers are concerned that the military’s ability to wage irregular warfare—like working with combatants not formally associated with nation-states, skills honed during more than a decade of wars in the Middle East—will be discarded as the Pentagon readies itself to take on great-power states such as China. That concern reflects debate about how to revamp U.S. irregular-warfare capabilities and training—and even whether such capabilities are still needed. The Army, for example, is proposing to cut its special-operations forces by up to 20 percent.

“Special Operations are our nation’s premier force during peacetime and war. As China increases the pace of its own power and will, and Iran-backed proxies threaten our servicemembers, the United States must be prepared to take on the risks of the 21st century and deter aggression. To counter these growing threats, I’m expanding authority for Special Operations to better achieve their mission,” Ernst said in a statement to Defense One. 

The Defense Department’s top leader for irregular warfare concedes that its proponents have not always made the best case for it.

“We need to do a better job communicating what irregular warfare is and what it isn't,” Christopher Maier, the assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said at the recent Irregular Warfare Forum event. “I think we've made some strides on that by now having a written definition.” 

Maier said one of the last things Gen. Mark Milley did before retiring as Joint Chiefs chairman was to formalize a new definition of irregular warfare: “A form of warfare where states and non-state actors campaign to assure or coerce states or other groups through indirect, non-attributable, or asymmetric activities.” (The definition was published in Joint Publication 1, Volume 1, “Joint Warfighting,” released to the Pentagon but not the public in August.)

Maier said developing irregular-warfare strategies, tactics, and tools is even more important now than during the Mideast wars because China and Russia are already fighting irregular campaigns against U.S. partners. 

“We talk about campaigning in the sense of logically linked military activities to achieve strategic realigned objectives over time, across a whole range of things, certainly not only irregular warfare. So, carrier strike groups, freedom of navigation, having aircraft appear in different places that they weren't traditionally is not traditionally thought of as irregular warfare, but I think we need to think of this example and other things as being part of campaigning,” he said. 

But more importantly, Maier said, the Pentagon has to build a better understanding across the government of what irregular warfare is and emphasize the importance of civilian leadership in employing it. 

“I can tell you firsthand: if you engage in interagency conversations, at almost any level, and you start talking about all the irregular-warfare capabilities of the Department of Defense, people either shut down at most or other departments and agencies or become very alarmed, because it sounds to them like it's DOD looking for more opportunities, or places that we don't traditionally operate,” he said.  “We need to be very explicit and talk about what we're doing to sustain the military advantage where we encounter adversaries, competitor activities, and we have military tools that can be applied. In most cases, it's not going to be the Department of Defense that takes the lead.”

The U.S. military also has work to do in training operators for irregular warfare, particularly the use of space, cyber, and special forces. Brig. Gen. Guillaume “Will” Beaurpere, commanding general of the  Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, said one training challenge is enabling operators with new high-tech skills that will be useful in situations where they may face a small, non-state group backed by a larger, high-tech state adversary. 

“How to integrate advanced technology advanced skills into the tactical level…How do you talk about digital literacy with our operators, not just receiving data, but understanding a little bit of how to code and develop algorithms to process large amounts of information?” Beaurpere said in an interview.

He said the U.S. must do more to match Chinese and Russian irregular warfare capabilities in information and influence campaigning. 

“Fundamentally, we need to develop advanced capabilities, and we need to up our game in the information dimension. And that the way I frame it to the team is, I talk about, ‘Hey, we are really good in the human dimension. We can gain human advantage. And that's fundamentally where warfare will be, one is in the human mind and the humans on the ground.’ So we need to continue to refine and develop our human advantage, you have to add information advantage to that to create physical advantage,” Beaurpere said.

He’s established a special school within the Special Warfare Center to look at cyber and psychological warfare, “which would really up our game and psychological cooperations and the branch itself by creating a branch commandant and bringing doctrine and training together under one school system that is joint-accredited,” he said. “The Marines are already there. We want to track the Navy and the Air Force to this to create a joint synergy on psychological operations capabilities, and really explore this concept of influence to change behavior. I think that's absolutely critical.”