Unconventional Warfare Does Not Belong to Special Forces

August 12, 2013

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“US Army Special Forces is the only force in the Department of Defense organized, trained, equipped, educated, and optimized for the conduct of unconventional warfare.”

I have written those words many times in the past thirty plus years of my military service.  With those words I have implied that the unconventional warfare mission belongs solely to US Army Special Forces (SF).  I was wrong.

I began to realize this in 2009, when I participated in a working group established by the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School to re-examine the definition of unconventional warfare.  The revised definition that resulted was a compromise that did not satisfy everyone in the Special Forces (SF) or wider Special Operations Forces (SOF) community. Nonetheless, the definition currently resides in Joint Publication 1-02 the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and is now the foundation for US military unconventional warfare doctrine:  Unconventional warfare consists of “activities to enable a resistance 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.”

The working group sought to develop a more universal definition, one that would describe the intent and methodology of an unconventional warfare (UW) strategy that would not be exclusive to the United States but rather, would also be able to describe UW from an enemy point of view (As I have argued recently, we should not be concerned with Al Qaeda and terrorism in the way that we have been since 9-11; instead we must focus on the unconventional warfare strategy that al-Qaeda is executing against the United States, the West and selected nations in the Middle East).

It is clear that UW cannot “belong” solely to one military force, nor even to the military alone.  It is a strategic mission that is an offensive option for policymakers and strategists.  In the United States the UW mission is in fact an interagency one at the strategic level that can be shared between the Central Intelligence Agency and the military.  Nowhere has this been better exemplified than in Afghanistan in 2001, where the mission combined the resources, human contacts, and authorities of the CIA with the capability, capacity, and expertise of the SF, to mount a very effective UW campaign. The CIA and SOF in general have learned (or re-learned, if we look back to the OSS in WWII and later in Vietnam and Laos, as well as programs such as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group or Operation White Star) to work together in what some of our senior leaders term “shared battle-space.”

However, tactical and operational cooperation and collaboration is not enough.  Often, strategic-level analysis and decision making that is critical for UW is stifled because of the widely held belief that UW belongs solely to SOF, and in particular to SF.  SF is organized, trained, equipped, educated and optimized for a particular aspect of UW: to work “through and with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.”   Beyond that, the decision, the strategy, and the campaign plan to enable a resistance or guerrilla force to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power is made at the strategic level at what we once called the National Command Authority – this is outside the sole purview of SOF and SF.

Due to the prevailing wisdom that SF owns the UW mission, many senior decision makers, policymakers and strategists both inside the Beltway and at the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC) rarely consider the strategic option of conducting UW.  Furthermore, as evidenced by our myopic view of terrorism, we do not fully comprehend that our enemies are, in fact, conducting unconventional warfare. As a result, we do not consider potential strategies to conduct “counter-unconventional warfare,” instead focusing solely on the means and methods of counterterrorism.

Our problem is with the nature of special operations itself.  Until recent years in the post 9-11 world, SOF has been associated with secrecy and compartmentalization.  These are critically important requirements for special operations.  But the fact remains that, notwithstanding the notoriety of  highly visible missions such as the Bin Laden raid, years of paying little attention to SOF has led to a situation in which SOF activities and missions are not well understood, accepted, or sought after.

The best example of this is in the area of Foreign Internal Defense (FID) and the rebirth of counterinsurgency in the US military after the challenges of Iraq.  Little attention was paid at this time to existing FID doctrine.  Like unconventional warfare, FID is one of the ten special operations activities specified in Section 167 of Title 10 of the US Code.  What that has meant to many outside of SOF is that FID and UW are SOF exclusive activities. Therefore, when a new concept for building partner capacity and training, advising and assisting was needed for the regular Army and Marine Corps, doctrine writers developed Security Force Assistance rather than start from the established doctrine in FID and altering it as necessary. As it turns out, the pre-9/11 FID doctrine expressly stated that all services were to provide trained and ready forces to conduct FID in support of the GCCs.  Yet when the need arose the services chose to start from scratch due to a mistaken belief that FID was exclusively a SOF activity.

But the most extreme example of the misconceptions about UW concerns Irregular Warfare.   The DOD Instruction 3000.7 codifies Irregular Warfare as consisting of Counterinsurgency, Stability Operations, Foreign Internal Defense, Counterterrorism, and, importantly, Unconventional Warfare.  After 9/11, we identified a need to create a description for what to many appeared to be a new form of warfare – this became Irregular Warfare.  Then in 2008 we grouped the above five activities in the DOD Instruction “specifically defining and describing Irregular Warfare as:

A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.

Surely there is some redundancy between unconventional warfare and irregular warfare in this definition and students of doctrine can argue the pros and cons of whether one or the other or both should be used.   However, little, if any, thought was given to whether the complex threats we have faced since 9/11 should, in fact, be considered unconventional warfare.  Many working groups and  new manuals could have been avoided had doctrine writers began by looking at the threats from an unconventional warfare frame of reference instead of formulating a new term. The reason for this is the almost exclusive association of UW with SOF. Because the conduct of UW is linked with a little known and poorly understood force, policymakers, strategists, and planners dismiss UW as a less relevant threat to the US, and fail to see it as a practical and sometimes appropriate offensive option.

What we need are policy makers, strategists and planners who have a deep understanding of and an appreciation for unconventional warfare.  We need UW to be taught in professional military education institutions to non-SOF personnel.  We need to ensure that members of the interagency and the joint military have a thorough understanding of threats conducting UW and how to counter them.  We need academic institutions and think tanks to recognize, study, write about and advocate and education for UW.  Perhaps the historic Special Operations Research Office at American University, which was disbanded in the 1960s, should be re-established.

UW is not a mission for all threats, and not all threats are unconventional.  But such threats do exist and they should not be neglected, overlooked, or left only to SOF.

The first step is to recognize that SF does not own the UW mission.  It is a US national strategic mission. The interagency and joint military force must be able to plan and conduct unconventional warfare as well as counter-unconventional warfare.  Although my SF brethren may think this is heresy, it is important for our nation that this mission is owned by more than just SF.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service.


Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Donald Sparks, U.S. Army

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22 thoughts on “Unconventional Warfare Does Not Belong to Special Forces

  1. QUOTE: It is clear that UW cannot “belong” solely to one military force, nor even to the military alone. END QUOTE


    Whether the mission is Irregular Warfare (Counterinsurgency, Stability Operations, Foreign Internal Defense, Counterterrorism) so-called peacekeeping (Bosnia) or whatever, the military cannot operated in a political vacuum.

    My first views on this were formed during the Sarajaveo Airport opening operation in 1992. A lack of political insights often hurt the mission’s understanding of its conflict environment. But bizarrely enough, all the embassies had been evacuated and the staff gone – most of which had moved to places such as the Hotel Intercontinental in Zagreb (five star).

    The only country that had an embassy open with a functioning staff was Iran. And there was lots of them. We began to notice their effectiveness in June of 1992 when we first got reports from the soldiers at the airport reporting “guys in black pajamas with green headbands.” As it turns out, they were mostl likely IRGC. Iran also offered a 5000 soldier infantry unit for UN duties in Bosnia -which was refused by the UN.

    What was the lesson to me? Without a political commitment and a political presence on the ground, your forces cannot be as effective as they need to be. Iran was getting this and they were clearly committed to achieving their goals even at some risk to the diplomatic and international aid staff. All the other countries involved said they were committed to the mission – but were not showing this in anything other than a military presence – and then only with restrictions. It is hard to get a good view of a conflict from a five star hotel in the next country over!

    1. i disagree with the writer – to understand the missions, particularly fid and uw, which sf has traditionally executed, takes significant attention to those missions, meaning it would take lots of additional training for “regular” military units from their weekly, monthly, bi-annual, and annual training plans, not to mention the contingencies that are built into those types of operations, all with their own unique sets of “implied” tasks. further, none of this is learned overnight, it took the oss and then 60 years to get to this point.
      it seems to me that there is jealousy (which human nature), as well as throwing more to something that needs to remain specialized. lets not forget, the idiot himself, who is a thoroughbread conventionalist (assclown paetreus himself, to rewrite the uw manual and label it coin, another “catch me fuck me phrase”), which unfortunately took root and apparently briefs well to those who know nothing and cuts dollars loose to do different things.
      it seems if you can come up with excellent briefs, it gets sold, unfortunately for the wrong reasons, and in most cases for pure self-recognition and promotion.
      conversely, in both places, iraq and afghanistan, i saw traditional sf teams trying to get away from uw/fid because it was not cool and everyone wants to kick doors. even with uw it states that you still accompany the “uw force” and do all that, but you are not the first guy through the door. unfortunately we didn’t get some of that, and quite frankly, if the force requires that much guidance that the sf advisor has to be the first, then something wrong has happened in training, or the tng focus was accelerated by other pressures, and/or the the big points were missed. the “eat, sleep, train with them” concept was virtually non-existent, especially with ictf that the cif’s were assigned to establish
      i do agree with joint inter-agency events such as the author remarks, cia/sf, but there should be realistic roles for both
      hope i didn’t piss anyone off – just my humble opinion
      now as for bosnia – in the early days – yes, iran had a plan, as they do in syria, but again, not a task for conventional units. lets not forget that the u.s. mil. did not com to bosnia until mid/late 95 (not their fault, but rather politics), but nonetheless – the sas was alive and well since 92 in bosnia – we missed the boat on what could have been gained by a few, vs an entire bn, etc. and we are doing it again, because we have no balls

  2. Agreed. Although, I have to say that serious students and practitioners of “IW” institutions know this. Witnessing the last several years of deplyments and associations with 3- and 4-star headquarters, there is a chronic ignorance of the strategic & operational roots of our profession. The Army’s lack of thoughtful PME is to blame for this gap. SFA-FID-COIN gaps & redundnacies would not exist if anyone actually read and studied our applicable laws, doctrine and history. That would require a serious effort on the Army’s part to acknowledge the past/current/future state of warfare: that the vast majority of the American miitary’s activities and deployments since 1797 have been “irregular” operations. Instead, we spend years studying the American civil war and WWII. Attrition-maneuver has been the smallest portion of the Army’s and USMC’s history, but has been blown out of proportion in our training and education. Ignorance of that fact has shaped generations of general officers and field grade officers to the point that to state the blazingly obvious while embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan was to spell one’s own abbreviated deployment, career or legitimacy on a staff.

  3. Finally nice to see that maybe,just maybe, DoD will finally accept this. As a COIN Advisor and Instructor i have been saying this for YEARS!! Look at all the doctrine, the NMS, DODD and DODI; they pretty much specify that the Conventional guys will be doing all the heavy lifting on all the 5 to 7 LOE/LOO.

    DoD and the Force thought that that if they specified the task then the Force would follow. However the entire COIN doctrine was displaced before it ever got started; just like FM 100-5 IN 1973 in its first iteration.

    The difference now is that DoD will not resurrect COIN because they have subscribed to Gian Gentiles version of why COIN is wrong.

    Which is to say, DoD only does Door Kicking and sexy stuff like that.

  4. An excellent piece of work. I am not intending to fire the golden bullet, but does Mr Maxwell’s article shed light on the fact that it may be time for a total paradigm shift concerning American military doctrine?

    Is it time to re-evaluate what we consider “conventional” warfare, and downgrade Von Clauswitz, maneuver warfare and large scale engagements as the backbone of American (maybe even modern) military tactical doctrine?

    I am not saying either way of thinking is correct, but the questions needs to be asked.

    Also, this is coming from a Navy guy so be gentile.

  5. It should MOSTLY be owned by the CIA and US Army SF for the sake of commo and execution issues related to FLATTENING the commo process which will lead to better prevention of bad stuff happening. Also, for those of us that learned a few things along the way, you might want to add NASA to the formula. I didn’t read anything regarding NASA in this article. Can any of you experts guess why it would be important to add NASA to the list? If you can’t do so you’re welcome to call me at any time. 808-551-3894.–Jim

  6. Agree with the author’s conclusion and general points but he blames EVERYONE except SF which abandoned FID when Direct Action was the cool moneypot that it became post 911.

    The conventional forces tagged with rebuilding indigenous military capability executed throwing people and money at the problem for almost a decade. The whole time SOF was growing the force, developing DA capabilities and kicking in doors. Seems we should have given some of the direct action to conventional forces and recouped all that UW wisdom and training we invested in SOF…

    1. Succinctly and well stated. Far too many in SF want to do the Ranger/SEAL mission. That’s the glory found in kicking down doors, ala law enforcement drug teams.

      The UW skill sets we developed in the 60s and 70s went by the wayside post 911. SF has lost it’s way and should get back to performing the original missions it was tasked with.

      Although DA is and has been part of the mission, it’s not supposed to be the only or the principal mission of SF.

      1. agreed, and you are right, sf has lost some things in these new environments, i.e. door kicking is cool, and by default, training and advising takes a back seat. nowhere does it say in any uw manual that the sf team cannot participate in an offensive action, but rather it states that the advisor must be there, just not the first guy in the door. the advising thing has been lost from my experience unfortunately, but the capability is still a very significant option, which unfortunately is not something realized by inexperienced policy makers/politicians, but, in my humble opinion needs to remain with the sf side – 60 years of experience is hard to replace through a manual that some other unit reads, inevitably making the person implementing that a “self expert” which is a failure to begin with

  7. Parts of DoD guidance have bifurcated warfare into “traditional” and “irregular,” and then in other places said UW FID, CT, COIN and Stability are the pillars of IW – while saying those activities can be conducted across the full range of military operations! This is contradictory, confusing, and to my thinking, inaccurate and unhelpful. There was good reason to do this, however; DoD needed a focal point for the development of capabilities that are not necessarily included in the conventional force on force set and might be neglected in favor of big weapons and big formations. But it’s not going to work in the future. The argument must be made from the environment up. Do the responsibilities of a global leader demand we see the world as more “JOPES” or more an era of persistent conflict? Perhaps both equally? We must and will maintain our conventional military advantage as this ultimately deters and back diplomatic and economic objectives, but the utility of force, increasingly the relevance of military capabilities beyond deterrence, and always a critical component of being “decisive,” is the set we have binned under “IW.” This is, as the author writes, a SOF-CF, Joint, interagency endeavor. What we see now with the murkiness of the terms (UW, IW, FID, stability…) is that those advocates of a re-emphasis on what we are comfortable with (conventional force on force) can claim all but CT is a thing of the last decade, it all belongs to SOF, and by the way we’re not doing anything beyond CT anymore. Nothing can be farther from the truth in pursuit of US national interest. It’s time for the conversation COL Maxwell has started.

  8. Good article and discussion. But, questions. Which units of the USSOCOM, or of the entire U.S. military, can effectively conduct UW today, who are ready for it? Not SEALs. I doubt MARSOC. FID? Sure. DA? Of course. AT? Hell yeah. COIN? Yes. But true UW?

    SF was activated in the early 1950s with the sole purpose of doing UW ops. We have been pulled in other directions since then. But I believe that UW is still at the core of SF raison d’etre. And I am unaware of any other U.S. unit that can handle it. No other unit has the training or culture for it, far as I know.

  9. Well, hell. I will not insinuate that I’m an UW expect as a few of the above seem to be but… I spent 22 years in the 10th SFG, most of it on an ODA but have served on the staff all the way up to the CJSOTF and currently at a COCOM. While we many have looked like we abandoned FID during OIF, I can assure you all, we didn’t. While we were combating the various terrorist groups within, we were doing it with the “if I was conducting these operations how would I do it”. Thus conducting Counter-UW, by denying them financial support from the outside and taking any and all areas they controlled, forcing them into the black market and using kidnapping to finance their operations, for the most part, nothing is absolute. We trained the Iraqis to conduct the full spectrum of operations, what has happened to them now, well, follow through is just as important in FID as it is in baseball. While in Bosnia in the mid 90s as well as Kosovo in the 2000s, we conduct similar operations with great success. UW never went away from the 10th, even when we were told it wasn’t relevant anymore. We had great leadership both from the Os/WOs and the Sr. Enlisted. Most of us had the discipline and training from the 80s, 90s to fall into these operations with a knowledge and foresight on how to conduct FID, UW CT as well as “other Special Forces Operations” with our cousins in the CIA.
    The common issue I have observed throughout my 3 decades in SF was that the conventional community doesn’t have the flexibility, the ability to conduct their own FP, the communication knowhow/equipment, and the trust in their Jr officers and enlisted to do UW. Doctrine, while useful in the school house doesn’t always transfer to the field, training does. While an instructor at SWC, we were always told to stick to the lesson plan, unfortunately the lesson plans were normally from individuals who had stayed there too long at Bragg and didn’t have the tactical/practical experience needed to have the full picture. An old Team Sergeant once told me during the “Fulda Gap days, “the Soviet Union knows our doctrine better than we do, good thing we never use it”. (I’m sure it was a quote from some intellectual but it was the first time I heard it.) Lastly, while tagging in or out from an operation with our sister Bns or Groups, we had discussions on different TTPs, but never once did “doctrine” get mentioned. It has its place, but nothing replaces training and tactical experience. This may be a bit off subject but it’s what stood out to me while reading COL Maxwell’s well thought out hypothesis. Good Day.

  10. The author, who I have respected for many years, realizes that many of us practitioners understand the practical applications and conduct such operations from the reality, meaning, from the bottom up. By the time the NCA understands what is happening with the elements of UW, Counter-UW turns out to be a more questionable attempt of recruitment and the cycle continues, as it has throughout history. “The FOG on the ground can be challenging when you have no map or anyone who actually can confirm that its FOG”.

    The understatement of SF owning UW is more defined in a conventional term as he has though out his article. But to be more realistic, the elements he describes is mainly SF as the SF operators – SF Players turn to enhanced careers in every element that he describes and in every level of government. It is the SF experience that continues to dominate, good and bad. There is no element in his chain of events that has zero SF influence or experience on the US side, especially in the last 30-50 years.

    On the other side of the coin, the three elements who desire change; the Aux, the UG and the GU, both foreign and domestic, will continue its desired and somewhat challenge direction, much in desperate need of change and relief from oppressed political strife, or religious extremism, hopefully with better US influence and direction, meeting our “combined” stated and obvious objectives.

    The actual result can be disastrous if we have no real desired outcome and moral direction. This outcome could be true on both sides of the Coin.

    The challenge is devastating when you loose your relationships and the final objective looses support at the NCA or a shift in policy that erodes the sustained support. Damage can be felt for generations and such, we have bad examples today that have lasted decades that we still are trying to turn around.

    Without the SF experience and history of the challenges, you will have nothing to build on and the resulting experience will be repeated, good and bad., and the experience will be there.

    I would argue that the SOCOM experiment with the Marines was an example that will unfortunately live generations, as well as a few other examples that could receive careful dissection.

    I see a bright but challenging future and enhanced education and practical experience will be the necessary force of direction, not the political academics and those without good ol’SF knowledge and experience. To quickly replace it will result in lost generations of knowledge and decades of losses. The community chest has a wealth of knowledge that has yet to be tapped.

  11. Unconventional WARFARE. Not Unconventional policy making, Unconventional strategy, or Unconventional Sourcing. It doesn’t really matter anyways. 90 percent of the time we are conducting FID. It’s not like we’re running around blowing up train tracks and what not. We train equip and fight side by side with our foreign counterparts. All this doctrine goes out the window once war kicks off and everybody does everything Seals, SF, they even invented MARSOC to basically mirror SF with a bunch of marines. So who cares. Just go over there and be a man.

  12. special forces. US Army forces organized, trained, and equipped to conduct special operations with an emphasis on unconventional warfare capabilities. Also called SF. (JP 1-02). Law identifies UW as a special operations activity. It also identifies CA as one, but does anyone think CA is owned by SOF. Now SOCOM PUB 1 does state that SF are the experts at UW. That’s what SF must be. Owning it? It has always been a joint operation, and significantly aided in prep and initial contact by interagency effort. The UW government as sponsor owns UW; it always has. Help me with this one: the law identifies strategic recon as a SOCOM task, but SOCOM doctrine does not define it. JP 1-02 only defines special recon. It seems the airforce owns strategic recon.

  13. My first response above was my initial reaction to the article – I’m inclined to agree with Dave M. very much. However, as an extension of Kim’s, Floyd’s and Kevin’s points above – and the opinion of a knowledgeable friend – I feel I ought to add that there is a fundamental requirement in foreign policy that needs to be addressed in order to proceed with any useful outcome. That requirement is:
    ..that UW must be acknowledged as a
    strategic option with the proprietors
    of UW as strategic forces…

    …by DoD, DoS, the Armed Services Committees, NSC/NSS and the NCA. Specifically, that the Special Warfare forces within USSOCOM – namely SF, CA and MISO – and an articulated range of supporting other SOF and conventional military and interagency components are the actuating bodies within the USG for implementing UW as a component of foreign policy. This group ought to be able to design and implement a defensible UW philosophy, articulate criteria for including UW assessments in a debate about foreign policy problems, and articulate criteria for selecting UW as a tool of choice. Without that understanding, UW will not be useful to the USG except in response to future post-9/11-type events when the remainder of foreign policy options are insufficient, or as a supporting campaign that gets buried or left out of the history books (and therefore unacknowledged in future debates). That philosophy can only come from Special Forces because no one else has the lineage, experience, philosophy or knowledge that approaches UW. In that light, yes, SF owns UW. As a strategic option, though, SF “owning” UW is akin to Billy Ray Bob owning a Lotus Esprit Turbo that has never seen the outside of a barn in the back woods of North Carolina – people may have heard of it but no one believes what BRB says it can do.

    Getting UW to the point of being acknowledged by the relevant foreign policy stakeholders as a strategic option is *the* challenge. A recent philosophical turn-around indicates that change may be the way to making it so. Last year, the Joint Staff declined to allow a Joint UW publication. This year, they directed its creation. In my opinion, the next step after its publication is a short series of interagency publications and forums articulating the need for and criteria for a form of coercive diplomacy that nudges the IA ever closer to accepting and fronting an interagency UW or coercive diplmacy directive (or whatever name it takes) with supporting implementation guides and manuals. Only the right authors can articulate UW correctly but only the right constituents may gain the necessary buy-in from the relevant first- and second-echelon foreign policy stakeholders. SF can do the former, but others must perform the latter.

  14. War: Good article. Can I add?

    With your research you have stumbled upon and highlighed a new trend in D.C. and elsewhere: i.e. Read the DOD Notices and Instructions, and JPs and FMs, and other documents and see if they are correct. Then determine if the guidance makes sense and can actucally be carried out on the ground. With Irrgular Warfare (IW) that’s tough.

    Politicians, and USG, DOS, DOD, DIA, DEA, and USAID staff have now discovered, with some help, that some IW doctrine actually hinders interoperability within their organizations and stiffles sycnhornization between the other organizations. In some cases a lack of doctrine was the problem. This realization generated a new slant on doctrine; one that incoorportates interoperability and sycn. What a concept. A unified unity of effort. In the past few years JP 1-02 was revised several times because of this new slant.

    Another example is early DOD IW, CT, COIN, and stability doctrine that said information collection was paramount. But doctrine never said how to collect information and disagreed about why it should be collected. Hence the publication of FM 3-55 Information Collection (2013). The COIN JP and COIN FM are currently being revised with this new stance in mind. The next problem that has to be tackkled is Stability Operations, USAID, and DOS stability.

    UW is a part of IW, as well as CT, and both have a proponet, USSOCOM. The US is the only organization within NATO that carries out UW and USSOCOM is that organization. For more details about this new perspective please see;


    For more IW, CT, COIN, and Stability OPs references please see;


  15. I want to thank everyone for some excellent comments to this essay. Rather than try to answer each one, I think perhaps my response to one very critical email message I received may provide some answers to the very good critiques on War on the Rocks and provide some clarifying remarks.

    Text of Critical email message:

    O.K. I want to respond to this because… something is wrong here…

    The article contends– without very good warrants– other than //UW missions are strategic in nature, and SF operate at the tactical and operational levels; therefore, UW doesn’t belong to SF exclusively because SF don’t span to the strategic level of war.//

    UW does BELONG to SF in a very important way– the way that amphibious landings to establish a beachhead from the sea BELONGS to the Marines, or keeping the sea lanes free for international trade BELONGS to the Navy, or seizing and holding ground belongs to the Army.

    As the author mentions, the special role and SF plays in UW is even codified in US Title 10.

    He also suggests that UW can belong to an enemy as well as a friendly force, and that perhaps we’ve been using the term insurgency where we should be using the term UW?

    I don’t think so. Here’s why, and it may also explain why we don’t teach and preach UW more widely.

    First, UW is essentially a synonym for revolution with the qualification that it entails external support or even the fomenting of a revolution.

    UW, as an activity to usurp another’s government, suggests illegitimacy on its face. Usurping or overthrowing a government outside one’s own is essentially establishing a policy of regime change.

    UW and regime change are not traditionally legitimate causes for war such as self defense, mutual defense and the redress of past violence. UW actions are agitations to peace in general and specifically violations of the UN Charter– in which aggression toward other countries is not in the common interest.

    Nor does UW reflect our national principles. UW is the stuff of the Bay of Pigs, and the usurpation of Mosaddegh. UW is dangerous art– stuff that we shouldn’t break the glass on very readily.

    My response to him:

    Well, you do seem to prove my point if you think something is wrong here. We do need more focus on UW because not enough policymakers, strategists, and planners have a good grasp of the mission or concepts involved. What is wrong here is that people do not think about UW and either just write it off or belittle its importance or insult those of us who believe in it with such statements as it does not reflect our national principles . I am reminded of the old adage (adapted from Trotsky) you may not be interested in unconventional warfare but unconventional warfare is interested in you (or at least it is interested in coercing and disrupting the United States)

    Let me just address a couple of points.

    SF does own part of the UW mission (the mostly tactical and operational part). It is the only DOD force that is organized, trained, educated, equipped, and optimized to work through and with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area. No other DOD force does this. I regret not making that perfectly clear in my essay. But the overall mission is a strategic one and goes beyond SF. And in the most extreme application (enabling a resistance or insurgency to overthrow a government or occupying power) it will be national level strategic decision. But even in the lesser forms (and it is not a synonym solely for revolution or regime change) of “coerce” and “disrupt” it will still be a national level strategic decision. The point I would make is that SF, SOF in general, USSOCOM and even the GCCs do not think up these missions and conduct them on their own. It can be considered a break glass mission but it is also a very real part of political warfare and there are a lot of adversaries out there conducting political warfare and as Michael Noonan wrote in his US News article on Friday (about Nadia Schadlow’s forthcoming Orbis essay) at this link:
    http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2013/08/16/political-warfare-in-a-time-of-defense-cuts) we have a long history of conducting political warfare going back at least to George Kennan. I have explained in previous articles such as this one on Small Wars Journal as to why Special Forces trains and educates for the UW mission and how the mission breaks down and the importance of not just UW but of UW related activities, but I now believe that more than just Special Forces needs to do so, thus my intentionally provocative article. http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/why-does-special-forces-train-and-educate-for-unconventional-warfare (also attached the full PDF can be downloaded at this link because the entire paper no longer can be accessed at Small Wars Journal: http://db.tt/gfxBSkiW)

    As I have also argued previously in Small Wars Journal (http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/is-the-war-on-terrorism-over-long-live-unconventional-warfare – also the full PDF can be downloaded at this link: http://db.tt/YqLadRrK) our enemies are conducting Unconventional Warfare – particularly to coerce and disrupt the US and the west and even overthrow governments (from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia to Yemen to name a few). Al Qaeda is an organization that makes very effective use of undergrounds and auxiliaries in these operations. While we may not often conduct UW (and perhaps rightly so) we sure better understand when adversaries are conducting it. And while Foreign Internal Defense is focused on helping our friends, partners, and allies in there internal defense and development programs to defend themselves against lawlessness, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism, we really need to also understand how to counter the unconventional warfare that is being conducted by adversaries who are using subversion and insurgency to achieve their goals. If we spent more time educating policy makers, strategists, and planners outside of the SF community we might be able to create some more options either through UW or counter-UW to achieve our national security objectives. But before UW can be discounted as an option it would be better if those doing the discounting had some education in such warfare.

    Perhaps you do not think it represents our national character but I would submit that people from Robert McClure to MG Jack Singlaub to Wendell Fertig and Russell Volckmann to the 5th Special Forces Group and CIA in Afghanistan in 2001 and 10th Special Forces Group and the CIA in Northern Iraq with the Kurds from 1991-2003 and many others all think that their conduct of unconventional warfare was very much in the US tradition and reflected national principles.

    I am sorry you find so much wrong with Unconventional Warfare.

  16. sir,

    Thank you for excellent article. I know that I’m critizising here just a quick reply to a thoughtful comment, and that quick replies need not be so carefully formulated, but still:

    ” Al Qaeda is an organization that makes very effective use of undergrounds and auxiliaries in these operations.”

    Isn’t al qaeda more an ideology than an organization these days? I’m highlighting this conceptual issue only because I’m getting increasingly irritated by the way al qaeda is being personified as an evil enemy organization by authors in general.

  17. Nice reflection and alternate point of view from previously held perceptions. I’d be interested in knowing who in the SOF community believes your assertions are heresy to the SOF community. Or is this just an assumption.

  18. Other SOF as well as interagency partners should “own” and thus train to execute UW. Not sure the issue is that SF created a monopoly over the UW skill set, but maybe that other forces previously didn’t want a part in it.

    In the Army at least, the lack of knowledge about UW outside of SF seems to stem from SF’s regimentalization. The maneuver branches seem to be more than happy to cede that subject matter to SWC. Now that SWC has its own ARSOF Captain’s Career Course, the MCCC has even less of a reason to teach insurgency. Not sure that non-SOF personnel need to learn extensively about UW, but they do need to thoroughly learn insurgency (just as they do about any conventional enemy). At that point UW should come easily and a mere familiarization should be all that’s necessary since non-SOF won’t be performing UW but may be interacting with those performing it. I think the first step is to establish common language in FM 1-02 about insurgency.

    Has anyone seen the ARSOF 2022 Concept? That framework is a great beginning to addressing the lack of greater knowledge about UW outside of SF. I think the major argument against the concept, as one of your article’s commenters mentioned, is that UW as a strategic option, as opposed to a shaping operation, can be perceived as tantamount to US-supported regime change. Whether or not that option is exercised, it doesn’t seem like that would affect the SF Regiment greatly, if at all.

  19. With the utmost respect for COL Maxwell and everyone here I’d like to make a few statements about UW, SF, what drew us to it, and the direction it seems to be headed. SF has a formula to select and train men to work in vague unclear situations, with little guidance or support, which require self sufficiency and a need to act in absence of orders. Many of us came to SF because that is what we wanted to do. To be given the challenge and responsibility of conducting unconventional warfare in those remote areas or low visibility scenarios where overt use of conventional forces is not desired. There’s a strong sense of independence in the SF soldier. We have a desire to be part of a great team, but not a desire to follow and wait to be told what to do next.

    UW in the classic sense needs us. UW in the classic sense is not “burger king” as in “have it your way”. Operating with Irregular forces can’t be counted on to meet strict team lines. This makes it hard to precisely control. Inability to precisely control UW does not help high ranking officers maneuver Joint/Combined forces from their CDR chairs in plasma screen OPCENs. As more effort is put into trying to control and micromanage the ODA conducting UW the focus/purpose of the operation seems to shift from what can be accomplished by the ODA to providing the opportunity for the O5 and higher CDR to C2 the ODA’s mission.

    I’m guessing that for officers it’s better to work to be a part of large joint operations and to work better with others as it provides more opportunities to C2 and CMD at higher levels than the ODA. This isn’t attractive to anyone I worked with during my 9+ years on ODA’s.

    Special Operations Forces for every mission seems to be what the military says it wants. When I asked for too much as a child much my mother used to answer me “and people in hell would like ice water.” Not everyone had a mom like mine. If everyone has to be special and every mission is special, then nothing is special. Making us bigger and trying to involve us in everything is not good for the force or the mission.

    In 97′ in the Q-course they told us that “we would likely never do UW because it’s hard to control and to demobilize”. SF was trying to do all sorts of other missions at the time. SR and DA seemed to be the big concern. We got a new group CSM in who came down to the teams and told us “UW is the way of the future”. We thought he was crazy, but were proven wrong 2 years later when SF’s UW skills worked rather well in the beginning of the war in AF. It is arguable how helpful adding large numbers of conventional forces, support forces, and multiple layers of C2 in country was to SF’s mission.

    UW doesn’t need to be the whole pie. Really it should be a small piece of the pie. There is a budget problem now. The US military can’t afford for everyone to be like SF. America can’t afford to use Special Operations for everything. UW in the aspect of conducting operations by through and with irregular forces in austere environments with little guidance and lack of conventional support is the core mission that US Army Special Forces is most suited for. We need to keep it. Large joint operations requiring constant high level C2 and micromanagment, let the SEALS, CAG, Rangers, MARSOC, or AFSOC have at it.