Unconventional Warfare Does Not Belong to Special Forces

“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