It’s Time for Special Operations to Dump ‘Unconventional Warfare’


“Unconventional warfare,” long a core mission of U.S. special operations forces, represents a bureaucratic albatross hanging about the neck of the U.S. Special Operations Command. While unconventional warfare served the United States well throughout the Cold War, the understanding of the term has become so distorted by policymakers that it is now essentially a “catch all” for many political warfare components that fall outside the purview of the Department of Defense. This doctrinal term should be retired and replaced immediately to refocus emphasis on the more comprehensive (and effective) concept of “political warfare” that incorporates all elements of U.S. national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) to achieve durable political arrangements that support long-term U.S. national interests.

Currently, America’s most capable global competitors, namely the Russian Federation, Islamic Republic of Iran, and People’s Republic of China, each employ their own versions of political warfare that leverage the full range of their national capabilities. During Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Russians engaged in diplomatic posturing, propaganda overmatch, graduated military intervention, and economic blackmail against several European states. Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, the Iranian paramilitary force responsible for expeditionary and overseas operations, relies on a three-pronged political warfare strategy that deploys the minimum of Iranian forces, relies heavily on indigenous proxies to conduct unconventional warfare, and forms non-sectarian coalitions to advance its interests. Similarly, the Chinese continue to wage “lawfare” (ponderous and often indecisive court proceedings), a stream of pro-China messaging, ambiguous militaristic expansionism, and economic exploitation of its neighbors to strengthen its claim to the South China Sea.

Understanding the Appropriate Role of Special Operations in Political Warfare

In 1952, U.S. Army Colonel Aaron Bank established the 10th Special Forces Group with one function in mind: unconventional warfare. The Special Forces were America’s first post-World War II special operations force, and drew heavily from wartime veterans of the previously disbanded Office of Strategic Services. The first mission statement the Army gave to Special Forces instructed the unit “to infiltrate by land, sea or air, deep into enemy-occupied territory and organize the resistance/guerrilla potential to conduct Special Forces operations, with emphasis on guerrilla warfare.”  At that time, unconventional warfare was only one aspect of a much broader political warfare strategy directed against the Soviet Union. George Kennan, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union who is largely credited with conceptualizing the Soviet “containment” policy, defined political warfare in a 1948 State Department memorandum as:

The employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives … They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures, and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.

As defined in the July 2014 edition of Joint Publication 3-05 (Special Operations), unconventional warfare only consists of those “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.” The National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 amended this definition, stipulating in Section 1097  that unconventional warfare may be conducted “through or with an underground, auxiliary, OR guerrilla force” in order to acknowledge that contemporary unconventional warfare does not always require an armed guerrilla component operating physically inside a hostile state to succeed.  Comparing these definitions with Kennan’s 1948 definition of “political warfare,” it becomes clear that unconventional warfare is only one component of several required to execute a successful political warfare strategy. Without a well-planned, synchronized, and executed strategy that incorporates the other components of national power, it is impossible for the U.S. to advance its interests and address its most dire security concerns.

During the Cold War, the Army envisioned Special Forces as a “leave behind” force that would initially hide during an expected Soviet invasion of Western Europe and then emerge to raise, train, equip, and lead local resistance movements against the vulnerable areas supporting the Soviet advance.  The Vietnam War and the following years saw the establishment of special operations forces in the other services of the Department of Defense, and today each service (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps) has its own elite units that conduct or support unconventional warfare missions.  However, when the average American thinks of unconventional warfare (assuming they ever do), they likely imagine testosterone-fueled scenes of commando derring-do from movies like Rambo, Black Hawk Down, Inglourious Basterds, and Zero Dark Thirty. These fanciful interpretations of special operations capabilities and missions leave audiences with the inaccurate impression that unconventional warfare is mostly kinetic, often hurriedly planned and executed in an ad hoc fashion, and always requiring direct U.S. military involvement. Those few U.S. policymakers who actually understand unconventional warfare doctrinally as special operations forces supporting indigenous resistance elements also recognize it is a narrowly-focused Department of Defense mission.  However, Pentagon leadership largely marginalizes unconventional warfare as a tool of little use in the sort of peer-on-peer conventional conflicts on which the department prefers to focus its attention.

By shackling special operations forces with the misunderstood unconventional warfare mission, the U.S. government has largely abdicated its responsibility to design and execute coherent interagency strategies to address security challenges posed by adversaries’ political warfare. Section 1097 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act best demonstrates this disconnect.  Even as the section acknowledged the whole-of-government political warfare employed by America’s rivals, it nonetheless tasked the Department of Defense with developing a responding strategy through the much narrower lens of unconventional warfare.  While Section 1097 directs the Secretary of Defense to draft this strategy in “consultation” with the rest of the U.S. government, Congress’ lack of clear understanding of unconventional warfare will predispose the resulting report to focus on military solutions. By comparison, the U.S. government is nearing completion of a White House-directed interagency strategy that leverages the full range of national capabilities to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIL.

Like the interagency plan to defeat ISIL, a comprehensive United States strategy to counter the political warfare waged by its adversaries would also need to include more intense diplomatic efforts to isolate perpetrators, integrated and expanded economic and financial sanctions designed to directly influence key decision makers in countries currently waging political warfare against the United States, increased international and national legal efforts to raise both the monetary and reputational cost of such disruptive activities, and an aggressive propaganda campaign intended to counteract competitors’ false narratives and weaken the corrupt underpinnings of their regimes.  Unfortunately, the misapplication of the term “unconventional warfare” has allowed the U.S. government to over-rely on the Department of Defense, thereby avoiding development of more comprehensive approaches to countering competitors’ political warfare.  Only by dumping “unconventional warfare” as a doctrinal term can Special Operations Command encourage senior policymakers to resume their appropriate role in coordinating the full spectrum of national capabilities in support of political warfare strategies.

A New Paradigm: “Special Operations Forces Support to Political Warfare”

Armed with a better understanding of how U.S. adversaries wage political warfare, it is evident that unconventional warfare alone is incapable of protecting America’s interests. Many policymakers and senior military leaders misunderstand unconventional warfare to such an extent that the term is almost meaningless outside of the small Special Operations community that truly understands the real limitations of this doctrine. Rejecting the term will reset the discussion and force policymakers to approach this thorny dilemma with unbiased perspectives. However, nothing written here should imply that special operations forces should get out of the business of enabling resistance movements or conducting other special operations in support of broader political warfare strategies. Rather, the Department of Defense should replace “unconventional warfare” with a more precise term: “support to indigenous resistance.”  This should function within the broader concept of “Special Operations Forces Support to Political Warfare,” as proposed in a 2015 U.S. Army Special Operations Command paper by the same name.

By replacing “unconventional warfare” with the more descriptive term “support to indigenous resistance,” in turn understood within the larger “support to political warfare” paradigm, the Department of Defense would reinforce for senior policymakers the need to develop overarching interagency political warfare strategies that military initiatives would then support. The Department of Defense does not have the expertise or authority to employ the full range of national capabilities that reside in other agencies of the government. Political warfare strategies expanding beyond the Pentagon would more effectively leverage all of the elements of U.S. national power.

The National Security Act of 1947 established the president’s National Security Council as the principal forum for deciding national security and foreign policy matters, making it the most appropriate government body to develop and coordinate the execution of such interagency political warfare strategies. There is certainly an important role for the Department of Defense and special operations forces, but the military should not be the primary organization for planning and managing such strategies. Replacing “unconventional warfare” with “support to indigenous resistance” within the “special operations forces support to political warfare” paradigm would permit Special Operations Command to transfer responsibility for political warfare strategy to a more appropriate forum. This, in turn, would allow special operations forces to refocus on and better develop the capabilities necessary to conduct military operations in support of interagency political warfare strategies.

Admittedly, such a shift would face considerable resistance within the Department of Defense, which has come to enjoy its dominant strategy-making position within the U.S. government. The improper application of the unconventional warfare term to encompass a wide range of non-military elements of national power has allowed the Department of Defense to greatly expand its own influence within the interagency community. In addition, such a paradigm shift would require a reprioritization of funding to other U.S. government departments and a legislative amendment to Section 167 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code (which stipulates unconventional warfare as a Special Operations Command mission). However, such a rebalancing of U.S. government capabilities will ultimately prove far more effective in comprehensively advancing U.S. national interests through political warfare.  The U.S. national strategists of the Cold War era clearly understood the appropriately narrow role of unconventional warfare as a supporting effort to broader political warfare strategies.  It is imperative that our contemporary policymakers recover and update their understanding of these same concepts in order to effectively counter our competitors’ own political warfare approaches.


Doug Livermore is a Special Forces officer with Special Operations Detachment – NATO in the Maryland Army National Guard. He also works in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence) as an operational advisor. In addition to multiple combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Doug led SOF elements during sensitive contingency operations across Africa. He is a West Point graduate currently pursuing his master’s degree through Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.  He is thankful to Colonel (retired) David Maxwell, the Associate Director of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies, for his invaluable assistance on this article. The views expressed in this article do not represent the positions of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government. 

Image: U.S. Army/Jason Johnston