An Irregular Upgrade to Operational Design

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Irregular warfare is an enduring, economical contribution to America’s national security, and will remain an essential core competency of the U.S. Department of Defense.

 Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy


Operational design — the analytical framework that underpins U.S. military planning — has a relevance problem. Cracking open the newly revised Joint Planning manual, one would hope to find some insight on how to optimize military planning for today’s “information-age competition.” For example, developing an information campaign to inoculate vulnerable populations against subversion, or conversely, to catalyze popular mobilization against adversary interests. Or maybe applying counter-threat finance to deny the financial access that gives adversaries leverage over partner nations. What about blending different aspects of engagement like security force assistance, foreign military sales, and international military education to simultaneously counter violent extremist organizations and compete with China and Russia?

No such luck. Instead, we get more of the same design elements familiar to planners: objectives, military end state, lines of operation, center of gravity, decisive points, forces and functions, and so on. The checklist continues in the traditional fashion, focused on applying overwhelming firepower and maneuver to achieve decisive victory. This continued stagnation doesn’t bode well for national security going forward. Despite the rhetorical shift “away” from irregular warfare “to” great-power competition (read: large-scale combat operations), the United States does not have the luxury of ignoring how China and Russia are advancing their interests in the gray zone short of armed conflict. Irregular warfare accounts for the missing half of strategic competition — information warfare, ambiguous or denied proxy operations, and subversion.



To close this intellectual gap, the Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy requires the entire joint force (not just special operations forces) to “institutionalize irregular warfare as an enduring core competency.” However, “institutionalization” doesn’t happen by simply waving a magic wand. It requires implementing potentially uncomfortable changes to operational design doctrine that will make their way into professional military education and joint planning groups. The good news is that the doctrine doesn’t require a wholesale rewrite. It just needs minor adaptations that integrate a broader understanding of influence to address a wider spectrum of geopolitical challenges ranging from cooperation through war. We propose five specific operational design elements to do this: position of continuing advantage, strategic levers, concurrent effects, narrative, and empowerment.

Operational Design, from Inception Through Today

Operational design entered the U.S. Army’s lexicon in its 2010 Field Manual 5-0, The Operations Process, as part of an effort to “secure the lessons of 8 years of war and provide a cognitive tool to commanders who will encounter complex, ill-structured problems in future operational environments.” In 2015, the joint version of the manual added a chapter for Joint Operational Design. But both the Army and joint versions remain lacking — either looking back to Iraq, or forward to a simplified vision of great-power competition. The U.S. Army Special Operations Command attempted an update of its own, but it also proved problematic. In 2014 it published the SOF [Special Operations Forces] Campaign Planner’s Handbook of Operational Art and Design. A step in the right direction, it sought to calibrate existing operational design for irregular warfare. However, because of its “SOF Operational Design” label it was soundly rejected by everyone outside of the special operations community. Discussions about “Framing the SOF Environment” are based on a fallacy; an environment isn’t special or conventional, it’s just an environment, and it affects more than the military element of national power. Making “SOF” an adjective everywhere parochializes problems and implies that special operations forces are the preordained solution.

An important update subsequently appeared in the form of a book called Going Big by Getting Small: The Application of Operational Art by Special Operations in Phase Zero. Based on years of practical experience in non-wartime environments, retired Col. Brian Petit sought to arm planners with a refined way to look at strategic U.S. engagement abroad before the shooting starts. This study kept the 13 elements of design, but modified them where needed for phase zero, that amorphous planning space where everything short of war happens — and where we find ourselves today. A wholesale rewrite would have been too aggressive, too revolutionary, and ultimately, not useful. With a shift away from the traditional phasing construct and toward “integrated campaigning,” Going Big by Getting Small is a valuable starting point to account for irregular warfare in competition planning — by everyone, not just special operations forces.

Evolution, Not Revolution

But making operational design relevant will require more changes. We propose five crucial shifts to account for the human-centric aspects of influence and relationships that are central to today’s great-power contests. 

Shift from “Military End State” to “Position of Continuing Advantage” 

Joint Planning describes the military end state as the “set of required conditions that defines achievement of all military objectives.” This may be helpful for planning tactical engagements or the end of an armed conflict, but has less utility for day-to-day competition at the theater-strategic level. A former U.S. ambassador commented: “I loathe the concept of end-state. It’s an OK idea, but not for the political dynamic.” Instead, position of continuing advantage captures the idea of building and maintaining an enduring U.S. competitive advantage through relationships — found peppered throughout contemporary strategic documents and service operating concepts. While many planners may generally understand this idea, focusing on it more directly will help them avoid myopically preparing only for the high-end warfight and mitigate the risk of winning the war only to lose the peace.

The last 75 years of both great-power war and counter-terrorism operations illustrate why this shift is so necessary. The U.S. military has been repeatedly forced to transition between missions based on political circumstances. As seen in conflicts such as World War II and Afghanistan, the military doesn’t simply pack up and leave when combat operations are over. Instead it continues to support U.S. diplomacy in various ways, such as advise-and-assist missions and defense institution building. The new joint planning manual subsumes the old “termination” element under military end state, but fails to add competition-related nuance. Thinking of how to achieve positions of continuing advantage through a diverse set of tools increases relevance for military planning across the competition continuum. 

Beyond “Center of Gravity” to “Strategic Levers”

The concept of center of gravity can lead planners to believe that focusing on a specific target — such as national will or a military force, would cause the enemy to crumble. Grounded in Carl von Clausewitz’s concept of “Schwerpunkt,” center of gravity has been a staple of military planning for hundreds of years. Many have attempted to refine the concept, including applying it to decentralized systems, but they have failed to account for human will in situations where complete destruction is not an option. Strategic levers better captures the challenge faced in waging a human-centric campaign outside of war to influence an adversary’s understanding or actions.

A lever could be a partner, or a mechanism that creates influence. The former may include state security forces, resistance partners, or nongovernmental implementing partners. Crafting a campaign that accounts for these partners’ considerations and their means allows for applying appropriate U.S. capabilities (such as special operations or conventional advisers) at the right locations and the right time. This approach helps the United States better understand, shape, and support partner perspectives and methods. This element accepts a possible loss of the direct control that traditional approaches crave, but it establishes enduring relationships that are more resilient in crisis or conflict. These relationships may be decisive in providing an advantage over adversaries, rather than in controlling a specific geographic location or single event.

Conversely, the targets of these levers may be corrupt state officials, proxies, and economic and cultural institutions, like Confucius Institutes, that allow China and Russia to gain influence over a country’s political decisions. Denying that access requires emphasizing cognitive and financial aspects of the environment. On the economic front, China uses infrastructure investments, state-owned enterprises, and crooked local officials to purchase influence and gain long-term leverage over vulnerable countries that could enable strategic military power projection. Targeted counter-threat finance and influence campaigns can degrade those tools and capitalize on popular anger over China’s predatory behavior.

Elevate “Simultaneity” to “Concurrent Effects” 

Simultaneity refers to the simultaneous application of military and nonmilitary power to collapse an enemy by overloading its forces and functions in war. It is actually a subcomponent of the “arranging operations” design element, but deserves separate emphasis. Despite some wishful thinking to the contrary, counter-terrorism is not going away. Concurrent effects opens the door for resource-sustainable ways to conduct counter-terrorism with an eye toward using security assistance as a way to compete for influence and increase America’s legitimacy. Security cooperation and capacity-building activities promote the United States as the partner of choice, bringing professionalism and credibility that adversaries struggle to match.

Viewed through the lens of concurrent effects, a single mission can serve multiple purposes, thereby providing a higher return on investment by efficiently integrating efforts toward counter-terrorism, competition, and assisting partners. They are not mutually exclusive, and investments in one can provide returns in another. Moreover, a single mission can generate multiple effects within or among the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. For example, an advise-and-assist mission in the Philippines becomes a “two-fer” by countering Chinese influence, while simultaneously countering the Islamic State, Russia, and Iran in Syria may even be a “three-fer.”

Adding “Narrative,” or Shaping Information to Attain Influence

Narrative is an enduring (if not the primary) element of adversarial competition among different worldviews. Who has the better brand — democratic or autocratic systems? Social movement scholars characterize this competition in the information environment as “framing” — the process of constructing shared meaning to inspire collective action. It’s not about truth but about the meaning of information. While the importance of framing has been apparent from the American Revolution to the recent protests in Hong Kong, the military remains flatfooted in both shaping and exploiting its adversaries’ missteps in this realm.

Instead of just “sprinkling some information operations” like Salt Bae and isolating information-related activities as a supporting effort, a “narrative” design element accounts for the broader aspects of culture and perception linked to all actions. Disinformation, spyware, split mobile phone networks — these cognitive controls are like the lethal anti-access “bubbles” the military tends to focus on. By integrating conduit-centric aspects of information warfare (such as cyber and space capabilities) with content-focused aspects (like psychological operations), planners can facilitate penetrating information barriers, connecting indigenous brokers and interorganizational partners, and amplifying narratives that are most likely to resonate with target audiences.

Enabling with “Empowerment,” or the Right Tools to Wield Influence 

Building partnerships and shaping narratives require empowerment. This usually comes in the form of authorities and funding — things planners wouldn’t care about in a conventional war. At the national level, Congress provides fiscal authorities such as Section 333 to build partner capacity, as well as broader authorizations like the European and Pacific Deterrence Initiatives. At lower echelons, commanders often complain that there is less bureaucratic red tape involved in putting a warhead on a forehead than dropping a leaflet with a message. In between these extremes is day-to-day competition, where planners seek to conduct irregular warfare activities to influence populations and enhance legitimacy in other countries. Yet these activities require the approval of the relevant U.S. ambassador, meaning that if the military doesn’t possess the legal authority, permissions, and resources to execute a plan, it is moot.

Empowerment facilitates leveraging the appropriate fiscal and operational authorities (both U.S. and partner) to enable engagements that influence behavior over time. It’s not just about using existing authorities, but also adapting existing authorities and working with congressional stakeholders to anticipate where new authorities will be necessary. For example, the aforementioned Section 333 is a staple authority for building partner capacity in counter-terrorism, but applying this creatively for broader competition could provide a significant return on investment by empowering partners to defend against subversion while building U.S. access, influence, and legitimacy. The empowerment element refocuses the emphasis on building partnerships through existing or emerging authorities, with the desired objective of both supporting partners and influencing adversaries.

An Irregular Upgrade for 21st-Century Strategic Competition 

These five alternative and additive operational design elements can help the military optimize operational approaches throughout all stages of competition. Irregular warfare is not a “special operations thing” — it’s a joint responsibility. Just as some of us in the policy world have made the case for rethinking how we describe irregular warfare activities, the military should reconsider how to plan for them.

As emphasized earlier, these new elements are evolutionary, not revolutionary. There is no need to cast aside traditional concepts. Existing operational design remains useful when thinking about large armies colliding on the battlefield with the purpose of destroying each other. Building on well understood and timeless principles will help new approaches gain acceptance across the joint force. A radical manifesto may be admired but it is more likely to be cast aside.

Now these new ideas should be codified into doctrine. Doctrine isn’t sexy — no argument there. But almost everyone in uniform can agree that unless codified, ideas will rarely translate into professional military education and joint planning efforts. This is what “institutionalizing irregular warfare” means in practice. An irregular upgrade for operational design will aid the United States in competing indirectly and asymmetrically to advance its interests without a catastrophic military confrontation.



Col. (ret.) Brian Petit is a career U.S. Army special forces officer with worldwide experience in combat, conflict, and peacetime environments. He is the author of Going Big by Getting Small: The Application of Operational Art by Special Operations in Phase Zero. 

Maj. Steve Ferenzi is a U.S. Army strategist in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s G-5 Strategic Planning Division. He has served in a number of special operations and conventional assignments and holds a master of international affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. 

Kevin Bilms is a career Department of Defense civilian serving in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Prior to this assignment, he served as the senior policy adviser for counter-terrorism and transnational threats at the National Security Council. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Airman Edward Coddington)