So, are we ending our counterterrorism missions and switching to a new Irregular Warfare model to tackle the insecurity issues of the world? Not exactly.

From Combating Terrorism to Irregular Warfare

The transition of the DoD Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office to the Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate is a signal of the larger intent of the DoD and U.S. government to move away from a narrow focus on counterterrorism, which is simply one part of the irregular warfare menu, to thinking about the entire menu. That doesn’t mean we are ending our global counterterrorism mission. But we are, in fact, making it an easier mission to accomplish.

In a security environment where our major adversaries (China and Russia) have been busy mastering all the Irregular Warfare tenets, America has fallen behind. If the DoD was a restaurant, the owner (SECDEF) just told the chef to stop cooking only fried foods and to learn how to make low calorie, gluten sensitive, low-soy, and vegan entrees as well.

The 2020 National Defense Strategy annex on irregular warfare is worth a read as it lays out the case for the need to catch up with our adversaries, and importantly highlights for, those who may have forgotten, what irregular warfare encompasses:

“It includes the specific missions of unconventional warfare (UW), stabilization, foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), and counterinsurgency (COIN). Related activities such as military information support operations, cyberspace operations, countering threat networks, counter-threat finance, civil-military operations, and security cooperation”

Why is this important?

China and Russia, far from being concerned about just chasing terrorists (partly because the U.S. was doing that for them) have been becoming experts at manipulating social media applications to sew discord around the world—among other things. America’s enemies have been saving money, time, and resources by perfecting low-cost avenues of approach to weaken the United States and our allies. That is not to say that killing terrorists before they can kill us, or stopping terror recruitment systems is unimportant. It just means that we have been too focused on one aspect of irregular warfare and it’s time to reverse that course.

By widening the focus, we can better plan multiple campaigns around the globe that keep the US from having to deploy large formations of soldiers or marines to far flung locations. If we can more wisely use the various “irregular” defense department tools, we can also free up funding to find ways to really use a “whole of government” approach. If we can use our economic, diplomatic, or aid/development tools in place of an infantry brigade combat team to battle a threat, we can save in many ways.

The shift to a larger view of IW and all the tools in the government tool box is also part of a natural evolution of how counterterrorism is conducted. Every CT Strategy since President Nixon has been adding more and more interagency and multi-national partners to the plan. Successful CT operations today require a true whole of government approach. The shift to improve our entire IW skillset makes the need to employ CT focused organizations less likely.

Finally, this shift serves as a clear reminder that CT is not the only tool in the IW box and that the other tools are a bit dull. When we choose as a nation to send rangers or paratroopers to deal with non-conventional military threats, we are admitting that our ability to conduct IW suffers when we get too focused on just one part of it—CT. We have to be able to cook a great vegan meal as well as we grill a perfect medium-rare ribeye steak. We don’t have an option.

How It Works

To understand what the U.S. needs to improve, you only need to study what has kept China, Russia, and Iran in the headlines for years now. These states have been willing to focus on deception, disinformation, covert operations, support of proxy forces, and other things once thought “ungentlemanly.” These parts of the irregular warfare toolbox are important. The U.S. has mastered them in the past and must be innovative enough to master them again.

If we are willing to meet China, Iran, and Russia on the battlefield they have chosen, we have the skills to push them back. The best way to combat IW is to use it as well. Two options that will not stop Russia from their global goal of destabilization of democracy include: 1) using conventional warfare ideas and 2) refusing to fight them on the IW battlefield. This goes for China and Iran as well. They would like us to stay off the IW battlefield, or keep building tanks that will become obsolete before the next tank battle.

Is it morally right and legal?

Some of the pillars of IW may sound like dirty tricks, but this is the world we live in. If our enemies are immune to typical diplomatic, economic, and military pressures, then we are wasting our time and massive resources to attempt them. Likewise, if our friends and nations that want to be our allies are no longer seduced by U.S. diplomatic, defense, and development drills, due to our enemy’s IW successes, then we are losing friends faster than we can make them.

I would argue it would morally wrong to stop trying to help our friends because we fear the irregular warfare battlefield. We have the ability to be very innovative in this realm of warfare and we should allow our most creative leaders to devise legal campaigns that will push back the Chinese, Russian and Iranian regimes.

What comes next?

Does that mean we park our tanks, hangar our aircraft, and pull our fleets into port? No. This means we find more effective ways to retain our traditional combat power and improve it, while putting into motion more cost-effective and creative irregular warfare campaigns.

Sir Graeme of the UK Army often told me that the way to overcome an irregular threat, like an insurgency, is to use the principle of mass. While mass is often thought of as pushing thousands of soldiers towards one objective, he meant smart-massing. He meant use every tool at a governments disposal to overwhelm the irregular threat. Irregular threats are not always resilient and seldom robust. They are not often sophisticated enough to withstand an attack from 12 directions at once. By pulling back our focus on CT so we can use all the other tools of irregular warfare, we can mass all our government’s power and overwhelm China, Russia, and Iran.

Our great power nation enemies would like nothing more than to see us continue to fight them in a hap-hazard way, while we keep our foot on the gas to chase a few terrorists around the globe. Its time to pump the brakes a bit and take a fresh look at the tools in the shed. We can start using a rake to move leaves, or continue to swing at them with a hammer until we pass out. There is no need to panic about the shift from CT to IW. Many a grandfather has told their grandkids to use the correct tool for the job, and that is the advice we should be focusing on at the moment. Let’s enhance our cyber and information operations, security partnership building, and counter-network/threat skills; and use all of the other oft-forgotten organizations to make us safer by empowering other nation’s populations to better their own states.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and aids with conflict resolution in Afghanistan.