Irregular War's War on Thinking About War
so, who wants another war college?
Building a coherent intellectual foundation of an effective military force to be ready to defend the nation and its interests never ends. As a levee against a large and turbulent river must be constantly monitored, maintained, and reinforced – so too must support for reasoned, reality-based, up-to-date, and sound arguments continue against the constant erosion from doe-eyed “war is new” and sharper “this is my hobby horse” idea/concept sellers looking to grow an empire or to reinforce their world view.
Let me just put this marker out there: what we call “Irregular Warfare” is about as “Regular Warfare” as can be. There is nothing “new” here. There is nothing “exciting” here … but there is danger in selling it too hard or worse, bureaucratize the entire concept.
Just one example that should be top of mind to everyone. You know the last war that was started based on the concept of “Irregular War” being primary? Someone sold to their political bosses that war would be quick, cheap, and all the hard parts of traditional war could be solved by a few highly trained “irregular” forces?
The Russians in February of 2022, that’s who. The “Special Military Operation” that was supposed to be just a few days, lighting quick, transformational. 2014 but with Kyiv/Kiev instead of Crimea. Instead they have a grinding war regressing to the mean; mass, firepower, logistics, manpower.
As if the Russo-Ukrainian War isn’t happening, over the last year there has been a big push to sell the military cure-all of “Irregular Warfare.”
As we have outlined here often through the years, from riverine to specialized helicopter squadrons, in peace too many short sighted people want to decommission capabilities in the irregular warfare area that we will need again in the next war - like we always do. I do not care if “thought leaders” find them icky, short of sponsorship, or "too specialized" (whatever that means), they will be needed. You can do a job with a good tool well, or with a bad tool poorly - but the job must be done.
This failure of vision from the uniformed and civilian leaders in the bureaucracy cannot be solved by growing the bureaucracy, can it? The intentional distraction and sub-optimization of our existing war colleges cannot be fixed by creating yet another, should it?
I am sympathetic to a desire to make sure this skillset does not die on the vine – I was there at C5F at 09/11/2001 in the opening months of the Afghan conflict - but we need to be careful about keeping it in the proper context.
A solid overview of the challenges is in Sean McFate’s latest in The Hill.
Warning here, it reads like two different articles. It starts off in a direction that triggered the first part of my post - McFate is the author of The New Rules of War: How America Can Win--Against Russia, China, and Other Threats, so this is kind of his bag. He also attacks wargaming - something I would think he would want more of, not less. Anyway, the second part that should stand alone has some solid observations on what/where such a a “Functional Center for Security Studies in Irregular Warfare” should be. It all revolves around Section 1299L of the Mac Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act of 2021.
Congress authorized the creation of a “Functional Center for Security Studies in Irregular Warfare” in Section 1299L of the Mac Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act of 2021. The center should fill critical gaps between thought leaders, irregular warriors, and international partners. Done well, it will vastly improve our irregular warfighting capabilities and understanding.
In some way, I guess this is Congress doing what I've asked it to do - force DOD to do its job - but this is such a blunt tool. It is the law though, so how do you execute it?
Let me get the bad part of his article out of the way first;
Today’s defense community has forgotten that strategic competition is won through irregular warfare — a dangerous mistake. Taiwan wargamers view ultimate “competition” as conventional warfare, and recreate the Battle of Midway in the Taiwan Straits with Ford-class carriers and F-35s. It proves the saying: “Generals always fight the last war, especially if they won it.” The conflict probably would go nuclear in hours or days, and the gamers’ artificially prolonged conventional war phase is fantasy.
I'm sorry, but no. The last 10-months have clearly showed everyone that "prolonged conventional war" is a reality. It is the normal flow of events when major powers or their alliances reach near parity. "The last war" was/is where "irregular warfare" was the reality. When the next war comes, what haunts my mind is a cleverly briefed "72-hr War" turns in to 72-weeks or 72-months.
McFate has 180-deg lockoff here.
Policymakers are equally misguided. Of the $780 billion defense budget, the Pentagon is overwhelmingly buying conventional war weapons like fighter jets and navy ships while ignoring irregular war capabilities. The budget for U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees all American special operators everywhere, is 75 percent the cost of an aircraft carrier, and we’re building three at $13.3 billion a ship, with two more planned. Budgets are moral documents because they do not lie. The Defense Department is preparing for a war with China that looks like World War II with better technology, an improbable scenario.
Again, I'm not buying what he is selling. All evidence points to the greatest military threat in the short to medium term is from the People's Republic of China. If we are lucky, it will be for us at least a maritime and aerospace war. That is what we need to prepare and invest in. That means "fighter jets and navy ships." Their missions will be supported by properly funded "irregular forces" - not the other way around.
Again, "irregular warfare" is subset of "regular warfare." Always has been. Always will be.
Now to Part-2 of the article I like;
...there are four pitfalls the Irregular Warfare Center (or whatever it will be called) must avoid. First, it should not “reinvent the wheel.” There is a relatively small but robust infrastructure within the Defense Department that already delivers elements of the center’s mission.
Yes. Agreed. Improve that. McFate does outline significant dangers of rent-seeking and poor thinking;
Second, some think the center should be housed at a civilian university, but this would be a mistake. Most universities eschew the study of war as distasteful, and academic literature is notoriously left-wing. It’s why war colleges exist. Last year, the director of Yale University’s Grand Strategy Program resigned in controversy over her public disdain for Henry Kissinger and teaching Black Lives Matter and “Strategies of U.S. Social Change.” When Yale demurred, she caviled it had succumbed to “donor pressure.” Yale’s Faculty Senate and History Department backed her up, stating professors and programs should never be “under outside surveillance.” Not a good omen for the Defense Department. Additionally, exceedingly few professors specialize in irregular warfare strategy, and there are zero programs dedicated to the topic. Housing the center at a place full of rookies makes no sense. The Defense Department’s desire to leverage academic institutions is principled but unwise.
This is correct. However, if he thinks in 2022 that the academic disease has not infected not just our war colleges but also our service academies, he is greatly mistaken. These are not "right wing" institutions, just the opposite. Especially in the last 15-years, in many areas and departments they are fully left-wing - and not very military.
Third, to do its job, the center must constantly interact with warfighters, the interagency, and policymakers, and that means Washington, D.C. You cannot influence from afar. The National Defense University might be the optimal choice because it’s located in D.C. and is the Defense Department’s premiere senior service school. It houses five war colleges, three regional centers, and a research arm. It offers an accredited master’s degree in Security Studies and its students are exclusively senior leaders (15+ years of service) from across the military, interagency and allied nations, and all are moving up in their organizations. This is the exact population the center is tasked to influence.
Sadly, I believe he is correct here. I say "sadly" because as many here can attest, DC is an abnormal carbuncle on our nation. Its social, intellectual, cultural, and informational stew is out of alignment with the nation it serves. The longer military personnel spend in DC, the more of them become "of" DC and not just "in" DC. It is not a healthy place.
I don't like this reality, but I can accept it.
Fourth, some in the Pentagon overlook the importance of allies and imagine the center as inherently inward gazing. We are delusional if we think we can “go it alone.” Building partnership capacity is a form of integrated deterrence and mutual strength...In some ways, the College of International Security Affairs (CISA) offers a blueprint for the new center. It’s the U.S. military’s “Irregular War College” and resides at the National Defense University and Fort Bragg, home of the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces.
This may be a better idea. Sure would get fewer people and brains being corrupted in DC, and the deer hunting is better if nothing else. Like the DC option, it would give us an opportunity to retool an existing institution.
Give me 96-hours and the manning documents for the DC and NC operations, and I might be able to help pay for it out of hide - especially if I had the option of taking some of the paid positions in Newport, Carlisle, and Leavenworth. Some of those academic positions are, how does one say, "sub-optimally aligned with the mission of the Department of Defense."
I have a list.