As the U.S. military ramps up for a possible major battle with Russia or China, the Pentagon is taking steps to ensure that irregular warfare is not forgotten as a critical tool for defeating near-peer adversaries before the fight begins, Defense Department officials said.
"As a department, we have often exhibited a historical preference in the past century for traditional high-end force rather than irregular solutions," Andrew Knaggs, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, told an audience Tuesday at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict symposium.
"As DoD shifts to meet the demands of great power competition ... we are hard at work institutionalizing the substantial expertise in [irregular warfare, or IW] that we have over the last 17 years of irregular conflict."
The National Defense Strategy requires that irregular warfare become a core competency for the DoD, said Owen West, assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wanted to end the habit of "standing up and standing down advisory capacity" in past conflicts, West added.
Knaggs said the U.S. military needs to reframe "irregular warfare as the key pillar for a proactive campaign to fight and win in an era of adversarial competition," an approach that will likely favor controlled messaging and other influencing tools rather than counter-terrorism missions.
"Certain capabilities, namely those optimized for today's counter-terrorism in missions in places like North Africa and the Middle East, will take a less prominent role in the department's tool kit," he said. "Our competitors have proven how irregular approaches can effectively shape an environment to their advantage in the pursuit of their national interests."
Knaggs stressed that the Defense Department should embrace "the potential of these tools to shape, compel and deter would-be adversaries."
"We also need to give renewed emphasis to the information environment," he said. "Our adversaries have weaponized disinformation and propaganda to their advantage.
"Rather than hiding from the transparency afforded by the 24-hour news cycle and pervasive social media, our adversaries embrace that cycle and they use it to their advantage," he added.
Moving beyond the current, 20th-century approach to messaging will require better coordination with "civilian agencies and other civilian entities," as well as new technologies designed to "isolate and identify disinformation," Knaggs said.
The emphasis on irregular warfare "isn't just [special operations forces]; this is the entire joint force ... sustaining that ability," West said.
To ensure the success of this irregular warfare focus, specops and conventional forces must continue to work together as they have in the past, Knaggs said.
"Conventional forces have proven essential in bringing sufficient mass, scale and lethality to the fight in support of most irregular warfare contingencies," he said. "As a result, the current joint force is more experience in IW today than it was in past generations."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.