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Irregular War Shift Accelerating in QDR

The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review marked a profound shift in the military’s strategic priorities by elevating irregular warfare to the “dominant” form of war that would confront American troops. That reorientation of the military from preparing for large conventional wars to instead gearing up for smaller, more numerous irregular wars will significantly accelerate under the 2010 QDR, the congressionally mandated strategy review currently underway, according to Michael Vickers, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.

The 2010 QDR will call for a further expansion of special operations forces, reshaping more of the general purpose forces for irregular warfare missions and buying more “enablers,” specifically, large numbers of aerial drones and helicopters, he said. This embrace of irregular warfare is part of the “re-balancing” needed to reconfigure the big war military to meet the challenge of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and to counter terrorist cells and insurgencies scattered across the globe, Vickers said, speaking last week at a conference of mostly defense industry types sponsored by Aviation Week.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has talked repeatedly of the need to bring “balance” to the military, arguing that less of the costly, leading-edge weapon systems are needed as an insurance against the rise of a great power military, and greater investment is needed to add more troops and buy greater quantities of less technologically advanced weapons for hunting terrorists and waging counterinsurgency campaigns.

Vickers described a “global counterterrorism network” made up of many small special operations teams scattered around the world working with partner nations to hunt down terrorists and insurgents. The best way to fight terrorist networks is with a distributed network of special operators, he said. “It’s important that terrorists not only are hunted globally with our partners but that they’re denied sanctuary, states that might sponsor them, cyber sanctuaries… and that they’re denied access to WMD.” He said counterterror operations span the Pakistani border regions, Yemen, Kuwait, the Levant, Lebanon, Horn of Africa, the Trans-Sahara, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Europe.

Establishing that global network is the main driver behind the expansion of the special operations forces, he said, as well as the need for additional helicopters, aerial drones and other surveillance assets. For the Army and Marines, the main force driver is the need to maintain a rotation base for large scale counterinsurgency and stability operations, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but other failed or failing states. Vickers said the military is also preparing for “hybrid” forms of conflict, where opponents mix irregular tactics with advanced weaponry.

The focus of the 2006 QDR on irregular warfare and special operations was largely due to Vickers’ influence, according to one senior Pentagon official I spoke with. In 2005, during the run up to the last QDR, Vickers worked at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the highly influential think tank run by Andrew Krepinevich. But former defense secretary Rumsfeld’s policy office lacked the in-house analytical expertise so they reached outside the building to groups such as CSBA, which has close ties to Andrew Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment. Vickers became ASD SOLIC in 2007. One of the reasons the services tend to get what they want out of the QDR, that is, no weapons program cuts, (see 2006 QDR), is because they have huge staffs detailed to work the QDR whereas the understaffed OSD does not.

According to this official, Vickers is viewed as a major intellectual force pushing back against the “China crowd,” the influential group in the military and larger defense circles, particularly in the Air Force and Navy, who believe the U.S. should buy lots of advanced weaponry for a potential high end war against China. That may be one reason why Gates kept Vickers around. His story, a former special forces soldier turned CIA operative who supplied Stingers to the anti-Soviet mujaheddin in the 1980s, along with his intellectual horsepower, makes Vickers a formidable advocate for irregular warfare in the forthcoming QDR battles. He also has reach back to his former employer, CSBA, which brings another level of credibility and provides a potential foil to the airpower crowd that regularly taps into RAND’s Project Air Force for intellectual muscle.

Vickers is a big proponent of the “El Salvador Model” of low-profile foreign military engagement, where small, highly-trained teams work as advisors with partner militaries around the world (that label is not publicly used because of the Salvadoran military’s human rights abuses during the civil war there in the 1980s).

His description of small, globally distributed, highly-trained teams waging “counter-network warfare,” gels with similiar irregular warfare proposals being pushed by other senior military officials. Last month, Marine Gen. James Mattis, Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command, said the requirement for small combat and advisory teams, along the special forces model, is now a “national priority.” Mattis recently stood up an Irregular Warfare Center to create small teams that can partner with foreign militaries, live and work among the local people, and operate with a minimal logistics “footprint.”

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