The Man Behind Irregular Warfare Push: Mike Vickers


When Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled his 2010 budget yesterday it was clear from its emphasis on irregular warfare that it bore the imprint of another Bush-era Pentagon holdover, Michael Vickers, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, and Gates’ top adviser on irregular warfare. Low key, extremely bright, working out of the public eye behind the closed doors of OSD, Vickers has provided much of the intellectual heft in the leadership’s shift towards irregular warfare, according to Pentagon sources familiar with internal deliberations.

A former Green Beret and CIA operative who helped funnel arms and money to the Afghan mujaheddin in their battle against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, Vickers pushed to elevate irregular warfare to a core military mission in the 2006 QDR. More than anybody in the Pentagon’s top leadership, Vickers has convinced Gates and others to embrace irregular warfare as the most likely form of conflict today and in the future, the sources told me.

In his briefing to the media, Gates said the advisers he listens to foresee future irregular conflicts and threats that fit the “complex hybrid warfare” definition: “a spectrum of conflict in which you may face at the same time an insurgent with an AK-47 and his supporting element with a highly sophisticated ballistic missile.” Vickers has written extensively on the lethality and impact of precision weaponry on modern warfare. Lessons from the 2006 Lebanon war where the Israeli military was roughly handled by Hezbollah fighters armed with vast quantities of precision munitions also influenced Gates’ budget decisions. Gates has also said military analyst and strategist Frank Hoffman, who has written extensively on hybrid threats, strongly influenced his thinking.

Vickers contends that there is not one form of irregular warfare, nor does irregular warfare mean only counterinsurgency. Rather, irregular warfare encompasses a range of conflict and is more common now because American dominance in targeting and firepower means enemies choose to fight us asymmetrically, using cover, concealment, dispersion and blending with civilian populations. Gates said the narrative of a counterinsurgency versus conventional warfare debate pushed by many in the media and punditocracy was “artificial” and simplistic. “I'm not trying to have irregular capabilities take the place of the conventional capabilities. I'm just trying to get the irregular guys to have a seat at the table,” he said.

Vickers is a big proponent of the “indirect approach” to combating terrorists and insurgencies: providing advisors and money to work with and improve foreign militaries rather than sending in large ground forces to pull constabulary duty on foreign soil. Gates has also become an advocate of the indirect approach, and his budget proposal includes $500 million to “boost global partnership capacity efforts,” including training and equipping foreign militaries. Vickers has also pushed hard for the services to provide more, and better foreign advisors and for the Army in particular to change its culture governing promotions so that serving as an advisor is seen as career enhancing, rather than a career ender, as many now see it.

In a speech before a defense industry gathering last month, Vickers said he foresees a shift over time from the manpower intensive counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to more “distributed operations across the world,” relying on close to 100 small teams of special operations forces to hunt down terrorist networks, part of a “global radical Islamist insurgency.”. He called it “counter network warfare,” using a “network to fight a network,” and building that network is the driver behind the increase in special operators. “The emerging challenge of this global radical Islamist insurgency is conducting operations in scores of countries with which the U.S. is not at war,” he said.

Gates said his budget plan would increase special operations forces by 5 percent, some 2,800 personnel, along with more enablers: special helicopters, refueling aircraft and stealthy transport. Vickers said the additional special operations personnel would consist largely of civil affairs, psychological operations and more aviators. Another key component of Vickers’ global counter terror network is using high-tech surveillance and reconnaissance to track and target terrorists and insurgents. Gates’ plan includes $2 billion for ISR assets, including adding 50 Predator drone orbits over key terrain by 2011. It also boosts spending on research and development of “ISR enhancements” and experimental platforms “optimized” for today’s battlefields.

Of course, by his own admission, Gates has put only 10 percent of the budget toward irregular warfare. As he said, the defense establishment's "next-war-itis," its preference to buy big costly weapons, may be "incurable."

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