All the reasons we’re bad at irregular warfare

Image Source: army.mil

The Irregular Warfare Initiative is back on its game and recently released episode 33 (AN UN-AMERICAN WAY OF WAR: WHY THE UNITED STATES FAILS AT IRREGULAR WARFARE).

Incidentally, they just released episode 34 as well (CHINA’S STRATEGICALLY IRREGULAR APPROACH: THE ART OF THE GRAY ZONE).

I haven’t listened to the latter yet, but I’m willing to bet it will feature a discussion about how sly and cunning the Chinese are at IW (as opposed to the US).

I’ll say up front that the reason our adversaries rely on irregular warfare is because they have to — they really don’t have many other options.

And the reason they’re “good” at it is because they are not constrained by the same moral/ethical/legal boundaries that we are.

They’ll weaponize anything.

They also don’t have to contend with the political ramifications – as we do – of foreign exploits because of the authoritarian nature of their governments.

This doesn’t mean that we’re “not good” at IW, it just means we have to work a whole lot harder.

On to the podcast.

There were some great points made in the epsidoe and areas worth exploring further. These indlcude:

  • We never fight the war we want (tanks/troops in the open, fire for effect)
  • The difficulty training for irregular warfare (a day in the field represents a month 🤦‍♂️)
  • An argument to send military “observers” to other nations/conflicts to build knowledge
  • How personnel systems lose wars (this one is so true – and needs to more attention)
  • The importance of language skills for SOF personnel
  • The fact that SOF is and should be the primary actor in GPC – competing in the gray zone prior to conflict

Finally, towards the end there is a question posed as to what SOF should look like in IW. I’d offer it looks like a lot of things, but one of those is highly trained SF/CA/PSYOP forces out there doing there jobs. It’s the investment in human capital, not impressive tech, that will move the needle.

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Warfare of the Mind

Fantastic two-part series from the Indigenous Approach podcast on the concept of resistance and unconventional warfare.

Part 1

Part 2

Links:
Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) Project
Resistance Operating Concept (ROC)
Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy”


The concept of resistance is foundational to Army Special Operations Forces, as our mission is generally to partner with forces to either support or defeat resistance movements. In this two-part series, we pair experts on resistance with our forward-stationed battalion commanders in Germany and Japan to discuss what resistance is and how it’s applied in today’s operational environment.

‎The Indigenous Approach: Concept of Resistance: Part 1 – Resistance in Europe on Apple Podcasts

Special operations is inundated with terms that define gradations of warfare: unconventional warfare, irregular warfare, hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare, information warfare, political warfare, and on and on. Some of these terms are written into doctrine, others are in popular use or academic and carted out to make a point.

The doctrinal terms have unique meanings, and those meanings are incredibly important to the planners and practicioners who see to their execution.

We’ve got squishier terms too, like resistance.

What does that mean in the context of warfare and special operations?


This was such an incredibly insightful two-part series which explains resistance in detail. And while this is a must-listen for folks in the special operations community, I think it is even more important for it to reach a wider national security audience to build an understanding of what special operations can do (and are supposed to do) in supporting resitance operations.

Future war is likely to feature conventional operations as the decisive operation and a resistance force as a shaping operation (or vice-versa, who knows?). It would be helpful for anyone who might have to participate in that future war to have a baseline understanding of resistance operations.

There are some real gems in this series, too.

Poor planning and friction can lead to “going with what you know.”

“When things get difficult, people tend to go with what they know. And what that ends up looking like, you have a defense capability that looks a lot like your military. If you find yourself with a resistance force or irregular defense force that looks exactly like your unit or exactly like your military, then you’ve probably lost your way.”

Part 1, ~29:30

Often, this comes down to equipment and logistics. The “tail” that makes our forces what they are is long (and expensive). Trying to replicate that in a partner force – especially a resistance force – just isn’t going to work. This is also true for tactics. The way we do things works for us – it might not work for them. There is a level of embracing this that is necessary to be effective.

Or to put it another way – it’s not going to feel great.

What does SOF do in a bar fight? They’re in the parking lot, pulling wires and cutting tires.

“I use this analogy of what SOF was created to do – of a bar fight. There’s a large bar, there’s a bar fight, the military decides they’re going to go in. The Marine Corps is there to punch the bouncer in the face and get us inside and the Army is supposed to run inside and plug the zone and make sure that the bar fight goes our way. What does SOF do? We’re in the parking lot, pulling wires, cutting tires, ambushing your reinforcements, and influencing the population to come join the fight who are friendly, and dealing with the ones who want to come and reinforce them.”

Part 1, ~38:00

On the role of PSYOP through the continuum of resistance operations:

“PSYOP has the role to assist with the strategic messaging – to assist with the messaging during peacetime now to increase the resiliency of the population and perhaps to warn them, to some degree, against the adversary, and then they also have a role to play if there is a takeover of a nation.”

Part 1, ~41:00

Have you ever heard the term ‘digital standoff’ before? I haven’t.

“If you look at the Jedburghs back in WWII, they show up in a village, and there’s a parade, and people celebrating their arrival because they know they’re going to assist the resistance. That played pretty well back then. But if you did that today, a picture of that would be around the world in three seconds. So I think what that causes is a belief that maybe you can achieve far enough standoff from a digital means or achieve a digital safe haven where the human-to-human piece of this is no longer necessary, or at least that that connection can be made digitally…”

Part 1, ~45:00

The above was super-insightful. Resistance and support to resistance is going to look a lot different in the future. America is not the same. The world is not the same. Additionally, the fact that the picture would make it around the world in three seconds, to me, isn’t a bad thing. It is going to be nearly impossible to prevent that – so you have to embrace it. This is incredibly uncomfortable for a force that is accustomed to operating in the shadows.

GPC and LSCO are not the same.

“Most people when they talk Great Power Competition (GPC) – at least most of the stuff I’ve read – people have a tendency to equate it to Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO). So, is that a piece of competition? Is it the most of competition? How does LSCO fit into GPC?”

Part 2, ~8:00

Say it once, say it twice, third time’s the charm.

“Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

Part 2, ~13:00

It’s just true – SOF NCOs are the ones who maintain the long term relationships. Much of this has to do with the fact that officers don’t spend as much time on teams as NCOs do. This isn’t a bad thing – this is the way it is and should be exploited.

“The Philippine generals, three or four of them said ‘Joe how are you doing? It’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen you! How’s everything going?’ More general officers knew him as Joe the Sergeant First Class Special Forces NCO than they knew the PACOM staff senior officers. And that’s really a testament to the relationships that our NCOs have.”

Part 2, ~21:00

The below is a good recruiting line.

“The meme is the new PSYOP leaflet.”

Part 2, ~27:00

I cannot stress the below enough. Our risk aversion in the IE stems mostly from fear of embarressment. How silly is that? No one wants to be dragged through the mud digitally – but it happens all the time, and it’s fine. The day moves on. We’re unwilling to try because we’ve see what happens when someone makes a mistake. We should be making many, many more mistakes and living with it. That’s how we achieve success. Frequency of a theme over time. Not by crafting one, super-polished message.

“The tragedy is if we make a mistake in a kinetic operation, you know, it is unrecoverable. Somebody dies. But if we make a mistake in the information environment, in today’s world, the news cycle is going to move on. And yeah, it might me embarrassing, it might have an effect for a short term, but we can recover from information mistakes, so we should be aggressive and allow our teams to seize the initiative in the information space.”

Part 2, ~28:00

We keep hearing it – PSYOP and influence operations as the desicive operation. The more we embrace this, the more successful we’re going to be.

“It’s a little bit of a culture shift for an ODA to be like ” Hey MIST (Military Information Support Team), how can I help you?”

Part 2, ~35:00

What are we really assessing/selecting for?

“One common trait of special operations is, I think, we select for life-long learners.”

Part 2, ~41:45

This is so true. After assessment, selection, and qualification, you have not arrived. You have just begun. The continuing education – both through PME, unit training, and I think more importantly, self-development, is critical to actually getting good at this stuff.

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Our adversaries are paying close attention

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I’m a little late on this one. A couple of weeks ago, the Irregular Warfare Podcast sat down with Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman to discuss future war and their new book 2034.

What would a conflict with China look like? How will irregular warfare fit into a conflict before and during large-scale combat operations? Retired Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman join this episode of the Irregular Warfare Podcast to discuss the theme of escalation to large-scale conflict, which they explore in their New York Times best seller 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. In answering those questions, they emphasize the nature of human behavior in conflict and how escalation can get out of control.

Irregular Warfare in the Next World War – Modern War Institute

I haven’t read the book yet – but it’s on the list.

We’ve reached a place in time where technology is advancing so quickly that standard analysis isn’t enough to prepare for future war – we have to use our imagination.

There’s a short discussion towards the end of the podcast that caught my attention as prescient. The guests are asked to reflect on our current vulnerabilities and how our adversaries are working towards exploiting them.

“It would seem preposterous for us not to imagine that our adversaries are very much aware of our internal political dynamics and at every corner trying to take advantage and exasperate the divisions that exist within American society, and are paying close attention.”

Elliot Ackerman

It really does feel like we are living through an inflection point in American history. There’s a lot going on internally, but our adversaries are watching very closely – and the enemy always gets a vote.

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We’re going to need a slower plane

I’m not an airpower guy, but I enjoyed this episode on airpower in irregular warfare.

“…the effort is going to go towards training and developing partners in order to compete with Chinese influence in places like Africa and South America. That’s going to be role for SOF – the biggest role – in Great Power Competition for special operations.

Armed Overwatch: Airpower in Irregular Warfare—Past, Present and Future – Modern War Institute

During the episode, the guests talk about the fact that sometimes you don’t need the most technically-able aircraft. In fact, depending on the conflict, you might need something old and slow.

This reminds me of a conference I attended years ago discussing outfitting the Afghan air force. Really, what they needed was legacy aircraft from last century. Slow flying so you can actually see what’s on the ground. This makes sense to anyone who has played an air combat video game and tried to do a strafing run going mach 1.

As the guests indicate, there is a bias – especially in air communities – towards fast, more advanced, and newer.

I like the idea of pilots flying an F-35 one day, an F-16 the next, and then an F-4 the last, based on the need.

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A sideshow of a sideshow: Fever Dreams and Diathetics

Center: Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, 1921

Great book review over at the Modern War Institute.

The iconic figure of T.E. Lawrence remains draped in myth. He appears to modern observers as the pensive Englishman photographed in flowing white Arab robes, or the hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the Academy Award–winning 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. His writings on guerrilla war and on advising indigenous forces, meanwhile, are perhaps best known today for their brief appearances to buttress American and British counterinsurgency theory and doctrine.

Seven Pillars Revisited: The Myths and Misreadings of T.E. Lawrence – Modern War Institute

Outside of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, I’m not sure there is a figure that is mined for knowledge more than T.E. Lawrence.

He is an endlessly fascinating figure, whose popular image has surpassed the actual man. This makes understanding the “real” Lawrence difficult.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his role in the Arab Revolt, is an amazing read. The flowery prose can be frustrating, and you get the sense that Lawrence enjoyed flaunting his intellect.

The book, written some years after World War I, is his attempt to categorize the Arab Revolt as a new form of warfare while atoning for the failure of the Arabs to achieve self-determination (and his role in that). He meanders, at times seemingly remorseful for the way the Arabs are treated in the end.

He also clearly understood that the Arab Revolt was just a tiny piece in a much greater game – a “sideshow of a sideshow.”

There are many ways to read Lawrence. In the linked piece, Wilkins writes:

…he [Lawrence] sought to downplay British support for the Arab revolt and emphasize Arab contributions. In doing so, Lawrence sought to highlight what he perceived as the betrayal inflicted on the Arabs in the postwar settlement—in which the Western powers carved former Ottoman territories into French and British mandates, frustrating Arab dreams of self-determination—and to assuage his own ever-present guilt over this outcome.

Lawrence reveled in his role as advisor to the Arabs. But he also knew that his true role – the reason he was there in the first place – was to serve as a shaping operation to General Allenby’s main strike.

The truth was, he cared nothing for our fighting power, and did not reckon us part of his tactical strength. Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front. In my English capacity I shared this view, but on my Arab side both agitation and battle seemed equally important, the one to serve the joint success, the other to establish Arab self-respect, without which victory would not be wholesome.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Here, Lawrence discusses his “English capacity” and his “Arab side.” Out there in the desert, Lawrence is a warrior with his warriors. They have power and tactical strength, but Allenby doesn’t care for it. You can read this passage and come away thinking Lawrence felt sidelined by Allenby.

But the totality of Lawrence’s thoughts and writings points to his acceptance of this fact. His role (and that of the Arabs) was not to fight but to serve a “diathetic” purpose (more on that later).

It’s difficult to determine exactly what Lawrence was “feeling” out in the desert, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that at the time, he felt that he could do more with his irregular forces, and he may have felt frustrated with being out there on the edge. This was World War I and heroes were being made in Europe. The war in the Middle East was led by Allenby while Lawrence was getting sick in tents. Lawrence was ready to strike, but had to follow orders from the boss:

Weather and strengths might be matters of opinion: but Allenby meant to attack on September the nineteenth, and wanted us to lead off not more than four nor less than two days before he did. His words to me were that three men and a boy with pistols in front of Deraa on September the sixteenth would fill his conception; would he better than thousands a week before or a week after.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

While you may sense some frustration here, it seems that Lawrence understood his purpose. He enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with irregular warfare in the desert but lamented that there wasn’t more time to go further.

By careful persistence, kept strictly within our strength and following the spirit of our theories, we were able eventually to reduce the Turks to helplessness, and complete victory seemed to be almost within our sight when General Allenby by his immense stroke in Palestine threw the enemy’s main forces into hopeless confusion and put an immediate end to the Turkish war. We were very happy to have done with all our pains, but sometimes since I have felt a private regret that his too-greatness deprived me of the opportunity of following to the end the dictum of Saxe that a war might be won without fighting battles.

T.E. Lawrence, The Evolution of a Revolt

It is here where I think there is still room left to mine a little bit more out of Lawrence. Wilkins mentions it in his review:

These irregular raids also played on the “diathetics,” or psychology, of the opponent, leading soldiers to desert, cower in fixed positions, or conduct counterproductive reprisals against the local population. 

For the past year I’ve been working on a much larger research project focused on what Lawrence meant by “diathetics” or “diathetical.” It’s related to psychological warfare, but it’s not quite the same. As quoted above, Lawrence writes “Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front.” Lawrence here is making a distinction between moral, psychological, and diathetic.

What did he mean there? Is it just him showing off his Greek or was he actually on to something?

I think he was. And I think that’s why he laments the end of the war.

That said, it’s important to remember that these writings are Lawrence’s attempt to categorize his activity after the fact. He’s reflecting and doing his part in his own myth-making.

And while there may be something here, it may all be the imaginings of just another kindergarden soldier.

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Masters of Irregular Warfare

Garibaldi, Mosby, Rogers, Lawrence – this episode is about masters of irregular warfare, old and new.

This episode explores the capabilities that irregular warfare practitioners bring to bear. Our guests discuss how irregular warfare integrates into—and often plays a pivotal supporting role in—broader conventional conflict. The conversation ends with recommendations for how to prepare and employ irregular warfare capabilities to address the major threats to US national security, to include great power rivals, rogue regional powers, and violent nonstate actors.

How Small Wars Fit into Big Ones: Lessons from the Masters of Irregular Warfare – Modern War Institute

There were a lot of gems in this one. Here’s what stood out:

MG Brennan on Robert Rogers and John Mosby as irregular warriors:

True innovators that bucked the system… and I think they also played a great part in the psychological aspect of warfare against their enemies that the conventional folks didn’t, they [the conventional forces] tried to do it with mass and cannons and these guys did it by being sneaky and moving around at night.

MG John Brennan, Commander, 1st Special Forces Command (~4:30 mark)

I love that first part. “True innovators that bucked the system.” Innovation is not going to look normal the first time you see it. Leaders have to take a deep breath and let things play out every now and then.

“A sideshow of a sideshow.” On losing at the tactical level but achieving strategic success.

Look at T.E. Lawrence and what he was able to do, really with a handful of tribesmen. He struck at the infrastructure of the Turkish force and and the German Asien Korps… with tiny resources Lawrence made an 800 mile advance that was closely integrated with General Allenby’s conventional forces.. [this] took a lot of pressure off fo Allenby and allowed the conventional offensive to move forward.

Dr. John Arquilla

Yes, absolutely. Dr. Arquilla goes on to discuss how many irregular warriors lose over and over at the tactical level. But they know that winning the battle isn’t important. They are playing the long game. He cites Mao and Ho Chi Min as examples.

Back to Lawrence. There is so much to study in the case of the Arab Revolt. The way the Arab Revolt served as a shaping operation to Allenby’s decisive operation is textbook. But there is so much more here. Lawrence knew it was a sideshow and that his revolt didn’t even matter. He knew he didn’t even have to fight anymore. He had “arranged in the minds of others” a new reality that achieved his aims.

Lawrence and Allenby understood the war and understood each other’s roles. Here is Lawrence:

His words to me were that three men and a boy with pistols in front of Deraa on September the sixteenth would fill his conception; would be better than thousands a week before or a week after. The truth was, he cared nothing for our fighting power, and did not reckon us part of his tactical strength. Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front.

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

On innovation, talent management, and finding the right people.

We are trying to pulse the force to get those innovators to come to the surface so that we can put them in a pipeline that sets them up for success both academically and to get those experiences where it matters.

MG John Brennan (~21:00 mark)

This is a real challenge in the Army. Innovation is easily stifled in a hierarchial and traditions-based organization like the Army. Even in special operations communities, it is still the Army. Innovation, by it’s nature, is going to look different. It is going to “buck” the status quo. Leaders need to be able to widen the aperture and accept that something that doesn’t quite look or feel right just might be the next big thing. Instead of squashing it or shutting it down, embracing it might be the right move.

And it will mostly fail.

Great innovation doesn’t happen the first time. I’d love to see some “failures in innovation.” Folks who tried, but it didn’t work. Most importantly, where the command applauds that failure. People have to know it is okay to experiment. Otherwise, the incentives are misaligned.

This goes to the concept of top cover.

When this mystic, Orde Wingate came along and said ‘I can do deep-penetration operations to upset the entire logistics of the Japanese in the Burma-theatre,’ Churchill got very enthusiastic and gave him the top cover to do this…

Dr. John Arquilla

For every military innovator, there is a champion somewhere higher in the chain of command who has to smile and answer questions from higher. Leaders do not need to be innovators themselves, but they have to enable it.

Loved these throughts from MG Brennan on military reporting and the tyranny of too much ISR (around the ~31:00 mark).

I’ve seen intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance aircraft used as ‘combat voyeur’ tools to make sure formations are doing the right thing.

Oof. The worst.

I remember as a Captain not seeing my company commander for months and months on end. The weekly SITREP was all he got and that was coming over HF [high-frequency radio].

There is so much to discuss here (but not today). No one joins the Army thinking about how good they’d be at writing SITREPs – but boy has that become a discriminator. And we know we’re heading to a future where permissive communications will not be a given. SITREP-bloat is a real thing. And there is value to painting a good picture for higher. But there is a conversation to be had concerning re-aligning reporting expectations and mission command.

On where irregular warfare expertise lay at scale.

It’s in the special operations community that you see capabilities for engaging now.

Dr. John Arquilla

The episode concludes with an interesting converstion on the concept of the “hybrid leader.” That is, someone who is both an irregular warfare thinker and practicioner.

I think that starts with the recruiting – recruiting from the right talent pools, and part of recruiting the right people is providing the right message about what we do.

MG John Brennan (~42:00)

Yup.

You say SOF and they think door kicking, they think Zero-Dark Thirty – that’s just a very small aspect of what SOF does. So we are trying to help recruit people by showing what SOF does in a much more holistic spectrum, not just DA [direct action], we do COIN [counter-insurgency], we do FID [foreign internal defense], we do information warfare, we do civil affairs/civil reconaissance, we work with hundreds of different partners.

We typically recruit people that are adventerous, they’re problem solvers, and as part of their training, we want to make sure we’re enhancing that, and that we’re recognizing it, and making it flourish.

MG John Brennan (~42:00)

A great episode – and a great lead off for IWI. The episode left me feeling good both about the conversation surrounding irregular warfare and the future for special operations.

This field is littered with jargon and buzzwords that are incredibly confusing. But these words matter and behind them are important and nuanced concepts. These episodes (and articles) have an important ‘inform’ component to them. They get the word out. They let people know what’s out there.

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Institutionalizing Irregular Warfare: Introducing IWI

Very excited to see this initiative.

To help bridge this gap, the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point are proud to announce the launch of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). IWI is designed to support the community of irregular warfare professionals, to include military and interagency practitioners, scholarly researchers, and policymakers, by providing a space for accessible, practically grounded discussions of irregular warfare policy and strategy.

Introducing the Irregular Warfare Initiative – Modern War Institute

The Irregular Warfare Podcast has quickly become one of my favorite. Like many of you, my podcast queue is infinite. I never get to anything, but their podcast aligns perfectly with with my interests – and it is actually good. It bumps everything out of the way and becomes a “listen to now” podcast.

Looking forward to seeing how this shapes up over the next year.

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“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it”

Another great episode from the Irregular Warfare podcast on SOF and civilian oversight. A wonky topic, for sure, but incredibly important.

In this episode, our guests argue that SOF is uniquely suited to address irregular warfare challenges in the era of great power competition. However, limited understanding of these threats among policymakers in Washington, DC, budget constraints, and outdated authorities hinder SOF’s ability to evolve. According to our guests, civilian leadership and oversight can help overcome these challenges.

The View from Washington: Sen. Joni Ernst and Former Asst. Sec. of Defense Owen West on Civilian Oversight of SOF – Modern War Institute

There’s lots of great stuff in this one, but I especially appreciated the short conversation on information warfare and the role of Army psychological operations. It starts around the 22 minute mark. Some choice excerpts below.

If we looked around the armed forces, [it’s] the Army’s psychological warfare wing, which really is the repository of our original talent and experience in information operations. And yet, when I visited a couple of times, it was apparent that structurally, this had not received the money, or let’s just call it prestige that others had…

Owen West

Very true. The talent and ambition is there, but the branch is so small and the issues incredibly wonky. Part of the conversation here is about the struggle to adequately explain to a non-IW/PSYOP person what the heck it is that you’re trying to do – as they mention in the podcast “in two senteces.”

And the explosion of information warfare challenges has lead to a “catching up” phase where structures and authorities are being rewritten to match the times. This is a slow process.

To put things in perspective, PSYOP didn’t become an official branch of the Army until October 2006. Special Forces, on the other hand, became a branch in April 1987. A colleague of mine once reminded me that PSYOP is today where SF was in the late 1990s / early 2000s. It’s not a perfect analogy, but there is something there.

In regards to prestige, there’s no surprise there. Over the past twenty years, SOF – jointly – was very much focused on direct action. There is a shift occuring now, and there’s no question that the weather is changing on the current fight (influence, GPC, etc.). It’s not going to be easy to point to the hard wins in IW when we’re really just moving the dial or changing the temperature of the water.

Also, it’s hard to make a Call of Duty video game or 12 Strong movie for information warfare.

And part of the problem, of course, is RULES:

But I don’t know that your audience knows the limitations on them [PSYOP] were pretty astonishing… I felt pretty much like the opponent was playing by different rules.

Owen West

Yup. Part of living a free country.

Moving way from PSYOP. On the comparitive advantage of the US military due to the NCO corps:

…what people haven’t pointed to is the comparitive advantage, if we level-set armies around the world and their special operations forces, and that is our NCO corps, and our senior NCO corps. No one can match the NCO corps of the United States.

Owen West

This is so true, and it is something that we don’t highlight enough. Our SOF NCOs are really that good.

I enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek quip on what civilan shops at the highest levels in DoD should not be doing:

“Part of my shop was too operational… really this was about policy making, and not helicopter bump plans.”

Owen West

Defense folks love being ‘operational’ and focusing on the tactical elements of things. There are some jobs, however, where this is no longer helpful. Unfortunately, this is a system which lauds tactical expertise and it is often those small skills that makes for a successful career.

And a quote to kind of wrap up the whole point, stated perfectly:

“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it.”

Senator Joni Ernst

And since we’re talking about irregular warfare, a quick remeinder: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

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Operations in the Information Environment: Irregular Warfare Podcast

Wow, that was really good.

The Irregular Warfare podcast (quickly becoming a bump everything, “listen now” podcast) recenlty hosted Dr. Thomas Rid (recent book: Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare) and Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds (USMC Deputy Commandant for Information). The topic was “competing for influence” and information operations broadly speaking.

Great back and forth and they get into topics in information operations that are often neglected. It’s particularly refreshing to hear a discussion on IO that goes beyond “we’re getting our ass kicked in the information environment.”

We need more conversations like this.

Some choice quotes below.

“There are types of tactics in information operations that democracies should not use…You cannot excel at disinformation and democracy at the same time, because, you have to fight with one hand behind your back.”

Dr. Thomas Rid (emphasis his)

Agree. Democracies have to fight with one hand tied behind their back – and that’s a good thing.

On questions about the need for a new or different cooridinating agency for information operations.

The more that we can infuse this thinking of Multi-Domain Warfare inside our tradional way of command – that would be my preference. I think another stove-piped commander is not necessarily helpful in this area. I think it doesn’t make things faster.

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds

Yes! Every year, I see another think-piece calling for a new super-organziation that would serve as the coordinating element for information operations or information warfare or some flavor thereof. It seems like an ‘easy-button’ solution – build a new organization. The organizations we have now work. Lt. Gen. Reynold’s puts it this way: “We have to infuse this thinking and figure how we do this at echelon inside the commands that we have today.

We should focus on building IO thinking into organizations that are effective now. I think this is happening. Sure, it’s slow. But building a new headquarters and then getting the ‘whole of government’ to work with it is 1) expensive, 2) hard to accomplish, and 3) probably ineffective.

On why our adversaries ‘seem’ to be better at this than us.

Our adversaries [China and Russia], from a gray zone perspective, they are a lot more willing to put themselves out there than the United States has been. Call it “willingness to impose friction”

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds

This is another area where I think things are changing. Sometimes the face of operations needs to be the American military officer on the ground or the diplomat in country. This is an area where we need to improve, for sure, and I think it starts with setting left and right limits and letting folks go for it. There will be mistakes, but if we do this right, those will be factored in and written off as part of the cost of operating at this level in the IE.

One more from Lt. Gen. Reynolds:

“I think the challenge is in the competition space. How do you action the information environent in great power competition? And to me, I think it starts with definining the measurable objectives you want to get after, [and then] define what success looks like in the information environment.”

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds (emphasis mine)

This is so important. Too often, success in the IE is amorphous. “I know it when I’ll see it.” IO professionals need to have conversations with their commanders and build a shared understanding of “what success looks like in the IE.” Is it the adversary getting smeared by the public? Is it a partner force highlighting their own success? Is it praise for government institutions? Having an understanding of what success looks like is paramount – otherwise it is likely you will miss the good stuff if it happens, or find yourself chasing tweets and counting ‘likes.’

Finally, on advice for practicioners, researchers, and policy makers who are approaching this problem set (IW, IO, political warfare, etc.):

“Understanding information operations in the 21st century is impossible without first understanding information operations in the 20th century. Although they happen in a different technological environment, the logic, and sometimes the dynamics have not changed. So for example, the temptation to overstate effects, is a large one.”

Dr. Thomas Rid

He goes on to discuss that the sum of ‘clicks’ and ‘likes’ often leads people to believe (falsely) that IO today may have a greater effect than IO of the past. There is so much to learn from the past.

This episode, coupled with the recent PSYOP deep dive from the PSYWAR podcast is a good indication that this community is coalescing and growing more professional every day.

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“Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare”

Damn. I had not heard it put that way before.

“Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

COL (R) David Maxwell (Irregular Warfare Podcast, around the 10:15 mark)

Another great deep-dive from the Irregular Warfare podcast.

I have a growing interest in political warfare – it’s a dense topic and I’ve found there are only a handful of experts on it – especially when it comes to the role of the military. COL (R) David Maxwell is one of those experts, and then Matt Armstrong more generally.

If you know of any others I should be following/reading – please send it my way.

If irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare, the next hard thing to do is figure out what your subset of the military is supposed to do in irregular warfare (not very easy). Keep drilling down until you get to to “you” and start pulling levers and pressing buttons.

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