In the classic Saturday Night Live sketch “More Cowbell,” legendary music producer Bruce Dickinson (played by Christopher Walken) takes on production of the classic rock band Blue Öyster Cult. In the sketch, the band has all the players one would expect—lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist and lead singer, bassist, and drummer. But it also contains an additional percussionist (Gene Frenkle, played by Will Ferrell) playing the cowbell on the group’s most famous song, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. When the group first attempts to record the track, the lead singer stops the song midway through and questions the way it sounds. Dickinson responds, “It was sounding great, but I could’ve used a little more cowbell.” As the group attempts a second and then third recording, Frenkle’s cowbell playing—egged on by Dickinson’s calls for him to “really explore the studio space”—eventually becomes so distracting that a fight ensues among the band members. Only Frenkle’s impassioned plea to keep the cowbell on the song and Dickinson’s reassurance that with it “we’ll all be wearing gold-plated diapers” are enough to restore harmony within the band and generate a hit song.
While it may seem an odd analogy, there is much about this sketch that parallels the US experience with irregular warfare (IW) over the past twenty years—in particular, the notion that IW, like the cowbell, has somehow been a distraction from the harmonious conduct of national defense as opposed to an instrumental component of it. To the contrary, whether it is working with other nations to combat information manipulation and build military capacity, countering terrorist groups as described in the United States’ new Indo-Pacific Strategy, or helping to train and equip resistance forces prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the activities inherent to IW are as relevant to national defense today as they have ever been. As the Department of Defense is on the verge of issuing a new National Defense Strategy (NDS), its drafters in the Pentagon would be wise to heed Bruce Dickinson’s advice: “Fellas, you’re gonna want that cowbell on the track.”
The 2018 NDS: “Dial it Back a Little”
The last NDS was published in 2018 and generated headlines for its statement that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” This refocusing of defense priorities marked the end of an era: no longer was the “global war on terror” going to dominate DoD’s planning, resourcing, or activities. Instead, DoD would focus on the likes of China and Russia. In keeping with this emphasis, the unclassified summary of the NDS made no mention of IW—despite the fact that the United States was still actively engaged in irregular wars in at least half a dozen countries.
In an attempt to “dial it back a little,” the Pentagon eventually released an IW Annex to the National Defense Strategy. Its central idea was to prevent another boom-and-bust cycle of IW and to “institutionalize irregular warfare as a core competency for both conventional and special operations forces.” And yet, the same day that the summary of the IW Annex was released, the Army announced that it would shut down its well-respected Asymmetric Warfare Group. This followed in the wake of the Marine Corps’s previous divestments of capabilities to support IW operations, such as the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning.
To its credit, the IW Annex addressed the need to institutionalize IW through education, training, and doctrine. It also articulated requirements to more efficiently counter terrorism and update US IW capabilities to be effective against near-peer adversaries. But for all its strengths, the IW Annex is a secondary document and IW is currently not a strategic priority. It is, as Gene Frenkle offered to do when his playing become too distracting for his bandmates, an attempt to record the cowbell separately and overlay it lightly on the main track.
Treating IW Separately and Secondarily: “This Doesn’t Work for Me”
Some of the sharpest criticisms of the 2018 NDS were that it failed to answer key questions about what eventually became known as “great power competition”: What are we competing for? What does it mean to be winning or losing such a competition? The need for answers to those questions led the Joint Staff to publish Joint Doctrine Note (JDN) 1-19. But while this document lays out preliminary DoD thinking on concepts like the “competition continuum”—which envisions a “a world of enduring competition conducted through a mixture of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict”—it is not technically doctrine and, as a result, these key questions remain officially unaddressed.
The absence of firm answers to these questions from DoD has led to the emergence of two camps in the run-up to the next NDS. The first argues that the primary function of the US military is to deter state adversaries from warfare against the United States and, if deterrence fails, to fight and win wars against them. To do this, members of this camp say that the United States primarily requires revamped nuclear weapons and high-end conventional warfighting capabilities. In their formulation, IW is a military sideshow to be employed against low-end nuisances like terrorist groups and relegated to niche corners of DoD like special operations forces.
The second camp argues that such views fundamentally and unnecessarily truncate the spectrum of US adversaries and the capabilities required to address them. This camp posits not only that IW can serve as the lead element for countering nonstate actors such as terrorist groups, but that it can also serve as an instrumental part of concepts that are likely to be central to the 2022 NDS, such as integrated deterrence. IW can do this, for example, by shaping the thinking of adversaries’ leadership (or their support networks) through information operations and imposing real or potential costs on adversaries through support to foreign militaries and resistance elements—all of which have clearly been on display in Ukraine in recent weeks.
It is worth noting that the 2018 NDS did not call out nuclear or conventional deterrence as the primary concern of the US military; it stated that DoD’s primary concern was interstate strategic competition. The closest things to an official DoD explanation of what this entails are the discussion of competition below armed conflict in JDN 1-19 and the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, both of which describe activities typically considered part and parcel of IW. These include security force assistance, intelligence sharing, operational preparation of the environment, and information operations. These IW activities have been echoed in non-DoD treatments of what competition entails, including a CSIS study that was led by two scholars who have gone on to serve as senior Pentagon officials.
As these documents make clear, only by considering the potential contributions of traditional and irregular warfare across the full spectrum of cooperation to competition to conflict can one generate a holistic and coherent view of the capabilities required of DoD today. It is not enough to have a powerful five-piece traditional rock band with a lightly overlaid cowbell track—a successful hit strategy requires the full integration of these components.
The 2022 NDS: “Really Explore the Space”
The best way to achieve the full integration of IW into our national defense is not to update the IW Annex or add a few mentions of IW in the text of the NDS. Rather, IW needs to be fully integrated into the heart of the NDS—in its force planning construct. As Assistant Secretary of Defense Mara Karlin recently stated, “Every national defense strategy has to look at the force-planning construct—what is it that the military should be sized and shaped to execute? This national defense strategy, like the others, will, of course, have a force-planning construct.” What will that force construct be? This remains one of the closely guarded secrets of the 2022 NDS.
Prior to the 2018 NDS, the United States relied on some variation of what was known as the “two-war” standard, which entailed being prepared to fight two simultaneous wars against regional powers. While this standard underwent consistent downgrades in the post–Cold War era, the 2018 NDS represented a marked departure from it. Instead of a two-war standard, its force planning construct is a “one-war” standard: the ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat the likes of China or Russia in a single conflict. As some analysts have noted, “The one-war standard reflects serious strategic thinking and is rooted in real budgetary constraints. It is a recognition that defeating a great-power adversary would be far more difficult than anything the U.S. military has done in decades, and that losing a great-power war would be devastating to America’s global interests.”
Serious strategic thinking notwithstanding, the one-war construct has a range of critics. Some analysts have argued that the construct is still too broad. They assert that the 2018 NDS did not go far enough in shedding the second war requirement, since it still contains a focus on competition—which includes activities other than deterrence and preparation for major war. These analysts argue for further shedding of IW missions to make budgetary room for more nuclear and high-end warfighting capabilities. Others, however, have concluded that the problem with the one-war construct is that it is too narrow and relies on flawed assumptions pertaining to the United States’ ability to deal with a second war by dominating the first or delaying or declining to fight the second.
None of these critiques of the one-war construct meaningfully account for IW. And yet IW activities are exactly what current Joint Staff concepts and several prominent studies have described as being best matched to the 2018 NDS’s focus on strategic competition. The 2022 NDS should, therefore, address concerns about the one-war construct by moving back to a two-war construct—but one that fully integrates IW. In other words, its force planning construct should include one high-end war against a near-peer adversary—likely, a scenario involving China as the pacing threat. And it should include a second, medium-scale IW campaign that focuses mostly on competition below armed conflict but includes the potential for transition to a kinetic irregular war.
There are several examples of what “medium scale” might look like. For competition, expanded activities to create resistance and proxy networks, such as those being supported by special operations forces in Europe as part of the Resistance Operating Concept, are one example. For conflict, the campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq that was led by special operations forces but supported conventionally is another. In a two-war conventional/irregular construct, the US military would focus on nuclear and conventional capabilities to deter and win one high-end conflict, while simultaneously using IW activities to deter, shape, delay, and disrupt an opportunistic adversary in a second theater. In this construct, the two wars are not of equal significance—the high-end conventional fight is of greater strategic importance to the United States, and it stands to reason that a greater proportion of resources would go to developing capabilities for it. But the requirement to also execute a medium-scale IW campaign ensures that some resources are being dedicated to all four quadrants of the traditional/irregular and warfare/competition paradigm.
Rather than kneecapping US strategic options regarding nuclear weapons and high-end war, a harmonious blending of conventional and IW capabilities via a high/low two-war construct would enable DoD to “really explore the space” of military capabilities necessary to address the full range of contemporary threats and challenges. Such a construct would, for example, provide the Army justification for the maintenance of its security force assistance brigades, which are in high demand from the geographic combatant commands. It would also provide the Marine Corps with justification to diversify its force structure—for example, by dedicating two of its three Marine Expeditionary Forces to high-end requirements in the Indo-Pacific while orienting the third on IW activities and crisis response. And it would provide Special Operations Command the guidance it needs to shift its portfolio of capabilities to a balanced set across all the core activities of special operations forces.
Looking Ahead: “I Gotta Have More Cowbell”
The 2018 NDS marked a key shift in US defense priorities and its authors clearly sought to steer the US military in a radically different direction. But as is often the case with such attempts, they pulled the wheel too hard and oversteered by removing IW from the NDS and relegating it to secondary status in an annex. The 2022 NDS offers a critical opportunity to put DoD on a more balanced—and threat-appropriate—course by reintegrating IW into the NDS and, most critically, into DoD’s force planning construct via a high/low two-war standard. As Gene Frenkle exclaims to his bandmates: “I’m standing here staring at rock legend Bruce Dickinson. And if Bruce Dickinson wants more cowbell, we should probably give him more cowbell!” While I’m no rock legend, to the drafters of the next NDS, I nonetheless say: we need more cowbell.
Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. You can find him on Twitter at @jjschroden.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the author is affiliated with, including CNA.
Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Chan, US Navy