The recent buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine and Chinese naval exercises to the east and west of Taiwan may be seen as evidence that great power competition will require a return to focusing on the threats posed by the maneuver brigades, air wings, and naval fleets of competitors. For the Biden administration, which entered office stating that “diplomacy, development, and economic statecraft should be the leading instruments of American foreign policy,” and “the use of military force should be the last resort,” there is a clear temptation to reduce US commitments to messy political-military conflicts on what many see as the strategic periphery (i.e., Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia). President Biden’s announcement last week that the United States will remove all troops from Afghanistan by September 2021 is a prominent, but certainly not the only, indicator of this trajectory. For some this means, perhaps, that there should be a division of labor between conventional forces and special operations forces (SOF) that might assign these messy contingencies to the latter forces, but that would be a mistake.

As the Biden administration develops its national security strategy, it should not conflate great power competition with major theater war or conventional operations. The last twenty years of conflict have pushed both state and nonstate actors to challenge the United States in ways that it has historically been uncomfortable countering. This is particularly the case in the gray zone, where actors oftentimes blend and blur various tools of power in order to achieve objectives below the threshold of war. Responding to this international environment will mean that thinking of policy elements in discrete bins of force, diplomacy, and development will hamper US responses to threats and opportunities. The United States will need to merge all instruments of power, to include various components of its military power, to counter challenges from its rivals.

For the Department of Defense, this will mean that the military will be actively engaged overseas, oftentimes alongside partners and allies, in order to respond to or—more preferably—shape regional dynamics. Irregular warfare (IW) will play an important role in this national security environment. Though much public debate over the definition and centrality of IW has centered on authoritative documents such as the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and its 2020 IW annex, more informal notes on military doctrine offer useful frames through which to understand IW, such as the cooperation, competition, and conflict continuum. When we understand the nature and scope of IW through both national security guidance and doctrine, it becomes clear that IW will be an important element across the joint force. Neglecting IW or making it the exclusive domain of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) will limit and suboptimize our responses to these types of competition and threats.

Irregular Warfare and the US National Security Strategy

What is IW and why is it important in the current environment? National security guidance documents, to include the recently released Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, provide some useful framing to answer this question. The DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines it as a “violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s).” But the inclusion of the word “violent” is a bit limiting because information operations, cyberattacks, and shows of force or shaping operations that do not cross the threshold into violence can still have influence or effect the legitimacy of local power brokers.

While the term does not appear in the unclassified summary of the 2018 NDS, it is the subject of an unclassified annex to the report that was not released until October of 2020. The two documents combined number a slender twenty-six pages—almost certainly shorter than their classified counterparts. Strategic ambiguity or opacity are likely the rationale for only sharing small snapshots of these documents—the United States does not want to telegraph all of its capabilities and strategic thinking so that it can deter threats or challengers. But perhaps the 2018 NDS was too ambiguous. The public summary of that document led many to think that DoD was shifting to great power competition at the expense of smaller contingencies. Until the release of the annex, people had to take the word of Frank Hoffman, one of the authors of the NDS, that the concept of GPC was not just about turning the page from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to prepare for major theater war against near-peer competitors.

The recent IW Annex to the NDS usefully drops the word “violent” from the previous definition. “Struggle” is a more satisfactory term because it gets around the discrete concepts of war and peace. It also states that while GPC is the primary national security challenge, IW remains a critical task and that the United States “will sharpen these capabilities for application against peer competitor, nation-state adversaries.” This is an important statement because the use of irregular warfare techniques will be crucial no matter whether the United States is competing against China or Russia, combating nonstate actors such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, or assisting allies and partners against state-backed proxy forces. As suggested above, the last nearly twenty years of conflict, while showing some strong tactical performances by US forces in the conduct of such activities, has not translated to long-term operational or strategic success that might lead adversaries or competitors to steer clear of such techniques.

On the legislative side, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of FY2018 contains section 1202 (“Support of special operations for irregular warfare”). This law, which was extended as section 1207 in the FY2021 NDAA, defines IW as “activities in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.” While on the one hand this limits IW by putting it firmly in the domain of SOF, the removal of “legitimacy” and “influence” may be useful as those factors might not always be the primary drivers of US objectives—this would be the case particularly in a proxy war environment where one might back a side primarily to impose costs on an adversary.

The Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance does not mention either IW or GPC. It clearly and accurately describes China and Russia as revisionist powers. It singles out China’s assertiveness and potential in harnessing its elements of power to challenge the “stable and open international system.” Russia is assessed more as a disruptor. It describes both states as seeking “to check US strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world.”

But the guidance also, seemingly, silos a focus on crisis response, counterterrorism (CT), and unconventional warfare (UW) to SOF. Although CT and UW are missions in which SOF is often in the lead, they are not the exclusive domain of these forces. The fifth SOF Truth, after all, is that “most special operations require non-SOF support.”  While the interim guidance does state that capabilities will be developed to “compete and deter gray zone actions,” those are not elaborated upon. The administration will likely refine this over time, but it should not make IW exclusively the domain of SOF. Doing so would not only ensure that those forces are overused, but would also reinforce or create additional seams in US capabilities to respond to the current and future operating environments.

The Competition Continuum and the Joint Force

One way to ensure that these additional seams are not created and to focus the joint force on the challenges posed by the contemporary operating environment would be to use the thought template found in Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, Competition Continuum. While such notes are not authoritative, they are issued to “facilitate information sharing on problems and potential solutions as a supporting effort of formal joint doctrine development and revision.” This note is particularly useful as it describes the blending and blurring of cooperation, competition, and conflict—including how all three can occur simultaneously. Effectively conducting all three activities simultaneously requires a joint force effort.

The purpose of delineating these concepts is not simply to explain the environment, but to improve integrated campaigning. Cooperation usually relates to an enduring activity with an ally or partner. Sometimes, however, it can extend to neutral or adversarial partners. Competition below the level of armed conflict also tends to occur over a protracted period. Typically, it is more indirect and less resource driven than armed conflict. Armed conflict campaigning is rather straightforward for a military audience, but it argues that if cooperation and competition are “ignored or treated as strictly ancillary to the armed conflict effort, then the joint force is at increased risk for failure to meet some or all of the desired objectives.” Deterrence applies across the continuum.

The continuum is useful because all of these activities can occur simultaneously. For example, one might consider the current situation in Iraq. There, the United States has been cooperating with the national and the Kurdish regional governments and combating the Islamic State and other adversaries while also competing with Iran.

In terms of competition with China or Russia, cooperation with allies, partners, or potential partners will be essential. The United States will have to wisely weave together elements of its national power with those of its allies and then, as best as possible, leverage those resources and capabilities to promote engagement. The United States cannot maintain a permanent presence everywhere, so cooperation can take myriad forms, such as training or providing education to foreign officers or enlisted personnel through international military education and training, selling or providing weapons systems to friends or allies, and conducting bilateral or multilateral training exercises to build relationships and interoperability such as Cobra Gold in Thailand or maneuvers in South Korea.

While the military will not be the sole component of such cooperation, the size and ability of forces to move, communicate, and, when necessary, shoot often make it a useful tool. However, this engagement should not be a SOF-centered endeavor. This will drive overuse and, as the commander of SOCOM General Richard Clarke recently testified, the threats posed by violent extremism remain the primary focus of these units (60 percent of deployed forces) as opposed to GPC (40 percent). Even if these forces were 100 percent committed to GPC, their size and need for dwell time, for example, would not allow them to optimize US engagement across these activities. The more limited systems and capabilities of SOF also do not make them ideally suited to be the main effort to cooperate with the conventional units of friends and allies. Smaller, more frequent deployments of ships, aircraft, and company-sized elements not only could enable engagement with regional allies and partners, but would also show US commitment to an open international system without being overly provocative, facilitate relationships necessary for the future, and, hopefully, share American ideals.

The Biden Administration and the Future of Irregular Warfare

The Biden administration and DoD will likely face pressures to reduce US engagement and capability development for IW environments. The president has already signaled a commitment to reinvigorating US alliances while shifting some resources from military capabilities to diplomacy, development, and intelligence tools. Defense budgets are likely to decline over time. Under institutional and political pressures,  the military will likely shift its focus from engaging in the vagaries of counterinsurgency operations to preparing for large battles or pouring resources into capital-intensive systems to create smaller, more capable units. (To be sure, there are some valid reasons for wanting to turn the page from counterinsurgency, but other state and nonstate actors also get a vote in how they choose to confront us.) There will be calls for artificial intelligence and autonomous air, sea, and land systems to be the harbingers of the next American way of war. These systems, in many cases, will be important. But it will be vital to remember that nuclear weapons and other large conventional capabilities have deterrence effects that will tend to drive competition and conflict down into the IW domain.

SOF and the intelligence community will remain important actors in the United States’ IW political-military toolkit. Their training, experience, and capabilities will make them the forces of choice for sensitive activities, particularly when a light footprint and a low-visibility approach are required. But not all engagements should be low-visibility. This is particularly the case in competition. Countering the aims of revisionist powers will require imaginative planning that will balance the right mix of admitting students from county X into international military education and training programs, deploying a light infantry company to train with troops from country Y, and deploying humanitarian and civil assistance to country Z, for instance.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should ensure that the military leadership buys into a vision that understands IW as a joint force priority. The IW Annex’s underlying logic should remain in place, at least loosely—that the “purpose of competition is not only to gain military advantages, but also to defeat adversaries’ strategies, shape their perceptions, and deny their strategic objectives in the pursuit of national interests.” In order to avert open conflict with revisionist powers such as China and Russia, the United States will need to cooperate with friends and compete against challengers in myriad ways across the elements of power. If proxy wars continue to proliferate and be the preferred means of competition between the great powers, then US capabilities in foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare will be as important for the new era of great power competition as they were in earlier ones. This will be the case in both intranational and international conflicts. After all, the hottest conflicts of the Cold War took place on the peripheries while the coolest spots were where the preponderance of conventional capabilities faced off. This will likely remain the case.

Michael P. Noonan, PhD, is the author of Irregular Soldiers and Rebellious States, a veteran of OIF, and a senior fellow in the national security program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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 any organization with which the author is affiliated.

Image credit: Sgt.1st Class Adora Gonzalez, US Army