Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Complex Irregular Warfare

Complex Irregular Warfare

The current U.S. National Defense Strategy identifies irregular challengers as an increasingly salient problem. The ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was expected to shape America’s capacity to deal with nonlinear and irregular warfare, as well as balance the Pentagon’s overdrawn checkbook. But like the last two evolutions, this QDR will probably be a dud. It is mired by major programs the Services cling to, despite their high costs and irrelevance in an era of intra-state warfare and global insurgency. OSD’s leadership cannot convince the Services, Congress, or swarming army of lobbyists that we need to shift the Pentagon’s budget towards more irregular threats and away from a rigid focus on conventional warfighting.

This essay outlines the emergence and implications of Complex Irregular Warfare. This mode of warfare builds upon and exploits nontraditional modes of warfare. The rise of Complex Irregular Warfare is the natural reaction to America’s overwhelming military superiority. The United States has pushed future opponents to alternative means that are purposely designed and deployed to thwart Western societies. This mode of warfare exploits modern technologies and the tightly interdependencies of globalized societies and economies. A more appropriate alternative to America’s current overall security architecture and its national security investment portfolio is offered to shape America’s military against this threat.

The nature of tomorrow’s irregular wars is not completely clear. Most likely it will evolve into “War Beyond Limits” as described by a pair of Chinese Colonels in a volume entitled “Unrestricted Warfare.” It certainly will not break out as described in the Pentagon’s strategy, with enemies choosing discrete options between conventional, irregular, catastrophic or disruptive strategies. We will face hybrid forms purpose built to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities. This would include states blending high- tech capabilities like anti-satellite weapons, with terrorism and cyber-warfare directed against financial targets or critical infrastructure. They will surely involve protracted and extremely lethal conflicts like the insurgency in Iraq. Such wars will be neither conventional nor low intensity. Above all, the enemy will be protean.

The posture of U.S. military forces under such a strategy requires greater nuance and more of an indirect approach than yesterday’s Garrison Era. Forward presence will be costly but invaluable, shifting rather than fixed, depending on the current context. Forces will have to be designed to maintain American interests across a broader array of missions and against more adaptive enemies. The following constitutes an outline sketch of the changes needed.

ARMY The evolution of the Division-based Army to one centered on modular Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) is spot on. These are more self-contained, cohesive, and faster to deploy. But the Army’s plan to transition the Army’s 10 Divisions, (33 BCT equivalents) into 43 smaller BCTs needs reexamination. Creating the overhead costs for the new BCT cuts out real combat power, and the proposed mix of Heavy (armor), Medium, and Infantry brigades (19/6/18) is too conventionally oriented.

The “modularity” concept offers less than meets the eye. The claim that the proposal increases combat power by 30 percent measures only a 30 percent increase in the number of brigades, and not true combat power. The Army plan decreases the number of Total Force maneuver battalions from 201 to 161. More than 20,000 “trigger pullers” have been sacrificed to produce a larger number of arguably weaker units until the Future Combat System is fielded. In theory the FCS will use better computers, sensors, and networks to compensate for traditional firepower, but the program will not deliver anything until at least 2015.

To rebalance the Army for an era of Complex Irregular War, 7 heavy brigades should be traded for more medium and infantry BCTs. Adding 3 Stryker Brigades and a third infantry battalion to the 18 IBCTs provides more balance for irregular warfare. In effect, by reversing the shift to create additional brigades and their overhead, a net total of 13 maneuver battalions can be created, within the Army’s current manpower totals. This would represent a significant increase in true combat power, adding “boots on the ground,” and enable “full spectrum operations” and the ability to win the peace as well as the fighting phases.

Air Force

America’s airpower dominance will have to be reshaped to provide relevant strategic and operational effects. This will require the Air Force to expand its missions in space and cyberspace, as well as provide a modernized strategic strike capability. The $200 million F-22 “Raptor” may be a technological marvel, but it’s an investment that reflects a misappropriation of funds for an irregular world. Thus, it should be cancelled with its funding shifted to new long-range bombers. A bomber with a range in excess of 2,000 miles is needed. The Air Force buy for the Joint Strike Fighter can be cut in half, and those funds shifted towards investments in the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles.


To adapt for the 21st century, the Marines should shift its orientation from major combat operations and amphibious assaults to focus on protracted Small Wars. They should achieve more modularity by shifting away from the separate Marine Division and Aircraft Wings to standing Expeditionary Maneuver Brigades, with roughly 15,000 Marines each. Each of these would be supported by new units for Information Warfare, Special Operations, and Security Cooperation/Foreign Military Training tasks.

Considering the nature of a second Small Wars era, the Corps should terminate or sharply reduce plans for the V-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV). The tilt-rotor Osprey is too expensive and too fragile for expeditionary employment. The Marines are making too many operational compromises in their ground systems to get around the limitations of the $80 million V-22. The $8 million EFV affords seamless high-speed transition from sea to deep inland objectives for forcible entry operations. It is too optimized for very rare ship-to-shore maneuver, and is not adequate for tactical maneuver of Marines during Small Wars. The resources allocated to the V-22 and EFV programs should be applied to simpler, less vulnerable, and more rugged modes of air and ground mobility.

U.S. Navy

The recently retired Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Vernon Clark, admitted the Navy is neither balanced nor optimal for the ongoing GWOT or against future irregular adversaries. The capabilities found in today’s 300 ship fleet makes it extremely potent for conventional fights in deep “blue water.” America’s carriers can threaten four times as many deep strike aim points than a decade ago, and the strike potential of the total fleet has increased three times over. Yet, the Navy continues to add to its combat punch. The fleet has too much strike capacity, paid for at the expense of expeditionary and littoral combat assets that are more relevant against irregular maritime threats. The outgoing CNO was right, we do not have a balanced fleet.

The Navy’s Mahanian lusting for a future Trafalgar or Midway is reflected in its devotion to large, expensive ships. This creates an unaffordable shipbuilding plan with a new $14B aircraft carrier, the CVN-21, and Virginia-class submarines estimated at $2.5B each, and a DD-X destroyer that costs around $3B. The Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) fits the bill with innovative hull designs, modular mission packages, and superior speed (up to 50 knots). Just as important, the LCS or Street Fighter provides the requisite capability packages to deal with irregular threats, at one-tenth the cost of a DD-X. Accordingly, in a world without a blue water opponent, this analysis leans towards the LCS as the new platform of choice. The DD-X however, is retained as the sole frame for surface combatants.

The Navy should reduce its focus on aviation-based power projection and emphasize littoral and expeditionary forces. Reducing carrier battle groups from 11 to 9, while preserving a robust amphibious force as a maneuverable form of presence and cooperation is a good way to posture U.S. forces for irregular contests. It should also increase the number of LCS and other innovative hull forms for “green water” operations against irregular forces increases the utility of the Navy.

The Navy’s new shipbuilding plan for 333 ships is like the Army’s plan, too conventional and completely unaffordable. The alternative outlined here is fleet is achieved, and better shaped for littoral warfare, countering anti-access threats, interdicting criminal activity and suppressing piracy and interference to sea lines of communication. It provides both the green and blue water platforms the United States needs to counteract irregular warfare at sea. Just as important, this fleet provides both persistent and periodic forms of presence, maneuvering at sea, without absorbing the political and military vulnerabilities of fixed ports and airfields.

Special Operations

One of the most cost effective and relevant capabilities in America’s arsenal is the elite “quiet professionals” of U.S. special operations forces (SOF). While the U.S. SOF community has been augmented, much more can be done. Its current optempo is too high. We currently have 80% of our assets in two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, which former SOF veteran Mike Vickers calls “a two-country solution to a 60 country problem.” To address the lack of a robust capability, we should:

  • Increase the SOF by three battalions
  • Increase SOF’s organic intelligence and UAV assets
  • Increase SOF’s HUMINT resources by 33%
  • Increase SOF’s organic stealthy aviation assets

In a world of persistent conflict, we should consider further institutionalizing SOF as a distinct Service-the Special Operations Force (SOF). Creating a Service, to include JCS representation, would further strengthen its representation in key planning circles in Washington. Most importantly, it would give SOF ownership of the personnel policies, career patterns, promotion paths, and other incentives within its own unique culture. SOCOM’s headquarters could be better used as a regional command for Africa (AFCOM).

Domestic Security

It is patently obvious since Hurricane Katrina that many homeland security deficiencies remain. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) requires significant and dedicated resources. Its budget of roughly $30B has to be increased twenty percent. It also needs to be reinforced by transferring the National Guard to DHS (less 15 Guard combat brigades). This would provide DHS with the leadership, command and control, transportation, medical and manpower assets to prepare and respond to both man-made and natural disasters.

The Coast Guard also needs to be retooled. Its aging ships and helicopters are not up to the task posed by new modes of warfare. The Integrated Deepwater System, the Coast Guard’s modernization program, should be accelerated. This program will provide modern cutters, aircraft, and a refurbished helicopter fleet. The program should be funded at $1.25B per year to accelerate its achievement in 10 vice 20 years. The Coast Guard’s end strength should be increased from 38,000 to 55,000.


Complex Irregular Warfare presents a mode of warfare that contests America’s overwhelming conventional military capability. It attacks the hubris behind the notion we could “redefine war on our own terms.” The impact of the 9/11, 3/11 and 7/7 attacks have not gone unnoticed by tomorrow’s enemies. Nor has our bloody experiences in Iraq which offered a rich laboratory for their education. Because of their success, protracted irregular conflicts will not be a passing fad nor will they remain low-tech wars. Our opponents eagerly learn and adapt rapidly to more efficient modes of killing. We cannot continue to overlook our own vulnerabilities or underestimate the imaginations of our enemies. In a world of Complex Irregular Wars, the price for complacency only grows steeper.

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