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Newsletter 11-34
June 2011

Chapter 1. A Balanced Approach to Irregular Warfare

ADM Eric T. Olson

Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2009 issue of
The Journal of International Security Affairs.

To successfully deter and confront the global insurgency threatening the world and our nation today, the U.S. military must be able to employ a balanced approach to warfare, carefully blending the full spectrum of military, para-military and civil action to achieve success. It is an approach I refer to as "balanced warfare." It is the manner in which our nation's Special Operations Forces are combating terrorism today, and it is the guiding principle behind the Department of Defense's campaign plan to combat global terrorism.

The environment

Today, we find ourselves living in a "new normal." The world is not going to go back to the way it was before 9/11. Our national security is threatened not only by terrorists and terrorist organizations, but also by fragile states either unwilling or unable to provide for the most basic needs of their people. Further, sovereignty is not what it used to be; advances in communications, transportation and global networking continue to make borders more transparent, economies more interconnected, and information available on an unprecedented scale. The effects of this globalization create stresses on underdeveloped and developing nations and societies, which in turn create regional instability and unrest.

As a result of our current environment, war is not what it used to be. Traditionally defined forms of warfare such as counterinsurgency, unconventional warfare and guerrilla warfare are now lumped under the umbrella term of "irregular warfare." We have commonly referred to the current conflict as the Global War on Terrorism, but this term means something else when translated into most other languages. Our current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, identified it best when he wrote recently, "What is dubbed the war on terrorism, in grim reality, is a prolonged, worldwide, irregular campaign-a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation."1 Regardless of how the term is defined, one thing remains constant: The type of warfare we fight on the ground is not determined by what forces we have on the ground; it is determined by our adversaries.

We need to be responsive enough to adjust rapidly to what the enemy throws at us, and we need to have the agility to transcend the spectrum of conflict. In many cases, fight at various levels of conflict simultaneously. The ability to do this successfully requires a holistic approach to warfare, aimed at both eliminating our most determined adversaries and eroding the conditions which led to their behavior.

The strategy

The Department of Defense campaign strategy against terrorism is contained in Concept Plan (CONPLAN) 7500. Crafted at the United States Special Operations Command and approved by the Secretary of Defense - first Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and subsequently Secretary Gates - it serves as both the guiding plan within the Department of Defense and a supporting plan in the interagency environment for combating terrorism. It is supported by regional Global War on Terrorism plans crafted by each of the geographic combatant commanders around the world.

The United States Special Operations Command is uniquely suited to develop a campaign plan for what is essentially a global insurgency. Formed primarily out of U.S. Army Special Forces and Naval Special Warfare units created to combat the guerrilla and insurgent threats facing the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, the Command can draw upon the resident knowledge and institutional expertise required for counterinsurgency planning. Since the Army officially established its Special Warfare Center in 1956 for the purpose of training its service members in counterinsurgency operations, unconventional warfare and psychological operations, the officers and noncommissioned officers assigned to these specialty areas are drawing on five decades of experience in developing the doctrine for, and conducting, insurgent and counterinsurgent warfare.

The approaches

CONPLAN 7500 provides the framework for two approaches for influencing the behavior of our adversaries: direct and indirect. While the direct approach focuses on isolating and defeating the threat, mostly through violent, kinetic actions, the indirect approach focuses on shaping and influencing the environment itself.

The direct approach consists of those efforts that disrupt violent extremist organizations - the polite way of saying capturing, killing, and interdicting terrorists and terrorist networks to prevent them from harming us in the near term. It also denies access to and use of weapons of mass destruction by violent extremist organizations, many of which have declared their specific intent to acquire and use such weapons to kill great numbers of people in the U.S. and elsewhere. These operations are conducted largely by the military. The direct approach is urgent, necessary, chaotic and kinetic, and the effects are mostly short term.

But they are not decisive. Enduring results come from the indirect approaches - those in which we enable partners to combat violent extremist organizations themselves by contributing to their capabilities through training, equipment, transfer of technology, wargaming, and so forth. It consists of efforts to deter tacit and active support for violent extremist organizations where the government is either unwilling or unable to remove terrorist sanctuaries. It is the efforts to shape and stabilize the environment that impact the enemy in the longterm. This is truly "draining the swamp," rather than simply attempting to capture or kill all of the "alligators."

In a global campaign against terrorism, these two approaches are rarely mutually exclusive of one another. While the direct approach is mostly decisive in its impact, it also buys the time for the indirect approach to have its desired effect. Capturing and killing adversaries will always be necessary, but we will not kill or capture our way to victory. Nor will we talk our way to victory. The key to long-term success in a global campaign against terrorism lies in changing behavior.

From theory to practice

Although these two approaches are easily defined in theory, they are often difficult to distinguish in practice. People, units and capabilities cannot be categorized as direct or indirect in nature; only activities can be, and only at the time they are occurring. Oftentimes, they are intertwined and occurring simultaneously.

A great example is what most Special Operations Forces are doing on most days in Iraq - eating, living, planning, preparing, and fighting with the Iraqi Special Operations Forces. When these forces fight, they look like us, they move like us, they shoot like us; they take all of the actions at the objective that we would. Through night-vision video, it is difficult to tell them apart from us. And that, after all, is the point. The ultimate effect is the enabling of our partners to combat violent extremist organizations themselves, so that eventually we can turn the operations over to them - and they will be able to control their own destiny. That intertwining happens several times a night, in several places across Iraq, and it consumes most of our force there on any given day. Disrupting violent extremist organizations has had a powerful impact in Iraq, and we are seeing a dramatic reduction of al-Qaeda's capability there.

Another example of the direct and indirect approaches to warfare can be seen in the counterinsurgency efforts being conducted by our Special Forces detachments in Afghanistan. During a recent seven-month deployment, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, consisting of about 2,400 total personnel, conducted nearly three thousand operations where the operation was expected to be non-kinetic (with no anticipation of an exchange of gunfire). Additionally, its soldiers conducted over two thousand operations where they anticipated, or experienced, an exchange of gunfire, resulting in several thousand enemies killed or captured. More importantly, they also treated 50,000 local nationals in medical, dental and various other kinds of clinics. Among their various humanitarian operations, they dropped nearly a million pounds of supplies in places that would not have otherwise received aid. They established 19 local radio stations and distributed almost 8,000 radios to ensure the broadcasts could be heard. They completed a large number of construction and engineering projects, often in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In turn, these projects, consisting of the construction of culverts, bridges, irrigation systems and schoolhouses, have had a tremendous impact on the local population.

Throughout the same period, the same task force-along with representatives from other branches of the U.S. military, various U.S. government agencies, and local Afghan security forces-employed 1,347 Afghans, and engaged heavily with the local population. In the event of a shura (an organized meeting of local leaders), a Special Forces A-Team Commander attended and negotiated any number of issues: "How can we help? How can we engage? What do you know that we might want to know?" During their seven-month deployment, these detachments went to such meetings more than 300 times. They also conducted less formal meetings, where, while on routine patrol, they would stop in a village and talk to the village elder. There were 950 of these meetings during the same period. A total of 1,200 engagements with local leaders took place during the course of that deployment, and these intertwining actions had a powerful effect on the battlefield.

The application of the balanced approach is not limited to areas where we are engaged in armed conflict, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Our nation's Special Operations Forces are also at work applying the indirect approach to combating terrorism in several other parts of the world as well. On a typical day, the operational forces of the U.S. Special Operations Command can be found in 60 to 70 countries, primarily conducting foreign internal defense (FID) and civil affairs operations.

In the case of FID, the effort is focused on enhancing the internal security of other nations, primarily through unit-to-unit engagement and training events. These operations either involve an Army Special Forces A-team, a Navy SEAL platoon, Air Force combat aviation advisors, or a Marine special operations team working in a remote place with a handful of counterparts. For many of the partner nation units, this is the most prestigious training they will get all year, and the participants are handpicked. Very important relationship building occurs during these FID events.

Civil affairs operations, some of which occur in conjunction with FID, nation building, and humanitarian assistance missions, are different. Under the umbrella of civil affairs operations, we do not paint schools and dig wells, but we help determine which schools need to be painted and where the wells should be dug. We normally contract with local organizations to do the work so everybody benefits. This also helps empower local leaders in their efforts to provide improved governance and services.

Persistent presence

The key to success in applying the indirect approach is persistence. Building partnerships requires the development of meaningful military-to-military relationships. That effort is long-term, and the effects are enduring. This approach not only builds partner nation capacity and regional stability, but it also deters the tacit and active support of sanctuaries that foster and develop future terrorists. Again, the effect is to drain the proverbial swamps-the perceived social injustice, and the persecution and intimidation-that can feed the germs of terrorist activity.

The decisive effects of such persistent engagement can be seen in places like the Philippines, where for over five years Special Operations Forces have been advising and assisting that nation's armed forces in their successful campaign against Islamic insurgents. Even more pronounced are the effects of our nation's persistent partnership with, and military engagement in, Colombia. For over 10 years, U.S. Special Operations Forces have been advising and assisting the armed forces of Colombia in the fight against the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). In recent years, the Colombian armed forces have dealt serious blows to that organization, culminating with the recent dramatic and brilliant rescue of U.S. and Colombian hostages in 2008 in an operation that was completely planned, led and conducted by Colombian forces.

Staying the course

The concepts behind balancing these direct and indirect approaches in what amounts to a global counterinsurgency effort are not new to irregular warfare. They are the product of the doctrine developed over decades by our Special Operations Forces. In a 1962 address to the U.S. Army Special Forces on the topic of what was then referred to as "special warfare," President John F. Kennedy stated:

Pure military skill is not enough. A full spectrum of military, paramilitary, and civil action must be blended to produce success. The enemy uses economic and political warfare, propaganda and naked military aggression in an endless combination to oppose a free choice of government, and suppress the rights of the individual by terror, by subversion and by force of arms. To win this struggle, our officers and men must understand and combine the political, economic and civil actions with skilled military efforts in the execution of this mission.2

Regardless of the name we use - special warfare, counterinsurgency warfare, irregular warfare - one thing is for certain: it characterizes the nature of warfare we are experiencing, and will experience, for the foreseeable future. We must recognize that "pure military skill" will not be enough. While the ability to conduct high-end, direct action activities will always remain urgent and necessary, it is the indirect approaches, working through and with others in building a global network of partners, that will have the most decisive and enduring effects.


1. Robert M. Gates, "A Balanced Strategy," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009.

2. John F. Kennedy, Speech to the United States Army, April 11, 1962, as reprinted in Special Warfare: An Army Specialty (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962).


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