The Coming Age of Special War

The last couple weeks have witnessed one of the most significant periods in decades in the annals of diplomatic history. Having deeply mishandled the domestic side of the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration proceeded to worsen matters by, in effect, outsourcing the problem to Vladimir Putin. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m pessimistic about any Moscow-brokered WMD deal having the effects that the West desires. That said, much remains to be seen, as this issue is really only in the first chapter of diplomatic resolution.

However, I’m confident in stating that the United States backing off from overt military intervention in Syria’s civil war has important implications, already visible, for the U.S. military. That diplomats, not generals and admirals, were walking point in the White House on this issue has been widely noted, as has a budding civil-military conundrum that will very likely get worse in the years ahead.

Looming over all this, though, is the reality that the U.S. military may have simply priced itself out of the market. After the thrashing of Saddam’s forces in early 1991 by a U.S.-led coalition in Operation DESERT STORM, it was evident to nearly everyone that facing America’s military in a stand-up fight was a losing proposition. Our technological lead, coupled with superb command-and-control (C2), gave the United States a remarkable competitive edge in the tactical-to-operational realm of warfare. Strategy, however, would prove a much tougher nut for the Pentagon to crack. Even Saddam, in the years after his 1991 defeat, never seriously planned for conventional resistance against any future U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which even the man from Tikrit realized was a fool’s errand.

In the heady time of Blitzkrieg triumphs early in World War II, Hitler famously proclaimed “nothing is impossible for the German soldier” (dem deutschen Soldaten ist nichts unmöglich) and in the salad days of U.S. hegemony after 1991 that Nazi mirage seemed to have been realized, at last, by the Americans. Yet tactical awesomeness does not equal strategic competence, and any serious analysis of U.S. military performance since 9/11, in the era of the Global War on Terror, must conclude that Americans arms failed to deliver promised political outcomes in either Iraq or Afghanistan. While there is much blame for this to be laid at the feet of barmy politicos, U.S. top military leadership is equally culpable for the strategic setbacks. History will not be kind to the likes of Generals Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, to cite only two particularly egregious examples, and any attempt to dodge this truth can fester into a kind of “stab in the back legend” (to allow a second Germanism in one paragraph), a fate to be avoided at all costs.

Above all, the U.S. is broke. This week, while addressing the baleful impact of sequestration on the Pentagon, three of our four service chiefs bluntly informed Congress, in open session, that they could not execute even one Major Theater War under current financial conditions. Since the end of the Cold War, the MTW has been the military’s gold standard. Down to 9/11, the Pentagon’s positions was that it could fight two MTWs simultaneously; now, with readiness in trouble due to wars and empty coffers, the reality has set in that the Pentagon is facing a crisis. The post-modern American war of warfare, which very few if any countries could hope to match in complexity and cost, is now so expensive that even Americans can no longer afford it. The strategic impact of this realization promises to be vast and far-reaching.

Conflict, though, shows no signs of evaporating. We can expect a gradual move away from the high-intensity warfare that the U.S. has perfected in the tactical-operational realm. Which may be just as well, given the current state of the U.S. military, particularly our ground forces, which are tired after 12 years of counterinsurgency in CENTCOM. Although the possibility of force-on-force conflict with China seems plausible, particularly given rising tensions in East Asian waters, the rest of the world appears uninterested in fighting the United States the way the U.S. likes to fight.

This, paradoxically, may not actually be good news in the long run, as the United States is seriously unready for other forms of conflict. Worse, the U.S. Government has persuaded itself that it is more ready for lower-intensity forms of conflict than it actually is. To be fair, in recent years the Pentagon, in collaboration with the Intelligence Community, has made UAVs a serious threat to terrorists around the world, while DoD’s Special Operations Forces – as large as the entire militaries of many Western countries – are the envy of the world in terms of their size, budgets, and capabilities. Yet all these are really just somewhat more subtle forms of traditional military applications of force.

What is needed instead is a serious capability in what some Eastern intelligence services term “special war,” an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims. I’m afraid the U.S. Government falls quite short in those two departments.

The apparently total inability of the U.S. Government to keep secrets these days indicates a basic unreadiness for special war. Just as serious an obstacle is the mindset of most U.S. warfighters, which remains vividly conventional and unimaginative. No less, the risk aversion that characterizes too many American military and intelligence operations, caused by having lawyers oversee everything the Pentagon and the IC do, will have to be dispensed with if America wants to develop any real capabilities in special war.

There are templates to follow. Britain and France are more proficient in aspects of special war than we are, in part due to a legacy of colonial-era operations that lingers in London and Paris. Israel in particular is comfortable with the nuts and bolts of special war – aggressive espionage, subversion of hostile foreign factions, and even assassinations  – but the Israeli model has its limits. In the first place, it’s questionable how much a system developed for a small state with a defined set of foes can be expanded to meet the needs of a huge global power. Moreover, Israeli political culture is tolerant of special war, including the mistakes that inevitably accompany it, showing a degree of public maturity about such messy matters that seems seriously lacking in the United States.

Unfortunately there is one country that excels at special war, and that’s Russia. Moscow’s proficiency in these dark arts goes back to the late Tsarist period, when the regime’s solution to a rising terrorism problem was to penetrate terrorist groups while creating some of their own: a politically tricky strategy that worked nearly perfectly, as long as one is willing to close one’s eyes at key moments. Proficiency in espionage, subversion, and terrorism was perfected under the Soviets, yet the skills of Russian intelligence in this domain have, if anything, increased under the rule of President Putin who, by virtue of being a onetime KGB counterintelligence officer, fully comprehends the power of special war.

Putin’s years in power have witnessed a blossoming of special war in Chechnya, where intelligence-led counterinsurgency has worked where blunter military methods failed to subdue the rebellion; in the Baltic states, where Russian intelligence successfully influences and intimdates these small NATO countries; and especially in Georgia, where the full range of Russian secret tricks has been employed intensely. The August 2008 Russian military intervention got the world’s attention, while the day-in, day-out activities waged by Moscow against Tbilisi, encompassing a rough form of spywar, get little press outside the region. The lead-up to the Obama administration’s agreement to a Russian offer to settle the Syrian WMD issue is a classic case of Moscow’s active measures – a key aspect of special war – setting the field for a big Russian diplomatic win.

Special war works when competently handled. It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting. The United States at present is not ready – organizationally, legally, politically, or culturally – to compete in special war. But getting proficient in special war will soon not be a choice, but a necessity. We’re already losing at it, whether we realize it or not, and the current trajectory is worrying. Over 2,500 years ago Sun Tzu, an early advocate of special war, argued that the acme of skill is not winning battles, rather subduing your enemy without actually fighting. It’s about time the Pentagon caught on.


60 comments on “The Coming Age of Special War”
  1. srose says:

    Isn’t subduing an enemy without actually fighting what we’ve just witness in the last few weeks?
    Haven’t we been trying to get Russia to proactively participate re. Syria for two years?
    The “rebel’s” haven’t been able to keep a lead negotiator for more than a few months at a time, they aren’t ready to negotiate. Aren’t the main people to negotiate with the general’s and not Assad who is expendable?

    Unless one believes in US hegemony and the US being the world’s policeman, then we have to reframe our vision of the US image in the world and it won’t be as big and puffed up as we have been accustomed to. It might be a little ego damaging, hence the abuse heaped on Obama, but all in all it’s not such a bad thing. Can’t we imagine a US/Russian relationship that isn’t an existential battle?

  2. Gary Anderon says:

    Quit complaining. Just because your Zionist friends didn’t get regime change you cry like a baby. Go back to the cave from whence you came, author.

    1. 20committee says:

      Yeah, pawn of the Zionists that’s totally me (shhhh).

      1. bgamall says:

        Sorry, author,, I have been frustrated at the articles that have shown up on Business Insider, ie, the relentless pro regime change, pro rebel articles there. I apologize for offending you, but I hope that you would choose to spend as much time on the evils of disrupting the entire middle east as you would on terror. To me, terror is found at home as much as it is abroad.

        And to my way of thinking, ruling the world is simply a neocon effort to secure the Yinon Plan.

        You may also be interested in this take:

      2. 20committee says:

        I am very far from being a neocon, FYI.

      3. bgamall says:

        If you aren’t a neocon, that is all good. I want to make a distinction between ruling the West and ruling the world. I see that the leader of the West is the USA. I accept that. Ruling the world is quite another matter and we should not aspire to that responsibility.

  3. I’d held off commenting earlier, because I wanted to see Syria fully committed to removal of its rather nasty WMD arsenal.

    Now they have turned over at least partial lists, and have begun (satellite verified) collection of their stockpiles-and it would seem to me it is too late for them to back out.

    The problem WAS addressed with a bit of (old-fashioned) “special warfare” – called “Good Cop/Bad Cop”–in which the US played the role of Bad Cop, and Russia played Good Guy.

    Problem solved – at the expense of a bit of saber-rattling—rather than at the cost of American lives.

    Special warfare DOES work-even though there are those eager to “count coup” on an administration.

    (Present company excepted, I assume.)

  4. P.O. Patron says:

    I think you are missing the point. One, the United States and its people are tired of being the World Policeman. The administration did not take this into account. Two, the United States cannot militarily, financially or expend the lives of our citizen soldiers in pursuing a policy of World Policeman. The Sunni’s and Shiites have been at war, a religious war for centuries. That is their battle not ours.

    The concern of the people of the United States must be what is best for the people of the United States. We have to turn around the old adage, “WHAT IS GOOD FOR GM, IS GOOD FOR THE UNITED STATES.” Now it should be changed to “WHAT IS GOOD FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, IS GOOD FOR THE MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS.” We as a country should be more concerned with exporting products not exporting jobs.

    When the United States military went into Iraq, the second time and Afghanistan, we were undefeated. It was only after we attempted a civilian Vietmanization type policy that we lost, both treasure and people. The greatest lost of military personnel was due to land mines, not battles. We should have taken the advise of General Mac Arthur, don’t get involved in land wars in Asia or any other third world country.

    The policies of the United States government need to move away from defending the price of oil, or manufacturing in the far east. We need to rebuild our country by rebuilding our industry, Detroit is a good example. We need to make it safe to walk the streets in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or any other American city. We need to reform the military-industrial complex from making overly expensive weapon systems that are purchased before they are tested to find out if they work. We need a national security system that does not “contract out” our intelligence or background checks and protects the constitutional rights of the American citizens.

    We need a two party political system that actually works and brings to our government the best ideas of both parties. We need to stop the “fraticide” in Congress over the one of the most basic human rights the right to health care when we are sick and on the streets of our cities from gun violence.

    I guess a I could go on for another three pages but that is enough, for one speech.


    1. 20committee says:

      I love your enthusiasm.

    1. 20committee says:

      So I failed to explain everything about US defense policy in a single blog post. Noted.

  5. ER says:

    Can’t trust Putin or Assad. They are both dictators who answer only to themselves and lie to everyone else.

    1. bgamall says:

      You can’t trust Putin or Assad, but they are the only counterweight to the neocons and Yinon Zionists. Don’t forget, before he died, Larry Eagleburger said he fully expected nukes to be lobbed between the US and Russia. I heard it with my own ears on Kudlow. Now, can you trust a neocon like that ER? I didn’t think so.

      1. bgamall says:

        I don’t know who ER is. He just said “Can’t trust Putin or Assad…”

  6. basil charleston says:

    yes, the US is behind and I see them as quite naive too… check out the last chapter of this book, written 25 years ago….

  7. Homer Simpson says:

    The United States at present is not ready – organizationally, legally, politically, or culturally – to compete in special war.

    What, if anything, do you think will bring about a change towards the acceptance of special war in America? The Germans were smart, but were by no means clever, and America is perhaps the same way. We’ve got bombs with supercomputers in them! Why bother with the messy cloak and dagger business?

    1. 20committee says:

      Perhaps when USG can no longer afford conventional approaches any longer, at least not on a global basis.

  8. Steve says:

    Do you believe that “special war” is compatible, in the medium to long-term, with a functioning democracy?

    1. 20committee says:

      It can be, if addressed properly.

      1. J. Daniel says:

        Impressive insight. Here’s a view from a 3rd culture kid: Our unemployed don’t go where the jobs are, we aren’t comfortable with the cultures or languages, firms and agencies don’t demand the skills since there’s enough money to be made here, and our academics/training doesn’t prepare us well (commercial & gov). Addressing it properly would mean taking from a large pool but at best you’ve got a small source of local talent. They’d still rely on technical advances and IT sources of information. It’s a good thing we believe we’ve got a couple of decades of before this becomes an issue.

  9. Upandaway says:

    I’m not so sure you are totally correct about US ineptness in Special Warfare, and I don’t think this way of acting is as unproblematic as described in this post.

    The global network of surveillance that has been described through the Snowden leaks is in my mind very much a form of Special Warfare. Coupled with the use of drones, special forces and cruise missiles, the US has quite a toolkit in this area. Also, the US has been quite notorious for their use of Special Warfare throughout the Cold War. Some of the US “successes” in that era came through the use of underhanded tactics and proxies, while some of the failures (Vietnam!) came through the use of more conventional solutions…

    …which brings me to the topic of Blowback. The main problem with using Special Warfare is that you come to be seen as a duplicious scumbag who will lie and cheat in order to gain even a little bit of advantage. Once people are convinced that an actor is using underhanded methods, they will start to see that actor’s fingerprints in places that actor has nothing to do with. They become paranoid, and will go to great lenghts not to be fooled again.

    The Russians, the Chinese and the Israelis have this problem in spades. Since there is such an astonishing variety of examples and instances where their involvement have been proven or suspected, they cause great hatred and fear in their neighbours who will always have a nagging suspicion that there is a plot brewing and that they need to be vigilant to it. Once you have a solid reputation for doing these sort of actions, it may take generations to regain trust…

    …provided you actually stop doing it. For the US, a recent example can be found in the spectacular Brazilian reaction to the revelations about the NSA’s activities. While I have little sympathy for their naivety and their extremely lax protections, it is hardly surprising that a region who in living memory was subjected to the “Monroe Doctrine” might be a teensy bit uncomfortable with that sort of meddling. That current Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff was tortured by the US-sponsored military dictatorship certainly doesn’t help!

    In short, while Special Warfare looks “cheap” up front, and certainly can be an immensly disruptive *tactic*, there are many reasons to refrain from using it as a long term *strategy*. The more you invest in these capabilities, the less efficient it gets (people are harder to fool as they know you will stop at nothing) and the higher the costs of blowback to seemingly unrelated areas.

    On top of that, there is also the very real concern that these forces will be unleashed on your own populance… If Special Warfare can be used to accomplish a political aim in a foreign country, many of the same tools risk being used for political gain at home.

    This last concern is of course a fairly big topic in the US in relation to the NSA. Given that many Americans were already fairly paranoid and cynical about their government, the ongoing revelations have not helped one bit. I would go so far as to argue that these forms of suspicions very much contributes to the current dysfunction of your national politics. People have learnt the hard way to not trust politicians and senior technocrats to tell them the truth.

    1. 20committee says:

      I love your enthusiasm.

  10. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    This Sept, 2013 post was chillingly prophetic.

  11. bobthelog says:

    perhaps a special war based on honesty, generosity and compassion could take America in the right strategic direction…

  12. Frank says:

    I agree the Russians are superior practitioners of special war, but Ukraine is a kind of cherry picked example. Its physically proximate, contains a significant proportion of ethnic Russian speakers, and was ruled by a very pro-Russian faction until very recently. All of these make the operational environment very favorable.

    1. 20committee says:

      Cooperative adversaries also help.

  13. jmedaille says:

    If America cannot do special warfare, it is because she has lost an ability she once had. Think of Iran, South America, Central America, Ghana and half the African states at least, and very likely other places we’ll never know about. Indeed, didn’t that used to be the CIA’s main job? It may be that special operations have displaced special warfare, but we sure knew how to do it at one time.

    1. 20committee says:

      We certainly were once better at SW than now, but the Russians were always a lot better at it, honestly.

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