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An Integrated Approach to Irregular Warfare and Competition in the Modern Environment

Photo courtesy of the Center for Complex Operations

Captain Rucker Sydney*

Captain David Green*

*Editor's Note: In accordance with recent USASOC Policy 23-16, USASOC Personnel Use of Pseudonyms for Articles or Podcasts signed 27 JUL 23, any online attribution from members of USASOC, even those published outside of social media platforms, may cause operational vulnerabilities.

Therefore, all current USASOC or ARSOF-affiliated personnel submitting articles for publication through the Eunomia Journal will use a responsible, non-inflammatory pseudonym as an OPSEC measure. The pseudonym cannot resemble famous, infamous, current, or real people as per USASOC Policy 23-16 Section 4 Paragraph d.


In February 2023, The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) released a new document: the Joint Concept for Competing.[i] This text highlights for the Joint Force what a myriad of other documents, books, articles, and strategies have identified—the Carl von Clausewitz days of black and white conflict lines are, for the moment, behind us, and victory against the United States’ adversaries will not likely come in the form of a pitched battle, but relative advantage. This text comes as the Joint Force and national security establishment work to redefine our understanding of strategic competition and irregular warfare. The United States’ adversaries—namely Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Iran—have made very clear their strategies. In January 2023, a PRC balloon traversed the US before being brought down outside South Carolina.[ii] In March 2023, Iranian proxy militias launched multiple kinetic operations against US military forces in Syria, ultimately killing one American and wounding several.[iii] In April 2023, Russia arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter on counts of espionage—the first arrest of an American journalist since the end of the Cold War.[iv] Russia’s Gerasimov Doctrine—not dissimilar from the Soviet Union’s “active measures” campaign, and PRC’s “unrestricted warfare” campaigns seek to undermine the United States as the leader of a rules based international order.[v] Russia, PRC, Iran, North Korea, and other adversaries have successfully streamlined whole of government approaches to imposing costs on the United States. The institutions of state security and military complexes of adversarial countries have streamlined diplomatic, economic, espionage, cyber, and psychological warfare without the laws, bounds on authority, and civil oversight of the United States.

Considering this environment, the US is in a 1980s transition. In 1982, the US transitioned from Active Defense to AirLand Battle. Whereas Active Defense was a strategy based on preserving combat power in Europe, AirLand Battle was an offensive, mobile strategy designed to out-maneuver a Soviet armored attack.[vi] AirLand Battle was the recognition that it was time to not just deter the Soviets, but win. This strategy formed the nucleus of the Persian Gulf War, which was so well fought that it convinced our adversaries that conventional solutions were off the table, necessitating an irregular approach. The successes of 1991 and twenty years of GWOT provided maneuver space for competitors. The US national security establishment focus on surgical strike and counterterrorism capabilities also provided maneuver space for competitors over the 21st Century. Today’s AirLand Battle moment, a predicament bred from its very success, now exists in the shadows: irregular warfare, strategic competition, and victory realized through the long-term imposition of asymmetries across Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, and Infrastructure (PMESII) systems over an adversary. In this new environment, as articulated by both the Joint Concept for Competing and Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, Army forces will likely be a supporting effort to the interagency; forces trained in special warfare will likely be the instrument of choice.[vii]

Civil Affairs, with core competencies, training, and expertise in engaging with both indigenous institutions and the interagency, are likely to see an outsized effect in this new environment. Continued progress, however, is vital to ensure the long-term congruence of words with actions. This paper will make the following arguments and recommendations:

1. The concept of irregular warfare (IW) should become a functional sub-area within the competition framework or be directly tied to unique military capabilities supporting competition.

2. IW must grow beyond the five core tasks of Unconventional Warfare (UW), Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Stability Operations, Counterterrorism (CT), and Counterinsurgency (COIN). A definitive term, such as “Competition Activities” should be included within the IW framework. Competition Activities may be defined as Joint Force activities conducted in an environment below crisis, primarily through SOF, either through persistent or episodic engagement which support US strategic and theater objectives.

3. Expand Interagency broadening opportunities for Army SOF officers and NCOs, especially inside Career Management Field (CMF) 38.

4. Invest in more robust whole of government and irregular warfare centers, open not only to senior leaders but practitioner level Officers across the interagency.

5. Expand or redesign training events such as VIBRANT RESPONSE[viii], JADE HELM, SAGE EAGLE, or STALKHM as whole of government collaboration exercises. The goal of these exercises would be not to certify units for rotation, but to experiment in capabilities and force structure, build relationships, and learn how to properly layer effects and authorities prior to going overseas.

Strategic Competition and Irregular Warfare

The US Military, especially Special Operations Forces, have felt over the last several years the sharp focus change to reorient Special Operations Forces (SOF) capabilities towards IW. The US Army has made clear this change in its October 2022 publication of FM 3-0, Operations, which focuses heavily on activities the Joint Force conducts and supports below the level of crisis to compete with adversaries and prepare a theater of operations.[ix] These activities, in addition to clear competition, set conditions for success in military operations should a crisis occur. As these changes manifest across Doctrine, Training, Materiel, Leadership, Personnel, Facilities, and Policy (DOTMLPF-P), the notion of IW has rightly become scrutinized as well. There are two major issues with the current notion of IW that this paper will address. First, IW is currently structured inadequately to address strategic competition. Second as the DOD takes a largely supporting role to strategic competition and arguably IW, greater integration is necessary between SOF, interagency colleagues, and conventional forces.

The current definition of IW in joint terminology is “a struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s).”[x] Doctrine articulates five core special operations tasks within IW: COIN, CT, UW, FID, and Stability Operations.[xi] All these tasks are designed to support a friendly nation state against an internal or external threat, or to impose costs (coercion, disruption, or overthrow) on an adversarial regime. None of these IW tasks, however, directly correlate to larger DOD and SOF efforts to impose costs on third party adversarial nations through episodic or persistent SOF activity. While “warfare” implies a method of armed conflict against an enemy, strategic competition is “an enduring condition to be managed, not a problem to be solved.”[xii] IW is no longer comprehensive with respect to the modern competitive space, where adversarial nation states seek to sow discord through asymmetries across all domains. The role of IW in competition—the development of asymmetries and imposition of costs against an adversary through low visibility operations or unique capabilities— must be articulated and delineated from the larger competition environment.

In the 2022 publication of FM 3-0, Operations, Operations During Competition Below Armed Conflict lays out the methodology by which Army units set theaters for military options, compete in support of interagency goals, and prepare for success in crisis. Many of the tasks laid out as competition activities are congruent with IW, such as Foreign Internal Defense or Support to Security Sector Reform.[xiii] Many of these competition activities may occur in supporting roles to interagency initiatives, or may be layered to support other activities, such as Title 10 SOF access and placement through a Title 32 National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program. This example highlights the gap within existing IW core competencies. A National Guard training environment which supports DOS strategic objectives or providing access and placement for SOF activities may be a critical opportunity for competition or imposition of costs on adversaries, however, it nests within no existing IW competency. FID may only be argued if the training received is directly contributing to the Host Nation’s ability to combat an internal threat, which in many instances is not necessarily a reality. These competition activities, however, truly are how we build allies and impose costs on adversaries—but will not occur in a purely Title 10 environment nor nest well with current definitions of IW.

The DOD relationship with interagency must become more clearly defined. IW/strategic competition practitioners across defense, diplomacy, development, and intelligence circles must understand how capabilities, statutory authorities, and operational limitations impact layered effects, especially in Title 22 or Title 50-led environments.[xiv] For example, while many articles have been published in recent years adding to the literature on military operations outside traditional conflict, or the weaponization of “governance” or “rights,” very few of these pieces consider the reality of such initiatives, willingness of a senior leader at the Combatant Command or Embassy to accept this risk, or capability within Title 10 Authorities to execute.[xv] This is a known issue across the enterprise, and steps have been taken such as the establishment of a Whole of Government Center of Excellence at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. These institutes, however, largely focus on senior level leadership.

In Special Operations, while guidance comes from Task Force levels, the actual conduct of special operations in the field occurs at the Detachment level—this includes the relationships that are built both formally and informally within the US Embassy. Similarly, Captains and Majors find themselves in Embassies largely engaged with mid-career Operations Officers and Foreign Service Officers who may not have been exposed to SOF or DOD capabilities and authorities. There are several areas where DOD is supporting efforts in this regard, such as the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare and School’s (USAJFKSWCS) Irregular Warfare Planning Course (IWPC). Courses like IWPC provide not only an overview of the whole of government approach to competition but bring in senior practitioners from all elements of the interagency to provide capabilities briefs and receive student briefings. This is an immeasurable asset to understanding capabilities and limitations—both legal and cultural—between different agencies and departments. IWPC, however, has no interagency student audience, so lessons are provided almost exclusively to a DOD student body.

Stove-piped Successes Vignettes– National Guard Bureau and Department of State

This paper does not argue Strategic Competition or Irregular Warfare cannot be conducted independently; quite often agencies within or apart from the US Government make significant impact on the global scale singularly. It is argued, however, that through combining efforts agencies and branches can achieve a stronger, potentially longer lasting response and far greater returns on investment. Prime examples to look at through the lens of Strategic Competition are the National Guard Bureau and Department of State.

The National Guard Bureau, governed specifically under Title 32 USC, has the unique capability to partner by state directly with nations for training and exercises. Through Title 10 USC 341—the State Partnership Program (SPP)—National Guard Units can engage directly with partner forces to build partner capacity or conduct small unit exchanges. The SPP is advantageous as each relationship is focused on a specific country and is unbounded by time allowing for strong relationships, continuity, and integration, leading to enhanced US access and influence. Additionally, it builds close interpersonal relationships as participants from both sides continually engage with each other over the course of their careers. These relationships lead to bilateral organizational ties and mutual understanding.

The mitigating factor for the SPP is funding. The total FY22 budget for the SPP across the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard was $60.4M[xvi] combined to operate and maintain partnerships with 87 separate nations. While a budgetary increase would require a longer-term initiative and Congressional weigh in, amplification of existing efforts through SOF augmentation is possible. Embedding a SOF practitioner into an SPP mission set multiplies its effectiveness as a Strategic Competition tool for two distinct reasons. First, it highlights to the partner a willingness to share additional – perhaps more advanced or unconventional – practices with them therefore increasing trust. Additionally, it may highlight the premium of training capability offered by US forces, thereby displacing other SOF competitors that may be in or on the periphery of the environment.

Separate from US DOD activities, there are US State Department activities that reverberate through the Strategic Competition landscape to maintain the current world hegemonic structure. One of specific note comes through the lens of Cyber Activities and access to information: the Internet Freedom and Operations (INFO) Act of 2022. Through this legislation the Secretary of State can make up to $2.5M from the Economic Support Fund available to vetted entities to provide “internet freedom programs” to populations whose governments restrict or close off internet access[xvii]. This program shows that DoS can fund programs to mitigate restrictions to information in nations that attempt to censor the internet. This is an immediate strategic competition victory as it facilitates the free flow of information and therefore discourse in blatant juxtaposition to an oppressive regime, thereby introducing outside influence into the competition space. These programs may be amplified in the information environment to enforce narratives that the US will ensure the provision of information and knowledge those from whom it is being intentionally withheld.

This was actively utilized in the private sector[xviii] for the US Central Command (USCENTCOM) area of operations with clear success following passage in 2022. Proxy servers allowed Iranian citizens access to the internet free of state censorship ensuring their access to information. These capabilities may also be utilized for benefit to defense or intelligence practitioners, layering effects in support of competition or irregular warfare. An interagency venture would allow the commercial assets being used to be back stopped and catalogued for intelligence value, potentially exposing botnets, or areas of interest. Or at the most basic level, provide a significant financial boost to the program through an interagency venture with the Department of Defense. Using USCENTCOM as an example, these capabilities, properly layered, can work in Iran: a denied environment on the far spectrum of competition, as well as in the Central Asian States: much more permissible and actively in the sights of Russia and the PRC.

The largest mitigating factor with these stove-piped successes is education and opportunity. The average tactical operator either is not aware these programs exist or is aware of the programs but is unsure how they may be leveraged. SOF operators working in an Embassy setting or supporting a regional mission should have greater awareness of these capabilities to provide critical bottom-up feedback to the Theater Special Operations Command, US Embassy Country Team, or supported Task Force. While it is understood that these examples are Congressionally Funded programs with long-lead times and significant oversight, they provide critical function that supports direct competition to Russia, Iran, or the PRC. If tactical level practitioners in both DOD and DOS were aware, educated, and versed in the programs that each Agency can implement, complimenting efforts could be planned at a minimum.

Recommendations Across DOTMLPF-P

IW should become clearly supportive or subordinate to strategic competition. IW can serve as a functional sub-area within strategic competition, in reference to the Joint Concept for Competing. IW would nest within this framework with more articulation, provide greater understanding to the interagency, and maintain a definition of the military tools utilized to support a country against threats—either external or internal—stabilize a friendly nation state, or impose costs on an adversarial state through unique military capabilities. A capability within IW—competition activities—may be added to the lexicon to address the myriad of DOD unique programs that support strategic cooperation and competition, such as the National Guard Bureau’s SPP. Competition Activities may be defined as Joint Force activities conducted in an environment below crisis, primarily through SOF, either through persistent or episodic engagement which support US strategic and theater objectives.

The DOD and interagency must commit to greater understanding, training, and collaboration not just at senior levels but at the practitioner level. While programs such as the Irregular Warfare Center and Whole of Government Center of Excellence are also of vital importance, these opportunities should be broadened to the Company and junior Field Grade levels of the DOD and mid-career Foreign Service and Intelligence Officer ranks. These opportunities would not only build relationships but better expose different agencies to the capabilities and restrictions on differing authorities and capabilities. Two methods for developing this understanding include interagency training exercises and enhanced broadening opportunities across the interagency.

First, USASOC should look at reformatting, or adding to, existing exercises such as STALKHM, JADE HELM, or SAGE EAGLE to include a greater emphasis on interagency training. The purpose of these exercises should not be to validate special operations companies to deploy, but to experiment, build understanding among interagency partners, and train together in a variety of environments. Agencies across diplomatic, development, defense, and intelligence circles may experiment with force structure designs such as the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) or Civil Affairs Task Force (CATF). Additionally, these venues may be set in environments such as unconventional warfare, steady state environments where SOF supports a Chief of Mission, or complex emergencies where a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) from USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) requires military assistance. STALKHM, a 95th CA BDE (SO) (A) exercise, may serve as a preferred venue, due to CA emphasis on interorganizational collaboration.

Second, a greater emphasis on interagency assignments may also benefit not only SOF but the entire interagency. SOF Officers and NCOs, especially Civil Affairs due to the interagency nature of their work, should have greater opportunities to serve as Desk Officers, Specialized Skills Officers, Reporting Officers, and Analysts at a variety of agencies, such as the Department of State. Additionally, SOF Officers and NCOs should be provided more opportunity to refine their craft and build interagency interoperability through DOS courses. The Foreign Service Institute’s Political – Economic Tradecraft Course or Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) are examples of US Government courses which enhance SOF capabilities without relying on contracted training while also building relationships across the enterprise. Finally, Foreign Service Officers should have greater latitude to train with and support SOF formations in training. For example, a direct relationship between DOS’s Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs and the 96th CA BN (SO) (A) would build relationships that may yield fruit over time.


In US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), the discussion on SOF’s value proposition within the Joint Force has begun rebalancing from surgical strike capabilities to special warfare. While both competencies mutually benefit each other and the conduct of irregular warfare, it is being recognized by senior leaders that focus on special warfare is the bulk of SOF’s value proposition to the Joint Force in the modern operational environment.[xix] Irregular Warfare will continue to become more important to American foreign policy, and SOF across the enterprise is paying attention. USSOCOM, the DOD, and the national security enterprise is moving forward in modern solutions to a rising multipolarity in the international order, and should the US not compete to win daily, the world may soon begin looking different. To prevent this, the DOD and interagency find themselves at a crossroads moment. Greater integration across the enterprise is now necessary to ensure shared understanding on Joint, Interagency, and perhaps Intergovernmental activities, capabilities, authorities, and initiatives. Irregular Warfare as a shared definition should continue seeking revision, while a core competency under IW addressing activities and investments utilized to impose costs on our adversaries in a steady state environment should be added to the lexicon. A greater sharing of interagency assignments between agencies should begin, and exercises should be developed that incorporate different agencies and problem sets that all organizations face in the operational environment, but do not necessarily adequately train for together, such as humanitarian emergencies within a conflict. SOF is a force multiplier for the entire national security apparatus, and greater integration with the interagency provides more capability for the SOF kit bag at a time when the US needs it most.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect any official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, of any other U.S. government agency.


Captain Rucker Sydney is a Civil Affairs Instructor in Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (A). Captain Sydney was a Civil Affairs Team Leader in the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (SO) (A). He holds a B.A. in Foreign Affairs from Hampden-Sydney College. He has deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in support of Operation Spartan Shield, and to Jordan in support of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force—Levant. Prior to joining Civil Affairs, he served as an infantry officer.

Captain David Green is a Civil Affairs Officer assigned to US Special Operations Command-Central (USSOCCENT) as the Commander’s Action Group Director. Captain Green was a Civil Affairs Team Leader in the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (SO) (A). He holds a M.A. in International Relations from St. Mary’s University and B.A.s in History and Socio-Anthropology from Knox College. He has deployed to Lebanon in support of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force—Levant and to the Republic of Korea as part of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission. Prior to joining Civil Affairs, he served as a logistics officer.


[i] U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Concept for Competing, 2023 (Washington, DC: GPO). [ii] Jim Garamone. “F-22 Safely Shoots Down Chinese Spy Balloon Off South Carolina Coast,” DOD News, Feb 4, 2023,

[iii] Dan Lamothe and Missy Ryan. “Biden warns Iran after U.S. forces clash with proxy groups in Syria,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2023.

[iv] Vivian Salama and William Mauldin. “U.S. Deems WSJ Reporter Evan Gershkovich ‘Wrongfully Detained’ By Russia,” The Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2023.

[v] Seth Jones, Three Dangerous Men (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc), 13.

[vi] U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual 100-5, Operations, 1986 (Washington, DC: GPO).

[vii] U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0, Operations, 2022 (Washington, DC: GPO), 4-8.

[viii] VIBRANT RESPONSE is a Defense Security Cooperation Exercise. JADE HELM, SAGE EAGLE, and STALKHM are US Army Special Operations Command training exercises run with various SOF formations.

[ix] U.S. Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0, Operations, 4-1.

[x] U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy, 2020 (Washington, DC: GPO), 2.

[xi] U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-05, Special Operations, 2020 (Washington, DC: GPO), II-2.

[xii] U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Concept for Competing, 7. [xiii] Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0, Operations, 4-50.

[xiv] Title 10 US Code governs military operations, while Title 50 US Code governs the intelligence community, of which the U.S. Department of Defense is a leading member. [xv] Andru Wall, “Demystifying the Title 10-Title 50 Debate: Distinguishing Military Operations, Intelligence Activities & Covert Action” Harvard National Security Journal, Vol. 3 (2011), 86.

[xvi] U.S. Department of Defense, DOD Budget Request FY 2022, 2022 (Washington, DC: GPO).

[xvii] U.S. Congress, S-3764: Internet Freedom and Operations (INFO) Act of 2022, 2022 (Washington, DC: GPO).

[xviii] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “U.S. Treasury Issues Iran General License D-2 to Increase Support for Internet Freedom,” US Treasury Department Press Releases, September 23, 2022.

[xix] Special Warfare is defined by UASASOC as “The execution of capabilities that involve a combination of lethal and nonlethal actions taken by a specially trained and educated force that has a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain, or hostile environment” (U.S. Department of the Army, Army Doctrinal Publication 3-05, Special Operations, 2020.)[xix]



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