Why We Need A Modern Theory of Special Warfare to Thrive in the Human Domain

By Arnel P. David, Dave Allen, Dr. Nicholas Krohley and Dr. Aleksandra Nesic


Published today in Eunomia Journal's UK Affiliate, Wavell Room Disclaimer: This was written for a British audience using Her Majesty's English



“We have been inclined to believe that our armed forces are excessively professional and regular. This war [WW2] has shown, as others have done before it, that the British make the best fighters in the world for irregular and independent enterprises….where daring, initiative and ingenuity are required in unusual conditions it can be found from both the professional and unprofessional fighters of the British race.” — Field Marshall Earl Wavell 

Tradition and heritage are enduring qualities of many military organisations. The British Army is rich with history and centuries-old regiments, but is in danger of being too steeped in its past that it loses relevance in the present. Changes must be made, but without sacrificing grace and warfighting capability. The present zeitgeist is a litany of buzzwords (e.g. “hybrid warfare”, “the grey zone”, “constant competition”, and “sub-threshold”), which swirl throughout contemporary military literature. Strategies and plans are made, but lack execution or meaningful implementation. This is due, in part, to a state of strategic confusion, wherein ill-defined concepts are being deployed without adequate grounding in a coherent theoretical framework.


This article explains why we need a renewed examination of theories. It reinvigorates the British Army’s long tradition of using an indirect approach to thrive in the human domain. War is a political act performed by humans. It is on land, amongst people, that the military must prevail. Defence must posture not only with platforms, but also through investment in highly skilled human operators who have been educated, trained, and equipped to excel in the human domain.


This article does two things. First, it makes the case for why theory is essential to support concept development and strategy. At present, we suffer a cognitive dissonance between concepts and strategy, which is rooted in a lack of foundational theories. A lack of rigorous theory leads to “shallow bumper sticker”[i] ideas, which are equally sticky and unhelpful. Success in the human domain requires concepts and capabilities that are built on a solid foundation of theory fit for purpose, specifically, a theory of a special type of warfare that is waged in complex human environments, using traditional and non-traditional means to achieve a position of strategic advantage. Second, this article explains what types of challenges a theory of this special warfare can begin to solve. ‘Special’ in this case is not ‘better’ or ‘more elite’, but instead, simply different and non-traditional. In the end, this article will show how the British Army can operate globally, with stronger relationships, greater understanding, and extended influence.


Why Theory?


The British Army needs capability and capacity to understand, interpret, and influence human behaviour. It is soldiers who will be on the ground early, working with an indigenous populace, understanding a given situation, and providing critical context to both civilian and military leadership. Soldiers must navigate complex social systems, and operate at a speed that creates vital decision space. Critically, they must do so with an understanding of second and third order effects, ensuring their actions do not create more problems than they solve. Put simply, our warfighters have learned that contemporary tactical actions have direct political consequences.[ii] Our frontline personnel are operating on complex human terrain, where they are often overmatched by competitors with a superior understanding of the local populace, and have far greater leeway to manipulate local dynamics to achieve effects. Without a unified theory in this age of persistent competition, how can we educate, train, and equip soldiers for success?


Our current approach to the human domain lacks depth and rigour. Theory is absent. Methods and tradecraft are underdeveloped, and often improvised. Thinking and theory have been largely outsourced to civilians, forgetting the fact that theory is a core responsibility of military professionals. Theory precedes concepts, doctrine, and strategy,[iii] just like any other profession. Do doctors conduct surgery without understanding theories of medicine, or lawyers practice law without an understanding of its spirit? Perhaps institutions like the Army are ‘running hot’, and consumed by the administrative demands of the day, leaving no time for theoretical exploration and reading. Brilliant battlefield commanders are known to possess coup d’oeil, but this rapid ‘thin slicing’ of situations does not hone the military judgment required for complex problems on a staff.


Concept development, strategy formulation, and theoretical exploration require academic study and intellectual engagement. Theory is essential as a description of the elements of the environment, an indication of the workings and interaction of those elements, and a path to determine what winning looks like within defined policy parameters.[iv] Theories also provide a logical structure from which we derive predictions, and those predictions guide strategic choice.[v]


In the context of the human domain, a theory of special warfare is needed. Modern conflict and competition are predominantly a fight for influence. This fight is less decisive than war from previous eras. In addition, there appear to be diminishing returns from the substantial investments made in conventional military weaponry. While many in defence continue to chase technological panaceas, scientists and scholars have declared that the social sciences are the science of the twenty-first century.[vi] Technology is ascendant in our popular culture, yet one general warns that we are entering an epochal shift, where controlling the amplification of competition and conflict will be human and biological, rather than organizational or technological (see figure 1 below).[vii] Despite the innovations of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, the essence of modern warfare and competition remains among the people, and will continue to be driven by the people. As such, special types of soldiers and unique partners need the ability to understand, work with, and influence people.


This indirect way of operating, and attendant capabilities, make this a domain of warfare that can best be described as ‘special’.[viii] We must pause here to echo an important distinction. While we use the word ‘special’, we do not necessarily mean elite or better, but rather different. As Wavell’s opening quote shows, this has long been a core strand of Britain’s strategic DNA. Meanwhile, western militaries continue to apply ad hoc fixes, when entirely new types of career models need to be built to support these modern ways of operating. A new warrior class is needed, to complement our existing lethal force, creating increased battlefield synergy. These new warriors need not be “perfect” soldiers by traditional military standards, so long as they are the “right” soldiers with the right skills for our current challenges. The cyber warfare community has recognized this dynamic, and is adapting its staffing and training model accordingly. Comparable innovations are needed elsewhere across the Army, and a theory on the desired capabilities and effects for special warfare can drive this development. This theory will need to address emergent challenges with strategic compression in the decision cycle, new training and educational modalities, and develop systems for operating amongst and within human networks.


Figure 1 illustration developed by authors, derived from The Age of “Amplifiers” by Alan Beyerchen in Scales on War and “Time and Command” in Envisioning Future Warfare by General Gordon R. Sullivan and Lieutenant General James M. Dubik.

Strategic Compression


John Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict shows how past tactics were unable to keep pace with the maelstrom of complexity in emergent weaponry, arguing that this was a determinant factor that decided outcomes in war. Commanders who clung on to old ways of operating exhausted finite resources on capabilities and platforms that provided limited returns. This dynamic holds true today. The modern strategic compression of both time and depth brings the enemy into our homes, and into our social media feeds. Pervasive access to information presents both opportunities and dilemmas for state institutions. Strategies for data collection and information synthesis are needed to support rapid decision making, and should be incorporated into a new theory.