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Confronting the Unconventional: Innovation and Transformation in Military Affairs

Authored by Dr. David Tucker. | October 2006

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As the Quadrennial Defense Review Report for 2006 makes clear, the Department of Defense (DoD) is committed to transforming itself. In the years to come, it will continue to transform its regular or conventional warfare capabilities, that is, its capabilities to operate against the military forces of other states. But the Report also makes clear that DoD must give ?greater emphasis to the war on terror and irregular warfare activities, including long-duration unconventional warfare, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and military support for stabilization and reconstruction efforts.?

This ambitious agenda raises some questions. Are there limits to military transformation? Are there some changes that militaries cannot or should not make? Or, if it seems too obvious that there must be limits to transformation, what are they exactly, why do they arise, and how can we identify them so that we may better accomplish the transformation that the U.S. military is capable of? For example, can militaries transform themselves to deal with irregular threats? Should they? Will efforts to transform at the same time both regular and irregular warfare capabilities conflict? Will one transformation frustrate the other? If limits to military change and transformation exist, what are the broader implications for national policy and strategy? If transformation of both regular and irregular capabilities is not possible, which should we choose? And, again, to what extent is that choice in our power?

The following case studies of three militaries (the French, British, and American) that confronted irregular or unconventional threats in the midst of significant conventional threats offer some answers to these questions. In each case, the issue or important point is not that militaries are static or find it hard to change, as is often said. In all three cases, the militaries did, in fact, change or transform themselves. The important issue is which changes were possible, which proved superficial and faded, which endured and why. Answering these questions is important not just for defense planning and strategy. Answering them will affect national strategy as well, since DoD is part of a broader national effort to deal with the regular and irregular threats we face. If we understand DoD?s limitations, then we should be in a better position to devise an effective national approach.

As the case studies show, the three militaries responded to irregular threats, but did so differently and with different degrees of success. How do we explain these different responses? In the cases examined, external threats engaged the institutional interests and professional concerns of military officers and led to innovations. At the same time, military professionalism also led the militaries to see those threats through the conventions of the military profession. Political institutions and historical circumstances shape these conventions and help explain variations in the responses of the three militaries studied. But these variations take place within, and affect a larger convention common to all three that focuses on directly engaging and killing the enemy as the principal task of a military. Since this approach is not effective in irregular or unconventional warfare, to the degree that the militaries were limited to innovating within it, they failed. They were able to innovate but not to transform themselves to deal with irregular conflict.

Since the limitations that the militaries faced derived in part from historical circumstances, the conclusion of this monograph considers whether likely changes in these circumstances will improve the ability of the U.S. military to deal with irregular threats. The analysis considers the interconnected effects of four such circumstances or threats: increased irregular warfare; terrorist acquisition of chemical, biological, or radiological weapons; significant success for the Jihadist insurgency we now face; and the long-term rise of a great power rival. The analysis concludes that the best way to deal with both long- and short-term irregular threats is to establish two new organizations, a new kind of interagency organization devoted to unconventional warfare and an unconventional warfare organization within DoD.

Establishing these new organizations would acknowledge that irregular warfare has become a potent force but would not imply necessarily that the age of the nation-state and its distinctive style of warfare is over. It would imply only that nonstate forces are a serious threat; this is far less difficult to grasp since September 11, 2001, that nonstate forces pose a serious threat that deserves a transformative response different from, but as serious as the response DoD is making to the apparent revolution in military affairs in conventional warfare.