An official website of the United States Government 
Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

.gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Great Power Competition Can Involve Conflict Below Threshold of War

You have accessed part of a historical collection on Some of the information contained within may be outdated and links may not function. Please contact the DOD Webmaster with any questions.

The U.S. Special Operations Command is preparing to meet the challenges of irregular warfare, which the Defense Department could face in the future from nations like Russia and China, the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict said.

Ezra Cohen spoke today at a virtual symposium sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association, "2020 Virtual SO/LIC."

Last year, the department published the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy

Today, DOD published the unclassified summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex.

The IW Annex provides clear guidance and objectives for the Joint Force to adapt and apply its IW capabilities to counter near-peer adversaries' malign activities below the level of armed conflict, Cohen said, mentioning that the document has five core themes.

First, DOD cannot afford to discard IW knowledge developed as a result of 19 years of irregular conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We must adapt and institutionalize those skills in ways that challenge our adversaries' strategies and shape the competitive landscape to our advantage," he said.

Over the past 75 years, the United States has been slow to recognize and accept the irregular character of the conflicts it enters, Cohen said. "Our doctrine, acquisition and training for conflict is excessively focused on maintaining deterrence or winning the high-end conventional war fight, when the simple reality is that modern warfare is not nearly that clear-cut."

Inside a cockpit, two pilots view the control panel as they fly over rugged terrain.
Cockpit View
Air Force pilots assigned to the 67th Special Operations Squadron, 352d Special Operations Wing, conduct a low-level, mountainous terrain flight over Albania in an MC-130J Commando II, May 23, 2020.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Aven Santiago
VIRIN: 200523-A-SM034-418M

When the United States has chosen to embrace IW, it has been prone to overextending itself through indefinite, direct action campaigns, nation building and other endeavors that call IW's value into doubt, he said, meaning that improvements in IW doctrine and capability must stem from those lessons learned.

Second, the department must prioritize IW innovation and increase readiness for IW conflicts, he said.

The U.S. Special Operations Command has historically served as a test bed for innovation, able to evaluate new technologies in the field or in warfare prior to integration across the conventional force. 

Great power competition elevates the requirement to innovate, as near-peer adversaries increasingly adapt their strategies to challenge the department's strengths, he said. "We must be aggressive in evaluating new technologies and techniques on the front lines before conflict forces us to field untested tactics, techniques and procedures."

For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning are important capability areas to hone as requirements continue to evolve, he said. To ensure an AI-ready workforce, U.S. Socom has enrolled a number of personnel in this year's AI program at DOD's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. 

This year, the department streamlined its procurement processes and brought better business practices into the acquisition process, Cohen noted. "This benefits our partnerships with industry."

Third, the department must be more proactive in competition and not solely reactive to crises and hostile provocation.

"Indeed, our adversaries have proven that irregular activities can proactively shape the environment to their advantage, all below the threshold at which we are likely to respond with conventional force," he said.

Three service members prepare to board a helicopter.
Special Ops
Special operations soldiers board a CH-47 Chinook before performing a static line drop onto Malmsheim drop zone during an airborne operation near Stuttgart, Germany, Sept. 10, 2020.
Photo By: Kenneth G. Takada, Army
VIRIN: 200910-A-VZ328-0837M
A man rides a snowmobile. A helicopter is behind him.
Special Forces
A Norwegian special forces soldier conducts training with the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), in northern Norway, March 8, 2020.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Pena
VIRIN: 200308-Z-EP075-027M

The IW Annex calls for the United States to embrace IW and employ a suite of tools to impose costs on malign activities, deter further aggression, shape the environment to maintain a favorable balance of power, and create dilemmas for adversaries — all well before armed conflict necessitates doing so at scale, Cohen said.

There is implied operational risk in this proactive approach, he noted. However, accepting some operational risk significantly buys down strategic risk and the risk of inaction. "By preparing for the extremes of all-out war or high-end deterrence alone, we risk missing the contest already underway and risk discovering that conditions are against us when crisis begins."

Fourth, the department must emphasize operations in the information environment, he said.

"Our adversaries have weaponized disinformation and propaganda to their advantage. They poison public discourse, undermine democratic processes, turn citizens against each other, and deflect blame for their malign activities," he said.

Adversaries embrace the anonymity of social media platforms and the viral nature of information flow as they employ information statecraft as an integral element of their approach to competition, he continued. 

State and non-state actors alike can create non-lethal military effects through the manipulation of the information space, he said. "To compete in the information environment, the United States must accept that influence is an integral aspect of modern warfare, not just a niche capability."

It requires a whole-of-government approach that integrates technical capabilities and institutional knowledge across civilian agencies, foreign partners and other entities, Cohen said. DOD also needs new information operations technology that will enable it to identify and isolate disinformation, as well as create and amplify fact-based narratives — and to do this at the speed of today's information environment. 

Three service members with weapons walk through a field as an aircraft hovers behind them.
Team Training
Air Force special tactics operators assigned to the 352d Special Operations Wing prepare to conduct a simulated medevac mission near Constanta, Romania, March 2, 2020.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 200319-O-QW123-050M

Fifth, irregular warfare is inherently an interagency affair, and the department must foster its interagency partnerships, including with non-governmental organizations.

In recent years, DOD has had closer cooperation with diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence partners for counterterrorism activities. The IW Annex calls for expanding that cooperation to address the requirements of great power competition, he said. 

Besides discussing the IW Annex, Cohen mentioned that on Sept. 10, he and U.S. Socom jointly signed a memo on diversity and inclusion in the organization. "As it stands today, the force is not reflective of our larger society — a fact that should give us all pause. Barriers exist that prevent us from accessing full population segments and their unique skills and perspectives — effectually leaving needed talent outside of our formations. 

"The contest for influence and legitimacy will require diverse perspectives and new ideas that resonate among relevant audiences. This is especially true as the department attempts to coordinate and integrate its operations in the information environment against foreign propaganda and disinformation," he said.

Related Stories