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Armed Groups and Irregular Warfare: Adapting Professional Military Education

Armed Groups and Irregular Warfare: Adapting Professional Military Education by Richard Shultz, Roy Godson, and Querine Hanlon. National Strategy Information Center, 2009, 115 pp.

Many defense and security establishments around the world recognize that irregular conflicts are on the rise and may dominate warfare for the foreseeable future while the number of conventionally fought wars is declining. Armed Groups and Irregular Warfare: Adapting Professional Military Education represents an attempt at awakening the US Department of Defense (DOD) not only to these burgeoning irregular warfare (IW) threats that our military leaders now face but also to the necessity of military education institutions offering a systematic understanding of this type of warfare. In their monograph, the authors—all faculty members experienced in national strategy and international security studies—propose curricular changes within the DOD’s professional military education (PME) system. Although their proposed “Armed Groups and Irregular Warfare” syllabus may not be a rock-solid fit for all PME institutions, it represents a worthy starting point.

This book draws heavily on post–Cold War patterns of conflict to reveal how US security establishments have underestimated the challenges posed by substate and transstate armed groups. No longer is conflict waged in the grand Westphalian state-on-state manner; rather, it is “primarily taking place between states and nonstate armed groups that [are] frequently supported by political, social, religious, and criminal movements” (p. 9). Furthermore, weak, failing, and failed states that offer sanctuary to such armed groups raise ever-increasing security concerns for the United States and its allies.

The authors reason that existing pieces of military doctrine and guidance, such as the Quadrennial Defense Review Report and the Irregular Warfare (IW) Joint Operating Concept (JOC), address arising irregular issues but oversimplify them and offer few specifics on countering them. Military practitioners can best understand this security context by utilizing existing PME schools. In 2005 the National Strategy Information Center surveyed the PME curriculum and found it lacking in its treatment of armed groups and IW. Consequently, the center set out on a three-year multiphased project that produced the advanced education program detailed in this book.

The last three-quarters of this work lay out the plan in detail. The 13-week course (condensable to one week in a “short course” version) was designed specifically for the PME community but is also a good fit for the US intelligence community’s professional development programs. The syllabus includes five parts: Global Trends and Conflict; Types of Armed Groups; Profiling Armed Groups and Political Movements: A New Approach to Order of Battle; Armed Groups: Threats and Opportunities; and Meeting the Challenge. Each part contains two to four sections that adequately explain themes and subject matter as well as required and suggested readings. Four of the five parts address “armed groups, the ways they organize and operate, and how they employ a range of violent and other instruments to execute irregular warfare strategies” (p. 79). Granted, one must recognize and understand the problem at hand, but the course pays scant attention (only part five) to arguably the most difficult component—responding to the problem.

Ultimately, Armed Groups and Irregular Warfare is a step in the right direction in terms of developing critical thinkers and capable operators, planners, and commanders for the rigors of IW. It offers insight into the subject for those involved in modern PME curriculum design and instruction and for practitioners of IW. The work, however, is not without fault. To withstand the test of time, the syllabus must update the required readings. Additionally, as the United States becomes more experienced in fighting this long, irregular war, the authors should put more emphasis on an effective means of countering irregular threats and should follow through with lessons learned—another area to which the military typically pays only lip service. Finally, the study makes little to no reference to the Naval Postgraduate School’s Special Operations / Irregular Warfare curriculum—the only one in the DOD devoted exclusively to IW. PME institutions could benefit greatly by evaluating what has made the Naval Postgraduate School a leader in the field of IW instruction for more than 20 years.

Maj Walter M. Winter, USAF

Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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