Not all wars are the same, and there are many ways to categorize the differences between them. The term ‘spectrum of conflict’ can be found in older and recent doctrine documents as well as recent pronouncements by leaders. The notion of the spectrum implies that there are only differences in degree between noncombat deployments, low-, mid-, and high-intensity conflicts, and even nuclear war. A similar term, full spectrum operations – “simultaneous offensive, defensive, and stability … operations” – seems to imply the same thing.
Dennis Drew (Colonel, USAF Retired) in his many years in and out of uniform at Air University argued that there is no continuous ‘spectrum of conflict’ but there are instead three very different forms of warfare: nuclear, conventional, and counterinsurgency. Instead of the last, we can substitute the more encompassing term irregular warfare, which includes insurgency, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, foreign internal defense, and stability operations per current USAF and joint doctrine. These three types of warfare (conventional, irregular, nuclear) require some common capabilities, but Drew would argue that each also involves its own doctrine and capability, and even its own forces. As an example, USAF Predator (MQ-1) and Reaper (MQ-9) drones have been extremely useful in the counter-insurgent/counter-terrorist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but may have limited utility in a conventional war.
Each US service focuses on conventional war, our forces against another nation’s forces, with some lesser attention devoted to the other two types. In conventional war, each side attempts some combination of maneuver and destruction, to defeat fielded forces and render ineffective the other side’s ability to fight. US services are quite good at conventional war. The problem is that their cultures push them to focus on conventional war (the war they want to fight) to the exclusion of counterinsurgency and nuclear war (the wars they may have to fight).
In distinction to conventional war, irregular warfare is characterized by restraint – by limitations on the application of force. Insurgencies present an identification problem: is a guy on the street in civilian clothes a bystander or an enemy? What about the pickup truck on the dirt road? What about the fishing boat along the coast? Avoidance of collateral damage rises to a very high importance in this situation. Same for counter-terrorist operations. Counterinsurgency is land-focused (on the military side) with air and naval forces in supporting roles. There’s a non-military side of support to the host nation, which could be done largely by civilians if they could be deployed and organized into productive efforts by a civilian agency such as the Foreign Service of the State Department. There is a need for “whole of government” efforts including assistance in non-military areas such as law enforcement, courts, finance, even agriculture.
The most destructive form, nuclear warfare between two nuclear-armed powers, has not yet occurred. US doctrine assumes it would be characterized by close, detailed control by a national leader. Destruction would be severe, beyond the worst seen in the Second World War. There have been decades of theoretical writing about counter-force vs counter-value targeting, but it’s all theory with few facts in support.
With all that as introduction, I have questions for the services. My questions involve how much attention is being paid to each kind of warfare (conventional, irregular, nuclear), and if that attention (forces, resources, doctrine) is enough. These are questions that a congressman on a relevant committee might want to ask.
First, some general questions for each service: What is your contribution to nuclear deterrence, and to nuclear warfare? What is your contribution to conventional warfare? What is your contribution to irregular warfare? These questions might seem to have obvious answers, but asking questions with obvious answers can clarify assumptions, especially when the answers turn out not to be obvious to everyone involved.
Following up, here are a few questions specific to each service.
USAF: Why have you been putting flight hours on front-line combat jets in a counter-insurgency when a wing or two of light-attack aircraft would be more effective and far less expensive? You bought drones suited for counter-insurgency, so why not manned airplanes?
USAF: Given previous problems that required an effort to “revitalize the nuclear enterprise“, how can we have confidence that you are preserving your portions (air-delivered and ICBM) of our nuclear capability? Are good procedures in place for handling, maintenance, and deployment of nuclear weapons? Are the procedures actually being followed?
USAF: What is your plan for the emerging Space Corps to prevent enemy attacks on US high-value satellites? Are you waiting for Space Corps to figure it out, or are you planning now?
EDIT: The previous question can now be directed to the US Space Force.
USA: How do you plan to institutionalize the innovations developed during counter-insurgent/counter-terrorist efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? How do you plan to preserve an irregular warfare capability (including doctrine and training for combat and human intelligence) in a force that must also preserve a capability for conventional warfare?
USA: Since you closed the Army Irregular Warfare Center in 2014, what organization is responsible to preserve doctrine and lessons from past and recent counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist efforts?
USA: How do you address the drawbacks of strengthening the local government in counter-insurgency when there is a large ethnic minority that fears a strong central government dominated by a rival group?
USN: What are you doing to improve training and discipline of bridge and Combat Information Center watch standers in the wake of the ship collisions in the Western Pacific Ocean?
USN: Are your ships prepared today to fight other ships? How can we have confidence of that given recent and previous ship collisions and what they revealed about crew readiness?
USN: What would you do to stop a terrorist or insurgent organization moving men and materiel via coastal and river traffic?
USN: What is your role in counter-piracy?
USMC: What is your contribution to a conventional naval campaign for control of a contested sea area?
USMC: What is your contribution to naval action against a terrorist or insurgent organization moving men and materiel via coastal and river traffic?
USMC: How do you plan to institutionalize the innovations developed during counter-insurgent/counter-terrorist efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? How do you plan to preserve an irregular warfare capability (including doctrine and training for combat and human intelligence) in a force that must also preserve a capability for conventional warfare?
State Department: If the host nation’s counter-insurgency effort would benefit from governmental reform, how do you induce the host nation government to reform itself?
State Department: What are you doing now to prepare deployable Foreign Service Officers to lead whole-of-government efforts in future counter-insurgency campaigns?
State Department: Do you have a voice in DoD Irregular Warfare doctrine, particularly for counter-insurgency? Do you have your own doctrine for counter-insurgency? Do you have doctrine at all? Why not?
CIA: Did intelligence collection change much in response to the needs of counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan? How will you institutionalize those changes? How will you preserve them so that they will be available in future counterinsurgencies? Is there doctrine for intelligence collection and analysis?
CIA: How do you capture lessons learned from paramilitary and covert actions? How are these lessons passed on to future personnel involved in missions like this?