Small Wars Journal

A New Way of Warfare: The Strategic Logic of Harnessing Non-Violent Combat

Wed, 03/11/2015 - 9:37am

A New Way of Warfare: The Strategic Logic of Harnessing Non-Violent Combat

Arnel David

It has been said that the US Army has hit an inflection point.[i] The hard-earned insights of combat in the War on Terror have been gained through plenty of sacrifice and action. Now, more than ever, the nation requires the Army to make fundamental changes to ensure it is prepared for the complex challenges of the future. Novel concepts and debates focused on this problem, e.g. The Strategic Landpower Initiative, CSA Strategic Studies Group, and Force 2025 Maneuvers, have ignited the critical thinking needed to bring about necessary change. The fiscal environment, troop reductions, ongoing threats, and many other issues compound the problem and illumine many concerns that demand attention.  Countries like Iran continue to extend and grow their influence over the Middle East and groups like ISIS threaten stability throughout the region. Our nation’s enemies thrive in poorly governed spaces and operate where our reach is limited. This is not new and creative approaches to project power and strike the enemy have evolved but brought limited success. The Army’s ability to deliver ordnance and “break things” remains unmatched in the world. Although this ability to deliver violence requires continued refinement, I argue for the development of a new and robust capability that can masterfully shape, influence, and condition an environment to meet desired outcomes and objectives. This is a new way of warfare. As Clausewitz reminds us, the nature of war does not change but its character does.[ii] To strike a better balance in our art of waging war the military must exercise its imagination and take an unprecedented approach to harness a new way of warfare: non-violent combat.

Warfare is an art that is supported by science. Technological gains through science provide protection, increased lethality, and improved situational awareness. Conversely, scholars argue that the overwhelming emphasis on science and the so called “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMAs)” have hurt the appreciation for the “art” in warfare[iii]. The pursuit of a technological “silver bullet” or panacea may have prevented the innovative development of new concepts needed to wage war. However, the freshly published Army Operating Concept (AOC) “Win in a Complex World” emphasizes the importance of the human domain. The “increased velocity and momentum of human interactions” coupled with the growing connectedness in the world elucidate the fact that war and conflict remain a human endeavor.[iv] There is no substitute for the intellectual faculty required to thrive in this human domain. The rebalance of the art and science presented in this essay can be compared to a metaphor about martial arts described by prominent scholars: Gilles Delueze, Felix Guttari, and Gene Sharp.

Similar to jiu-jitsu, the refusal to submit to your opponent’s weapons, while wielding non-violent ones, allows you to push your opponent off balance[v]. Martial artists master multiple ways to use or “unuse” weapons that follow the best path to strike their opponent.[vi] The military must harness an art of non-violent combat to deliver cascading blows to the enemy without interruption or mercy until defeated. Chenoweth and Stephan find that people are more apt to participate in a non-violent movement over an armed struggle and that non-violent campaigns—between 1900-2006—were twice as effective as their violent counterparts.[vii] As managers of violence and peace, these types of studies are invaluable to military practitioners. This new theory and way of warfare, non-violent combat, supports the Army’s desire to better prevent, shape, and win the nation’s wars. Many leaders at all levels recognize that war and conflict emerge and persist at the local level. A deeper appreciation for the multiplicity of factors present in the environment and the complexity associated with the human domain require the Army to develop this new capability. Modern psychology confirms that a “hawkish” (desire for war) bias is hard-wired into the fabric of the human mind.[viii] That said, it cannot be expected that a leader can properly balance both violent and non-violent combat alone. Developing a non-violent combat capability is long overdue and will help support future commanders. Quick “band-aids” and ad hoc structures were created for a short term fix but a permanent solution must be developed. As Dr. Colin S. Gray echoes through much of his writing, “strategy must drive structure” and non-violent combat mechanisms must be created to overcome these cognitive heuristics and structural shortfalls.[ix]

The structure needed to develop this non-violent combat capability properly nests with the “engagement” strategy consistently mentioned in the past twenty years of National Security Strategies (NSS) and foreign policy directives.[x] The art of engagement and this theory of non-violent combat can still benefit from recent gains in scientific studies. In the social sciences, the non-linear modalities resident in complex social systems attracts theoretical explanations from the natural and physical sciences. The Army can examine studies of scholars who have bridged disciplines and spawned new methods for understanding social and complexity science with a particular emphasis on interactions and interconnections.[xi] The human domain is saturated with these complex webs of overlapping networks.[xii] The remainder of this essay reveals an initial concept of structural changes that create the forces necessary to thrive in the future.

Harnessing this new way of warfare requires the military to maintain its ability to strike and kill its enemies. At times, a mere demonstration of force and power may dissuade potential adversaries of acting. Thirty C-17s loaded with rangers ready to deliver violence is an intimidating message. Accordingly, this force would be called the “Combat Engagement Group (CEG)” capability that the Army presently has and is always ready to use. The creation of a mutually supportive element, the “Regional Engagement Group (REG),” is designed to deliver the non-violent combat needed in many complex situations.

The effort to build regionally aligned forces support this idea of a REG but the current forces are not adequately structured to contend with the ill-structured problems and complexity present in the environment. A persistent focus and cultural communication requirements demand a dedicated force that rotates and maintains awareness, follows through with programs, and partners effectively. The REG fuses joint, host nation, and interagency efforts to maximize effects. Cross-domain synergy and overall readiness are improved to bring multiple resources to bear on any problem. I see the REG having a combination of some of the following capabilities:

  1. Combat Advisors. Since the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) of Vietnam and the Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has been forced to create these teams to meet a mission. It is time to institutionalize this requirement and properly train these advisors so that they can be successful and effective.
  1. Civil Affairs. These warrior diplomats navigate the human terrain and use a myriad of activities to connect to the populace. More importantly, they serve as a key interface between military and civilian organizations.
  1. Information Operations. The right mix of Psychological Operations and Public Affairs forces are needed to help fight the “war of perceptions.”
  1. Medical Specialties. Whether for personnel survivability or host nation advisement, medical forces are an essential component of any team.
  1. Logisticians. The logistical tail of the REG should be minimal but experts in transportation and supply are needed to effectively plan and coordinate the movement of resources.
  1. Engineers and Contracting Officers (KOs). Infrastructural assessments and project management warrants a combination of these intertwined assets to ensure the integrity of any project or program.
  1. Military Police. Many of our host nation partners are plagued with policing and security challenges. Military police have multiple skillsets that are useful for any engagement. 
  2. Chaplains. These scholars can help the REG navigate religious terrain. We can’t allow a Western secular lens to distort the importance of the religious component of the environment.

This array of capabilities must also be a colorful mix of civilian and military practitioners to properly exercise unified action.[xiii] Equally important, a new flavor of training is needed to prepare these forces for effective application. Training will be different from the traditional model of “shoot, move, and communicate.” A new training regimen leveraging human optimization, building academic acumen, and hones cross-cultural communication makes the REG both exciting and rewarding. Regionally focused forces cycle soldiers and leaders to the combat advisor academy, negotiations training, language immersion, and academic fellowships. Creative approaches will be needed to design this training under the current fiscal constraints but existing programs already support this concept. New authorities and streamlined funding can help surmount bureaucratic barriers but ultimately, the current budget woes may unintentionally force the structural changes conducive to building the REG. This new force is not big. As a matter of fact, small is beautiful. For engagements amongst the populace there is an inverse relationship with the size of the element and the effectiveness of the engagements. Quality is better than quantity and the Army must be mindful of any introduction of change into an environment that might result in undesired second and third order effects.

With increasing regional engagements, military units and civilian organizations continue to occupy the same space. The Army has an opportunity to harness this new non-violent way of warfare to lead an innovative and cultural change for the nation. Many studies show the strategic logic of using non-violent combat to transform a conflict landscape. No other organization or institution in the United States is better suited to meet these challenges. The American soldier will continue to be called upon to go into the fray and leaders need new tools and capabilities to win our nation’s wars. These new ideas and concepts inform the current debates and hopefully place the Army on a new trajectory to meet the challenges of the future.

End Notes

[i] Odierno, Ray. 2013. CSA Remarks at the Institute of World Politics graduation ceremony. 18 May. (accessed 26 January 2015).

[ii] Clausewitz, Carl von. 1989. On war. Edited and Translated by Howard and Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[iii] Argued in different books but mainly represented in Barnett, Thomas P. M. 2004. The Pentagon’s new map: War and peace in the twenty-first century. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons; and Mahaney, Patrick J. 2010. Observations for practitioners: Counterinsurgency as a complex operation. Rome: Centro Alti Studi per la Difesa (CASD).

[iv] U.S. Department of the Army. 2014. TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1, The US Army Operating Concept: Win in a complex world. Fort Eustis, VA: Government Printing Office.

[v] Sharp, Gene. 1990. Civilian-based defense: A post-military weapons system. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[vi] Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 2005. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[vii] Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria Stephan. 2011. Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of non-violent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

[viii] Kahneman, Daniel and Jonathan Renshon. 2009. Why Hawks Win. Foreign Policy.
2009/10/13/why-hawks-win/ (Accessed 26 January 2015).

[ix] Gray, Colin S. 2005. How has war changed since the end of the Cold War? Parameters (Spring): 14-26.

[x] Petit, Brian S. 2013. Going big by getting small: The application of operational art by special operations in phase zero. Denver: Outskirts Press.

[xi] Author recommends readers review the work of Fritjof Capra, Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine, and William Connolly.

[xii] Loode, Serge. 2011. Peacebuilding in complex social systems. Journal of Peace, Conflict and Development, no. 18 (December): 68-82.

[xiii] Unified Action is the synchronization, coordination, and/or integration of the activities of governmental and nongovernmental entities with military operations to achieve unity of effort. From U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff 2009. Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the armed forces of the United States. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Arnel P. David is an Army Strategist and Civil Affairs Officer serving in the British Army as the U.S. Special Assistant to the Chief of General Staff and a member of the newly formed Strategic Analysis Branch. He is a coauthor of the book Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition. He is a graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College Local Dynamics of War Scholar Program.


Biggs Darklighter

Sat, 03/14/2015 - 11:18pm

In reply to by Arnel_David

Agree. The times are changing for sure. Liberia is a great example of adapting to challenges. While nations like the Chinese know warfare is changing, I don't think the U.S. fully comprehends it. SOF may get it. "Big Army"...not so much, although I think RAF is good sign of adapting but needs work. We certainly need an Army, and we need combat formations, but how we use them and how many we need in the total force requires a broader perspective than what has been presented to date.


Sat, 03/14/2015 - 10:49pm

In reply to by Biggs Darklighter


Thanks for your comments. It seems like there is lots of dialogue to return to the way things were prior to 9/11 with a focus on BCTs. It would not be good for the nation and we need to explore innovative ways to shape and condition an environment in Phase 0. The BCTs are enormous and the span of control is challenging. We need division level leadership with the speed, C2, and mobility to deploy quickly for attacking complex challenges. Just like the 101st ABN just did in Liberia.


Biggs Darklighter

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 9:09pm

Every General should read this article. I honestly think they still don't fully understand the importance of shaping operations. All you hear is BCT chatter that implies we can't fight our way out of a paper bag now which removes the focus on engagement even more

Bill M.

Sun, 03/15/2015 - 1:11pm

In reply to by Arnel_David

I read your article, and like others, I see little difference in what your proposing than Tom Barnett's proposal (I disagree with the guy strongly, since his arguments do not stand up to even superficial challenges). You added a phrase I don't recall in Barnett's book(s), "non-violent combat," what the heck is that? If you mean shaping say shaping. I agree shaping is critical for protecting our national interests, and that shaping can include combat, but combat is violent (armed or unarmed). More precisely what will the REG do in addition to what USAID, NGOs, and the military already do in Phase 0?

I think what is missing is a strategic approach for Phase 0 and shaping. I agree other nations and some non-state actors consider what we call Phase 0 shaping as part of their overall warfare strategy. Failure to recognize that puts us at risk, but calling something non-violent combat undermines the credibility of your argument. What are you really saying? What changes does the force need to make? Use a little more precision in your words and I think you'll garner more support for your argument.


Sun, 03/15/2015 - 11:33am

In reply to by CVC


Thanks for your comments. I don't believe you can "win a war by shooting penicillin." It doesn't seem like you read the whole article. It's very short, please read the whole thing. I strongly believe we must maintain our ability to project force and kill our nation's enemies but I think we need an equal effort to do "things" that improve our understanding and allow us to better target. Equally important, we can build "real" capacity and leverage (local & regional) networks to influence an environment before we put our soldiers in harms way. An ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure.

Since we are using medicine metaphors, I think mistaking symptoms as causes is dangerous, yet providing a prescription with the wrong diagnosis is fatal. Understanding the underlying complexities of any environment is critical. Treating these efforts as en expression of "combat" is paramount because it is all warfare and I think it demands more attention.


Sun, 03/15/2015 - 11:35am

In reply to by CVC


DP has a point. I'd like to add that our leadership has to UNDERSTAND, and not only employ non-kinetic actions. They don't. And the author of this article has no real concept of "combat." Do you think he actually believes you can "win" a war by shooting penicillin? How does that defeat an adversary CV' Good thing our Army is training warriors.


Wed, 03/11/2015 - 7:22pm

In reply to by DecisivePoint


Thanks for that feedback. Your comments definitely motivate me to work harder and apply more rigor. I admittedly was influenced by T. Barnett's book among many others and I do believe there are structural issues limiting our effectiveness. The debate is good and I really do appreciate your comments.



Wed, 03/11/2015 - 2:57pm

First, I believe this article is wrongly titled, It should be "how to fail"

Second, this was a concept that Tom Barnett tried to sell back in early 2000s in The Pentagon's New Map. His system administrators look vaguely like the REG, and we see how successful that notion was.

Third, can we define combat? Even the knuckle-dragging troglodyte can manage this task "it cannot be expected that a leader can properly balance both violent and non-violent combat alone." Hand out basketballs and flip-flops on one street and drop a bad guy on the next, that is jiu-jitsu flexibility.

Finally, there are plenty of non-kinetic tasks that can bring our adversaries to their knees, we just need the leadership to agree on executing them...leading me to say. What needs to be said is we lack is the implementation of Colin Gray's "strategy must drive structure” the author barely grazed when developing this old/new idea.