Small Wars Journal

Ensuring the Success of America’s First University-Based Irregular Warfare Research Center

Wed, 11/08/2023 - 9:51am

(Editor's Note: Today (8 November 2023) the Special Forces Regiment is conducting its annual ceremony to honor President John F. Kennedy for his leadership and for championing the Green Berets)

Ensuring the Success of America’s First University-Based Irregular Warfare Research Center


The Right Leader is Necessary to Develop the American Way of Irregular Warfare


By David Maxwell


The wars in Ukraine and Israel both promise to be nasty, brutish, and … long. They also represent the new normal in the willingness and ability of U.S. competitors to use “irregular” means to undermine U.S. allies, partners, and friends in a bid to displace the U.S.-led international order. In Ukraine, it is Russian proxies and mercenaries in addition to conventional forces. And in Israel, it is Iranian surrogate terrorist groups. It is likely there is the invisible hand of China’s unrestricted warfare operating in the background throughout the world.


The Department of Defense is now in the final stages of establishing a dedicated, university-based capability for vastly improving America’s response to these threats. This will provide a long-needed intellectual capability and capacity.  Similar attempts after World War II and the Vietnam War have long faded into obscurity. Ensuring that this new capability has the leadership and support to succeed where those have failed should be a priority for the U.S. national security community.


Establishing a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) is a positive step forward. IW requires broad application of the elements of national power and the right civilian university is much better postured to bring required civil society expertise into a routine and eventually organic and symbiotic relationship with the national security sector of government. The closest historical antecedent for the IW Center could be the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) at American University established in 1956.


This form of warfare – which has had many names but is now generally referred to as “irregular warfare” by the Department of Defense – has long troubled the United States. It is necessarily a subset of what George Kennan termed political warfare. It worried President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. He warned of the emergence of “another type of war… war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins… by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him.” Kennedy championed the Green Berets, and established the U.S. Navy SEALs and the Peace Corps to address the dominant threats of the Cold War.  It concerned Senators Sam Nunn and William Cohen as well. They tried to build a national-level capability focused on understanding and addressing this form of warfare. What Kennedy, Nunn, and Cohen called for never fully materialized. Despite the travails of such national security legends, developing an American Way of Irregular Warfare has never been a focus of the U.S. national security community. The attention has squarely remained on preparing for large-scale conventional war, which is demonstrated by the singular focus of recent National Defense Strategies despite the addition of the Irregular Warfare Annex in 2020.


But irregular warfare’s days as an intellectual orphan may be coming to an end, as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin – at the urging of Congress – is now taking the first step in building the foundational capabilities necessary for the United States to be successful in this form of war. By authorizing a UARC, Secretary Austin is creating a space where practitioners, academics, and policymakers can debate, critique, and develop the irregular warfare concepts, capabilities, doctrine, and policies that our nation will need to be successful in the 21st century and beyond. In short, it will be where the U.S. national security community along with scholars and practitioners can develop an American War of Irregular Warfare.


To ensure that this university-based irregular warfare research center is successful, three things must be done: (1) select the right leadership, (2) actively garner interagency and civil sector participation, and (3) build enduring senior sponsorship and Congressional patronage.


Regardless of which university is selected to house this capability, identifying the right initial leadership– including both a center director and initial cadre of staff – will be critical. The director and initial staff must have credibility with the irregular warfare professionals within America’s diplomatic, intelligence, and military communities, and include both academics and practitioners of irregular warfare. Further, this initial leadership must have credibility with the civilian leadership in the Department of Defense, Department of State, intelligence community, and U.S. Congress. Irregular Warfare cannot succeed without the integration and synchronization of other instruments of statecraft. In reality, irregular warfare is a supporting activity of political warfare. Accordingly, the success of the Center requires that all stake holders be involved from take-off to avoid a crash landing.


While DOD continues the transparent process of selecting a location for and establishing a permanent university based IW Center it is imperative that a search for the right director begin immediately. Although not coordinated with any of these individuals the following are examples of the types of people who should be considered for leadership of the IW Center:



Finally, it was Congress that directed this undertaking and it should be Congress that provides oversight to ensure the Center fills the gap in current and future national security IW concepts. DoD’s track record in advancing IW thought and practice requires external oversight. More importantly, facilitating the necessary interagency and private sector effort will require active and continuous Congressional involvement. In 2008 Secretary of Defense Gates said, “We must display a mastery of irregular warfare comparable to that which we possess in conventional combat…” The IW Center must be the focal point for that mastery and develop the American Way of Irregular Warfare.


The lack of an effective irregular warfare capability has left the U.S. bereft of the necessary tools to successfully compete in this era of increasingly problematic use of conventional forces and nuclear weapons. With the right leadership, patronage, and broad interagency and civilian academic participation, the new John S. McCain III Center for Security Studies in Irregular Warfare can be the foundry of new ideas, a place of focused professional military and civilian education, and a reliable nonpartisan source of informed policy and strategy input to the national security apparatus. JFK would likely say “what took so long?”


About the Author(s)

Dave Maxwell is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy (CAPS) and a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea). He is a 30-year veteran of the US Army, retiring as a Special Forces Colonel. He has worked in Asia for more than over 30 years, primarily in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Colonel Maxwell served on the United Nations Command / Combined Forces Command / United States Forces Korea CJ3 staff where he was a planner for UNC/CFC OPLAN 5027-98 and co-author of the original ROK JCS – UNC/CFC CONPLAN 5029-99. He later served as the Director of Plans, Policy, and Strategy and then Chief of Staff for the Special Operations Command Korea. He commanded the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P), served as the G3 for the United States Army Special Operations Command and culminated his service as a member of the military faculty at the National War College. Following retirement, he served as the Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Colonel Maxwell is a fellow at the Institute of Corean-American Studies, and on the Board of Directors of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the International Council of Korean Studies, the Council on Korean-US Security Studies, the Special Operations Research Association, the OSS Society, and the Small Wars Journal. He earned a B.A. in political science from Miami University, and an M.A. in Military Arts and Science from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and from the School of Advanced Military Studies, and an M.S. in National Security Studies from the National War College. Colonel Maxwell teaches Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations for Policy Makers and Strategists.