Russia, China, Iran Waging Political Warfare, Report Says

U.S. currently lacks strategy to counter unconventional, information warfare threats from states and terrorists

Cadet members of China's People's Liberation Army
Cadet members of China's People's Liberation Army / AP
November 25, 2014

Russia, China, Iran, and Islamists are waging unconventional warfare around the world, and the United States currently lacks a clear strategy to counter the threat, according to a recent report by the Army Special Operations Command.

"This challenge is hybrid warfare combining conventional, irregular, and asymmetric means, to include the persistent manipulation of political and ideological conflict," states the Army white paper, "Countering Unconventional Warfare."

"Foreshadowed by Iranian actions throughout the Middle East, and by Chinese ‘unrestricted warfare’ strategists in the 1990s, hybrid warfare has now reached its most brazen form in Russia’s support for separatist insurgents in Ukraine."

The 48-page white paper, published Sept. 26 by the Fort Bragg, North Carolina command, urges building new, non-kinetic warfare tools into a comprehensive U.S. and allied strategy.

The tools should include covert and clandestine special operations commando activities combined with political, intelligence, diplomatic, and financial warfare methods to counter the activities of states like Russia, China and Iran, and insurgent activities by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.

Countering unconventional warfare also should be made "central to U.S./NATO security policy and practice over the next several decades," the report states.

The Army study said the U.S. government "lacks a cohesive [information warfare] strategy to counter adversary [unconventional warfare] campaigns conducted by state and non-state actors, and this has hindered the U.S./NATO response to Russian aggression in Ukraine."

"The U.S. government must develop a comprehensive framework to plan and execute regional and global IW strategies and operations that counter adversary UW campaigns as part of a whole-of-government approach," the report said.

Russian unconventional threat

The report says that while Islamists in Iraq and Syria are "cascadingly disruptive," the threat posed by Russia is more significant.

"Russian unconventional warfare is thus the central, most game-changing component of a hybrid warfare effort involving conventional forces, economic intimidation of regional countries, influence operations, force-posturing all along NATO borders, and diplomatic intervention," the report said.

"The brazen audacity of unconventional warfare within Russian hybrid warfare has produced urgent concern among America’s NATO and non-NATO partners that Russia may apply similar approaches to other regional countries in the region with dissenting Russophile populations, such as the Baltic States, Moldova, and Georgia," the report adds.

According to the report, Russia is using special operations forces, intelligence agents, political provocateurs, and news media reporters, as well as transnational criminal elements in eastern and southern Ukraine.

"Funded by the Kremlin and operating with differing degrees of deniability or even acknowledgement, the Russian government uses ‘little green men’ for classic [unconventional warfare] objectives," the report says.

The objectives of Russian covert warfare include "causing chaos and disrupting civil order" and provoking an excessive reaction from Ukrainian security organs that Moscow hopes will delegitimize the Kiev government.

The Russians have engaged in a successful unconventional warfare campaign against Ukraine by organizing pro-Russian separatists and dispatching advisers and fighters from Russian special forces and intelligence units to assist them. Activities include funding and arming, tactical coordination, and fire support for separatist military operations.

The report identified retired Col. David S. Maxwell, a former Army special operations officer, as a "chief advocate" for a new counter unconventional warfare strategy and methods.

"Our enemies are conducting unconventional warfare and political warfare: Russia and its new Generation Warfare, Iran and its Iranian Action Network, and the Chinese Three Warfares," Maxwell said in an email to the Washington Free Beacon.

"Non-state actors such as al Qaeda are conducting unconventional and political warfare," he added. "We need to understand their strategies and we need to be able to counter their strategies. Counter unconventional warfare provides a foundation for strategic thinking about the threat strategies we face."

Maxwell told a U.S. Special Operations Command briefing in July that counter unconventional warfare, or U-CW in Army parlance, can prevent states and groups from achieving their strategic aims.

Counter programs against unconventional war are likely to be "protracted and psychological-centric in nature," Maxwell told SOCOM and added that the United States should "comprehensively employ political, economic, military, and psychological pressure" to degrade both the will and capability of enemies to use the new form of warfare.

U.S. should resume political warfare

The report quotes the late George Kennan, architect of Cold War containment policies against the Soviet Union, as urging the use of "political warfare," which he defined as peacetime efforts using all means short of conflict to achieve national objectives.

The future geopolitical environment will feature ideological battles among states, the report said, noting that "Russia, China, and Iran currently conduct political warfare activities to further their individual goals."

The United States, by contrast, ceased using political warfare at the end of the Cold War and instead is focused on "public diplomacy" that seeks to "tell America’s story" rather than influencing events in support of U.S. and allied interests.

The United States should renew political warfare efforts as part of a new strategy to influence local struggles, the report said. Additionally, "policies should be developed assigning political warfare as a core mission of government agencies responsible for C-UW doctrines and capabilities," the report said.

Among the tools are increased intelligence to understand foreign unconventional threats and applying diplomatic, informational, economic, financial, and legal power along with military forces to wage hybrid and irregular counter-war.

Key elements of a new strategy will be using special operations "special strike" capabilities, like the use of Seal Team Six, and "surgical strike capabilities" a reference to precision attacks, such as covert drone strikes that have been highly effective against terrorist leaders.

Ken McGraw, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., said the Army report is a doctrinal think piece. Countering unconventional warfare currently is "neither a recognized special operations mission or activity in either Army or joint special operations doctrine" but could be in the future, McGraw said.

Several aspects of the new strategy appear to be part of the Obama administration’s current campaign against the Islamic State. The administration has sought to apply financial and diplomatic pressure on IS and announced plans to attack the Islamist ideology motivating the group. So far, however, the non-military results have had a limited impact on the group currently holding territory in Syria and Iraq.

China’s ‘Unrestricted Warfare’

China’s use of unconventional warfare was described in the Army report as based on the 1999 book by two Chinese colonels called Unrestricted Warfare that calls for using all means to defeat enemies, including cyber attacks, ecological warfare, financial warfare, and terrorism.

"China will use a host of methods, many of which lie out of the realm of conventional warfare," the report said. "These methods include trade warfare, financial warfare, ecological warfare, psychological warfare, smuggling warfare, media warfare, drug warfare, network warfare, technological warfare, fabrication warfare, resources warfare, economic aid warfare, cultural warfare, and international law warfare."

Examples include China’s threat several years ago to sell off large U.S. debt holdings to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and cutting off sales of rare earth minerals to Japan in a dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Chinese news outlets also are used in media warfare, including at the White House. "The Chinese state-controlled television station network CCTV has a White House pool reporter that could influence U.S. media reporting on China issues," the report said.

Cyber attacks also are a key Chinese unconventional warfare tool and the report said Chinese hackers are suspected of causing power outages in the northeastern United States and Florida, the report said.

"China’s cyber-attacks clearly show the vulnerabilities to the U.S. public and private sectors information and infrastructure security," the report said. "States like Russia and China will continue to exploit weaknesses in cyberspace to gather information and influence others."

Iran’s Qods Force

Iran’s main use of unconventional warfare is its support for terrorism and subversion through surrogates, like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force.

"Through the Qods force, Iran provides ‘material support to terrorist or militant groups such as HAMAS, Lebanese Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, and Iraqi Shia groups,’ the report said. "Hezbollah is the primary terrorists' proxy for Iran working together with a campaign of terror against Israel, the United States, and other western nations."

Qods operatives are working in Iraq with Shia militias to "counter U.S. objectives and diminish the presence and influence of Sunni groups," the report said.

Iranian special operations commandos in Iraq are trained to attack critical infrastructure such as dams, power plant, and pipelines.

Iran also is developing cyber warfare capabilities as one of its key unconventional warfare tools.

"Iran seeks a sophisticated offensive cyber capability to weaken adversaries to gain military superiority and to counter external actions and activities," the report said

"An effective cyber capability allows Iran the ability to have effects on an adversary with plausible deniability, and those cyber actions may not reach the level of retaliatory reactions."

Iranian hackers were blamed in 2012 by U.S. intelligence for cyber attacks on U.S. banks that produced "debilitating" effects, the report said, adding that Iranian hackers also infiltrated Navy and Marine Corps computer networks.

Iran also is backing the Syrian Electronic Army cyber group.

"Adversaries are using and growing capabilities, which avoid current western overmatching combat strengths," the report concludes. "Adversaries will continue using asymmetrical approaches such as applications derived from technological proliferation, cyber operations, terrorist activities, information, and media operations to diminish western advantages."

Like conventional military strategy, the report says a counter unconventional warfare approach should rely on intelligence about enemy activities that can be used in counter attacks against enemies.

Additionally, U.S. special operations forces can apply similar methods used in unconventional warfare as part of their operations, the report says.

Irregular warfare main form of conflict

Sebastian Gorka, the Horner professor of military theory at the Marine Corps University and an adviser to Army Special Operations Command, notes that 80 percent of all war since Napoleon has been irregular or unconventional. "So only a fool would believe that ‘Big War’—​​​tanks versus tanks, fighter jets versus fighter jets—will define the threat to America," he said.

"U.S. Army Special Forces—or Green Berets—were created to understand and function in this irregular threat environment," Gorka said. "The truth is that the current global situation is defined by non-state actors using irregular warfare​, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), or nations such as China, Iran, and Russia using unconventional means, be it cyber warfare, proxies, or balaclava-wearing special forces without rank tabs or units insignia in Crimea."

The biggest challenge for the U.S. policymakers in Washington is to treat U.S. Special Forces and irregular warfare as tactical assets and a tactical domain. They also fail to understand that the Green Berets are a strategic asset, and that China, Iran, Russia, and the jihadis are all at war with us right now," Gorka said.

Bill Cowan, a former Army Special operations officer, said the need for a strategy to counter unconventional warfare is obvious but the recommended "whole of government approach" is a problem.

"No matter how well thought out and put forward, any implementation of a strategy that requires ‘a whole government’ approach to implement becomes problematic from the outset," Cowan said.

"The notion of ‘coordinated synergy’ undermines the very basis of implementation unless driven decisively from the highest levels of the U.S. government," he said. "We don’t have the leadership to make this concept/doctrine the core doctrine of our fight against our enemies."

The Army report was first reported by The Epoch Times newspaper last week in an article on Chinese intelligence activities.