May 2017

The New Approach

How the U.S. Marine Corps will remain first to fight in irregular warfare
Volume 101, Issue 5

Maj Carl Forsling, USMC(Ret)
Marines must become more aware of operating in a joint environment while continuing to learn about irregular warfare.
(Photo by LCpl John Baker.)

2016 Kiser Family Irregular Warfare Essay Contest – Honorable Mention

Humans have waged irregular warfare (IW) since the dawn of the modern nation-state whenever national militaries clashed with nationless clans for social influence and regional dominance. For a good part of the 20th century, Americans were largely oblivious to IW because the U.S. relished an era of unquestioned international supremacy based in part on its conventional military prowess. After the terror attacks of 9/11, however, the DOD deemed IW a critical concept as the U.S. military began to split its attention between conventional warfare, which remains vital to American interests, and IW, in which American forces counter dissimilar foes lacking regular armies, assets, and territories. IW gained further prominence when the DOD highlighted it in its 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), stating that, in the future, the DOD would shift its emphasis “from major conventional combat operations to multiple irregular, asymmetric operations.”1

While policy and defense experts have written extensively about IW in the decade since it was featured in the 2006 QDR, IW remains a hotly-debated topic, both as to its standing in the overall spectrum of U.S. military operations and as to the most effective method of waging IW. In this context, the U.S. Marine Corps has already staked a vital position in the American effort to win IW campaigns. Nevertheless, the Corps must maintain its dominance and further improve its efforts to lead both the national conversation and the war effort against non-state belligerents around the world. The purpose of this essay is to further the discussion about Marines’ key contributions to IW by (1) describing the nature of IW challenges, (2) addressing current gaps in the Corps’ methodology to train Marines for IW, and (3) proposing actionable steps to build lasting partnerships and ensure Marine superiority in the future operational environment.

The Nature of Irregular Warfare Challenges

The DOD defines IW as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.”2 “Irregular” in this context encapsulates the type of threat, referring most frequently to terrorism, criminal activities, and insurgencies,3 but also describes the tactics employed by U.S. forces, meaning “indigenous, surreptitious, intimidating, culturally persuasive as well as technically sophisticated methods beyond classic military force.”4 Importantly, IW is a break from time honored military-to-military warfare.

In the 20th century, adversaries of the U.S. gradually yielded to the supremacy of U.S. military forces. In the face of being outnumbered and outgunned in large-scale wars, U.S. foes embraced methods of warfare that counterbalanced traditional U.S. military dominance.5 The threat to the U.S. became two-fold: (1) non-state actors waging sophisticated wars on par with state actors, and (2) state actors employing irregular methods of warfare in the absence of a traditional battlefield (such as Iran or states with weak governance like Mexico).6 In either case, the most effective U.S. military response to IW threats is not conventional military might but rather a breed of public relations battle that encompasses sociology, psychology, and local history along with classic military might. Responding to threats in this way, the Corps can further its chief goal in IW, which is to “erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will” vis-à-vis local populations.7

Any military analysis in preparation for war will focus a great deal on the traits of the enemy, but IW also forces the Marines to focus on the native people among which the enemy operates. IW blurs the line between civilians and combatants because non-state actors have no regional borders or militias unto themselves. Instead, the Marines must focus on microclimates in which the differences between an indigenous population and the members of a belligerent non-state actor may be indistinguishable. When this is the case, the Corps cannot address the enemy in a vacuum, so it must instead weaken the enemy by engaging those who live among the enemy. Ultimately, the outcome of an IW conflict will hinge on the depth of the Corps’ understanding of a population and the deftness with which non-military and indirect means are employed to build trust and legitimacy.8

This essay will focus on the important concept of “population-centric IW,” which is commonly embodied in counterinsurgency operations, in which “the focus is primarily on building indigenous public support (or tolerance) for U.S. aims,” such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.9 Again, in such scenarios, the Corps must concentrate on

political, psychological, informational, and related efforts, less on defeating enemy forces than on persuading those who can be persuaded to support the U.S.-supported aims and government.10

The Marines will ultimately succeed in IW by forging long-term partnerships with allies and alienating foes among their own people.

Gaps in Training

The Marine Corps has already done a great deal to adapt to the demands of waging IW. Still, there is room for improvement because a number of gaps exist in terms of training and educating the Corps in the current operational environment. The following is not an indictment of Marine shortcomings, but rather a constructive roadmap to further improve the effectiveness of the Corps in IW.

Ultimately, in considering current deficiencies and future improvements, the Marines’ Eagle, Globe, and Anchor will form the basis for creative and practical answers. The Eagle is of course emblematic of American interests, but it also represents America’s efforts to build nations and defeat adversaries abroad. The Globe represents the worldwide scope of Marine service and reminds us that IW adversaries (but also partners) can be found anywhere in the world. Finally, the Anchor symbolizes Marine dominance at sea, in littoral settings, and in the harshest and most unimagined environments. The Marine Corps insignia is a reminder that IW is a new war scenario, but it is one which Marines are well-suited to master.

The sliding scale. The first gap in training is philosophical in nature and can be overcome with a new mindset. Too many Marines—and indeed too many in the U.S. Armed Forces—view IW as a new form of combat, distinct from conventional warfare. This could not be farther from the truth. The two forms of conflict are not mutually exclusive but rather operate together on a sliding scale. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has addressed the relationship between conventional warfare and IW, stating that, “Conflict in the future will slide up and down a scale, both in scope and in lethality.”11 A combat operation in Afghanistan, for example, may draw on conventional warfare techniques, while necessitating sensitivity to IW approaches. In this way, Marines in the 21st century must be prepared to wear two hats in the field of war.

Thus, IW is not a new form of warfare that replaces the trusted principles of conventional warfare; rather, it is a system of enemy and civilian interaction overlaid on the existing framework of conventional warfare. Marine training in conventional warfare remains vital to DOD objectives, of course, but Marines must be capable of drawing on IW training with the same ease that a Marine shifts a vehicle from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive.

Even greater cultural training. The Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL) already devotes considerable resources to train Marines to be culturally sensitive to foreign populations that Marines encounter abroad. The CAOCL’s training framework, together with further and more detailed training, is required in order for Marines to excel in new IW operational environments. Such environments meld a number of different factors, including “geography, ecology, history, ethnicity, religion, and politics.”12 It is vital that these topics receive even greater attention during Marine training and that commanders seek to shrink the knowledge divide between infantry and the specialized military intelligence community.

CAOCL will continue to enable Marines in support of IW missions in order to foster strong international partner states and groups, stabilize war-torn countries, and counter insurgency movements. CAOCL will also enable the Corps to win in IW environments by instructing Marines in language, regional expertise and culture (LREC) skills. These skills aid Marines in IW environments by instilling confidence that they can interact effectively with foreign populations that they hope to turn into trusted allies.

The Corps must take steps, however, to further develop expertise and deliver it in an even more effective manner to Marines. The first step is to marshal Marines already on the ground to gather and record useful intelligence and observations about target populations, including dossiers on important foreign nationals, data about tribal groups, and the socioeconomic breakdown and history of a population. The next step is to distill this intelligence into its most useful form, meaning key points about history and language, for instance, to be followed up by even smaller kernels of concentrated information. Thereafter, distilled intelligence must be “Marinized,” or made to look, sound, and smell Marine so that it can be more useful in practice to actual Marines on the ground as they perform their duties. This step is important so that Marines can implement new knowledge into preexisting norms and the infrastructure of the Corps. Finally, Marines can become fully culturally competent by preserving best practices, which can be passed on to future Marines and perfected over time.

Over time, cultural training will ideally take on the same degree of importance as physical training for Marines. Indeed, for many Marines, cultural training should receive as much—if not greater attention—as physical training because while physical conditioning comes naturally for many Marines, cultural training can feel more like a classroom exercise, and a difficult one at that. Training to interact effectively with rural Afghani tribesmen, for example, may be the hardest thing some Marines ever do and does not come easily for most Americans who do not have any experience with a nuanced ethnographic population on the other side of the world. Jeffrey White of the Central Intelligence Agency put it succinctly when he said, “[s]hifting patterns of family, tribal, religious, economic, and military relations overlaid on specific geography produce a complex, dynamic, and uncertain analytic environment.” In the face of such a challenge with many moving parts, Marines need as many months as possible to learn the lay of the land before beginning a mission.

Technology and warfare methodology. The final major gap in training stems from a reliance on misguided forms of technology and warfare. As for technology in conventional warfare, the Corps would be well advised to rely on high-tech advancements in weaponry and transportation. In IW, however, the Corps must shift its focus from cutting-edge war-making technology to social media technology. This is partly because IW is often waged in remote, rugged terrain where Marines may not reap all of the advantages of high-tech military technology. The full power of social media and other online platforms, however, suits population-centric IW and will be more fully explored in the next section on proposals.

As for warfare methodology, the “traditional elements of military analysis have to be looked at differently.”13 The Corps must be able to “step away from Western or modern models of warfare to focus on those that are considerably more primitive and less dependent on technology.”14 Training and execution of military maneuvers in IW will require a new degree of versatility that some veterans of the Corps may at first find disagreeable. Whereas much emphasis is presently placed on line infantry to provide heavily armed and armored war participants, light infantry is in some cases better suited to wage IW because of its flexibility and reliance on fewer logistical requirements.15 Again, the military response to irregular adversaries will be untraditional because it must be closely tailored to counter their irregular methods of warfare.

Furthermore, other proposals to break from time honored Marine Corps standards, as shocking as they may come to commanders and veterans, may better equip Marines for IW. For instance, it has been said that “[d]rill, saluting, crisp uniforms, and rank structure are products of first generation warfare and are irrelevant and sometimes detrimental to operating on the modern battlefield.”16 IW calls these historic traits of military operations into question, as Marines demand a command structure that allows for flexibility, lack of formality, feedback from all Marines, and equipment and training that allows Marines to do their job with little upkeep and formality.

Finally, reiterating the prior assertion that IW is a “breed of public relations battle,”17 Marines must embrace the notion that looking and acting the part is half the battle when trying to forge partnerships with local populations. In other words, Marines place a figurative chasm between themselves and the people they are trying to win over when they set themselves apart with fortifications, armored vehicles, and foreign and frightening behavior. All of this, of course, serves a purpose: to shield Marines from adversaries. In some ways, however, typical Marine precautions may do more harm than good. In order to most easily forge partnerships and create a persistent presence, Marines must be permitted to sometimes abandon the rigidity of grooming standards and military formality so that foreign civilians will not be intimidated and terrified by a Marine presence. The Corps can generate a stronger combat presence by ensuring that at least some Marines—perhaps those interacting most often and most closely with relevant populations—have a greater lingual fluency, more relaxed uniform and grooming standards, and more time spent in person with the local population.


IW is anything but “business as usual” for the Marines. To address the gaps discussed above, and others that will arise in the future, the Marine Corps should consider the following actionable ideas to adjust to the 21st century operational environment while holding true to the Marine ethos and traditions. Importantly, each of the following proposals is tailored to the current operating environment and seeks to minimize consumption of limited resources.

Multi-capable materiel and training. The Marine Corps of the future will undergo training and utilize equipment that is applicable to a variety of missions encompassing IW and conventional warfare. As an example of this, former Defense Secretary Gates went so far as to propose ending production of the

top-of-the-line F-22 fighter jets, arguing that money should be spent on warplanes that carry out a broader array of missions, from countering enemy air forces to evading surface-to-air missiles to bombing insurgent militias in hiding.18

A focus on equipment and weapons systems capable of tackling an array of missions will continue to dominate the conversation about IW.

But how can the Marine Corps ensure that training and weapons systems stretch to reach a variety of operations? And what does it actually mean to have multi-capable training and materiel? Regarding training, the Corps must supplement conventional war training to include a battery of interpersonal skills so that Marines can interact and blend in with a native population. While the Corps must be armed and ready as always, Marines must be able to “disarm” populations with knowledge of their region, religion, and perception of American Forces in their country. For example, skills like negotiation, patrolling, and spotting black market imports translate equally between conventional warfare operations and IW.

Similarly, bombers, tactical warplanes, and armored vehicles will maintain their traditional strike capabilities, but the Corps can further supplement these capabilities with surveillance systems to collect battlefield intelligence. For instance, the Corps can make greater use of the Integrator unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance missions by providing commanders and decision makers with increased strike capability but also visibility over foreign terrain.19

In essence, when training, materiel, and hardware are applicable across the spectrum of warfare, the Marine Corps is more nimble in confronting the challenges of IW. Also, while this versatility in and of itself is certainly worth a great deal to the Corps, another benefit of altering Marine infrastructure for multi-capabilities is greater affordability when, for instance, instead of requiring two warplanes to do two jobs, one warplane can serve a variety of missions.

Marines lead the way. Of all the U.S. Armed Forces, the Marine Corps is best disposed to lead the way in IW. Already, the Corps is in a position to leverage its inherent strengths as a versatile and front-line combat force. Such assets are in great demand because IW

often occurs in remote, rugged, or otherwise difficult terrain that can constrain operations by modern forces, limiting their mobility and reducing their technological advantages.20

The Corps already prepares its infantry for the most difficult terrain and its accompanying changes to combat materiel and readiness. In addition, the Marines are the paramount military force in the maritime environment. In the context of IW, this asset will ensure that the Corps controls littoral access to key population centers, protects offshore infrastructure, and spearheads efforts to combat criminal activities, piracy, smuggling, and narcotics.

In non-amphibious environments, however, the Corps must adapt its methods of transportation to IW and the rough terrains in which IW can be fought. Importantly, in certain microclimates, the Corps should embrace new forms of ground transportation, such as horses or camels, as the most appropriate form of mobility, rather than dismounted or vehicle-mounted transportation.21 If IW aims in part to bring warfighters closer to relevant populations to gain their trust and form lasting partnerships, then mounted riding furthers this goal by taking the armored vehicle out of the equation. In any case, residents in regions in which the Corps wages IW often use horses for transportation and carrying goods, so on horseback, the Corps will appear more like locals. While horses require upkeep in the form of grooming, feeding, and treating injuries, horses offset these drawbacks by offering increased maneuverability on rough or narrow roads and trails, quick mobility with a good vantage point from above, and the ability to carry equipment and goods for Marines on par with a vehicle. This is just one example of a way in which the Marines can lead the way in a new operating environment.

Face-to-face relations before head-to-head combat. Irregular warfare requires a shift from conventional head-to-head combat to population engagement that favors face-to-face (or at times computer-to-computer) interaction in addition to tactical posturing on social media platforms and the online battlefield. This is because IW effectively seeks to win the hearts and minds of a population by means of modern communications tools, rather than traditional combat force. Insurgent and terrorist groups, for example, rely on a “steady stream of recruits and pool of potential new leaders.”22 Moreover, terror cells often enjoy support among local civilians, so they are made more stable due to the support of the people. Thus, ultimately, creative approaches in populist engagement and cyber space can do more good for U.S. interests than a sustained, conventional military campaign.

In part, the Corps is called on to wage war in cyberspace because IW foes “increasingly utilize the Internet and social media forums to communicate, distribute propaganda, recruit individuals, and accomplish other tasks.”23 For example, recruiters for Islamic extremist causes proceed methodically to first convince potential pupils that God is the sole lawgiver, later declaring that a pupil’s allegiance should be solely to fellow Muslims.24 Such online propaganda is a quick and inexpensive method to convert pupils to support anti-American causes, but such efforts are also easily reversed with equally inexpensive digital efforts.

In order to combat such enemy efforts, the Corps must emphasize first-person accounts of fighters recruited from abroad who have ultimately returned to Western countries after being disillusioned. Religious groups can be immune to outside attacks because “their appeal is based on a shared identity that transcends any individual leader,”25 but defectors can sharpen their message by calling out the vast difference between Islamic State atrocities, for example, and the true teachings of Islam. Alternatively, defectors can tell potential recruits in online forums that the day-to-day operations of the caliphate are a far cry from what slick recruitment propaganda portrays. Another line of attack, such as Google’s “Redirect Method,” cleverly places anti-ISIS advertising “alongside results for any keywords and phrases that [Google] has determined people attracted to ISIS commonly search for.”26 This effort, which could easily be supported and expanded with help from Marines, shows potential ISIS recruits testimonials from former jihadists as well as undercover snippets from inside the Islamic State’s dysfunctional operations.27

Public relations campaigns on social media can be spearheaded by Marine efforts at very little cost and risk. Effective campaigns can penetrate online echo chambers by (1) publicizing that faith cannot truly be achieved through violence; (2) “hashtag hijacking,” in which anti-ISIS groups, for example, tag anti-ISIS messages with hastags used by ISIS sympathizers, such as #America_Burning; and (3) creating hashtag campaigns like #BurnISISFlagChallenge and #MessageToISIS to combat the stream of ISIS propaganda.28 Ultimately, the most meaningful voices online will not stem directly from accounts linked to the Marines or the DOD. Rather, an example of an effective online campaign can be found in a model initiative called “Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism,” a public-private partnership between the U.S. State Department and EdVenture Partners. This initiative provides a platform so that millennials can compete to found new social or digital campaigns that counter violent extremism.29 In the same way, a partnership between the Marines and a civilian organization could swiftly dismantle the online efforts of non-state adversaries.

It is important that the Marines not seek to ban or silence social media users outright for three reasons. First, the most effective way to combat adversarial ideas is not to muzzle the adversary or invoke issues concerning free speech. Rather, the Marines should fight ideas with ideas. The second reason, equally important, is that online speech provides ongoing intelligence to the Marines and the greater DOD intelligence community in terms of enemies’ tactics, locations, and participants. Finally, online accounts are cheap and easy to open: if one account is silenced, the user will easily open another.

Social media and online participation are vital and affordable conduits for Marines to invest in partner forces while conducting culturally effective wars. IW presents an unfavorable situation in which warring members of a population blend in with their compatriots and surroundings. Only if the Marines are able to squarely capture the attention and faith of non-combatants—while alienating foes in digital forums—will they stand a chance at winning IW campaigns.

A deeper body of specialists and experts. The final actionable proposal strengthens Marines’ LREC skills by seeking to concentrate a deep understanding of local history and politics among an elite group of Marines. While every Marine supporting IW must maintain a minimum level of general knowledge and skills according to CAOCL standards, an investment in a core of specialist Marines would strengthen the Corps’ efficacy in IW.

Investing in Marines who possess a deep and specialized knowledge of a region would pay dividends over the long run. Core experts would provide a backbone and large degree of reliability to Marines engaged in IW, especially when generalists and newcomers are introduced into the mix. Indeed, commanders and the outcomes of IW missions will rely heavily on the wisdom of those with the most knowledge to guide decision making.

In every crisis, it always comes down to a few recognized experts providing the core knowledge to decision makers. The generalists do general things, and the experts provide what decision makers and warfighters need.30

Thus, the Marines have a great need for specialists with expert knowledge who are able to cultivate permanent partnerships with relevant populations.

The Corps must invest in Marines with an aptitude for social engagement and sensitivity for the sociocultural norms of other populations. These Marine specialists will become leaders among leaders in the continuing strategy to wage effective IW. They will be expected to serve as detail among their fellow Marines and perform ordinary wartime duties, but commanders will consult with them especially at crucial decision points to understand the thinking of adversaries and the local populations among which they operate. Specialists will also lead or at least attend Marines’ meetings with indigenous tribal leaders and politicians, building trust and acceptance for Marine forces. This is perhaps the most important factor in the new operational environment, in which ingrained local leaders lend legitimacy to Marine forces in exchange for the promise of greater stability and peace in their homelands.


Irregular warfare skirmishes have been called “small wars,” meaning that they commonly consist of comparatively small struggles that often do not have a formal declaration of war, traditional battlefield, or conclusive victory. Yet small wars are nevertheless wars, and when America engages in a violent struggle with a non-state belligerent, the Marine Corps must seize this golden opportunity and fulfill its role as the Nation’s signature crisis response force. Marines have always been the first to fight and their expeditionary mindset will aid them as they continue to refine their response to IW.

As the title of this essay states, however, Marine dominance in IW will require a “new approach,” one that is not a quick fix, but rather a lengthy assimilation of evolving best practices that require new training and partnerships. In developing a new approach, the Corps must pay careful attention to both the nature of its adversaries and the relevant populations in which they conduct warfare. This task is not easy, but in its 240-year history, the Marine Corps has overcome countless more daunting challenges and overcome them all. Thus, if history is any indicator, the Corps will certainly craft a new approach without delay and use this to successfully dictate the outcome of future irregular warfare.


1. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, (Washington, DC: February 2006).

2. Department of Defense, Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, (Washington, DC: 11 September 2007).

3. IW contemplates foes such as terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, drug trafficking organizations like Mexican cartels, and violent anarchist groups. Testimony of Seth G. Jones, The Future of Irregular Warfare, (Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, March 2012), 2.

4. William Safire, “Irregular Warfare,” The New York Times, (New York: 8 June 2008).

5. Asymmetric strategies and tactics may range from tribal engagement to improvised explosive devices to the Internet.

6. Paul J. Tompkins, Warfare Annotated Bibliography, (Fort Bragg, NC: U.S. Army Special Operations Command, 2 June 2011), 2.

7. Ibid., 2.

8. Eric V. Larson, Derek Eaton, Brian Nichiporuk, and Thomas S. Szayna, Assessing Irregular Warfare: A Framework for Intelligence Analysis, (Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2008), xi.

9. Ibid., 17.

10. Ibid., 17.

11. Transcript of news conference with Secretary of Defense Robert M Gates and ADM Mike Mullen, (Washington, DC: 18 June 2009), available at

12. Jeffrey B. White, Some Thoughts on Irregular Warfare, (Langley, MD: Central Intelligence Agency, 14 April 2007).

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. See Capt Jason Topshe, “Evolving the Marine Corps for Irregular Warfare,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: January 2016).

16. Ibid.

17. See Section II of this essay, 2.

18. Thom Shanker, “Pentagon to Outline Shift in War Planning Strategy,” The New York Times, (New York: 22 June 2009).

19. Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Marines and Irregular Warfare, (Quantico, VA: Slide Show, 13 April 2012), available at

20. Ibid., Note 12.

21. Ibid., Note 15.

22. Max Fisher, “Does Killing Terrorist Leaders Make Any Difference? Scholars Are Doubtful,” The New York Times, (New York: 30 August 2016).

23. Seth G. Jones, The Future of Irregular Warfare, (Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, March 2012).

24. Rukmini Callimachi, “Once a Qaeda Recruiter, Now a Voice Against Jihad,” The New York Times, (New York: 29 August 2016).

25. Ibid., Note 22.

26. Andy Greenberg, “Google’s Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits,” Wired, (Online: 7 September 2016).

27. Ibid.

28. Nicholas A. Glavin, “Counter ISIS’ Narratives on Social Media,” The New York Times, (New York: 7 December 2015).

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., Note 12.

1stLt Ormsbee is assigned as Legal Counsel, Air Force Warfare Center, Nellis Air Force Base, NV.