Defense Media Network

Trans-Regional Resistance Working Group

Sharing SOF Lessons Around the Globe

While U.S. Special Operations Command elements maintain a global posture, their experiences and support of and by partner nations create a range of unique geographic approaches to meet special operation forces (SOF) challenges.

In an effort to share some of those challenges and approaches across the U.S. and international partner SOF enterprise, Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) co-hosted a Trans-Regional Resistance Working Group (TRWG) with the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California, in early February of this year.

Special Operations Outlook was honored to be invited to participate in the event.

As described in TRWG overviews, the overarching theme of the three-day event involved “a comparison between Russian and Chinese aggression with the key takeaways that would be applicable to nations in the Indo-Pacific as they seek to increase efforts in the resilience and resistance areas of their national security strategy.


driving a military vehicle off a U.S. Air Force CV-22B Osprey

A U.S. Air Force flight engineer with the 352nd Special Operations Wing guides an Estonian special operations forces member driving a military vehicle off a U.S. Air Force CV-22B Osprey during training Sept. 3, 2019, at Amari, Estonia. During the week-long training, U.S. and Estonian special operations forces partnered on Fast Rope Insertion and Extraction System familiarization, casualty evacuation, and rapidly loading and off-loading a tactical vehicle onto the aircraft. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. ELIZABETH PENA


In addition to attendees from across the U.S. SOF enterprise, the TRWG included government and/or SOF representatives from nearly a dozen partner nations.



“While each of you may bring different perspectives from your respective country, your respective culture, your respective politics, or your respective neighborhood, I challenge you to think that there are lots of similarities,” asserted Maj. Gen. Jonathan P. Braga, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific.

In his welcome comments, Braga said that the TRWG was about “finding those similarities and places where we can share and cooperate and strengthen each other in resistance and resilience.”


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He added, “On the backbone of last year’s discussion at our Pacific Area Special Operations Conference [PASOC] about sovereignty, I think it really goes back to: How do you improve your house? How do you improve your country? How do you improve your resilience and your resistance and ultimately your sovereignty?”

Expanding on representative regional challenges and related resilience issues, Braga pointed to the subject of elections.

“I think last time I checked, there are 10 elections coming up in Asia over the next year,” he began. “As examples, there will be elections in New Zealand and Mongolia. Taiwan just had elections. The U.S. is going to have an election. And I didn’t count for our European brothers and sisters out there. I know there are elections there, too. And those elections are a commonality.”

“Now, is the U.S. military in charge of protecting U.S. elections? No,” he continued. “But we are part of the national security apparatus, and we are a part of that resiliency. But are we prepared for it? I would challenge you that the U.S. military, right now, is maybe not embracing the type of challenges we’re facing.”

Expanding on some of those future challenges, he summarized, “We equip the military to destroy things. We’re built to protect our homeland, but ultimately destroy things in a Phase Three high-end conflict. I hope we never have that conflict. I hope we stay in the Competition Phase. This is defensive in nature; defensive in nature to prevent mirror imaging escalating to Phase Three.”

Braga emphasized the need for countries to have their “house in order” and have their sovereignty secured, in part through robust resilience and resistance planning.


Col. David Maxwell (Ret.) takes questions while discussing the role of resilience and resistance in power and competition during Special Operations Command Pacific’s Trans-Regional Resistance Working Group (TRWG) Feb. 4-6, 2020. SOCPAC and Naval Postgraduate School co-hosted the TRWG. This event was designed to create an open environment for the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific partners to talk about how resiliency and resistance can play a role in sovereignty.


“You have to ask, have you affected your adversary’s – fill in the blank, whoever it is, whoever you’re most concerned about – ‘cost calculus’ for breaking into your house? Do you have a dog that’s going to bite? Do you have an alarm that’s going to go off? Are the police going to come? Is a neighbor going to take a shotgun out and do something about it? Is your resilience and resistance strong enough before Phase Three? Because nobody wants to pay that price. Nobody in the world desires high-end conflict.”

Over three days of keynote addresses, panel discussions, and focused breakout sessions, the TRWG explored the type of resistance and resilience issues identified by Braga as well as those presented across the SOF enterprise.



Key underlying elements of these issues involved diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement (DIMEFIL), with much of the early conference foundational work focused on definitions of terminologies that are frequently used to describe and discuss SOF/DIMEFIL activities and how they relate to resistance and resilience challenges across Asia.

As an example, in the case of so-called “gray zone” or “hybrid conflict” environments, conference discussions identified a key component of all these environments as “political warfare,” a term originally traced back to a 1948 document prepared for the National Security Council by State Department Policy Planning Director George Kennan.

At that time, Kennan defined the new type of warfare as “the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives …”

While political warfare is not a specific SOF mission, there was considerable agreement that SOF is well positioned to support it, as referenced in the March 10, 2015 U.S. Army Special Operations Command white paper titled SOF Support to Political Warfare.


TRWG attendees

TRWG attendees formed into small breakout groups to discuss panel topics. U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY CHIEF MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST WILLIAM TONACCHIO


Defining political warfare as “a strategy suited to achieve U.S. national objectives through reduced visibility in the international geo-political environment, without committing large military forces,” it states, “Likewise, Political Warfare can function as a critical, integrating element of U.S. national power against non-state adversaries such as the current Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Most often, the Department of Defense role in Political Warfare will be one of supporting other U.S. Government agencies that are more likely to lead strategy and planning development.”

Related discussion avenues focused on the belief that financial warfare underlies political warfare, and that financial leverage is second only to ideas as an asset of power.

With the dollar providing the largest and deepest pool of liquidity on the planet, some wondered if that financial power is currently being used to greatest advantage, calling for expanded examination of “capital density along with soldiers and missions.”

“We can’t or won’t blow something up,” observed one audience member. “But perhaps we can stress their downstream distribution network.”

SOF’s supporting role to political warfare was also viewed by some in TRWG discussions as one element of a “SOF Trinity,” acknowledging that special operations must continue to focus on high-end and counter-terror operations while balancing actions between support to political warfare, irregular warfare, and unconventional warfare.

Another aspect of that trinity, irregular warfare (IW), was defined in DOD (Department of Defense) Joint Operating Concept Version 1.0, dated Sept. 11, 2007, as “a violent struggle among state and nonstate actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.”


USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People’s Liberation ArmyNavy (PLAN) guided-missile frigate Yancheng (FFG 546) sails close behind.


Just over a decade later, H.R. 2810, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, tweaked that definition to “activities in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.”

The past two years have also seen the development of an irregular warfare “annex” to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, with a related IW Annex Implementation Plan now being briefed at senior DOD levels. While some characterized these developmental actions in a positive light, others questioned the packaging of IW as an annex in the first place, arguing instead that it should be intertwined with the rest of the strategy in recognition that it is a principal operational domain.

Related discussions addressed differences between IW, information operations (I/O), and cyber, with some viewing I/O and cyber as “almost the same things,” but asserting that they are being pushed apart due to a lack of appreciation for the psychological impacts of cyber.

Many in the audience felt that western I/O capabilities were lagging, in large part due to “the approvals required” to conduct I/O. In fact, one point of general agreement seemed to be “It’s easier to get permission to put a Hellfire missile on the head of a terrorist than to influence what is between his ears.”



Supporting the group’s vision of new and expanded operational domains were multiple references to Unrestricted Warfare, the 1999 publication written by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, two senior colonels in China’s People’s Liberation Army at the time, proposing new principles of war.

While some have subsequently attempted to downplay the significance of that document, a quick update on the authors’ postpublication military career advancement served to spotlight some of the critical thinking found on those pages.

In fact, while some asserted that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) current global vision and gray zone activities were simply “more subtle and sophisticated than those of Russia,” others identified it as “the fundamental problem in Asia,” adding that China’s security expansion “is about creating dependencies and not partnerships.”

Elements and philosophies expressed in Unrestricted Warfare were used to illustrate possible thinking behind recent actions by China, ranging from I/O operations like major investments in Taiwanese media companies to using dominance in the online gaming industry to create positive storylines and thinking among youth around the world.

Potential response options seen included accept and acquiesce; create civil/military resistance; or create and conduct a countersubversion campaign.

Several speakers postulated a significant planning impact on potential CCP activities stemming from China’s now-abandoned “one child policy,” which some assert has left today’s People’s Liberation Army with the largest percentage of only children in history. Simply stated, would the fact that each of those soldiers represents the potential “end of a family bloodline” affect the planning toward actual combat operations?

Some saw the need for refreshing or restoring traditional regional alliances. As an example, one TRWG keynote speaker, David Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel who is currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was asked whether it might be time to abandon the “One China” policy that has provided a framework for U.S.–China relations over the past four decades, and move to recognize Taiwan.

“This is my personal opinion, but yes,” he replied. “And you can quote me on that.”

And Maxwell was not alone in that opinion. In another keynote address, Lt. Gen. Wallace “Chip” Gregson (USMC, Ret.) spoke on the “strategic risk of inaction” in Asia.

“We’ve lost our way,” he said. “We’re not losing. We’re just not competing.”

Asserting that it was time for democracies in the region to refocus their national security postures, he said, “I think there is room here to break Taiwan’s military out of the box they have been in since 1979, when we broke the military alliance.”

In addition to the exploration of new alliances with traditional partners, others cited common ground across parts of Asia with nontraditional entities, including organizations like Greenpeace.

One point of clarification that was made throughout the TRWG was a clear distinction between China and the apparent actions of the CCP. In the final analysis, China’s global presence and participation remains in the best interests of everyone. They clarified that it is CCP actions, which some asserted are directed solely toward keeping CCP in power, that create regional concern and the need for enhanced resistance and resilience planning.



As noted in Braga’s conference welcome, TRWG planners sought to identify synergies and commonalities between ongoing events in the Indo-Pacific and recent events in Europe, where Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) hosted the first Unconventional Warfare/Resistance seminar in 2014, before Russian actions in Crimea. That seminar led to development of a multinational Resistance Operating Concept (ROC). Broadly speaking, it views resilience as a “whole of society effort,” which leads to resistance.

Although not official “doctrine,” at least three nations have used the ROC as a basis for their own resistance planning.

TRWG panels and speakers included a range of current resilience and resistance examples where European countries could potentially provide lessons learned for coalition partners across Asia, with one participant directly asserting that Taiwan’s special operations forces could learn a great deal from SOF elements in both Poland and Switzerland.

In a broader sense, Braga referenced last year’s PASOC event, offering, “I think when you talk challenges in Europe versus challenge in Asia and the respective altered groups – we even talked Middle East and South America [with some] countries from there as well – it allowed people to remove the complexities of what’s happening in their respective countries and think theoretically about other countries with the same challenges. What are they doing about it?”

SOF and ministry of defense representatives from several European countries shared their current approaches to resistance and resilience in light of recent and current Russian activities.

Those activities were presented on a foundation provided by military, government, and academic speakers, who asserted that Russia’s current view of international politics “sees the West in permanent decline” and, as a result, started a pivot to Asia around 2012. Today, many feel that the internal stability of both Russia and China is based upon economic growth.

Russian aims were identified as protecting what they view as their “backyard,” no longer declaring their rights but instead asserting them, and exploiting every instance of U.S. pullback where it can undermine support for the United States. One discussion noted that Russia’s goal of creating a polycentric world varied with geography, with kinetic force used close to Russia, and other means used in other areas.

Those scenarios were balanced against what some called “the reality” of Russia being a diminished power, economically based on oil – 60 percent of Russia’s federal budget comes from oil and gas sales – and very good at cyber, “where they are originally impacting Western democracies.”

One country that has fostered an evolution in its resistance and resilience thinking over the last few years is Sweden.

According to Lars Hedström, deputy head for the Department of Security, Strategy and Leadership and Senior Associated Dean for External Relations, Swedish Defence University, today’s “total defense” philosophy can be seen as a “back to the future” concept similar to some of the thinking that came after World War II. Key to that thinking was that every person – from 16 to 65 – has a role in civil defense.


Sweden’s shelter “total defense” concept

An automotive business on Lilla Essingen in Sweden that would become a neighborhood shelter in a conflict; part of Sweden’s “total defense” concept.


“Everything washed out in the mid-’90s,” he told the audience. “But then came Georgia. And then came Ukraine. And the mindset totally changed.”

Noting that Sweden’s 2015 defense bill saw the reestablishment of total defense, he said, “This is not just ‘2.0,’ because so much has changed.”

The new concept, which links military and civil defense, was accompanied by a number of key elements, including reestablishing psychological defense; identifying, meeting and countering hybrid warfare and information, operations, and influence campaigns; protecting vital systems and active operations in the civil defense cyber domain; and strengthening intelligence capabilities.

An explanatory document that was distributed to every household in Sweden seems to anticipate the presence of hostile I/O in any future operation, stating: “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up. All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false.”

In addition to the total defense examples provided by Swedish representatives, TRWG attendees learned about the Estonian perspective on resistance and resilience from an Estonian SOF commander.

Relating a brief national history that spanned the period from World War II to the present, Lt. Col. Margus Kuul observed that some form of invasion “remains an existential threat” to the nation.

Kuul explained that armed resistance has been a part of national security planning since 2008, and offered the example of the Estonian Defense League, with its more than 25,000 members, as one aspect of that planning.

He emphasized the importance of a “whole of government approach,” noting that proper preparation for resistance means that sometimes “a lawyer with a pen” is even more important than “a soldier with a gun.”

“The key is to preserve the legitimacy of a government in exile,” he added.

Universally acknowledged across the TRWG was the fact that it is not “kicking down doors” that makes SOF world class. Rather, in addition to the ability to capture or kill high value targets, the essence of SOF capabilities is in its ability to solve problems. And it is the application of that problem-solving expertise that creates such a massive contribution to resistance and resilience planning.



Remaining background issues that emerged during TRWG span from tactical to strategic levels.

At the tactical level, for example, some attendees acknowledged that SOF tends to look at “conflict models” but not “competition models.” To be more reflective of future likelihoods, they felt that the aperture needed to be opened and adjusted to include competition at the tactical level as being “things that impose cost on the other’s strategy.”

Many at TRWG also pointed to the United States falling well behind both Russia and China in I/O, both internally and externally. One shared example asserted that, in 1999, just 31 percent of Russians viewed Russia as “a great power.” In January 2020 that number was 75 percent.

One speaker attempted to quantify the CCP’s I/O capabilities with the United States in the type of chart once used to compare and depict numbers of tanks and artillery pieces during the Cold War. Conceding China’s I/O “dominance” in areas like force size, funding, activities, and speed, they called for leveraging nontraditional partners, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and coalescing U.S. and partner efforts to challenge that overmatch.

Another speaker highlighted the different I/O reaction speeds on the chart, calling for the reduction of I/O and other approval timelines.

They asked rhetorically: “How do you prevent the next Spratly Islands? How do you prevent other actions occurring down the Mekong? If this is ‘the new normal,’ how do you prevent ‘the new normal’ from happening?”

In his own remarks, Braga emphasized that applying SOF abilities to resistance and resilience planning was “anything but escalatory.”

“Too much of our respective histories are littered with wars that cost too much in lives, blood, and treasure,” he said. “We’re about protection. We are the insurance policy. We are the firemen.

“That’s our goal for this event,” he concluded. “We want participants to take home a list of concrete ideas that they can apply to their own situations.”

This article originally appears in the following edition of Special Operations Outlook:


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...