Greg Olsen is a cyber security professional and postgraduate researcher at University of Leicester doing his PhD on peacekeeping and civil wars. He can be found on Twitter at @gtotango. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The U.S. Department of Defense faces a significant challenge trying to balance preparations for peer competition while maintaining the capability of executing military operations other than war (MOOTW).

Date Originally Written:  May 9, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  July 1, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a cyber security professional currently researching the determinants for successful peacekeeping in civil wars for a PhD at University of Leicester.

Background:  With the release of the 2017 National Security Strategy, the United States is executing a policy pivot towards preparing for peer competition and away from nearly two decades of counterinsurgency. Yet, the most likely future military conflicts will continue to be small wars[1] and MOOTW—such as security force assistance, counter terrorism missions, evacuating U.S. nationals from conflict zones, and robust peacekeeping.

Significance:  The post-Cold War period of unipolarity has ended with a return to great power competition. Revisionist great powers are asserting themselves militarily in their near abroad and challenging Western hegemony. Consequently, the United States’ national security priorities have shifted to counter the threat. However, small wars and MOOTW are likely to be the dominant form of actual military conflict for foreseeable future. The challenge for the U.S. military is preparing for peer competition and continental conflict while maintaining the ability to execute MOOTW. For example, the U.S. Army has shifted from Brigade Combat Teams designed for counter insurgency warfare to warfare against peers[2]. What follows are three options for addressing the continuing need for conducting MOOTW.

Option #1:  The U.S. primarily employs Special Operations Forces (SOF) to address small wars and MOOTW. Currently, much of the U.S. counter terrorism mission is executed by SOF. Within SOF, the U.S. Army Special Forces were created to assist host governments in developing the capabilities to execute counter insurgency and counter terrorism missions. Other SOF are trained and deployed for direct action missions against high value targets. In many ways SOF is ideal forces for executing certain missions with a low footprint.

Risk:  The principal risk to this option is that special operations forces are not large enough nor equipped and trained to execute certain types of MOOTW, for example, evacuation of nationals during conflict, humanitarian disaster response, nor peacekeeping/peace enforcement missions.

Another risk is the inability to train and deploy enough SOF to the myriad conflict zones around the world. There is currently an arc of ethnic and sectarian conflict from Mali in western Africa through central Africa to the Horn of Africa[3]. Libya, Somalia and South Sudan are already failed states[4]. Transnational terrorist networks are active in the Sahel, the Middle East, and South Asia, and Southeast Asia[5]. Three Latin American states are in crisis: Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela[6]. These forces are part but not the whole solution to the MOOTW challenges across the globe.

Gain: SOF are ideal for executing hostage rescue, counter terrorism missions, and for training partner forces in counter insurgency missions.  SOF taking the lead for MOOTW frees up conventional forces to focus on their conventional mission.

Option #2:  The U.S. primarily employee military reserve units to address small wars and MOOTW.

Military reserve units provide capabilities that are useful for various types of MOOTW. The military reserves have been the bank upon which the active duty draws specialized capability from in surge scenarios, such as logistics, communications, intelligence, medicine, construction, and military policing.

Risk:  The principal risk to a strategy based on mobilizing reserve forces is political. If reserves were mobilized for a mission with low stakes, such as six months of peacekeeping in South Sudan, then public opposition to the policy is likely to be high. Furthermore, significant casualties would increase opposition and limit policy options.  An additional risk is the time it takes to mobilize these forces.  Certain crises require a rapid reaction and these forces take time to prepare for overseas deployment to a conflict zone.

Gain: These military reserve capabilities would be valuable to missions such as humanitarian disaster relief, occupation, security sector reform and partner training missions, and peacekeeping.

Option #3:  The U.S. primarily employee the Marine Corps, in a role it has historically held, to address small wars and MOOTW.

The United States Marine Corps (USMC), with its embarked Marine Expeditionary Concept, is ideal for rapid response to humanitarian disasters, evacuation of nationals from conflict zones, robust peacekeeping, and military assistance to host governments facing an insurgency. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Marines were landed for America’s “small wars”. Indeed, the deployments to Haiti (1915-1934) and Nicaragua (1926-1933) were precursors to modern twenty-first century robust peacekeeping operations[7]. Marines landed to restore order, evacuate nationals and/or secure multinational corporation property, organize and supervise elections, train police and military forces, and conduct counter insurgency operations. This “halls of Montezuma” and “shores of Tripoli” heritage is part of the strategic culture of the USMC.

Risk:  The principal risk is that it will divert the USMC from operating concepts needed for peer competition, but this risk can be overstated. Presence is key to the deterrence mission. In the European theater, this is the principal role of the USMC: deter by presence as both a trip wire and force for countering adversary hybrid warfare strategies[8]. In the Pacific theater, two operating concepts define the USMC role in great power conflict: (1) Littoral operations in a contested environment and (2) expeditionary advanced base operations[9]. The viability of both concepts has been brought into question based on analogies from World War II. The opposed amphibious landing may be an obsolete operating concept due to the political price paid for the high casualties that result if facing a peer enemy. The expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept is innovative but may not be viable. EABO proposes to use land-based resources to augment the Navy’s surface fleet for sea control, logistics, and ISR. The fundamental flaw is the vulnerability of forces ashore. A ship on an ocean is a difficult target to find and fix, but an atoll is a stationary target. Like the defenders at Wake Island in World War II, they are exceedingly vulnerable. The primary benefit of deployment to islands in the Pacific is as a tripwire deterrent, not as a viable fighting force when the shooting starts.

An additional risk is the damage that may be done to esprit de corps, if Marines begin to think that they are not contributing to the primary strategic challenge of peer competition. The USMC must guard against the impression that MOOTW amounts to “scallywag soldiering” like that of the period of British high empire. The USMC has a unique warrior ethos that must be maintained. In addition to the primary mission of small wars, the USMC must continue to be able to deter aggression and blunt the military adventures of a peer adversary as the “first to fight.”

Gain:  The United States Marine Corps (USMC), with its embarked Marine Expeditionary Concept, is ideal for rapid response to humanitarian disasters, evacuation of nationals from conflict zones, robust peacekeeping, and military assistance to host governments facing an insurgency. Rapid reaction and a flexible mix of capabilities makes this an ideal tool, especially in non-permissive environments. A battalion of Marines is the wrong tool for counter terrorism missions, it is the best tool when coercive presence is required.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Stanford: Stanford University, 2012.

[2] Todd South, “New in 2019: From tanks to Strykers, major brigade combat team conversions are coming this year,” Army Times, 2 January 2019. Retrieved from

[3] SIPRI Yearbook 2018, Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2018.

[4] Fragile State Index Annual Report 2019, Washington, D.C.: The Fund for Peace, 2019.

[5] Country Reports on Terrorism 2017. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of State, 2018.

[6] SIPRI op cit.

[7] Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

[8] Shawn Snow, “No more Marine rotations to the Black Sea. The Corps is focusing here instead,” Marine Corps Times, 29 November 2019. Retrieved from

[9] Sam LaGrone, “Lt. Gen. David Berger Nominated as Next Marine Corps Commandant,“ USNI News, 27 March 2019. Retrieved from