Oct 042015

“IW is a complex,’messy,’ and ambiguous social phenomenon that does not lend itself to clean, neat, concise, or precise definition.”

Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, 2008

The above quote reflects the discomfort that the US military had (and continues to have) in coming to terms with an aspect of warfare that was becoming increasingly apparent in the wake of its struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many were concerned that the military was gearing up to take on political objectives and employ political methods, there was a growing understanding that the “traditional” way of doing business was not working as well as might be hoped, and a growing number of voices arguing that these problems were not going to go away any time soon. So the Pentagon set out to try to come to grips with the problem, formulating a new doctrine of irregular warfare to encompass the many interrelated issues that it was confronting.

Irregular Warfare is defined in US joint doctrine as “A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.” As such, it encompasses much of what has until recently been considered to be traditional warfare, since militaries have long understood that they must take public perception into account in their planning. However, it also includes areas of military operations that are not as well-known, and in fact seek to maintain that low profile. Such “special” operations are understood to be politically sensitive and thus often function best when their existence goes undetected. Complicating things further, according to this definition, irregular warfare also includes activities that are usually not considered to be the purview of the military, such as strategic communications, diplomatic activities, and other forms of political or cultural engagement.

Being a “violent struggle,” irregular warfare does not seek to address the political maneuverings of those who do not and are not expected to employ force to achieve their goals. However, it does seek to address the employment of political methodologies of violent organizations. It is interesting to note the relationship of irregular warfare in this regard to traditional warfare, which seeks to address the violent methodologies of (formal) political organizations. This mirror image dichotomy exposes one of the key aspects of irregular warfare that should be understood by all military theorists and practitioners: traditional and irregular warfare view the same basic problem from different perspectives: political violence. The following graphic, from the first Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept may help to illuminate this duality:

Gov/Pop/Mil graphicAs opposite sides of the same coin, while each may be independently useful in a given situation, they are usually best used in some blended form based upon the scenario at hand. For example, irregular warfare tends to be of most use in dealing with non-state actors, when deniability is required, or when the instability to be addressed has its roots in popular unrest.

Because of this, current US military doctrine describes the five core activities of irregular warfare as counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, stability operations and unconventional warfare. These activities are highlighted not to limit the scope of irregular warfare, but because each necessarily involves the attempt to either bolster or undermine the legitimacy of a foreign government in the eyes of its own population, or some portion thereof. In fact, this could be considered a second definition of irregular warfare, albeit a more circumscribed one.

In future posts, we will return to these considerations again and again as we explore the many facets of irregular warfare.

Oct 032015

Welcome to the Irregular Warrior. This is a blog about irregular warfare in all of its various manifestations. We will take a methodical approach, discussing each facet of irregular warfare and its component parts independently. There will therefore be a great deal of overlap between sections, so we will necessarily revisit different topics again and again. Additionally, this blog will cover many topics not normally associated with defense, and explore the associated connections required between the military and civilian organizations.

Irregular warfare, while usually considered a specialty skill set, is actually one of the most often required, if not the most employed. As will be discussed more in a later post, irregular warfare is essentially the use of military capabilities to affect the relationship between a people and their governing authority. As such, irregular warfare plays a central role in insurgencies, terrorism, and stability operations. With approximately 80% of all conflicts since the Napoleonic era involving non-state actors as major combatants, it is becoming increasingly clear that irregular warfare is not an area of warfare that can be brushed aside by our military leadership. In fact, looking at just US military history, it is arguable that nearly all wars, large and small, have included a sizable irregular warfare component. Begining with the American Revolution, which was a classic case of insurgency, American warfighters have either employed or confronted irregular methods. (Additional historical examples will be discussed in a later post.)

Because of it ubiquity, it is vital that military and foreign policy decisionmakers have a firm grasp of irregular warfare and their role in it. However, there has been significant resistance in US defense and foreign policy institutions to assuming responsibility for irregular warfare. In 2012, the Defense Planning Guidance while lauding the lessons learned over a decade of war, stated that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to condecut large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” While some in the military, and especially in the Army, have taken up the banner of irregular warfare, the Army and the military at large still prioritize conventional forces when cuts are required. Similarly, while some in the State Department and USAID understand the vitality of irregular warfare, they are do not resourced sufficiently to meaningfully participate in the the effort.

This deprioritization of such a central requirement of US foreign and national security policy is like due to several factors, many of which will be explored in subsequent posts over the course of our investigation or irregular warfare. However, two of these reasons warant mention from the start, those being the fact that no agency bears clear and individual responsibility for irregular warfare and the fact that it is by its very nature a messy and complicated affair, when American decisionmakers and the American public both prefer simple solutions even if those solutions don’t reflect reality.

If the foregoing seems glum and foreboding of a future of relearning all the lessons of history through trial and error, then I appologize. In truth, the future does in fact look brighter by far than the past. Taking the broadest perspective, despite our perceptions, the world is steadily becoming a safer place. Over time the number of deaths due to conflict have dropped dramatically. For example, battle deaths have dropped exponentially as the world has become more intereconnected, from 500 per 100,000 people before the advent of the modern state to 60 per 100,000 during the period of the two World Wars, to 0.3 per 100,000 today. 

In the narrower, irregular warfare perspective, there are bastions of retained lessons learned and centers of study that continue to advance the study of irregular warfate The United Nations, by eshewing offensive operations in favor of peacemaking, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping, provides a modicum of continuity from one irregular warfare campaign to the next. Additionally, the US Army, while it has downsized its irregular warfare capabilities to protect its conventional forces from budget cuts, has made a clear effort to retain the lessons learned from the last decade and a half of irregular warfare. Simultaneously,the Joint Staff in the US Department of Defense maintains an active interest in protecting the irregular warfare capabilities built during those difficult years. In fact, it is largely from that wealth of knowledge that this blog will draw its inspiration.

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