The Imperitive: Irregular Warfare and the Future of Security

The nature of warfare in the 21st century remains as it has been since ancient times – ‘a violent clash of interests between or among organized groups characterized by the use of military force.’ These organized groups are no longer limited to states with easily identifiable regular armed forces, nor do they all operate by internationally accepted conventions and standards.
IW JOC 1.0, quoting 7 MCDP 1, Warfighting (Washington, DC, United States Marine Corps, June 1997).

This blog was started not just out of a personal passion for the subject matter, but a firmly held belief that the United States will increasingly be confronted by irregular challenges, and that it has a troublesome tendency to bury its head in the sand about such threats when planning its military and diplomatic forces.

While the most catastrophic conflicts in which the US might engage would undoubtedly be those involving open warfare with major powers, such as China or Russia, these states also understand this fact, and know that they would very likely have no chance of success in such a conflict. Therefore, like the smaller “rogue” states and non-state dissident groups we more frequently confront, they will avoid direct conflict with the US, and rely instead on irregular and hybrid modes of conflict. Using these more indirect means, they can avoid provoking the immense conventional power of the US military while still affecting the international environment in ways that are unacceptably contrary to our interests, in much the same way that the Soviet Union attempted to achieve dominance through its “salami slice” approach to the Cold War.

Faced with the conventional warfighting capacity of the United States, our adversaries will likely choose to fight using a hybrid of irregular, disruptive, catastrophic, and traditional capabilities as a way to achieve their strategic objectives. The strategy of our adversaries will be to subvert, attrite, and exhaust us rather than defeat us militarily. They will seek to undermine and erode the national power, influence, and will of the United States and its strategic partners.

IW JOC 1.0.

This truth has been stated over and over again, but to little avail. In 2005, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Dr. John Hillen, told the Joint Worldwide Planning Conference that “We imagine the brewing threats of ‘Perfect Storms’ of failed governments, ethnic stratification, religious violence, humanitarian disasters, catalytic regional crises, and the proliferation of dangerous weapons. We see lagging economies, unintegrated and disenfranchised populations, transnational crime, illicit sub-national power structures, and destabilizing bulges of uneducated and unemployed youth.” By 2008, it was becoming clear that this threat emanated not only from failed states and non-state actors, but state powers as well. Recognizing this, the first Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept stated that “Our adversaries will pursue IW strategies, employing a hybrid of irregular, disruptive, traditional, and catastrophic capabilities to undermine and erode the influence and will of the United States and our strategic partners.” Moreover, it predicted that “our adversaries will continue to wage IW against us until we demonstrate the same competency in IW that we demonstrate in conventional warfighting.”

But this is not merely prognostication. Recent conflicts with powers small and large are characterized largely by the employment of irregular means and methods. Al Qaeda has survived its trials in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere and has developed a more subtle, long-term strategy to build a network of allied dissident groups, while its former branch in Iraq has morphed into a semi-regular force that controls a massive amount of territory and has developed one of the most sophisticated information operations campaigns the world has ever seen. Meanwhile, Russia has adroitly applied its conventional and special forces to bolster and lead irregular forces in Eastern Ukraine, challenging the future of NATO and the European balance of power. Furthermore, China has been engaging in a coordinated campaign of lawfare and harassment in the South and East China Seas, using forces and methods that allow it to work toward its strategic goals while remaining below the threshold at which conventional conflict is likely to result.

While this may seem like a new and troubling trend, the most troubling aspect is that this trend is hardly new. While many in the defense and national security field lament what appears to be the breakdown of the system of state monopoly on violence as a political tool, it seems more likely that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the “Westphalian moment,” as described by Sean McFate, author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. This period was likely created by the window of opportunity for organization, in which the available modes of communication were sufficient to disseminate information and guidance, allowing top-down political organization, but not sufficient to allow more horizontal alternative networks to arise. Modern communications greatly reduce the divide between the ability for individuals to communicate and that of the state communications apparatus. This allows individuals to organize across distance without resorting to the state or other superstructures (e.g., the church, guild, union, etc.), subsequently creating too many voices for the state to adequately respond.

In fact, as mentioned elsewhere in this blog, since the time of Napoleon, approximately 80% of conflict has been irregular in nature. Obvious examples in U.S. history abound: guerrilla warfare in the Philippines during World War II, the counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense waged in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, unconventional warfare in Afghanistan in the 1980s, stability operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, and arguably the (abortive) unconventional warfare in Iraq in 1991, just to name a few. This is not to mention the more recent extensive efforts following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Although this is not a blog on military or political history, it is essential to understand important lessons from the past for how our military and diplomatic corps will need to operate in the future, and how they must prepare themselves to do so. The rich history of irregular warfare also lends its compelling voice to the call for improved capabilities to confront modern-day irregular challenges. Throughout this blog, we will draw on the lessons of history and current events to guide and inform our analysis of the threats we face, and the most effective means of confronting them.

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