Words Matter — Changing irregular warfare terminology can help the U.S. fight against its global competitors

Kevin Bilms argues in his recent article at War on the Rocks on irregular warfare terminology that redefining the core elements of irregular warfare (unconventional warfare, stabilization, foreign internal defense, counter-terrorism, and counterinsurgency) will help its practitioners and proponents to explain what it is they do, and why it is important.

By using clearer language, such as “support to resistance” in place of “unconventional warfare,” it will become much more obvious to decisionmakers and planners who are not well-versed in irregular warfare concepts how the activities and outcomes that irregular warfare approaches can provide great benefit throughout all stages of competition. According to Bilms, ”these revised names should make it easier for the Defense Department to envision irregular warfare’s contributions to competition short of armed conflict, for interagency and legislative counterparts to appreciate it as well, and for policymakers to understand this valuable tool set at America’s disposal in strategic competition.”

It’s no surprise that senior irregular warfare analysts like Bilms keep calling for changes in irregular warfare terminology. The field is, after all, a product of accretion, rather than of considered operational planning or theory. It was built bit by bit as new requirements were placed on military elements (particularly the U.S. Army Special Forces) because they had previously done something that required similar skills or knowledge. The theory was generated after the fact, usually as a way of defending the institutional equities of organizations facing budget cuts or dissolution once their immediate missions were over (looking at you again, Special Forces).

But irregular warfare does have an important place at the table in defense planning and operations. Particularly in the arena of global competition for influence that has come to the forefront of national security concerns. As Bilm’s reformulation makes clear, irregular warfare is at its core all about influencing populations and affecting legitimacy of a governing power — the very heart of the competition between the U.S. and Russia, Iran, and various terrorist organizations, if not also China and North Korea. Clarifying the role of irregular warfare in preparing for, shaping, and (most importantly) obviating large scale conflict is vital to ensuring that the U.S. military is competent to participate in the kind of competition below the level of armed conflict that is being waged against us as we speak.

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