“Irregular Warfare” is not a perfect term, but it helps distinguish the U.S. military’s potential contributions to strategic competition short of all-out war.
The Department of Defense categorically defines all warfare as “traditional” or “irregular.” At the same time, it notes the U.S. military’s critical role in defending against all adversaries while stating the purpose of the U.S. armed forces as the “guarantor of the nation’s security and independence.”
Although the 2018 National Defense Strategy highlights the changing character of warfare and new threats in strategic competition, many remain myopically focused on preparing only for the high-end warfight. This effectively draws an artificial line that treats as ancillary any role for the military in competition short of conflict, through irregular warfare (IW) or otherwise. By looking straight to the conflict, planners miss the “competition” and the opportunity to use IW proactively against current-day challenges.
As a term, “Irregular Warfare” generates strong emotions within the Department of Defense and across the U.S. government. Proponents welcome the increased focus it gives to influence and legitimacy, and consider this emphasis to be indispensable amidst the irregular competition posed by asymmetric threats across the competition continuum. Opponents may accuse IW as being conflated with all of competition, disregard IW in favor of singular emphasis on conventional deterrence, opt for investment in incrementally improving warfighting potential, or defer all activities short of war to other departments and agencies.
The Defense Department’s Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy attempts to thread the needle between these positions. It complements recent joint concepts that articulate a role for the entire joint force — not just special operations forces — to competition, and envisions IW as providing potential ways and means to more affordably fit the bill. Furthermore, it recognizes the ability of IW operations and activities to generate effects in the human domain, which is central in strategic competition and contests of legitimacy.
State-on-state conflicts no longer resemble the “regular” war that characterized conventional combat during the World Wars, but they challenge U.S. security interests in ways that only preparing to excel in conflict is insufficient to address. The protracted nature of “competition” facing the United States today is not “high-end warfare.” Nonetheless, the protracted contest imperils the nation’s security and independence, and requires the U.S. armed forces to take supporting action.
However, the way those forces are employed matters, both to credibly demonstrate U.S. resolve and impose costs on malign activities. After all, the enemy also gets a vote in competition. The escalating price tag for continued investments in high-end warfighting capabilities is one argument in favor of not relying exclusively on the most exquisite tools for all security challenges. Another is the impact on readiness levels from deploying those capabilities in response to ad hoc provocations worldwide. A third argument may be the most cogent, however: focusing only on high-end assets associated with “traditional warfare” does not always work.
B-52 and aircraft carrier deployments in response to regional flare-ups represent “business as usual” conventional solutions to non-conventional problems. Unfortunately, this approach does not deter the strategies employed by U.S. adversaries. These fail to change the malign actors’ behavior, impose costs on their activities, or preserve and enhance U.S. influence over a particular situation.
Instead, the United States should consider a new approach, one that is informed by the IW Annex to the NDS. Applied with strategic focus, IW represents one way the military can apply its power complementarily with diplomatic, economic, financial and other elements of government power to secure strategic outcomes. Options exist using IW to counter maritime coercion through foreign internal defense; bolster partners and allies’ resilience against aggression through effective unconventional warfare; disrupt malign actors via robust counter-threat network capabilities; and shape the information space in politically sensitive environments through concerted military information support operations and civil affairs operations. These are far more affordable, and produce far less strain to the joint force, than relying on conventional solutions or delaying action until crisis.
Why does IW fail to resonate? The “irregular” moniker could be to blame. Recent history in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency may also distort thinking on IW more expansively.
Alternatively, a bias for quantitatively oriented solutions with “visible investment of significant resources” may drown out consideration of more indirect and asymmetric approaches. But options associated with IW provide exactly what is needed to seize the initiative in competition, expand the competitive space, and set conditions favorable for an escalation to war, if required. Overlooking IW’s value proposition to competition risks misreading today’s competitive landscape and missing opportunities to secure strategic objectives well before conflict.
Maybe “irregular warfare” is an outdated term, but until new terminology supplants it, “IW” might simply be the best term available for describing the U.S. military’s potential contributions to support whole-of-government efforts to bolster the nation’s influence and legitimacy against external challengers. Embracing IW is imperative to maximize the United States’ effectiveness in today’s contest and avoid relegating the military exclusively as an expensive contingency for a conflict that may never come — or that could begin with the United States at a disadvantage due to missed opportunities.
Kevin Bilms is a career Department of Defense civilian serving as the irregular warfare team chief in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations & Low-Intensity Conflict. Prior to this assignment, he served as the senior policy adviser for counterterrorism and transnational threats at the National Security Council.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not represent the official position(s) of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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