What is irregular warfare?

There are so many terms that sound similar but actually have distinct meanings, that it is helpful to pause occasionally and make sure you know what you’re talking about.

irregular warfare – a violent struggle between state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). Also called IW. (JP 1)

DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, November 2021

A simple definition. What does JP 1 say?

A whole lot more.

Irregular Warfare. This form of warfare is characterized as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). This form is labeled as irregular in order to highlight its non-Westphalian context. The strategic point of IW is to gain or maintain control or influence over, and the support of, a relevant population.

(1) IW emerged as a major and pervasive form of warfare although it is not a historical form of warfare. In IW, a less powerful adversary seeks to disrupt or negate the military capabilities and advantages of a more powerful military force, which usually serves that nation’s established government. The less powerful adversaries, who can be state or non-state actors, often favor indirect and asymmetric approaches, though they may employ the full range of military and other capabilities in order to erode their opponent’s power, influence, and will. Diplomatic, informational, and economic methods may also be employed. The weaker opponent could avoid engaging the superior military forces entirely by attacking nonmilitary targets in order to influence or control the local populace. Irregular forces, to include partisan and resistance fighters in opposition to occupying conventional military forces, are included in the IW formulation. Resistance and partisan forces, a form of insurgency, conduct IW against conventional occupying powers. They use the same tactics as described above for the weaker opponent against a superior military force to increase their legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.

(2) Military operations alone rarely resolve IW conflicts. For the US, which will always wage IW from the perspective of a nation-state, whole-of-nation approaches where the military instrument of power sets conditions for victory are essential. Adversaries waging IW have critical vulnerabilities to be exploited within their interconnected political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure systems.

(3) An enemy using irregular methods will typically endeavor to wage protracted conflicts in an attempt to exhaust the will of their opponent and its population. Irregular threats typically manifest as one or a combination of several forms including insurgency, terrorism, disinformation, propaganda, and organized criminal activity based on the objectives specified (such as drug trafficking and kidnapping). Some will possess a range of sophisticated weapons, C2 systems, and support networks that are typically characteristic of a traditional military force. Both sophisticated and less sophisticated irregular threats will usually have the advantages derived from knowledge of the local area and ability to blend in with the local population.

(4) To address these forms of warfare, joint doctrine is principally based on a combination of offensive, defensive, and stability operations. The predominant method or combination depends on a variety of factors, such as capabilities and the nature of the enemy.

Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States, JP 1, March 2013

This is all good. But even more useful is the definition of “traditional warfare” which is a term that I rarely hear used at all these days. If the above is irregular warfare, then traditional warfare is by definition what irregular warfare is not.

Interestingly, there is no definition for traditional warfare in the DOD Dictionary, so again we turn to JP 1.

Traditional Warfare. This form of warfare is characterized as a violent struggle for domination between nation-states or coalitions and alliances of nation-states. This form is labeled as traditional because it has been the preeminent form of warfare in the West since the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that reserved for the nation-state alone a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The strategic purpose of traditional warfare is the imposition of a nation’s will on its adversary nation-state(s) and the avoidance of its will being imposed upon us.

(1) In the traditional warfare model, nation-states fight each other for reasons as varied as the full array of their national interests. Military operations in traditional warfare normally focus on an adversary’s armed forces to ultimately influence the adversary’s government. With the increasingly rare case of formally declared war, traditional warfare typically involves force-on-force military operations in which adversaries employ a variety of conventional forces and special operations forces (SOF) against each other in all physical domains as well as the information environment (which includes cyberspace).

(2) Typical mechanisms for victory in traditional warfare includet he defeat of an adversary’s armed forces, the destruction of an adversary’s war-making capacity, and/or the seizure or retention of territory. Traditional warfare is characterized by a series of offensive, defensive, and stability operations normally conducted against enemy centers of gravity. Traditional warfare focuses on maneuver and firepower to achieve operational and ultimately strategic objectives.

(3) Traditional warfare generally assumes that the majority of people indigenous to the operational area are not belligerents and will be subject to whatever political outcome is imposed, arbitrated, or negotiated. A fundamental military objective is to minimize civilian interference in military operations.

(4) The traditional warfare model also encompasses non-state actors who adopt conventional military capabilities and methods in service of traditional warfare victory mechanisms.

(5) The near-term results of traditional warfare are often evident, with the conflict ending in victory for one side and defeat for the other or in stalemate.

Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States, JP 1, March 2013

That’s helpful. Too often, we hear the term “near-peer conflict” as a stand-in for what we should be calling traditional warfare.

Critical to both definitions is the emphasis on a violent struggle. In traditional warfare, the violent struggle occurs between states with an aim of domination. In irregular warfare, the violent struggle occurs between state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over a relevant population.

When I first read through this, I thought that the emphasis on violence might have been misplaced. After all, there are lots of things that can be done within the sphere of irregular warfare that don’t appear to be violent (the use of propaganda, for example). Couldn’t we drop the violent aspect of the definition?

We could, but we shouldn’t. These are military definitions, after all. It is the military that engages in irregular warfare in support of national objectives.

When you remove the violent aspect of this, you are moving outside of the military sphere. You are in the world of political warfare. And other parts of the national security apparatus contribute to political warfare using other elements of national power.

But, irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.

Next up: a post on what it is the military does in irregular warfare.


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