Irregular, Hybrid, Political Warfare

metal gear solid 3 the boss colonel volgin bridge

A deep dive into Russia’s motivations.

In Episode 48 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, we discuss the historical motivations and modern methods behind Russia’s use of hybrid warfare on the international stage. Our guests begin today’s conversation discussing how significant historical events and Russian cultural memory shape the Russian worldview, with particular emphasis on the role that the collapse of the Soviet Union had on the psyche of Vladimir Putin himself. They explore Russian motivations and methods since the end of the twentieth century and then pivot to potential Western responses to an increasingly aggressive Russia. Our guests conclude with implications for both the public and the practitioner.

THE MOTIVATIONS AND METHODS BEHIND RUSSIAN HYBRID WARFARE, Irregular Warfare Podcast

Ok, but what is hybrid warfare?

In Putin’s mind, America is the country that has been waging hybrid warfare, political warfare, irregular warfare, against Russia for decades.

Dr. Rob Person, ~21:55

It’s not political warfare and it’s not irregular warfare. It is its own thing, apparently.

We know what irregular warfare is (and what it is not), and we know that irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.

So where exactly does hybrid warfare fit in?

I’m going to take a look, but my gut tells me that it’s just another hodge-podge of sub-terms that gets lumped together to form a new, different, more confusing term.

In the episode, I particularly enjoyed this breakdown of Cold War tactics and the splitting of terms done here.

There is stuff we throw in the hybrid warfare bucket that I really don’t think belongs in that bucket. For example, a lot of Russian cyber activity is indeed routine espionage. Now, you don’t have to like it, but I’m afraid it is routine espionage that most major powers do against one another.

Shashank Joshi, ~31:00

“A Cold War, fought with information and espionage.”

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Learning the right lessons

george bush jr. looking at vladmir putin

There is a lot I object to in this article. Much of it is too simplistic.

But the gist is on point.

Yes, American motives were nobler. Yes, American methods were less brutal (most of the time). Yes, there were many other differences between the conflicts. But on a strategic level, the broad similarities are striking. This means there are several important lessons to be learned from recent American military history—but only if that history is looked at from the enemy’s perspective, not Washington’s. Because it was the enemies who won.

Gideon Rose, The Irony of Ukraine: We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us

If we had invaded Iraq in 2022 instead of 2003, we would be facing a lot of the same problems the Russians are facing today.

Pay attention, sure.

But it’s important to learn the right lessons.

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How do you “do” irregular warfare?

a map on the wall briefing a military plan

When most folks discuss irregular warfare, I’ve come to believe that they actually want to talk about political warfare. It’s a rung up on the ladder and encompasses a whole lot more.

Political warfare is so big a term that you can be vague in speech and still make sense without inviting too much inquiry.

Political warfare encompasses many different aspects of national power. The military is one of them.

And irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to irregular warfare.

Another dive into irregular warfare, this time, from the 2020 Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex the National Defense Strategy.

Irregular warfare is a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy.

The key difference here, again, is the word “violent.”

The document goes on to describe irregular warfare and the importance of institutionalizing it as the Global War on Terrorism (as a security paradigm) shifts to Great Power Competition.

Ok, so, how do you “do” irregular warfare?

You don’t.

Like many terms, it’s an umbrella term that encompasses a bunch of other things that you can “do.” To “conduct irregular warfare” means you are doing something else, or more likely, a combination of things, things that fall under it.

It’s similar to using the term “setting conditions” as a stand-in for actual activities. If you are setting conditions for something, it means you are taking some tangible action to prepare for some other result.

Often, we don’t say that specific thing we intend to do. And that’s bad. It leaves everyone confused.

And most people – military people especially – don’t like to admit they don’t know.

So, what are the things “under” irregular warfare?

It includes the specific missions of unconventional warfare (UW), stabilization, foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), and counterinsurgency (COIN). Related activities such as military information support operations, cyberspace operations, countering threat networks, counter-threat finance, civil-military operations, and security cooperation also shape the information environment and other population-focused arenas of competition and conflict.

Most of the above have their own field manuals.

Now we’re getting somewhere…

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Another definition of irregular warfare

washington dc at night

Recently, I pulled out the books to define irregular warfare.

There’s more than one definition, as it turns out.

Courtesy of Dave Maxwell who flagged this.

From the 2018 NDAA.

(i) Irregular Warfare Defined.–In this section, the term “irregular warfare” means activities in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.

If I am reading this correctly, the key element of irregular warfare (as defined here) is the use of a partner force.

Gone is the emphasis on “violent struggle” – instead we have “activities.”

Additionally, these activities occur in “competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.”

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Administrative Warfare: Deception + third person effect

iran f-14 winnie the pooh posing

The use of deception and the third-person effect to exploit an administrative process for military advantage.

He knew that they were paranoid.

He knew that the Iranians guarded their oil facilities with their F-14s, and his Air Force [the Iraqi’s] was terrified of dog-fighting the F-14s because at the time the F-14 was pretty much unmatched as a fighter aircraft.

So he figured the best way to get our aircraft to strike the oil refinery is to get the F-14s out of the air and the only way to get them out of the air is to ground them.

We don’t have the means to strike their airfield, so he called one of the Gulf leaders, I’m not sure if it was the Saudi king or somebody else, and he essentially told them, “Hey, we have received intelligence that an Iranian F-14 wants to defect in a couple of nights and they are going to come to your country, so just keep an eye out – there’s an F-14 coming.”

[Saddam] knowing full-well that that Gulf leader was going to leak that information to the Iranians – they did.

The Iranians heard ‘one of your F-14s is going to defect.

They panicked and put all of the F-14 pilots in jail, and while all the F-14 pilots were in jail being investigated for a possible treason plot, Saddam struck the oil refinery.

Aram Shabanian, How the Iran-Iraq War Shaped the Modern World, Angry Planet

Photo source.

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What is irregular warfare?

lawrence and arab warriors in a line holding rifles

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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The Non-Kill Chain

shadowrun decker on snes

Spoiler alert: It’s PSYOP, but that’s a post for another time.

Recently finished ep. 46 of the IWI podcast with the very ominous title THE KILL CHAIN: WHY AMERICA FACES THE PROSPECT OF DEFEAT.

I haven’t read Christian Brose’s book yet (it’s on the list) but from the description, I think I get what he’s talking about.

America must build a battle network of systems that enables people to rapidly understand threats, make decisions, and take military actions, the process known as “the kill chain.”

The Kill Chain (Amazon)

A couple of things struck me in the episode. The first is the role of offensive cyber operations (OCO) at the tactical level. There was a good back and forth on where that capability ought to be. And if you’ve listened to Andy Milburn on other podcasts (which you should), you know that this is one of his chief interests.

Is OCO something that needs to get “pushed down” to the Brigade or below level?

Should platoon’s have a designated “hacker” assigned?

I’m getting serious Cyberpunk / Shadowrun vibes.

The second thing that struck me was the way that Christian closed out the episode. Really, everything from ~47:00 on is great but I want to focus on the below, where he is honing our attention on what actually matters if we want to be successful.

What are the things that we actually want our military to do? What are the things we’re prepared to fight for? What are the actual ends of strategy? What are we trying to accomplish?

Competition is interesting, but it’s not an end in itself.

This is exactly right.

One of the toughest things for military leaders to grapple with is the fact that if the ends are not clearly defined by the most senior leaders (military and civilian) then all of the thrashing done at echelons below add up to nothing.

It’s being sent overseas to divide by zero.

It’s how you get the GWOT effect.

Matt Armstrong argues the same when it comes to “information warfare” (a term he wouldn’t use). It’s not about the tactics or getting the right words and images together. All that is about as interesting as deciding to flank left or right.

No – instead, it is about having a clear vision, a direction we are headed, or a commander’s intent. Then, eveyrone below can march in step.

And what we’re talking about is political warfare.

How does the military fit into that?

To quote David Maxwell: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to poltical warfare.”

It all starts to fit together if you can take a breath for a moment and let it sink in.

Lastly, this piece by Colonel Steven Heffington takes the strategy argument even further. He argues that what is needed is a “theory of success.”

…a theory of success, when clear, explicit, and well considered, is the strategic version of commander’s intent. It provides subordinate or lateral actors and institutions a strategy heuristic, allowing them to make decisions about the development of their own innovative, timely, and tailored responses to the evolving context. Simultaneously, a theory of success helps limit the play of operational and strategic creativity to the logic path set forth in the founding strategy, which facilitates rapid, tailored responses and iterative evolution of strategy while reducing the likelihood of line-of-effort or iteration fratricide.

CHANNELING THE LEGACY OF KENNAN: THEORY OF SUCCESS IN GREAT POWER COMPETITION

All good. I’m on board.

Here’s the rub. Leaders – at every level – have a responsibility to ask for that intent. To demand it.

Ask for that theory of success. If it isn’t clear, if doesn’t make sense, or if it is non-existent, it must be clarified.

Otherwise, we’re not going anywhere.

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“It’s psychological warfare, just done with modern tools”

soldiers in a tank from the animatrix

There was a good segment on information warfare in one of the recent Mad Scientist podcasts.

The character of warfare has consistently changed over time, with technology evolving from edged weapons, bows and arrows, gunpowder, and battlefield mechanization, to more advanced technologies today, including long-range precision weapons, robotics, and autonomy.  However, warfare remains an intrinsic human endeavor, with varied and profound effects felt by Soldiers on the ground.  To explore this experience with those engaged in the tactical fight, we spoke with the following combat veterans, frontline reporters, and military training experts for this episode of The Convergence.

48. Through the Soldiers’ Eyes: The Future of Ground Combat

“It’s psychological warfare, just done with modern tools.”

Always has been.

The statue of liberty is kaput.

“Before the Russians conducted the major offensive, they were all getting cell phone messages saying ‘You’re all going to die,’ ‘Your commander betrayed you.’ It’s the equivalent of dropping leaflets over your enemies in other wars.”

“A lot of the aspects of airpower, for which it was originally conceived has been replaced by these modern electronic tools – whether it’s taking out infrastructure, degrading morale, [or] interfering with the command and control process.”

Nolan Peterson

Here’s what it looks like from someone on the receiving end.

“We got these messages saying something like ‘Ukrainian soldiers go home…’ – Really stupid stuff, it wasn’t effective, but we knew that they had the equipment that could pick up the cell numbers, scan, and send the message.”

Denys Antipov

There was also mention of how states engage in information warfare against one another, targeting not just each other, but those who are watching.

This is political warfare.

“That sort of thing is going to be background noise in future war and we need to figure out how to counter it because it’s going to be there. Our opponent is going to think that we’re in the right and that they’re winning and we’ve got to figure out how to deal with it.”

COL Scott Shaw

This is absolutely right. My only addition here is that for the most part, we don’t have to counter it, we have to ignore it.

Commanders everywhere feel a pressure to “do something” whenever something pops up in the information environment. That inclination is almost always wrong. It’s noise. It’s designed to get you to act.

Be patient.

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The USA, China, and the “Whole of Society” approach

composite shot of all marvel stuff

Still catching up on the backlog of podcasts. I listened to episode 34 of the Irregular Warfare podcast weeks ago – and jotted down a few notes. This episode was on “China’s Strategically Irregular Approach.”

Before I even listened to it, I opined that there would be a discussion or comment about how “good” China is at irregular warfare and how “bad” we are at it.

The discussion was more nuanced than that, thankfully. But there is one area in which I think we (the US) continue to get a bad rap.

And that’s on the topic of the “whole of society” approach.

In any discussion on China’s approach to competition, their ability to marshal their entire society in lockstep towards their political goals is touted as a huge advantage. A top-down approach, where the CCP dictates the direction, and often the pace and style.

To the outside observer, it can appear as if they’re “doing it well” or “doing it better.”

Wolf-warrior diplomacy, banning video games, social credit systems. It’s all in the name of winning.

And what do we have to counter that?

A system that appears (to outsiders and insiders) to be falling apart, constantly at odds with itself, and seemingly incapable of coming together for a common purpose.

If you believe the above and swallow it whole, you’re missing the bigger picture.

The USA already does the whole of society approach – and does it incredibly well.

Here, we trust our people with free speech, to make decisions in their best interests and pursue what makes them happy. This is mission command at a societal level.

We don’t need to tell our people that they need to go out there and counter adversarial aggression. Instead, we provide the space and the means for people and organizations to thrive.

And they create things. Entertainment. Sports. Fashion. Philanthropy. Finance.

Hollywood. College sports. Non-profits. The iPhone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – an American media franchise – is worth billions of dollars worldwide, but more importantly, carries the power of American culture, creativity, innovation, and humor across the world.

If you’re on the outside looking in, American society, with all its cracks and fissures, is a behemoth. It is worth envying.

We don’t need to try to recreate something that “gets everyone on board.” We don’t need to force it.

Do the right thing, speak the truth, and trust your people.

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POWs in the Digital Era

line of american prisoners of war
Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force

This is the second Cognitive Crucible episode I’ve heard that features Professor Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton from the Army Cyber Institute. The first discussed the idea that service members are all very likely targets of foreign influence operations – regardless of whether or not there is active armed conflict.

In this recent episode, they go a step further and discuss the need to prepare for a future where our POWs (prisoners of war) will be further exploited through the use of enhanced deep-fake technology, deception, and instantaneous communication.

More importantly, they discuss how our own institutional structures can be exploited at home by the same.

During this episode, Prof. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute return to the Cognitive Crucible and discuss prisoner of war (POW) considerations in the digital world. After Jan recaps his recent article, In Great Power Wars, Americans Could Again Become POWs, the conversation covers the will to fight, cognitive preparation of the battlefield, and ways the enemy might harvest information about service members in advance to identify exploitable information. Both Jan and Stephen give some policy suggestions, as well.

Cognitive Crucible, #58 Kallberg and Hamilton on POWs in a Digital World

This is the type of warning that should scare you. It’s nightmare fuel.

Some things I found particularly interesting:

  • Our personal information is already out there

When social media started to emerge over a decade ago, general security guidance was to avoid putting personal information out there, be mindful of what you’re doing online, and increase your privacy settings.

Good advice, to be sure.

Further, some advised not having social media at all, while others warned that not having social media in an increasingly connected world seemed suspicious.

Well, now we’re at a place where whether you want your “stuff” to be out there or not, it’s out there. If an adversary (or a troll, or harasser) wants to scrape the internet for your stuff, it’s not hard to do.

And for the generation growing up in the shadow of all this, there will be even more “stuff” out there for the foreseeable future.

The genie is out of the bottle. It’s not going back in.

My take – this is over. We’re moving toward a society where the ability to maintain pure privacy is ending. There is little we can do at the individual level to protect ourselves completely. When you combine the growing digital ecosystem with nefarious cyber activities of state and non-state actors, our default position should be that “our information is going to get out there.”

Accept it, plan for it, and move on.

We’re really starting to put this thing together. Researchers and practitioners are weaving a quilt of what information warfare is likely to look like in the near future. It’s already happening, but we haven’t quite got it all figured out yet.

Personally, I think it’s important that we start talking – and implementing policy – that will defend us from this. We can’t just warn that it’s going to happen. We will be caught off guard if we are not prepared.

  • POWs have congressional representatives

This was very spooky. The guests discuss the fact that in future-war, there may no longer be a need to have a POW make a public statement disparaging the United States or the war effort. A hyper-realistic fake could be easily created and beamed out to the world.

That captured service member has a congressional representative somewhere back home. What happens when these POWs are exploited with the intent of influencing domestic politics? What happens when a reporter asks Congressman X what she is doing about the captured soldier who comes from her district?

What is her statement when a dramatic video is released of that servicemember begging his congressional representative – by name – to end the war?

What happens when public pressure is placed on that same congressional representative – from her constituents – to “do something” about this?

  • Television is an instrument that can paralyze this country.” -General William Westmoreland

There was a quick discussion on how what we are seeing now in the information age is just an extension of what we started to experience during the Vietnam War. When there are pictures and images, we pay attention. As much as we like to think we are rational creatures, our decision-making process – even at the strategic level – is often guided by emotions, “optics,” and a burning desire to “control the narrative.” These are often not rational decisions, but decisions that seek to please some interest.

How would things be different if there were no dramatic images? No compelling video? If you had to read the results of overseas operations the next day in your local newspaper, splayed out dispassionately?

I think we would address things more rationally. But I’m not certain that our decisions would always be “better.”

Again, the genie is out of the bottle. There is a role for education. There is a very important role for leaders (at all levels) to be patient and take the longer view. But there is also the realization that words, images, and video matter.

” Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.”

Marshall McLuhan
  • A picture is worth a thousand words
1st Lt. Anthony Aguilar wears the ballistic protective eyewear that prevented a bomb-fragment from possibly damaging his eyes when an IED detonated near his Stryker vehicle while on patrol in Mosul. (Photo by Company C, Task Force 2-1, Feb. 2006.)

COL Hamilton discussed an anecdote from a deployment where he witnessed the rapid purchase of a particular type of eye protection after one of the Generals was shown a picture with a piece of shrapnel lodged in the eye protection that would have almost certainly caused tremendous damage to the soldier’s vision. All of the statistics and lab reports in the world might not move someone to action. But a single image that demonstrates the effect might do the trick.

I don’t like it either – I wish we could be more Spock-like and make decisions based on the evidence.

But there it is.

This was a good episode – one that should have us thinking, and more importantly, moving towards crafting policies and procedures to prepare us for the kinds of deception and smear tactics we’re likely to see in both in the day-to-day operations of Great Power Competition and in the next shooting war.

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