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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What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?

chinese flag that says ai on it

I’ve been a long-time reader of the Army’s “Mad Scientist Blog,” but I’m fairly certain I’ve never shared anything of theirs before – at least not on this blog.

From the ‘about’ page:

The Mad Scientist Laboratory blog is a marketplace of ideas about the future of our society, work, and conflict.

There’s something about the old-school ‘Web 1.0’ style of the posts that gets me all kinds of nostalgic.

Anyway, they also have a podcast that I only recently discovered. I started with this episode on How China Fights.

The format of the podcast is a bit different from many other national security podcasts I’ve listened to. There really isn’t a host that is driving the conversation – although they have a pretty intense announcer. Each episode has a main topic and then subtopics which are addressed by “subject matter experts.” It flows nicely.

There were a few things that struck me in this episode. The first is what gives this article its title:

What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?

This was said in response to a common retort one may hear about what makes a good Army. They may have the tech, and they may have the numbers, but they might be missing something. In the US, we hold our NCO corps in high regard and assume that is one of the things that gives us a qualitative advantage.

What if our adversaries can find a way to function without that? Is that possible?

Probably – but it’s an assumption that doesn’t often get challenged.

Two other things: China’s establishment of the “Strategic Support Force” and the concept of “information superiority” (think “air superiority”) during a crisis. I’ve never really thought about information that way – but I think there can be some relevancy – as the guest stated, in a crisis.

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“Tactical things don’t matter for big-picture deterrence”

reagan receiving a brief about the middle east

Get smart on the Russia-Ukraine developments.

Over the past several weeks, tens of thousands of Russian troops have gathered in the area near Russia’s border with Ukraine. But what does it signify?

Michael Kofman joins this episode of the MWI Podcast to discuss all of this and more. The director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, he is a longtime observer of Russia and specializes in the Russian military. You can listen to the full conversation below, and if you aren’t already subscribed to the MWI Podcast, be sure to find it on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode!

MWI PODCAST: A LOOMING SHOWDOWN OVER UKRAINE?

I’m not a Russia-guy, so this was a good episode to get me up to speed on what is (and isn’t) going on on the border with Ukraine.

The whole episode is good – and Michael Hoffman clearly has firm control over his material (Russia and Russian military capabilities).

I love this quote:

“Most of the cockamaney ideas about sending some more weapons or things to Ukraine – fine, if you want to increase military costs but you have to just appreciate that it’s going to make no difference in the calculus.”

~26:00

And he goes on.

“Tactical things don’t matter for big picture deterrence. Javelins, drones, are completely irrelevant to political leaders. They don’t know and don’t care about the stuff.”

~26:30

I appreciate this take, and I tend to agree. It’s what I was getting at the other day in regards to culture and other aspects of the human dynamics in strategy. These are interesting things to consider, but at the political and strategic level, they ultimately don’t matter.

Should they? I don’t think so.

Even when it comes to military strategy – the input of this or that tactic or weapon system may make a difference on the margins, but if they don’t alter the overall endstate, then it’s an exercise in futility.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are on the capability. There are limits to military power – and if you are using any of these “things” in service of the military, they are also limited – mostly by the strategy you’re operating under.

Then again, maybe it’s worth just rolling the dice? What’s there to lose?

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