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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Why we fight

soldier wearing gas mask in foxhole

Clarissa Ward: “When you look back at all the lessons that were learned from Rwanda, from Bosnia in the mid ’90s, and yet here we are in 2012 in Syria, and it feels like we’re back to square one?”
Kofi Annan: “Yeah, says something about us human beings, doesn’t it?” Annan replied. “Do we ever learn? Is it in our DNA to keep fighting each other?”

That is how an interview concluded with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on CBS Sunday Morning a few weeks ago. The entire interview is worth watching. Annan’s thoughts on diplomacy, the failure of mediation, and the international community are bared raw, and they might surprise you.

This interview and the violence that is flaring up in the Middle East started me thinking about why we fight.

The Army guidance counselor sat in front of his computer, quickly scanning my biographical information and test results. He was hispanic, probably in his late thirties. A Master Sergeant. In good shape and seemingly out of place and uncomfortable at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) at Fort Hamilton, New York. I remember staring at a pin he wore on his Class B shirt. It was a long silver rifle on a blue background. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but from posters in the recruiting office, I knew it had something to do with the infantry.

He turned to face me in his chair, hands folded in his lap, and like he has done hundreds of times before, said “So, what do you want to do in the Army?”

I replied, emphasizing my choice with a firm nod, “Infantry.”

He held back a smirk and asked me, with apparent slight disappointment, why I wanted to go infantry. I scored well enough on the ASVAB and could have chosen anything.

“I couldn’t imagine joining the Army and doing anything else” I said.

I joined the infantry over ten years ago for a number of reasons which vary in degree of intensity. Teenage angst, lack of direction, unfulfilled patriotism, romantic notions of military service, fantasy, college money. If I had to boil it down though to a single thing, I joined for the adventure. A 19 year old kid looking to be a part of something.

Fast forward to today. I’ve seen the white elephant. Most of it’s pretty terrible. After getting out, my time in college afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my military service. What did it all mean? Was it worth it?

I never figured it out. After five years of sitting on the sidelines the only conclusions I came up with was that I was proud of my military service and I believed in the “system” – for all its flaws – that sends men and women to war. I knew that I missed the Army and I missed being a part of it. That longing was enough to bring me back. And back to the infantry.

I’m still trying to figure out what it all means. “It” being one’s own service and the way it intertwines with and legitimizes violence. I spend a lot of time in my own mind thinking about it. I’m sure others do to. To not think about it is to ignore what makes military service unique; the legal authority for and the application of violence. Individuals carry out that violence, so it only makes sense that individuals grapple with that notion and (hopefully) come to a personal solution as to why they can do it.

“Why we fight” is a question that has no ultimate answer. Social scientists can offer a number of reasons as to why “we” fight on a macro level, but what about the individual who analyzes the intelligence, fuels the Predator, or pulls the trigger?

That “why” can only be answered by the individual. Everyone is going to have a different reason. God, country, family, money, glory, anger. It’s probably not that simple for most, but rather a mix of things that makes it acceptable. As for me, some days I think I have it nailed down and I can proudly go about my day. Other days I tumble with different thoughts and ideas and have to patch together a jumble of reasons to reach an acceptable answer.

That’s why the interview with Kofi Annan held my attention. I was completely drawn in by Annan’s conclusion that maybe we as a species just aren’t ready to be peaceful. It’s a sad thought, but it’s grounded in history, experience, and reality. In his interview, he suggests that there are times when violence might be the only way to reach a solution. It’s a conclusion that he has reached from decades of experience trying to untangle some of the world’s most troublesome conflicts.

That interview coupled with the flaring violence across the Middle East seems to indicate that there is absolutely a time for violence. It’s terrible and not preferred, but it is the status quo. It’s the way things are. To completely accept violence as the best way to problem solve, though, doesn’t work for me (that’s why we have Marines). And to ignore violence or to self-righteously abstain because it is terrible doesn’t work for me either. I know it does for others, and I respect that decision and I’m glad that the abstainers exist – when there are more of them than the rest of us, we’ll probably be in a better place.

But for the time being the world is as it is, not as we imagine it or hope it to be.

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