Small Wars Journal

irregular warfare

CSIS: The Future of Competition: U.S. Adversaries and the Growth of Irregular Warfare

Sat, 02/06/2021 - 11:25am

From Seth G. Jones

"IW refers to activities short of conventional and nuclear warfare that are designed to expand a country’s influence and legitimacy as well as weaken its adversaries."

While conventional warfare—set-piece battles between large military forces—largely defined twentieth-century conflict between major powers, irregular warfare will likely define international politics over the next year and beyond. Countries like China, Russia, and Iran compete with the United States using irregular methods because conventional and nuclear warfare are far too costly. The tools of irregular warfare are not strategic bombers, main battle tanks, or infantry soldiers, but hackers, intelligence operatives, special operations forces, and private military companies that often operate in the shadows.

Full Report:

War on the Rocks: What's in a Name? Reimagining Irregular Warface Activities for Competition

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 5:23pm

By Kevin Bilms

For better or worse, terminology plays a major role in shaping mental models and driving debate. Military operations and the world around them rarely confirm to doctrinal definitions and many recent and ongoing missions have had flavors of multiple mission sets (Syria, Afghanistan, etc.).

Full article:

SOCOM Core Activities:

Better understanding irregular warfare in competition

Sat, 01/02/2021 - 9:25am
An important article from a current DOD official, Kevin Bilms, with responsibility for the new Irregular Warfare annex to the National Defense Strategy.
The article can be accessed at the Military Times HERE.
My short thesis: Irregular Warfare is the military contribution to the national level political warfare strategy. This excerpt describes that:
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.
These are my thoughts which I have shared before.

Key point:  We should stop the proliferation of terminology (which I think causes intellectual paralysis) and adopt Irregular Warfare as the military contribution to Political Warfare. Political warfare is how we should describe the competition space between peace and war and is the defining element in Great Power Competition.  While state on state warfare is the most dangerous threat or course of action of GCP and why we must absolutely invest in deterrence and defense, Political War is the most likely threat or course of action. 

And I would add with absolutely no apologies to Leon Trotsky: America may not be interested in irregular, unconventional, and political warfare but IW/UW/PW are being practiced around the world by those who are interested in them – namely the revisionist, rogue, and revolutionary powers and violent extremist organizations. 

•       The dominant threat or problem we face is one political warfare supported by hybrid military approaches – and these approaches are best described as irregular warfare in DODD 3000.7 - a “violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.”  It states that IW consisted of UW, foreign internal defense (FID), CT, counterinsurgency, and stability operations (SO).

•       So we have to be able to conduct our own form of Irregular warfare which of course includes the 5 mission sets I just named but is best described by Congress in the 2017 NDAA: Irregular Warfare is conducted “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.”

· What is an example of how SOF contributes to Political Warfare through IW ? - through "unconventional deterrence" (the work of Bob Jones)- helping to harden populations and militaries of friends, partners, and allies to resist the malign influence of revisionist, rogue, and revolutionary powers and violent extremist organizations.  This is exemplified by the Resistance Operating Concept pioneered by SOCEUR to counter Russian malign influence in Europe..  This model has application around the world especially if adapted for countries targeted by China's One Belt One Road initiative or in countries such as Taiwan. 

It is time for us to shift from the Clausewitzian “War is politics or policy by other means” and embrace our adversaries’ views: “Politics is war by other means” or as Mao said, “Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.”

Better understanding irregular warfare in competition · by Kevin Bilms · January 1, 2021


Wed, 12/30/2020 - 2:07pm

We noticed this in the 2021 NDAA.


Congress is taking Irregular Warfare seriously and this appears to be a "forcing function" to make sure DOD does as well.

A few editorial comments:

Irregular Warfare is the military contribution to the national level requirement for Political Warfare

It is good for Congress to direct DOD to establish this center and take Irregular Warfare seriously. But what about Political Warfare? What is Congress going to do about ensuring there is a national level interagency focus on Political Warfare? (Our recommendation for an American War of Political Warfare HERE )

We face threats from political warfare strategies supported by hybrid military approaches.

Competition in great Power Competition equals Political Warfare. While State on State or major theater war is the most danger threat in Great Power Competition, Political Warfare is the ongoing condition in which we must learn to compete.

With absolutely no apologies to Leon Trotsky: "America may not be interested in irregular, unconventional, and political warfare but IW/UW/PW are being practiced around the world by those who are interested in them – namely the revisionist, rogue, and revolutionary powers and violent extremist organizations."

We have heard this center will be established in Arizona and as noted in the text below it will be treated as a Regional Center along the lines of APCSS in Hawaii and the Marshall Center in Germany

We may be hearing a lot about SEC 1299L.

    (a) Report Required.--
        (1) In general.--Not later than 90 days after the date of the 
    enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation 
    with the Secretary of State, shall submit to the congressional 
    defense committees a report that assesses the merits and 
    feasibility of establishing and administering a Department of 
    Defense Functional Center for Security Studies in Irregular 
        (2) Elements.--The report required by paragraph (1) shall 
    include the following:
            (A) A description of the benefits to the United States, and 
        the allies and partners of the United States, of establishing 
        such a functional center, including the manner in which the 
        establishment of such a functional center would enhance and 
        sustain focus on, and advance knowledge and understanding of, 
        matters of irregular warfare, including cybersecurity, nonstate 
        actors, information operations, counterterrorism, stability 
        operations, and the hybridization of such matters.
            (B) A detailed description of the mission and purpose of 
        such a functional center, including applicable policy guidance 
        from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
            (C) An analysis of appropriate reporting and liaison 
        relationships between such a functional center and--
                (i) the geographic and functional combatant commands;
                (ii) other Department of Defense stakeholders; and
                (iii) other government and nongovernment entities and 
            (D) An enumeration and valuation of criteria applicable to 
        the determination of a suitable location for such a functional 
            (E) A description of the establishment and operational 
        costs of such a functional center, including for--
                (i) military construction for required facilities;
                (ii) facility renovation;
                (iii) personnel costs for faculty and staff; and
                (iv) other costs the Secretary of Defense considers 
            (F) An evaluation of the existing infrastructure, 
        resources, and personnel available at military installations, 
        existing regional centers, interagency facilities, and 
        universities and other academic and research institutions that 
        could reduce the costs described in subparagraph (E).
            (G) An examination of partnership opportunities with United 
        States allies and partners for potential collaboration and 
        burden sharing.
            (H) A description of potential courses and programs that 
        such a functional center could carry out, including--
                (i) core, specialized, and advanced courses;
                (ii) planning workshops and structured after-action 
            reviews or debriefs;
                (iii) seminars;
                (iv) initiatives on executive development, relationship 
            building, partnership outreach, and any other matter the 
            Secretary of Defense considers appropriate; and
                (v) focused academic research and studies in support of 
            Department priorities.
            (I) A description of any modification to title 10, United 
        States Code, or any other provision of law, necessary for the 
        effective establishment and administration of such a functional 
        (3) Form.--The report required by paragraph (1) shall be 
    submitted in unclassified form, but may include a classified annex.
    (b) Establishment.--
        (1) In general.--Not earlier than 30 days after the submittal 
    of the report required by subsection (a), and subject to the 
    availability of appropriated funds, the Secretary of Defense may 
    establish and administer a Department of Defense Functional Center 
    for Security Studies in Irregular Warfare.
        (2) Treatment as a regional center for security studies.--A 
    Department of Defense Functional Center for Security Studies in 
    Irregular Warfare established under paragraph (1) shall be operated 
    and administered in the same manner as the Department of Defense 
    Regional Centers for Security Studies under section 342 of title 
    10, United States Code, and in accordance with such regulations as 
    the Secretary of Defense may prescribe.
        (3) Limitation.--No other institution or element of the 
    Department may be designated as a Department of Defense functional 
    center, except by an Act of Congress.
        (4) Location.--The location of a Department of Defense 
    Functional Center for Security Studies in Irregular Warfare 
    established under paragraph (1) shall be selected based on an 
    objective, criteria-driven administrative or competitive award 


The Case for Maintaining an Advisory Presence in Afghanistan

Mon, 04/20/2020 - 9:35am
Barring an unforeseen event or shift in policy, it seems likely that by May 2021, the United States will remove its military forces from Afghanistan. Despite claims of progress, the United States and its allies have undeniably made many mistakes over the past two decades. Some commentators have argued that Afghanistan has been an “undeniable failure.” While many commentators and policymakers have focused on getting out of Afghanistan, the past shows the potentially devastating consequences such actions could bring. Instead, the United States and its NATO allies should consider leaving a small presence of advisors to support institutional development at the ministries and institutions.

About the Author(s)

Turkey’s Drone War in Syria – A Red Team View

Thu, 04/16/2020 - 11:59am
Since the Idlib operation, a number of articles have appeared with glowing reviews on the sophistication of Turkey’s homegrown drone force and its tactical effectiveness in Syria. While decidedly impactful, a review of the operation suggests there are some shortcomings as well. These include questions about the Turkish drones’ operational reach, lethality and survivability. Any analysis of the implications of Turkey’s demonstrated UAS strength, particularly their potential role in other conflict zones, should consider these potential vulnerabilities as well.

About the Author(s)

“Accidental Guerrilla” Syndrome in California, 1836-1846

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 3:21am
Sun Tzu’s injunction to “know your enemy” is never more critical than in counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare. During its COIN conflicts in the last hundred years, the United States military has fallen especially prey to the thinking trap of lumping all its opponents into the same category. COIN expert David Kilcullen identified this phenomenon as “accidental guerrilla syndrome” in his 2009 book of the same name.

About the Author(s)

Taliban Fragmentation: Fact, Fiction, and Future

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 9:09am
For years, the U.S. military pursued a "divide and defeat" strategy against the Afghan Taliban, attempting to exploit the supposedly fragmented nature of the group. Drawing on the academic literature on insurgency, civil war, and negotiated peace, this report finds that the Taliban is a far more cohesive organization than a fragmented one.

About the Author(s)