Last week, amid the hubbub of the presidential debate, revelations about President Trump’s taxes, the “SCOTUS War” and the COVID-plagued White House, something important happened that almost everybody missed. The Defense Department released the unclassified summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
The strategy tells our armed forces how to prepare for and win the next war, which almost certainly will be an “irregular war” fight. The military uses terms such as “irregular,” “unconventional,” “asymmetrical,” “hybrid” and “gray zone” to describe any style of combat not resembling the Battle of the Bulge (aka, “regular” war).
What makes warfare “regular”? No one knows. However, we do know what it looks like: state-on-state armed conflict, in which militaries are like gladiators battling for the fate of the world. Combatants are expected to wear uniforms, have patriot zeal, and honor peace treaties. It’s what famed military theorist Carl von Clausewitz envisioned, and what the “Laws of War” seek to regulate.
There’s just one problem: No one fights this way anymore, except us. No wonder Afghanistan is the longest war in American history. Since 1945, the overwhelming majority of armed conflicts have been irregular: insurgencies that seek to topple governments, narco-wars that seize countries — “narco-states” — as booty, genocides fought between ethnic groups, and terrorists who wish to burn down the world.
Ironically, there’s nothing more irregular today than “regular war.” Of the hundreds of armed conflicts since World War II, you could probably count the number of regular wars on two hands: the Korean War, Arab-Israel wars, Indo-Pakistani War, the Falklands, and so forth. Incursions such as the U.S. invasion of Grenada don’t count, and the six-month Gulf War I was simply a prelude to the quagmires that followed.
What made the 2018 National Defense Strategy seismic is this: It pivoted our military away from whacking terrorists and towards threatening nation-states (read: China and Russia). In the Pentagon, the shorthand for this outlook is called “Great-Power Competition.”
Here’s the problem, and it’s not the fault of the pen-holders who drafted the 2018 strategy. Most experts imagine a war between the U.S. and China and/or Russia will be a conventional fight. It won’t. Conventional warfare is obsolete, like the Napoleonic horse charge, the Viking shield wall and the Greek phalanx. Yet, many in the national security community assume the next war will look like World War II with better technology. It’s a case of “generals always fight the last war, especially if they won it.”
Anyone who thinks “Great-Power Competition” will be a conventional war is deluded. Our adversaries are not suicidal, and they know that battling our military in a head-on, conventional-war fight would be organized seppuku. But they also know that the U.S. struggles in irregular wars, as evidenced by Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Owing to this, we should expect China and Russia to come after us with irregular-war strategies, avoiding a conventional fight. Russia already is mastering this way of war. For the first time since the Cold War, they have launched expeditionary operations in the Middle East and Africa, and have done so exclusively through irregular-war strategies. Same with Ukraine: There, Russia waged a shadow war with Spetsnaz special forces, mercenaries such as the Wagner Group, “Little Green Men” and astro-turfed pro-Russian “separatist” groups — all irregular warriors. Regular military units, such as tanks and destroyers, arrived only after Crimea was taken.
China is more nuanced. Its military is conventional but that’s not how it conquers. The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic power strategy that wins through debt-trap diplomacy. In 2015, for example, Beijing “Tony Sopranoed” Sri Lanka out of its prize port, Hambantota.
China also uses malign influence to weaken adversaries’ resolve to confront it. Most people think of Russia as the dark master of disinformation, but it is not alone. Beijing calls it the “Three Warfares Strategy.” It also wages legal warfare, or “lawfare.” Its goal is to bend — or to rewrite — the rules of the international order in China’s favor. This is not the rule of law but, rather, its subversion.
China and Russia conquer through irregular-war strategies. That works because they disguise war as peace, until it’s too late. It’s a “boiling the frogs slowly” approach. Just ask the Crimeans or Sri Lankans. Irregular warfare manufactures the fog of war for victory, something that makes the conventional warrior’s head explode.
One could even ask: Are we already at war with Russia and/or China, and don’t know it? As T. E. Lawrence said: “Irregular war [is] far more intellectual than a bayonet charge.”
Irregular warfare is the armed conflict of our lifetime, and the Pentagon’s strategy to confront it is long overdue.
Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a professor of strategy at Georgetown University and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division before working as a private military contractor and as a military consultant.