Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare: Everything yet Nothing

Share this Post

Irregular Warfare: Everything yet Nothing

by Lieutenant Colonel (P) William Stevenson, Major Marshall Ecklund, Major Hun Soo Kim and Major Robert Billings, Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare: Everything yet Nothing (Full PDF Article)

September 11, 2001 the Global War on Terror began. This global war has brought to life a timeless tactic called irregular warfare (IW). IW is difficult to define, explain, and employ. Yet, with no firm understanding or consensus on what IW actually means, the Department of Defense (DoD) developed the Irregular Warfare (IW) Joint Operating Concept (JOC) on 11 September 2007. Version 1.0 of the IW JOC proposes that IW is a protracted form of warfare, on a global or regional scale, that will require new capability development. Fortunately, for the Joint Warfighter, the intent of the IW JOC was only to further IW discussion, debate, and experimentation intended to influence future IW concepts and capability development. As presented, the definitions and concepts in the IW JOC have unnecessarily created confusion within the DoD by ignoring more than fifty years of experience and doctrine related to the challenges faced by the post-Cold War world and after the events of September 11, 2001.

The history of IW needs closer examination to capture those lessons learned to advance the IW discussion beyond the IW JOC. Given the significance and long-term DoD investments in the concepts presented in the IW JOC, this paper will analyze whether DoD has presented an appropriate definition of IW based on a doctrinal review of IW's roots. The paper will also look at the doctrinal relationship between Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) and IW. If necessary, the authors will propose a more fitting definition for IW that is aligned with its doctrinal characterization.

Irregular Warfare: Everything yet Nothing (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


Glenn, thank you for your words of wisdom. They were much more diplomatic than what I intended to post. Since you already addressed my concerns about confusing dated doctrinal references with reality (I'm confident the wise authors of the earlier doctrines were as uncomfortable with their definitions, as we are with ours), I will address a couple of other areas.

I found it interesting that the authors did not address recent IW historical examples, such as Iraq where we initially made little to no progress when our effort was focused on the so called overt guerrilla elements. Progress wasn't made until the additional troops were sent in to protect the populace to break the coercive influence link between the insurgent and the populace.

In Vietnam, securing and mobilizing the populace was critical (CIDG, Phoenix, etc.), and it was effective where applied, unfortunately it was applied on too small of scale until later in the war. Of course there were numerous parallels where the populace was critical in IW conflicts such as Malaysia, the Philippines, El Salvador, Algeria, etc. Focusing your efforts on the populace enables you to defeat the resistance organization, not just the overt guerrillas.

While the construct of guerrilla, underground, and auxillary can be a useful model to visualize an insurgency's structure, it is not dogma, and not all insurgencies or resistence elements organize along these lines(odd that we still find it odd that other groups and countries do not feel obligated to follow our doctrine). The lines between these categories are blurred more frequently than not.

Another logic disconnect jumped out at me, when they identified the strategic issue and only wanted to address the tactical one. First they claim the strategic level of IW is the underground, and that the underground is largely focused on the populace (thus strategic victory = populace), and then they argue that IW should only be focused on the overt guerrillas, or at the tactical level? We tried that a few times in our history, and I can't think of a case where it was a successful strategy.

As the authors probably know, there may be several relevant population groups that the competitors may want to influence, to include external actors. The Vietnamese didn't intend to defeat us by defeating our military, all their attacks were focused on our home population, which effectively led to political paralysis in the end. The take away is that the violence is ultimately directed at relevant population group, not defeating the opposing military directly, and that is the difference between IW and conventional war.

The terrorists who conducted the Madrid bombings were not focused on Spain's economy or security forces, but rather influencing the voting population, which in this case effectively resulted in the anti-war candidate being elected and the withdrawal of their military from Iraq. AQ's focus on various external population groups is plain to see, and they are trying to isolate their opponents by cutting off external support. War is war, but the strategy (not just the tactics) varies considerably between conventional and irregular warfare.

Furthermore it is hard to kill the bad guys you can't see, and we can't win by only defeating the overt forces. If you want to find and defeat the underground (if that is what you want to call it), then you have to control the populace to get the human intelligence necessary to purge the threat. Drive by COIN and targeting only overt guerrillas is clearly a recipe for failure.

Glenn2 (not verified)

Wed, 12/17/2008 - 7:42pm

I agree that the definition of IW may not be the the be-all, end-all, but lets face fact. It is the term now in use by DOD, is defined in the DoD Dictionary (JP 1.02), and has be codified in the recent DOD Directive on IW (DODD 3000.07), dated 1 Dec 08.

I propose that the time to debate the term and meaning of IW is long past. I learned long ago that you present COAs to the commander and he makes the call. All the options on the term and the definition were presented to the Senior Leadership and they decided. The time to debate COAs is over. I contend that the Department is better served by this community devoting energy to implementing the decision, instead of wasting time re-debating the commander's decision.

As a wise USMC 0-6 said recently, "IW, its been decided, now lets get on with it."

Glenn Harned (not verified)

Wed, 12/17/2008 - 6:06pm

The authors base the logic of their disagreement with IW in general and the IW JOC in particular on two false assumptions:
1. That the statement in the 1951 version of FM 31-20 that GW "is used loosely to describe all kinds of irregular warfare" remains valid. In fact that statement was superceded when the term UW replaced the term GW as the umbrella term in the 1955 version of FM 31-21. Since 1955, GW has meant the more or less overt military or paramilitary aspects of an insurgency or resistance movement. As the IW JOC makes clear, IW is now used by DOD as an umbrella term for a set of activities that includes UW, with GW still being a subset of UW. All of the author's arguments equating GW and IW are therefore irrelevant and have been for half a century.
2. That the 2006 Irregular Warfare Special Study by the Joint Warfighter Center is a reputable source document. In fact, the Joint Staff rejected the study and the study has been widely repudiated by the DOD components. On the other hand, the IW JOC was approved by the JCS after exhaustive coordination with the Services and Combatant Commands, and approved and signed by the SecDef after through review by the OSD staff.

The world has changed since 1951. The early Cold War Army doctrine envisioned the employment of UW/GW in Soviet-occupied territory in WWIII, supporting resistance movements not unlike those that resisted the Axis Power occupations of WWII. Army Special Forces would orgnize, train, equip guerrilla forces just as the Operational Group Command of the OSS did in WWII. The CIA would organize, train, equip the underground, so that piece of the puzzle was never written into unclassified Army doctrine and the strategic purpose of UW was downplayed because it was not within the purview of DOD. Under CIA control, Army UW/GW would attrite enemy forces until conventional forces liberated occupied territory. The antipathy of the occupied population toward their occupiers was a given.

The world since 2001 is a very different place. DOD is now thinking about IW operationally and strategically, not merely as a tactical adjunct to CIA covert actions or conventional military operaions. The hostile states and state-like adversaries that challenge our nation seek to gain legitimacy and influence or control over relevant populations, and if we are to prevail we must prevent them from doing so and instead win the suppport of those populations for an alternative strategic narrative at least as compelling as our adversaries' narratives.

In a global struggle against such adversries, it no longer makes sense to think about insurgency, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorirsm as disjointed activities. Just as combined arms are complementary at the tactical level, the IW JOC argues for complementary COIN, FID, CT, and UW activities woven into the tapestry of a holistic IW campaign designed to achieve the objectives of a global or theater IW strategy. Such a campaign and strategy should focus on the population, not the adversary, because it is the population that will ultimately decide which side prevails in the struggle for legitimcy, influence, and control.

The authors of the IW JOC freely admit that the components of IW are of ancient origin. It is their holistic applicaiton to achieve a strategic purpose of global or regional significance that is new within DOD.

IW JOC 1.0 is just that. The first iteration of an intellectual journey designed to help DOD think about the generational war being waged against state-like violent extremist organizations. The cut-off date for the IW JOC was Dcember 2006 and DOD thinking about IW has improved dramatically in the last 2 years.

While it is important to know our history, it is a sin to become enslaved by it. It is folly to argue that the IW JOC is wrong because it does not comply with 1951 Army doctrine. Let's all look to the future, think strategically about how to win wars against irregular challenges or by irregular methods, and propose refinements to the forward-looking concepts captured in the IW JOC. For example, the term IW ia an anathema to the civil departments and agencies of the US Government, and to many of our allies and coalition partners. DOD used the term IW to garner the support of the Servies and Congress, but many argue that IW needs to be subordinated to the term Complex Operations, which is favored by the civil departments and agencies, and just recently was defined by the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act.

For example, Frank Hoffman has advanced the intriguing concept of hybrid warfare, first observed in the 2006 Lebanon War, in which adversaries blend conventional, irregular, disruptive, and catastrophic capabilities and apply them to achieve their strategic objectives. How will DOD respond to, or present, such challenges in the future?

Well worth the read. Reinforces my feeling that we need a strategic pause in new concept development as we have reached concept/terminology/definition paralysis or overload. Also, good historical doctrine analysis of Special Forces and Unconventional Warfare. I will bet the Korean co-author of this paper probably knew the US doctrine the best and was a great help in the historical perspective as our Korean SF brothers still use much of our old Special Forces doctrine.
V/R Dave

Ken White

Tue, 12/16/2008 - 8:04pm

The authors "...have determined that the definition of IW should be:<blockquote>"Combat operations conducted by the overt element of an insurgency in enemy-held territory, by predominately indigenous and irregular forces organized on a military or paramilitary basis, characterized by the extensive use of unorthodox tactics to reduce the combat effectiveness, industrial capacity, and morale of an enemy, usually an established civil and military authority.""</blockquote>They cite FM 31-20 (1951) as one source and as it -- correctly in my view -- that:<blockquote><i>"'guerilla [sic] warfare is used loosely to describe all kinds of irregular warfare. It is generally associated with broad movements that may be briefly described as
a. A people's war or revolution against existing authority
b. A war conducted by irregular forces (supported by an external power) to bring about a change in the social-political order of a country without engaging it in a formal, declared war
c. A war conducted by irregular forces in conjunction with regularly organized forces as a phase of a normal war
d. Operations, generally of short duration, conducted by detached regular forces in the enemy's rear areas (FM 31-20 1951, iii)"</i></blockquote>To this they add:<blockquote>"As an umbrella concept including IW, FM 31-20 further defined GW as "the operations, predominantly of a military nature, and characterized by the extensive use of unorthodox tactics, conducted by irregular forces acting either separately from, or in conjunction with, regular forces" (FM 31-20 1951, 1)."</blockquote>I'm curious as to their rationale to apparently discard totally items c. and d. above. Seems to me there is adequate historical example of both; Russian and US for just a couple and I'd further note that US Special forces were originally created specifically to assist in the conduct of guerrilla warfare as cited in items c. and d.

Thus, I suggest their definition itself is 'lacking in academic rigor.' While I agree with the authors that the apparent decision to not use the term Low Intensity Conflict for a number of miltary potentialities that do not include IW or GW, I think perhaps they also have missed the boat on what exactly IW is.

Perhaps that is because IW is different things to different people. To me it simply means a least one side in the fight is not an organized and sworn, uniformed and recognized military organization IAW the nominal international rules of land warfare. Those kinds of folks are called Irregulars. How they fight and what or who they fight for is widely variable; the population may be involved or may not be; they may support or may not. Examples of those variables also exist.

That belief is reinforced as they also assert that:<blockquote>"This proposed definition of IW captures the essence of what IW has always been, and clearly outlines that IW belongs in discussion of activities at the tactical level of war."</blockquote>Heh. I'm not at all sure General Giap would agree. While Velupillai Prabhakaran is very much concerned with a population, I suspect he also thinks his effort is a strategic effort. Semantics, however, the perception of the 'actors' as the authors use the term is as much a determinant of what level is being addressed as anything. I suggest that the IW currently being waged in Afghanistan is in fact at the operational level as it effectively occupies the whole of NATO and US effort there. Lot variables...

In short, I think this is a search for unneeded precision.