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Words Matter: Re-imagining Irregular Warfare

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Words Matter: Re-imagining Irregular Warfare

by David Gayvert

Download the Full Article: Words Matter: Re-imagining Irregular Warfare Current doctrine framing Irregular Warfare is wrong -- historically, semantically and conceptually -- and should be reexamined to enable decision-makers at all levels to better identify emerging threats, vulnerabilities, and opportunities, better allocate resources, and in the process, enhance our national defense.

Much of the debate over the proper balance between and relative importance of what are now binned as "Irregular" vs. "Conventional" capabilities in our national security strategy reflects a paradigm sorely in need of revision. Rather than the current context that is fundamentally linear, and focused on things and component categories, we need a systems-oriented perspective, centered upon understanding and influencing complex, dynamic relationships and environments that constantly interact and give rise to ever-changing threats to our national interests. Treating Irregular Warfare -- or as I will propose as an alternative descriptor, Evolving Threat Operations -- as a collection of defined capabilities, distinct from traditional warfare, rather than as a context and way of thinking about a fluid threat environment, impedes our ability to effectively address questions critical to our collective future. These include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • How do we better integrate component military competencies, weapons systems and TTP to be able to more quickly, agilely and synergistically counter threats across and against the full spectrum of operational settings and adversaries?

  • How do we better coordinate, integrate, and employ non-military, and even non-governmental knowledge and capability within this threat environment?

  • How can we evoke preferred actions and responses in adversaries, and lure/maneuver them onto "battlefields" of our choosing -- or better, achieve Sun Tze' "highest skill" of defeating an enemy without a fight?

  • Perhaps most important, how do we identify and counter threats, and reduce or exploit vulnerabilities that may fall outside the scope of all military activities, at least as currently conceived? In other words, to what extent are we "looking where the light is good" instead of where the real emerging threats and vulnerabilities are developing? To use the parlance of a former Secretary of Defense, how do we get better at responding to "known unknowns" and reducing the universe of "unknown unknowns?"

This essay will argue that what in official publications are now referred to as "irregular threats" and the capabilities necessary to respond to them should neither be defined nor understood as things fundamentally different from or in opposition to the threats and capabilities included under the rubric of "conventional" or "traditional" warfare; that words matter -- how they are used both reflects and informs thinking; and that we indeed need to think about "irregular warfare" -- and all threats to our national interests -- but in a significantly different context than that contained in current doctrine. Finally, it will briefly outline one possible alternative framework for doing just that.

Download the Full Article: Words Matter: Re-imagining Irregular Warfare

David Gayvert is an avid reader of Small Wars Journal, and he currently works as a program consultant within the Department of Defense. The views expressed in this essay are his own, and do not reflect the positions or policies of the US Department of Defense.

About the Author(s)


Robert C. Jones

Wed, 02/01/2012 - 7:37am

IW and SFA are both bad concepts developed for the wrong reasons. Now many feel compelled to nurse them along and attempt to work around them as we work toward smarter concepts for securing our vital interests abroad. Better we fence both off and tell the doctrinaires to start from scratch with a comprehensive approach that avoids the gaps, seams, overlaps, and other confusing aspects of our current laydown.

Until such times, these two millstones will continue to weigh us down.

I am still to this day perplexed by the decision to deploy such a large body of conventional forces to Afghanistan. I could buy off on the reasoning behind deploying such a force to Iraq -- a developed nation with an actual army -- but Afghanistan has historically been an IW environment; there was nothing to indicate that anything had changed since the Soviets battled the Mujahideen. UW successfully initiated OEF-A, and OEF-A was a counterinsurgency until the U.S. arrived en masse -- at which point OEF-A became just an insurgency.

There should not have been a renewed interest in IW for Afghanistan because those who operate regularly in IW/UW environments were there already. Deploying such a massive force altered the battle space and the operational environment so much so that counterinsurgency cannot work effectively. All of the studies, research, and "relearning" of IW is moot at this point because the damage is done.

I don't blame the mismanagement of OEF-A on the simultaneous deployment to OIF, I blame it squarely on the fact that the military believed that it was capable of conducting UW ad hoc instead of relying on their UW assets.


Wed, 08/10/2011 - 4:05am

In reply to by Bill M.

Part of the problem stems from the misuse of the term IW as noted by some of the comments to this article as well as from the article itself. When I read the IWFC statement: 'Irregular warfare (IW)is not so irregular...' and so on, I cringed. Regularly fighting insurgents who are not part of a uniformed army does not constitute irregular warfare per se -- only by definition, not necessarily the whole picture -- nor does the effectiveness of killing said insurgent serve as an appropriate benchmark for a successful IW campaign. IW and UW are often conflated, and I think rightly so because they are not mutually exclusive. This leads me to my next thought.

As I read through the elements of the proposed ETO model, I could not help but think of UW. Therefore, I agree with the comment that ETO does not really address the issue -- or perhaps I'm paraphrasing too liberally.

I think the issue comes from when IW was 'rediscovered' by the military as the insurgency in OIF and OEF began taking its toll. IW was unfamiliar to most at the time -- with the exception of a few units designed for that task -- and the re-framing of IW caused a disconnect in definitions. I attribute this disconnect to why we have comments like 'Irregular warfare is not so irregular', essentially stating that IW is warfare that a military is not accustomed to.

I believe that there are certain aspects of IW that can and should be taught as part of a basic education to all branches of the military. However, there are severe limitations to just how much IW can be taught, especially to junior enlisted personnel and junior officers -- IW is complex to even the most experienced and educated soldiers, let alone 18 year old private snuffy.

There is also the opportunity cost of training on conventional TTPs that make up the core tasks of main effort elements. As we try to make the entire military IW experts, we lose some of the core competencies as well as the identity of the unit; Chemical units should not have to worry about conducting unconventional warfare by, with, and through host nation forces -- they should be focused on mitigating and neutralizing chemical threats.

Much to agree and disagree with in this article. On the negative side I get the sense the author is trying to drag us back into the effects based operations world with his emphasis on systems thinking, which was the type of thinking that got us into the mess we're in now IMO.

I find much to agree with on his critique of irregular warfare, and witnessed a lot of organizations using this terminology to justify funding for their pet projects. I don't blame DOD, State, AID or any other organization for doing so, because that is the way our budget process works. Too many times in our attempt to apply needed oversight, GAO creates systems for justifying funding that actually result in more waste.

Anyway, we now have this new-old paradigm called irregular warfare, which is illogically defined, and comes with ready made solutions labeled FID, CT, COIN, UW, Stability Operations and COIN. While this is terribly problematic, I don't see how creating a new bin called Evolving Threat Operations (ETO) will liberate us from the mess we created with IW? To caveat, while IW is a mess, it was a needed mess.

We are quite agile at developing new TTPs and technology at the tactical level, so I'm not sure innovation is a weak point as the author suggests. Our weakness is focused at the operational and strategic levels. When we start to reconceptualize IW, lets first realize that IW can be and frequently is State on State warfare that is fought largely by leveraging surrogates. Iranian influence in both Iraq and Afghanistan to achieve their objectives by working with irregulars, and of course Pakistan as a State sponsor of terror and insurgencies among many other States doing the same to include our own. The reason this is important is to challenge the assumption that the population is always the center of gravity in IW.

The author and others imply that irregular warfare isn't irregular because it is more common than regular warfare. Irregular doesn't mean infrequent or rare, it simply defines (our should) the irregular combatant. If he or she is not part of an uniformed force then they're irregulars. They may be working wittingly or unwittingly for a State, they may be pursuing their own political or criminal objectives, but that doesn't matter for the purpose of defining an irregular broadly. While they may leverage so called human terrain, that doesn't mean the human terrain is always the center of gravity, any more than when a conventional force occupying the high ground makes the high ground the center of gravity. From a tactical to operational perspective the military's main role is to defeat he irregular or regular combatant (how doesn't matter at this point, that will always be situation specific, and it may be direct, indirect or a combination, but the focus is on defeating the combatant, at the strategic level we need to look beyond just defeating the combatant).

Fighting at the tactical level still involves defeating your enemy whether he is uniformed or an irregular; however, the "methods" used to defeat your foe can vary considerably, which is what creates the friction in the military when it comes to funding and allocating training time for IW. Just one example to illustrate the point, the intelligence methods we used to identify Saddam's forces in Kuwait and then the methods used to defeat them differed considerably from the methods used to identify and defeat either terrorists or insurgents. However, in the end it was the same organizations that did both, but the organizations had to change and that change took too long, and this is why the SECDEF and others had to force feed IW down our throats (can't eat your meat until you eat your spinach). The SECDEF's objective (as I understood it) was to institutionalize IW in our doctrine and more importantly in our education and training.

Now it may be time to move beyond this initial and needed first step and once again address blending it all into a whole. Looking at the desired state, a well trained Army (and any other military service) should be able to fight what the Marines call the four block war. As Ken as stated numerous times, to develop this Army we will have to invest much more time in developing our leaders and soldiers at the junior level. Our senior leaders (Bn Cdrs and up) should be well versed in the art of strategy for fighting both regulars and irregulars, and if our NCOs and junior officers learn to fight both in training and are enabled to adapt quickly to changing situations, then we will have probably done the best we can do in addressing both legacy and emerging or evolving threats. My proposal isn't simply by any means, but it does remove some of the mystic and total focus on IW, which is just as dangerous as being totally focused on fighting regulars.

The more powerful the U.S. becomes relative to the rest of the world militarily, the more likely the rest of the world (at least our foes like Iran, Pakistan, non-state groups, etc) will develop increasingly complex and effective asymmetric means to influence our behavior, so I agree with the author that our current doctrine and paradigms and structures are long overdue for a revolutionary shift, and unfortunately wutg our current concept of irregular warfare we may be building the incorrect capacity and doctrine across DOD and the interagencies due to a poorly defined problem (largely defined by the solution instead of the problem).

Sorry for the random thoughts late at night, but hopefully they'll help generate some new ideas.

Bill M.

Wed, 08/10/2011 - 1:59pm

In reply to by Mark Pyruz


I agree that both our missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are the result of incompetent occupations, incompetent because we refused to leave and refused to assume responsibility as an occupying force (as specified by international law). I have made this argument for years on SWJ, and not surprising the knee jerk response to this argument is we can't do that. Instead we do what? Quickly prop up ineffective governments and then hinge our success on their success?

IW did regain "renewed" emphasis after the insurgency starting gaining momentum in Iraq (and after the VP and SECDEF finally stopped denying what was happening), but regardless of the reasons for our renewed interest the irregular threat is very real (has it always has been) and our military was not adequately trained or educated to respond to it from the strategic to the tactic level. We can train junior enlisted to respond to irregular threats, our junior soldiers are very intelligent in general (I have more concern with the officers who are overly indoctrinated) and quite capable of grasping the concepts of don't be a jerk, the importance of area security, surgical engagement, and how the irregulars will use any mistakes made to generate support, etc.

Well beyond Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. forces and other agencies are helping other nations respond to irregular threats, so the learning (assuming we have learned) has wide application and remains important. How we approach IW in my view is flawed, see my comments above for the reason I believe we're marching down the wrong path.

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 08/01/2011 - 7:05pm

I agree with the author: words matter. That's why I advocate the expansion of terms such as state and non-state, to include intra-state (Hezbollah) and proto-state (Hamas).

As to the author's contentions regarding IW as applied to OIF and OEF, I would suggest (from the American perspective) these conflicts can be characterized in general as incompetent military occupations.

The author mentions Iranian support for Shia militias, but doesn't mention the IRGC/Quds brokered accord between these paramilitaries and the Iraqi Army, as well as the Iranian supported victory of Shia elements over Sunnis in the critically important space of Baghdad. I suggest these two factors were far more important in putting in place the situation as it exists today in Iraq, than moves put forward by the US military. I would further suggest such openings for Iran are, in fact, a product of this incompetent US military occupation.

Similarly, the war in Afghanistan is a product of an incompetent military occupation. Had the US military not been diverted by OIF, and had the Bush administration continued to cooperate with Iran (with its crucial pre-OEF links to allies fighting against the Taliban), the current quagmire might have been avoided.

But when a so-called conventional force (by whatever factors) fails to follow through and adequately secure victory through competent military occupation, that's when we tend to hear the IW label being bandied about