How to use Irregular Warfare to Support Partners and Deter Adversaries
By Artur Kalandarov
- The U.S. should partner with allies on expansive, tailored and resource sustainable initiatives to develop each country’s IW capacity and design.
- The U.S. should advertise its IW capabilities through independent and multi-lateral training exercises to deter adversaries.
- IW as diplomacy: The State Department may offer bilateral IW training opportunities as a sign of trust and good will for partners around the world.
- A robust, multilateral IW capacity will result in a recalculation of risk and increased threat perception for Russia and China. This will simultaneously drive down the risk of armed conflict and increase the ability of U.S. allied states to resist occupation.
Recent history has shown that irregular warfare (IW) can be used as a tactic and a strategy to grind down the willingness and capacity of a larger power to pursue its objectives. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. experienced firsthand the difficulty of engaging combatants dedicated to irregular methods. Now, IW is playing a key role in Ukraine’s ability to resist Russia’s invasion. In the future, it can and likely will be a crucial aspect of small states’ resistance to revanchism. Drawing from recent and ongoing conflicts, the U.S. can harness its knowledge and experience in IW to counteract China and Russia on the global stage, while continuing to engage non-state violent extremist organizations (VEOs). This can be accomplished primarily in two ways: preparing partners and allies to engage in irregular warfare in the event of an attack, and intimidating adversaries by utilizing the prospect of IW as a deterrent.
Part One: Partner Preparation
Ukraine’s unexpected success has shown that support for IW can be just as or even more effective than the provision of conventional weapons alone. Ukrainian and allied IT specialists have shored up the country’s cyber defenses and even engaged in counter-information and hacking warfare to push back against Russia’s false narrative of the conflict. Ukrainian militias have engaged in deception and hit-and-run attacks. Most visibly, Ukrainian resistance has included widespread civilian support of military operations, including the construction of improvised defensive structures and Molotov cocktails, as well as the seizure of Russian military hardware. These methods, in addition to the underlying emotional and political forces at play, must be studied and synthesized for instructing allies that may have to prepare for similar circumstances in the future.
Present threats and opportunities have made this moment especially ripe for pursuing a comprehensive IW strategy that brings in allies in a collaborative and resource-sustainable manner. Western military and political leaders are not the only ones who are encouraged by Ukraine’s use of IW; civilian populations around the world have gained a new understanding of how effective it can be. China continues its intimidation of neighboring states, and senior CCP officials often cite the seizure of Taiwan as a top priority. In addition to heightened resolve by Western national leaders, the resistance of the Ukrainian people has had a galvanizing effect on the civilian population of Taiwan as well; In a poll of Taiwanese citizens taken after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, over 70%
said they would support fighting against a Chinese invasion. In December 2021, only 40% expressed this sentiment. War is ultimately a battle of wills, and the tide of public will to resist has risen around the world. Although Taiwan has the most urgent need for IW training and preparation, Japan, India, and other states in the Indo-Pacific and around the world would likely be interested in collaborating with the U.S. on expansive, tailored initiatives to develop each country’s IW capacity and design.
Fortunately, there are recent examples of coordinated discussion of IW tactics and strategy.
In 2020, the Resistance Seminar Series, organized by Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), brought together experts from the U.S. and north and central Europe to develop the Resistance Operating Concept, a framework to ensure mutual understanding of national resistance and IW. The U.S. military should set up similar initiatives in the Indo-Pacific and other areas where allies express interest in developing their IW capacity. Although the nature of IW is the same regardless of where it is applied, its expression undoubtedly has regional and even local differences; the U.S. and allies must account for these variations by developing tailored strategies.
Part Two: IW as a Deterrent
An important aspect of military cooperation and training is to present the full scope and power of the U.S. armed forces and their allies. For instance, USINDOPACOM’s Large Scale Global Exercise (LSGE), executed with Australian, Japanese, and British troops, demonstrates U.S. and allied ability to harness the combined forces of their respective militaries for combat in the air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains. Likewise, NATO’s Saber Strike exercise has regularly confirmed the battle-readiness and cohesion of NATO forces in Eastern Europe for over a decade. The U.S. should therefore advertise its IW capabilities through independent and multi-lateral training exercises in the same way.
In addition to preparing our partners for effective IW, we must utilize the threat of IW to shape the perceptions of our adversaries and ultimately deter them from malign activities.
Showcasing robust defensive and offensive IW capacity will result in a recalculation of risk and increased threat perception for Russia and China. Notably, this will simultaneously drive down the risk of armed conflict and increase the ability of U.S. allied states to resist occupation. Harnessing IW for great power competition will permit the U.S. to dictate the character of war and increase the role U.S. allies can play in their own national defense strategies.
Beyond the frequent presentation of IW exercises on the world stage, IW can become a tool in the American diplomatic toolbox. The State Department may offer bilateral IW training opportunities as a sign of trust and good will for partners around the world. Similar to COIN training and the provision of conventional arms, supporting countries own efforts to develop IW capabilities will assist in fostering mutually beneficial relationships that will hamper Russia and China’s influence operations abroad. Notably, for IW preparation to be effective, it must be inclusive. The U.S. should assist allies in not only training conventional troops in IW, but also civilian organizations, including but not limited to police departments and public safety institutions.
Over the coming years, a two-pronged strategy of (1) bolstering allied IW capacity and (2) promulgating its benefit for U.S. partners and threat to adversaries, will make the U.S. and its allies more secure. The U.S. must lead the way in developing a dynamic IW doctrine that allies can customize and incorporate into their own national security operations. By collaborating with allies, the U.S. can create a valuable multiplier effect in terms of IW’s capacity and its strength as a deterrent. “When national resistance planning is integrated with allies and partners committed to the ideals of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination, it can become a powerful message against a potential adversary. It places a potential adversary on notice that it cannot violate a nation’s territorial integrity and attempt to establish a new status quo,” writes Major General Kirk Smith. Even superpowers can be humbled by the effectiveness of irregular warfare. This is a lesson the United States has learned, and now it should be one it teaches its adversaries.