Small Wars Journal

Irregular Conflict in a Great Power World: A Word of Caution for the Marine Corps

Tue, 04/06/2021 - 11:37am

Irregular Conflict in a Great Power World: A Word of Caution for the Marine Corps

By Adam Taylor


President Biden’s transition into power caps an important four-year period for the Department of Defense (DoD).  While many will debate the Trump administration’s national defense legacy for years to come, current evidence suggests that its decision to focus on great power competition has proven decidedly consequential.[1]  Both the Marine Corps and the Navy have released new future force design proposals intended to better prepare the services to compete in a great power conflict.[2]  The Chief of Staff of the Air Force has also released his own guidance about how his service must meet the great power moment.[3]  Yet, the rush to bureaucratic relevancy in a great power environment shouldn’t lead the services to abandon those capabilities needed to succeed in an irregular conflict.  Specifically, the Corps must ensure its force modernization plans ensure the service can fight and win the irregular conflicts it has historically fought for the nation.  How the service balances its traditional irregular warfighting responsibilities with the need to field a force able to compete against peer adversaries will determine its utility on the future battlefield. 


What does Great Power Competition Mean and Why does that Matter?   


The great power moment asks important questions about the Corps’ utility in future irregular and peer conflicts because the force design needed to wage one type of conflict may not be suited to ensure success across the entire continuum of force.  Part of this issue results from how potential great power conflicts today differ from their predecessors.  This is an important distinction.  Differences between great power conflicts of the past and those of the future provide insight into the suite of capabilities the Corps will need to succeed in future conventional conflicts and help understand if those requirements position the service to effectively operate in an irregular competition. 


Important work on this question by Andrew Krepinevich suggests that issues related to mutual restraint highlight an important difference between past and future great power conflicts.[4]  Unlike previous great power wars, nations now have a large incentive to mitigate the force used in a conventional conflict to prevent the destruction made possible by modern technology on the battlespace.[5]  The diffusion of next generation technologies, sophisticated platforms, and new domains of competition challenges the defense-in-depth posture that America’s forces throughout the globe provided and opens the US homeland to new vulnerabilities.  Similarly, the advantages provided by China’s proximity to its near abroad and location in the Asia-Pacific are in some ways mitigated by similar issues.  This stands in stark contrast to previous great power wars which led countries to bring a disproportionate level of military power to bear against an opponent to ensure success.  Mutual restraint, in other words, may outweigh the benefits of unchecked aggression in this new age of competition.


Attempts to draw conclusions about great power conflicts of the past to solve similar problems in the future remain hindered, in part, by the struggle to define what constitutes a great power and at what point on the continuum of force great power war begins and irregular conflict ends.  The 2018 National Defense strategy treats China and Russia as “principal priorities” for DoD, but neither state poses the same threat.  China has a significantly larger GDP than Russia and is viewed as a resurgent, selective revisionist state, whereas some observers classify Putin’s regime as a faltering, disruptive opportunist actor.[6]  Similarly, the difficulty associated with classifying what constitutes a great power can lead to a divergence of opinion among policymakers about how the DoD must shape its future force.  Former Trump Secretary of Defense Mark Esper once remarked that service members who are experts on irregular warfare “must now re-learn the skills associated with high-intensity conflict,” which suggests he believes the skills needed to compete in the irregular spectrum remain ill-suited for a great power world.[7]  Yet, DoD’s summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s irregular warfare annex asserts that irregular warfare “will remain an essential core competency of the U.S. Department of Defense” despite the nation’s focus on great power competition.[8] 


These competing perspectives remain important because they have important implications on the Corps’ future force design.  They ask important questions about how conventional Marine forces can compete with great powers and what great powers the service leadership must be prepared to fight.


Great Power vs Irregular Conflicts- What’s the Difference?   


Even though no uniform consensus exists about what constitutes a great power, available literature and prevailing debate demonstrate that broader agreement exists about the similarities and differences found between great power and irregular conflicts. Andrew Krepinevich’s recent study suggests that protracted great power conflicts are characterized by “rough parity” between competitors, geographic size, asymmetry of capabilities, sunk costs, the presence of third parties, national “exhaustion,” and inflexible war aims. [9] These attributes remain important because they seem remarkably similar to those characteristic of irregular conflicts.  It is crucial to understand how the conditions that lead to these observable qualities would operate differently in an irregular environment.  A closer look at asymmetry in a great power conflict highlights this point.


   The presence of asymmetry in a great power conflict seems counterintuitive at first glance.  Asymmetry is frequently associated with the irregular realm where nations or groups have disparate military resources and strategies.[10]  This makes sense given America’s recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It also neatly tracks with notions about great power conflict breaking out among peer competitors.  Yet asymmetry may arise among peer states when one nation has a disproportionate advantage in specific capabilities relative to a potential competitor.  China’s ballistic missile advantage within the Asia-Pacific over the US highlights this issue.[11] 


In turn, these attributes inform the ability of great power belligerents to pursue vertical or horizontal escalation.[12]  Vertical escalation refers to how states can increase levels of violence, whereas horizontal escalation identifies how states can broaden a conflict beyond its original parameters.  This remains an important issue for the Corps given its ability to field expeditionary forces that can incrementally increase levels of violence within zones of contention or sustainably project force beyond a specific area of hostilities.  While great powers have an incentive to mitigate vertical and horizontal escalation, non-state actors in an irregular conflict may not confront the same cost/benefit payoffs for similar decisions.[13]  Such a conclusion suggests the US will still need a force that can effectively meet the challenges associated with irregular conflict in a great power world.


Why does this Matter for the Marine Corps?


What great power competition means and how it is pursued has important implications for military forces’ future force designs.  The great power paradigm shift has led some within the DoD and US national security enterprise to suggest that America quickly end “peripheral conflicts and fully invest in preparing for great power competition.”[14]  Such logic will prove enticing as defense planners look to find savings in a post-COVID-19 world when many expect defense budgets to flatten or decline.[15]  This downplays the threat of irregular challenges in the future operating environment and that the capabilities needed to compete in a great power war are not necessarily well-suited for other irregular conflicts as well.  The historical record suggests, however, that irregular warfare will remain relevant in the future operating environment, whether as an extension of great power competition or on a separate battlespace reminiscent of Iraq or Afghanistan.[16] 


More importantly, the discussion surrounding how great power war today may theoretically differ from similar conflicts of the past raises important questions for service leadership.  Mutual restraint among peer states suggests that force designs, like the one envisioned by the Marine Corps, may actually place China in a position to ignore the rule.[17]  The Corps’ redesign places a clear premium on fielding the forces and capabilities needed to execute operational concepts the service deems necessary to succeed in conflict with China.  This has caused the service to decrease its assortment of towed artillery and completely divest from its tank platforms.  While this process is intended to deter China, it may cause leaders in Beijing to feel constrained and subsequently tempted to abandon restraint in a conflict.


Mutual restraint may also not exist in an irregular environment as well.  The overview of vertical and horizontal escalation when conventional forces confront sub-state actors suggests the incentives surrounding mutual restraint may prove minimal.  Unfortunately, the Corps’ force design initiative reduces its collection of forces needed to wage such campaigns.  These findings are important. The service may be sacrificing the capabilities it will need to succeed in irregular conflicts, even if it is right to shape its future force to confront a peer competitor.  Service leadership must ensure its efforts to refocus the force on fighting the nation’s enemy of choice does not leave the Corps ill-prepared to wage future irregular conflicts as well.


The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or Member of Congress. 




[2] “Force Design 2030,” United States Marine Corps: March 2020.

Eckstein, Megan. “SECDEF Esper Calls for 500-Ship Fleet by 2045, With 3 SSNs a Year and Light Carriers Supplementing CVNs.” United States Naval Institute: 6 October 2020.

[3] Brown Jr., Charles Q. “Accelerate Change or Lose.” United States Air Force:  August 2020.

[4] Krepinevich Jr., Andrew F. “Protracted Great-Power War.” Center for a New American Security: February 2020.


[6] Wyne, Ali. “The Need to Think More Clearly About ‘Great-Power Competition.’” RAND Corporation: 11 February 2019.

[7] Esper, Mark T. “As Prepared Remarks by Secretary Esper at the Royal United Services Institute in London.” United States Department of Defense: 6 September 2019.

[8] “Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy.” United States Department of Defense. 2020.

[9] Krepinevich Jr., Andrew F. “Protracted Great-Power War.” Center for a New American Security: February 2020.

[10] “Asymmetric Warfare.” Rand Corporation.  

[11] “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.” United States Department of Defense. 2020. 

[12] Colby, Elbridge A., and Ochmanek, David. “How the United States Could Lose a Great-Power War.” RAND Blog: 30 October 2019.  

[13] Cliff, Rodger, Pollpeter, Kevin L., et al. “Dangerous Thresholds: Managing Escalation in the 21st Century.” 2008.

[14] Denison, Benjamin. “Confusion in the Pivot: The Muddled Shift From Peripheral War to Great Power Competition.” War on the Rocks: 12 February 2019.

[15] Mehta, Aaron. “Esper: Flat budget could speed cutting of legacy programs.” Defense News: 5 May 2020.

[16] Robinson, Eric. “The Missing, Irregular Half of Great Power Competition.” Modern War Institute: 8 September 2020.  

About the Author(s)

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve.  He currently works as a fellow in Congress and has an M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service.  He writes on national security, defense, and foreign policy issues.



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