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The Myths of Traditional Warfare: How Our Peer and Near-Peer Adversaries Plan to Fight Using Irregular Warfare

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The Myths of Traditional Warfare: How Our Peer and Near-Peer Adversaries Plan to Fight Using Irregular Warfare

Reyes Cole


Military leaders received a post-holiday gift on January 19th of 2019, in the unveiling of the new National Defense Strategy (NDS). The document is exactly what the services have waited for since the fall of the Soviet Block: designated high-end threats. Threats on which the services can effectively focus their efforts in capability development and prioritize service funding. Per the  NDS Summary the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is “strategic competition.”[1] Revisionist powers and peer threats such as China and Russia seek regional hegemony. Rogue regimes and near-peer threats like Iran and North Korea continue to create regional instability. And lastly, threats from designated Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) will persist. However, the services seem to be focusing less on competition, in lieu of focusing energies into traditional warfare scenarios and capabilities.

The belief that peer/near-peer/VEO competitors and adversaries will only fight us via traditional warfare, man to man, tank to tank, ship to ship, and plane to plane, are missing the historical and present day reality that these designated threats are currently competing and prevailing over us via Irregular Warfare (IW) activities in the competition space, and doing so quite successfully. Additionally, those same threats have had a long history of effectively using IW to achieve their strategic goals. Many of the IW skills developed during Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, are the same skills needed in irregular activities needed in great power competition. If this is all true, it begs the question; why are the services retreating from IW and its lessons learned in favor of its preferred method, traditional warfare.

This treatise argues that our designated peer/near-peer threats will in fact, use irregular activities in great power competition and in war, most often in conjunction with a traditional warfare campaign or activity.  Thus, it is foolish for the services not place equal importance to IW in plans, exercises, training and development of new IW capabilities.  To substantiate the title and thesis of this treatise, three key factors will be explored.  First, is to dispel the most common myths about traditional warfare and IW. Secondly, a historical and present-day examination of Chinese methods of warfare, to show how they have used and is now using IW to out-compete us. And finally, this treatise will provide more evidence of how Russia, North Korea (NK), Iran, and select VEOs rely heavily on activities in the IW realm, and how these threats use IW as part of a larger traditional warfare campaign.

Foundational Understanding

American Joint military doctrine recognizes two forms of warfare that are most often combined with each other.  They are defined and described in Joint Publication (JP) 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States. This publication provides both fundamental principles and overarching guidance, for the employment of the U.S. Armed Forces. Per JP 1, the following distinctions are made:

“Traditional warfare is characterized as a violent struggle for domination between nation-states or coalitions and alliances of nation-states... traditional warfare typically involves force-on-force military operations...”[2]

“IW is characterized as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). In IW, a less powerful adversary seeks to disrupt or negate the military capabilities and advantages of a more powerful military force….”[3]

As discussed in the IW Joint Operating Concept 2.0, the 5 pillars of IW are: Stabilization (Stab), counterinsurgency (COIN), Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Counterterrorism (CT), Unconventional Warfare (UW). 

Other common mission sets falling under the IW rubric are; Security Force Assistance (SFA), Counter Threat Finance (CTF), Threat Finance Intelligence (TFI), Countering Threat Networks (CTN), Counternarcotics (CN), Military Information Support Operations (MISO), Civil Military Operations (CMO) Language and Regional Expertise and Culture (LREC), and supporting law enforcement in combating Trans-National Organized Crime (CTOC).[4]

Myths of Traditional Warfare

Before we can visualize the myths of traditional warfare, we need to start from a known point and understand how the U.S. military has traditionally viewed warfare. The notable Colin Gray’s writings provide an apt description of the “American Way of War”.  His writings posit that our way of war is: A-strategic (poor civil-military relations which prevents an effective strategy), A-historical (ignoring historical reality and IW lessons), culturally challenged, technology dependent, fire power focused, large scale, aggressive/offensive, state vs state focused, impatient, and highly casualty averse[5]. He also recognizes the fact that the U.S. has been heavily involved in IW since the founding of our nation, yet scant attention is ever given to institutionalization and mastery of IW activities.  Thus, IW is an anathema to many, and goes against the way we prefer to fight.

Now that we know what the U.S. Military prefers, it’s time to look at the top 3 myths of traditional warfare that help to blind military leaders from truly understanding our history in IW and its importance.

The first myth deals with how military leaders and pundits perceive the use of SOF in traditional war compared to IW. In conferences, working groups, and executive steering committees, a large contingent of military leaders seem to perceive IW as a purely SOF actions. This could not be further from the truth. While SOF does specialize in certain aspects of IW, the GPF is critical to accomplishing IW campaigns and activities. Special Operations Forces have always been and should continue to be a part of every traditional warfare campaign. It is expected that the General Purpose Force (GPF) will play a large and varied role in IW, and in concert with SOFs limited capacities.[6] Often times the GPF will be in the lead in an IW campaign or activity. And other times, the GPF will critically enable SOF forces. Additionally, the world has changed, and what was once a pure SOF mission is now being done by GPF. One only has to look at the opening salvos of our war in Afghanistan.  “Operation Enduring Freedom combined conventional military [also called GPF] elements with Special Operations forces and a militarized CIA.”[7] And at various times and circumstances the GPF was the supported unit, and sometimes the supporting unit. Another perception held by many military leaders is “IW equals COIN exclusively. As earlier in this treatise, COIN is only one of the 5 pillars and various other IW related mission sets. Thus, such a perception is ill-informed.  Correspondingly, when military leaders and pundits claim, “we will never do COIN again!” that makes an ostentatious, but false, assumption that we can actually predict the future and pre-supposes what we will actually be able to do about it. This assumption and pre-supposition is specious and wholly impossible to predict.

The second myth of traditional warfare is that it is the most common and dominant form of warfare. One only has to look at the history of the U.S. and other Armies to see that in fact, traditional warfare is the rarest type of warfare we conduct. An article by Robert B. Scaife’s, titled “The Regularity of Irregular Warfare”, touches on this myth. He posits that, IW, due to its significantly higher frequency, should be labeled as traditional warfare, and traditional war due to its infrequency is actually IW.[8]  Another part of this myth is that traditional warfare has historically been a homogeneous (State army vs. State army) event, with little to no IW implications. Most would classify under the heading of traditional warfare the; American Revolution, War of 1812, U.S. Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam (U.S. vs. North Vietnamese Army) and Desert Storm, and they would be correct. Each of these conflicts were fights with other nation states. But each of these also had a significant IW aspect to them that should not be disregarded. Almost always, when a traditional warfare campaign is being conducted, it will entail some degree of IW activities, be it large or small.

For example, in WWI, the current shape of the Middle East was born, out of unconventional warfare activities of British Army Advisors. Advisors such as the iconic T.E. Lawrence were instrumental in getting the disparate Bedouin tribes (insurgents in today’s parlance) to unite, attack, and seize the critical cities of Medina and Aqaba, Jerusalem and Damascus. Lawrence wrote of the Arab tribes, but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapor, blowing where we listed.”[9]  The combined Bedouin forces with their British advisors conducted a successful insurgency against Turkish forces and the Ottoman Empire. A salient quote from our next war, WWII, General Eisenhower who said in regard to the French Resistance, “that the work of the Resistance has been worth 15 Divisions to him.”[10] Next in the Korean War, the North Korean Army extensively used guerrillas and insurgents mixed in main battle lines and in rear areas of U.S. troop concentrations. Also, in Korea, the U.S. Army and Central Intelligence Agency established partisan units, within North Korea, who were led and advised by Army officers and enlisted men, designed to fight behind the lines in North Korea. One such unit was the 1st Partisan Airborne Infantry Regiment - this unit was created from combining separate partisan groups who had already been established and had an effective battle record, like Leopard, Wolfpack and Kirkland.[11]

The third myth of traditional warfare is the most injurious to our national preparedness. It is the notion that if U.S. troops are masters at traditional war, units can easily transition to IW warfare or activities. This has never been true and has misguided military capability development across doctrine, organizations, training, material, leadership & education, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTmLPF-P). If we look at some of the major missions we perform at joint and service training centers, and ones that can occur at the tactical to strategic levels, one quickly sees an emphasis on; attack, defense, reconnaissance, and logistics. These can be done by all services in the environments they may be expected to operate in. It’s important to note that all of these major actions, can, and most often do, take place in IW, usually against non-state actors, or proxy forces of a peer/near peer threat.

The key to understanding why this is a myth is that when using these major actions against a non-state actor, or proxy force, they become infinitely more difficult than if just practiced under a traditional warfare scenario. Things like CMO, LREC, CTF, Monetary Shaping Operations, Identity Operations (biometrics and forensics), countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs), advising, CN, MISO, key leader engagement (KLE) and Network Engagement (NE) are examples of things not exercised or not adequately exercised if what we train to is State Army vs. State Army.  Many of the specialized capabilities we were not prepared for before Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, are now on lists for divestment. A second piece of evidence to debunk this third myth is the acknowledgement that focusing only, or mostly on traditional warfare, a myriad of IW or IW related capabilities and or strategies do not get developed. Thus it should be seen that it is not, in fact, better to train in traditional war, and skip IW training and exercises. Irregular Warfare and irregular activities during competition must not be considered as a pickup game, where service members learn on the job during an IW. This last myth is a result of faulty logic and only contributes to the wasting of American blood and treasure, spilled due to a lack of emphasis on successfully prosecuting IW campaigns or operations.

These three misperceptions combined, make it easy for leaders to justify jettisoning IW, once again, to obscurity, or at least put to the back burner. The next section below, digs deep into one of our major peer competitors and examines how it historically and is currently using IW successfully to out compete the U.S. and its regional neighbors.

Peer Threat China

China has a long history with IW, going back to the founding of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). The PRC was created out of an insurgent movement by the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), which placed heavy emphasis on the use of guerillas in combination with main force PLA units. China has not forgotten the lessons of Mao, and his theory of Revolutionary War, in which conflict can be seen in three phases: Phase I - is devoted to consolidation, organization, and preservation of existing base areas; Phase II - is devoted to progressive expansion by use of guerillas which are tasked to conduct, direct action, raids, ambushes, terrorism, and sabotage; Phase III - is devoted to destruction of the enemy with combined main forces and guerilla units. [12] Many believe that Mao’s phases are confined only to theories of how to conduct an insurgency against Japan, but that would be a limited application of his text and methods and fails to see how his theories are used today. In Mao’s words, “guerilla operations must not be considered an independent form of warfare, they are but one step in the total war.”[13]

In 1999, an essay titled Unrestricted Warfare was published by two senior Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Colonels. In their essay, they identify a myriad of actions that would fall into their Unrestricted Warfare model. Actions and activities such as; computer viruses, net browsers, financial derivative tools, financial attacks. [14] The 1999 essay also stresses the importance of using non-military means to shape the operational environment to put its competitors in a place of disadvantage. This can be accomplished by legal means, (trade law, copyright laws, financial law, international criminal law, economic exclusion zones (EEZs), just to name a few. A good example of how the PRC is placing such emphasis on non-military means can be seen in activities staring in the 1990’s, which applied a series of military actions launched by non-professional warriors and non-state organizations.

From these actions the Chinese began to get an inkling of a non-military type of war which could be prosecuted by yet another type of non-professional warrior. [15] For an example of how the PRC is beating us via competition can be seen in the selling off of America by quickly buying up major U.S. Companies such as; Starwood Hotels, 14.3B, General Electric Appliances Business, 5.4 B, Legendary Entertainment Group, 3.5 B, Motorola Mobility, 3.1B, AMC Entertainment Holdings and Carmike Cinemas (the largest movie chain in the U.S.), 2.6 B. [16]Just by owning Legendary and AMC/Carmike, The PRC is able to use its  position to edit and influence how U.S. audiences see and feel about China.

Current PLA thinking about winning on the modern battlefield is focused on “systems destruction warfare” that seeks to paralyze friendly forces operations/systems/networks (both functional and cyber) to render our capabilities ineffective.[17] Additionally, in PLA literature they stress defensive land campaigns, and identify three groups that would conduct mobile, positional, and urban and border defenses. One of these groups is the use of guerillas that would operate behind friendly lines to deplete combat potential and moral.[18] It is an easy leap to believe that these guerillas would also assume the roles and missions as outlined by Mao.

Currently analysis shows that the PRC is conducting the following IW campaigns, not only in the INDO-PACOM area of responsivity but around the world. China has been waging what some call a “Maritime Insurgency” in the South China and Coral Seas. The “guerillas of the sea” consist of the Chinese Maritime Militia. These militias are embedded into the Chinese fishing fleet, which consists of over 200,000 vessels, and employs 14 million people. [19] Proxy forces, and potential guerillas also exist on Taiwan and all the island nations surrounding the South China Sea (SCS). Studies on China and Taiwan continue to show the PRC conducting inform and influence, and funding activities, targeted at, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the roughly 2.24 Million people (2008 numbers) who predominantly identify as Chinese, not Taiwanese.[20] China is also conducting Network Engagement (NE) like activities[21], by working with neutral networks within focused constituencies, which includes; youth/students, religious organizations, grass-root villages, retired Generals, and fishermen’s associations. [22] China also uses a wide interpretation of the principles of mare liberum (freedom of the seas) and la terre domine la mer (the land dominates the sea) as codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)[23]. This wide interpretation enables them, under the cover of law, to challenge the legality and rights in the SCS in regard to the Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZs) of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.[24]

In the Coral Sea, China has been conducting what the U.S. has historically called medical civil action programs (MEDCAPs). These programs have been a mainstay not only in COIN, Stab, and other IW operations, but also to influence the will of relevant actors toward accepting a Chinese presence. China’s medical ship the Peace Ark, has recently conducted MEDCAPs by ship, in the sea ports of New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Tonga,[25] China is also using Mao’s teachings to conduct a Generational Approach (friendly technique found in JP 3-24 COIN).[26] The PRC has been expanding its policy to attract Taiwan’s youth to move to China for education, jobs & careers, and the opportunity for entrepreneurship, thereby providing better Chinese alternatives to out-compete Taiwan and win the race for youth to support unification. Another piece of evidence that the PRC is fighting us with IW, is their use of coercion and persuasion. In the information domain China has used coercion tactics such as: open criticism, scare tactics, and even out right threats against reporters, who do not meet with the PRC party line. Also China has used bribery, free food, free schooling, promises of travel, invitations to lavish parties and events, and financial investments to gain compliance. Figure 1 retrieved from Oxford Analytica in 2018, shows the level of Chinese investments around the world being used to increase its potential for political leverage over host countries.



Figure 1

To visualize the unimaginable, in a combined traditional and irregular war with China, readers should be aware of and digest the P.W. Singer, and August Cole’s extraordinary book, Ghost Fleet. When this book came out in 2015, many commanders and leaders made it required reading, in order to better understand how China might use IW against the US, in some future time. It is a good example how traditional warfare and IW are, and could be, used in concert by China. First in competition and irregular activities to set the scene, then a combined use of both in a decisive Chinese operation.

More Evidence

This section provides a brief examination of how Russia, Iran, North Korea, and select VEOs rely heavily on activities in the IW realm, and reinforce the position that the other designated peer/near-peer threats are using and will continue to use IW activities in competition and conflict.

Russia is certainly a peer threat. However, its recent history in Georgia and the Ukraine, along with analysis of their current doctrine indicates that they have been successful in using IW to quickly gain new territory and do it with or without Russian attribution.   Ariel Cohen from the Atlantic Council stated, “From a historical perspective, Russian efforts to divide European nations did not begin with the conflict in Ukraine. Rather, it began with the dismemberment of Moldova in the 1990s and the wars and occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.”[27]  In August of 2008, Moscow invaded Georgia, under the guise of supporting Russian sympathizers, and protecting Russian speakers in South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. The attack was preceded with IW activities; some might call it severe competition, such as, an aggressive information campaign and a complex cyber-attack that brought down many Georgian government web sites. These techniques were also mimicked in the Russian invasion of the Crimea in February 2014, when beginning circa 2012, Russian hackers began a massive attack on every facet of the Ukrainian government and many of its key businesses, and in December of 2015, successfully carried off the first successful shut down of a major power grid. While these continuous shutdowns only lasted for a few hours, it raised the specter of something that could cause major problems if the power could be shut off for weeks or months.

In 2014, Russian doctrine incorporated injecting the air of non-attribution of Russian IW activities (such as civilian hackers in Russia) and a particular focus on “the integrated utilization of military force and forces and resources of a non-military character.”[28] The use of unconventional warfare, network engagement[29], generational approach[30] and other IW activities used in Georgia and the Crimea, foreshadowed what is happening now in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia as Russia pounds them with a “Nazi” narrative, shaping the areas for potential action.[31] Speed was a vital factor for Russia in the invasion of Georgia in 2008. The conflict only lasted 5 days before both parties implemented a cease-fire that ended the Russia-Georgia War. Surprise was the vital factor in the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in 2014. Most had never considered that Russia might use its troops and equipment, sans Russo patches and identifying accoutrements. This gave some degree of plausible deniability in some International forums, preventing a quick and decisive counter action to Moscow’s aggression. Russia’s information strategy was to tell the world that the soldiers seen on television during the invasion, were not Russian troops, but Ukrainian insurgents. They later had to amend that tall tale and inform folks that any Russian soldier that was positively identified, must have been engaged in combat in a leave status, thus the problem is the individual soldier, not Russian aggression.

Iran relies primarily on a “diverse defense strategy” to protect it from threats. This strategy is comparable to the Hezbollah defense against the Israelis in 2006. It combines military, law enforcement, intelligence, para-military/guerillas in depth to guard the Iranian regime.[32] However outsides its borders it relies heavily on proxies and violent extremist organizations to shape the Middle East to its advantage. Its most well know proxy force is Hezbollah who continues to attack U.S. interests in the region. However, other Iranian proxies including Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are equally dangerous to U.S. interests and persons. Hezbollah is also known for its operations in South America. Iran has been conducting IW activities such as network engagement, generational approach, terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering, and influence operations. They do this by engaging with “mosques, culture centers, schools (generational approach), halal meat inspectors, religious literature, social work, and even Boy Scout Groups.”[33] Iran also has the Qods force. A special unit of the Revolutionary Guards, the Qods force specializes in IW activities such as fomenting or supporting insurgencies, terrorism, building capacity of allies, inform and influence activities, psychological operations, electronic warfare, and cyber-attacks. Speed favors Iran’s actions due to its proximity to neighboring states, and its focus on the Middle East writ large.  Iran also uses non-attributable IW activities to provide a modicum of plausible deniability for their offensive actions.

North Korea (NK) has a long history with using IW in conjunction with a traditional attack. Going back to the 1950’s, during the Korean War, over 20,000 NK guerillas operated within and behind the American Pusan perimeter. Three large scale counter guerrilla/COIN operations where conducted by U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces. The first of which was “The Pohang Guerilla Hunt” that in January 1951, pitted the 1st Marine Division against hardened NK insurgents.[34] Later Operation Ratkiller conducted COIN with one American division and two ROK divisions, which killed an estimated 11,000 insurgents and captured 10,000 prisoners[35]. And finally, Operation Trample, between 1953 and 1954, used two divisions to conduct the last major COIN operation of the war. Today, some don’t take seriously the IW threat that NK could pose on the Korean Peninsula. Many only consider a traditional NK attack into the south, and insurgency/COIN is only considered if the U.S. needs to push into NK. People fail to remember how effectively NK used IW in concert with their traditional attack. Any serious consideration for a NK attack south, must consider its use of pre-stationed insurgent groups. Speed favors NK, due to the range of its emplaced mountain artillery and location of NK forces near the Demilitarized Zone. Surprise might actually favor NK as well. Despite knowing NK history of using guerrillas and IW in tandem with traditional warfare, we must ask: does the ROK and U.S. forces train to excellence on COIN and Counterguerilla operations?

Designated VEOs are those that present an exigent danger to the U.S. and its interests at home and around the world. Just in the INDO-PACOM area of responsibility (AOR), from January 2018-2019, there were nearly 40 armed VEOs, operating in almost every nation in the AOR. Additionally there are countless small, armed ethic groups (AEGs), making the AOR much more complex than just focusing on competition or traditional war with China. Out of the nearly 40 existing VEOs, at least 10 of them continue their use of IEDs to one degree or another. Table I, below is derived from analysis conducted by the U.S. Army Asia-Pacific CIED Fusion Center (APCFC), from January 2018-2019. The table identifies the main VEO’s who employ IED, and what nation they operate in, what type of VEO, and those that might side with China in great power competition or war.[36] These VEOs could be also be used a proxy forces to challenge a U.S military buildup in the Philippines, or Indonesia.



Table 1

Of these 10 VEO’s, many have been involved in long running insurgencies against their home state. This gives many of them long standing logistical, intelligence, and to some degree, legitimacy. To understand the magnitude of the VEO, insurgent, criminal and IED challenge in the islands and nations near china see figure III. As one can easily see, from the prior table, and the figure below, it would not only be foolish to assume we would only experience traditional war with China, but also a dangerous gamble to exclude IW in capability development.



Figure 2


This treatise set out to prove that our designated peer/near-peer threats and selected VEO’s will in fact, use irregular activities in great power competition and in war, most often in conjunction with a traditional warfare campaign or activity. Thus, it is foolish for the services not place equal importance to IW in plans, exercises, training and development of new IW capabilities. We have also clearly seen that our designated threats have a history of being very adapt and successful in using IW, and that they are dominating the U.S., right now, in certain capabilities found in great power competition and war. The Secretary of Defense has stated his position that the U.S. Military cannot return to the “boom and bust cycle” of investing in Irregular capabilities. According to Andrew Knaggs, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, “the boom-bust cycle refers to the U.S. military’s preference for fighting traditional high-end forces, rather than insurgents [37] What this means is, despite our preference for traditional warfare, we cannot, like many times before, make huge investments in IW capabilities, only to throw them to the curb, immediately after an irregular conflict.

If senior military leaders and senior policy makers continue on the present path and singular focus, toward a pure traditional fight with our peer/near-peers, and VEO adversaries, we will continue to be outwitted, out maneuvered, and bested by our lessors.

Note: This research is being followed by a detailed study on the role of Irregular Warfare in future conflict. The Marine Corps Capability Development and Integration (CD&I) has commissioned the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) to conduct a study titled “Irregular Warfare within a Traditional Conflict: Implications for the MAGTF” that will continue in the same vein of research. The CNA report will provide recommendations for how the Marine Corps can align IW capabilities with the types of threats likely to manifest in future conflict. The CNA will be completed no later than April 30, 2020.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors’ and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or U.S. Marine Corps.

End Notes

[1] “Summary of the National Defense Strategy”, 19 January 2019,, p. 2,  

[2] “Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States”,, 2017, p. X.

[3] Ibid, p. X.

[4] Irregular Warfare: Countering Irregular Threats Joint Operating Concept (IW JOC) 2.0,, 2010.

[5] Gray, Colin, “Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt”, Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), U.S. Army War College,, p. 30.

[6] Ibid, p.18.

[7] Kaplan, Robert, “Imperial Grunts; With the Army Special Forces in the Philippines and Afghanistan—laboratories of counterinsurgency”, The Atlantic, Oct, 2005,

[8] Scaife, Robert B., “The Regularity of Irregular Warfare”, Small Wars Journal,,

[9] Lawrence, T.E., Seven Pillars of Wisdom; a Triumph, New York, First Anchor Books, 1991, p. 192.

[10] Jackson, Julian, France the Dark Years, 1940-1944, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 551.

[11] Finnegan, John P, “The Evolution of U.S. Army HUMINT: Intelligence Operations in the Korean War, CIA Studies in Intelligence”, Vol. 44, No.2, 204, Dec 2002,, p.9.

[12] Tse-tung, Mao, On Guerilla Warfare, FMFRP 12-18, Department of the Navy, April 1989, p. 20-21.

[13] Ibid, p.41.

[14] Liang, Qiao and Xiangsui, Wang, “Unrestricted Warfare”, Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999), p. 117.

[15] Ibid, p.47.

[16] Gandel, Stephen, “The Biggest American Companies Now Owned by the Chinese”, Fortune Magazine, March 2016,,

[17] Engstrom, Jeffrey, Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare; How the Chinese PLA Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare, Santa Monica, California, Rand Cooperation, also found online at,  p. 15.

[18] Ibid, p. 65.

[19] Kraska, James, “China’s Maritime Militia Upends Rules on Naval Warfare”, The Diplomat, August, 2015,

[20] Horton, Chris, “Taiwan caught in US-China diplomatic crossfire”, August 2018,

[21]“Joint Publication 3-25, Countering Threat Networks”, 2016,, p. III-4.

[22] Hsiao, Russell, “Prepared Testimony of Russell Hsiao Before The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission "China’s Relations with U.S. Allies and Partners in Europe and the Asia Pacific”

Washington, D.C. April, 2018,, p. 10.

[23] Cronin, Patrick, and Stires, Hunter, “China is waging a Maritime Insurgency in the South China Sea. It's Time for the United States to Counter It”, National Interest, Aug 2018,, p. 3.

[24] Ibid, p. 3.

[25] Dziedzic, Stephen, “How China, India and the U.S. use Healthcare Aid to Win Influence in the Pacific”, ABC Net News, August 2018,, p. 2.

[26] “Joint Publication 3-24 Counterinsurgency”, 2018,, p. III-4, III-5.

[27] Cohen, Ariel, “The Russo-Georgian War’s Lesson: Russia will strike again”, The Atlantic Council, August 2018,

[28] Jacobs, Andreas and Lasconjarias, Guillaume, ,”NATO’s Hybrid Flanks: Handling Unconventional Warfare in the South and East”, NATO Research Paper, April 2015,,  p.7.

[29] JP 3-25.

[30] JP 3-24.

[31] Andriukaitis, Lukas, “Russia’s “Nazi” Narrative against Lithuania and the Baltic States”, April 2018,

[32] Wehrey, Frederic, Thaler, David E., Bensahel, Nora, Cragin, Kim, Green, Jerrold D, Kaye, Dalia Dassa, Oweidat, Nadia and Li, Jennifer, Dangerous But Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East”, “Chapter V: Asymmetric Ambition and Conventional Reality: Iran’s Evolving Defense Strategy, Doctrine and Capabilities”, Rand Corporation, 2009,, p.40.

[34] Montross, Lynn, “Pohang Guerrilla Hunt 1600 Square Miles of Trouble”, reprinted from January 1952 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, reprinted with permission to The Korean War Educator, January 1952,, and p.19.

[35] Trinquier, Roger, Modern Warfare: a French View of Counterinsurgency, “Prager Security International”, Westport, Connecticut, first published 1964, reprinted in 2006, p.55.

[36] “Monthly IED Activity Report”, Asia-Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center,, p.4.

[37] Rempfer, Kyle, “DoD officials: Irregular warfare will no longer suffer a ‘boom-bust’ cycle in eras of great power competition”, Military Times, February 2019,

About the Author(s)

Reyes Cole is a civilian Marine. He currently serves as the Irregular Warfare Senior Program Analyst. He has served in this and other related roles since 2010. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and History. His Master’s Degree is in International Diplomacy – Conflict Management & Termination. He is a retired Army LTC with 26 years of service and served in Infantry and Special Forces units. He has held various Command and Staff positions. His deployments include; Guatemala, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan. His writings have been featured in Military Review, Armed Forces Journal, and Marine Corps Gazette.


A good, yet flawed article.  Since the author chose to stick with the COIN centric definition of IW, many of his arguments are not supported by his assertions. The PLA doctrine of systems of disruption, even is the PLA uses surrogates to execute cannot logically be interpreted a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over relevant populations. This is predominately traditional warfare characterized by a violent struggle for domination between states or coalitions. Of course, in reality, most conflicts are hybrid, the original fight to liberate to Afghanistan was largely conventional warfare waged by irregulars, it became irregular later.  

The argument that the PLA still leverages Mao doctrine is not accurate. The PLA seeks conventional dominance and mimics Western doctrine and technology to the extreme. Unrestricted Warfare was a white paper written by two Chinese officers that was widely read, but it is not doctrine any more than this article. One can make a supportable argument that the three warfares comes close to IW as the U.S. defines it, but it is neither UW, FID, COIN, CT, or Stability activities. More accurately it is political warfare or simply gray zone competition. The author argues Russia is a peer adversary, perhaps militarily in their near abroad, but nowhere else. As for Russia kicking our butts using IW, any serious analysis would indicate that is far from true. Russia created a new quagmire for itself in the Ukraine where it is bleeding out scarce resources. Russia's gray zone strategy has now been exposed, and Free Europe has responded by preparing for it and improving its resilience to these tactics. Russia has made no friends in Syria with their "conventional warfare" support to the Syrian regime. North Korea has little ability to wage IW as described in U.S. doctrine today.  They can launch commandos by the thousands, but not to influence populations, but to conduct conventional operations. North Korea does use cyber and criminal activities to sustain themselves, but again this is not IW as defined by the author. The only country that is outmaneuvering us in IW, again as we define it, is Iran. 

Simply changing the definition for IW, or using another term to describe our shortfalls and the security as it really is, versus using a flawed doctrinal term would fix most of the shortfalls in this article. Most of the points are still valid.  What we can't afford though is two militaries, one for IW (or IW after next) and conventional war, so while it may not be ideal the same forces will need to do to both. 

There seems to be a significant disconnect between such things as:

a.  The NDS Summary suggesting that "the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is strategic competition" and: 

b.  The fact that the U.S. -- under President Trump -- has formally decided NOT to compete.

Explanation Item No. One: 

President Trump indicated, in his 2017 National Security Strategy and elsewhere, that "stability" is now the primary focus of American foreign policy.  This such "stability" to be achieved by the U.S. (a) no longer attempting to transform other states, societies and civilizations more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines, and by the U.S. (b) embracing, in the place of same, such concepts as (1) political, economic, social and value equality and diversity and, thus, (2) sovereignty (and spheres of influence as a legitimate extension of this such concept?).   


“Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity, and peace, for themselves and for the world.”

“We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.”

(President Trump speaking as per the items in italics above.) 


Explanation Item No. Two:

Likewise, President Trump has indicated, for example by way of his immigration and refugee policies, that providing for the wants, needs and desires of a certain ensconced ethnic, racial, religious and cultural group -- a significantly outdated and strategically "in the way" old order" might we say -- this, not "competition" with other states and societies will be the primary focus of his domestic (and indeed certain of his foreign) policies.  In this regard, consider -- re: competition -- how important America's strategic and national security experts have viewed such things immigration and refugees of late:  


"[M]ajor American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed though exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints. What is more, high-ranking retired officers and civilian leaders of the United States military assert that, "[based on [their] decades of experience," a "highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps ... is essential to the military's ability to fulfill its principle mission to provide national security." The primary sources for the Nation's officer corps are the service academies and the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), the latter comprising students already admitted to participating colleges and universities. At present, "the military cannot achieve an officer corps that is both highly qualified and racially diverse unless the service academies and the ROTC used limited race-conscious recruiting and admissions policies." 

END QUOTE (See the bottom of Page 698.) 

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above: 

From the first paragraph of the "Introduction" to our article above: 

"Revisionist powers and peer threats such as China and Russia seek regional hegemony. Rogue regimes and near-peer threats like Iran and North Korea continue to create regional instability. And lastly, threats from designated Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) will persist. However, the services seem to be focusing less on competition, in lieu of focusing energies into traditional warfare scenarios and capabilities."  

Based on the information that I provide at my Explanation Items One and Two above, might we agree, that:

a.  President Trump may, indeed, have decided NOT to compete -- in any meaningful way (think: irregular warfare, democracy promotion, immigration, etc.) with our adversaries.  And may, in fact -- and consistent with his "stability" concepts -- have decided to:

b.  Embrace such things as "regional hegemony" (etc.) instead? 

(In this regard, note our recent return to an embrace of the Monroe Doctrine; a "sphere of influence" concept that we  -- under President Obama and re: such things as globalization -- had said was OBE.)

Col Smith; in regards to your comment, " I would like to see a pictoral of what the implications look like from this observation "...the notion that if U.S. troops are masters at traditional war, units can easily transition to IW warfare or activities. This has never been true..."


This is an excellent observation. My treatise defends this statement with only qualitative analysis. I will accept the challenge to test my claim using  quantitative analysis. I will publish my findings in a future Posting.




Excellent piece Reyes! I would like to see a pictoral of what the implications look like from this observation "...the notion that if U.S. troops are masters at traditional war, units can easily transition to IW warfare or activities. This has never been true..."

If the statement is true, then it is also true that the masters of IW can more easily transition to traditional/conventional warfare or activities.

Put another way, If US military has conducted, been engaged in more IW warfare activities that conventional, and those IW activities are extremely complex and difficult to perform, then why would it not make military good judgment to focus on this in education and training?

Interestingly enough, the USMC has never conducted an institutional lessons learned conference to distill what it was we learned from the failures in Afghanistan or Iraq. So again as you state, we stick our heads in the sand hoping to never have to fight these kinds of wars.

Dr Philip Karber, Potomac Foundation on Russian New Generation of Warfare is enlightening on how Russian war of war has adapted. You will recall he presented at the Army's conference in July of 2015  which was an effort to distill lessons learned.'s-'New-Generation-Warfare'.aspx