Irregular warfare is a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will. It includes the specific missions of unconventional warfare (UW), stabilization, foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), and counterinsurgency (COIN). Related activities such as military information support operations, cyberspace operations, countering threat networks, counter-threat finance, civil-military operations, and security cooperation also shape the information environment and other population-focused arenas of competition and conflict.
State adversaries and their proxies increasingly seek to prevail through their own use of irregular warfare, pursuing national objectives in the competitive space deliberately below the threshold likely to provoke a U.S. conventional response. China, Russia, and Iran are willing practitioners of campaigns of disinformation, deception, sabotage, and economic coercion, as well as proxy, guerrilla, and covert operations. This increasingly complex security environment suggests the need for a revised understanding of IW to account for its role as a component of great power competition.
It is in this competitive space that the Department must innovate. We must creatively mix our traditional combat power with proactive, dynamic, and unorthodox approaches to IW that can shape, prevent, and prevail against our nation’s adversaries and maintain favorable regional balances of power alongside our key partners and allies.
IW is a persistent and enduring operational reality employed by non-state actors and increasingly by state actors in competition with the United States. Past U.S. approaches to IW have been cyclical and neglected the fact that IW – in addition to nuclear and conventional deterrence – can proactively shape conditions to the United States’ advantage in great power competition. This reactive cycle fails to prepare the United States to conduct traditional warfare or irregular warfare effectively. All of these conditions are reversible.
The Department must institutionalize irregular warfare as a core competency for both conventional and special operations forces, sustaining the ability to impose costs and create dilemmas for our adversaries across the full spectrum of competition and conflict. To accomplish this vision, the Department will:
- Break the reactive cycle of investment in IW capabilities by institutionalizing lessons learned from past conflicts, and preserving a baseline of IW-focused expertise and capabilities;
- Sustain IW as a core competency for the entire Joint Force, not just Special Operations Forces;
- Ensure widespread understanding and sufficient expertise in IW;
- Ensure its approach to IW becomes more agile and cost-informed by developing and employing resource-sustainable IW capabilities;
- Seize the initiative and use IW capabilities proactively to expand the competitive space, defeat our adversaries’ competitive strategies, and prepare for an escalation to conflict, if required; and
- Organize to foster and sustain unified action in IW with interagency partners as well as key allies and partners.