Some of these capabilities are clearly necessary. But based on the high costs of conventional and nuclear war, most U.S. competition with Russia, China, North Korea and Iran will likely be irregular. The United States is vulnerable. Just look at Afghanistan, where the Taliban has fought the United States to a stalemate despite lacking the U.S.’s high-tech weapons. Instead, the Taliban—which receives some support from Pakistan, Iran and even Russia—has focused on guerrilla tactics like ambushes, raids, suicide attacks and targeted assassinations. The U.S. military has struggled against poorly-equipped insurgent groups in Iraq, Libya and Somalia, just to name a few other examples. U.S. adversaries have noticed.
Russia employs a mix of technologically-sophisticated offensive cyber capabilities, covert action, and information operations to expand its power and compete with the United States. Moscow has implemented overt information campaigns using platforms like RT and Sputnik. It has also conducted covert campaigns to support influential figures and opposition political parties in Western and Eastern Europe; waged offensive cyber campaigns against the United States, France, Germany and other NATO countries; and supported state and nonstate proxies in Ukraine, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan to increase its power in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and even Africa. Russia’s approach involves the use of high volumes of information, provided rapidly, repetitively, and without a commitment to objectivity and facts. In short, Moscow has warmly embraced the tous azimuts use of irregular warfare.
Iran possesses formidable irregular capabilities led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps–Quds Force (IRGC-QF), the special forces unit of the IRGC responsible for international operations. Iran has adopted a strategy of “forward defense,” which involves supporting sub-state proxies across the Middle East and beyond. The Islamic Republic has used local militias, employed religious ideology to recruit and inspire militants, utilized economic influence as a means of political leverage, engaged in psychological warfare to promote the Islamic revolution’s ideology, and engaged in cultural and religious diplomacy efforts. Iran’s proxies, for example, play a prominent role in Tehran’s irregular warfare strategy.
The IRGC-QF is responsible for training pro-Iranian militants across the Middle East and beyond in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. Iran has encouraged militias to establish political organizations, with Lebanese Hezbollah serving as the most successful example. At the same time, Iran backs competing militias to provide it with strategic options and to prevent any one group from becoming too powerful. In addition, Iran has developed substantial cyber capabilities. It has penetrated U.S. and allied networks to conduct espionage for future cyberattacks. Tehran likely views cyberattacks as a versatile tool to respond to perceived provocations. Iran’s cyberattacks against Saudi Arabia in late 2016 and early 2017 involved data deletion on dozens of networks across government and the private sector.
China has used fleets of fishing vessels and created artificial islands by dumping millions of tons of sand and concrete onto reefs to assert its territorial and resource claims in the Pacific. Beijing has also utilized economic inducements and coercion, aggressive cyber activity by government and nonstate hacktivists, and covert support to foreign government officials to expand its power and influence. While China is modernizing its army, air force and navy, much of its activity will likely be irregular warfare. In a concept known as the “three warfares,” the Chinese Community Party and People’s Liberation Army have focused on improving China’s propaganda, psychological operations and “lawfare”—the use of law as a weapon of warfare.
Even North Korea has developed irregular capabilities. It has conducted offensive cyberattacks against corporations like Sony and countries like South Korea, as well as orchestrated broader attacks like the WannaCry ransomware campaign that crippled hospitals, banks and other companies across the globe in 2017. North Korea is also developing more robust special operations capabilities, including establishing forward-deployed hovercraft bases closer to South Korean islands in the West Sea for possible clandestine activity. More broadly, the North Korean leadership has focused on developing special forces, chemical weapons, and biological weapons and delivery systems. In fact, North Korea’s special forces are among the largest in the world and could greatly complicate any conflict by striking behind South Korean lines in “second front” operations. North Korea has a robust inventory of chemical weapons, estimated at 2,500–5,000 metric tons of chemical agents.
America’s adversaries are unlikely to compete with the United States directly in a series of set-piece battles. Instead, they will likely continue to engage in cyber, proxy and information campaigns. Thus far, the United States has failed to compete effectively in this field, except for some efforts by U.S. special operations forces. Washington has been far too reactive, defensive, and cautious—not to mention discordant among multiple U.S. government agencies.
RUSSIA, CHINA, Iran and North Korea have embraced irregular warfare. But the United States has not. It isn’t too late to adjust course.
First, U.S. policymakers across government agencies need to recognize that irregular warfare—not conventional warfare—will likely be the norm in inter-state competition. Irregular warfare has not been adequately captured in U.S. government documents, such as the National Security Strategy or National Defense Strategy. The unclassified version of the National Defense Strategy, for example, devotes almost no attention to irregular warfare. This may be, in part, because the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps would prefer to spend their procurement dollars on big-ticket items like strategic bombers, stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, guided-missile destroyers and nuclear-powered attack submarines that are primarily designed for conventional or nuclear war.
The likelihood of irregular competition has not been well-articulated by U.S. officials in public statements, nor have the dangers of Russia, Iranian, Chinese or North Korean irregular warfare been sufficiently emphasized. Irregular warfare has also not been taken seriously by most NATO countries. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and CIA director William Casey made a concerted effort to educate the American public about Russian irregular activities through Congressional hearings and other forums, including allowing CIA case officers to testify using pseudonyms. For example, the administration held hearings using such titles as “Soviet Covert Action” and “Soviet Active Measures,” and the United States released several previously classified reports on Soviet active measures. The United States needs to conduct an aggressive public information campaign today about Russian, Iranian, Chinese and North Korean irregular capabilities and actions.
Second, the U.S. Department of Defense should ensure that its forces are adequately educated and prepared to conduct—and respond to—irregular warfare. Professional education at military schools needs to include more in their curriculums about irregular warfare—such as cyber activity, support to proxies, information operations, civil affairs and related issues. Many of these topics have become backwater issues because of a declining interest by the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to wage irregular warfare. These issues likely remind the services about the bloody counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Naval Postgraduate School’s Defense Analysis Department is one of the few organizations that spends significant time and effort educating soldiers about irregular warfare, but its students are primarily special operations forces. Other defense institutions—such as the U.S. Army War College and National Defense University—should increase their focus on educating soldiers about irregular warfare.
In addition, other U.S. government agencies—including at the CIA, U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department—need to ensure that their personnel are sufficiently focused on irregular activities. Some organizations, like the Special Activities Center at CIA, should continue to increase their focus on political and information operations, not just paramilitary activity. These organizations also need to step up efforts to coordinate strategy and operations across agencies. During the Reagan administration, documents like National Security Decision Directive (NSDD)-32 (U.S. National Security Strategy), NSDD-75 (U.S. Relations with the USSR), and NSDD-54 (U.S. Policy towards Eastern Europe) effectively integrated irregular warfare into U.S. national security strategy. The Reagan administration also created bodies like the Active Measures Working Group designed to identify and counter Soviet propaganda. The United States currently lacks an effective interagency body—such as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) for terrorism—to help integrate intelligence collection, analysis and actions for irregular warfare.
Third, U.S. agencies that already engage in some aspects of irregular warfare need to shift more attention from counterterrorism to irregular warfare against state adversaries. This might include, for example, providing more training and equipment to countries like Hungary and Slovakia to conduct an effective resistance campaign against irregular action by Moscow. Or it might involve putting greater political pressure on countries like Iraq and Syria to decrease the number and activity of Iranian proxies. It could also include beefing up the resources of organizations like U.S. Special Operations Command, the Assistant Secretary of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict and the Special Activities Center at CIA to conduct irregular warfare.