With the return of strategic competition, Irregular Warfare (IW) has become the focus of attention in defense circles around the world. Some argue that mastery in this field will decide who emerges victorious in such competition. However, IW is an elusive concept across the US government and among US allies and partners. In March 2021, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III contended that “our success will depend on how closely we work with our friends around the world.” The first step towards successful cooperation is to speak the same—or at least a similar—language. To help the development of such a shared language, it is helpful to compare IW concepts from the United States, allies, and partners around the world. The Irregular Warfare Center (IWC) recently completed a study (the first in a series of regionally focused studies) of how European institutions conceptualize irregular warfare. The results show that irregular warfare means many different things across Europe—and some countries do not even recognize the term.
How the Pentagon Views Irregular Warfare
The United States itself does not have a consistent understanding of irregular warfare. Consider these definitions from key US documents:
- US DOD Directive 3000.07: A violent struggle among state and nonstate actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s)
- The 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy: A struggle among state and nonstate 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.
- US Army Field Manual 3-0: The overt, clandestine, and covert employment of military and nonmilitary capabilities across multiple domains by state and nonstate actors through methods other than military domination of an adversary, either as the primary approach or in concert with conventional warfare.
As these examples demonstrate, the US defense community has yet to iron out some important differences. Both analysts and policymakers argue that the lack of shared conceptualization hinders the US government’s ability to address strategic competitors effectively. This limitation is the impetus behind a recent push from the Joint Staff to develop a single, unified definition across the department. Indeed, competency in the irregular warfare space requires a more robust and complete understanding of the concept, a goal that can be achieved by exploring how allies and partners approach the topic.
A Lack of Shared Understanding
To understand how the United States’ European allies understand irregular warfare, the IWC conducted surveys, interviews, and a workshop with representatives from the Netherlands Defense Academy, the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, the Swedish Defense University, the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, and the Military Academy of Lithuania. Survey questions addressed each institution’s conceptualization of irregular warfare; which irregular threats the institution considers and prioritizes; how the institution teaches concepts related to irregular warfare; whether the institution publishes on the topic; the level of the institution’s connection to a broader community focused on irregular warfare; and who makes up the institution’s faculty, courses, and target audience.
A major conclusion from the project was that European institutions lack a shared understanding of irregular warfare. There is no universally accepted definition of irregular warfare across the surveyed institutions, even on a foundational level. For some respondents, like the Military Academy of Lithuania, the lack of a concrete definition of irregular warfare stems from varying definitions across the state as a whole. One consistent assertion throughout many of the survey responses is the idea that irregular warfare exists below the threshold of conventional warfare, implying that warfare exists on a sort of continuum. The tone of this assertion, however, varies from institution to institution. Some look at irregular warfare as part of the conflict/competition spectrum, while others look at irregular warfare as activities unique to special operations forces. In addition, institutions differ in their views on what constitutes irregular activity. For example, the Military Academy of Lithuania says that hybrid activities exist below the threshold of conventional warfare and blur the lines between war and peace, making hybrid/irregular warfare a more active choice for the threat actor. In contrast, the Swedish Defense University says that threats can be characterized as irregular when conventional forces are unable or unprepared to counter the threat posed, making the target country’s response determinative in whether a threat is irregular.
Different Threat Perceptions
There is also no unified irregular threat landscape across European institutions. Instead, the irregular threats given the most attention are driven by the individual institutions’ perceptions of their strategic environments. Furthermore, no institution studied has a prioritized list of irregular threats and threat actors, whether by design or by practicality due to the ever-changing threat environment. While many of the respondents referenced specific threat actors and relevant threats, the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) has adopted the DIME (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) acronym to describe the types of threats that meet the criteria for irregular qualification. Although FFI does not assess the severity of threats through this specific lens, the respondent did use the DIME acronym to explain how Russian malign activities meet the threshold for irregular warfare.
Russian aggression or subversion was mentioned in nearly all of the responses, signaling that this is a common interest despite institutional hesitation to name specific prioritized threats. While this is true, some institutions are more concerned with Russian hybrid activities than others, a fact often determined by the institution’s proximity to Russia. This is illustrated by the Military Academy of Lithuania’s sole focus on Russian malign activity and the institutional use of the term “hybrid warfare” instead of “irregular warfare” by many institutions near Russia. On the other hand, institutions in countries farther away from Russia tend to use the US conceptualization of irregular warfare and associated threats. No matter the threat specified, irregular and hybrid warfare seems reactive and exclusively focused on countering malign activities.
Absent from Education
Another shortcoming in the European irregular warfare community is a lack of institutionalized education. Irregular warfare education takes a variety of different forms, from stand-alone IW lessons within existing conventional military education programs to IW-focused courses in graduate-level education. One institution, FFI, does not teach irregular warfare concepts at all. While most of the surveyed institutions teach irregular warfare-related concepts at the theoretical level, one institution, the Swedish Defense University, mentioned teaching irregular warfare concepts through a special operations lens with a heavier focus on the practical level. While there is no real cohesion in irregular warfare education across the institutions studied, it is clear that there is a linkage between special operations forces and the study of irregular warfare concepts, as many of the institutions studied have ties to special operations forces or teach students linked to that area of defense. In more outward-facing action, the institutions do publish on irregular warfare-related topics, like cyber warfare, influence campaigns, and threats to critical infrastructure, for example. However, the relevant publications primarily focus on individual topics subordinate to irregular warfare, rather than dedicate themselves to the study of irregular warfare as a whole. Publications from the surveyed institutions are not always available to the public. Some institutions publish for policymakers, while others speak more to academia or cater almost exclusively to the special operations community.
European IW: The Way Forward
In the long term, a common way to conceptualize irregular warfare is a necessary step toward solid international cooperation. In the short term, understanding the shortcomings in irregular warfare conceptualization, threat perception, and professional military education is key to making the first step. Beyond this, understanding the nuances involved in irregular warfare will help foster efficient communication and effective international cooperation. A major part of gaining this understanding is not only international cooperation but also connecting the academic community with military thinkers serving at institutions like those studied in this first report. Such integration will not only facilitate a more cohesive idea of what irregular warfare is and what related threats look like, but it will also create a more informed and interoperable international community of practitioners. Irregular warfare mastery will not come from rushing to define irregular warfare, but it will come from the type of cooperation necessary to conceptualize the topic fully.
Dr. Sandor Fabian is the Chair of the Engagement Department at the Irregular Warfare Center, a nonresident fellow at the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and a faculty member at the NATO Special Operations School. Dr. Fabian is a former Hungarian Special Forces officer who served in tactical, operational, and strategic national assignments as well as at NATO Special Operations Headquarters.
Gabrielle Kennedy is an analyst at the Irregular Warfare Center and a senior analyst at Exiger Government Solutions.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo credit: Jonathan Alpeyrie