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What is Irregular Warfare Now?

“[Irregular warfare is] a form of warfare where states and non-state actors campaign to assure or coerce states or other groups through indirect, non attributable, or asymmetric activities, either as the primary approach or in concert with conventional warfare.”

-Joint Publication 1, 2023

T.E. Lawrence on the Cover of Time Magazine, 1932

Since the term "Irregular Warfare" or "IW" came into vogue, its widespread adoption has suffered from a lack of a refined, clear, and accepted definition. To remedy this, the latest version of Joint Publication (JP) 1 has introduced a new definition. In this article, we will analyze this definition at face value and weigh some of its pros and cons.

Let us break down the definition and evaluate its components. The new definition recognizes that irregular warfare involves both state and non-state actors. This is an important acknowledgment, as irregular warfare is not limited to traditional state-on-state conflicts but also includes non-state actors such as insurgent groups, terrorist organizations, and criminal networks. By including both types of actors, the definition captures the diverse nature of irregular warfare.

The definition also acknowledges that irregular warfare relies on unconventional tactics and approaches that are often indirect, non-attributable, or asymmetric. This means that irregular warfare may involve tactics such as guerrilla warfare, sabotage, and subversion. By including these elements, the definition captures the diverse range of methods employed in irregular warfare very well.

With this definition, there is also recognition that irregular warfare can be employed as the primary approach or in conjunction with conventional warfare. This highlights the flexibility and adaptability of irregular warfare, which can be used independently or as a compounded approach. This provides important context and shows how the idea fits within the wider Joint Doctrine.

One downside is that the definition takes an over simplistic, binary approach to irregular warfare's strategic ends as either compel or assure. While this covers two strategic approaches, it lacks sufficient nuance. The obvious omission is deterrence, which is part of integrated deterrence, the central idea of the current National Defense Strategy. A nation can also base its strategy on a geographic vector (e.g., containment). In practice, strategy is rarely, if ever, this black or white (hence the term ‘gray zone’). Arguably, this definition introduces artificiality by trying to oversimplify a complex, continually adapting phenomenon like warfare.

Overall, this definition offers a significant improvement over previous attempts to define irregular warfare. While this definition captures the diverse nature of irregular warfare and its strategic intent, it may benefit from additional specificity and a broader strategic scope. Understanding irregular warfare is crucial in contemporary military strategy, and this definition serves as a valuable starting point for further analysis and discussion in this field.


Defense Primer: What Is Irregular Warfare? 

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