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Irregular Warfare and Military Strategy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Military
Wordcount: 1409 words Published: 4th Nov 2020

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“Pure military skill is not enough.  A full spectrum of military, para-military, and civil action must be blended to produce success.  The enemy uses economic and political warfare, propaganda, and naked military aggression in an endless combination to oppose a free choice of government and suppress the rights of the individual by terror, by subversion, and by force of arms.  To win in this struggle, our officers and [Service] men must understand and combine the political, economic, and civil actions with skilled military efforts in the execution of the mission.”

         President John F. Kennedy

   Letter to the United States Army, 11 April 1962


As the United States deals with the threat of near-peer competition, current irregular warfare (IW) doctrine is insufficient to with adversary irregular strategies which are intended to disrupt and degrade the National power over time.  This assessment is put forth in a Joint forces panel on the efficiency of the U.S military doctrine on irregular warfare.  The United States military is entrenched in protracted conflict in which irregular and unconventional warfare are growing issues and are gaining momentum to include unconventional threats, social propaganda, misinformation targeting specific population areas and groups with quasi established leadership, terrorist activities that affect large scale disruption, and threats that distract power and authority.  Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States defines irregular warfare as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population.”  This not new to U.S military defense issues.  We can look back in military history to battles won and lost against nations states who used irregular warfare that went directly against U.S strategies on how our force operates and how forces are structured and employed and the principles of war.  

Irregular Warfare – The Operational Environment

Irregular warfare can be found in our military battle history as far back as the civil war and as recent as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Guerilla warfare, as a more common term where small groups of fighters to include armed civilians use military techniques to engage larger conventional fighting forces.  The irregular units were more mobile and were able to engage larger less mobile units at inopportune times and the larger units could not react in sufficient fashion as to protect troops, equipment, and facilities.  Unconventional forms of guerilla or irregular warfare test the formal structures battle line engagement used by U.S military forces.  Irregular warfare will also place stress on the larger force that may feel the pressure not want to comply with the rigid structure of a conventional fighting force.  “Fighting as a guerrilla was attractive: it would allow men more freedom than they would enjoy in the regular army, and most importantly, would allow them to remain at home to defend their families and communities.”  (Mackey, 2004)

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Enemy force commanders look for opportunities to counter military defensive plans by compromising the unit’s integrity externally and internally.  The enemy will look to employ special purpose forces, irregular forces, electronic warfare, long-range artillery, rockets, missiles, information capabilities, and cyberspace electromagnetic activities to disrupt combat activities.  These activities are used to degrade personnel integrity and morally defeat the combatant units as well as damage equipment, facilities and weaken sustainment operations. The intent or objective of the irregular is to weaken national power.  To paraphrase U.S. Army doctrine on the principle of objective, irregular force action supports a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective.  The principle of objective drives all irregular activity (JCOS, 2017).

The challenge for U.S fighting forces is how to employ regular military capabilities against the flexible capabilities of irregular forces.  U.S military forces are constrained by our own laws of war and international protocols.  U.S forces are also hampered in their ability to adapt a larger force to battle smaller mobile elements.  Being poorly adapted to IW significantly reduces the ability of gaining positive outcomes and increases the cost of whatever success is realized.  Moreover, Commanders and leaders cannot be overconfident that poor readiness for IW is preferable “acceptable risk.”  IW operations are likely to occur only where marginal U.S. interests are deployed.  The ability to adapt rapidly to large-scale IW requires both maintaining certain capabilities in being and maintaining the pipeline to regenerate personnel with adaptive capabilities.

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The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brought to bear an entire new form of combat operations that absolutely defied previous wars forms of fighting and engaging the enemy.  Conventional battle maneuvers may end as a win or a loss in a matter of a few weeks or protracted conflict.  Units have to be ready for any form of battle.  Unit readiness built for conventional warfare and should have the ability to adapt to irregular warfare as opposed to being designed as an irregular force.  IW is typically fought by small units on a highly decentralized battlefield—a much easier task militarily than coordinating fire and maneuver across large numbers of higher echelon formations.  The National Defense Strategy put forth, “the surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.  Doing so requires a competitive approach to force development and a consistent, multiyear investment to restore warfighting readiness and field a lethal force.” 

To accomplish this essential and fundamental task of understanding, training, and negating IW, the Department of Defense (DOD) will need to marshal all available resources in a collaborative training process.  Within its own ranks U.S forces should, identify, utilize, maintain, and develop expertise and knowledge of cultural expertise, since language proficiency and in-depth knowledge of regions, sub-regions, and subgroups.  Previously, training and education in irregular warfare activities was allowed to atrophy post-Vietnam conflict.  New training techniques and technologies can enhance the ability of U.S.  Force to increase, and maintain the proficiency required to address both irregular and regular threats through developing a versatile force.

The protracted irregular warfare activities in Afghanistan and Iraq strained the capacity and readiness of U.S forces to conduct major conventional combat operations and sustain its other long-term global commitments.  The U. S military’s need to balance any populist approach and enemy-focused action does not reduce the need for the force to apply such techniques, kill, capture, and interdict adversaries with speed, precision, and discrimination.  There’s almost a cathartic need for Soldier to engage the enemy with like force and means.  The rules of engagement (ROE) model should not refrain from or de-escalate the use of force in certain circumstances or imply that use of force will never be necessary.  These are trained techniques that the military and no other agency of the U.S. government is uniquely designed to accomplish.


U.S military forces are lucrative targets for irregular and unconventional opposing forces.  The irregular’s objective is to cause the larger force to either mass, relocate, or change an engagement activity.  Medium to large scale activity will further stress limited mobility and weaken Soldier morale.


  • Joint Chiefs of Staff.  (2017). Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States (Joint Publication 1).   Retrieved from.  https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/jp1_ch1.pdf
  • Mackey, Robert R.  The UnCivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865.  Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
  • Sutherland, Daniel E.  A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.es


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