The “softer” approaches of irregular war offer outsized benefits during competition and armed conflict alike.
The United States was already overdue to reshape its conception of national security to meet an era of gray-zone challenges below the threshold of “regular war” — and then came COVID-19. The global pandemic is changing the dynamics of competition for influence, and may constrain U.S. defense budgets even more than sequestration. U.S. policymakers should seize this chance to reorient national security spending toward more cost-effective approaches — and in particular, to institutionalize irregular warfare efforts as called for by the National Defense Strategy’s Irregular Warfare Annex.
As the NDS notes, many of the pressing challenges to U.S. prosperity and security come from adversaries using influence operations, predatory economics, coercion, subversion, proxy networks, and other non-kinetic means. There is a significant divergence between “minor” conflicts and more “conventional” military conflicts, which calls into question the logic of investing predominately in high-end military capabilities. Policymakers should instead emphasize the ways and means most likely to factor into competition and prevent strategic surprise at a fraction of the cost.
Lower-cost tools and missions associated with IW—including military information support operations, civil affairs, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and counter-threat network capabilities, among others—should factor prominently in this approach, for both conventional and special operations forces, wherever feasible.
RAND analysts have described our current gray-zone security environment as “political warfare,” a term that usefully suggests the crucial need to improve how the Defense Department works with interagency partners to pursue strategic objectives. It also hints at the need for effective action before military conflict, in the space between peace and war that traditionally challenges U.S. planners. Shaping conditions “left of bang” is far more desirable and affordable than reacting to war. To that end, the DoD must incorporate IW into efficient campaigning across the U.S. government.
Another key aspect of IW is sustaining unity of effort with partners and allies, working long before conflict to maintain U.S. advantages and remain the preferred partner of choice. Recent experiences in counterterrorism show how IW approaches can secure strategic objectives more affordably. “By, with, through” can help to leverage the United States’ global network as an “agile, adaptive, and tailorable” way to pursue shared interests while also sharing costs.
Applying this mindset to competition, helping allies develop societal resilience and resistance could deliver low-cost and high-impact benefits for the United States and our allies alike. Smaller-footprint defense options not only preserve limited U.S. resources, they can also buy time for allied forces or political developments to reverse the tide in event of crisis. Congress has already shown appetite to apply this use of IW to competition, and their continued support will be critical. By emphasizing cost-effective measures, this approach provides a pathway to potentially “win without fighting,” or at least proactively manage the tempo of competition and escalation to conflict.
There is also a technological component to IW. The NDS IW Annex directs the Defense Department to harness more efficient means, including commercial-off-the-shelf technologies, resource-sustainable capabilities, and other technological advances to transform the Department’s approach to process, exploit, and act upon information nimbly and at scale. Artificial intelligence is already driving evolution in IW and how states use technology to understand the information environment and increase the speed and agility of its operations, both with lethal and non-lethal capabilities.
U.S. Special Operations Command has a tradition of innovation and applying new technologies to validate their use short of armed conflict. Adapting preferred technologies at scale across the conventional force—not just special operations forces—will be instrumental for operating in multi-domain competitive landscapes where human intervention remains decisive in the contest for influence and legitimacy.
Increasing attention to investments in people and platforms able to compete before conflict is the most effective method to ensure that national security investments align with pacing threats. Current trends strongly suggest needing a new approach that accounts for hostile states’ strategies and our constrained resources.
Fortunately, the United States does not need to start from scratch. By drawing upon recent experiences in conducting irregular war, the IW Annex provides a roadmap for policymakers to ensure that DoD can use IW as part of a competitive strategy that sets conditions favorable to U.S. objectives, and fulfills its national security obligations, at more sustainable personnel and materiel costs.
Policymakers must resist the urge to embrace a paradox associated with constrained resourcing, where big ticket items that offer marginal warfighting improvements are prioritized for survival over more affordable and less flashy options, such as embracing IW, that provide outsized return on investment.
The views in this article belong to the author and do not represent the official position(s) of the Department of Defense.
Kevin Bilms is a career Department of Defense civilian serving as the Irregular Warfare Team Chief in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. He most recently served as the senior policy advisor for counterterrorism and transnational threats at the National Security Council.