The Shadow Wars of the 21st Century


War is morphing. Today’s headlines are dominated by the conflicts in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine, which little resemble the large, conventional state versus state wars that dominated the last bloody century. Instead, they all demonstrate that a different form of unconventional warfare is emerging in these first decades of the 21st century. In each of these ongoing clashes, irregular groups are employing adroit asymmetrical means in an attempt to prevail. Their conventional opponents — the Israeli Defense Force, Iraqi security forces, and the Ukrainian military — are struggling to adjust to these new tactics and capability mixes. Conflicts of this sort may soon become the most common type of warfare in the future. They are evolving versions of shadow conflicts, fought by masked warriors often without apparent state attribution. Each presents near unresolvable challenges to legacy 20th century models and norms of international conflict and behavior. They painfully illustrate the changing shape of warfare, and present a challenge to the U.S. military for which it may be decidedly ill prepared. These features in combination — high tech weaponry, subversion, and covert backing from well-resourced nation states — distinguish these emerging irregular conflicts from the more recent insurgencies fought by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the Israelis during the two intifadas.

The conflicts raging today in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine share some common features. Irregular belligerents — Hamas, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Ukrainian separatists — are each aggressively shaping these conflicts in skillful ways to outmaneuver their more conventional adversaries. These irregular warriors seek creative and often indirect ways to accomplish their wartime ends, often without fighting in conventional fashion. Their tactics and equipment reflect a new and ever-varying combination of conventional high-tech weaponry — think SA-11 SAMs and T-72 tanks — and insurgent battlefield techniques. They can employ tanks and artillery, while also covertly infiltrating and subverting uncooperative or hostile governments. Despite their unconventional appearance, each group also has some degree of backing by a nation state. Iran, certain Gulf states, and Russia are providing vital high-end weaponry, advice, and often cash to Hamas, ISIL, and Ukrainian separatists, respectively. Additionally, the international press is intensively covering all of these conflicts — and both sides are leveraging social media to an unprecedented degree.

Yet each conflict also reflects unique differences. In Gaza, we see the Israeli military undertaking a large-scale conventional operation in a densely packed urban area against Hamas insurgents. Casualties are skyrocketing among civilians and insurgents both, and are growing among the Israeli military in this intense campaign. Warfare in urban areas against irregular foes will be a trademark of 21st century warfare. Irregular groups will increasingly use the cover of cities and their densely packed populations to shield themselves from attacks by government forces, and carefully leverage the media and international outrage that such urban battles inevitably provoke. The likelihood of heavy casualties ensuing among both the civilian population and the combatants in these types of campaigns is high.

In Iraq, the astonishing military gains of ISIL in recent weeks demonstrate yet another aspect of 21st century warfare and its ongoing mutations. ISIL is an insurgent group based in both Syria and Iraq. It calls itself a state, but is not recognized as one. Yet even though it is outnumbered on the battlefield, it has seized a substantial chunk of Iraqi territory using captured tanks, artillery and armored vehicles. Its irregular warriors have repeatedly crushed the larger, well-equipped, and U.S.-trained Iraqi military. Ironically, in Syria, ISIL is pitted against the government of U.S. adversary Bashar al-Assad, while in Iraq it seeks to overthrow Nouri al-Maliki and his U.S.-backed government. This too represents a conundrum of 21st century warfare where irregular warriors may be fighting against both friends and enemies of the United States at the same time, further complicating policy choices.

In Ukraine, separatists (likely supported by Russian military forces) just brought down a civilian airliner flying at over 33,000 feet in an international air traffic lane. This unthinkable atrocity was only made possible by insurgents’ access to a highly sophisticated SA-11 air defense missile system, a complex top-tier weapon used by the Russian military. This was no shoulder-fired missile of the sort often associated with guerillas and terrorist groups. Launching an SA-11 and striking a fast-moving jet liner seven miles in the sky is a complex undertaking. It demonstrates significantly greater precision, range and lethality than most insurgent groups have had in the past. This tragic event may dramatically change how we think about low-level international conflicts. These shadow wars may now pose a much more serious threat to international order and safety in the world, challenging our long-standing assumptions about irregular conflicts.

Many of these attributes of warfare in this century are presenting wholly new challenges that may be deeply underappreciated by U.S. strategists who contemplate future wars. In fact, the U.S. military — with its signature aircraft carriers, submarines, jet fighters and heavily armored vehicles — may be too deeply invested in very expensive capabilities poorly designed to deal effectively with these new threats. This is not to say that the United States should abandon its long-held commitment to fielding highly capable aircraft and ships or ultra-sophisticated tanks and helicopters. But it is not clear whether these extraordinarily expensive advanced systems will help address these morphing threats. We therefore need to ask hard questions about whether the $500 billion-plus U.S. defense budget is still aimed at the right target. It must deliver a full range of capabilities, and also position the U.S. military to dominate mutating threats around the world.

The irregular conflicts dominating today’s news coverage should give us pause. If we are not prepared to deal with these shadowy hybrid conflicts fought by warriors without obvious national attribution, we need to change our priorities. The complex demands of today’s wars suggest that U.S. defense budget and plans for the future may be significantly out of balance for the fast-changing shape of conflict. The wars of this century are less and less likely to resemble the wars of the last. And a military that was largely designed and built for the last century may need serious restructuring in order to successfully win the wars of this one.


LTG David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Responsible Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.  He formerly served as commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army