The Shadow Wars of the 21st Century

July 23, 2014

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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

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17 thoughts on “The Shadow Wars of the 21st Century

    1. yeah, it’s great, except when you miss the fact our nation armed two of the three of them (ISIL & the Ukraine).

      Our gov’t, led by the CIA, is part of the goddamn problem. Of course, that won’t stop the self-licking ice cream for asking for more “resources” to stop this “assymetrical” threat…that we helped create.

      1. Yeah, that’s the part that is missing in many of the recent pieces on Ukraine.

        Messy situations with their own internal logics made more messy by outside regional and great power competition. A heartbreak for those on the ground.

        I don’t mean to single out the first commenter, this is all just an area of interest of mine, the way in which our system contributes to the disorder. Not a “blame American first” syndrome, but simply cataloguing all the factors involved in situations.

        We cannot remove our own actions from the disorder. Others are frightened of this and looking to move away from American “leadership” for just this reason. DC and its analysts are in a fantasy world.

      2. The vast majority of the equipment deployed by ISIS and Ukraine is, of course, not American. And you know it ;)

        But if only the US would assist Ukraine, in the face of illegal, fascist aggression from Russia.

        In reference to the article: well written but perhaps a little too late? This sort of irregular warfare has been developing for at least 10 years.

        However, the US (and NATO) shouldn’t necessarily abandon its conventional forces. The military often has a tendency to create doctrine to fight the last war and not prepare for the next. China is a growing threat to peace in SE China, as an example.

        The key to defeating unconventional and conventional threats is Intelligence. This is where the West should be investing more resources, irrespective of hysteria and hypocritical hand-wringing about Snowden and drones.

        1. As soon as I read your ‘fascist aggression from Russia’ I knew you were not here to exchange views but to distill propaganda. The fascists are in Kiev (that doesn’t mean the whole ukrainian government is fascist of course, just a part). By the way, the author could have add to this list the Maidan activists who made the putsch in february. They were urban warriors, trained and financed (guess by who ?) and employed warfare urban tactics.

          1. Germany was also lacking a fascist majority when Hitler took/accepted appointed governmental power. His organization had a hard fascist center like that of the (CIA selected and supported) Ukraine national forces, who are then filled out with propagandized, yet fearful conscripts. The impoverished Ukraine’s future alliance with Europe will see it suffer worse than either Spain or Greece. And Russia now boldly displays its military support of the separatist regions of Novorussia.

            Will the U.S./CIA push The Ukraine hard against an open Russian threat?

  1. I respectfully disagree that it is one of the first articles to discuss the connections – there have been others. In fact, none of this is new, especially for AfPak given the Kashmir and Punjab insurgencies and proxy wars.

    States have long levered what we now call non-state actors and the examples are multiple and there are robust literatures on such.

    But I remain fascinated with the American analyst community, its think tanks, and its strange habits and blind spots.

    I thank the author for this paper but it’s really not anything new, it’s circa 2009 CNAS. Knowledge and intellectual/moral fitness is key, not socially reengineering any military in any way.

    1. And I think the shared emotional cultures are interesting too, and the way social media and connected American analysts (not speaking of this author in particular) swim as if schools of fish, and think the same thoughts, and turn, flashing, like any school of fish, on social media this way and that.

      But where is true north? It must be very difficult to want to work in the policy area and have a true north.

  2. Let me begin by saying I deeply respect LTG Barno. That said, I have to disagree to some extent with his comments here. While the recent events described in his well-composed piece do seem to point to a new approach to warfare, a hybridized methodology that seeks to minimize traction in the news/information domain as much as possible in a highly connected world, the fact remains, in my humble opinion, that this isn’t new at all. Rather, the context from which we find ourselves emerging — 13 years of conventional and insurgency warfare of a more “classic” nature, coupled with a previous decade of conventional responses to a wide range of contingencies — has conditioned us to accept the last 20 years as “the way it is.”

    But it wasn’t always so. Prior to the ’90’s, America fought primarily in the shadows against proxy warriors, well-armed and well trained by their Soviet sponsors, who operated on the periphery of the ideological Cold War. From Iran to Guatemala, Cuba to Central America, Angola to Vietnam, the U.S. operated primarily in the shadows, on the cheap and out of view, to implement its strategy of containment such that this warfare would remain at a level which would fall just below the need for escalation from our Soviet counterparts. This is how Putin cut his teeth, so it’s no surprise he’s executing the current strategy in Georgia and Ukraine, with warning shots across the bow for Estonia and the Baltic states.

    What DOES make warfare today different from the proxy wars of yore is the ubiquitous presence of media, whether corporate or amateur through social networks, which immediately puts a face on any conflict, contextualizes it in the court of public opinion through a single image of a dying child, and immediately claims the high ground in the battle of the narrative. Who knows? Perhaps in some not-too-distant future information fatigue will render the current avalanche of images and text irrelevant to an increasingly apathetic population weary of the whipsaw of point/counterpoint. And it is for this reason I think the U.S. should continue to focus primarily on our strategic defense capabilities a-la Eisenhower, rather than chasing capabilities required to fight future enemies who will always have the initiative in their cultural and historical milieus.

    This strategy of monitoring, managing, and engaging with allies where necessary in small unit actions to contain or stifle instability antithetical to our important national interests, while investing in the strategic capabilities required to defend our vital national interests, is a path the U.S. can take to maintain the initiative. As during the Cold War, we can fight under the radar where we must to defend allies and critical resources, while at the same time fight a full-scale conventional or strategic resource conflict in defense of our vital national interests. Of course, this would require successive administrations to actually identify what the nation’s vital national interests are in concrete and unambiguous language, but that’s another screed for another day.

  3. LTG Barno makes some excellent points regarding the changing nature of warfare, but often stretches credulity with statements like, “The likelihood of heavy casualties ensuing among both the civilian population and the combatants in these types of campaigns is high.” Really? Compared to the wars of the 20th century? Casualties in current wars, civilian and combatant, are far lower than many individual battles of the 20th century. The Siege of Leningrad…approximately 1 million combat AND 1 million civilian casualties. The Battle of the Somme, ~1.2 million casualties. Verdun, Hiroshima, Berlin, & etc. Not all the changes we have seen are for the worse…we need to keep a historical context when we evaluate the changing nature of warfare.

    1. Excellent points. Give the lack of the energy for dying most people have, this will likely *lessen* the need for large amounts of conventional forces to take power (by force) in conflicted jurisdictions.

      You’d think the US would learn from this and begin reducing our global footprint, but that doesn’t seem to be in the War Party’s cards at this time.

  4. One of the interesting assesments of our efforts to project the future operating environment and the military capabilities required to wage war in these environments is that we have gotten it wrong most of the time. These think pieces come mainly from two groups; academics/policy wonks who have never done anything productive or experienced the nature of war in order to have some idea about its true character, and retired generals who sign on as fellows in think tanks and as with policy wonks and academmics-do no real work and get paid simply for these facile think pieces which prove to be wrong. In both examples, the primary service they provide is merely opinions for which they are rarely held accountable yet they garner great credibility because of their academeic or military credentials. In this regard they are much like journalists. Here we see see yet another wavetop glimpse into the future which has little new except a catchy title probably lifted from Robert B Asprey’s book “War in the Shaows.” Barno’s recommendations are too broad to chart a path forward because as with most policy recommendations from these two groups, implementation requires understanding details, and rolling up sleeves and doing hard mind numbing detailed work. Something these two groups of opinion sellers no longer know how or never were required to do.

  5. There must be a reason, Leibniz said, for everything. Yet a reason for omitting, like most other western media, that Ukraine is full of Buk SAMs is truly beyond me.
    Maybe that is because at heart, I am a trustworthy person who has had good experiences with WOTR. I can’t believe you do this on purpose.
    Being uninformed, too lazy to do the tiniest bit of research and thus, playing parrot? Ah well, reasons as good as any other.
    But on WOTR?
    Hard to believe. Please, explain?


  6. Fantastic and thoughtful comments by all. I especially like the part about hard work and rolling up one’s sleeves, intellectually speaking.

    Of course, that sort of detailed work usually tends toward a less interventionist and cautious, prudent course in most things.

    Understanding the world is hard work and plain old area studies and an old-fashioned humbler approach is more likely useful. I sometimes think it is a mistake to tell people to develop their own theory of war; better still to ask “why, why is this happening?”

    I agree too with the commenter about the strange blankness on WOTR regarding Ukraine. I am attributing it to the lassitude of summer. I like WOTR and its contributors but there is a “only half of the story” feel to much of the writing on Ukraine.

    The NATOist and Atlanticist community tends to get much less attention than other DC lobbies (and this is also a London, Brussels, etc. lobby) in terms of study but now would be the time to examine, “why did this happen?”

    PM’s resign in Ukraine and the weekly summary sends us to a piece by a well known 90’s proponent of expansion in a paper seeded with those of an aggressive Atlanticist bent. And fairly new Polish citizens, etc.

    I always feel a bit guilty about my Indian American pro-Indianness because I don’t think the US really needs to get so heavily involved in that part of the world but at least I can see it. If you have the right kind of roots, you never have to question why you are so heavily involved emotionally.

    Sorry, rambling :)

  7. On the last part, it’s a common complaint that some immigrant connections are more scrutinized than others, common among some diaspora writing. That’s all I meant. And as for the Polish citizen thing, I am only doing my ritual Washington Post complaining because I like to complain and because some of the FP writers – Kagans, Applebaums – seem so strange to me. Incredibly talented and bright, but so very strange. What a strange town.

  8. There is no transformation of war. War hasn’t changed, and those who think it has are missing the point.

    The US and other Western nations have failed recently not because they couldn’t adapt but because they didn’t understand principles that are thousands of years old (Sun Tzu has written about them).

    A few reasons for our failure are:
    -overreliance on technology over training
    -an incomplete understanding of the cultures and structures
    -a lack of sound strategy and coordination

    War didnt change.

  9. War is morphing? Iraq, Gaza, Vietnam, WWII, WWI. If your believe your military can do the job, that’s what you use. If you’re weaker (NVA, French Underground, Hamas), you adjust. We’re involved in places the same way England, the Byzantine empire, to the Romans were, if we think it’s in our interests, we’ll be there. Nothing ground breaking. What we should be doing is basing our commitment on the players involved. Our level of commitment to Afghanistan in the 1980’s is probably the best example we have. And if we were going to demolish a government as in Iraq, it probably would have been best to commit to it’s rehabilitation such as what we did after WWII. What the Iraqis were always worried about is what happens when we’re gone.