A New Generation of Unrestricted Warfare


In 1999, two Chinese colonels wrote a book called Unrestricted Warfare, about warfare in the age of globalization. Their main argument: Warfare in the modern world will no longer be primarily a struggle defined by military means — or even involve the military at all.

They were about a decade and a half before their time.

Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui argued that war was no longer about “using armed forces to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will” in the classic Clausewitzian sense. Rather, they asserted that war had evolved to “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” The barrier between soldiers and civilians would fundamentally be erased, because the battle would be everywhere. The number of new battlefields would be “virtually infinite,” and could include environmental warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, cultural warfare, and legal warfare, to name just a few. They wrote of assassinating financial speculators to safeguard a nation’s financial security, setting up slush funds to influence opponents’ legislatures and governments, and buying controlling shares of stocks to convert an adversary’s major television and newspapers outlets into tools of media warfare. According to the editor’s note, Qiao argued in a subsequent interview that “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” That vision clearly transcends any traditional notions of war.

Unrestricted Warfare was an explicit response to the reigning Western military orthodoxy of the time. The preface is dated January 17, 1999, which the authors note was the eighth anniversary of the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War. In many ways, their argument refuted many of the Western lessons drawn from that conflict: that wars could be short, sharp, and dominated by high-technology weaponry used with stunning precision to shatter an enemy’s armed forces in hours or days. By 1999, U.S. military thinking was dominated by the revolution in military affairs and network centric-warfare, which relied on advanced technologies to give the United States total battlefield dominance.

But Qiao and Wang argued that the battlefield had fundamentally changed. It was no longer a place where militaries met and fought; instead, society itself was now the battlefield. Future wars would inevitably encompass attacks on all elements of society without limits. Military battles resembling those of 1991 might become secondary elements of conflict — if they even occurred at all.

A lot has changed in the past 17 years. The United States has fought two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and weathered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, for example. But perhaps the most fundamental change to the way we live has been the explosive growth of the internet and our utter dependence on the cyber domain. When Qiao and Wang wrote their book, today’s cyber world was barely imaginable, and then only in the minds of visionaries and the most imaginative computer geeks. In 1999, AOL was still mailing those annoying cds with its software to every address in America, since almost three-quarters of American households did not have internet access the previous year.

Today, the United States, and increasingly the rest of the world, thoroughly depends on web connections built in cyberspace. The internet dominates all aspects of global trade, economics, communications, and even societies. And that makes Unrestricted Warfare even more relevant today than when it was published — because waging war without limits is now simpler and easier than even its authors could have envisioned. In 1999, the ability to assault all elements of an opponent’s society seemed to require the resources or sponsorship of a powerful nation state. Now, an increasingly interconnected world allows adversaries at keyboards — from states to terrorist groups to disgruntled citizens — to instantly vault oceans and continents to strike at any element of another nation and society without ever having to encounter defending military forces. A basement hacker in Sarajevo can target the City of London’s financial networks one moment and a Brazilian municipal power grid the next — and never change out of her pajamas.

The nation will always need military forces to defend against foreign military threats. But the U.S. armed forces — which remain the strongest and best-resourced in the world — provide virtually no defense against the cyber vulnerabilities that affect every American business and household. And the ever-expanding Internet of things (IoT) only increases those vulnerabilities. A very small example: One of your loyal Strategic Outpost columnists just joined the IoT by installing a Nest thermostat in her home. The next day, she woke up to a freezing house, and immediately wondered whether she’d already been hacked. One cold columnist does not signal a national security crisis, of course. But our massive and ever-growing national reliance upon the cyber domain fundamentally alters the nature of what must be defended for the nation to continue to function — and makes it far easier to conduct the type of unrestricted warfare that Qiao and Wang described 17 years ago.

These deep national and global vulnerabilities require us to think about conflict and warfare in a much more holistic way than ever before. We still think of warfare as primarily military in nature, channeling our 20th-century experience. But our adversaries can now bypass the military domain completely and can directly attack how we live our lives. And now, unlike in 1999, nearly anyone with a smart phone or laptop can join that fight.

In our inaugural Strategic Outpost column, we asked a provocative question: Is traditional warfare dead? Our conclusion today remains the same: No, it is not dead, but it is increasingly irrelevant for average Americans. The utility of military power is becoming increasingly limited, confined to foreign battlefields and directed against armed adversaries. In an age of unrestricted warfare, how will we protect our country and our increasingly cyber-centric way of life at home from those same adversaries who can attack and disrupt us without firing a shot? Against those who realize that they no longer need to build an army, navy, or air force to wage a potentially catastrophic war against the United States?

Seventeen years ago, Qiao and Wang warned us that these myriad new forms of non-military warfare were coming. Today we all now live on that battlefield — an unlimited zone of conflict that can reach each one of us in every aspect of our lives and work. The unconstrained notions of modern war articulated in Unrestricted Warfare have now arrived. Boundaries between soldiers and civilians, combatants and bystanders have all but disappeared in this dangerous new world. Providing effective national security in this unprecedented environment of mass exposure requires our policymakers to plan for unrestricted warfare. This growing and nearly boundless threat requires us to develop better policies, better deterrent capabilities, and far more developed defenses. We can’t wait for the first big attack of the next war to throw society into chaos — rethinking what war now means in our interconnected world demands the attention of our civilian and military leaders today.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.


Photo credit: Val Gempis, U.S. Air Force