What’s in a Name? Reimagining Irregular Warfare Activities for Competition

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“Irregular warfare” has an image problem. Artistic liberties in Hollywood and misadventures by former special operators cause “irregular warfare” to be conflated with either the highly kinetic exploits of elite units, or “little green men” attempting to overthrow fledgling dictators. Irregular warfare needs a new market strategy that shakes these misconceptions, or else an entire form of warfare may move to the sidelines in favor of focusing only on preparing for high-end war. Doing so would be a mistake and overlook irregular warfare’s potential value.

As part of a new market strategy, tailoring the lexicon to illustrate irregular warfare activities in competition below the threshold of armed conflict would more clearly demonstrate impact and disassociate irregular warfare from pervasive misunderstanding of its brand. After all, words matter in marketing and advertising campaigns. Comprehensively rebranding irregular warfare activities can show practitioners and policymakers that irregular warfare has relevance and significant potential in great-power competition.

Current Irregular Warfare Operations and Activities

Both the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy and the Defense Department’s current directive define irregular warfare as a struggle to influence populations and affect legitimacy. They identify five core missions within irregular warfare: unconventional warfare, stabilization, foreign internal defense, counter-terrorism, and counter-insurgency. These documents also describe six enabling activities for population-focused arenas including military information support operations, cyberspace operations, counter-threat networks, counter-threat finance, civil-military operations, and security cooperation.



Several of these terms are reactive, potentially redundant, or vague and opaque to a non-practitioner. The prevalence of “counter” implies tactical reactions to adversarial provocations or actions, while other terms fail to describe their substance and value proposition to broader strategy. Observers have noted the rhetorical challenge facing irregular warfare in contrast to traditional warfare, which places its activities at a disadvantage with unfamiliar audiences more used to the military role in wartime operations. Additionally, terms such as “military information support operations,” “cyberspace operations,” “civil-military operations,” and “security cooperation” do little more than assert that the military should operate in information, cyberspace, civil-military matters, and … security.

Relabeling the Missions

Alternate names for irregular warfare activities should address why these activities happen, and how the disparate operations support strategic outcomes. Practitioners and decision-makers alike could benefit from these distinctions. The former may see clearer opportunity to use irregular warfare approaches in competition, while the latter will better conceptualize additional opportunities to advance objectives short of high-end war.

From “Unconventional Warfare” to “Support to Resistance”

As a term, “unconventional warfare” begets misunderstandings of what it actually is, and sparks temptations to use the term as a catch-all for political warfare. Both issues detract from appreciating the impact of unconventional warfare at the strategic level, in particular, when competition is unfolding in gray-zone political environments. Existing joint force doctrine and public law define unconventional warfare as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power” through indigenous partners. Two important factors emerge: the enabling of resistance, against either a government or an occupying power.

“Support to resistance” more accurately describes the U.S. government’s activities that support indigenous partners confronting social, economic, political, and military subversion from internal and external threats — the activities that the unconventional warfare moniker covers. This term is steadily entering U.S. military doctrine and resonates with U.S. allies. Importantly, focusing on “resistance” accounts for enabling resistance efforts offensively, if needed, and defensively to support vulnerable partners and allies already facing subversive threats or potential hostilities.

Removing “warfare” from the term and emphasizing “resistance” in competition makes it easier to advocate for applying nonlethal tools proactively and before conflict occurs. Supporting resistance “left of bang” can produce outsized effects that influence populations and affect the legitimacy of partners and adversaries to America’s advantage. This conceptual shift also opens the door to new forms of access denial by introducing unconventional deterrence as a complement to traditional deterrence. “Support to resistance” integrates activities unique to special operations within a total defense construct and places them more clearly into a whole-of-society approach that imposes costs on adversaries’ malign behaviors and builds useful connectivity in the event of conflict. A focus on “support to resistance” will allow for more thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of these activities and any costs of inaction.

Shift From “Counter-Terrorism” to “Terrorism Disruption”

“Counter-terrorism” is too closely associated with the so-called forever wars that have dominated the past 19 years of doing business against extremist threats through kinetic actions. Shifting national priorities require rebalancing the counter-terrorism mission and a new, more resource-sustainable approach. Special operations forces and conventional counterparts should not feel trapped in the mindset or expectation that combating extremists through direct action is the only option.

“Terrorism disruption” signals changes to the status quo by including all activities available within the Defense Department to disrupt terrorist threats. This term focuses on the range of options intended to pursue terrorists and isolate their sources of strength and support — through both kinetic and non-kinetic tools — consistent with existing national strategy. “Terrorism disruption” becomes complementary to “terrorism prevention,” which already accounts for addressing radicalization and mobilization to violence. Reframing this term is more inclusive of what contributes to effective counter-terrorism and moves beyond an overreliance on aggressive direct action that has become associated with counter-terrorism.

Combine “Counter-Insurgency” and “Foreign Internal Defense” with “Resilience Against Subversion and Coercion”

Counter-insurgency” helped revitalize the joint force’s efforts to “cope with political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments” when Gen. David Petraeus introduced its use in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is a narrowly focused term. At the same time, “foreign internal defense” frequently invites confusion. As defined in doctrine, foreign internal defense entails military forces’ and civilian agencies’ support to host nation government activities that protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, violent extremism, and other threats. Put simply, counter-insurgency is a form of foreign internal defense involving direct U.S. military involvement against a violent insurgency. It is possible to consider counter-insurgency subordinate to foreign internal defense as a result.

“Resilience against subversion and coercion” identifies what the United States is competing against (an adversary’s subversion and coercion) and hopes to achieve (the resilience of the host/partner nation to overcome its adversaries’ destabilizing efforts) more thoroughly than “foreign internal defense.” This change effectively communicates how military involvement integrates into civil-military constructs where the Defense Department has a role, but not the exclusive responsibility. It becomes clearer to conceptualize the U.S. military’s ability to do more than build warfighting capacity alone, either directly against subversive and coercive threats on land or at sea, or in supporting advisory roles with host nation partners. Using irregular warfare in this way would advance U.S. objectives by promoting territorial defense concepts well before conflict.

From “Stabilization” to “Security Restoration”

The high costs of large-scale “stabilization” missions have created scar tissue and aversion to a military role in “nation-building,” which cause many to advocate for abandoning stabilization as a military mission. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it is imperative to revisit what the military is asked to do in “stabilization”: help establish order among a vulnerable population in support of a wider interagency and political mission to secure U.S. security and economic interests through conflict prevention and resolution. Broader political and strategic implications require the Defense Department to keep the capability to provide security in a conflict area, but scoping the military’s involvement would be helpful for all concerned.

“Security restoration” intentionally does not consider the full range of activities required to stabilize a fragile nation and restore governance, nor should it. Despite aversion to nation-building as “Sisyphean labor doomed to fail,” strong partnerships and security force assistance missions can strengthen fragile states’ militaries, allowing host nations to establish the conditions necessary for peace and outcomes favorable to the United States. Tweaking the emphasis of this activity away from outright rebuilding a nation and confining the military’s role strictly to the security situation more adequately links the military mission with the security environment without additional missions creeping in. “Security restoration” is essential to give time and space for diplomats and development experts to find long-term solutions for a conflict’s underlying challenges.

Replace “Military Information Support Operations” with “Military Information and Influence Operations”

The art of providing selected information to influence foreign audiences has faced a terminology tugofwar between “military information support operations” and “psychological operations” over the past decade. The Army’s 2017 decision to restore the “psychological operations” designator for its information operations formations suggests the naming dispute is not over. Regardless, the military correctly sees a role in the information environment, even if there is no descriptor that garners consensus.

“Military information and influence operations” is a slight pivot but may satisfy concerns from advocates of “psychological operations” that the existing term is banal and pointless. The emphasis on “influence” calls attention toward the deliberate use of information operations to affect emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and behaviors, without the association of “psychological” with misleading “propaganda, brainwashing, manipulation, and deceit.” Maintaining “military” is important to encapsulate the range of Defense Department communications activities for foreign audiences — including influence operations as well as public affairs and support to public diplomacy — and differentiate from similar activities undertaken by the State Department and intelligence community.

This new term offers both offensive and defensive connotations, emphasizing the ability to either proactively shape the narrative or combat adversarial propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation. “Military information and influence operations” demonstrates the military role in supporting communications strategies and priorities to shape relevant discourse to advance U.S. interests. Blending information and influence in this way can bolster the legitimacy of U.S. efforts; reassure partners and allies; adjust adversary decision-making; and when required, target an adversary’s political processes to foment internal dissent — all in order to generate and secure the influence needed to remain in a favorable position.

What would this mean for “cyberspace operations” as an irregular warfare activity? Get rid of it. Information and influence operations occur through numerous media. “Cyberspace” is an operating environment, and “cyberspace operations” only indicates that the military should operate there — the specifics reside elsewhere, and the term becomes irrelevant. Other cyber-centric activities are not “irregular” warfare, including conventional use of cyber to target adversary networks or disrupt command and control nodes, or defensive operations that secure U.S. data and networks from attack, and do not fit with the rest of “military information and influence operations.”

Blend “Counter-Threat Networks” and “Counter-Threat Finance” Into “Malign Network Disruption”

Counter-threat networks” and its money-focused counterpart, “counter-threat finance,” are underutilized and face challenges in conveying the impact these activities can have in great-power competition. Their origins from “attack the network” and similar targeting methodologies over years of fighting insurgencies and threat networks in Iraq and Afghanistan may bias planners to think of these tools only for combating terrorists, counter-narcotics, and counter-transnational organized crime. The joint publication for counter-threat networks only briefly considers its application beyond conflict zones, but a closer read shows significant opportunities to use these tools and skill sets proactively to put threat networks on the defensive and impose costs on their activities.

It could make sense to demonstrate maximum impact for both activities by consolidating them under an all-encompassing term, and fold counter-threat finance’s unique financial considerations into a new label that includes counter-threat networks. As part of a broader approach in competition, using these activities against malign actors including state proxies, state-owned enterprises, and corrupt power-brokers has potential as a form of access denial that creates dilemmas for state-sponsored irregular adversaries’ logistics and operations processes.

“Malign network disruption” revitalizes counter-threat networks and counter-threat finance, and adapts them for competition with state actors and their proxies. As one example, the CARVER (criticality, accessibility, recuperability, vulnerability, effect, and recognizability) methodology provides clear targeting prioritization that the Defense Department could use to proactively challenge adversaries, illuminate their malign activities, and enable “finish” solutions for interagency or foreign partners and allies to take. Disrupting malign networks in competition would enhance sanctions enforcement and impose costs on individuals and organizations seeking to subvert existing international laws and norms at a state’s behest. These tool sets provide means for combatant commanders to shape the strategic environment and deter adversaries at lower cost, and gives decision-makers an expanded range of options to replace or complement other measures short of war.

Merge “Civil-Military Operations” and “Security Cooperation” Into “Security Partner Engagement”

Civil-military operations and security cooperation are similar, but each term contains ambiguity that prevents non-practitioners from fully understanding how they fit in competition. For example, “civil-military operations” risks confusion with “civil-military relations,” the study of the dynamic between the military and civil society writ large. As a term, “security cooperation” is broad enough to encompass virtually anything involving a partner.

Both activities specifically emphasize the use of military forces to establish, maintain, influence, and leverage security relationships through increased defense interactions. Recent history exemplified the importance of non-standard (i.e., non-military) security partners to consolidate strategic gains, and the ability to manage complex and non-traditional security relationships could yield even greater impact in great-power competition. Concerted security engagements before conflict help align U.S. efforts with allies and partners, provide invaluable access and placement in event of crisis, and facilitate U.S. campaign and contingency plans. Both conventional forces and special operators are capable of engaging partners and allies to not only increase interoperability, but also enhance U.S. influence, as a low-cost contribution in competition below armed conflict.

“Security partner engagement” acknowledges the importance of security partnerships and ensuring that regular engagements will secure U.S. influence and preserve the United States as the preferred partner of choice. This terminology adapts U.S. Cyber Command’s concept of “persistent engagement,” where regular engagement helps to get ahead of problems and forestall opponents’ abilities to gain advantage. Applying this logic to civil-military security engagements acknowledges that the influence and advantages afforded by a deep network of security partners are neither predetermined nor indefinite, and require concerted effort to deter opponents that seek to make headway or generate fissures among partners and allies. Reshaping “security partner engagement” in this fashion could account for one way that the department operationalizes its Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships, which looks to maintain and sustain this asymmetric advantage in all stages of competition.

A Brand-New Look

These seven redefined operations illustrate clear activities and outcomes that irregular warfare approaches can provide throughout all stages of competition, by conventional and special operations forces alike. The new terms clarify ways that conducting irregular warfare influences populations and affects legitimacy, and distinguish irregular warfare from being exclusively reactive or limited to non-state actors. More importantly, these revised names should make it easier for the Defense Department to envision irregular warfare’s contributions to competition short of armed conflict, for interagency and legislative counterparts to appreciate it as well, and for policymakers to understand this valuable tool set at America’s disposal in strategic competition.



Kevin Bilms is a career Department of Defense civilian serving in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Prior to this assignment, he served as the senior policy adviser for counter-terrorism and transnational threats at the National Security Council.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not represent the official position(s) of the Department of Defense, the U.S. military, or the U.S. government. He would like to thank Ms. Erin Moffitt, Col. Matt “Bass” Bartlett, Lt. Col. Nick Challen, and Maj. Steve Ferenzi for valuable feedback on earlier versions of this article.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Pfc. Gao Zong Lee)