.
T

he United States finds itself in a decidedly uncomfortable position. After 20 years of “low intensity” warfare and counterinsurgency, the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq are at an end, and America’s involvement in the fight against Islamist extremism is—and will continue to take (recent developments not withstanding)—a back seat to the return of great power competition. Here, Russia, China, and Iran, are presenting novel challenges to America’s military primacy. Yet, despite the many panel discussions and debates about whether these challenges are hybrid, gray zone, or some other lexical permutation, the United States has yet to fully appreciate just how significant the irregular warfare challenge is to the very conception of American war. 

Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare | Dr. Seth G. Jones | W.W. Norton | September 2021.

Seth G. Jones, the director of the International Security Program, and of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for the Strategic and International Studies offers a fascinating view into how Russia, Iran, and China are seeking to counter American primacy and military dominance in his forthcoming book (an advanced copy of which W.W. Norton kindly provided for review), “Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare.” 

Jones tells this story not directly, himself, but through three leading figures from America’s adversaries: General Valery Gerasimov (the Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces), Qasem Soleimani (the former commander of Iran’s Qods Force, killed in January 2020), and Zhang Youxia (China’s Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission). Rather than attempt to divine some master or grand strategy—the mythical Gerasimov doctrine, for example—Jones allows the words of the generals to speak for themselves and sit within their appropriate context, and this is perhaps the book’s greatest strength and contribution to the discussion of present and future of irregular warfare. 

Irregular warfare is the most fitting concept of the conflict environment facing the United States. It differs from regular or “conventional” warfare—the tanks, bombers, and artillery that defined industrial era conflicts, and it is characterized by unconventional strategies and tactics, using deniable or proxy forces, waging cyber and information warfare, conducting economic espionage and lawfare in what could largely be seen as peacetime conditions. 

Jones explores how each country in turn looked at American successes (and failures) and geopolitical developments, and juxtaposed these against their own strengths and interests—the foundation of any strategy. American high-tech victory in Desert Storm; Air Power interventions in the Balkans and Libya; and the early wins begetting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan—all informed their analyses. At the same time the Arab Spring revolutions, advancements in technology, and changing global dynamics all challenged their perspectives and assumptions.

Indeed, in Jones’ telling, Russia views the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring not as organic reactions to local conditions, but as American hybrid warfare in action. Moreover, Russia sees the information sphere as the main battlefield, with everything subordinate to that—why fight when you can persuade your adversary to pursue or avoid a course of action entirely and use force only when necessary? 

Soleimani knew Iran could not stand toe-to-toe with the United States, but also, why should it? Rather, Tehran sought to increase the cost of operations in Iraq while simultaneously coopting the Iraqi political system and use proxies in Yemen and Lebanon to destabilize the regional dynamics of the Middle East. 

China seeks, in Jones’ analysis, not kinetic war, but to avoid direct conflict in favor of the “three warfares”—strategic psychological operations, overt and covert media manipulation, and exploitation of national and international legal systems. Outright kinetic warfare would be wholly detrimental to the Chinese Communist Party’s long-term stability and interests, and for now, it seeks to avoid direct battle.

Ironically, the resulting picture presented by Jones here is markedly simpler than current debates on hybrid war or any of its other analogues suggest. What America’s adversaries are doing is, in reality, nothing out of the ordinary, even if we don’t see it that way. 

At its core, what America’s adversaries are doing remains very Clauswitzian—war is the continuation of politics by other means, but the goal is less compelling the adversary to do one’s will via kinetic action alone, so much as achieving a political outcome—be it instability, conflict avoidance, or any other inherently political goals via all available means. War remains war, albeit with a broader range of tools and techniques than America has, hitherto, understood it to involve.

It is clear from Jones’ writing, that America’s understanding of war is too limiting for this new environment. While there have been doctrinal evolutions, America’s understanding of what war is and what it involves remains perilously tied to the industrial era conception of war. Rather than a short, but intense, burst of kinetic action, Russia, Iran, and China are seeking to draw the conflict out, sap America’s will to fight, and reshape the battlefield by actions that are below the level of what Washington would consider war. By the time policymakers recognize the new reality, it will be too late. 

At the same time, the Pentagon reflexively clings to concepts of large battle and kit, be it tanks or 5th generation fighters. And while this is both necessary and expected—the threat of high-intensity warfare will never fully evaporate. The political class’ understanding of irregular war and the necessary marshalling of resources to confront this challenge has not kept pace. 

This is a deeply uncomfortable reality for Western conceptions of war and peace. The West is conditioned to see a frontline however blurred it may be. It expects conflict to be “over there” and not taking place in the media, be it social or traditional, or taking place in international institutions via norm and standard setting. The United States in particular, divorces conflict from business, despite business being a vehicle for contemporary conflict be it cornering the 5G market, buying up rare Earth minerals, or controlling ports via long-term development deals.

In the end, Jones is, perhaps, too polite to be as candid as he or his book could be. The simple reality is that America’s adversaries are under no obligation to play by America’s rules or by its playbook. Russia, China, and Iran all have looked at how America wages war, seen its overwhelming superiority in a conventional fight (as well as its struggles in decidedly unconventional conflicts), and decided that it will simply wage war in a different way. 

Why would Moscow seek to do battle on the plains of northern Europe when such a conflict would almost certainly result in a nuclear exchange and it could achieve the same destabilizing ends through information warfare? Why would Tehran deploy the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for a direct engagement with Saudi Arabia when it is cheaper, easier, and deniable to leverage proxies in Yemen and Iraq? Why would Beijing halt its literal expansionist foreign policy, establishing new islands and territories in disputed waters, when Washington has yet to object or push back in any meaningful way?

Jones’ book is exceptionally timely and joins a number of recent books that seek to explore strategic competition and its application. Arash Aziz masterful biography of Soleimani, “The Shadow Commander”, adds a great deal of context to Jones’ analysis. Mark Galeotti’s monograph “Russian Political Warfare: Moving Beyond the Hybrid” and Ofer Fridman’s “Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence & Politicization” offer deeper dives into how Russia views its strategic position and irregular warfare. Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order” provides the most coherent analysis of the application of the tenets Jones outlines in recent years. 

The recommendations in “Three Dangerous Men” are sensible, if a touch tame. Defining America’s interests and principles, understanding the perspectives of America’s adversaries, expanding Washington’s communication with the external world, highlighting the contradictions and misbehaviors of strategic competitors, and partnering with allies and like-minded countries are all very rational and workable recommendations. 

Yet, these don’t fundamentally change the way America wages irregular warfare; it’s merely an updating of the Cold War playbook for a decidedly changed geopolitical and technological environment. America’s soft power is not what it once was and policy statements, communiques, and messages from Washington are almost certain to meet incredulity and suspicion—America’s word just isn’t what it once was. Moreover, the information environment has become so saturated with mis- and disinformation, propaganda, fake news, and more, that it is exceptionally difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.  

Where Jones could have added more was first in the need for America’s national security apparatus to become more flexible, adaptable, and resilient in the face of changing circumstances. Here, America’s military needs to be able to wage both conventional and irregular warfare in equal measures, but not become a doctrinal slave to either. Adaptation in war must become the defining feature of America’s military—a point hammered home most recently by Lt Gen David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel in their excellent study of the subject “Adaptation in War”. The Intelligence Community, too, must dust off the Cold War playbook, update it for the 21st Century, and go on the offensive—the War on Terror has dominated its focus for too long.

Second, and concomitantly, there must be a new whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach to the challenge of irregular warfare. This means leveraging every tool of American power toward the ends of pushing back on political, legal, and economic warfare. The U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments are as much on this new “front line”, and so too is our private sector, legal system, and academia. The latter three, too often, have financial interests aligned with Beijing’s aims, which must be addressed in order to be truly effective. 

Confronting the irregular warfare challenge presented by Russia, Iran, and China means understanding how they view warfare—or better yet, conflict and competition between states—in their own words, while not being doctrinally or ideologically rigid in response. We cannot fight the wars of today and tomorrow with yesterday’s strategy and doctrine and expect to win. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

The Growing Threat of Irregular Warfare

Image via Thinkstockphotos.

September 3, 2021

Joshua Huminski reviews Dr. Seth Jones' upcoming book "Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare," which discusses the challenges the US faces in shifting its strategic focus from counterinsurgencies to great power competition featuring irregular warfare.

T

he United States finds itself in a decidedly uncomfortable position. After 20 years of “low intensity” warfare and counterinsurgency, the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq are at an end, and America’s involvement in the fight against Islamist extremism is—and will continue to take (recent developments not withstanding)—a back seat to the return of great power competition. Here, Russia, China, and Iran, are presenting novel challenges to America’s military primacy. Yet, despite the many panel discussions and debates about whether these challenges are hybrid, gray zone, or some other lexical permutation, the United States has yet to fully appreciate just how significant the irregular warfare challenge is to the very conception of American war. 

Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare | Dr. Seth G. Jones | W.W. Norton | September 2021.

Seth G. Jones, the director of the International Security Program, and of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for the Strategic and International Studies offers a fascinating view into how Russia, Iran, and China are seeking to counter American primacy and military dominance in his forthcoming book (an advanced copy of which W.W. Norton kindly provided for review), “Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare.” 

Jones tells this story not directly, himself, but through three leading figures from America’s adversaries: General Valery Gerasimov (the Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces), Qasem Soleimani (the former commander of Iran’s Qods Force, killed in January 2020), and Zhang Youxia (China’s Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission). Rather than attempt to divine some master or grand strategy—the mythical Gerasimov doctrine, for example—Jones allows the words of the generals to speak for themselves and sit within their appropriate context, and this is perhaps the book’s greatest strength and contribution to the discussion of present and future of irregular warfare. 

Irregular warfare is the most fitting concept of the conflict environment facing the United States. It differs from regular or “conventional” warfare—the tanks, bombers, and artillery that defined industrial era conflicts, and it is characterized by unconventional strategies and tactics, using deniable or proxy forces, waging cyber and information warfare, conducting economic espionage and lawfare in what could largely be seen as peacetime conditions. 

Jones explores how each country in turn looked at American successes (and failures) and geopolitical developments, and juxtaposed these against their own strengths and interests—the foundation of any strategy. American high-tech victory in Desert Storm; Air Power interventions in the Balkans and Libya; and the early wins begetting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan—all informed their analyses. At the same time the Arab Spring revolutions, advancements in technology, and changing global dynamics all challenged their perspectives and assumptions.

Indeed, in Jones’ telling, Russia views the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring not as organic reactions to local conditions, but as American hybrid warfare in action. Moreover, Russia sees the information sphere as the main battlefield, with everything subordinate to that—why fight when you can persuade your adversary to pursue or avoid a course of action entirely and use force only when necessary? 

Soleimani knew Iran could not stand toe-to-toe with the United States, but also, why should it? Rather, Tehran sought to increase the cost of operations in Iraq while simultaneously coopting the Iraqi political system and use proxies in Yemen and Lebanon to destabilize the regional dynamics of the Middle East. 

China seeks, in Jones’ analysis, not kinetic war, but to avoid direct conflict in favor of the “three warfares”—strategic psychological operations, overt and covert media manipulation, and exploitation of national and international legal systems. Outright kinetic warfare would be wholly detrimental to the Chinese Communist Party’s long-term stability and interests, and for now, it seeks to avoid direct battle.

Ironically, the resulting picture presented by Jones here is markedly simpler than current debates on hybrid war or any of its other analogues suggest. What America’s adversaries are doing is, in reality, nothing out of the ordinary, even if we don’t see it that way. 

At its core, what America’s adversaries are doing remains very Clauswitzian—war is the continuation of politics by other means, but the goal is less compelling the adversary to do one’s will via kinetic action alone, so much as achieving a political outcome—be it instability, conflict avoidance, or any other inherently political goals via all available means. War remains war, albeit with a broader range of tools and techniques than America has, hitherto, understood it to involve.

It is clear from Jones’ writing, that America’s understanding of war is too limiting for this new environment. While there have been doctrinal evolutions, America’s understanding of what war is and what it involves remains perilously tied to the industrial era conception of war. Rather than a short, but intense, burst of kinetic action, Russia, Iran, and China are seeking to draw the conflict out, sap America’s will to fight, and reshape the battlefield by actions that are below the level of what Washington would consider war. By the time policymakers recognize the new reality, it will be too late. 

At the same time, the Pentagon reflexively clings to concepts of large battle and kit, be it tanks or 5th generation fighters. And while this is both necessary and expected—the threat of high-intensity warfare will never fully evaporate. The political class’ understanding of irregular war and the necessary marshalling of resources to confront this challenge has not kept pace. 

This is a deeply uncomfortable reality for Western conceptions of war and peace. The West is conditioned to see a frontline however blurred it may be. It expects conflict to be “over there” and not taking place in the media, be it social or traditional, or taking place in international institutions via norm and standard setting. The United States in particular, divorces conflict from business, despite business being a vehicle for contemporary conflict be it cornering the 5G market, buying up rare Earth minerals, or controlling ports via long-term development deals.

In the end, Jones is, perhaps, too polite to be as candid as he or his book could be. The simple reality is that America’s adversaries are under no obligation to play by America’s rules or by its playbook. Russia, China, and Iran all have looked at how America wages war, seen its overwhelming superiority in a conventional fight (as well as its struggles in decidedly unconventional conflicts), and decided that it will simply wage war in a different way. 

Why would Moscow seek to do battle on the plains of northern Europe when such a conflict would almost certainly result in a nuclear exchange and it could achieve the same destabilizing ends through information warfare? Why would Tehran deploy the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for a direct engagement with Saudi Arabia when it is cheaper, easier, and deniable to leverage proxies in Yemen and Iraq? Why would Beijing halt its literal expansionist foreign policy, establishing new islands and territories in disputed waters, when Washington has yet to object or push back in any meaningful way?

Jones’ book is exceptionally timely and joins a number of recent books that seek to explore strategic competition and its application. Arash Aziz masterful biography of Soleimani, “The Shadow Commander”, adds a great deal of context to Jones’ analysis. Mark Galeotti’s monograph “Russian Political Warfare: Moving Beyond the Hybrid” and Ofer Fridman’s “Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence & Politicization” offer deeper dives into how Russia views its strategic position and irregular warfare. Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order” provides the most coherent analysis of the application of the tenets Jones outlines in recent years. 

The recommendations in “Three Dangerous Men” are sensible, if a touch tame. Defining America’s interests and principles, understanding the perspectives of America’s adversaries, expanding Washington’s communication with the external world, highlighting the contradictions and misbehaviors of strategic competitors, and partnering with allies and like-minded countries are all very rational and workable recommendations. 

Yet, these don’t fundamentally change the way America wages irregular warfare; it’s merely an updating of the Cold War playbook for a decidedly changed geopolitical and technological environment. America’s soft power is not what it once was and policy statements, communiques, and messages from Washington are almost certain to meet incredulity and suspicion—America’s word just isn’t what it once was. Moreover, the information environment has become so saturated with mis- and disinformation, propaganda, fake news, and more, that it is exceptionally difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.  

Where Jones could have added more was first in the need for America’s national security apparatus to become more flexible, adaptable, and resilient in the face of changing circumstances. Here, America’s military needs to be able to wage both conventional and irregular warfare in equal measures, but not become a doctrinal slave to either. Adaptation in war must become the defining feature of America’s military—a point hammered home most recently by Lt Gen David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel in their excellent study of the subject “Adaptation in War”. The Intelligence Community, too, must dust off the Cold War playbook, update it for the 21st Century, and go on the offensive—the War on Terror has dominated its focus for too long.

Second, and concomitantly, there must be a new whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach to the challenge of irregular warfare. This means leveraging every tool of American power toward the ends of pushing back on political, legal, and economic warfare. The U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments are as much on this new “front line”, and so too is our private sector, legal system, and academia. The latter three, too often, have financial interests aligned with Beijing’s aims, which must be addressed in order to be truly effective. 

Confronting the irregular warfare challenge presented by Russia, Iran, and China means understanding how they view warfare—or better yet, conflict and competition between states—in their own words, while not being doctrinally or ideologically rigid in response. We cannot fight the wars of today and tomorrow with yesterday’s strategy and doctrine and expect to win. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.