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Irregular Warfare: Changing the Mindset of Traditional Military Operations

The United States has a long history engaging in a form of warfare that sought to erode adversaries’ power, influence and will, from the first colonial wars against the natives. We had not yet coined the term, Irregular Warfare (IW), but these ideas and tactics were unquestionably applied. This mode of warfare has been around in one way or another since wars were first waged, and it has become a centerpiece in military strategy today. The Pentagon and interagency elements have all recognized its critical role in today’s warfare and urged a more purposeful focus on IW in order to face the many challenges of competitors globally. Therefore, I write this article with the intention of defining, clarifying, and demystifying IW as well as offering a strategic focus as we move forward in this global environment. Please note that the aim of this blog is to discuss IW succinctly. When speaking at events or sitting on panels as a subject matter expert, I am able to elaborate and expand on the ideas presented in this blog. Feel free to email me to get a more detailed perspective. But for now, let's start with a basic question - what is IW?


“This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin — war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It requires in those situations where we must counter it…a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.” — President John F. Kennedy


Irregular warfare (IW) is defined in United States joint doctrine as "a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations."

Figure 1 illustrates the focus change between traditional warfare and IW. In traditional warfare, the emphasis is on combatant forces and the goal is to defeat the enemy and its government militarily. This is a type of conventional warfare where we aim to diminish our adversary’s military capability by out maneuvering them or attacking them directly. In IW, we see the focus shift away from military action and towards the community in which the conflict resides. Here, we seek either to gain support from the populous, or to weaken it in an effort to obtain control. The emphasis is on persuading, promoting or exhausting adversaries rather than defeating them by conventional warfare tactics.

IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s influence. It includes the specific missions of unconventional warfare (UW), stabilization, foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), and counterinsurgency (COIN). Related activities such as military information support operations, cyberspace operations, countering threat networks, counter-threat finance, civil-military operations, and security cooperation also shape the information environment and other population-focused arenas of conflict.

State adversaries and their proxies increasingly seek to prevail through their own use of IW. They pursue their own national objectives in the competitive space deliberately below the threshold likely to provoke a US conventional response. China, Russia, and Iran are willing practitioners of campaigns of disinformation, deception, sabotage, and economic coercion, as well as proxy, guerrilla, and covert operations.

This increasingly complex security environment suggests the need for a revised understanding of IW to account for its role as a component of great power competition (GPC). It is in this competitive space that the DOD must innovate. We must creatively mix our traditional combat power with proactive, dynamic, and unorthodox approaches to IW that can shape, prevent, and prevail against our nation’s adversaries and maintain favorable regional balances of power alongside our key partners and allies.


All wars are fought for political purposes, but the political element of IW permeates its conduct down to the lowest tactical level...Influencing governments and populations is a complex…activity. In IW, military leaders need to think politically as well as militarily—and their civilian counterparts need to think militarily as well as politically.

―Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept (11 Sep 2007)


IW requires unified action with our US interagency and multinational partners. Our competitors have operationalized clandestine criminal activity and predatory economic behavior as components of their own approach to IW. However, structural divisions limit our ability to respond to non-military aspects of adversarial competition. No single US Government department or agency has primacy in the prosecution of irregular conflict or adversarial competition. We cannot assume unified action will occur on its own. We must pursue it deliberately. (Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy. DOD 2020)

Often military leaders as well as interagency partners are confused by guidance given by doctrine or by leaders in the orders/planning process. We talk about multi domain operations, GPC, preparing for peer competitor conflict, and ensuring rapid deployment globally to deter aggressors. With finite resources, as well as limited training time, it is hard to put together how to task, organize, resource, and train for all of the different types of combat requirements.

A better way is to understand that everything falls under the umbrella of GPC. The overarching guidance today is to ensure that the US remains dominant in world affairs, ready to defend its interests anywhere on the globe against any enemy, and be prepared to safeguard our way of life here in the US.IW, Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) and Major Combat Operations (MCO) is a subset of GPC. Figure 2 is a Venn diagram that illustrates the types of operations that arise as conflict becomes more likely. This is a good measure of understanding the complexity from peace through full conflict operations.

IW is not only an appealing and helpful strategic doctrine, but it is also an essential part of military winning strategy. We have historic proof of this. The Romans established a great example of IW. The Roman Legion, after winning a battle militarily, would immediately repair the infrastructure it destroyed, rebuild the economy, and establish or improve the way of life for civilians. They rebuilt roads that led back to Rome for international trade, instituted a weights and balance system to improve the economy, established a Roman law for local governance, and improved agricultural techniques for the local people. These initiatives illustrate how the Romans understood not only the importance to win decisively in combat, but that it was equally critical to engage the locals and understand their cultural complexities to establish true success and ensure stability and peace long term. Alexander the Great was a master at this. Although he acted, at times, with such ferocity, his tactics also revealed his sensitivity to religious, cultural, and societal factors. He combined a grand strategy with the strategic, operational and tactical approaches. This versatility, this ability to engage directly and indirectly with the enemy, is what made him one of the most formidable generals of all time. These historical examples of masterful IW are still relevant in today’s global climate.

Lastly, I would like to underscore the importance of unified partnerships. Although priories may differ, a unified action requires the ability for partner nations, interagency organizations, and the military to work together under a cohesive plan. This unity begins prior to conflict in the understanding that embassies working to integrate country strategies should incorporate stability factors within their annex. We must ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What is the US doing to legitimize and influence the governance and population?

  2. What are our competitors or adversaries doing to legitimize or influence the governance and population in their favor?

IW is a critical component of modern US warfare. To be successful, we must educate on the necessity of this approach and its impacts. Most important is that the message and actions of our deeds are unified.

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Great Article. I agree with a lot that is said in this article. But with the Army now focusing on LSCO, Irregular warfare takes a back seat during all the Warfighter Exercises we have done. Over the past years we do not have Division and Corps Staff conduct or plan Phase 4 operations which is where the military along with Inter agency rebuild the infrastructure. Also with low SOF participation in Warfighter Exercises it is difficult to even test the IW Concept. We are now just scratching the service as to what Multi Domain Operations concept is. Anyone that has been deployed over the last 20 years knows we will not have a force on force war. It w…

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Please come out to Fort Leavenworth if you can. I think you should sit down with SEG formily known as OPS GP Juliet Commander of Operations Group (COG). Special Effect Group is composed of SOF, Information Advantage Division (IAD), and Unified Action Partners (UAP) (interagency role players). When we have a SOF Training Audience which is mayber two times a year, we provide the observer controller support/expertise with Augmentation to give feed back on the CJSOTF Staff or SOJTF Staff (1SFC). Warfighter exercises are developing to embrace MDO with LSCO and some flavor of IW (more specifically Decption, Cyber, STO, and Information warfare). We utilize SOF in the scenario wether we have a TA or not to shap…


Thanks for sharing. Never knew this existed, so thanks for the insight.

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Glad to have your on board John


Great article.


Good stuff, Tony! Hopefully someone is paying attention…

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Thanks Bob, We need your leadership to make sure they are!

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