This article is part of the contribution made by the US Army War College to the series “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of the Competition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the series here.

Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.

On April 29, 2021, cyber hackers broke into the networks of the US Colonial Pipeline system through a compromised VPN account and installed ransomware, effectively shutting down the largest fuel pipeline in the United States a week later. In the following days, US citizens up and down the Eastern Seaboard waited in hours-long lines, fearing that gasoline supplies would run out. Panic buying actually resulted in some states nearly running out of fuel before executives paid the ransom, ending the crisis. A postmortem investigation of the incident tied the attack to individuals from the “ransomware as a service” group Darkside, who reportedly resided in Russia and had ties to the Russian government, intelligence services, or the military.

This attack, which was perpetrated by a near-peer adversary but with a degree of plausible deniability, directly targeted the American public with the goal of achieving a strategic effect. It demonstrates that the United States and its allies are in an age of strategic competition with a range of actors, including near-peer adversaries, rogue states that do not conform to international laws and norms, as well as nonstate actors who seek to challenge the status quo. These strategic competitors leverage a wide variety of means below the threshold of armed conflict, including cyber activities, to provoke the United States and offset its conventional military capabilities.

This dynamic is identified in the 2020 Irregular Warfare (IW) Annex to the 2018 US National Defense Strategy:

As we seek to rebuild our own lethality in traditional warfare, our adversaries will become more likely to emphasize irregular approaches in their competitive strategies to negate our advantages and exploit our disadvantages. Their intent will be to achieve their objectives without resorting to direct armed conflict against the United States, or to buy time until they are better postured to challenge us directly.

Our adversaries, in other words, understand the need to use IW to offset US conventional capabilities and compete at the strategic level. Greater US lethality and conventional overmatch will not counter their asymmetric approach—in fact, it is likely to only increase our adversaries’ use of irregular approaches, a point that is echoed in a 2019 CSIS report on the gray zone, in which the authors argue that “the United States is being confronted with the liabilities of its strength.” Given our competitors’ use of IW to shape the security environment in their favor, teaching IW in professional military education (PME) will help prepare the militaries of the United States and its allies for long-term engagement in strategic competition.

IW and Strategic Competition

Considerable confusion exists among academics, policymakers and military practitioners over what IW is, especially at the strategic level. The principal goal of IW is to create and leverage influence over key populations to achieve strategic effects in the security environment. Actors use a range of instruments that, when properly employed, build influence in target populations and shape their behavior. In IW, a country’s military is just one tool it can use to build influence. State and nonstate actors have other instruments, including economic tools, narratives and other forms of information, and bargaining and negotiations, to name a few. Likewise, kinetic activity—the use of force—is just one option the military can use to influence relevant populations. Militaries can also influence populations by providing aid and assistance, through defense cooperation agreements, and by working by, with, and through other militaries in exercises and other activities. Put another way, IW is about employing a mix of resources and activities designed to influence relevant populations for a strategic effect.

The current draft of Joint Publication 1, Volume 1, Joint Warfighting echoes the goal of IW as influence. It defines IW as “a struggle among state or nonstate actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy [of a government or occupying power].” The draft further describes that “IW includes a political struggle for legitimacy and influence through means other than military domination over an adversary or enemy,” and “IW may be between nations, state and nonstate actors, or nonstate actors with no state involvement.”

Conventional Overmatch vs. Irregular Activities

While the United States continues to refocus heavily on conventional overmatch with its near-peer competitors, state and nonstate actors are currently using a range of activities to influence relevant populations and undermine our conventional military capabilities, including information operations, cyber warfare, proxy battles, the use of private military companies (PMCs) and economic incentives and coercion.

Russia and China, for example, have prioritized the human domain—including what humans think, how they act, and what they create—to effectively use information as a weapon to influence key populations and offset conventional capabilities in contested areas. A recent Modern War Institute article argues “…that the human domain is increasingly attracting adversary attention and gaining importance within the context of great power competition—especially for Russia and China over the last decade, which have recognized that the United States does not have an information or human domain grand strategy and has struggled to adapt to this domain.” The authors conclude that “we ignore the human domain and information warfare at our own peril.”

Several countries also have made use of proxy forces, PMCs, and individuals to indirectly target key populations and provide persistent deniability of their involvement in various conflicts. Iran, for example, has used Kata’ib Hizballah to target US forces in Iraq while maintaining a degree of deniability. Iran has also used the Lebanese group Hizballah to exert influence among critical Shia populations in the Middle East and beyond. The Russian PMC Wagner Group has appeared in conflicts ranging from Ukraine to Syria to Mali, providing a range of services, all while legally maintaining independence from the Russian government. Chinese PMCs in Africa have provided security to China’s infrastructure programs as part of its Belt and Road initiative, allowing the Chinese government to maintain its stated policy of noninterference in these countries. And both state and nonstate actors have used individuals to perpetrate cyberattacks on the United States and its allies, including on infrastructure and other targets that directly affect and influence their citizens. The 2021 ransomware attack on the US Colonial Pipeline, mentioned above, is one such example.

The use of economic incentives and development have even become a critical tool of IW. China’s Belt and Road initiative aims to use infrastructure development, loans, information technologies, and other economic incentives to build “a community of common destiny with mankind.” Patrick Cronin argues that the United States and its allies need to “asymmetrically” compete with China to offset this influence, meaning that military posturing in the US Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility alone will not counter China’s strategic influence. He argues, “But even more than new military investments, the United States needs to revitalize its ability to shape the regional order using diplomatic and economic instruments of power.”

Finally, threats posed to regional stability and international security by nonstate actors are still a key concern to the United States and its allies. A 2016 document released by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Operating Environment 2035, identifies “violent ideological competition” as a key concern in the current and future security environment, which it defines as “irreconcilable ideas communicated and promoted by identity networks through violence.” As the unclassified 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community asserts, nonstate actors like ISIS and al-Qaeda have not gone away and continue to exert a disrupting influence in North Africa and the Sahel, South Asia, Syria and Iraq, and Southeast Asia, as have newly emerging antigovernment movements in North America, Europe, and beyond. The United States and its allies and partners will continue to confront these ideologically motivated groups and need to identify strategies that undermine their influence with vulnerable populations.

Teaching IW for Strategic Competition

Our competitors use a range of instruments and activities to influence key populations and shape the strategic environment, which requires us to adopt new ways of thinking to effectively counter these challenges to global security. Teaching IW principles, concepts, and activities in PME will help prepare the militaries of the United States and its allies to better address the complexity of the current security environment and prepare for long-term influence operations in strategic competition.

First and foremost, PME at all levels needs to instill an IW mindset to prepare officers for strategic competition, specifically how to influence relevant populations and actors with an array of tools and through a range of activities. Critically, the US military has more tools of influence than the threat and use of force. The military can also be used to build relationships with key populations, including other militaries, and be an example of US intentions and goodwill. PME should focus more on a range of influence activities that the military can perform, and its critical role as an instrument of what Joseph Nye calls “soft power,” or a nation’s ability to attract or persuade. Put another way, the military is not solely “hard power,” and the other instruments of statecraft “soft,” because one uses force and the others do not; the way these instruments are employed is what makes them hard or soft. The US military’s job is not to just “kill people and break things,” as some have argued, but to shape the security environment in the United States’ favor and to defend the homeland. The US military needs to understand how it can employ soft power that influences and persuades in the strategic environment as well as the conditions under which the military’s use of hard power is needed.

Second, alongside a focus on the role of influence in strategic competition, PME needs to have a much greater emphasis on the other instruments of statecraft and a whole-of-government approach. PME at all levels should spend more time teaching officers about the other instruments of power, their employment in strategic competition, and the military’s subordination as an instrument of statecraft at the strategic level. At the senior level, PME classrooms should include more individuals who wield these other instruments of national power. Among the US military’s senior PME institutions, the US National War College has the best ratio with 59 percent of the student body from the US military and 41 percent made up of nonmilitary US government personnel and international fellows. More is needed. All PME institutions should work to include more curricula on the other instruments of national power as well as students who understand and use these instruments as strategic influence.

Third, PME needs to teach the why and how to of relationship building for the US military. Today’s complex and interconnected global security environment requires allies and partners; the US government and the US military cannot go it alone and expect to have lasting influence on relevant populations and to shape the security environment in its favor. The US military needs to better understand how to work “by, with, and through” its allies and partners, to borrow a special operations forces tagline. Allies and partners are not subordinates; they are equals that bring their own set of expertise and priorities to the relationship. PME needs to teach the fundamentals of relationship building and maintenance, including better listening skills, negotiation, compromise, leadership sharing, humility, and an understanding of allies’ and partners’ needs and priorities.

Fourth, PME needs to teach complex problem management as opposed to problem solving. There are no easy fixes in strategic competition and language that seeks out a decisive battle or culminating point will continue to result in failures at the strategic level. Our near-peer competitors are unlikely to go away anytime soon, nor are rogue states and even the nonstate actors we are fighting. PME needs to teach how to manage complexity with no clear end point on the horizon. As importantly, PME needs to teach officers how to measure effectiveness in a world where building and maintaining influence is paramount. Measuring influence is considerably more difficult than assessing highly measurable effects like bombing targets or other kinetic activity.

Within complex problem management, PME needs to teach a more nuanced understanding of victory. Enduring competition has few decisive victories. The US military’s infatuation with the large-scale military operations of World War II and Operation Desert Storm that resulted in a decisive defeat of the adversary followed by a ticker-tape parade is not the world we live in today. PME needs to better prepare officers for thinking about how to shape the security environment in the United States’ favor and pursue incremental gains over time, as opposed to the binary categories of victory and defeat. IW is well acquainted with this problem, where nonstate actors and extreme ideologies are rarely defeated but rather need to be managed.

Fifth, PME also needs to seek out new and better metaphors to describe the type of engagements we are in. We are not in a duel, to use Clausewitz’s metaphor, nor are we in a football game where each side is clearly defined and visible, the rules are agreed to, the space is specified, and teams are given a finite amount of time in which to play and win (or lose) the game.

Sixth, PME needs to devote considerably more time to studying our strategic competitors, including their histories, their narratives, and their use of IW to shape the security environment. PME needs to do a better job building “strategic empathy,” which Zachary Shore defines as “the skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others.” The possibility of misperception in the current security landscape is rife, as is mirror imaging and assumptions based on our own preferences. It is critically important to try and see the world from our competitors’ perspective by studying what they are doing and saying.

Finally, PME needs to better study and learn from our failures, not just our victories. The chaotic end to the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan came as a shock to many within the government and military. It is important to admit that what happened in Afghanistan was, at least in part, a failure of military strategy. PME needs to study specifically what went wrong in Afghanistan. Furthermore, PME needs to investigate case studies that better reflect the complex security environment we now live in. Studying the Franco-Prussian war, World War II, or Operation Desert Storm is unlikely to help our officers understand the world in which we live. The Cold War—including the many simultaneous fronts on which that war was fought, the use of all the instruments of national power, IW approaches, conventional wars, and nuclear deterrence, and enduring debates over how the Cold War ended—is a valuable case study for today. Studying the Great Game of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where European powers used a range of irregular activities to vie for influence in Central and South Asia, would also be useful. Currently, neither the Cold War nor the Great Game is studied in any systematic fashion at the US Army War College.

Within all of this, PME needs to teach IW by moving beyond its principal focus on “historical mindedness”—using history as a means of preparing officers for the complex security environment they face—and hiring highly qualified faculty from a range of academic disciplines including economics, political science, mathematical modeling, human geography, and psychology. Expanding beyond military history to a range of academic fields provides necessary tools for studying our strategic competitors and their use of IW to shape the security environment in their favor.

Heather S. Gregg is professor of military strategy at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College. She is the author of Building the Nation: Missed Opportunities in Iraq and Afghanistan (University of Nebraska 2018), Religious Terrorism (Cambridge 2020), and The Path to Salvation: Religious Violence from the Crusades to Jihad (University of Nebraska 2014).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Scott Finger, US Army War College (adapted by MWI)