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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Irregular Warfare, American Style 

U.S. Army Sgt. Andrew Barnett scans the area using the optic lens on his M14 enhanced battle rifle outside an Afghan border police observation point in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2013. Barnett is assigned to the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jon Heinrich

Of late there’s been a lively discussion in the halls of U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. (where I serve as the  J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy) about whether and how the U.S. military should try to preserve lessons about irregular warfare learned through hard experience during the global war on terror.

The consensus, by my unscientific impression, is that it is important to retain what we’ve learned even as the world ambles into an age of great-power competition. We should not do what the armed forces did after the Vietnam War, and more or less resolve to forget the painful experience with counterinsurgent warfare and resume doing what they did well: preparing to fight conventional force-on-force battles

Forgetfulness is not a virtue for martial institutions. 

And that consensus in favor of institutional memory makes sense. While the U.S. leadership envisions waging long-term competitions against the likes of China and Russia, events have a way of clouding the looking glass through which human beings try to glimpse the future. The republic could again find itself dueling terrorist or insurgent groups, whether it wants to or not. Indeed, counterterror operations still sputter in such quarters as Iraq and Somalia. It would be pointless if not counterproductive to let go of the lessons from the past two decades, and be forced to relearn them yet again under the press of events. 

But there are two other pressing reasons to keep irregular warfare at the forefront of debates over American strategy, operations, and tactics. 

One, irregular warfare is part of how great powers compete nowadays, not just during open war but when employing coercive diplomacy beneath the threshold of violent force. What is Communist China’s gray-zone strategy if not a concerted use of irregular methods and forces to purloin territory from neighbors such as the Philippines and Vietnam?

A maritime militia embedded in China’s vast fishing fleet is Beijing’s implement of choice in the South China Sea. It backs up the militia with another paramilitary force, the China Coast Guard. Meanwhile it keeps heavy People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces over the horizon—and out of sight—as the enforcer of last resort for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wishes. 

China’s irregular-warfare strategy thrusts its neighbors onto the horns of a dilemma. They can escalate to violent force against ostensibly nonmilitary mariners to protect their sovereign rights, and embroil themselves in an unwinnable clash of arms. Or they can give ground.

To date, they have given ground. As the U.S. armed forces—including the U.S. Coast Guard, which is openly contemplating joint patrols with its Philippine ally—ponder how to defeat rival great powers’ irregular strategies and help allies and friends uphold their rights, they could do worse than revisit the lessons from counterinsurgent and counterterrorist operations. U.S. military history abounds with takeaways, all the way from the nineteenth-century frontier wars through the Philippine War through Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

Let’s mine history for insight. 

And two, the U.S. military should embrace irregular practices not just in a defensive but an offensive way. Balking China’s gray-zone offensive is necessary but insufficient to buoy the regional order in Asia. To prevail in open warfare, U.S. forces must make themselves into irregular warriors driven by an irregular mindset. Why? Because irregular warfare is a first resort of the weak, and U.S. and allied forces will probably be the weaker contender at the outset of any clash with China.

They need to enlist Father Time as a doughty ally, denying PLA commanders the short, sharp war they crave. Forestalling a speedy PLA victory means stringing things out, fanning out across the Indo-Pacific map, executing small-unit operations to start cutting the antagonist down to size, and helping pry open sea and air access so heavy forces can make their way to the battleground with sufficient firepower to win. 

This is what founding CCP chairman Mao Zedong and his maritime contemporary, the English historian and strategist Julian Corbett, both call “active defense.” The logic of active defense is straightforward. If a force is outmatched at the onset of war, commanders would be foolhardy to essay a pitched battle they stand little chance of winning. Such a force concedes its inferiority and sets out to get its act together. It summons up manpower and militarily relevant resources while whittling away at enemy forces, breaking the foe’s alliances, and otherwise doing whatever it can to narrow the balance of military power. If successful it will reach strategic parity over time. Ultimately it will emerge ascendant and can undertake that pitched battle reasonably confident of victory. 

Outright victory is the ultimate goal in irregular warfare just as in conventional warfare. Irregular warfare is merely a temporary expedient whereby the lesser contender takes its time to invert the balance of forces—and triumph. 

Now, the principles underlying Maoist and Corbettian active defense are similar, but the two writers pitched their writings to very different audiences. The Maoist project was more fundamental, larger in scale, and more time-consuming. Mao was writing for a Red Army and Chinese Communist Party that had been hounded to the brink of extinction during the Chinese Civil War and were trying to rebound. The party and army were trying to invent a state in the face of powerful opposition.

Corbett was writing for an established power and oceangoing hegemon, Great Britain and its Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was the world’s finest nautical fighting force in Corbett’s day, but the demands of empire tended to scatter ships across the map. That meant individual units could find themselves outclassed by local opponents at certain places and times. 

In other words, Corbett was mainly worried about how to gather superior sea forces at the time and place of battle to overpower some antagonist, while Mao was mainly worried about how to construct a winning force amid civil war in a country of continental scale. The difference in perspective matters. Mao’s works are well worth consulting for American irregular warriors, not just to know today’s rival but for pointers on how to employ irregular warfare as an adjunct to conventional operations in the Indo-Pacific.

They’re also an invaluable primer on the irregular mindset. Corbett’s brand of active defense probably supplies more immediately actionable operational guidance for U.S. and allied joint commanders, who, after all, head up powerful, already-existing forces—the heirs to the Royal Navy in its heyday. 

The real trick will be to fuse the two varieties of active defense bequeathed us by that odd couple, Mao Zedong and Julian Corbett, into a unified doctrine. Call it irregular warfare . . . American style. 

Author Expertise and Experience 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. cobo

    March 4, 2023 at 9:54 pm

    Irregular warfare.

    Green Berets in the highlands of nam and Laos during JFK era.

    CIA in Latin America and Europe and middle east and Pakistan. Yesterday, today.

    US Navy divers in the Baltic.

    And SEAL plus TF squads in Afghanistan.

    Interesting that the 2023 G20 summit is coming up very soon in south Asia. Opportunities beckon.

  2. GhostTomahawk

    March 5, 2023 at 12:23 am

    What we should have is a branch that does insurgent warfare only. These men should have their own weapons, vehicles and doctrine.

    Regular army should only be trained to fight other armies and serve as an occupation force, the marines should only be taught to be an invasion force.

    Trying to have everyone do everything with massive turnover is impossible to do. Our military has brain drain due to retention problems. We need to specialize and shrink our military. Not return it to a cold war bloat that the US population can’t achieve.

  3. Harmen Breedeveld

    March 5, 2023 at 7:13 am

    An interesting take, Mr Holmes, thanks! It seems these concepts can also be applied to the war in Ukraine, where I see echoes of both Mao and Corbett in Ukraine’s way of war.

    In the opening days and weeks, Ukraine sought to whittle down Russia’s forces through ambushes and vital battles where circumstances seemed favorable (Hostomel airfield). Ukraine worked to mobilize allies and its population and to politically isolate Russia. Much effort was dedicated to winning time, for instance by holding on as long as possible in Mariupol. That all feels like “active defense”.

    By the Fall, Ukraine had constructed “winning forces” able to take the fight to Russia around Kharkiv and Kherson.

    It seems that now again Ukraine is using active defense to whittle down Russia’s forces in Bakhmut and elsewhere, woe allies for support, isolate Russia (for instance by reacting somewhat favourably to China’s peace proposal) and build up “winning forces”.

    If my narrative is somewhat correct, then I would say Ukraine is taking an iterative approach to Mao’s and Corbett’s playbook. In 2022, Ukraine went on “active defense”, built up “winning forces” and did “pitched battle”. In 2023, Ukraine goes back to “active defense” to anew build up “winning forces” for a second round of “pitched battle”.

    The coming months will tell whether Ukraine is succeeding in this.

  4. Dan j

    March 5, 2023 at 8:36 am

    We are already in ww3 hybrid warfare. China released COVID to save itself from Trump’s isolationist trade policies (with help from elements within the U.S.), nato is fighting a proxy war against Russia, and we will likely go kinetic against China in 5 years believing a short naval/air war will not go nuclear.

    Hopefully, China wipes out authoritarian elements in the us responsible for politicizing COVID, encouraging riots against the people, enforcing mass vaccination via threats and targeting the population with censorship/propaganda.

  5. Andrew M Winter

    March 5, 2023 at 11:33 am

    What I continue to find depressing, as an historian, is that America “wrote the book” on irregular warfare. It was written largely during the American War of Independence. Mao Zedong in his book “On Guerilla Warfare” sites Gen Washington’s genius. The General Militia enshrined in the second amendment of the US Constitution is the Constitutional Foundation for American irregular forces.

    Then, as the new Nation on the block America fought over 100 years against some of the finest irregular forces on Earth, the Native Americans.

    America “wrote the book” on insurgency warfare AND counter insurgency warfare.

    I fine it sooooo completely depressing to read an article like this, that seems to think that the relationship between America and Irregular Warfare somehow began with the War on Terror or even Vietnam!

    If the American Military is NOT teaching it’s officers this crap then they are SERIOUSLY ON THEIR ASS!

  6. HAT451

    March 5, 2023 at 3:27 pm

    Conflicts. I use the word conflict since it encompasses can encompassed everything from a total global war, to something that is non-kenetic, lawfare. From a simplistic point of view conflicts are can be defined by size, duration, intensity. In other words they have properties, that I listed and many others.

    In this article, I like that we are looking not just at the high intensity/lethality side, of a conflict but also mid and lower spectrum of this property.

    Specific to China, I’d like to provide as an example how we can look at the conflict and exploit it in an unconventional way due the one child policy China had. As a result of that, China within the next generation, will experience a population decline, caused by families keeping boys, while aborting girls during the period of one child policy. The effect of that policy is that according to there are 722 million men to 690 million woman., reports normal male to female ration in society is about 105 males per 100 females. How can we exploit this miss-step China made during the one child policy?

    One answer is deterrence until the China’s current military adventurism reaches a culminating point where it is no longer sustainable. The ramifications for China means that they currently have about a 20-30 year period, until this demographic group of those born during the one child policy mature to retirement age, and there will be a shortage of working age people to support the ageing population, meaning that resources will have to be diverted from other sectors into the health care, and elderly care sector. Looking at the conflict from this perspective, we do not have to be actively aggressive warmongers, but we need to put enough impediments to China to deter them for the next 20-30 years, as the risk of total war diminishes due the ageing population in China.

    We should not just be looking at irregular warfare, total war, war on terror, low intensity conflicts, but also other techniques, tactics, and operations. The job of our nation’s leaders is to pick the right level at which to engage an enemy, and engage it legitimately and effectively, at the right level of intensity, with the fortitude to outlast the enemy in the right size, to secure our freedom.

  7. Webej

    March 5, 2023 at 8:34 pm

    Starting with a factual note: There is no organization that bears the name ‘Chinese Communist Party’.

    I second Andrew M Winter’s comment.
    America is THE consummate champion of irregular and hybrid warfare. Ever heard of the CIA or the state department? They are involved in non-kinetic projects to interfere in other countries politics & economies and mutual rivalries and wars around the clock around the globe. The contra’s in Nicaragua, the death squads in El Salvador, not to mention decapitation attempts in Venezuela or Chile, think Panama, Guatemala, Honduras. Think bombing the Bologna train station. The whole Jihadi project, in Afghanistan, in Syria & Iraq (Al-Qaeda is even named for the CIA’s database, which is what Qaeda means in Arabic). The CIA owns the media (Church investigations) and has assets everywhere to plant misinformation and discord, and has been controlling congress members since J Edgar Hoover (they will only help you if they have some compromising material on you to control you). American navy was even involved in the second Opium War, and the Navy was instrumental in bringing Cheng Kai Shek to Taiwan and defending the island. The US has an incredible clandestine network of ngo’s and other organizations through which they disburse bribes and buy people & media, funded by billions in funds. They are involved in every conflict, uprising, demonstrations, political chaos … all to steer things in favor of America’s oligarchs and corporations. And then there is all the soft power, the (social) media influence across all cultures, the propaganda films, the rewriting of history, control of behind the scenes control multi-lateral global institutions, whole corps of social media engagement “warriors”, etc.
    No other country is even in the same league.

  8. Daniel Gore

    March 6, 2023 at 9:46 am

    Given this set of circumstances, why is the Marine Corps disbanding its scout sniper program? It seems like their ability to serve as agile force multipliers, and disruptors in the irregular battlespace you describe would be an invaluable asset. By disbanding the scout sniper program, aren’t we diminishing our preparedness and ability to compete in counterinsurgent warfare. Furthermore, I don’t understand how this makes any sense, given the goals of the Force Design 2030. This seems like a big mistake. What am I missing?

  9. Brian Foley

    March 6, 2023 at 10:57 am

    It’s all just an academic exercise because events and reaction to those events drives everything. What should America be preparing to do? No one really knows and if someone did happen to know they would be out of whatever office they fill long before what they thought mattered. The political nature of American government makes “getting down in the grass” on anything difficult. By the time anyone settles on what needs to be done, the priorities will have changed. So, sit back and enjoy the ride because you’re not driving this train.

  10. David Chang

    March 6, 2023 at 11:31 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Thank you Mr. Holmes, this is the most important political issue.

    Mao Zedong’s strategy and tactics are from Sun Tzu’s Art of War,
    but Sun Tzu’s Art of War is an immoral military thought.

    Great Power war and Hegemony are not exact nouns, because of these two nouns, people do not consider the condition of war, nor think about the causal relationship between military and currency, so Great Power war and Hegemony are the imagination of total war, not the explanation to reality. Therefore, our current military is hard against the CCP in Western Pacific.

    Irregular warfare is not an exact noun, even if the meanings of “regular” refer to Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex and Convention (VII) relating to the Conversion of Merchant Ships into War-Ships, Article 5.

    Rebellion is a political noun unless we state facts and  judge it by justice, such as Ten Commandments. Therefore, we think whether rebellion is just.

    Some people say that many wars in history are rebellions. Rebellion is a policy disruption by war. But, in The Prize Cases,
    “To create this and other belligerent rights as against neutrals, it is not necessary that the party claiming them should be at war with a separate and independent power; the parties to a civil war are in the same predicament as two nations who engage in a contest and have recourse to arms. A state of actual war may exist without any formal declaration of it by either party, and this is true of both a civil and a foreign war.”

    So, rebellion is a strategy of political warfare, and one tactic of warfare is related to guerrilla warfare which USMC call maneuver warfare. But maritime transport is more difficult than land transport, so we consider the timing of logistics. Although the U.S. military conducts maneuver warfare, while socialism army conducts guerrilla warfare, maneuver warfare is the tactic of regular military, and guerrilla warfare is called irregular warfare. But cavalry and horse archer are early maneuver troops, and these fast moving units also conduct irregular warfare, so maneuver warfare is guerrilla warfare. Before maneuver warfare, USMC conduct amphibious operations with the air-ground combined arms team. If USMC is less than enemy, USMC may be forced to conduct guerrilla warfare as maneuver warfare, or make a firebase to wait for  support. This problem is also the problem in Mogadishu and Benghazi. Our troops are insufficient and the enemy is everywhere. It is difficult for our army to request air support, such as AC-130.

    Guerrilla warfare is caused by less military strength, so the CCP and the Vietnam Communist Party think that their troops are insufficient, so they should avoid combat and move quickly to attack a few enemy troops, and reduce the number of enemy troops more and more, causing the enemy to chase. It makes the enemy tired day by day until they gather all the guerrilla troops for frontal assault.

    With logistics, the guerrilla warfare of socialism military is successful on land, but it is difficult for us to implement the same tactics in the ocean, and our navy or coast guard will not engage the enemy by pack tactics. So the Philippine Navy may win the guerrilla warfare with more budgets and determination. But the Russia military destroys Ukraine cities and lands, making Ukraine to depend on foreign supplies, so the guerrilla warfare of the Ukraine military is not effective. And Ukraine should finish the IBCT training, then the SBCT training.

    God bless America.

  11. Jacksonian Libertarian

    March 7, 2023 at 12:14 pm

    It’s a case of “can’t see the forest because of the trees” with irregular warfare at the moment. The memories are too fresh, and the emotions are too high. The US should wait for 5-10 years, then look back for lessons that the war on terror taught.

  12. David Chang

    March 9, 2023 at 4:07 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Thank you Dr. Holmes, this is the most important morality issue.

    Democratic Party ask Department of Defense to revise the definition of regular and irregular warfare, which will make police and military to be in the more operational hazards.

    The true name of irregular warfare is socialism warfare, while the true names of regular warfare are three methods of warfare: land warfare, naval warfare and aerial warfare.

    The problem for DoD is the other violence of people instead of warfare, such as the violence of rallies and demonstrations. This is a war promoted by socialism parties, but it is not a war as traditional military theory. The traditional military theory holds that the violence of the rally and parade is not war, because of the just war theory by Christian and the Hague Convention.

    If the DoD change regulations to classify violent behaviors promoted by socialism parties as acts of aggression, it will deny the theory of just war, then police and judge will be replaced by soldier and military officer, and soldiers and military officers will be treated as enemy by angry people.

    But Thomas Jefferson is wrong. We shall confess sin and repent to God, so lest each of us be a tyrant.

    Dr. Ucko and Dr. Marks don’t explain the difference between socialism warfare and traditional warfare by morality, and don’t explain the meaning of political warfare.

    The RAND’s report of Russia’s Crimea occupancy is that tell facts but don’t judge the behaviors of Russia. Russia’s tactics of occupying Crimea, in which the method of causing confusion is to propagate lies, and RAND think lies as hybrid warfare and cognitive warfare. But lie is a behavior of political warfare, not a new act of war.

    So the explanation of Dr. Ucko and Dr. Marks will not prevent from wrong behaviors of people.

    God bless America.

  13. David Chang

    March 9, 2023 at 6:48 pm

    In addition,
    conspiracy, tricks and lies are ancient acts of war, not the hybrid war and cognitive war that atheism scholars say.

    Hybrid warfare is people serve as some military tasks, such as ancient Greece Espionage, China Assassin in 5th century BC, Ninja, and the Zealots in Matthew of Bible.

    Cognitive war is the lie, which is a political behavior since ancient. This is also a morality issue about thesis, books, newspaper, television, and movie.

    The clown in ancient Greece tell lies to attack political opponents. He tell ridicule, satirical, or metaphors to oppose different thoughts of people. But the clown is employed by other people.

    We see the future from the clowns in ancient Greece and reporters in the present, because of sin, lie is the part of politics. Cicero also admit that he lie to other people in election, and Plato’s Utopia, Hegel’s philosophy , Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Carl Schmitt’s politics theory are wrong, and confuse people.

    God bless America.

  14. David Chang

    March 11, 2023 at 8:12 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Because the police are responsible for preventing violence and keeping people safe, and the military is responsible for preventing foreign strikes, we shall think about the difference in the duties of police and military, but not need to classify for regular warfare and irregular warfare.

    As investigate and arrest drug dealers. No matter how many weapons domestic drug dealers have, the police should be responsible for investigation and arrest, even if foreigners participate in drug dealing, foreign governments have no jurisdiction to interfere with our courts. But our judge hears lawsuits involving foreigners, and the State Department should press the process vigorously.

    The difficulty is the distribution of duties between the federal and state governments. To make things easy, we think about the duty of the FBI. The FBI should perform duties with small arms only, not with light and heavy weapons. And the FBI should obey Ten Commandments to not be the private army of political parties.

    As investigate and apprehend cross-border robbery. Whether these are foreign conspiracies or not, the military is responsible for outside the border, because the police is an army with small arms at most, and police will not be navy. It is hard for people to imagine the police driving helicopters or battleships and firing machine guns or rockets or missiles when arresting people who cross the border for robbery.

    “The Barbary Wars of 1801-18045 are perhaps the best known US action launched to put down piracy on the high seas. Less known were landings staged by the Africa Squadron in 1843. Assembled by Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur to help enforce the Anglo-American Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, the Africa Squadron consisted of the Decatur, Porpoise, Saratoga, and Macedonian, under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Although principally responsible for enforcing the ban on the slave trade, the squadron was also tasked with investigating and punishing piratical actions against US merchant ships off the West African coast.”

    As a wrong military action, to think about how the U.S. Army and Marine Corps shall fight the guerrilla or maneuver tactics of the socialism army.

    Because of UN Security Council Resolution 837, UN forces have to arrest Mohamed Farrah Aidid, but this resolution is wrong. Because even if the UN has the jurisdiction to arrest any  people, the International Court of Justice in The Hague should order the International Criminal Police to arrest suspects, not order the United Nations Peacekeeping Force to do so.

    Aidid is the leader of the Socialism Party in Somalia, and America socialism scholars and socialism lawyers encourage the U.S. military to be responsible for this arrest. The US military encountered guerrilla tactics from Aidid’s PLA, but the Democratic Party prohibited the US military from using heavy weapons, so the US military suffered heavy casualties in the Mogadishu battle.

    After the U.S. military learned the lessons of the Mogadishu battle, the U.S. military still encountered the same difficulties in the Iraq War. The Iraq socialism army attacked the U.S. military by guerrilla or maneuver tactics, and the U.S. military combat without artillery preparation in cities. However, we should not forget the combat theory. Combat in the jungle or city is the most difficult war conditions. This is regular warfare, but soldiers are limited by these tough war conditions.

    True irregular warfare is to engage enemy who disguised as civilians. But it’s not the honest tactics, and even it’s the rational behavior of warfare since ancient times. The USA style is that the US military engages the rational enemy with police tactics. So the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are pushed to be the world police, but this is not the wrong of the U.S. military, it’s a political problem caused by the sin of people. We should oppose asking the U.S. military to be the police of other countries. People in the world should be responsible for protecting their lives and properties.

    God bless America.


    March 12, 2023 at 4:22 pm

    Since when has the US tried to win a war since WWII?

    The MIC won’t allow it because winning a war cuts into profits and the politicians won’t receive their kickbacks.

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