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.