A crew chief with B Co. "Big Windy," 1-214th General Support Aviation Battalion relays vital position information back to the CH-47 Chinook pilot from his side window as paratroopers hook their pallet of equipment to the underside of the helicopter. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Robert Fellingham)

As the threat of major, mechanized, great-power warfare continues to take center stage among Pentagon war planners, US military leaders are making a point to explain that the threat of “irregular warfare” from peer nations such as China and Russia remains as serious as ever, The National Interest reported. 

A new Pentagon Irregular Warfare Annex report explains that great power threats not only pose major force-on-force threat possibilities but also have a history of engaging in unconventional war tactics

“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 [information warfare] to account for its role as a component of great power competition,” an unclassified summary of the report states. 

Future great-power war, the thinking maintains, will involve both major weapons platforms and large forces as well as countless unconventional or irregular dynamics, National Interest reported.

“Our doctrine, acquisition and training for conflict is excessively focused on maintaining deterrence or winning the high-end conventional war fight, when the simple reality is that modern warfare is not nearly that clear-cut,” Ezra Cohen, the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said in the Pentagon report. 

Cohen said in the report that conventional forces are greatly needed when it comes to irregular warfare as well.

“Even when special operations forces (SOF) have taken the lead in unconventional warfare, counterterrorism, and foreign internal defense missions, they are heavily enabled by conventional forces. As we shift towards great power competition, our conventional forces must not lose the ability to wage irregular war,” the report states. 

Irregular warfare refers to conflict with enemies like the Islamic State group that have less-advanced technology than the US, are generally not part of formal state-run militaries, and that sow disinformation and propaganda to achieve their goals, Air Force magazine reported.

Rather than relying on traditional military action such as airstrikes and ground invasions, irregular warfare leans more heavily on digital deception and weapons that exploit holes in an adversary’s abilities.

Paratroopers get up to the defensive position and unleash their weapon systems at targets downrange at a combined arms live fire lane in the Grafenwoehr Training Area. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob Sawyer)

To address the issue, the Pentagon advised more consistent investment in irregular warfare capabilities that are easily upgradable and cost-effective, to prepare for “gray area” conflict — actions that could escalate from cyberspace into the physical realm.

According to Real Clear Defense online, the Russian model appears to be a Cold War regression with emphasis on proxies to conduct irregular warfare in a geo-political scramble for client states and overseas bases.

However, the Russian model leverages technological advances to gain effectiveness and efficiency via subversion. Russia’s fomenting of rebellion in eastern Ukraine gave Russia the opportunity to seize Crimea while simultaneously derailing Ukraine’s inclusion into the European Union and NATO.

During the Cold War, old-school radio, television, and print propaganda was often dismissed by adversaries when attribution was obvious. Today’s opaque attribution of computer network attacks gives Russia plausible deniability while sowing confusion, Real Clear Defense reported.

Meanwhile, China re-crafted the Russian model based on Chinese strategic thinking to create a “penetrating and persistent campaign.”

The Chinese model — which falls into “gray area” activities — preys upon ambiguities in international law and eschews the level of violence associated with irregular warfare tactics, Real Clear Defense reported.

U.S. Marines observe an MV-22B Osprey prepare to land during a simulated embassy reinforcement at Kin, Okinawa, Japan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Colton Garrett).

Unlike Russia, China’s unconventional warfare does not use special operations forces, but involves the physical, de facto, acquisition of territory. China relies on less overtly hostile forces such as para-police and coast guard forces.

Like Russia, the China model is intertwined with information warfare and strategic communications to convince its own population of the righteousness of its cause and to stiff-arm international complaints of China’s failure to follow conventions, norms, and rulings on disputed territory, Real Clear Defense reported.

Unlike Russia, China’s efforts at subversion do not rely on insurgency but instead sews division between potential allied opponents. For example, China’s wooing of President Duterte was partially responsible for the cooling of US-Philippine relations.

China is also integrating diplomatic maneuvers, economic, and military activities to achieve its strategic objectives. For example, Chinese diplomatic and economic efforts in the South China Sea have softened efforts to enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Real Clear Defense reported.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has built a “string of pearls” of airports, ports, and special economic zones across South Asia and East Africa provides China “strategic strong points” for basing and resupply while simultaneously limiting competitors’ options.

The debt structure of these development projects typically result in Chinese oversight of the operations and, in some cases, repossession, Real Clear Defense reported.

It also provides a chain of intelligence collection posts. This territorial breadth creates de facto buffer zones that create time and space to deal with any potential adversary.

— with files from National Interest, Air Force magazine, Real Clear Defense