July 23, 2014

The Shadow Wars of the 21st Century

By David W. Barno, and USA (Ret.)

War is morphing. Today’s headlines are dominated by the conflicts in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine, which little resemble the large, conventional state versus state wars that dominated the last bloody century. Instead, they all demonstrate that a different form of unconventional warfare is emerging in these first decades of the 21st century. In each of these ongoing clashes, irregular groups are employing adroit asymmetrical means in an attempt to prevail. Their conventional opponents — the Israeli Defense Force, Iraqi security forces, and the Ukrainian military — are struggling to adjust to these new tactics and capability mixes. Conflicts of this sort may soon become the most common type of warfare in the future. They are evolving versions of shadow conflicts, fought by masked warriors often without apparent state attribution. Each presents near unresolvable challenges to legacy 20th century models and norms of international conflict and behavior. They painfully illustrate the changing shape of warfare, and present a challenge to the U.S. military for which it may be decidedly ill prepared. These features in combination — high tech weaponry, subversion, and covert backing from well-resourced nation states — distinguish these emerging irregular conflicts from the more recent insurgencies fought by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the Israelis during the two intifadas.

The conflicts raging today in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine share some common features. Irregular belligerents — Hamas, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Ukrainian separatists — are each aggressively shaping these conflicts in skillful ways to outmaneuver their more conventional adversaries. These irregular warriors seek creative and often indirect ways to accomplish their wartime ends, often without fighting in conventional fashion. Their tactics and equipment reflect a new and ever-varying combination of conventional high-tech weaponry — think SA-11 SAMs and T-72 tanks — and insurgent battlefield techniques. They can employ tanks and artillery, while also covertly infiltrating and subverting uncooperative or hostile governments. Despite their unconventional appearance, each group also has some degree of backing by a nation state. Iran, certain Gulf states, and Russia are providing vital high-end weaponry, advice, and often cash to Hamas, ISIL, and Ukrainian separatists, respectively. Additionally, the international press is intensively covering all of these conflicts — and both sides are leveraging social media to an unprecedented degree.

Read the full op-ed at War on the Rocks.

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