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.
More from CNAS
PodcastU.S And 25 Other Nations To Participate In Huge Joint Training Exercise
Last year the pandemic derailed large-scale war gaming – this year it's back with a vengeance. The U.S. military is taking part in a massive joint training exercise across Eur...
By Becca Wasser & Jay Price
CommentaryTwo Cheers for Esper’s Plan to Reassert Civilian Control of the Pentagon
The longest-ever gap in civilian leadership atop the Department of Defense came to an end on July 23, when Mark Esper was sworn in as secretary of defense. His presence in the...
By Loren DeJonge Schulman, Alice Hunt Friend & Mara Karlin
VideoCARE: Humanitarian Aid Cuts & National Security
A number of prominent figures are speaking out in opposition of the proposed cutbacks to the US foreign aid budget. CNAS CEO Michele Flournoy, along with many other former sen...
By Michèle Flournoy
Au Revoir QDR
Whatever version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) emerges from the House-Senate conference process later this year, it seems likely that the 20-year old Quadre...
By Loren DeJonge Schulman & Shawn Brimley