The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy made headlines by officially downgrading terrorism as a national security priority in favor of “inter-state strategic competition.” Many interpreted the statement as signifying a return to “conventional combat,” yet a closer reading suggests that even state-based competition is likely to be “irregular.”
Much like insurgent adversaries, states blend separate instruments of power to offset military weakness, weaponize narratives to ease strategic progress, and exploit social and political contradictions to undermine and divide target societies. The effort to understand this approach has generated new jargon—“hybrid war,” “the gray zone”—yet the United States and the West in general struggle to overcome their entrenched presumptions about war. Such confusion constitutes an upstream source of analytical friction with implications for how strategy is conceived and implemented.
Based on the pedagogical approach of the College of International Security Affairs within the National Defense University, this article presents an analytical framework to assess and respond to irregular threats. Though terminological precision and analytical frameworks are no panacea for the malaise facing Western strategy, it is an indispensable starting point for all that must follow.