This Adelphi examines the difficulties the US armed forces face in shifting their focus from preparing for regular wars, in which combat is separated from civil society, to irregular wars, in which combat is integrated with civil society.

This Adelphi examines the difficulty the US armed forces face in shifting their focus from preparing for regular wars, in which combat is separated from civil society, to irregular wars, in which combat is integrated with civil society. It argues that the political context of contemporary irregular wars requires that the purpose and practice of Western forces be governed by liberal values. This is also the case with regular wars, to the extent that they occur, but it is the integration with civil society that makes the application of liberal values so challenging. It argues that this challenge becomes easier to meet when military operations are understood to contribute to the development of a compelling narrative about the likely course and consequence of a conflict, in which these values are shown to be respected. However, while it is vital that the employment of armed force remains sensitive at all times to the underlying political context and to the role of narratives in shaping this context, a key test of success will always be the defeat of the opposing forces. The application of this test in regular war remains straightforward; this is not the case with irregular war, which can be of long duration and contain frequent shifts in tempo and focus. The ‘war on terror’ has highlighted these issues and the paper concludes with suggestions for a strategic response. 

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  • Introduction

    A recurrent theme in much contemporary writing on strategy is that war in its classical form, involving set-piece battles between regular armies, does not have much of a future. This issue is particularly important for the United States. Its international role relies on an ability to take on all comers in all circumstances. It has superior capabilities for nuclear exchanges and conventional battle, but capabilities at the level upon which...
  • Chapter One: Networks, Culture and Narratives

    Since Carl von Clausewitz borrowed the concept of the ‘centre of gravity’ from Newtonian physics, referring to the point in a body about which it will balance, it has served as a metaphor for ways in which a well-aimed offensive thrust might knock the enemy sideways. Clausewitz, considering regular war, wondered not only about the centre of gravity of an army in battle but of a whole nation. He could...
  • Chapter Two: The Transformation of Grand Strategy

    Liberalism is the most important expression of the political aspects of Western culture. It must therefore provide the foundation for any compelling strategic narratives, although liberalism contains a number of inherent tensions which affect the way these narratives develop. It is these tensions which provide the substance of internal Western debate over the rights and wrongs of military operations. But before discussing these tensions, it is necessary to consider the...
  • Chapter Three: Asymmetric War

    The 2006 QDR discusses the special challenges posed by terrorist networks in the context of the wider problem of asymmetric threats. This problem is a natural consequence of US superiority in conventional capabilities. In the past, in conflicts between advanced states it was presumed that while variations between individual weapons types might make a difference, there would be broad symmetries between the belligerents, thus placing an even greater premium on...
  • Chapter Four: The Transformation of Military Strategy

    During the 1990s, the United States adopted not only a concept of proper and largely regular war, for which it could develop a formidable strategy, but also a concept of improper and largely irregular wars, for which it could not. One response by its enemies might be to draw it into an irregular war on the ground. This could be avoided by staying clear of contingencies which were likely to...
  • Chapter Five: Strategic Communications

    The ability to turn potentially hostile public opinion in one’s favour, but also to retain the support of a home population, can be a vital strategic attribute. When efforts to this end fail it is tempting to blame the media for neglecting to draw salient facts to the public’s attention, for passing on enemy propaganda and for deliberately misleading in pursuit of their own agendas. The importance of the media...

Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies and Vice Principal (Research) at King’s College London.

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