Original source – Strategy Bridge
By Mike Fowler
The character of war has changed. Technological advancements and operational approaches have changed the face of warfare. Conventionally-focused Western militaries have created a sufficient deterrent built on their overwhelming advantages in firepower, technology, tactics, and effective training. However, unconventional warfare has become the method of choice to mitigate the technological military advantages of the United States and its allies.
Militaries axiomatically search for methods and equipment to find an asymmetric advantage over their adversaries. Leading up to World War I, countries across Europe sought an advantage in mobilization. Assuming modern warfare could deliver a quick, decisive blow, the first country to mobilize their massive army gained a significant advantage. During the interwar period, countries sought to prevent repeating the stalemate of trench warfare by leveraging new technologies: airpower, submarines, and armor. These innovations were effective at providing short-term, tactical advantages. But, both sides were able to match the innovations, negating any lasting strategic advantage—World War II still resulted in a conflict of exhaustion.
After World War II, a nuclear standoff constrained the use of conventional warfare by major powers. Both sides turned to unconventional warfare as a method to achieve national security goals while limiting the potential for escalation and circumventing international conventions designed to prevent conflict. Among others, the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and the United Kingdom propped up weak regimes and empowered rebel groups to act as proxies conducting irregular warfare on behalf of the patron state. This empowerment often involved training, equipping, and funding non-state actors to overthrow or undermine governments that supported (whether real or perceived) the opposing power. In rare cases, the major powers inserted specially trained soldiers to assist in the organization, planning, and execution of insurgent operations. This specialty mission of state-sponsored insurgency came to be known as unconventional warfare. In response to insurgencies and irregular war, the opposing polar power countered with training, equipping, and funding of counterinsurgency operations. In rare cases (e.g., the United States in Vietnam or the Soviets in Afghanistan), the major powers committed large numbers of their own troops to conduct counterinsurgency.
The Cold War was only cold in the sense that the two major powers managed to avoid open conventional and nuclear warfare. For proxies on both sides, this period was full of internal violence and government repression. Despite the breadth, quantity, and depth of proxy wars, the major powers continued to focus the bulk of their resources deterring a future conventional and nuclear conflict. Many of these proxy wars began as organic, anti-colonial insurgencies. Yet, few insurgencies during this period were able to avoid super-power sponsorship by one side or the other.
POST-COLD-WAR STRATEGIC PIVOT
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. struggled through a period of uncertainty amid declarations of a “peace dividend” and suggestions of the “end of history.” The 1990s presented four key lessons to aspiring major powers. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union highlighted the futility of attempting to match U.S. and NATO tactical innovations without the economy to sustain them. Second, the proliferation of non-governmental organizations promoting democracy and human rights represented a shift in western methods of strategic competition. The Color Revolutions were largely non-violent, but they had the same subversive result as an insurgency: the overthrow or undermining of pro-Russian governments. Similarly, the wave of democracy across Asia in the 1990s was a significant emotional event for the Chinese. Of course, most democratizing states in Asia were already pro-America. Democratization of communist countries was limited to marginal states such as Laos and Cambodia. While China and Vietnam retained political communism, they adopted capitalist tendencies. These non-governmental organizations pierced the impermeable veil of sovereignty regarding intervention in another country’s politics.
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