July 25, 2024

Irregular Warfare and Evolving role of non-State Actors in Wars

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By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN

Irregular Warfare: Hamas operating from underground tunnels in the Gaza Strip: source Internet

“That General is skilful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skilful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.” ~ Sun Tzu

In political science, social contract theorists, in an attempt to explain the existence of the state and society, explore the possibility of a sovereign or the state to whom the subjects shall surrender certain rights in order to get protection of life. Theoretically, one of the rights on which the sovereign or the state had distinct control was a right to violence. For centuries, the state has peculiarly maintained its monopoly on violence, what German sociologist, historian, jurist and political economist Max Weber called “the monopoly of legitimate coercion”, through various instruments like police, military, and paramilitary forces. From the battle of Mantinea during the Peloponnesian War to the disastrous World War II, we have seen states or state actors entangled in various fights for certain geopolitical, security, and strategic reasons.

In the last few decades, however, that monopoly on violence has been found to be withering away with the emergence of non-state actors in the domain of war and warfare by means of direct or indirect confrontation with either state actors or against other non-state actors. Likewise, non-state actors, either in the form of resistance, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the Chinese Resistance Against Japanese Occupation during World War II, or in the form of terror, such as the terror attacks of 9/11 and 26/11, have entwined themselves in the act of inflicting large-scale violence.

What is Irregular Warfare?

The inclusion of non-state actors in warfare resulted in the genesis of a new kind of warfare known as “Irregular Warfare (IW).” In the words of the United States Department of Defense, Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept (JOC), “IW is a complex, “messy,” and ambiguous social phenomenon that does not lend itself to a clean, neat, concise, or precise definition.” However, in simpler terms, it can be defined as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.”

For the most part, the employment of Irregular Warfare includes tactics such as guerrilla attacks, hit-and-run raids, and other unconventional methods, among others. In ancient times, irregular warfare, although not classified as one at that time, was common when states went to battles, especially where there existed asymmetry in relative kinetic power between adversaries.

One such example is the Battle of Cannae, fought during the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE) between Romans and Carthaginians in 216 BCE. Despite being outnumbered by Roman legions, Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, with his small army, defeated the mighty Roman forces in a highly asymmetric engagement employing various irregular warfare tactics.

The Battle of Agincourt, fought in 1415 during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, is another such example. King Henry V of England, in an attempt to reclaim English territories captured by France, engaged in a battle with the French army led by Constable Charles d’Albret and other French commanders. Despite having the upper hand in terms of numbers, French forces faced defeat in the battle that resulted in the victory of England, which had employed various irregular warfare tactics.

In the post-World War II period, the Vietnam War between America and the Vietnamese communists, along with the Soviet-Afghan conflict, both of which lasted for years and played a crucial role in shaping Cold War politics, are examples where non-state actors using various guerrilla and irregular warfare tactics defeated established superpowers of that time. While American withdrawal from Vietnam led to political instability at home and diminished American authority in the world, the Soviet defeat against the Mujahedeen eventually led to the collapse of the mighty USSR.

Irregular Warfare Tactics

Although there are no well-defined structured tactics when it comes to irregular warfare, there are a few characteristics and tactical approaches that can be attributed to it. Mostly, these tactics are characterised by their adaptability, flexibility, and primarily their focus on asymmetrical elements of the battle.

A prime example of such tactics is guerrilla warfare, where small groups covertly attack large conventional forces, giving them an advantage. In such scenarios, the element of surprise plays a crucial role. Further, in the conventional realm, tactics such as ambushes, hit-and-run operations, and, for that matter, terrorism and insurgency can be classified as tactics of irregular warfare. By and large, it is up to the state to decide how to tackle such threats and employ IW tactics.

Battle of Mosul

The Battle of Mosul, fought in 2016-17 and which has played an instrumental role in defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East, deserves a special mention here for the persisting asymmetry in that battle. In this battle, the non-state actor, the Islamic State, was fought by a coalition of states, including Iraq and the US, among other allies.

At the time of the attack, Mosul (Iraq) was one of the largest occupation zones under the Islamic State, and during the battle, the Islamic State had 5,000 to 12,000 terrorists fighting for them in the region against the Iraqi government’s 108,000 combatants. One can notice the stark asymmetry in the strength of the fighters; despite having such a huge advantage in terms of numbers, it took almost nine months for the joint forces to defeat ISIS.

American scholar Amos Fox, in his 2021 paper titled “On Sieges,” highlights how Iraqi victory came at such a high cost. The war drove out 44% of the city’s 1.8 million inhabitants, destroyed 70% of the city, and generated a $2 billion reconstruction bill. It becomes important for countries like India, which engages with non-state actors on a regular basis in Kashmir and in the North Eastern region, to develop a comprehensive strategy not only to deter the threats but also to minimise their damages.

Hamas’ Attack on Israel on Oct 7, 2023

Being described as the most murderous assault on Jews since the Holocaust, Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, 2023 is the most recent example of how non-state actors have penetrated into the country, which is believed to have one of the most sophisticated espionage and surveillance networks.

A targeted paragliding raid and subsequent missile strikes by Hamas terrorists in Israel left almost 1200 people dead and 240 people as hostages in Gaza. The attack has certainly compelled strategists around the world to relook and recalibrate their approach to dealing with non-state actors. While the IDF is determinant on eliminating Hamas through an on-ground invasion of Gaza, another non-state actor, the Houthi rebels of Yemen, have threatened to destroy every ship that either comes from or goes to Israel. We have also noticed a missile attack by Houthi rebels in the Arabian Sea targeting a civilian ship near the coast of Gujarat.

In response to rescuing shipping vessels from hijacking, the USA and its allies have launched “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” under which the combined naval force will guard the area surrounding Yemen and the Red Sea. The Indian Navy also enhanced surveillance in the Arabian Sea, making operational readiness paramount in case of any mischief in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

What makes these attacks strange is the large-scale involvement of the non-state actors and their ability to use novel technology not only in the conventional arena but also in a non-conventional manner. These actors have created cultivated online networks that engage in various kinds of information, psychological and cognitive warfare. The adaptability of newer technology makes it more difficult for state actors to totally eliminate these adversaries.


As we move beyond conventional warfare, the role of non-state actors becomes pivotal both in terms of defensive and offensive use. Countries like Pakistan and China have been using proxies and non-state actors to destabilise India for years. The USA has for almost a decade used Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to counter the Soviet Union, until the instantaneous shift in policies post-9/11.

In what we call fourth-generation warfare, we have to develop a comprehensive strategy in order to deter threats originating from such non-state actors. Time has also arrived for us to learn from recent incidents in the Red Sea and adapt to the pivotal scenarios where now non-state actors, in a systematic manner, can involve themselves in maritime battles. The Department of Defense JOC, mentioned earlier, also talks about creating alternative Command and Control (C2) mechanisms for conducting and supporting IW, which can be further analysed and applied by countries like India. It is high time that we utilise and employ all the means necessary for creating IW and counter-IW capabilities.


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