In the aftermath of my review of his excellent book, Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare, its author Dr. Seth G. Jones accepted to answer my questions. Our exchange occurred before the start of the invasion of Ukraine. With cyber warfare at the disposal of current armies – like the crashing of the Kremlin website today – the content of this insightful book is ever more pertinent. And Dr. Jones is the best specialist to better understand this new way of conducting war.
Here is the content of this fascinating exchange.
Valery Gerasimov has been an avid student of U.S. military campaigns.
Dr. Jones, in Three Dangerous Men, one of the things I found most interesting was the reading habits of Russian General Valery Gerasimov. Apart from devouring tomes about Russian military doctrine and history, do you know if he is also interested in learning about Western figures and military episodes?
Valery Gerasimov has been an avid student of U.S. military campaigns. He closely studied U.S. operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and other countries. Gerasimov concluded that the United States had moved away from what he called the “traditional” approach to warfare and toward a “new,” more clandestine approach, which he termed a “concealed use of force.” Gerasimov’s study of the United States was instrumental in evolving Russia’s own military doctrine, strategy, and tactics—including its use of irregular warfare.
As commander of the Quds Force and successor of Qassem Soleimani after his death, do you think Esmail Ghaani’s aptitudes as irregular warrior are equivalent to those of his friend / predecessor?
While it is too early to assess Esmail Ghaani’s effectiveness, he lacks the charisma and social media presence of Qassem Soleimani. This isn’t necessarily bad, however, since Soleimani’s routine presence on social media and public taunts of U.S. leaders made him a target. In 2018, for example, Soleimani posted a picture on Instagram giving a speech with the words: “Mr. Trump, the gambler! Don’t threaten our lives! You are well aware of our power and capabilities in the region. You know how powerful we are at asymmetrical warfare.” Following Soleiman’s death, Ghaani has nevertheless been active. His Quds Force continues to provide assistance to Iranian partners in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other countries.
The PLA is, in a very real sense, the Communist Party’s army.
Zhang Youxia has been up to now the most discreet of the three men you write about in your book. Upon finishing Three Dangerous Men, I had a feeling that he’s a mix between the “soldier’s soldier” personality of Soleimani and the more intellectual persona of Gerasimov. Would you agree? How active is he intellectually? He’s he a booklover too?
Zhang Youxia has been instrumental in providing strategic-level direction for China’s military. Like virtually all Chinese leaders, however, Zhang has generally not provided his personal views in public statements. Instead, he tends to reinforce statements and policy from Chinese leader Xi Jinping. After all, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a political body. The PLA serves and falls under the Chinese Communist Party, which controls military strategy. The PLA is, in a very real sense, the Communist Party’s army.
The concept of warfare used by many of Russia, China and Iran is much closer to Sun Tzu than it is to Clausewitz.
You mention Sun Tzu on several occasions in your book. Carl von Clausewitz is a dominant figure in the Western world. Do you feel too much attention is paid to the Prussian theorist, compared to all that his Chinese counterpart can and should teach us?
It is still important to read, understand, and debate the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. However, several countries—including China, Iran, and Russia—don’t view warfare as solely kinetic. China has used terms like san zhong zhanfa (three warfares), which includes media, psychological, and legal warfare. None of these aspects involves the direct use of violence. As the Chinese general Sun Tzu remarked, the supreme art of war is to “subdue the enemy without fighting.” Iran has utilized terms such as jang-e narm (soft war), which includes activities like propaganda and disinformation to influence others. Russia has used aktivnyye meropriyatiya (active measures) for decades as a tool of warfare against the United States and its partners. In short, the concept of warfare used by many of these countries is much closer to Sun Tzu than it is to Clausewitz.
I am optimistic that—eventually—U.S. leaders will not only heed Wellington’s advice, but also better develop irregular strategies and tactics.
Overall, how optimistic are you that American leaders will heed Wellington’s advice to seek “what is on the other side of the hill”?
During the Cold War, it took the United States several decades to truly understand the Soviet Union—in Wellington’s words, to understand what was on the other side of the hill. In his “Long Telegram,” for example, George Kennan encouraged the United States to study the Soviet Union “with [the] same courage, detachment, objectivity, and … determination … with which [a] doctor studies [an] unruly and unreasonable individual.”
Today, the United States is way behind. Beijing invests substantial resources in translating and exploring the contours of American culture and politics. But the U.S. government and private sector have failed to invest in the language skills and expertise to effectively compete with the Chinese Communist Party. Most of the wargames funded by the U.S. Department of Defense over the past several years—including ones I participated in—focus on conventional wars. Long-term U.S. Department of Defense strategic documents, research and development, budget planning, training, and force structures are fixated on conventional war. Professional military education at such locations as the U.S. Army War College, United States Army Command and General Staff College, and National Defense University is heavily biased toward conventional war.
Despite these challenges, however, I am optimistic that—eventually—U.S. leaders will not only heed Wellington’s advice, but also better develop irregular strategies and tactics. After all, the United States has a rich history in irregular warfare. Its leaders need to rediscover and practice the core tenets.
For Russia, Iran, and even China, choosing to fight a conventional war with the United States would be a risky and dangerous proposition.
Do you feel that irregular warfare will be the dominant form for enemies to confront each other in the future?
As I define it, “irregular warfare” refers to activities short of conventional and nuclear warfare that are designed to expand a country’s influence and legitimacy, as well as weaken its adversaries. It includes numerous tools of statecraft that governments can use to shift the balance of power in their favor: information operations (including psychological operations and propaganda), cyber operations, support to state and non-state partners, covert action, espionage, and economic coercion. Other government officials and scholars have used different terms—such as political warfare, hybrid warfare, gray zone activity, asymmetric conflict, and the indirect approach—to capture some or all of these activities.
Conventional and nuclear power remain important. But I believe that irregular warfare will be an important type of competition between enemies—especially nuclear-armed enemies—for several reasons.
First, the United States remains the world’s dominant conventional and nuclear power. Its defense budget is larger than the defense budgets of the next eleven countries in the world combined. For Russia, Iran, and even China, choosing to fight a conventional war with the United States would be a risky and dangerous proposition.
Second, the costs of conventional war and conventional would be staggering. War could lead to tens or hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers and civilians, domestic unrest, billions of dollars in economic damages, a global economic downturn, and the potential collapse of long-held alliances. Nuclear war could raise the number of dead, create far-reaching environmental destruction, and trigger unthinkable global financial costs. These costs and risks make conventional and nuclear war unlikely—especially between nuclear states—and explain why the U.S. adversaries have turned to irregular warfare.
Third, the United States is vulnerable to irregular means. It has struggled to respond effectively to Russian, Chinese, and Iranian cyber and disinformation campaigns in the United States, especially in America’s charged political climate. The U.S. military also struggled against poorly-equipped terrorist and insurgent groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, just to name a few examples.
Do you have another book on your writing table and, if so, would you be at liberty of sharing the subject with us?
I don’t yet. But I will continue to work on issues related to irregular warfare.
Many sincere thanks Dr. Jones!