David J. Kilcullen “New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflicts” describes the new way of warfare. The Industrial model of state to state conflict is largely in the past.

The new way of warfare destroys our older cultural and legal preconceptions of what warfare even is.

Kilcullen begins:

Contrast [World War II] with the war on terrorism. Some dispute the notion that the conflict can be defined as a war; others question the reality of the threat. Far-left critics blame American industrial interests, while a lunatic fringe sees September 11, 2001, as a massive self-inflicted conspiracy. More seriously, people disagree about the enemy. Is al-Qaida a real threat or a creature of Western paranoia and overreaction? Is it even a real organization? Is al-Qaida a mass movement or simply a philosophy, a state of mind? Is the enemy all terrorism? Is it extremism? Or is Islam itself in some way a threat? Is this primarily a military, political, or civilizational problem? What would “victory” look like? These fundamentals are disputed, as those of previous conflicts (except possibly the Cold War) were not.

In truth, the al-Qaida threat is all too real. But ambiguity arises because this conflict breaks existing paradigms—including notions of “warfare,” “diplomacy,” “intelligence,” and even “terrorism.” How, for example, do we wage war on nonstate actors who hide in states with which we are at peace? How do we work with allies whose territory provides safe haven for nonstate opponents? How do we defeat enemies who exploit the tools of globalization and open societies, without destroying the very things we seek to protect?

The Cold War was an early version of this new paradigm, but it was still largely centered around state conflict.

Kilcullen describes how diplomacy and state politics are breaking down. Diplomacy communicates with the elite leaders of states – but non-state actors organize at the non-elite levels. All the current tools of the state – counterinsurgency, nation-building, diplomacy, economic development, traditional intelligence agencies – are all state-centric institutions that are ineffective against new threats.

Thus, as former U.S. Counterterrorism Ambassador Hank Crumpton observed, we seem to be on the threshold of a new era of warfare, one that demands an adaptive response. Like dinosaurs outcompeted by smaller, weaker, but more adaptive mammals, in this new era, nation-states are more powerful but less agile and flexible than nonstate opponents.

A nation-state can still win the materialschlacht, but against who? The new wars are wars “amongst the people” fought with ideology and flexible small-unit tactics. Sheer mass is a weakness. Believe it or not, but the Nation-states are the underdogs.

Kilcullen describes the evolutionary arms race.

The enemy adapts with great speed. Consider al-Qaida’s evolution since the mid-1990s. Early attacks (the East African embassy bombings, the USS Cole, and 9/11 itself) were “expeditionary”: Al-Qaida formed a team in Country A, prepared it in Country B, and clandestinely infiltrated it into Country C to attack a target. In response, we improved transportation security, infrastructure protection, and immigration controls. In turn, terrorists developed a “guerrilla” approach where, instead of building a team remotely and inserting it secretly to attack, they grew the team close to the target using nationals of the host country. The Madrid and London bombings, and attacks in Casablanca, Istanbul, and Jeddah, followed this pattern, as did the foiled London airline plot of summer 2006.

These attacks are often described as “home grown,” yet they were inspired, exploited, and to some extent directed by al-Qaida….We are now, of course, alert to this “guerrilla” method, as the failure of the August 2006 plots in the United Kingdom and other recent potential attacks showed. But terrorists are undoubtedly already developing new adaptive measures. In counterterrorism, methods that work are almost by definition already obsolete: Our opponents evolve as soon as we master their current approach.

As Kilcullen notes, our words cannot even describe the enemy. We still think in terms of antiquated industrial warfare models. We call our enemy “non-state actors” who engage in “unconventional” warfare. These words only describe what the enemy is not.

This is hardly a starting point for adapting. Kilcullen makes several suggestions, but even he cannot break out of the state warfare paradigm.