Helms School of Government


Doctor of Philosophy in Public Policy (PhD)


Anthony Hughes


Irregular Warfare, Gray Zone, Hybrid, Asymmetric, Conflict, Competition


Political Science


Irregular Competition is defined in this study as “State and non-state actors proactively engaging in activities to influence populations and affect legitimacy during times of peace, competition, and conflict.” The research question asked by this study is “Derived from contemporary case study lessons learned, what are the implications for the future of Irregular Competition in support of greater US national security objectives?” In answering the research question, Hans Morgenthau’s Realist Theory of International Politics was applied, although other aspects of realism and theories of international relations theory were considered. The rationale for this study is that despite a general reprioritization toward conventional concerns espoused in current US national security strategy documents, America’s state and non-state adversaries continue to operate globally with malign intent through unconventional methods. This qualitative, inductive, grounded-theory research centers on the linear-analysis of three cases: US Irregular Competition activities to undermine the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, 1979-1989; US Irregular Competition activities directed toward Iran, 2001-2021; Chinese Irregular Competition against the Philippines, 2012-2021. A summary of case study lessons learned as well as theoretical, practical, and empirical implications for the future are presented. The three primary academic contributions of this research to the body of knowledge on this subject are: (1) A new definition of Irregular Competition is provided along with an explanation for its need (2) Analysis of whether a distinct, Chinese, International Relations (IR) theory exists in the specific context of Irregular Competition (3) A unique theoretical model for conceptualizing whole-of-government Irregular Competition is constructed.