What is Conventional Warfare?

What is Conventional Warfare?

by Kenneth Payne

Kings of War

Surprisingly tough question, posed by a friend hard at work on her research proposal. I thought I’d crowd source an answer from learned readers here. But first, here’s what I suggested:

Conventional warfare isn’t just about capabilities employed – that is, industrially manufactured, technologically advanced equipment, deployed by recognisably military organisations. Rather it is a society’s way of fighting that encompasses the doctrinal thinking, the organisational structures, the rules of engagement, and even the appropriate goals of violence. What makes it ‘conventional’ is just that it adheres to the dominant conventions of the time.

Of course, all this changes through time as the societies and conventions involved in generating ‘conventional’ approaches to war evolve. Thus, the conventional forces of Napoleon look radically different from the ‘conventional’ forces of France today.

Such an evolution in conventional war might include changes in permissible conduct – For example – why were chemical weapons seen as conventional in the context of WW1, but not now? Why could you flatten Dresden in 1945, but not now?

They might also involve changes in force structure – Why use conscripts as part of a conventional military in Vietnam, but not now? What about the use of private contractors? Is outsourcing violence like that ‘conventional’, or does it profoundly change the relationship between the state/society and those who enact its violence?

And it might also involve changes in concepts, as for example on attritional force v manoeuvre, where the ‘conventional’ approach of British strategic thought (and American, from the early 1980s onwards, if not before) was to substitute manoeuvre and shock action for firepower.

Such conceptual changes might include the actors against whom force is used – ‘conventional’ warfare is sometimes supposed to involve armies fighting armies. Allied forces in WW2 would figure in many people’s definition of ‘conventional’ armed forces – but they put most of their resources in the European theatre into the strategic bombing of the enemy’s civilian morale and war-production capability, not the destruction of his main force.

All these variations, which are profound, are sometimes subsumed within a blanket definition of ‘conventional’ warfare. So, what we understand by ‘conventional’ as a heuristic is a particular approach to warfighting that Russell Weighley describes in his American Way of War – which captures some of the elements one might instinctively think of as ‘conventional’: state centric, firepower intensive, industrialised, focused on armies as the enemy centre of gravity, regularised and regulated. But even that covers a multitude of approaches to warfighting, and neglects a great deal of variation, even within individual societies in a particular period.

It might just be that ‘conventional’ warfighting is simply a good way of making a polemical point in favour of one’s own view of appropriate strategy. Conventional warfare is stale, attritional and inappropriate to the challenges of the modern era. Or conventional warfare is neglected at our peril, given skill fade in critical branches, like artillery and armour.

With all that in mind, does it still make sense to talk about ‘conventional’ war?

 

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The Wikipedia article on this subject provides a definition of "conventional warfare" that is indistinguishable from "mid-intensity conflict"; it does not support the idea that "conventional" war is a social or moral construct, that is, subject to the social and moral conventions of the day.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conventional_warfare

That said, there must be some historical thread that binds together interstate warfare into a coherent and recognizable "thing". I would reject the idea that Sun Tzu's writings have any historical context outside interstate warfare. Admittedly, once can rip Sun Tzu's "Art of War" of its historical context for the purpose of intellectualized debate, but if one does so, one is using an ahistorical interpretation of Sun Tzu's experience in war - and is responsible for validating the necessary extrapolations. (The same holds true for Clausewitz, a favorite Coinista punching bag.) Many of the proposed attributes posed on this discussion thread for both "conventional" and "unconventional" war do not stand the test of history. Although Wikipedia draws out all the familiar modern milestones of "conventional" war - the Treaty of Westphalia (I would add Grotius), Clausewitz and On War for the Napoleonic era, the World Wars for the 20th Century, the Wikipedia author even throws in Sam Huntington's "clash of civilizations" - none of this negates the once-canonical low-mid-high intensity conflict framework.

It may or may not remain the case that high intensity conflict will remain a theoretical construct, no longer observable "in the wild" as it were. Despite the many constraints imposed by international law and the world community on interstate war, such is not the case with the mid-intensity portion of the spectrum of conflict. It is arguable how far up on this scale "unconventional" operations legitimately can go. The idea that is dangerous and wrong is to equate conventional war with the physical dimension of conflict and unconventional war with its psychological dimension. Both mid and low intensity conflict (as well as theoretically speaking, high intensity conflict) have important physical AND psychological manifestations. These two domains transcend anyone's favorite strategic, operational, or tactical "system". Hence the definitional problem Kevin Payne's friend encountered, no doubt after diligently searching the literature and trying to make sense out of it.

Actually a more important distinction is that between war of all sorts and those conflicts that are not war at all.

In war Clausewitz described the irrational (populace), rational (government) and the non-rational (military) as a trinity. From this trinity the non-rational party goes out and wages war on behalf of the rational and irrational parts. Ok. But what when the irrational and the rational parts of a state turn upon each other and the non-rational party now finds itself in the unenviable position of being caught in the middle?

Revolutionary insurgency is such a case, and is poorly addressed when treated as warfare, as most rational governments are want to do. Waging war on one's irrational part is a dangerous business and rarely resolves the problems at the root of the matter. Resistance insurgency is war after the formal parties of one side surrender. Separatist insurgency is really war between states before one state has formed the legal offices of government and military to represent it. But revolution? This is not war, and is poorly treated as such.

Revolution is the heart of the matter between the Taliban and Northern Alliance. Revolution is the heart of the matter between Sunni and Shia in Iraq. Revolution is the heart of the matter in Syria, Libya, Egypt, etc, etc. These are civil emergencies which run a wide range of activity from largely frozen and suppressed (as in Saudi Arabia) to active protests with low violence as in Egypt; to open conflict as in Afghanistan. But war, conventional or otherwise is a poor model to address such disagreements between the rational and the irrational through.

Labels are helpful when they suggest a family of resolution to the root of the problem at hand. War offers few solutions to revolution.

Cheers!

Bob

While "conventional vs. unconventional" are the juxtaposed terms that roll off of the tongue, the comparison we are really looking for here is "conventional vs. special" warfare.

The best single source on this is the Army Pub "Special Warfare" published in 1962 at Ft Bragg, NC out of the newly formed (wait for it) United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. While the pub begins with a couple pages of terrific definitions, then Secretary of the Army Elvis J. Stahr, Jr. captures the essence of Special Warfare best in the first paragraph of his introduction:

"Special Warfare is a term used by the Army to embrace all military and paramilitary measures and activities related to unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency, and psychological warfare. It includes fighting AS guerrillas as well as AGAINST guerrillas and also involves the employment of psychological devices to undermine the enemy's will to resist."

At that time "Unconventional Warfare" consisted of activities conducted in enemy held or controlled territory, conducting guerrilla warfare, working with a resistance, and conducting escape and evasion.

Special Warfare: An Army Specialty (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962).

Bob

(oh, but to answer Ken's question most directly, if you are on the ground behind enemy lines and still working to advance your cause you are probably conducting unconventional warfare. COIN is conducted in friendly territory, so is Special Warfare, but not Unconventional Warfare)

Agree strongly that we should we introduce Special Warfare as a description of a form of warfare, but again while the current description is fine for how the U.S. military conducts or supports this type of warfare, it is not comprehensive enough to capture how others view and conduct this form of warfare. I am advocating changing our doctrine, but simply describing more accurately what we're talking about, then we can drill down on how "we" do it.

Robert C. Jones:

Heh. I presume you mean Ken Payne. This Ken didn't ask. But...

"...if you are on the ground behind enemy lines and still working to advance your cause you are probably conducting unconventional warfare. COIN is conducted in friendly territory, so is Special Warfare, but not Unconventional Warfare.

Your "probably" is noted but that still comes close to a blanket and absolute assessment; many could misconstrue it. This Ken will once more remind you to be careful with those absolutes, Counsellor.

Spake as one who has done missions with people conducting COIN in far from friendly territory and who has participated in Special Warfare operations in even less friendly space. Both with full knowledge of and with respect to not only local sentiment but national borders involved. ;)

There are few absolutes in warfare and Special Warfare is by definition designed to provide even fewer. Thus you and Dave Maxwell are correct on resurrection..

Ken (and Ken)

Yeah, I meant the author. The "aboslute" is from the definitions in the referred to text, but I agree, things get "fuzzy" and small nuances are fairly moot for the guy on the ground just trying to get some job done and get his team and self home without creating any undue hardships for a local populace that is always caught in the middle, and rarely asked if they want any of this from any of the combatants.

This is, however, on my list of talking points with the boss. Regain control of the definitions of our core operations and activities (regardless of the fact that much of the heavy lifting will always be done by non-SOF, and non-military organizations); and go back to this framework we had before we sent large conventional forces into Vietnam as a startpoint for laying out a cogent scheme of definitions that minimize the gaps, overlaps, and multi-meaning terms applied today.

IMO SFA and IW (and much of the neuvaux COIN-think) can go to the same boneyard as the Gammagoat, SGT York and other concepts that sounded like a good idea at the time but never really made sense in application. I will however press hard that we do our very best to scrub the Western bias on insurgency, that permeates even this 1962 piece, of our colonial and Cold War baggage that still serves to cloud our thinking.

Cheers!

Bob

I too think we need to resurrect Special Warfare. The complete 1962 Special Warfare Magazine is available on SWJ and I recommend it be reviewed and updated as much is still very relavent today.

U.S. doctrine doesn't seem very helpful since it only describes the U.S. doctrinal view of U.S. UW versus describing the actual characteristics that determine if a conflict is conventional or unconventional.

I think guerrillas are irregulars, but they don't always engage in irregular or unconventional warfare. For example, if they simply attack opposing military forces then they're still waging a conventional war using guerrilla tactics. On the other hand, if they form shadow governments, subvert the current government, and use un or non-conventional means to achieve their objectives then it unconventional in character, because the focus is a psychological-political victory. Conventional forces or irregulars using conventional tactics can play a role in UW, but the goal in UW isn't a decisive defeat of the opposing forces military, but rather politically and psychologically defeating the opponent. The first Special Forces Qualification Course was called the PYSWAR course, so I would argue our community had a better understanding of UW then than now. We witnessed this most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan (clandestine organizations, terrorism, subversion, shadow governments, etc.), our foes there have no intent to defeat us in conventional battle, but effectively dismantle/undermine/subvert our efforts to achieve our political objectives using UW.

The question is can a conventional force (a force that employs conventional tactics, which in my view is focused on engaging in decisive combat with the opponent) effectively fight an unconventional force? I think the answer is it depends, but to win they will generally have to be more brutal than our laws and morals allow. However, a conventional force can be more than capable of waging a counter UW campaign with the right training.

It is important to understand that while it may be difficult for a Western conventional force to defeat an unconventional force due to self imposed behaviors, that doesn't mean U.S. sponsored irregulars co-opted to fight an enemy conventional force will be effective, and most likely they will not be, since they'll play by different rules. Conventional forces are generally superior in combat, and if they don't care about hearts and minds they're free to use that power to defeat the insurgents. On the other hand if we supported an insurgent movement that was focused on a political-psychological victory instead of decisively defeating superior conventional forces, then we have a better chance at winning. The harsher the tactics employed the more effectively they can be exploited psychologically and politically by a savvy UW organization.

Rough thoughts on the topic when I should be sleeping.

Bill M,

Can you expand this to the case where the shadow gov't isn't meant to replace the state but rather to carve out a semi-autonomous region within the existing state? Current examples could be: 1. FATA area bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. 2. Kurdistan. 3. Somalia with tribal warlords. 4. Yemen. 5. Cartels in Central and South America. Future areas could be 1. Islamic State of Iraq. or 2. Sunni areas of Iraq.

Mike: A Separatist insurgency example is the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) that in 1996 resulted in a peace agreement and political settlement and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Today the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) continues its insurgency to force a political solution to its ancestral domain land claims.

Native Americans to the Resetvations?

Sir- I like the term "conflict" and "clash"- although I struggle with the "armed" part. An IED facilitator (whether he already laid the IED and is just walking around or just funding it)- for example- is not armed in the traditional sense. A cyber"warrior" in China attacking a network of ours is not armed either. Are those considered people engaged in non-conventional conflict? If so, then the definition of "armed" IMO needs to be fleshed out. If not, then how do we capture those non-armed folks? They can be underground and auxiliary- but I think those terms muddy the reality that they might not support an armed force or may themselves be armed "later", but not all the time. Does that make sense?

Mike- my .02

2. Blackbeard and Queen Anne's Revenge raiding Spanish merchant ships with support from Britain? Non-conventional warfare/conflict (incident?) during and supporting conventional warfare
3. Chinese hackers stealing military secrets online? A non-conventional conflict (not warfare) during and supporting a conventional economic competition ;)
4. CIA assassinating Iranian prime minister back in late 1950s? A non-conventional conflict? You mean the coup against Mosaddegh in '53? He wasn't killed as I understand it- just jailed. A non-conventional conflict/incident during and supporting a conventional (at the time) economic competition. No warfare here.
5. Training Frontier Corps in NW Pakistan? I have a difficult time labeling training as a conflict or warfare. I think it is simply FID or SFA. But, if you want to call it something- maybe a conventional operation supporting a conventional effort wherein one side is engaged in a conventional conflict and the other a non-conventional conflict...?

A more difficult one to label IMO is our advisory efforts in Afghanistan. What are they? Since we are also doing much of the fighting ourselves it would appear it is not just FID (I've heard people call it "combat FID"...).

combat FID or armed nation-building?

In my mind the definition for conventional war is armed action wherein both sides have at least one party each that deploys an army and meets these criteria:

1) is a nation-state
2) most of its troops wear a standardized uniform(s)
3) its armed forces are either all professional or composed of a core of professional troops
4) the armed forces utilize the most expensive and current technology they have access to in order to gain an advantage
5) follows a set of guidelines that influence the conduct of operations (Geneva convention, etc.)
6) the conduct of operations is in some way authorized by the governing institution within the nation-state
7) strategy and operations are focused on the destruction of an identified enemy force
8) "non-military" lines of effort (being defined as both the effort itself and the means used) make up less than 50% of all efforts
9) military commanders, either by de facto or de jure means, are in charge
10) there is an effort to bring the armed action to an official closure, either through a treaty, ceasefire, reintegration of the belligerents, withdrawal, or the like

Thus, one armed action could be made up of both conventional and unconventional war by both parties (Vietnam), conventional by one and unconventional by another (Afghanistan), or unconventional by both (I'm having a hard time thinking of one that meets this criteria).

This, of course, means that an insurgency like the one in Afghanistan presents us with problems- since arguably one side does fit all of the above criteria and yet the other does not (even our doctrine does not label our efforts in Afghanistan as "unconventional"). This, IMO, points to the fallacy of our COIN doctrine and our FID/UW constructs in that we are conducting, for all intents, a conventional war, while our enemies are conducting mostly an unconventional war against us. This puts us at a serious disadvantage: when one side in a war is conducting mostly- if not all- unconventional means, then the side that lasts the longest and has the most purposeful (using McRaven's principle "purpose" in the book SpecOps) position most likely will be seen to "win". By design the unconventional method, when used against a conventional method, will take advantage of more effective purposes and more efficient means- and thus be more likely to "last" ("win").

IMO, as long as nation-states have the capability or motivation to go to war with one another it would seem smart to keep "talking about conventional war". What I would suggest is broaden "unconventional war" or change "conventional" to "regular"- as opposed to irregular. Since our doctrine seems to NOT define unconventional war as the opposite of conventional war- I think it confuses many people.

Grant,

How do you define unconventional war?

Although I agree with COL Maxwell on the doctrinal and military definitions he listed, in this context I would choose the most broad form of asymmetrical competition as the opposite of conventional war- in other words it would include non-armed forces in the definition- instead of making it seem as if they have to be an armed force (or underground supporting an armed force) or an insurgency. Although I understand our need to differentiate between war and non-war- I think this construct weakens us as it is a delineation many don't apply.

Maybe: "asymmetrical competition with intent to force a political change"--? I'm still working this in my mind.

Mike, Grant,

I tried (and struggled) to describe what was not conventional conflict in a monograph I wrote in 1995.

From:
SUPPORT TO UNITED NATIONS OPERATIONS: IS THERE A ROLE FOR UNITED STATES SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES?
A Monograph by Major David S. Maxwell, Special Forces
School of Advanced Military Studies
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
1995

Page 14-16

What is clear is that the UN is now involved in not only the prevention and resolution of conventional conflicts, but also in non-conventional conflicts (a non-doctrinal term).* This is the milieu in which the UN increasingly operates and which makes peace operations so difficult, yet it is this very environment in which US SOF have traditionally worked. This environment forms the foundation for the UN vulnerabilities and needs to be explored and thoroughly understood in order to deduce solutions to those vulnerabilities. To explain this “new” environment, the common definition of conflict will be examined and compared to its non-conventional counterpart. Conflict is defined as "an armed struggle or clash between organized political parties within a nation or between nations in order to achieve limited political or military objectives."** This definition, though somewhat more ambiguous than war, is still rather straightforward and simple to understand. However, non-conventional conflict is something even more ambiguous and difficult to understand. It extends the continuum of conflict. Conflict in the conventional sense begins when the armed struggle begins; however, non-conventional conflict encompasses all of the types of conflict listed above, starting with the threat or possibility of conflict and extending past conflict termination, because the conditions that gave rise to hostilities in the first place may still remain, though not visible or easily recognized. It also includes armed clashes by unorganized groups that are not seeking to achieve any political or military objectives. Non-conventional conflict encompasses the lawlessness of a society in which the governmental system has collapsed, but no organized group has risen to take its place. Violence and terrorist-like activity can occur out of frustration with no identifiable purpose. This type of conflict is non-conventional, because it is difficult to determine the objectives and methods of the actors, perhaps difficult to even determine the actors, and thus it is difficult to apply conventional elements of power. This is the sensitive and complex environment in which peace operations may increasingly take place. Although the situation may not be a traditional insurgency, there will likely be many of its characteristics present. In these types of non-conventional environments it is the issue of perceived legitimacy by the people and the political powers involved that places new stresses on UN forces whose legitimacy is no longer a matter of fact. This is perhaps the most significant change for UN forces given the evolution of conflict.

To expand the understanding of non-conventional conflict it is useful to turn to Sam Sarkesian, a professor of political science at Loyola University, who sets forth a set of characteristics that summarize the variety of future non-conventional conflicts in which the US might become involved. He believes that it is in this environment that US SOF will be called upon to operate.

• Asymmetrical Conflicts. For the US these conflicts are limited and not considered a threat to its survival or a matter of vital national interests; however, for the indigenous adversaries they are a matter of survival.

• Protracted Conflicts. Require a long term commitment by the US, thus testing the national will, political resolve, and staying power of the US.

• Ambiguous and Ambivalent Conflicts. Difficult to identify the adversary, or assess the progress of the conflict; i.e., it is rarely obvious who is winning and losing.

• Conflicts with Political-Social Milieu Center of Gravity. The center of gravity will not be the armed forces of the adversaries as Clausewitz would argue, but more in the political and social realms as Sun Tzu espouses.***

If the words "United Nations" are substituted for "United States", the above would describe some, if not all, of the conflicts in which the UN has been involved since 1988. In this light it seems that the US and the UN face similar situations driven by the changed environment in which peace operations must be conducted. The evolution of conflict in the post-Cold War era now presents UN peacekeepers not only with highly complex operating environments (witness Bosnia), but also with the challenge to continually justify UN force presence in the eyes of a diverse and potentially antagonistic cast of players. This sensitive environment confounds conventional logic, defies traditional solutions, and has driven the UN to a paradigm shift.
__________________________________

*The non-doctrinal term of non-conventional conflict is used to differentiate from the doctrinal term: unconventional warfare, which is "a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted by indigenous or surrogate forces who are trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source, UW includes guerrilla warfare and other direct offensive, low-visibility, covert, or clandestine operations, as well as the indirect activities of subversion, sabotage, intelligence collection, and evasion and escape." Department of Defense, Joint Pub 1-02, DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, (Washington DC: The Joint Staff, March 1994).

**AFSC Pub 1, I-9.

***Sam C. Sarkesian, Unconventional Conflicts in a New Security Era: Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), 15.

I wonder if it is the polysci and IR definitions that muddy the waters or the military's own disfunction?

1. State on State. Check
2. Blackbeard and Queen Anne's Revenge raiding Spanish merchant ships with support from Britain?
3. Chinese hackers stealing military secrets online?
4. CIA assassinating Iranian prime minister back in late 1950s?
5. Training Frontier Corps in NW Pakistan?

Mike,

Perhaps one of the most comprehensive descriptions of US Unconventional Warfare comes from the 1997 Joint Doctrine Encyclopedia (which by the way has not been updated since then).

The 737 page document can be accessed on line and a PDF file downloaded at this link:
http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jrm/ency.htm

UNCONVENTIONAL WARFARE

Unconventional warfare (UW) includes guerrilla warfare (GW) and other low visibility, covert, or clandestine operations, as well as subversion, sabotage, intelligence collection, and evasion and escape (E&E). (See figure below.) GW consists of military and paramilitary operations conducted by irregular, predominantly indigenous forces in enemy-held or hostile territory. It is the overt military aspect of an insurgency or other armed resistance movement.

Guerrilla forces primarily employ raid and ambush tactics against enemy vulnerabilities. In the latterstages of a successful insurgency, guerrilla forces may directly oppose selected, vulnerable enemy forces while avoiding enemy concentrations of strength.

Subversion is an activity designed to undermine the military, economic, psychological, or political strength or morale of a regime or nation. All elements of the resistance organization contribute to the subversive effort, but the clandestine nature of subversion dictates that the underground elements perform the bulk of the activity.

Sabotage is conducted from within the enemy’s infrastructure in areas presumed to be safe from attack. It is designed to degrade or obstruct the warmaking capability of a country bydamaging, destroying, or diverting war material, facilities, utilities, andresources. Sabotage may be the most effective or only means of attacking specific targets that lie beyond the capabilities of conventional weapon systems. Sabotage selectively disrupts, destroys, or neutralizes hostile capabilities with a minimum expenditure of manpower and materiel. Once accomplished, these incursions can further result in the enemy spending excessive resources to guard against future attack.

In UW, the intelligence function must collect, develop, and report information concerning the capabilities, intentions, and activities of the established government or occupying power and its external sponsors. In this context, intelligence activities have both offensive and defensive purposes and range well beyondmilitary issues, including social, economic, and political information that may be used to identify threats, operational objectives, and necessary supporting operations.

E&E is an activity that assists military personnel and other selected persons to:
• move from an enemy-held,hostile, or sensitive area to areas under friendly control;
• avoid capture if unable to return to an area of friendly control;
• once captured, escape. Special operations personnel often will work in concert with the Joint Search and Rescue Center of the joint force commander (JFC) while operating in an E&E network.

UW is the military and paramilitary aspect of an insurgency or other armed resistance movement and may often become a protracted politico-military activity. From the US perspective, UW may be the conduct of indirect or proxy warfare against a hostile power for the purpose of achieving US national interests in peacetime; UW may be employedwhen conventional military involvement is impractical or undesirable; or UW may be a complement to conventional operations in war. The focus of UW is primarily on existing or potential insurgent, secessionist, or other resistance movements. Special operations forces (SOF) provide advice, training, and assistance to existing indigenous resistance organizations. The intent of UW operations is to exploit a hostile power’s political, military, economic, and psychological vulnerabilities by advising, assisting, and sustaining resistance forces to accomplish US strategic or operational objectives.

When UW is conducted independently during military operations other than war or war, its primary focus is on political and psychological objectives. A successful effort to organize and mobilize a segment of the civil population may culminate in military action.

Strategic UW objectives may include the following:

• Undermining the domestic and international legitimacy of the target authority.

• Neutralizing the target authority’s power and shifting that power to the resistance
organization.

• Destroying the confidence and will of the target authority’s leadership.

• Isolating the target authority from international diplomatic and material support while
obtaining such support for the resistance organization.

• Obtaining the support or neutrality of the various segments of the society.

When UW operations support conventional military operations, the focus shifts to primarily military objectives. However, the political and psychological implications remain. UW operations delay and disrupt hostile military activities, interdict lines of communications, deny the hostile power unrestricted use of key areas, divert the hostile power’s attention and resources from the main battle area, and interdict hostile warfighting capabilities. Properly integrated and synchronized UW operations can extend the depth of air, sea, or ground battles, complement conventional military operations, and provide the JFC with the windows of opportunity needed to seize the initiative through offensive action.

During war, SOF may directly support the resistance movement by infiltrating operational elements into denied or politically sensitive areas. They organize, train, equip, and advise or direct the indigenous resistance organization. In situations short of war, when direct US military involvement is inappropriate or infeasible, SOF mayinstead provide indirect support from an external location.

UW may be conducted by all designated SOF, but it is principally the responsibility of Army special forces. Augmentation other than SOF, will usually be provided as the situation dictates by psychological operations and civil affairs units, as well as other selected conventional combat, combat support, and combat service support forces.
Related Terms special operations Source Joint Publications 3-05 Doctrine for Joint Special Operations