Small Wars Journal

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?



Robert C. Jones

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 1:45pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

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.



Vitesse et Puissance

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 1:12pm

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.

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.

Bill M.

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 12:34pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

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

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 11:07am

In reply to by Ken White

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.



Ken White

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 10:12am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C. Jones:

Heh. I presume you mean Ken Payne. This Ken didn't ask. But...<blockquote>"...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.</blockquote>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..

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 7:30am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

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.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 7:25am

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).


(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)

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.

G Martin

Wed, 01/04/2012 - 12:54am

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"...).

G Martin

Tue, 01/03/2012 - 7:22pm

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.