Small Wars Journal

Enabling the Fifth Column and the Relevancy of Unconventional Warfare

Tue, 08/03/2021 - 8:43pm

Enabling the Fifth Column and the Relevancy of Unconventional Warfare


By Mark Grdovic


“During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, a journalist asked Nationalist General Emilio Mola how he planned to take Madrid with his four columns of troops.  The General commented that a "fifth column” of supporters inside the city would support him and undermine the Republican government from within.”


Although the concept of enabling resistance movements as a supporting effort to a broader military campaign is centuries old, the concept did not formally appear in U.S. military doctrine as Unconventional Warfare until 1955[1].  The concept gained reluctant acceptance within the United States military, largely as a result of the Korean War, and remained a staple in various contingency plans throughout the Cold War.  Although unconventional warfare played a vital role in the campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and Northern Iraq in 2003, the benefits to those campaigns was quickly eclipsed by the gapping deficiencies of the ensuring counterinsurgency campaigns.  Additionally, there have been several other instances since 1990, where the concept of unconventional warfare failed to materialize as a viable operational effort in support of large-scale military operations[2].  Subsequently the topic continues to suffer from a variety of inaccurate perceptions that inhibit its application as a part of the U.S. military tool kit. 


When considering the mixed results of these efforts over the last 30 years, it can be a convenient rationalization to conclude that the concept itself must be outdated and unsuited to the challenges of “modern warfare”[3].  Conversely, it would be equally inaccurate to portray unconventional warfare as a secret panacea capable of solving all problems or a euphemism for all things “not conventional”.   It is a unique type of special operation that, like all military capabilities, has limited application to specific scenarios and conditions.  If unconventional warfare is to remain a viable capability within the U.S. Department of Defense, it requires a clear and realistic understanding (particularly from theater planners), not only of the topic, but when it is applicable and what its successful application requires. 


Perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors that has complicated the affective development, incorporation and employment of unconventional warfare concepts is that many aspects associated with the concept are very distinct compared with other types of special operations, to include very unique planning requirements[4].  Subsequently, it’s not uncommon for planners and operational personnel to either omit or replace these procedures and default to more familiar, albeit inappropriate, methods gained from experiences during other types of special operations. 


Many of these requirements and procedures are not clearly captured or articulated in doctrine, not part of professional military education and largely unfamiliar to the joint special operations and conventional force communities.  Despite the popular rhetoric within the special operations community about “returning to an unconventional warfare focus as part of strategic competition” it’s almost impossible to find any meaningful operational lessons or critical academic analysis of successful or unsuccessful unconventional warfare efforts from within the past 30 years.  This lack of honest intellectual analysis and integration of lessons greatly inhibits the likelihood of successful application in the future.


During the Cold War, theater plans, that were largely contingent on Soviet aggression and defensive in nature.  As a result, the plans could be developed to a significant level of detail, thereby enabling subordinate special forces units to maintain a very specific focus for the required capabilities, planning and preparations (exercises and rehearsals).  With the end of the Cold War, this highly structured construct essentially became irrelevant.  In 1990, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait became the first post-Cold War opportunity for unconventional warfare to contribute to a major theater campaign.  Without the benefit of a pre-existing plan, theater planners did not start planning for unconventional warfare in earnest until almost three months after the Iraqi forces invaded.  Following the conflict, the Theater Special Operations Command’s assessment indicated that the U.S. Special Operations Forces and staffs involved in planning generally lacked the ability to develop concepts and plan against an unscripted scenario, which greatly contributed to the inability to effectively support the resistance.


In 2003 the Pentagon deliberately moved away from the more rigid planning process associated with these Cold War standing plans to a more “adaptive” planning process[5].  While predetermined theater Operations Plans (OPLANs) and Contingency Plans (CONPLANs) still apply to a few very specific scenarios, the post-Cold War era has largely not afforded military planners the luxury of relying on premediated defensive war plans.  It has required Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs) and their respective Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) to more rapidly and reactively develop campaign plans (and the full spectrum of supporting special operations plans) in response to emerging crisis or situations, e.g. the Gulf War in 1990, Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2013. 


As a result, Special Operations and Joint Conventional Force HQs need to understand the specific requirements associated with planning for unconventional warfare and not expect emerging opportunities to conform with predetermined plans and scenarios.  If these unique aspects are not addressed during the conception of special operations supporting plans, at the Geographic Combatant Command level during campaign plan development, the result will likely be unconventional warfare being discounted as a viable option or subordinate headquarters (most likely to the Theater Special Operations Command or TSOC) being given tasks to conduct “unconventional warfare” that are not viable or realistic.[6]   


Broadly speaking, the procedures that are unique to planning for unconventional warfare include; determining the existence of UW potential, establishing a realistic and acceptable concept for “resistance” (prior to generating an order at the Geographic Combatant Command/ theater level) and developing and conveying how this concept will integrate with the greater campaign plan.  These requirements are linked to critical decision points at the highest levels of command early in the Joint Planning Process and cannot be reverse engineered by the tactical headquarters (JSOTF and below). 


Ensuring SOF remain prepared to effectively plan and integrate unconventional warfare efforts in support of large-scale military interventions (e.g. an invasion or liberation) is the means by which unconventional warfare remains a relevant and viable capability for the Joint Conventional Force.  While there are other scenarios in which UW could potentially play a role, understanding these specific requirements serves as a critical foundation for Special Operations Forces, as it represents the most complex scenario for planning and potentially the most important one to the Department of Defense.  Subsequently, the relevancy of unconventional warfare is not linked to its frequency of use but rather its potential impact or contribution during those rare situations involving large-scale overt military campaigns, particularly against peer and near-peer adversaries. 


Determining Potential


Perhaps the most immediate planning challenge that an operational level staff will encounter is determining the feasibility of unconventional warfare for a given campaign.  More specifically, this entails identifying a viable resistance partner force and determining whether providing them with support would be beneficial to the campaign.  This can be particularly challenging when conducted simultaneous to a rapidly developing scenario and subsequent campaign plan.  In simple terms, there is a rapidly approaching expiration date on the value of this assessment (for US planners and for the resistance element that is trying to remain alive).  Planners need to remain cautious about not skewing the results in favor of an emerging operational concept.  If the operational concept proceeds in the hopes of correcting any shortcoming from the feasibility assessment process, the likelihood is either a resistance element that may prove to have ideology and long-term objectives not aligned with our own or a force that cannot make good use of the (limited) resources to enable them due to environmental or organizational limitations.


There are essentially three ways this assessment can occur; US personnel infiltrate the denied territory; indigenous agents infiltrate the territory on behalf of the U.S. government or U.S. representatives meet with an emissary for the resistance element outside of denied territory.  Each of these means comes with a different degree of potential accuracy and corresponding risk.  It’s also likely that a scenario might rely on a combination of these means to determine the feasibility to support a specific group.  Depending on the approach to the assessment, it can resemble a diplomatic mission, an intelligence operation, or a compartmented special operation.  The assessment needs to answer the following questions.  Does the entity in question have a desire to work with the United States government and have objectives that are in line with our own?  Is their ideology and (battlefield) behavior acceptable to be considered a partner?[7]  Additionally, do they have legitimate and capable indigenous leadership and is their environment conducive to resistance?  With regard to the environmental conditions, this specifically refers to factors such as safe haven(s) and favorable (restrictive) terrain, passive support from some percentage of the population and an adversary that has some weakness of control over the populations?  If these environmental factors do not exist in some capacity, the likelihood for successful operations will be low[8]


Personnel involved in assessment need to understand these criteria as well as what is and is not acceptable and available from the United States government (in terms of policy and possible aid) to effectively negotiate for a favorable position.  If the assessment determines that there is potential for resistance, an agreement for support is made with the entity.  When this occurs, the entity is formally identified as a partner (similar to an ally) with their own recognized indigenous chain of command (that may reside internal or external to the country)[9].


Developing an Acceptable and Realistic Concept for Resistance


At the inception of any concept to “enable resistance”, it’s critical to clarify the intent and scope for any resistance activities as a common reference point for further planning.  There are many things a resistance can do to contribute to a campaign effort.  However, these potential contributions are not necessarily intuitive or obvious.  Theater campaign planners may not see the potential value from enabling resistance or ask special operations planners to consider highly unrealistic tasks not appropriate for resistance forces.  Theater special operations planners need to be prepared to speak to these scenarios with a high degree of familiarity.  The concept for resistance should include the anticipated scope of the proposed actions for the Guerrillas and the Underground that correspond with the campaign objectives as well as ensuring the appropriate requisite legal authorities are in place before being tasked to a subordinate headquarters with broad generic terms such as “conduct unconventional warfare”.  If this is not done, there is a potential for various levels of command to develop different and potentially inaccurate or incomplete perceptions of exactly what “resistance” includes. 


Guerrillas traditionally operate in small decentralized bands focusing on vulnerable targets and avoiding decisive engagements.  This is commonly the case when the resistance is in a defensive posture fighting for its very survival.  However, in certain circumstances where the enemy forces and the guerrilla force have reached a state of near parity, the guerrillas could operate as militias in which they operate in a manner closer to mobile infantry columns rather than traditional guerrilla forces.  This was the case in Afghanistan in 2001 with the Northern Alliance and Northern Iraq in 2003 with the Kurdish Peshmerga.  It’s critical that planners and operational elements understand the distinction between these two scenarios and when these tactics are permissible and when they are not[10].


If the concept includes providing lethal aid to guerrillas or elements of the underground, this should be quantified with a description for the type of activities to be conducted and the type of material that is acceptable and available. A similar example could be made for the conduct of subversion through the Underground.  If this is not articulated clearly during the theater planning process, it can lead to a breakdown in subordinate’s planning, categorized by the units continuously submitting requirements back to their higher headquarters and requesting authorities for the tasks they have been assigned.  This dynamic has a potential to cause the concept to become overly guerrilla-centric and substantially less effective.


When developing a concept of how resistance could contribute to a larger invasion there are essentially two options; support to a second front that diverts enemy resources and attention or direct support to an invasion area.  The invasion of Iraq in 2003 offers two examples of these types of efforts. The Kurdish resistance efforts in the north diverted much of the Iraq’s resources away from the main invasion area in the south while efforts to enable the Shia resistance in the south would have theoretically supported the main invasion maneuver efforts coming from Kuwait.   The southern effort did not materialize as it proved to be a much more challenging if not potentially unfeasible due to a lack of resistance potential among the population. 

Examples of Potential Resistance Contributions


  • Situational Awareness and Intelligence Collection.
  • Attacks on vulnerable enemy forces and capabilities (whether by sabotage of guerrilla activity) – attacks on lines of communications, rear area infrastructure and other selected vulnerable enemy capabilities.
  • Subversion (undermining the enemy’s authority and legitimacy)
  • Unconventional Assisted Recovery (UAR) (recovery of isolated personnel through resistance infrastructure)
  • Deception Operations
  • Reception of General-Purpose Forces (GPF).  Reception of GPF can be highly valuable in terms of retaining control of newly liberated territory and facilitating a more rapid advance.
  • Rear Area/ LOC security.  Population control measures, assistance with civil military operations, distribution of humanitarian aid and securing lines of communications (by trusted indigenous forces with US advisors)

Conveying How the Concept for Resistance Integrates into the Campaign Plan



Once a concept for resistance is developed, the theater headquarters needs to convey the task to enable resistance with enough context and detail that enables the subordinate headquarters to develop a viable operational and tactical level plan.  This becomes particularly challenging when the concept calls for resistance in support of an undisclosed D-day/H-hour event (time and location).  The order must describe the required effects in relation to an unknown date (e.g. D-day).  Special operations forces may be given a “no later than” date to have a resistance capability in place and ready to conduct operations, indicating a minimum amount of time from their known deployment date into the theater to establish a capability (e.g. establish the required capability NLT C+60).  Additionally, the special operations forces should be given a required length of time to maintain their activities once they initiate a broader scale of resistance operations (e.g. BPT sustain resistance operations from D-D+4).  This enables the special operations personnel to determine how much risk they can sustain in their operations based on the expectation of link-up with advancing conventional maneuver forces[11]


Perhaps a last conceptual detail that requires clarification up front is timing and method of notification of any expanded resistance operations.   If the details of the invasion are compartmented and (rightly so), not shared with the special operations forces operating in denied territory, when and how should they receive notification to execute operations?  How much lag time should be expected between receiving notification execution by resistance forces?  These details are not obvious or intuitive and must be agreed to at the earliest stages of concept development.  The theater level command needs to develop a common understanding of when resistance efforts would rise up in relation to the start of D-day.


Operational elements conducting unconventional warfare are expected to operate under a system of decentralized command and control, largely due to the unique constraints associated with operating from denied territory.  This implies they must be empowered to determine the specific resistance activities that would achieve the required effects.  To enable subordinate units, orders need to focus on the required effects rather than overly specific tasks (such as specific targets for attack).  Specific resistance operations cannot be determined from friendly territory and without consultation with the actual resistance force.


Similarly, when operations are conceived from within the denied territory, their coordination cannot be conducted in the same manner as those during an unrestrictive counterinsurgency environment (e.g. submitting detailed CONOPs for approval to the higher command).  Without the required detail at the start of planning, the requirements cannot be tasked and conveyed to subordinate forces.  This would make developing and executing a viable plan “to enable resistance” incredibly difficult if not impossible.




Individually, resistance activities may not appear to make an overly significant contribution to a campaign in comparison to the added complexity and risk that comes with them.  However, when the potential contributions and subsequent benefits are clearly understood by planners, the cost benefit analysis is much clearer.  Unconventional Warfare provides the greatest contribution or value during scenarios in which the US military does not have the benefit of its normal superiority advantage (as was the case when unconventional warfare played a critical role in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003).  While these scenarios are rare, the potential consequences make them the most important.


While the benefits to these campaigns is obviously significant, there are secondary benefits, that are no less significant and cannot be replicated or accomplished by advanced weaponry or foreign liberating forces.  Enabling resistance invests the population in their own liberation.  These seemingly small efforts provide a critical source of national pride that is desperately needed in the wake of a hugely traumatic event such as an enemy invasion and eventual liberation.  It transforms the collective psyche of the post conflict population from one of a “helpless victim” to “a victim that fought back”.  Secondly, the presence of indigenous forces as part of a coalition enables the liberating forces to reestablish order and essential services more rapidly and effectively and relinquish control to back to representatives of the population and government.  Both aspects greatly accelerate the population’s psychologically and physically recovery and return to normalcy.


If the Joint Conventional Force and the Special Operations Force cannot evolve to more effectively plan, integrate and execute these types of operations (in those rare opportunities when they are appropriate), there will likely be a continued atrophy of unconventional warfare, rationalized by the flawed notion that it just isn’t suited to “modern warfare”.  However, if the Joint Conventional and Special Operations communities can evolve to collaborate on education and training, develop and retain the required skills and knowledge and effectively apply them when required, the Department of Defense will be in a much better position to meet a wider array of possible scenarios and threat.




[1] FM 21-30 Special Forces Operations 1955

[2] SOCCENT After Action Review of Support to the Kuwaiti Resistance, Mar 1991.  USSOCOM History Office Archies.  UW failed to materialize as a viable concept with the Kuwaiti resistance during the Gulf War in 1991, the Shia resistance in southern Iraq in 2003, the Libyan resistance in 2011 and the Syrian rebels in 2013.

[3] In some cases, this has led to misguided attempts to ensure the relevancy of unconventional warfare by seeking to broaden it to encompass other (existing) operational concepts such as “resistance” against insurgents or terrorists (aka COIN and CT).  When this occurs, it has the opposite effect, obscuring the procedural issues and further miring the Special Operations and Joint Conventional Force communities in confusion. 

[4] Unconventional Warfare is normally conducted in denied territory alongside irregular partner resistance forces, without the benefit of established LOCs and for extended periods of time.  This creates unique requirements for decentralized control, minimal external communications, and collaboration with and recognition of a partner chain of command and the transfer of non-standard lethal aid.

[5] William M. Arkin, Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World, 2005, Steerforth Press

[6] This challenge is exasperated within newly designated Joint Task Force Headquarters (e.g. a Combined Joint Task Force functioning on behalf of the Geographic Combatant Command and a Special Operations Task Force or SOJTF, functioning on behalf of the Theater Special Operations Command or TSOC) that may not have the benefit of established staff relationships.

[7] In certain cases, a potential resistance partner’s behavior can be altered (restrained) by negotiations for certain aid, thereby making their conduct more acceptable for sponsorship and support.

[8] Some of these factors can be influenced slightly such as the implementation of “no-fly” zones or information operations to the population.  While they can be influenced, they cannot be manufactured, overlooked, or compensated for by other factors.

[9] If the resistance force is aligned with an allied government in-exile then they are regarded as an Ally.  If they are an irregular force and aligned with the accepted leadership for the resistance (such as the case with the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq in 2002 or the Free Syrian Army in 2014) then they are legally a “Partner”.  In either case they are accountable to an indigenous chain of command and not the United States.   Operational elements from the United States may provide operational advice, facilitate, and coordinate their efforts and monitor their conduct to ensure compliance to the agreement.  This should not be confused with operations using surrogate forces (under US control).  Resistance forces are not considered surrogates.

[10] Understanding the status or phase of the resistance is critical in understanding the appropriate tactics.  The incorporation of US air support in some cases can tip the balance to create a state of near parity and allow the guerrillas to operate like quasi-infantry.  However,  it’s critical for planners and advisors to understand that the guerrillas may not be prepared to operate in this manner and the environment may not support these tactics.  When this occurs, there can be a tendency to over-focus on the mobile guerrilla column supported by a disproportionate amount of air support and overlook the other aspects or contributions of a broader resistance to the detriment of the overall potential effects.

[11] An example description for the task of UW to a subordinate SOF HQs could include “be prepared to commence resistance operations no earlier than 60 days from C-day (arrival in theater).  Expect to receive notification simultaneous to the commencement of H-Hour /Day.  Once D-Day occurs be prepared to sustain combat operations with resistance forces for 96 hours (D-D+4).

About the Author(s)

Mark Grdovic retired as an Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel in 2012.  He has served with 10th and 5th Special Forces Groups, as a Small Group Instructor and Company Commander with the 1st Special Warfare Training Group and Chief of Special Forces Doctrine with the U.S. Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School.  He also served as the Deputy Commander for the Joint Operations Group Central (JOG-C) in SOCCENT.  His service includes multiple deployments to Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and various crisis response operations in Africa.  Since his retirement he has worked as a Strategic Planner at U.S. CENTCOM, a sensitive activities advisor in SOCCENT and an adjunct faculty member and course director for the Joint Unconventional Warfare Course at the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU).  He is currently the Senior International SOF Advisor within the USSOCOM J3-International Division.



Tue, 01/18/2022 - 12:34am

Thank you for writing about the Relevancy of Unconventional Warfare. You've explained clear and concise manner. This type of knowledge is extremely beneficial to everyone, therefore I'll pass it on. However, if you're playing online casino games, it's a different story. I would like to know the best way to deposit. Take a look around and read this blog. This post contains a comprehensive reference to the quickest deposit choices for online casinos.


Wed, 09/22/2021 - 4:37am

We are committed to providing our clients with exceptional solutions while offering web design and development services, graphic design services, organic SEO services, social media services, digital marketing services, server management services and Graphic Design Company in USA.