Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare: A Clear Picture of a Fuzzy Objective

Tue, 10/22/2013 - 5:52pm

Irregular Warfare: A Clear Picture of a Fuzzy Objective

US Army Irregular Warfare Center

We must be able to operate across any operational environment…including regular and irregular warfare, stability operations, counterinsurgency, humanitarian assistance, and any other mission that is out there.[i]

- GEN Raymond T. Odierno, 2012

This paper will be the first in a series produced by the Army Irregular Warfare Center (AIWC) and the Mission Command Center of Excellence (MCCoE) designed to generate discussion amongst the community of interest on the definition for irregular warfare (IW) and its proper place in joint and service doctrine.  As a start point in the series, this paper begins with an examination of the definition for IW to generate discussion and attempt to build consensus on how the term should be defined.  Follow up papers will explore the full range of activities and supporting actions, conditions, and actors that fit the IW narrative.  The series will continue to build on this research by examining a force-wide comprehensive strategy and recommend implementation of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P) solutions to institutionalize IW.

Headquarters, Department of the Army G-35 (DAMO-SSO) published an information paper in which they identify problems with the joint definition for IW, stating, “the term IW is unhelpful as a broad categorization of warfare.”[ii]  DAMO-SSO’s issue is not new; the definition of IW and what it is comprised of has been in debate for years.  With the realization of the increased likelihood of asymmetric conflict among both non-state and state sponsored terrorists, criminals, insurgents, and guerrillas, as well as the fusion of these irregular threats with traditional state based military capabilities, the term has quickly become a popular catch all in describing the varied challenges faced and capabilities employed by U.S. commanders in the post 9/11 era.  In an attempt to address the implications of formally including the term in joint doctrine, the United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) published the Special Study on Irregular Warfare in 2006.  After exhaustive research and analysis, USJFCOM recommended against the doctrinal acceptance of the term IW stating, “as a practical matter, the IW concept and descriptions available are too immature to develop a joint doctrine construct now and the potential for future development is doubtful based on the analysis presented in this study.”[iii]  Yet, in accordance with Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 3000.07 and the Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept (JOC) Version 1, IW was formally included in DoD doctrine.[iv]  In a Joint Forces Quarterly article, Kenneth Coons and Glenn Harned highlight initial disagreement between DOD leadership on how to define IW; some senior leaders advocated emphasis on who conducts the activity while others advocated emphasis on how it is conducted. [v] The resulting definition represents a compromise between the different opinions on what the term IW should describe.  As stated in Joint Publication (JP) 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, IW is defined as:

A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations(s). Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities, in order to erode and adversary’s power, influence, and will.[vi]

Despite the acceptance of emphasizing the strategic purpose in IW, disagreement and confusion remains on what the term describes.  The lack of clarity on what IW means has fostered misunderstanding and misuse of the term at the strategic policy level, which has spread confusion and is negatively impacting the formulation of strategy and doctrine for the 21st Century.  Most notably, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance lists counterterrorism (CT), stability, and counterinsurgency (COIN) as primary missions of the U.S. Armed Force separate and commensurate with IW; however, the IW JOC and DoDD 3000.07 state that each of those primary missions, in addition to foreign internal defense (FID) and unconventional warfare (UW), are the core activities that constitute IW.[vii]  These types of hierarchical inconsistencies are particularly troublesome for Army doctrine.

The statement, “you know it when you see it,” although an easy way to avoid the definitional confusion, is not helpful in the formulation of doctrine and strategies for a form of warfare that is expected to become increasingly likely for the United States.  Failure to reach a consensus on what exactly IW is will negatively impact future force/capability development across the DOTMLPF-P spectrum as DoD continues to evolve to face increasingly complex global challenges in a budget constrained era.  There are many schools of thought that articulate arguments on how to proceed.  This paper attempts to articulate four different courses of action in defining IW with the hopes of providing coherent and well thought out ways forward.  These courses of action are:

  • Course of Action 1:  Maintain the Status Quo
  • Course of Action 2:  Modify the Current Definition
  • Course of Action 3:  Create a New Definition
  • Course of Action 4:  Eliminate the Term Irregular Warfare

Course of Action 1: Maintain the Status Quo

There is no need for a change in the current definition of IW.  JP 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, discusses two forms of recognized warfare: traditional and irregular.[viii]  These two forms of warfare are differentiated by strategic purpose.  In traditional warfare, actors ultimately seek to influence the governments of nation states while in IW, actors seek to influence relevant populations.  Most importantly for this discussion, JP 1 clearly recognizes that warfare is a unified whole.[ix]  What is defined and described in joint doctrine is a spectrum of warfare in which traditional warfare and IW represent the extreme ends.  One form is not likely to be conducted without the other, and there are many recent examples in the contemporary operating environment that validate this.  More to the point, conflicts in the 21st Century will require a delicate mix of capabilities across the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, as well as through time and space.

The Marine Corps concept of a “3 Block War” provides a simplified conceptualization of how irregular and traditional warfare fuse together.  As explained by GEN Charles Krulak:

In one moment in time, our service members will be feeding and clothing displaced refugees, providing humanitarian assistance. In the next moment, they will be holding two warring tribes apart – conducting peacekeeping operations – and finally they will be fighting a highly lethal mid-intensity battle – all on the same day, all within three city blocks.[x]

This fusion of the two forms of warfare varies through space and time among the echelons of command.  A commander may conduct traditional warfare during the initial phases of an operation and shift to IW during the later phases.  The same commander may conduct both forms of warfare simultaneously with one or several of his subordinate commanders conducting population centric operations while other subordinate commanders conduct force on force operations to seize or retain terrain and/or destroy the adversary’s force. This applies to joint task forces and Corps all the way down to platoon level elements.

It is widely acknowledged by many academic and military professionals that it is unhelpful to view warfare in separate categories, and joint doctrine does not attempt to do so. Joint doctrine simply attempts to communicate that at any point in the spectrum, other than the extreme poles, a commander will have to conduct a combination of population and force on force centric operations, in varying degrees, to achieve the strategic purpose.[xi]  The definition and characterization of IW in joint doctrine successfully designates it from traditional warfare by highlighting the difference in purpose.  Broadening or narrowing the definition, or adding the type of threat will do little to solve doctrinal problems with IW.

A more worthwhile endeavor would be to adjust IW’s place within doctrine.  Specifically for the Army, changing the definition would do little to improve problems with IW’s place within doctrine.  With the elimination of operational themes from Army doctrine (i.e., major combat operations, IW, peace operations, limited intervention and peacetime military engagement), it has been difficult to understand how IW fits into Unified Land Operations.  For example, stability operations (SO), as an element of decisive action, are conducted as part of both traditional and irregular warfare; to frame SO under IW is inaccurate and misleading.  Additionally, there is no combination of offense, defense, and stability that accurately captures IW’s core and key related activities, as described in the IW JOC 2.0.[xii]  In a Small Wars Journal article, Richard Pedersen, Mission Command Branch Chief at MCCoE, proposed making IW an element of decisive action, commensurate with offense, defense, stability, and defense support to civil authorities.[xiii]  IW emphasizes strategic purpose, not a type of threat.  Just as offense, defense, and stability are employed in varying combinations to defeat traditional, irregular, or hybrid threats, IW can be applied to each threat, as well.  

Course of Action 2: Modify the Current Definition

The current definition of IW is too restrictive as the requirement for the struggle to be “for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s)” excludes many types of warfare where the population may be the combatant, but is not necessarily the prize. With only two forms of warfare defined in current doctrine, IW should encompass all forms that do not fit the definition of traditional warfare.  Most historical examples of IW, primarily COIN, involve conflict with the goal of achieving government legitimacy and influence with the people.  What if the non-state actor does not require, or even desire to obtain legitimacy as a governing or political body?  To include these other forms of warfare, the definition of IW should be expanded to include all types of conflict.

Some examples of warfare involving non-state actors that do not need or desire to influence the population include insurgent and criminal organizations.  The Haqqani Network (HQN) provides an example of an organization that does not necessarily need or want to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the people.  Most western governments and academics classify the HQN as an insurgent group.[xiv]  In September of 2012, the U.S. State Department added the HQN to the list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.[xv]  Neither one of these designations truly defines the goals and objectives of the HQN.  HQN does seek the expulsion of foreign forces from Afghanistan, but whether or not the group’s goals also include overthrowing the elected government of Afghanistan remain unclear.[xvi]  HQN was not part of the Taliban alliance that took power in 1994, but did eventually reach an agreement to control illegal smuggling in the southeast part of the country.[xvii]  It is logical to assume that the ultimate goals of HQN remain that of a criminal patronage network that does not need to gain legitimacy as a government entity or influence over the people, but merely needs to retain freedom of movement within their area of operations.  Other examples that would not necessarily involve attempts at legitimacy or influence over the populace include pirates, transnational criminal organizations, and warlords operating in ungoverned spaces.

The proposed modified definition for IW should read:

Irregular Warfare is a violent struggle among state and non-state actors. The struggle could be for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s), to force regime change or political accommodation, to expel foreign invaders, or for profit motives. Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.

This modified definition for IW accounts for the nature of the threat and expands upon potential goals and objectives.  Limiting the strategic purpose to “gaining legitimacy and influence over the relevant population” is too restrictive and excludes the reality that organizations that seek profit, political change or accommodation, or that seek to expel a foreign occupying army, without the need or desire to gain legitimacy or influence over the population should also be considered under the IW umbrella.

Course of Action 3: Create a New Definition

The current definition for IW does not sufficiently distinguish it from traditional warfare, it is inaccurate, and misses the strategic purpose and implications often unique to non-conventional operations.  Additionally, many believe that IW is just a type of warfare within the range of military operations even though IW tends to be more political-military in nature.  A clear definition provides a better understanding of operations, environments, situations, and adversaries largely unique to this type of warfare.

The definition includes “the full range of military and other capacities,” making it unclear how IW is different from traditional warfare.  The IW definition should clarify that it is outside the realm of traditional warfare in many ways and include that it requires a completely different understanding of the adversary that cannot be accurately assessed from traditional information collection and analysis.  IW accounts for overt tangible signs of a threat, but also relies on the seemingly innocuous and intangible signs indicative of instability.  From natural disasters to unstable regions, activities within the realm of IW focus on the conditions of instability and therefore can be proactive before irregular adversaries become incipient or even exist.

The definition also identifies that IW is a “violent struggle” when many aspects, such as SO and FID, are not necessarily violent.  IW includes the word “warfare” which denotes conflict in the form of violent adversaries; however, obstacles or conditions caused by natural disasters can offer situations, which warrant shaping and deterring efforts to prevent violence.  The inclusion of “state and non-state actors” is unclear and appears to refer to two opposing belligerents.  In many cases, IW can be between states, state sponsored non-state actors, unsponsored non-state actors or any combination.  This definition claims the objective is to gain “legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s)” which is more the ‘means’ than the ‘ways’ or ‘ends.’  Common end-states of the irregular adversary can include nullifying a region, subverting governments or their political opponents, expelling an occupation force, and other actions that are not primarily focused on populations as the purpose of the conflict.

Adversaries who operate from less stabilized areas of the world offer unique challenges to Combatant Commander Operations Plans, especially during phase zero and one, that make shaping and deterrence planning and execution more difficult.  For example, according to the 2012 CIA World Factbook, there are 195 countries, and 72 independent global entities.  According to the 2012 Failed State Index, published in Foreign Policy Magazine, 59 states fall below the stable category and are classified as being in critical, danger, or borderline levels of risk for state failure.  The analysis needed to shape and deter future threats requires irregular focused doctrine especially in the pre-conflict stages, where conventional adversaries are not present and conventional means of analysis are less effective

One of the key factors of IW is the strategic implications, regardless of size and intensity.  Competing states often conduct IW by proxy through other nations, generally in the developing world that despite being primarily intra-state, have regional and global impacts.  The definition and narrative of IW should highlight the strategic ramifications to provide insight on irregular adversaries and why and how U.S. involvement is prudent.  Adversaries, ranging from competing states to non-state groups, largely rely on irregular or asymmetric tactics to offset the sheer might and power of the United States Armed Forces to forward their strategic goals with politically driven activities such as terrorism, insurgency, subversion, and lawlessness.  It is important to understand the critical ties the irregular adversary has with local communities as a key function of their success. 

Analysis of irregular adversaries, such as insurgents, requires specific methodologies in order to analyze their nature and strategy, which are distinct from methodologies of traditional adversaries.  The dynamics and strategies of insurgencies are examples of doctrinal methodologies that do not match the paradigm of conventional adversaries (or allies) and further identifies the need for additional training, education, and operations to adequately address asymmetric threats. 

The proposed new definition for IW should read:

Irregular Warfare is an ideologically motivated confrontation between contending state and/or non-state actors that often utilizes indirect approaches which range from addressing causes of instability to subversion to the use of armed force by employing political, social, economic, informational, psychological, military, and paramilitary instruments.  Narrative:  IW often occurs within a state below the level of traditional war and above the level of routine, peaceful competition among or within states.  It often is more protracted in nature than conventional operations although IW can also be a supporting effort in traditional war.  IW can range from localized instability to a regional struggle, often with regional and strategic implications.

Failure to accept an accurate and definitive definition of IW, which addresses the strategic implications of such actions and conditions, will limit any effort to institutionalize IW.  In the past, the lack of a cohesive strategy has led to gaps in Army doctrine and professional military education.  This situation “could lead to neglect of the U.S. military’s training and capabilities with respect to unconventional warfare, neglect that would be contrary to national security interests of the United States.”[xviii],[xix]  This Ernest Evans quote, in World Affairs Journal, is prescient as it was published in 1997 and warned that if we lose the lessons of Vietnam and El Salvador it may cause problems in a post-Cold War, 21st Century.  Evans continued, “the collapse of the Soviet empire has accelerated a process that was already well under way, namely, the upsurge in violent conflicts among racial, religious, and ethnic groups.”[xx] The events following the fall of the Iraqi regime are examples of past lessons lost regarding an analysis of irregular adversaries and conditions of instability.  This situation should not be repeated by misdiagnosing what IW entails by providing a definition that sets a foundation for the scope of warfare and activities outside of the traditional.  Doctrine, training, and education on IW will increase understanding of irregular adversaries, the conditions which precede their growth, and how they achieve freedom of movement amongst a population.  A comprehensive definition, as proposed, will provide the means to clearly identify the tenets needed to build a comprehensive strategy to institutionalize IW throughout the Army.

Course of Action 4: Eliminate the Term Irregular Warfare

One final perspective is that the term IW creates confusion at all levels of the military and should be removed from doctrine and lexicon for the purpose of clarity.  Recognizing the joint doctrinal dissonance already covered in previous sections of this paper, irregular concepts inevitably lead to comparisons with so-called regular or traditional warfare, infusing linear thinking into leaders’ assessment of the operating environment.  The definition is also incongruent with other allied, joint, and Army doctrine.  

Simply defining something as irregular, cognitively and socially, separates conventional military forces from the Joint Operational Concept.  Retired Army Colonel David Maxwell, Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, highlights similar debate surrounding the joint definition of unconventional warfare stating, “what [unconventional] has meant to many outside of SOF is that FID and UW are SOF-exclusive activities.”[xxi]  By delineating a separate category of warfare, doctrine negatively influences military leadership on the value and importance of IW and its core activities to conventional forces.  According to the 2013 Joint Force Assessment for IW, the joint force struggles with a tendency to erroneously characterize capability decisions as either-or propositions: conventional or irregular.”[xxii]  A 2006 IW study by the USJFCOM specifically recommended rejecting IW as a term or construct in joint doctrine.  After finding that IW definitions in joint forums and working groups varied, and contradicted NATO usage, the Joint Warfighting Center study proposed deleting it from all joint publications.[xxiii]  

Multinational allies also discourage applying the term to describe conflict prevention and environmental shaping actions, such as the FID and SO activities in non-hostile environments.  NATO Allied Joint Publication 1, Allied Joint Doctrine, discourages doctrinal modeling of discrete types of conflict.  Any benchmark of traditional war against near-peers leads to binary, linear, sequential views discounting concurrency and complexity of other conflicts, with different characteristics.[xxiv]  British Joint Doctrine Publication 1 recognizes increasingly complex challenges from irregular threats, but finds it unhelpful to categorize efforts to counter irregular threats as war, or special type of warfare.[xxv]

U.S. Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-0, Unified Land Operations, provides the framework for Army support of unified action by governmental and non-governmental entities via land operations.  U.S. Army forces conduct decisive and sustainable land operations through the simultaneous combination of offensive, defensive, and stability operations, or defense support of civil authorities.  Army forces conduct regular and IW against both conventional and hybrid threats.  Given that the Army uses Decisive Action to conduct traditional and irregular warfare, logic dictates the Army conducts warfare, regardless of any joint doctrinal definition of IW.[xxvi]  

As an example of potential adversary views on warfare, Colonels Qiao and Wang of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army authored Unrestricted Warfare, assessing that warfare requires a multitude of means including, but not limited to, computer hacking, targeting financial institutions, terrorism, using the media, and conducting urban warfare.[xxvii]  COL Qiao writes: "the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden."[xxviii]  Our adversaries understand that they must attack America in a way that negates our military advantage by creating an environment that crosses several lines of authority within our government forcing America to not only recognize and employ the appropriate range of military operations but to also employ solutions from our governmental and non-governmental colleagues in a coordinated and synergistic effort.  

Finally, defining IW does little to affect gains in resources and authorities from Congress.  Outside of periodic assessments from defense leadership, there exists no sustained national-level focus on resourcing IW, per se.  Of the $631 billion initially requested in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, the House proposed $77 million for the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO), $26.3 million for activities in Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Advanced Development.  That amount included explosive ordnance disposal in low-intensity conflict (implied therein is counter-WMD), the IW Support (IWS) program, and Information Dissemination Concepts.[xxix]  It appears component activities of IW are specifically funded at roughly $400 million.[xxx]  Stability operations and IW, as an overarching concept, are not funded.

However, one current initiative showcases an interagency definition for improved national capacity for stabilization and reconstruction operations, represented by the IW core activity of stability operations, but without warfare-like, DoD-centric labels of “violent struggles” and various actors.  House Resolution 2606, introduced in June of 2013, proposes a government office for stabilization, the definition for which describes potential irregular conditions: 

…. a circumstance in which a combination of security, reconstruction, relief, and development services, including assistance for the development of military and security forces and the provision of infrastructure and essential services.[xxxi]

Through legislative liaison and action, DoD should codify definitions and concepts in public law, instead of relying on contradictory joint and service doctrine, or fulfilling a Joint Operating Concept which lacks any potential to garner future resources in a fiscally-constrained environment.  However, to change the law, one must first influence legislators.  To do that, skeptics would say, you have to make it politically tenable and valuable to advocate IW.  This is difficult when IW requires less of the platforms and technology which drive manufacturing, jobs, economic impact, and ostensibly, congressional district votes. The dollar amounts show no political or financial capital in IW, so DoD defines it for a deaf audience.  Resolution 2606 is a process example which actually drives national-level debate and resourcing, while explicitly defining defense activities required by the American people via Congress.

In summary, defining IW detracts from doctrinal clarity by cognitively and professionally segregating conventional forces from problems perceived as irregular.  Joint definitions are also incongruent with adversarial views of warfare, Army doctrine for Decisive Action, Allied doctrine, and the American interagency community.  Although required for development of military concepts, capability, and strategy, a vague definition adds nothing to the national level debates on resourcing, authorities, and permissions.  Less is more; clarity is achieved by removing terms that do not add to our understanding of the operating environment. IW is most certainly one of those terms.


It is widely agreed that there is confusion on what IW means and where it belongs within joint and Army doctrine.  It can be argued that there are numerous technical flaws that render the definition unhelpful in the formulation of policy and doctrine.  This paper presented four arguments for moving forward:  keep the definition, modify the current definition, change the definition completely, or eliminate the definition from doctrinal lexicon. The community of interest must come to a consensus on what IW means; the mandatory first step in determining and solidifying IW’s place within doctrine.  The current lack of clarity could result in duplicated or conflicting efforts across the DOD enterprise.  This in turn can impact the development of DOTMLPF-P solutions for the Armed Forces in an era characterized by persistent, complicated conflict and severely constrained budgets.  Worst case, the continued confusion could stall the formulation of new strategies and doctrine for the future and failure to capture and institutionalize the hard learned lessons in our most recent conflicts.  Feedback to the AIWC would be greatly appreciated and utilized in our efforts to affect informed changes to joint and Army doctrine and to identify and reduce gaps across the DOTMLPF-P spectrum in regards to IW.

Feedback would be greatly appreciated and utilized to inform further research and writing on this topic.  Please send responses to the following email,  For questions, the point of contact for this paper is MAJ Manny Gonzalez at (913) 684-5212.

The Army Irregular Warfare Center (AIWC) assesses, integrates, collaborates, and synchronizes Irregular Warfare (IW) activities, initiatives, and capabilities across the U.S. Army.  AIWC operates under the Combined Arms Center (CAC) Mission Command Center of Excellence (MCCoE) combining expertise from CAC, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG), Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI), and Army Security Force Assistance (SFA).

End Notes

[i] GEN Raymond T. Odierno, AUSA Institute of Land Warfare Breakfast, January 25, 2012.

[ii] Nicholas Mumm,“Irregular Warfare,” (information paper, HQDA G-35 DAMO-SSO 2013), 1.

[iii] Department of Defense Joint Forces Command, Irregular Warfare Special Study (Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, 2006), vi.

[iv] Richard L. Kiper, “Future of Irregular Warfare (IW) in the Army,” (information paper, Army Irregular Warfare Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2013), 7-9; United States Department of Defense, Joint Operating Concept, Irregular Warfare: Countering Irregular Threats, Version 2.0 (Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, 2010), 9;  Kenneth C. Coons and Glenn M. Harned, “Irregular Warfare is Warfare,” in Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 52, 1st QTR (2009), 98-99.

[v] Coons and Harned, “Irregular Warfare is Warfare,” 99.

[vi] United States Department of Defense, JP 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, 2010), 148.

[vii] DOD, IW JOC 2.0, 17; United States Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Directive: Irregular Warfare,” No. 3000.07, December 1, 2008.

[viii] Joint Chiefs of Staff, JP 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 25 March, 2013), X.

[ix] DOD, JP 1, x, I-4- I-6.

[x] Charles Krulak, “The Three Block War: Fighting in Urban Areas,” Draft Remarks for

The National Press Club 10 October 1997; Charles Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,” in Marines Magazine (January, 1999);  A. Walter Dorn and Michael Varey, “The Rise and Demise of the ‘Three Block War,’” in Canadian Military Journal (October, 2009).

[xi] DOD, JP 1, x, I-4- I-6.

[xii] Core related activities include counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, security force assistance, stability operations, and unconventional Warfare. Key related activities include strategic communications, information operations, psychological operations, civil-military operations, support law enforcement, intelligence, and counter-intelligence. DOD, IW JOC 2.0, 5.

[xiii] Richard Pedersen, Irregular Warfare: Operational Theme or Full Spectrum Operation?” in Small Wars Journal (2009), 6-7.

[xiv] Jeffrey A. Dressler, Afghanistan Report 6: The Haqqani Network, From Pakistan to Afghanistan (Washington DC, Institute for the Study of War, October 2010), pg 9

[xv] U.S. State Department, Foreign Terrorist Organizations (Washington DC, Bureau of Counterterrorism, September 28), 2012

[xvi] Stanford University, Mapping Militant Organizations: Haqqani Network, July 23, 2012,

[xvii] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (New York: Yale University Press, 2010), 60.

[xviii] Ernest Evans, “Ethnicity and Politics,” in World Affairs, Vol. 160, No. 1 (Summer, 1997), 43.

[xix] The use of unconventional warfare in this quote is used as it would be in common language and is not the DOD defined term ‘unconventional warfare’ which focuses on working with revolutionary forces.

[xx]Daniel Patrick Moynihan quoted by Ernest Evans, “Ethnicity and Politics,” in World Affairs, Vol. 160, No. 1 (Summer, 1997), 43.

[xxi] David Maxwell, “Unconventional Warfare Does Not Belong to Special Forces,” August 12, 2013.

[xxii] Joint Staff J-7, 2013 United States Joint Force Assessment for Irregular Warfare, 7.

[xxiii] USJFCOM, IW Special Study,V-1.

[xxiv] North Atlantic Treaty Organization,  Allied Joint Publication 1 (AJP-1)  Allied Joint Doctrine, (Mons, Belgium: Headquarters NATO, 21 December 2010), 2-9.

[xxv] Mumm,“Irregular Warfare,” 5.

[xxvi] Department of the Army, Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-0: Unified Land Operations, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 10 October 2011), 1-5.

[xxvii] Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare: China's Master Plan to Destroy America (Panama City: Pan American Publishing Company, 2002), 36-50.

[xxviii] Liang and Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, xviii.

[xxix] United States House of Representatives, House Armed Services Committee, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013: Report Together with Additional and Dissenting Views (to accompany H.R.4310) (H.Rpt. 112–479). Washington: Government Printing Office, May 11, 2012, 84. Available at: . Accessed 9 September 2013.

[xxx] Ibid. Per the House report, requested Section 1206 funding for building partner capacity, i.e. core activities of SFA and FID, was $350 million. Requested CT funding under Section 1208 is a separate MFP-11 funding line at $50 million annually. UW is not specifically addressed , and Stability Operations are discussed across a patchwork of sectors outside of the scope of this paper.

[xxxi] H.R. 2606: Stabilization and Reconstruction Integration Act of 2013, 113th Congress, 2013–2015. Text as of Jun 28, 2013 (Introduced)., accessed September 6, 2013.


About the Author(s)

The US Army Irregular Warfare Center (IWC) integrates and collaborates information exchange and analysis for irregular warfare (IW) activities in order to advocate DOTMLPF solutions addressing IW threats. IWC synchronizes and assists in the development of IW and Countering Irregular Threats (CIT) enterprises to support a coherent Army strategy that accounts for building partner capacity, stability operations and the integration of unconventional warfare and counterterrorism.



Fri, 11/08/2013 - 5:08pm

I'm sure my last post qualifies as a rant. Ok if it makes sense. I don't entirely disagree with other comments posted, but I disagree with what seems like the assertion that we shouldn't have this discussion. Concur that the article is wordy; feels like an attempt to do due diligence with respect to research. There is a compelling argument to be made for 'no definition' using logic that war is war. Then we only have to worry about defining specific activities like COIN, FID, stability operations, etc, vice grouping or categorizing these activities under an umbrella like IW. I agree that the military sometimes seems to 'reinvent' or develop new doctrine without considering what we already have or used in the past. Good example of this is the recent development of the new COIN joint pub. The draft pub included several lists of things like COIN 'principles' and 'precepts' intended to clarify COIN operations - 30-40 total. Many of these were entire sentences and were actually cliches and/or catch phrases causing more confusion than clarity. When I compared these to the old LIC principles from the LIC manual from the 1990s, many were very similar or the same...the main difference was that they were much simpler and fewer in the LIC manual (e.g.- Perseverance, Legitimacy). On another note, the U.S. only calls/considers it UW when we are actively supporting insurgents overthrowing another government.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 11/08/2013 - 3:08am

To build on what Bill M wrote---the following is the core for understanding the future not COIN which since the surge of ISIL and JRTN in Iraq now has been negated as a concept regardless of the claims by Kilcullen, Gen. P and others that COIN was successful. Success is not seeing the repeat of 2007 in 2013.

Unconventional Warfare is defined as “activities to enable a resistance or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power through or with an underground, auxiliary and [or] guerrilla force in a denied area.” This is not an exclusively U.S. centric definition but in fact describes the activities from Al Qaeda to the Iran Action Network. There are myriad resistance movements around the world including but not limited to the Free Syrian Army to the Uighurs in China to the FARC in Colombia, Boko Haram in Africa and both Moro Islamic organizations and the New Peoples Army in the Philippines just to name a few. It may be in the U.S. strategic interests to either support some of these movements through unconventional warfare or counter the unconventional warfare efforts of others

This is where the conversation should be taking place not over COIN or IW.


Fri, 11/08/2013 - 9:05am

In reply to by IWarrior90

Sorry, didn't mean for my post to turn into a "rant". The points I was trying to make was that it seems there are many in the military/academia of late who have to coin and invent new terms (buzzwords) with ever increasing frequency to the point where it becomes counter-productive and confusing for both the military professional and non-military professional who is involved with military activities. This is compounded by the fact that often there was already a "term" in place for what is being written about and/or studied. To me, it should be about sticking with the basics and keeping the traditional long established terms for the different contingencies that the military may be expected to encounter and deal with (and I'm not even saying I have an issue with the term/acronym "IW"). There was a good article here on SWJ on the ever increasing amount of terms/acronyms within the military:

The other main point I was trying to make was that if we, within the professional military, read our history and stuck to long established and well defined terms that have already existed for the contingencies we have been dealing with in the last decade plus, maybe we wouldn't be constantly re-inventing the wheel not to mention creating a continued avalanche of new terms and acronyms that might sound catchy and make the person appear highly "original" but in my opinion it only serves to often confuse and add to the mountain of already well established theories and terms that have existed for years. Nothing we face today is really new, it's just taken center stage due to events over the last decade plus the never ending garage of the 24 hour news cycle with instantaneous information dissemination.

Bill M.

Fri, 11/08/2013 - 2:54pm

In reply to by IWarrior90

If I recall correctly the push by SECDEF Gates was to institutionalize the missions associated with IW and force the military to put more emphasis on these neglected skills. Understandably, but sadly, the IW movement's focus was largely shaped by the COINista movement championed by GEN Petreaus. This limited the exploration of old and new ideas related to a perhaps flawed concept. Gates was the one who pushed and defended the current definition of IW. I don't recall anyone who concurred with it in the working groups I was involved in, but we were told to use it because if we continued to debate the definition we would never make progress. I am leaning towards support for the argument to get rid of the term. I am in general agreement with Kilcullen's assertion in his new book "Out of the Mountains:" "Any theory of conflict that's organized around a single type of enemy is unlikely to be helpful in a conflict environment that includes multiple overlapping threats and challenges."

These threats could be regular/conventional or irregular/unconventional that range from professional militaries to guerrillas to criminals. They are the actors we have to contend with, but what is most important is our strategic objectives, not the actor or actors opposing them. Seems we got it backwards by defining how we'll fight based on the actor instead of our strategic objectives. Of course our operational approach for each actor will vary, but any attempt to create a new form of warfare that is separate from the hole doesn't seem helpful.

With the exception of shoving a questionable COIN doctrine down our throats what value cam from the IW studies during the last QDR? SOF was practicing COIN and FID along with others in the Army and Marines long before a couple of conventional soldiers read a book or two on it, then published a thesis and were granted expert status. SOF rapidly evolved its CT doctrine and capabilities independent of the IW working groups. SOF also continued to practice UW independent of the IW working groups. The conventional forces have been narrowly focused on clear, hold, and build COIN, and largely ignored the other mission areas of FID and Stability Operations in their working groups. It seems IW only added unnecessary confusion, but SECDEF Gates was right to push the services to prepare to fight irregular/unconventional actors and to understand their strategies and tactics. In hindsight the approach for studying and integrating IW into our doctrine was flawed and it largely failed. The services for the most part have developed separate offices for IW that are not effectively integrated with the rest of the service, so IW remains a side show. I suspect the air-sea battle concept gets much more visibility in the Navy and Air Force than IW for instance. If IW was truly integrated the air-sea battle concept would expand its scope to address the full range of actors; however, since IW is now identified as something separate there is little chance it will be seriously considered.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 11/08/2013 - 2:37am

In reply to by IWarrior90

For the lack of wanting to rant again---again the message was just how many Army/DoD/DoS organizations are currently involved with, about, and or around the topic IW?

As long as there is not a defined definition used as a single voice every empire defends it's own turf especially now with the coming financial down sizing. You yourself give the example--"Some will say that IW is everything that is not traditional warfare. I do not agree with that point as well." I myself would respond that in fact all warfare is traditional bullets are fired, personnel are killed etc.----in the middle of traditional war if one accepts that definition one can in fact have an untraditional war ie the Soviets against the Germans after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Actually the Soviets drove UW as a common campaign strategy next to their strategic/operational strategies---hand in hand.

I would suggest that there is no clear accurate definition as then some of the IW organizations defining their own version would be either be forced to merge and or end their activities---as long as the different versions exist I can defend my version is the motto. As proven by the fact that one needs a IWC to collect all versions under one hat so to speak.

Another comment-- if there are so many different voices carrying their own definitions who does the strategic decision maker turn to when confronted with an insurgency activity that crosses national interests and a response is needed?
While all are focusing on IW it is the strategic decision maker that should be fully understanding UW as it is a decision tool as IW does not give the decision maker the ability to ratchet a decision short of sending in GPFs.

Again since there are differing definitions how is the strategic decision maker able to come to a consensus for his responses?

Final rant---it is the style of the written article---how many times have we all sat through 123 powerpoint slides when four could have sufficed and yet we sat there and fought falling asleep.

When presenting the argument by the author was it not possible to have reduced the presentation by half?

Currently many military articles seem to want to overpower one with sheer numbers of words and or pages and it is even worse with the footnotes---following the motto more is proof of my academic powers.

Rant ended.


Thu, 11/07/2013 - 7:42pm

OK; good to get some comments back. I may have been a bit cynical with my last response, but the point was that I think we need to give the 4 proposed definitions a good look and have some discussion. The current definition isn’t all wrong, but it also doesn’t accurately describe all of the things that tend to get lumped under the ‘IW Umbrella’. I’m not sure I understand the rant by Condor or Outlaw 09 regarding IW, UW and the Army IW Center – I would have to say that neither one is “spot on” but are instead fairly inaccurate.
First, the ‘buzz words’ of IW or irregular activities or irregular adversaries…isn’t something that the center invented – the center was established as a focal point for IW-related issues. These terms have been and are used with fair frequency in numerous policy, DOD, and Joint publications to include DOD Directive 3000.07, CJCS Instruction 3210.06, QDR, NSS, US DOD Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, US Government COIN Guide (State Dept), Army Operating Concept, and in numerous statements, speeches, and testimonies from senior government and military leaders to include SECDEF Gates, SECDEF Panetta, SECDEF Hagel, GEN Dempsey, GEN Odierno, GEN Mattis, GEN Cone, and others. Pretty significant for buzzword/s.
Secondly, UW is currently listed by DODD 3000.07 and CJCSI 3210.06 as one of the 5 IW activities. In other words, in the big scheme of things, UW is below IW. The other activities include FID, C-Terrorism, StabOps, and COIN. SFA is similar to FID, but FID is focused against internal threats only; SFA is focused on both internal and external. The list of included activities for IW is another part of the problem and the confusion. The Army doesn’t necessarily agree with these 5 activities as being the only 5 activities that should fall under IW. There are numerous other activities that many will label as ‘related activities’ such as counter threat finance, counter weapons of mass destruction, inform/influence operations, etc, that could fall under IW. Some will say that IW is ‘everything that isn’t traditional warfare’. I don’t agree with that point of view either.
With respect to sageorking comments referring the author to doctrine, I don’t see that as helpful in this case. Looking at Figure V-1 in the JP 3-0, IW activities can occur across the range of operations. They are generally more significant in the pre-conflict and post-conflict ends of the continuum, as they focus on addressing irregular adversaries, threats, and challenges. I think that figure is misleading to a degree in that it doesn’t appear to depict an actual continuum or cycle but rather a scale a high and low ends. In other words, once the ‘war’ activities are over, we enter into a completely different set of post-conflict conditions vice slipping back into the pre-conflict conditions. If we applied the test of Figure V-1 to other terms we currently use in doctrine like Decisive Action or Unified Action, we would have no better outcome other than some tap-dancing and broad brush explanations of how those terms are better able to help leaders understand the ROMO. Defining IW clearly is not about arraying resources but rather about understanding and describing the environment in which we are operating. Much/most of the current IW activities are centered around the population and shaping efforts; the definition itself is at odds with this, since IW is ‘a violent struggle…’
To get to the point, the term IW is here for now and continues to be used by senior level leaders in addition to being codified in policy and doctrine. Does it not make sense to try to develop an accurate definition to describe the concept so that the term actually has meaning to all? I refer you back to the four proposed definitions in the article.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 11/07/2013 - 4:06pm

In reply to by Irregular Rakkasan

Irregular Rakkasan---would be interested in hearing how an analyst working for a TRADOC organization defines UW or even if TRADOC even uses the term?

Irregular Rakkasan

Thu, 11/07/2013 - 3:23pm

I think IWarrior90 makes a valuable point. As a security studies grad student, I paid little attention to definitional confusion and doctrinal hierarchy. I circumvented discussions on what IW and/or terrorism meant and to whom, to get at the heart of the issue. Terrorism was probably the most infamous term, with almost no agreement, among gov’t and academics, on what it really means; tactic, method, or person/organization. The issue of definition was acknowledged but paid little attention by my cohort and we were “perfectly happy with the lack of clarity surrounding IW,” and terrorism. However, as an analyst under a TRADOC organization I have come to accept that I can longer speak or write free of the constraints of Army and Joint doctrine. I am hopelessly chained to definitions and subordinate tasks, and IW is an absolute nightmare. I Warrior90’s comments are spot on, academically, but for the Army and DOD as a whole, someone needs to show some leadership and crack this nut. Everything made more sense when we had the Tennessee chart and operational themes, but now the term is only confusing real work on strategic and operational problems. Nothing is nested: stability as an element of decisive action spans the entire spectrum from conventional to irregular warfare, as the author describes. What about Army Support to Security Cooperation? Is that IW? SFA sounds a lot like FID, with some very minor differences.


Thu, 11/07/2013 - 12:28pm

Author may be able to answer the question by looking at JP 3-0 Fig V-1 and asking if the term IW helps commanders and leaders to better understand how leverage the range of military operations appropriately across the conflict continuum to support national interests. The term and its associated activities does not help me to better understand the environment and how to array resources wrt time, space, and purpose to support national interests but I may be in the minority.


Thu, 11/07/2013 - 1:10pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

With recent experience in the military, I will try and answer the question "why".

First, I think many today have forgotten the basics and history. This cannot be overstated enough in my opinion and I really believe that many are not interested in self-PME, instead they do what they need to do by "checking the boxes" but fail to actively seek to better themselves with personal study of their trade. I once witnessed a fellow aviator who had aspirations to attend MAWTS-1 because that individual knew that to be selected and complete the MAWTS-1 course as an aviator ensured you were a "made" individual. Yet, prior to deployment we were administered a visual identification test on the different MANPAD, SAM and AAA batteries currently in use around the world. This individual went into hyperventilation when the test was announced and of course did not do well on the test (they didn't even know what a ZSU-23 was). So what happened? Eventually that individual was selected to attend MAWTS-1 as a student after the deployment!

Second, with the careerism that runs rampant within the military I think many have become convinced that one way to make yourself stand out in the crowd is to embrace the complex with heavy dosages of re-invented "buzzwords" because it makes you appear smart and original to your peer group and superiors. I once sat in on a flight brief that lasted for over 3 hours complete with power point. What should have been a simple insertion of troops became a complex web of flowing diagrams and charts. At one point the attack escorts were flowing into the objective area at the same time in the opposite direction that the assault helicopters were egressing the objective!

Here's an interesting tidbit ( from one of my favorite websites about the Imperial Japanese Navy during WWII. The topic is about the opposing commanders Nagumo and Spruance. Such topics as commander's intent, principle of the objective, trust in subordinates/superiors etc. are discussed. On a side note, Admiral Yamamoto was notorious for complex plans involving intricate schemes of maneuver. The Battle of Midway was no exception and ultimately the Japanese paid the price for their little adventure.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 11/07/2013 - 3:55am

The previous comment is as the Brits say "spot on".

If the US Army IWC in fact accepts the current USSOCOM definition of UW then in fact the questions rises to the surface then why do we need the IWC--if in fact the IWC wants to contribute to the drawdown by offering their positions up then they are in fact taking the honorable high road.

But as is in all large organizations --I do not believe they want to lose their jobs.

The term irregular warfare is a tactic or technique of UW not the reverse.

Dave Maxwell is correct---if the strategic leadership fully understands UW with all of the abilities/capabilities then they are in a decision making position of being able to ratchet up or down their CUW responses and controlling their responses to the point that GPF does not have to be deployed ie Iraq and AFG as examples.

A second comment would be is the IWC the GPFs' attempt to create a new function for the GPF--the IWC lends more confusion to the topic as well as another layer of complexity?

Last comment---this is an example of current military writing ---what ever happened to KISS--simple explanation of the problem followed by proposals and wrap up.

A recent article to be released in Military Review on mission command was 28 pages---why?


Wed, 11/06/2013 - 7:20pm

Not sure I understand what the article is supposed to accomplish since most of the participants/contributors to this site seem to be perfectly happy with the lack of clarity surrounding IW and its definition. Based on the comments I've seen on this and other sites, there is a wide divergence of opinion among the so called 'academic community' as to what activities or operations constitute IW and which activities rise to a level of importance/prominence commensurate with or above IW. Should COIN be placed on par with or above IW? What about the favored group of terms thrown around in government-speak that include 'Terrorism/ist'? To the military man, terror/ism is a means to an end, but to many government leaders, it seems as though they consider terror/ism to the end or objective. Any Other Thoughts ON THIS??