Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Developing a Common Understanding of Unconventional Warfare

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Developing a Common Understanding of Unconventional Warfare

Article excerpt

In June 2009, the commanders of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) adopted the following definition of unconventional warfare (UW):

Unconventional Warfare consists of activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

The USSOCOM commander further directed that all forces assigned within his command adopt this single definition, concurrent with the official change to the doctrine that will follow pending the publishing of the new Joint Publication (JP) 3-05, Doctrine for Joint Special Operations, in the near future.

This revised definition was the culmination of an effort initiated by USSOCOM in 2008 based on an identified lack of common understanding across the Department of Defense (DOD) as well as the special operations community. The working group that developed the final definition met for 3 days in April 2009 at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center (USAJFKSWC) at Fort Bragg. Subject matter experts included representatives from USSOCOM, USASOC, U.S. Army Special Forces Command, USAJFKSWC, Joint Special Operations University, Naval Postgraduate School, and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

The catalyst for this effort came as a result of the USSOCOM Global Synchronization Conference in October 2008, where the lack of a precise and common understanding of UW became particularly evident. The coexistence of multiple definitions, compounded by varying interpretations, significantly hampered effective discussion or planning. The state of ambiguity not only undermined the credibility and value of the topic among military professionals, but also divided the special operations community into two main schools of thought.

One school argued that UW is an umbrella concept encompassing a wide variety of activities conducted by irregular forces. This concept includes support to resistance movements and insurgencies, as well as other operations conducted by irregular forces. This essentially delineates UW from other operations by the methodology of employing irregular forces. In this context, all missions conducted by irregular forces are considered UW. These missions could be conducted against a state or nonstate actor or an organization. Other special operations (direct action, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism) would be denoted as exclusively unilateral or coalition actions and would not involve irregular forces.

The other school of thought advocated UW specifically as a type of special operation, which is the enablement of resistance movements and insurgencies. Within this construct, UW can involve numerous activities, but these activities are not exclusive to the UW mission. While the associated tactics, techniques, and procedures for working with guerrilla forces and undergrounds greatly enable special operations forces to perform other special operations, the use of irregular forces alone does not make these operations UW. They are categorized by what they aim to achieve rather than their methodology or the type of force conducting them.


Since the introduction of the term UW into the DOD lexicon in 1955, the definition has seen numerous changes. When the incremental changes of the last few decades are viewed collectively, it becomes apparent that the continued expansion and contraction of the topic have been counterproductive to the common understanding of UW.

By 1990, the UW definition was little more than a string of unspecific nonbinding phrases, followed by a list of possible associated tactics or activities. This definition left the reader with a vague description about UW and little in the way of anything defining the essence of the topic:

A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported and directed in varying degrees by an external source. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.