Untangling the Gordian Knot that is Irregular Warfare

Untangling the Gordian Knot that is Irregular Warfare

. 14 minutter å lese

Mark Grdovic

U.S. Army LTC(R). Senior International SOF advisor in the USSOCOM J3-I Division. Holds a B.A. in National Defense Studies from Kings College and is a graduate of the British Joint Staff College.

"All the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft: for the architecture of the thing comes, or fails to come, in the first conception, and revision only affects the detail and ornament, alas!”                   

T.E. Lawrence

Artikkelen ble først publisert i Small Wars Journal.

 As 2023 begins, the U.S. military finds itself addressing how it will institutionalize the topic of Irregular Warfare (IW).  There is no shortage of speeches, articles and documents that extol the importance of the topic to the National Defense Strategy and its related concepts.  While this sounds completely appropriate, there is a problem.  The U.S. military has been in this position before, multiple times. In 2009, I wrote an article as part of an introduction for an IW conference at Ft Bragg in which I said, “In the 1960s and again in the 1980s, the U.S. military experienced a revival of interest in irregular warfare, or IW, similar to the one that is occurring today.  In both of the previous periods, the topic enjoyed a celebrity-like popularity in professional military forums until such time that circumstances allowed it to be relegated back to the margins in favor of a return to proper soldiering. Both previous revivals produced high-quality doctrine and curriculum in professional-education courses.  So why, then, did IW fail to become ingrained as part of the military mainstream?’[i]  It feels like little has changed since that time other than to add one more period of interest.

This raises the logical question, why did the three previous periods of enthusiasm fail to take root?[ii]  How a topic is framed is critical to its clarity and subsequent acceptance within an organizational culture.  Without clarity, the topic is immediately susceptible to misinterpretation, competitive bias and inaccurate categorization.  For example, during the height of the Global War on Terror (circa 2010), IW became a polarizing topic, dividing skeptics and advocates.  Skeptics clung to the flawed notion that training for high intensity conflict by default prepares you for all lesser forms of combat or how this niche discipline was pulling scant resources from the more important endeavors, thereby degrading the overall capability of the force.  Conversely, advocates condescendingly spoke of IW as the “advanced” or “graduate” form of warfare, routinely implying that its complexity was beyond the comprehension of “regular soldiers”.  Both positions were then and are still, self-defeating arguments.

While there is and has been a definition for IW for the last decade[iii], it seems like the term is used with an increasingly casual regularity and often in an imprecise manner, both of which start to undermine the potential value and credibility of the term.   The term is routinely used to convey an environment or portion of the conflict spectrum, some type of strategy (for warfare) or as a synonym for a variety of special operations involving indigenous forces.  A common theme often heard in the last few years was that the Force was too focused on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism during the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and needs to refocus on Irregular Warfare. This is a particularly confusing pairing given the description of IW as including counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) as part of its five core functions.  So, what exactly would this IW refocus entail?

The current definition for Irregular Warfare (IW) is defined as "a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.”[iv] Instinctively, this seems close enough to fulfill the requirements for a definition, but upon closer scrutiny fails to provide the required clarity.  By defining IW in this way, it introduces two subtle aspects that start to cloud the topic.  The first of these is the implication that both parties are engaged in “irregular warfare” (aka a violent a struggle), implying that the actions of both sides are variants of the same irregular activities, making it more of an environment in which this type of warfare occurs, than a clearly definable activity (or strategy).

It makes sense that the military planners, indoctrinated to the concept of Traditional Warfare, would be inclined to define IW this way.  In Traditional Warfare, the two participants are essentially applying variants of the same activities or tactics against each other to gain an advantage.  The one who can do this better, generally prevails over the other (whether they applied a better strategy, performed better tactically, had an advantage of terrain and resource or some combination).  As a result, it can be described or thought of as an environment without significant decrement to the clarity of the topic.

However, with Irregular Warfare, the participants, for the most part, are not applying variants of the same tactics.  The actions of the recipient (or host nation) are generally speaking, not “irregular” in nature.   By seeking a single description to accurately encompass or define both sides of this “struggle” begins to inaccurately frame the topic.  As is often the case with imprecise definitions, a heavy emphasis is placed on the follow-on paragraphs to provide amplifying clarity. Under the current definition (and description), five core activities are identified, the predominance ofwhich are in fact counteractivities. This raises the question if the five core activities (FID, UW, CT, COIN and Stability Operations) are IW in of themselves and is it useful to categories them as such?   This would be akin to including Law Enforcement as core activity under a description of Criminal Activity.  This grouping of types of operations starts to overshadow the actual definition (and associated clarity) causing the term to devolve to a disparate collection of tactics without context.  Subsequently, the requirement to understand the approach or strategy that is IW is minimized if not eliminated.

The second aspect previously mentioned, is the fact that the only remaining defining criteria is “the pursuit of legitimacy and influence over the population” as the sole defining characteristic and an irregular activity.   Gaining legitimacy and influence with the population is without question, a critical aspect within this “struggle”, but it is not a defining characteristic of Irregular Warfare (although this is debatable depending on the reader’s perspective whether the term denotes an environment, strategy or grouping of tactical operations).  As with other forms of warfare, the core defining characteristic is a description of a specific approach to defeating an adversary and not merely specific actions.  For example, Traditional Warfare isn’t defined by the seizure of key terrain (as relevant and fundamental as this may be).  From this perspective, defining IW as a “struggle for legitimacy and influence over the population” is defining it by its Ways, without consideration of the Ends.

It’s also worth noting there is another definition for Irregular Warfare in legislation, specifically section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization act (NDAA) which created fiscal authorities to support Irregular Warfare activities.   While these authorities have provided a very useful capability, the associated wording further clouds the discussion somewhat depicting IW as a series of specific activities.  “this same concern is evident in the definition of irregular warfare that Congress included in Sec. 1202.  This describes irregular warfare as ‘activities in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.’ This definition is not contained anywhere in DoD doctrine, and it presents a highly idiosyncratic conception of irregular warfare that is wholly unique to the statute.  Because the statute’s definition of irregular warfare discusses support to “foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals”—i.e., anyone—who participate in a competition between “state and non-state actors”—i.e., any entity—the phrasing adds virtually nothing of value when trying to determine what a traditional armed conflict might be”.[v]  The description associated with this legislation frames IW as activities.  This is the type of wording that eventually leads military members to start inappropriately using the term as a mission statement task, something that plagued the Army Special Forces community for decades prior to the adoption of the current definition of Unconventional Warfare in 2011.

In 2008 I found myself participating in a workshop to define the topic of Irregular Warfare as part of the development of the soon to be published Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept (JOC).  One of the international participants, expressed frustration with how the proposed definition was starting to take shape and stated that he didn’t think his country would support the concept because the vast majority of the military’s actions would be categorized as “irregular”.  At the time, I offered an alternative construct for consideration. My suggestion was favorably accepted by the group but as pointed out by one of the moderators, “we are too far along in the concept to reconsider the definition.”  Regrettably, one of the conclusions of the JOC was that defining the topic was difficult and messy.”[vi]

The concept I recommended at the time was that Irregular Warfare is a methodology of waging warfare that degrades an opponent’s resolve, legitimacy or capabilities while simultaneously mitigating their strengths and avoiding direct conflict. This is accomplished through indirect or unattributable attacks that limit the recipient’s ability to respond.   The associated activities are generally carried out by some variety of irregular forces.  Many of the associated activities are not considered acceptable forms of warfare by international law and norms.  It includes insurrection, terrorism, and subversion.  IW can be waged by a state or nonstate entity, as an independent strategy or in some combination with traditional warfare.  Historically speaking, IW is a much slower approach, often at higher cost in human life, with a lower probability of success compared to traditional warfare.  Simply put, most participants aren’t waging IW because it’s a superior form of warfare or their preferred option but rather their only viable option.

In this context, Irregular Warfare is not some amorphous environment in which this “struggle” takes place.  It is a specific approach to waging war by one side.  Nations counter the threats posed from IW by conducting COIN, CT, FID, Stability Operations and Information Operations as well as the full spectrum of normal (regular) governance and security functions (law enforcement activities, defensive cyber, counter threat finance, counter propaganda, etc). These tactical operations are already well defined and shared as a responsibility across the entire military force.  It is debatable what is the value added or need to further categorize these types of operations under an umbrella term.[vii]

In rare cases, the United States military may engage in limited forms of IW, when deemed legally acceptable[viii]and appropriate to support its national security objectives, such as support to insurgencies and resistance movements (aka Unconventional Warfare or UW).  For the most part, waging Irregular Warfare is largely limited within DoD to the special operations community.  In these cases, any such activities would be governed by and conducted in accordance with the Laws of Armed Conflict.

For this construct to make sense, there are several other definitions which would require revision as part of this broader concept.

Irregular Warfare – A methodology of waging warfare that degrades an opponent’s resolve, legitimacy or capabilities while simultaneously mitigating their strengths and avoiding direct conflict. The associated activities are generally carried out by some variety of irregular forces.

Insurgency and Resistance.  The definition for Insurgency was refined out of decades of counterinsurgency efforts, while the term for Resistance Movements has predominantly been a topic of interest within the special operations community.

Current Definitions

Insurgency - The organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region. Insurgency can also refer to the group itself. (DOD Dictionary. Source: JP 3-24)

Resistance movement— An organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability. (JP 3-05)

The current definitions do not provide clarity for the user.  As a result, it is not uncommon to see both terms used in military, academic and public forums, in an imprecise or contradictory manner.  Although the concepts are very similar, there are some important distinctions (for military professionals), and they should not be used interchangeably.  While it is worth noting, that there is ample academic material to support any contention, from the U.S. military perspective, the term insurgency is an appropriate single overarching generic term for the conduct of insurrections (to include resistance movements).  However, there is also value in distinguishing Insurgency as a movement that forms and revolts against the indigenous government and a Resistance Movement as a movement that forms in response to an external occupier.

Resistance Movement — An organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist an occupying military power. (the words legally established government have been deleted)

Resistance – Activities conducted by a resistance movement to disrupt, coerce, or defeat an occupying military power.

It is worth noting, these terms are also often used to convey a more positive or negative image, regardless of their correct technical categorization (“resistance movement” being the more positive and “insurgent” being the more negative connotation).  Military planners and practioners need to understand and accept this nuance and demonstrate some mental flexibility when speaking internally to peers and externally in a public civilian forum.

Unconventional Warfare is defined as “Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area”.

It is important for planners to understand, despite the English grammatical wording, this term denotes a specific type of special operations and not “all things not conventional” (as an academic might use it).  It is the U.S. military’s mechanism to conduct operations in support of resistance efforts.  It is not synonymous with “resistance” in the same manner that Foreign Internal Defense or FID is not synonymous with counterinsurgency; they are the U.S. military efforts to enable these operations.  It is critical that planners and operational personnel understand this distinction in order to ensure the topic remains linked with the critical requisite professional knowledge required for this very unique type of special operations. When the term is used imprecisely or loosely to denote any special forces operations or “irregular warfare”, it risks becoming decoupled from that knowledge and its relative value within the DoD.

Support to Resistance or STR was introduced as a new term in 2009, in an effort to capture the broader U.S. government contributions to a military operation to support a resistance movement. It became evident that several components within the U.S. Government have important contributions to make in this type of effort.  However, categorizing these non-DoD efforts as “warfare” was deemed undesirable and inappropriate.  While no official definition has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Defense or Interagency, the term is fairly clear by the obvious English grammatical definition. However, the topic has become embroiled in confusion since the publishing of the Army’s ATP 3-18.1 Special Forces Unconventional Warfare (Mar 2019), that defines it as a U.S. government policy option and describes five varieties, with include resistance to terrorism and insurgencies (otherwise known as COIN and CT).[ix]

Recommend the Army doctrine related to STR be rescinded and/or revised.  Adopt a definition of STR as the USG activities to provide a wide range of support to designated resistance efforts.  DoD should not try to doctrinally define these non-DoD efforts, but rather recognize their existence and the requirement to ensure concepts and operational efforts remain nested and integrated other U.S. interagency efforts.

Current Definitions

Support to Resistance – A United States Government policy option to support foreign resistance actors that offers an alternative to a direct U.S. military intervention or formal political engagement in a conflict. Also called STR. (ATP 3-18.1)

Support to Resistance - denotes the broader U.S. Government activities to support designated resistance efforts.

Irregular Forces.  The current Army definition significantly limits who are considered irregular forces. Irregular forces, such as civilian militias (which are a formal part of the nation’s internal security forces) play an important role in mobilizing the population during counterinsurgency (COIN) and foreign internal defense (FID).[x]  Working with these types of forces requires unique skills and experience, not normally resident in traditional military advisors and should be reflected in Army and SOF doctrine as a unique special operations contribution during COIN and FID.

Current Army Definition

Irregular Forces - Armed individuals or groups who are not members of the regular armed forces, police, or other internal security forces (FM 3-07).

Recommended Revision

Irregular Forces - Armed individuals or groups who are not members of the recognized regular armed forces or state security force.

Special Warfare.  Special Warfare is a term that was popularized in the 1960s, specifically with the establishment of the Army’s Special Warfare Center and School in 1960 (now know known as the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School).  Originally the term was defined as “the term used by the U.S. Army to embrace all the military and paramilitary measures and activities related to unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency and psychological operations.[xi]   The new Special Warfare center served as a centralized repository intended to institutionalize the education and training of U.S. Army and allied personnel in this discipline.  Since its inception, the term Special Warfare has evolved to become essentially synonymous with special operations.[xii]  Subsequently, there is no need to conflate the term Special Warfare with Irregular Warfare other than to define Special Warfare “as the application and integration of special operations during the conduct of warfare”.


Regardless of any potential merits, it’s easy to imagine the likely resistance that would accompany this concept, especially considering the significant Irregular Warfare branding that has already occurred, despite the lack of clarity. There are directorates, centers of excellence, doctrine, educational programs, and legislation, all inextricably tied to various interpretations of Irregular Warfare.  In the wake of the overwhelming number of competing initiatives, clarity and utility are accepted as a given, and the cycle of boom and bust, as described in the 2018 NDS continues.   The words of the conference moderator from 2008, that I mentioned previously, come to mind, “we are too far along to make changes”.  Is Irregular Warfare a strategy, a portion of the conflict continuum or just a grouping of activities?  The Department of Defense will never achieve their desired results for this topic while these competing ambiguous concepts coexist.

By framing Irregular Warfare as a specific approach to imposing one’s will against an opponent, it immediately starts to frame the reader’s understanding more clearly. It would untangle the topic from the various core (tactical) activities and places a greater focus on understanding the strategy before defaulting to the tactics required to counter it.  It presents the topic, not as a niche industry for a select few to rally around, but in a manner that translates into a threat to the national security objectives.  Subsequently, military planners at all levels, have a fundamental responsibility to understand this topic and the associated threat.  Perhaps most importantly, it would finally provide a clear construct that would serve as a foundation for the required advocacy within the Department of Defense and enable the supporting range of useful doctrine, education, training and operational concepts that will rely on and evolve from this concept.


[i] Ramping Up to Face the Challenge of Irregular Warfare, Mark Grdovic, Special Warfare Magazine, 30 Nov 2009.

[ii] In the 1960s, the terms Irregular Warfare and Special Warfare were both popular until the end of the war in Vietnam. In the 1980s, the term Low Intensity Conflict or LIC gained popularity, only to die a quiet death with the end of the Cold War and victory in the Gulf War. In the 1990s, the term Operations Other than War or OOTW gained little popularity. The post 9/11 2001 timeframe saw a resurgence of Irregular Warfare as a term, which suffered a similar fate to its Vietnam predecessor as the war in Iraq came to an ignominious end. During an attempt to revitalize the effort with the 2018 NDAA IW Annex, the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 further complicated the topic.

[iii] The Army has gone through three definitions for IW in the last 10 years. In 2014 the Army definition was “A broad form of conflicts in which insurgency, counterinsurgency, and unconventional warfare are the principal activities (FM 3-0)”. For a few years, the Army maintained the same definition as the current Joint IW definition. Recently the Army adopted the following IW definition - The overt, clandestine, and covert employment of military and non-military capabilities across multiple domains by state and non-state actors through methods other than military domination of an adversary, either as the primary approach or in concert with conventional warfare.

[iv] As defined in the 2007 Irregular Warfare Joint Operation Concept (IWJOC) and later codified in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS).

[v] By, With, And Through: Section 1202 and the Future of Unconventional Warfare, Major Christopher B. Rich, Jr., Captain Charles B. Johnson, and Major Paul T. Shirk, Pg 570-571

[vi] “IW is a complex, ‘messy,’ and ambiguous social phenomenon that does not lend itself to clean, neat, concise, or precise definition.”, U.S. DoD Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, 2008.

[vii] If a need to capture or categorize these activities was desired, the term Special Warfare meets the requirement more accurately.

[viii] Legally acceptable can include a degree of plausible deniability that makes the act legally risk acceptable within the states own national standards.

[ix] Special Forces Unconventional Warfare, ATP 3-18.1, March 2019, Ch 3., Section 3, pgs 3-21 through 3-27.

[x] Examples of Irregular Forces in support of FID or COIN include the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) in Vietnam, the Sons of Iraq in Iraq and the Village Stability Operations (VSO) in Afghanistan. While still defensive in nature, these types of forces play an important role in Irregular Warfare.

[xi] FM 31-20 Special Forces Operations, 1961

[xii] Special warfare – The execution of capabilities that involve a combination of lethal and nonlethal actions taken by a specially trained and educated force that has a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain, or hostile environment. (ADP 3-05). Special Operations – Operations requiring unique modes of employment, tactical techniques, equipment and training often conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and characterized by one or more of the following: time sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, conducted with and/or through indigenous forces, requiring regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk. (JP 3-05) Referenced in ADP 3-05).

Foto: Forsvaret

Mark Grdovic

U.S. Army LTC(R). Senior International SOF advisor in the USSOCOM J3-I Division. Holds a B.A. in National Defense Studies from Kings College and is a graduate of the British Joint Staff College.

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