Irregular warfare

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Irregular warfare is warfare in which one or more combatants are irregular military rather than regular forces. Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare, and so is asymmetric warfare.

The overuse of the term 'warfare' in contemporary military terminology to describe both a specific type of engagement and the type of forces participating in it can lead to false conclusions. A guerrilla unit that is made of commandos is a regular unit conducting asymmetric warfare whereas an irregular band of fighters can engage combat in a tactical infantry firefight if well led and well equipped, fighting like a conventional unit. To eschew false assumptions perhaps it is a better idea not to take insurgency terminology at face value before verifying the status of the all the belligerent parties involved.

Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric warfare approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode the adversary’s power, influence, and will. It is inherently a protracted struggle that will test the resolve of a state and its strategic partners.[1][2][3][4][5] Concepts associated with irregular warfare are older than the term itself.[6][7]


Regular vs. irregular

The word "regular" is used in the term "regular armed forces" which comes from the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a non-governmental organization primarily responsible for, and most closely associated with, the drafting and successful completion of the Third Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (“GPW”). The ICRC provided commentary saying that "regular armed forces" satisfy four Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907) (Hague IV) conditions.[8] In other words, "regular forces" must satisfy the following criteria:

  • being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates to a party of conflict
  • having a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance
  • carrying arms openly
  • conducting operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war

On the other hand, "irregular forces" is a term in international humanitarian law referring to a category of combatants consisting of individuals forming part of the armed forces of a party to an armed conflict, international or non-international, but not belonging to that party's regular forces and operating in or outside of their own territory even if the territory is under occupation.[9] As such, it is implicit that irregular warfare is warfare where a major party in the conflict is a part of irregular forces.

Early use

One of the earliest known uses of the term irregular warfare is in the 1986 English edition of "Modern Irregular Warfare in Defense Policy and as a Military Phenomenon" by Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte. The original 1972 German edition of the book is titled "Der Moderne Kleinkrieg als Wehrpolitisches und Militarisches Phänomen". The German word "Kleinkrieg" is literally translated as "Small War".[10] The word "Irregular", used in the title of the English translation of the book, seems to be a reference non "regular armed forces" as per the aforementioned Third Geneva Convention.

US DoD use

Within United States Department of Defense, one of the earliest known uses of the term IW is in a 1996 Central Intelligence Agency document by Jeffrey B. White.[11] Major military doctrine developments related to IW were done between 2004 to 2007[12] as a result of the September 11 attacks on the United States.[13][14] A key proponent of IW within US DoD is Michael G. Vickers, a former paramilitary officer in the CIA.[15]

US CIA use

The CIA's Special Activities Division (SAD) is the premiere unit for unconventional warfare, both for creating and for combating irregular warfare units.[16][17][18] For example, SAD paramilitary officers created and led successful irregular units from the Hmong tribe during the war in Laos in the 1960s[19] from the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan in 2001[20] and from the Kurdish Peshmerga against Ansar al-Islam and the forces of Saddam Hussein during the war in Iraq in 2003.[21][22]


Activities and types of conflict included in IW are:

Irregular wars

Some conflicts considered to be within the scope of irregular warfare are:[6][11]

While sometimes portrayed as an "irregular war" the American Revolutionary War was in fact fought by regular forces using regular methods for most of its duration.[23]

Wargames and exercises

There have been at least two key military wargames and military exercises associated with IW:

  • Unified Action [21]
  • Unified Quest [22]

Modeling and simulation

As a result of DoD Directive 3000.07,[3] United States armed forces are studying[when?] irregular warfare concepts using modeling and simulation.[24][25][26]

Other definitions

  • IW is a form of warfare that has as its objective the credibility and/or legitimacy of the relevant political authority with the goal of undermining or supporting that authority. IW favors indirect approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities to seek asymmetric approaches, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.[27]
  • IW is defined as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s)
  • IW involves conflicts in which enemy combatants are not regular military forces of nation-states.[28]
  • IW is "war among the people" as opposed to "industrial war" (i.e. regular war).[29]

See also



  1. According to the definition of "regular forces", which came much after the American Revolutionary War (ARW), the American forces did not meet the following criteria at all times during the ARW:
    • having a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance
    • carrying arms openly
    • conducting operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war

    Notwithstanding, in terms of modern international humanitarian law which was also developed much later than the ARW, the American forces formed part of the armed forces of a party to an armed conflict but not belonging to that party's regular forces (since the United States of America did not exist and hence could not have had regular forces; the American forces were an insurgency at least until 1776) and operating in or outside of their own territory even if the territory is under occupation. American forces did become regular forces but cannot be considered regular forces during the entire period of the ARW. For example, the American flag got established (1777) 2 years after the ARW started (1775). Also, there were great disparities between the American and British forces. It was not until France started to assist American forces (1778) that the disparity started to be narrowed. Conflict during the disparity surely counts as Asymmetric warfare. Also, the Boston Tea Party (1773) can be viewed as guerrilla tactics. At the very least, a good portion of the ARW should be counted as IW although the entire ARW being counted as IW is controversial. However, since more than 1/2 of the ARW was fought as ARW then it is thought that it is safe to classify it as IW even though that the American forces acted in all respects as regular forces towards the end of the conflict.


  1. "Irregular Warfare (IW) Joint Operating Concept (JOC)", Version 1.0, United States Department of Defense, 27 February 2009 [1]
  2. "US Irregular Warfare (IW) Analysis Workshop", Military Operations Research Society (MORS), 11 September 2007 [2]
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Irregular Warfare (IW)", DoD Directive 3000.07, United States Department of Defense, 1 December 2008 [3]
  4. "Quadrennial Roles & Missions (QRM) Review Report", United States Department of Defense, January 2009 [4]
  5. "Irregular Warfare", Doctrine Document 2-3, United States Air Force, 1 August 2007 [5]
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gates, John M., "The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare", The College of Wooster [6]
  7. Von der Heydte, Friedrich August Freiherr, "Modern Irregular Warfare in Defense Policy and as a Military Phenomenon", ISBN 0-933488-49-1, 1986 [7]
  8. Bybee, Jay S., "Status of Taliban Forces Under Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949", 7 February 2002 [8]
  9. Boczek, Boleslaw Adam, "International law: a dictionary", ISBN 0-8108-5078-8, ISBN 978-0-8108-5078-1, Scarecrow Press, 2005 [9]
  10. Moses, A. Dirk, "German intellectuals and the Nazi past," ISBN 978-0-521-86495-4, 2007 [10]
  11. 11.0 11.1 White, Jeffrey B., "A Different Kind of Threat, Some Thoughts on Irregular Warfare", CIA, 1996 [11]
  12. "The National Military Strategy of the United States of America", United States Department of Defense, 2004 [12]
  13. Miller, LTC Frank A., "Irregular Warfare – Perhaps Not So "Irregular"", U.S. Army War College, 15 March 2006 [13]
  14. "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America", National Security Council, 2002 [14]
  15. Grant, Greg, "The Man Behind Irregular Warfare Push: Mike Vickers", DoD BUZZ, 7 April 2009 [15]
  16. Southworth, Samuel A., Tanner, Stephen, U.S. Special Forces: A Guide to America's Special Operations Units: the World's Most Elite Fighting Force, Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-81165-0, 2002
  17. Waller, Douglas, "The CIA Secret Army", Time Inc., 3 February 2003
  18. Stone, Kathryn & Williams, Anthony R., All Necessary Means: Employing CIA operatives in a Warfighting Role Alongside Special Operations Forces, United States Army War College (USAWC), 7 April 2003
  19. Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos, Steerforth Press, ISBN 978-1-883642-36-5, 1996
  20. Woodward, Bob, Bush at War, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-7432-0473-5, 19 November 2002
  21. Tucker, Mike & Faddis, Charles, Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War inside Iraq, The Lyons Press, ISBN 978-1-59921-366-8, 2008
  22. Woodward, Bob, Plan of Attack, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-5547-9, 2004
  23. Marston, Daniel (2002). The American Revolution 1774-1783. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-343-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "U. S. Army Enhancement of Irregular Warfare Modeling & Simulation", United States Army Modeling and Simulation Office, 24 February 2009 [16]
  25. "MORS Workshop Irregular Warfare (IW) II Analysis Workshop", Military Operations Research Society, 3–6 February 2009 [17]
  26. Cragg, Lt. Jennifer, "Behavior Studies May Improve Irregular Warfare Techniques", American Forces Press Service, 20 April 2009 [18]
  27. "Irregular Warfare Special Study", United States Joint Forces Command Joint Warfighting Center, 4 August 2006 [19]
  28. "Quadrennial Defense Review Report", United States Department of Defense, 6 February 2006 [20]
  29. Benest, David, "British Leaders and Irregular Warfare," 29 August 2007

External links