Irregular warfare

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Irregular warfare (IW) is a commonly misunderstood and misused term that relates to the violent struggle among state and non-state actors for popular legitimacy, influence and control. It often takes the form of insurgency or terrorism, but does not necessarily manifest itself as such in all cases. For example, stability operations conducted in the aftermath of an interstate armed conflict are a form of irregular warfare, since they necessarily involve the promotion of government control and the likely use of armed force to confront challenges to that control. [1]

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.[2][3][4][5][6] Concepts associated with irregular warfare are older than the term itself.[7][8]


Early use[edit]

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".[9] 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[edit]

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.[10] Major military doctrine developments related to IW were done between 2004 to 2007[11] as a result of the September 11 attacks on the United States.[12][13] A key proponent of IW within US DoD is Michael G. Vickers, a former paramilitary officer in the CIA.[14]

US CIA use[edit]

The CIA's Special Activities Division (SAD) is the premiere unit for unconventional warfare, both for creating and for combating irregular warfare units.[15][16][17] For example, SAD paramilitary officers created and led successful irregular units from the Hmong tribe during the war in Laos in the 1960s[18] from the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan in 2001[19] and from the Kurdish Peshmerga against Ansar al-Islam and the forces of Saddam Hussein during the war in Iraq in 2003.[20][21]


Activities and types of conflict included in IW are:

Irregular wars[edit]

While most if not all armed conflicts involve at least some irregular warfare elements, some stand out as exemplars of irregular approaches to warfare: [7][10]

Wargames and exercises[edit]

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

  • Unified Action [20]
  • Unified Quest [21]

Modeling and simulation[edit]

As a result of DoD Directive 3000.07,[4] United States armed forces are studying[when?] irregular warfare concepts using modeling and simulation.[22][23][24]

Other definitions[edit]

  • 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.[25]
  • 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.[26]
  • IW is "war among the people" as opposed to "industrial war" (i.e. regular war).[27]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ There is some contention over whether the ARW is properly categorized as an irregular warfare conflict. However, in addition to the great disparities between the American and British forces which forced American forces to use Asymmetric warfare methods and seek assistance from France (1778), the leadership of the American rebellion clearly understood that in order to prevail, it would need the support of the American people. It acted upon this understanding by publishing propaganda, raising militias from the local population, and developing shadow governments. In this regard, the ARW was a traditional insurgency, aided through an unconventional warfare campaign by France. However, as with many successful insurgencies, the conflict evolved to a point at which the American insurgent forces could directly confront the British conventional forces instead of relying on indirect and asymmetric approaches.


  1. ^ "Defining Irregular Warfare" [1]
  2. ^ "Irregular Warfare (IW) Joint Operating Concept (JOC)", Version 1.0, United States Department of Defense, 27 February 2009 [2]
  3. ^ "US Irregular Warfare (IW) Analysis Workshop", Military Operations Research Society (MORS), 11 September 2007 [3]
  4. ^ a b "Irregular Warfare (IW)", DoD Directive 3000.07, United States Department of Defense, 1 December 2008 [4]
  5. ^ "Quadrennial Roles & Missions (QRM) Review Report", United States Department of Defense, January 2009 [5]
  6. ^ "Irregular Warfare", Doctrine Document 2-3, United States Air Force, 1 August 2007 [6]
  7. ^ a b Gates, John M., "The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare", The College of Wooster [7]
  8. ^ Von der Heydte, Friedrich August Freiherr, "Modern Irregular Warfare in Defense Policy and as a Military Phenomenon", ISBN 0-933488-49-1, 1986 [8]
  9. ^ Moses, A. Dirk, "German intellectuals and the Nazi past," ISBN 978-0-521-86495-4, 2007 [9]
  10. ^ a b White, Jeffrey B., "A Different Kind of Threat, Some Thoughts on Irregular Warfare", CIA, 1996 [10]
  11. ^ "The National Military Strategy of the United States of America", United States Department of Defense, 2004 [11]
  12. ^ Miller, LTC Frank A., "Irregular Warfare – Perhaps Not So "Irregular"", U.S. Army War College, 15 March 2006 [12]
  13. ^ "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America", National Security Council, 2002 [13]
  14. ^ Grant, Greg, "The Man Behind Irregular Warfare Push: Mike Vickers", DoD BUZZ, 7 April 2009 [14]
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Waller, Douglas, "The CIA Secret Army", Time Inc., 3 February 2003
  17. ^ 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
  18. ^ Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos, Steerforth Press, ISBN 978-1-883642-36-5, 1996
  19. ^ Woodward, Bob, Bush at War, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-7432-0473-5, 19 November 2002
  20. ^ Tucker, Mike & Faddis, Charles, Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War inside Iraq, The Lyons Press, ISBN 978-1-59921-366-8, 2008
  21. ^ Woodward, Bob, Plan of Attack, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-5547-9, 2004
  22. ^ "U. S. Army Enhancement of Irregular Warfare Modeling & Simulation", United States Army Modeling and Simulation Office, 24 February 2009 [15]
  23. ^ "MORS Workshop Irregular Warfare (IW) II Analysis Workshop", Military Operations Research Society, 3–6 February 2009 [16]
  24. ^ Cragg, Lt. Jennifer, "Behavior Studies May Improve Irregular Warfare Techniques", American Forces Press Service, 20 April 2009 [17]
  25. ^ "Irregular Warfare Special Study", United States Joint Forces Command Joint Warfighting Center, 4 August 2006 [18]
  26. ^ "Quadrennial Defense Review Report", United States Department of Defense, 6 February 2006 [19]
  27. ^ Benest, David, "British Leaders and Irregular Warfare," 29 August 2007

External links[edit]