Unconventional Warfare Fundamentals

“This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins — war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of combat; by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It requires — in those situations where we must encounter it — a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore, a new and wholly different kind of military training.” President John F. Kennedy, 1962 US Military Academy graduation

Unconventional warfare is a frequently misunderstood and often maligned form of warfare. It is often portrayed as U.S. commandos running around the jungle and blowing up bridges, secret missions to assassinate uncooperative foreign leaders, or U.S. support to repressive regimes for neo-colonial ends. It is true that unconventional warfare (UW) is a method of statecraft which is fraught with risk, which are often perceived as intentional outcomes of a UW campaign. However, it is neither a system of neo-colonial oppression nor is it “search and destroy” missions. Instead, it is a valuable tool in achieving national security objectives while limiting overcommitment or over extension. But it must be planned and conducted with care, and is definitely not a panacea.

According to U.S. military doctrine, one of the core activities of irregular warfare, unconventional warfare is defined as the “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.” [JP 1-02] However, the “and” in “underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force” is somewhat deceiving. The doctrine provides that an insurgency is composed of underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force. However, especially in the early stages of the development of the resistance, all three of these components may not exist. In fact, in the case of non-violent resistance, such as the Polish Solidarity movement or Ghandi’s August Movement, there may be little use for guerrilla forces. Additionally, in urban environments, preserving operational security may make guerrilla forces too difficult to maintain and employ; in these cases, the underground may take up the role of employing violence on behalf of the insurgency, through sabotage, terrorism, targeted killing, and the like.

In the broadest sense, unconventional warfare can be employed in furtherance of one of three strategic outcomes: Overthrow of an existing government or occupying power, disruption of the operations of that power, or the coercion of that power. In each of these outcomes, the sponsor must be sure that their interests and those of the resistance are sufficiently aligned. It would not do to support a movement’s bid to overthrow your adversary if the new regime would be worse, nor to support a resistance movement who is seeking political ends that are counter to the sponsor’s interests.


Overthrowing a governing power is the clearest and in many ways simplest outcome that can be sought through the use of unconventional warfare. When seeking this outcome the UW sponsor provides support to a resistance movement such that it enables the resistance to first subvert, then overthrow the governing power, and to install a new political leadership in its place. It is vital that this leadership be acceptable to both the resistance and the sponsor. Following the completion of the overthrow, resistance activities will need to transition to stabilization and governance, while the sponsor’s support transitions to foreign internal defense. However, overthrow is prone to several significant risks.

  • The first risk is that of “catastrophic success,” in which a resistance succeeds in overthrowing the governing authority before it is prepared to assume the responsibilities of government, resulting in the collapse of the new government. This scenario tends to lead to further instability and violence in the target country.
  • Blowback can occur where the resistance, or some portion of it, seeks ends that are inimical to the sponsor’s interest. In the worst cases of blowback, a successful overthrow leads to a new governing authority which either itself seeks, or harbors a faction that seeks to attack the sponsor. The canonical example of this dynamic is the outcome of the U.S. sponsorship of the Afghan Mujahideen, from which arose the Taliban and al Qaeda. Blowback in most cases results from a misalignment of interests between the resistance and the sponsor.
  • Another risk is that of overcommitment. This occurs when the strategic value to the sponsor of seeking their ends through unconventional warfare is overcome by the costs of the campaign. This can be caused by several mechanisms, such as mission creep, poor strategic guidance, sunk-cost fallacies, shifting political imperatives, and others.
  • A closely related risk is what I call the flypaper effect, in which the sponsor seeks to limit their strategic exposure by limiting their support of the resistance to specific bounds, but still find themselves being further and further drawn into the conflict. From the perspective of the sponsor, this may appear to be a simple case of politically driven overcommitment. However, in most cases the flypaper effect is caused by a poor understanding of the particular conflict dynamics: planners take action to attempt to limit their commitment, but because they don’t fully understand the environment, they take the wrong actions, further complicating their objectives.
  • Premature termination of support is yet another risk. Once the target government is overthrown, the sponsor will be tempted to dust of his hands and go home. However, this can result in the new regime struggling to maintain control of power, or resenting having been abandoned and seeking to deny the sponsor the fruits of the campaign.


When a sponsor does not seek the overthrow of the target regime, but merely seeks to disrupt its operations, the sponsor may decide to support a resistance movement whose objectives are sufficiently aligned. The sponsor may be seeking to impose costs on the target government, reduce its credibility in international fora, or impede specific actions being undertaken by that government. In this case, the sponsor will assist the resistance in disrupting the government operations, then, once the objectives of the campaign are achieved, work to transition the resistance into some disposition where it is safe from retribution by the government.
As with the overthrow objective, perhaps moreso, there are several attendant risks that must be taken into account. Similarly with overthrow, among these risks are blowback, overcommitment, and the flypaper effect.

  • Misalignment of interests is of particular risk, since most resistance movements that are well-developed enough to seriously disrupt a state’s operations seek to overthrow their government, not merely impede it; however, this is not a universal rule. In all cases of UW seeking disruption, the sponsor must determine that the resistance will be satisfied with the outcome of the campaign.
  • Another risk of seeking disruption is that of accidental success. This is the case where a resistance movement creates sufficient disruption to cause the government to collapse. Since the overthrow of the government was not sought (and may not be welcome), little or no planning has been conducted for the assumption of power.
  • Abandonment is yet another risk of unconventional warfare that seeks to merely disrupt an adversary’s operations. Similar to the premature termination of support in an overthrow campaign, abandonment occurs when the sponsor’s decides to terminate the UW program, but does not sufficiently plan for a transition to peace. The resistance is then left out to dry, exposed to severe retribution on the part of the government.


Coercion is the most difficult outcome to achieve. Beyond mere disruption, but clearly short of overthrow, coercion by unconventional warfare seeks to cause the target government to acquiesce to the demands of the resistance. These demands can range from increased regional autonomy to changes in the political order (e.g., subjecting the king to parliamentary rule without deposing him) to the adoption, removal or modification of specific political actions (e.g., land reform). Because the demands are more limited than overthrow, and more specific than disruption, coercion is the most complicated and fragile outcome. In the case of coercion, transition activities seek to ensure, as with disruption, that the resistance is protected from retribution, and also that the political gains made are not ephemeral but permanent.

Because of the complexity and fragility of coercion by UW, it also is the most fraught with risk. Because it shares characteristics with both overthrow and disruption, the risks reflect many of the same concerns.

  • As with disruption, misalignment of interests is a significant risk. This can come in the form of misunderstanding the objectives of the resistance, poor understanding of one’s own objectives, or the importance of an issue to the resistance.
  • Mission creep on the part of the resistance is a related risk. It is important to understand that a resistance movement is first and foremost a political movement, with all of the attendant vagaries. As the resistance evolves and adapts to the changing environment and the political views of its various constituencies, its objectives may shift sufficiently to place them in opposition to those of the sponsor. In some cases, this mission creep will cause a resistance movement initially seeking particular political ends to eventually seek the overthrow of their government.
  • Similar to disruption by UW, accidental success is a distinct possibility that must be guarded against. In the case of coercion, in addition to the risk that disruption will cause the collapse of the government, there is also the risk that the political gains of the resistance are such that the regime is unsustainable. E.g., poor planning of land reform leads to economic collapse and famine, thereby causing the government to fall.
  • Other risks of coercion by UW include blowback, overcommitment, the flypaper effect and abandonment, as discussed above.

Unconventional warfare seeks to achieve these three outcomes through one or more strategic modalities:

  • Undermining the domestic and international legitimacy of the target authority.
  • Neutralizing the target authority’s power and shifting that power to the resistance organization.
  • Destroying the confidence and will of the target authority’s leadership.
  • Isolating the target authority from international diplomatic and material support while obtaining such support for the resistance organization.
  • Obtaining the support or neutrality of the various segments of the society.

However, in contrast to “traditional” or “conventional” warfare, unconventional warfare achieves these effects vicariously. An unconventional warfare campaign seeks to employ some proxy force to achieve mutually-beneficial objectives. It supports the resistance in building it’s infrastructure and organization, connecting with sympathetic populations, training and equipping its forces, and conducting operations. But it must be remembered at all times that this is first and foremost the resistance’s fight, and that unconventional warfare is a means of supporting that fight, rather than conducting it. As T.E. Lawrence put it, “After all, it’s an Arab war … we are only guests.”

Complicating this tendency toward assuming the role of combatant is that fact that understanding UW requires understanding revolutions. While it is axiomatic that you can’t support what you don’t understand, it is also true that this study of revolutions can easily cause the student of UW to blend the two topics. In fact, much of the writing and reporting on unconventional warfare tends to ignore or downplay this distinction. All too often, it is taken as a mark of sophistication or bravery when U.S. Special Forces teams deploy to the front lines of a conflict. However, while sophistication and bravery are necessary, the farther forward the sponsors troops are, the more likely it is that the support in the rear is not as successful as it needs to be.

Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

The most iconic form of irregular warfare is that of insurgency (not to be confused with guerilla warfare), and its necessary counterpart, counterinsurgency. COIN, as it is often referred to, is even more iconic of IW than many imagine, since counterinsurgency campaigns often take on the superficial guise of counterterrorism for political purposes. However, in many of these cases, any terrorism involved is simply a tactical sub-activity of insurgency.

But before diving head first into this subject, it is worthwhile to take a moment to discuss our basic approach to the topic at hand. Most of the US doctrine related to counterinsurgency is heavily focused on foreign internal defense (FID), since it does not foresee the need to conduct COIN at home. Thus, most US doctrine (understandably, and perhaps wisely) approaches COIN as a prelude to FID. However, our study of COIN will adopt a more theoretical and universal point of view, and questions such as transition to host nation (HN) control will be left to our FID inquiry. In addition, since counterinsurgency is by definition a response to insurgency, we must begin our discussion there.


Perhaps the best definition of insurgency to date is that proposed by the U.S. Special Operations Command, which identified an insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of an established government or societal structure, or the expulsion of a foreign military presence, through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” If this definition is accepted, then insurgency is clearly nothing new. Political leaders and systems have been overthrown through violent means since the beginning of human history.

However, even this definition does not fully satisfy, since it would appear to encompass armed coups and assassination conspiracies. The common use of the term “insurgency” (and its etymological roots) is that of an “uprising.” This suggests that there must be a significant portion of the population that is either actively or passively supportive of the insurgency. If the purported insurgents cannot attract the support of at least a sizable minority of the population, then they cannot truly be called insurgents. And, as will later become clear, a counterinsurgency approach is probably not the most effective government response.

Additionally, this formulation implies a level of coordination that, while probably beneficial to the ends the insurgents seek, is becoming less and less of a requirement as communications technology allows ever-greater disaggregated and decentralized forms social interaction. As the Arab Spring shows, those who seek to overthrow a government through popular uprising (whether violent or peaceful) can on occasion do so with little or no formal organization. While it is difficult to predict where technology will take us in the future, it is not yet appropriate to categorize such minimally organized uprisings as insurgencies.


Counterinsurgency, as its name suggests, is the effort to reduce or defeat an insurgency. This is ordinarily undertaken by the government of the state in which the insurgency exists, but on occasion is undertaken by an occupying force or other outside power. However, this should not be confused with foreign internal defense, in which a foreign power assists a host nation with its efforts to secure itself from internal threats (including insurgency). We will turn our attention to foreign internal defense more fully in the next post.

Notably, JP 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations defines counterinsurgency as “comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to defeat an insurgency and to address any core grievances.” While this definition does bring up important concerns for a counterinsurgency effort, it is clearly aspirational. In practice, many COIN efforts are piecemeal and often fail to even consider, much less address, core grievances. In fact, US leadership has recently stated that as of 2015, we still do not have a clear understanding of the Taliban’s political objectives and fundamental interests.

From a purely theoretical point of view, addressing core grievances is not required to defeat an insurgency. History is replete with examples of dictatorships very effectively suppressing major insurgencies through the use of force. The United States itself, in the first 150 years of its existence, defeated multiple insurgencies at home almost exclusively relying on force.

However, most theorists agree (with data to back them up) that the most effective way to combat an insurgent movement is through an approach that balances military and socio-economic methods. In part, this is due to the current communications environment, which allows for too much transparency for states to violently suppress an uprising without drawing a great deal of attention both at home and internationally. For example, Gaddafi had violently repressed his people for decades, and would likely have been able to do so again with little difficulty if the international community did not have immediate visibility into his actions. In addition to transparency, the ubiquity of communications creates an opportunity for the people themselves to communicate about the government’s actions, sometimes with immediate effect. As noted above, leaderless organization is now possible, which allows protesters and rioters to avoid areas of police activity, thereby undermining the effectiveness of relying on security forces alone to carry out COIN.

But if the use of overwhelming violence to suppress an insurgency is out of the question, then much more subtle methodologies are required. There is much written on these “indirect approaches,” including very astute work from David Kilcullen and David Patraeus. What these thought leaders, and those in the US defense community who have followed in their footsteps, have taught us is that a tiered but comprehensive approach is required, in which the population is secured from violence and crime, empowered to carry out their day-to-day lives, and provided sustained progress toward a resolution of their core grievances, all while simultaneously isolating the insurgency (physically, politically and logistically). This latter part of the strategy may involve military force, but from a theoretical point of view does not need to. In theory, purely political activity could work to isolate the insurgents from the support they require, leading the people themselves to deny safe haven to the insurgents through anonymous tips, while the police forces make appropriate arrests of the insurgency’s leadership to be tried in a court of law, further undermining the insurgents’ legitimacy. However, in practice and in most cases, military forces will likely be required to assist in securing the population, isolating the insurgent forces, and capturing its leadership.

Nonetheless, civilian agencies will have a major role in the counterinsurgency effort. At the end of the day, it is civilian action that will most likely be the determining factor between success and failure, since insurgencies rarely arise purely out of public discontent with security issues. Instead, insurgent groups often emerge in response of the government’s failure to provide legitimate leadership or essential public services that leads to the discontent that fuels an insurgency. These are issues outside the purview of the military, and which must be solved by civilian agencies. In a later post, we will discuss in more detail the particular capabilities that these agencies can bring. We will also discuss the issues particular to conducting counterinsurgency as a foreign actor.

Stability Operations

Stability operations, which “involve establishing or re-establishing order in a fragile state or territory,” [DoDD 3000.07 (2014)] are perhaps the best starting point for a discussion of the core activities of irregular warfare. This is because, of all the activities undertaken by military forces, stability operations 1) generally place the military in the most direct, prolonged contact with civilian populations and 2) generally involve the intentional restructuring or resetting of the civilian population’s relationship with their government. In this respect, stability operations get quickly to the heart of irregular warfare: the pursuit of legitimacy in the eyes of the population. This is especially true when there are spoilers attempting to undermine the government, whether for political purposes or for personal gain. However, in many cases, stability operations may not involve a clear opposition, but be undertaken as, for example, a prophylactic measure following a natural disaster, or in the face of rampant but unorganized crime.

The purpose of stability operations

Whether opposed or not, the basic goal of stability operations is to maintain or reestablish public order and safety of the civilian population, and if necessary return the state to its legitimate government. As the US military has learned over the last decade and a half, this requires in the short term, the establishment of a safe and secure environment, provision of essential government services, and the responsible delivery of aid. Each of these closely intertwined activities is enormously complex, and while we briefly take each in turn, doing any of them complete justice will necessarily be beyond the scope of this blog. In the longer term, stabilization of a post conflict state also requires transfer of these responsibilities to a host nation government that is legitimate, effective, and has the capacity to manage the activities transitioned to it. These longer-term issues are vital to consider in planning any phase of stability operations, but due to their complexity, will primarily be dealt with in later posts on transition and the interagency role in stabilization and stability operations.

It is important to be clear that this view of stability operations is specific to the point of view of a state conducting stability operations abroad. The view is substantially different for those attempting to stabilize their own state. According to the strategic framework developed by USIP and PKSOI, from the point of view of the host nation population there are five “end states” that must be sought, whom they rightly describe as the “final arbiters of whether peace has been achieved.” These end states are a safe and secure environment, rule of law, stable governance, a sustainable economy, and social well-being.

Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction

End States:

• Safe and Secure Environment: Ability of the people to conduct their daily lives without fear of systematic or large-scale violence.

• Rule of Law: Ability of the people to have equal access to just laws and a trusted system of justice that holds all persons accountable, protects their human rights and ensures their safety and security.

• Stable Governance: Ability of the people to share, access or compete for power through nonviolent political processes and to enjoy the collective bene ts and services of the state.

• Sustainable Economy: Ability of the people to pursue opportunities for livelihoods within a system of economic governance bound by law.

• Social Well-Being: Ability of the people to be free from want of basic needs and to coexist peacefully in communities with opportunities for advancement.

However, from the perspective of an irregular warfare force provider, these end states are developed primarily through securing the environment, assisting with essential governmental services, and provision of aid. In the short run, these activities may have to be led by the supporting state, but in all cases the host nation government must as soon as feasible step up to bear the full weight of achieving each of the five end states identified in the Guiding Principles.

Safe and secure environment

It is not difficult to see that lawlessness and armed violence impede economic growth, destroy human and physical capital, and redirect resources from productive use. More perniciously, they also create an environment in which existing intercommunal conflicts can be deepened or activated. This can have the effect of crystallizing conflict within the culture, so that even if active conflict is eventually quelled, cultural cleavages can be reopened by spoilers, bad actors, and misguided nationalists generations later. Thus, delay in securing the environment, or lapses in attention that allow lawlessness or violence to return, can have compounding effects that continue to reverberate through the cultural landscape.

In addition, as the US has found in its recent efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the creation of a reasonably safe and secure environment, even if artificial at the start, is a necessary precondition to making gains in governance and the economy. It should not be terribly surprising that citizens from developing countries (which account for more than half of all armed conflict) have ranked safety, security and justice as primary concerns.  According to USAID, “escalating crime in these already fragile states further impedes their emergence from poverty and instability. At the same time, poverty creates fertile conditions for crime, terrorism, and trafficking.” Conversely, “security-sector reform and the post-conflict reintegration of ex-combatants help create conditions that will enable these states to chart a positive path towards peace so that recovery and development can begin.”

However, while most military planners have focused on the immediate concern of reducing the manifestation of violence and lapses in public order, too often this comes at the expense of planning for the long term, including such systemic issues as police and judicial corruption, alignment with cultural norms and expectations, sustainability of security force assistance, and security sector governance. Again, according to USAID, “promoting effective and responsible governance of the security sector in all its manifestations is a critical element of any program designed to help societies evolve in more secure, democratic and prosperous ways.”

Essential government services

Provision of essential government services, such as water, sanitation, and dispute resolution, is required to generate stability once the environment is secure enough to conduct those services. This is because, in the short run, a population that does not have access to government-provided services will necessarily turn to any source that can provide them. The population will always have a preference for some providers over others, so lack of government services will not necessarily lead to reliance on insurgent groups, but does in most cases weaken the bonds between the government and the people, which will have long-term deleterious effects on security and stability.

The precise services that are required will vary from one country to another, and possibly from one province to another, based on the expectations of the people. These expectations are informed by the history and culture of that state, from minimalist (almost anarchist), in which little more than basic police and hospital services are expected, to maximalist, in which the people expect government involvement in nearly every aspect of their lives. In any case, there are some fundamental services that every government must provide to ensure a stable environment, without which basic human needs will be unmet and this deprivation will quickly induce instability. These include such essentials as water, food, shelter, health services, education, and sanitation. Again, not all societies expect the government to be the primary provider of these services, but all generally expect the government to act as the final guarantor.

Responsible delivery of aid

In cases where the government is not fully capable of securing its population and providing essential services, the international community will likely have to step in to fill the gap. Donor states will likely also be required to assist the government to develop the capability and capacity to provide security and essential services. In the short run, this will in most cases involve the provision of humanitarian relief and emergency infrastructure reconstruction (such as rebuilding of dams and hospitals). In the longer run, aid for stability operations runs the gamut from provision of food, medicine or other supplies; to training government officials and civil society leaders; to foreign military sales; to directly subsidizing the host nation’s budget.

However, not all help is helpful. There are many pitfalls that can beset a country attempting to stabilize a partner nation through foreign aid. While most of these issues are beyond the scope of this blog, a few warrant mention here.

First and foremost is the issue of sustainability. Aid that is not of a type and scale that can be adequately maintained by the host nation after transition (or at least by its permanent donor states) should be recognized as surge effort. In these cases, the transition planning must account for a declining level of effort following the drawdown of aid. If this decline is not manageable, then a more sustainable aid package should be considered, along with a reassessment of the strategic goals for stabilization.

Related to sustainability, but on a shorter timeline, is the issue of absorptive capacity. A state emerging from instability will likely not be able to take on all of the responsibilities of maintaining stability in part because it does not have the resources or the technical and bureaucratic capability to fully absorb the aid that is provided to it. Much like teaching a child mathematical concepts, a graduated approach may be necessary to build the capacity for different skills and responsibilities. In many cases, advanced functions may not be feasible in a reasonable time horizon.

In addition, some attempts at aid may even prove counterproductive to stability. For example, sudden and sustained influx of aid can cause economic shocks and inflation, which may exacerbate resource competition and provide additional impetus to corruption and criminality. As bad as these effects may be, the subsequent and inevitable withdrawal of aid will likely generate the mirror image shocks of stagnation and deflation may be worse.

Ironically, the worst scenario may be the one in which the aid is most effective. Aid which is effective and targeted to the neediest populations may actually exacerbate the very same tensions that lead to the instability in the first place, further cementing ethnic, regional, or other rivalries. Thus, aid to states that may exhibit such cleavages should be intentionally designed to provide something of clear value to all parties, even if the particular type of aid is not identical. For example, job training and medical aid may be given to a village composed primarily of a repressed majority ethnic group, while civic engagement training is given to a formerly empowered minority stronghold nearby.

Competing characterizations of stability operations

While the characterization of stability operations outlined above does not map precisely to the doctrinal model used by the US military, this is in part intentional. More than merely an attempt to improve upon the model used in JP 3-07, Stability Operations, the foregoing is offered (as with much of the material in this blog) as a counterpoint to improve understanding of the issues that each model attempts to address. These alternate frameworks need not be seen as competitors for primary, but as approaching the same subject from two different angles. Each angle bringing with it a different perspective and possibly resulting, therefore, in different analytic outcomes. However, neither is the ultimate truth, as that is something none of us will ever know.

A Confusion over Stability Operations

During a regular review held in 2014 of DoDD 3000.07, the directive guiding IW development, concern was expressed by some that the proposed definition of IW unduly characterized Stability Operations as an IW activity, vice a traditional military activity. The following attempts to identify and address the concerns with the inclusion of “stability operations” as one of the examples within DoDD 3000.07 (2014) of DoD activities that comprise an IW campaign.

The offending text was proposed to read: “IW can include any relevant DoD activity and operation such as counterterrorism; unconventional warfare; foreign internal defense; counterinsurgency; and stability operations that, in the context of IW, involve establishing or re-establishing order in a fragile state or territory. While these activities may occur across the full range of military operations, the balance or primary focus of operations gives a campaign its predominant character.”

While the specific issues with the text were not explicitly stated, except that the text made stability operations seem to be too closely aligned with irregular, vice traditional warfare. We were able to identify several possible areas of contention, most prominently including whether stability operations is a core activity of IW and whether stability operations is categorized as an exclusively IW activity. However, neither of these contentions stand up under close scrutiny.

Contentions over Stability Operations as an IW activity

Taking first the possible issue with stability operations as a core activity of irregular warfare, current stability operations and IW doctrine are in accord with the proposed text’s characterization of IW activities as those “establishing or re-establishing order in a fragile state or territory.” According to the IW JOC 2.0, stability operations are one of the five core activities or operations “undertaken in sequence, in parallel, or in blended form” to “prevent, deter, disrupt and defeat irregular threats.” These five activities are focused upon because IW’s “contest for legitimacy and influence over a population will be won primarily through persistent effort to enable a legitimate and capable local partner to address the conflict’s causes and provide security, good governance, and economic development.” These core activates meet that requirement “because they are typically sustained activities that focus on the population and are conducted with other partners.”

Stability Operations is one of IW JOC 2.0’s five core activities due to the need to “establish or re-establish order in a fragile state” and the role of the military in providing “a safe and secure environment to support other government agency programs to build host nations capacity” or in which the military will conduct such activities itself.

Stability operations doctrine aligns with that of IW in that both seek to “neutralize and isolate irregular actors by winning the contests in both the physical domains and the information environment of the operational area.” (JP 3-07 pg. II-26) Concordant with the IW concept, JP 3-07, Stability Operations, notes that “The HN government must provide a more attractive, credible vision of the future than the adversary. Without security, the development of adequate governance, sustainable local economies, and delivery of essential services is significantly impeded and unlikely to succeed.”

The second likely concern is also unwarranted. The DoDD 3000.07 proposed language does not unduly characterize stability operations as “an IW activity,” since it also states that “IW can include any relevant DoD activity and operation,” of which stability operations is one example. This is appropriate, since in current doctrine, stability operations is not characterized as an activity in support of either traditional or irregular warfare. In fact, none of five doctrinal core irregular warfare activities are perfectly unique to irregular warfare. IW JOC 2.0 “recognizes that [the] five IW activities may also be applied outside the arena of irregular threats.” This includes as much to stability operations As any of the other core activities, if not moreso. Moreover, JP 3-07 also envisions stability operations being conducted in support of an IW campaign, in addition to traditional warfare (see JP 3-07, pg. I-4).

Possible reasons for confusion

There are two likely reasons for this either-or confusion regarding stability operations. The first is a belief evident within the military community that irregular and traditional warfare are in some way mutually exclusive, despite multiple pronouncements throughout US military doctrine to the contrary. Joint military doctrine and policy is very clear that irregular and traditional warfare are not mutually exclusive, but coexist in nearly every conflict in some proportion.

The precise reason for this insistence on bifurcation of irregular and traditional is unclear, but very likely is rooted in the fear of change and preference for simplicity that is inherent in human logic. Military officers and defense professionals, as with any type of professional, are easily enamored with evolutionary changes in their craft which make their current job easier, but reflexively reject changes which challenge their assumptions about the nature of their work or require entirely new modes of operation.

Another likely reason for the confusion over stability operations as either traditional or irregular is introduced by a sloppy classification system used within joint doctrine itself. Under this system, warfare is described as “offensive,” “defensive,” or “stability” operations, or some blend thereof (e.g. “Traditional warfare is characterized by a series of offensive, defensive, and stability operations.” JP 1 pg. I-5; see also JP 3-07 pg. I-4). While not explicitly stated, this appears to be an entirely separate classification system from that which defines types of operations. Notably, while stability operations is clearly defined in the joint lexicon and has a joint publication devoted to it, “offensive” and “defensive” operations do not appear to be defined in JP 1-02, the joint military dictionary, or other relevant documents.

However, the definition of stability operations is provided in JP 1-02 and JP 3-07, and according to this definition, stability operations is capable of being classified as a core activity of IW (see the above discussion), which is not included in the offensive/defensive/stability classification.

Stability Operations vs Stabilize

In addition, stability operations may be confused with operations during the “stabilize” phase of a conflict (see, e.g., JP 3-0 pg. V-8). However, DoDD 3000.07 and several joint pubs make clear that stability operations are carried out throughout all phases. (See, e.g., JP 3-0 pg. V-36). The stabilize phase is merely the notional point of the conflict in which stability operations are the predominant military concern. Stability operations is neither the exclusive activity during this phase, nor is it relegated to this phase. In fact, in the vast majority of modern conflicts, the stabilize phase is purely notional in that it begins before major combat operations are actually over, and even once they are over, they will likely be employed again at several points in an attempt to crush strongholds of insurgent activity, as in Fallujah, Korengal and a multitude of other examples.

In the end, as students of military theory, it is important to be able to be clear about the types of operations we are discussing, and to ensure that the classification systems we use are internally coherent. Moreover, it is vital that we not allow biases to dictate our understanding of the issues involved in our craft. Unfortunately, these problems abound in the study of irregular warfare. Through this blog, we hope to elucidate some of these problems, but caution the reader that vigilance is required at all times when reading any analysis related to irregular warfare topics.