The following list of terms and definitions provides a basis for understanding the meanings of terms commonly used in the study of irregular warfare. Inclusion in this list does not imply correctness, as terms often change over time, and as with any contentious area of study, different terms are often employed by different speakers in an effort to bolster their policy preferences.

Rather, in this list, preferred terms and definitions will be individually noted with an asterisk at the end of the entry. These terms and definitions are preferred for their clarity, acuity, and usefulness to policymakers. Terms that carry heavy connotations or imply specific policy preferences will be avoided in favor of political and moral neutrality.

Additionally, some definitions provided in U.S. military doctrine will be omitted from this list, even where applicable to irregular warfare, as formal definition provides no additional clarity and may only serve to restrict the natural use of language. For example, defining “military support to stabilization, security, transition and reconstruction” provides no additional clarity once “stabilization, security, transition and reconstruction” (its own term) is defined.


The structure of the glossary entries is as follows:

Term to be defined: Definition of the term, followed by any necessary clarifying discussion. (Source, if any.) [cross-references, if any.]



Glossary of Irregular Warfare Terminology

Armed group: A group that employs force to achieve its objectives; is not within the formal military structure of any state, alliance of states, or intergovernmental organization; and is not under the control of the state(s) in which it operates.
(IW JOC 1.0)

Attribute: A testable and measurable characteristic that describes an aspect of a capability. (CJCSI 3170.01C)

Capability: The ability to execute a specified course of action. (A capability may or may not be accompanied by an intention.) (JP 1-02) It is defined by an operational user and expressed in broad operational terms in the format of an initial capabilities document or a DOTMLPF change recommendation. In the case of materiel proposals, the definition will progressively evolve to DOTMLPF performance attributes identified in the capability development document and the capabilities production document. (CJCSI 3170.01) [See also military capability.]

Civil-military operations (CMO): The activities of a commander that establish, maintain, influence, or exploit relations between military forces, governmental and nongovernmental civilian organizations and authorities, and the civilian populace in a friendly, neutral, or hostile operational area in order to facilitate military operations to consolidate and achieve operational US objectives. Civil-military operations may include performance by military forces of activities and functions normally the responsibility of the local, regional, or national government. These activities may occur prior to, during, or subsequent to other military actions. They may also occur, if directed, in the absence of other military operations. Civil-military operations may be performed by designated civil affairs, by other military forces, or by a combination of civil affairs and other forces.  (JP 1.02)

Clandestine operation: An operation sponsored or conducted by governmental departments or agencies in such a way as to assure secrecy or concealment. A clandestine operation differs from a covert operation in that emphasis is placed on concealment of the operation rather than on concealment of the identity of the sponsor. In special operations, an activity may be both covert and clandestine and may focus equally on operational considerations and intelligence-related activities. (JP 1-02)

Countering weapons of mass destruction (CWMD): The integrated and dynamic activities of the Department of Defense across the full range of counter-proliferation, nonproliferation, and consequence management efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery, and related materials. Also called Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction. (National Military Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction (NMS-CWMD), 13 February 2006) [See also weapons of mass destruction.]

Conflict: An armed struggle or clash between organized groups within a nation or between nations in order to achieve limited political or military objectives. Although regular forces are often involved, irregular forces frequently predominate. Conflict often is protracted, confined to a restricted geographic area, and constrained in weaponry and level of violence. Within this state, military power in response to threats may be exercised in an indirect manner while supportive of other instruments of national power. Limited objectives may be achieved by the short, focused, and direct application of force. (JP 3-0)

contested environment: An operational environment in which: (a) A friendly government or occupying power has authorized US military operations but does not have effective control of the territory and population in the operational area, or the capability or intent to assist the joint force effectively; or (b) A hostile government or occupying power is opposed to US military operations but does not have effective control of the territory and population in the operational area, or the capability or intent to oppose the joint force effectively. (IW JOC 1.0) See also operational environment.

Confronting irregular challenges (CIC): Direct and indirect support approaches to dissuade and defeat irregular challenges wherein states and non-state actors leverage uncontrolled or ungoverned space to employ informational, economic, technological, and kinetic methods against civilian populations and targets to achieve their objectives. (Adapted from Navy Vision for Confronting Irregular Challenges.)

Conventional: Activities, operations, organizations, capabilities, etc., of the regular armed forces of a country that are capable of conducting military operations using non-nuclear weapons, but excluding designated special operations forces. (IW JOC 1.0)

Conventional forces: 1. Those forces capable of conducting operations using non-nuclear weapons. 2. Those forces other than designated special operations forces. (JP 3-05) [See also General Purpose Forces.]

Counterinsurgency: Those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency. (JP 1-02) [See also insurgency.]

Counterterrorism: Operations that include the offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, preempt, and respond to terrorism. (JP 1-02) [See also terrorism.]

Denied area: An operational area where a friendly or neutral government or occupying power is opposed to US military operations and has both effective control of the territory and population in the operational area, and the capability and intent to oppose the joint force effectively. (IW JOC 1.0) [See also contested area.]

Foreign internal defense: Participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency. (JP 1-02)

General purpose forces: The regular armed forces of a country, other than nuclear forces and special operations forces, that are organized, trained, and equipped to perform a broad range of missions across the range of military operations. Also called conventional forces. (IW JOC 1.0)

Guerrilla: Military and paramilitary forces that operate primarily in enemy-held or hostile territory by using evasion and covert methods to avoid direct confrontation and employing indirect offensive methods.

Guerrilla warfare: Military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held or hostile territory by irregular, predominantly indigenous forces. (JP 1-02)

Hostile environment: See operational environment.

Indirect methods (or means):  1. Unbalance and dislocate adversaries by attacking them physically and psychologically where they are most vulnerable and unsuspecting, rather than where they are strongest or in the manner they expect to be attacked. 2. Empower, enable, and leverage IA and multinational strategic partners to attack adversaries militarily or non-militarily, rather than relying on direct and unilateral military confrontation by US joint forces. 3. Take
actions with or against other states or armed groups in order to influence adversaries, rather than taking actions to influence adversaries directly. (IW JOC 1.0)

Information operations: 1. Actions taken to affect adversary information and information systems while defending one’s own information and information systems. (JP 1-02) 2. The integrated employment of the core capabilities of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities, to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision-making while protecting our own. (DOD Directive 3600.1) .

Insurgency: 1. An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict. (JP 1-02) 2. An organized, armed political struggle whose goal may be the seizure of power through revolutionary takeover and replacement of the existing government. However, insurgencies’ goals may be more limited. Insurgencies generally follow a revolutionary doctrine and use armed force as an instrument of policy. (FM 100-20, 1990) 3. 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. (Proposed by US Special Operations Command for inclusion in IW JOC 1.0)

Intelligence activities: The collection, production, and dissemination of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence by agencies within the Intelligence Community. (Derived from Executive Order 12333 and DODD 5240.1)

Intelligence collection operations: The use of sensors, including human assets, to detect and monitor both physical and non-physical objects and events in all domains (i.e., physical – maritime, air, space, and land; virtual – cyber and information; human – social, moral, and cognitive). Observation and collection include the gathering of pertinent environmental factors that can influence operations throughout the domains. (IW JOC 1.0, modified from JP 2-01)

Intelligence preparation of the environment: Tactical intelligence activities conducted to gain understanding of the physical, military, and civil characteristics of potential operational areas. (IW JOC 1.0) [See also preparation of the environment and operational preparation of the environment.]

Irregular: Activities, operations, organizations, capabilities, etc., in which significant numbers of combatants engage in insurgency and other nonconventional military and paramilitary operations without being members of the regular armed forces, police, or other internal security forces of any country. (IW JOC 1.0) See also conventional, nonconventional.

Irregular forces: Armed individuals or groups who are not members of the regular armed forces, police, or other internal security forces. (JP 1-02)

Irregular warfare: A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will. Also called IW. (IW JOC 1.0)

Irregular warfare campaign: A campaign that primarily focuses on irregular warfare operations or activities. (IW JOC 1.0)

Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System: The Department of Defense system for identifying, assessing, and prioritizing joint military capability needs. Also called JCIDS. (IW JOC 1.0)

Line(s) of operation: 1. Lines that define the directional orientation of the force in time and space in relation to the enemy. They connect the force with its base of operations and its objectives. (JP 1-02). 2. An arrangement of military forces or capabilities that links decisive points to achieve desired effects that may bear no direct relationship to an enemy’s physical activities. Also called logical lines of operation (LLO). (IW JOC 1.0, proposed definition derived from Army FM 3-0)

Low-intensity conflict: Political-military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war and above the routine, peaceful competition among states. It frequently involves protracted struggles of competing principles and ideologies. Low intensity conflict ranges from subversion to the use of armed force. It is waged by a combination of means, employing political, economic, informational, and military instruments. Low intensity conflicts are localized generally in the Third World, but contain regional and global security implications. (IW JOC 1.0)

Military capability: The ability to achieve a specified wartime objective (win a war or battle, destroy a target set). It includes four major components: force structure, modernization, readiness, and sustainability. a. Force Structure – Numbers, size, and composition of the units that comprise our defense forces; e.g., divisions, ships, air wings. b. Modernization – Technical sophistication of forces, units, weapon systems, and equipment. c. Unit Readiness – The ability
to provide capabilities required by the combatant commanders to execute their assigned missions. This is derived from the ability of each unit to deliver the outputs for which it was designed. d. Sustainability – The ability to maintain the necessary level and duration of operational activity to achieve military objectives. Sustainability is a function of providing for and maintaining those
levels of ready forces, materiel, and consumables necessary to support military effort. (JP 1-02)

Nation assistance: Civil and/or military assistance rendered to a nation by foreign forces within that nation’s territory during peacetime, crises or emergencies, or war based on agreements mutually concluded between nations. Nation assistance programs include, but are not limited to, security assistance, foreign internal defense, other US Code title 10 (DOD) programs, and activities performed on a reimbursable basis by federal agencies or international organizations. (JP 3-57)

National strategic level of war: See strategic level of war.

Nonconventional: Activities, operations, organizations, capabilities, etc., for which the regular armed forces of a country, excluding designated special operations forces, do not have a broad-based requirement for the conduct of combat operations against the regular armed forces of another country. This term includes the employment of conventional forces and capabilities in nonstandard ways or for nonstandard purposes. See also conventional, irregular. (IW JOC 1.0)

Non-state actor: A group or organization that is not within the formal structure of any state, not limited by any state boundary, and operates beyond the control of any state and without loyalty to any state. Examples include international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, political parties, labor unions, commercial trade associations, criminal enterprises, and armed groups such as insurgent and terrorist organizations, informal armed militias, and private military companies. See also armed group, nongovernmental organization. (IW JOC 1.0)

Operational direction: The authority over US military forces that the President delegates to a chief of mission for a specific complex contingency operation for which the chief of mission has responsibility. Operational direction normally includes the authority to assign tasks, designate objectives, synchronize and integrate actions, and give authoritative direction necessary to accomplish the
mission. (IW JOC 1.0)

Operational environment: A composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of military forces and bear on the decisions of the unit commander. Some examples are as follows:
a. permissive environment – Operational environment in which host country military and law enforcement agencies have control as well as the intent and capability to assist operations that a unit intends to conduct.
b. uncertain environment – Operational environment in which host government forces, whether opposed to or receptive to operations that a unit intends to conduct, do not have totally effective control of the territory and population in the intended operational area.
c. hostile environment – Operational environment in which hostile forces have control as well as the intent and capability to effectively oppose or react to the operations a unit intends to conduct. (JP 1-02)

Operational mode: The degree of secrecy or concealment placed on an operation to limit exposure of those involved or their activities. See also clandestine operation; covert operation; low visibility operations; overt operation. (IW JOC 1.0)

Operational preparation of the environment: Activities conducted prior to d-day, h-hour, in likely or potential areas of operations to prepare and shape the environment to mitigate risk and facilitate success. (IW JOC 1.0)

Overt operation: An operation that is planned and executed without any effort to conceal the operation or the identity of the sponsor. (IW JOC 1.0) See operational mode.

Paramilitary: Connotes activities, operations, organizations, etc., distinct from those of the regular armed forces of any country but resembling them in organization, equipment, training, or mission. (IW JOC 1.0)

Paramilitary forces: Forces or groups that are distinct from the regular armed forces of any country but resembling them in organization, equipment, training, or mission. (JP 1-02)

Partisan warfare: guerrilla warfare. (JP 1-02)

Permissive area: An operational area in which host country military and law enforcement agencies have control as well as the intent and capability to assist operations that a unit intends to conduct. (IW JOC 1.0)

Permissive environment: See operational environment.

Protracted: 1. An operation, campaign, or war of such long duration that it requires multiple unit rotations for an indefinite period of time. (Adapted from IW JOC 1.0) 2.* A campaign of indefinite duration, such that replenishment of forces becomes a vital strategic consideration.

(This second definition is useful not only to U.S. (or other non-host nation) forces, but also to insurgent groups and resistance movements themselves.)

Psychological operations: Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives. Also called PSYOP. (JP 1-02)

Reconstruction operations: Operations to establish or rebuild the critical political, social, and economic systems or infrastructure necessary to facilitate long-term security and the transition to legitimate local governance in an operational area. See also stability operations. (Derived from SSTR JOC)

Security forces: Police and constabulary forces, as well as military and paramilitary forces, that protect societies from criminal, terrorist, and other threats to public order. (IW JOC 1.0)

Special operations: Operations conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives employing military capabilities for which there is no broad conventional force requirement. These operations often require covert, clandestine, or low visibility capabilities. Special operations are applicable across the range of military operations. They can be conducted independently or in conjunction with operations of conventional forces or other government agencies and may include operations through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces. Special operations differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets. Also called SO. (JP 3-05)

Stability operations: (1) An overarching term encompassing various military missions, tasks, and activities conducted outside the United States in coordination with other instruments of national power to maintain or reestablish a safe and secure environment and provide essential governmental services, emergency infrastructure reconstruction, and humanitarian relief. (JP 1-02) (2)Military and civilian activities conducted across the spectrum from peace to
conflict to establish or maintain order in states and regions. (DODD 3000.05)

Strategic level of war: (1) The level of war at which a nation, often as a member of a group of nations, determines national or multinational (alliance or coalition) security objectives and guidance and develops and uses national resources to accomplish these objectives. Activities at this level establish national and
multinational military objectives; sequence initiatives; define limits and assess risks of the use of military and other instruments of national power; develop global plans or theater war plans to achieve these objectives; and provide military forces and other capabilities in accordance with strategic plans. (JP 1-02)
(2) The level of war at which a state or non-state actor, often as a member of an alliance or coalition, determines strategic objectives and guidance and develops and uses its resources to accomplish these objectives. Activities at this level establish strategic military objectives; sequence initiatives; define limits and assess risks of the use of military and other instruments of power; develop global or theater plans to achieve these objectives; and provide military forces and other capabilities in accordance with strategic plans. The strategic level of war is divided into two sub-levels:
a. national strategic – The President, Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and functional combatant commanders operate at the national strategic sub-level of war when establishing national and military strategic objectives; sequencing strategic initiatives; defining limits and assessing risks of the use of military and other instruments of national power; developing global strategic plans to achieve these objectives; and providing military forces and other capabilities in accordance with these strategic plans.
b. theater strategic – Geographic combatant commanders normally operate at the theater strategic sub-level of war when developing theater plans to achieve national security or strategic military objectives and applying the military instrument of power in coordination with the other instruments of national power in their areas of responsibility to achieve the desired military end state within the strategic end state determined by national security or strategic military objectives and guidance. (IW JOC 1.0)

Task: A discrete action performed by an individual or organization to accomplish a mission. Tasks specify what actions must be performed, not who will perform them, how they will be performed, or what means will be employed to perform them. (CJCSM 3500.04C)

Terrorism: The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological. (JP 1-02) The calculated use or threat of unlawful political violence against noncombatants, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies through fear. (IW JOC 1.0)

Terrorist group: Any number of terrorists who assemble together, have a unifying relationship, or are organized for the purpose of committing an act or acts of violence or threatens violence in pursuit of their political, religious, or ideological objectives. See also terrorism. (JP 1-02)

Theater strategic level of war: See strategic level of war.

Uncertain environment: See operational environment.

Unconventional warfare: A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes, but is not limited to, guerrilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery. Also called UW. (JP 1-02)

Ungoverned area: An operational area in which no effective government exists to control the territory and population, or over which the state government is unable to extend control. (IW JOC 1.0)

Ungoverned environment: An operational environment where no effective government exists to control the territory and population in the operational area or to assist or oppose the joint force. See also operational environment. (IW JOC 1.0)

Unified action: A broad generic term that describes the wide scope of actions (including the synchronization of activities with governmental and nongovernmental agencies) taking place within unified commands, subordinate unified commands, or joint task forces under the overall direction of the commanders of those commands. (JP 0-2)

War: A violent clash of interests between or among organized groups
characterized by the use of military force. (Derived from USMC Warfighting)

Warfare: The use of military force and other forms of organized political violence in combination with other instruments of power and influence to achieve strategic objectives. (IW JOC 1.0)




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