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.

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