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Unconventional Warfare (UW)

This web page provides resources for those who are interested in the topic of unconventional warfare.  It includes definitions, references, publications, news and magazine articles, and books on unconventional warfare.

Definition of Unconventional Warfare (UW)

There are many definitions of unconventional warfare.  Military professionals will sometimes shorten the phrase to UW.  Depending on which country and type of institution you represent the term means different things.  Even within the U.S. Department of Defense there are several definitions of UW - it depends which organization is providing the definition and the time period in history when the definition was provided.

Unconventional Warfare (UW) Defination IAW USSOCOM.  The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) defines unconventional warfare as:

"Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area"

The UW definition above was approved in May 2009 by USSOCOM.  See Training Circular 18-01, Special Forces Unconventional Warfare, December 2010.  This definition is in accordance with Title 10 of U.S. Code which lists UW as an activity.

The 2016 NDAA, Section 1097 used the phrase "or guerrilla force" versus "and guerrilla force". The very small word change reflects an understanding that in modern UW there may or many not be a guerrilla force.

Unconventional Warfare (UW) Definition IAW JP 3-05.  

"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."

For an in-depth discussion of the definition of unconventional warfare see "What is the Scope of UW?" by the blog "On Resistances, Revolutions, and Insurgencies.

Why UW? What are the factors that lead to the use of unconventional warfare? One study, entitled Why UW: Factoring in the Decision Point for Unconventional Warfare" seeks to answer that question. The study, completed in December 2012 and authored by Ryan C. Agee and Maurice K. Duclos, is available on the "Calhoun" website - the institutional archive of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). This publication is extensive in its review of UW history yet provides recommendations in the use of UW in the future.

How Unconventional Warfare (UW) Fits Into Doctrine

UW and ARSOF.  Unconventional Warfare (UW) is one of twelve Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) core tasks.  The others are Civil Affairs Operations (CAO), Military Information Support Operations (MISO), Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, Counterinsurgency (COIN), Counterterrorism (CT), Foreign Humanitarian Assistance, Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Preparation of the Environment, Security Force Assistance (SFA), Special Reconnaissance (SR), Direct Action (DA). 7.

UW and Special Forces.  Unconventional Warfare is one of the six primary missions of U.S. Army Special Forces (according to the link at the U.S. Army recruiting site).  The other five are counterinsurgency, direct action, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, and security force assistance. However, a 2021 document states that SF has two primary missions: UW and FID. 7. It also states that SF conductes nine principal tasks: Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, Preparation of the Environment, Counterinsurgency, Security Force Assistance, Special Reconnaissance, Direct Action, Counterterrorism, and Counterproliferation.

UW and Irregular Warfare.  Unconventional Warfare is considered to be one of the five components of Irregular Warfare (IW).  The other IW components are counterterrorism, foreign internal defense, stability operations, and counterinsurgency. The IW definition varies base on which doctrinal source who cite. 3.

UW and Special Warfare. Unconventional Warfare is considered to be one of the components of Special Warfare. The current definition (see ADRP 3-05) 2. states that Special Warfare is comprised of MISO, CA, FID and UW. Past doctrine has stated that Special Warfare was PSYOP, COIN, and UW. For an comprehensive discussion of unconventional warfare view several articles about unconventional warfare in the Winter 2001 edition of Special Warfare Magazine (Vol. 14, No. 1).  Available for viewing or download in Adobe Acrobat (pdf) by clicking here, it is 1.24 MBs in size.

UW and Political Warfare. The U.S. military and various governmental agencies are continually revising doctrine to meet the requirements posed by the ever-changing international scene. A number of new terms have come into vogue (irregular warfare, hybrid warfare, political warfare, Gray Zone, etc.) to try to explain the new political and military challenges the U.S. is confronted with. Political Warfare (just like UW) is an old term that is seeing a revival. The United States Army Special Operations Command is now exploring this newly discovered (yet again) area of conflict and attempting to fit UW and Political Warfare into their 'scheme of things'.  5.    

Counter-Unconventional Warfare (C-UW). The concept of Uncoventional Warfare as conducted by U.S. Army Special Forces is throroughly defined. What is a newly emerging concept is that of countering the UW and Hybrid Warfare efforts of our adversaries. C-UW is a relatively new term coined by veterans of global special operations to describe the efforts of the U.S. to counter the attempts by our adversaries to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow established governments (using UW) and other non-conventional means. 6.  


Sources of Information about Unconventional Warfare

Unconventional Warfare.  By Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Project Gray. A collaborative study of the 'Gray Zone' - the space between war and peace. Project Gray is an initiative of the U.S. Army Special Operations Center of Excellence. UW is one military tool found in this space. - Website no longer online.


Publications and References about Unconventional Warfare

RUSI, The Threat from Russia's Unconventional Warfare Beyond Ukraine, 2022-2024, by Jack Watling, Oleksandr V. Danylyuk, and Nick Reynolds, Royal United Services Institute, February 2024, PDF, 38 pages.

1st SF Cmd, A Vision for 2021 and Beyond, 1st Special Forces Command - Airborne, February 2021, PDF, 20 pages. This document states that the 1st Special Forces Command is America's only dedicated full-spectrum UW force providing a potent and threatening weapon against authoritarian adversaries in Great Power Competition. (p 4).

Will Irwin, A Comprehensive and Proactive Approach to Unconventional Warfare, Joint Special Operations University, JSOU Press Occasional Paper, May 2016.

USASOC, Unconventional Warfare Pocket Guide, V1.0, April 2016, United States Army Special Operations Command. The purpose of this 44-page document is to provide a pocket reference of Unconventional Warfare (UW) doctrine, concepts, academic inquiry, and suggested supplementary reading for military leaders and planners.

Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies.  DA Pamplet No. 550-104.  By Molnar, Andrew R.  Washington, DC: GPO, 1966.  Considered a prime source when discussing guerrilla and resistance movements.  The Second Edition of this pub was published in January 2013 and is available on the website. Read discussions about this book on the Small Wars Journal blog (click here).  Find out more or buy from by clicking here Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies .

Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare.  By Andrew R. Molnar.  Washington, DC: Special Operations Research Office, American University Press, 1963.  Find out more or buy from by clicking here Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare.


Blogs about Unconventional Warfare

On Resistances, Revolutions, and Insurgencies.  A blog to exchange ideas and a repository of information on insurgencies and resistance movements.


Books about Unconventional Warfare

Chasing Ghosts. By John Tierney.

Guerrilla.  By Charles W. Thayer.  New York: Signet, 1965.  This book is considered one of the primers for those who study guerrilla warfare.  Find out more or buy from by clicking here Guerrilla .

Invisible Armies. By Max Boot.

Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990, Michael McClintock, Pantheon Books, 1992.

Total Resistance.  By Major H. von Dach.  Paladin Press, 1992.  The official Swiss manual for resistance to enemy occupation by employing stay-behind guerrilla warfare was written by a Swiss army officer.  Find out more or buy from by clicking here Total Resistance .

Modern Irregular Warfare: In Defense Policy and as a Military Phenomenon.  By Friedrich August Heydte.  New York, NY: New Benjamin Franklin House, 1986.  Read about the author here - Freidrich Heydte (Wikipedia).  Find out more or buy from by clicking here Modern Irregular Warfare

Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare.  By Hy S. Rothstein.  US Naval Institute Press, 2006.  The author examines the current state of Special Operations forces and calls for the establishment of a new service or unconventional warfare command.  In effect, his plan would separate special operations forces that conduct direct action and unconventional warfare.  Find out more or buy from by clicking here  Afghanistan And the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare . Read a review of the book in Air & Space Power Journal (Fall 2007).

Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990.  By Michael McClintock.  Random House, 1992.  See website with book in its entirety or purchase from by clicking here Instruments of Statecraft.

The Art of Counter-Revolutionary Warfare. By John McCuen.

Unconventional Conflicts in a New Security Era. By Sam Sarkesian, 1993.


Military Publications about Unconventional Warfare

Draft, United States Political Warfare Policy, January 2015.

USASOC, Counter-Unconventional Warfare, a white paper by United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), 26 September 2014.

U.S. Department of the Army. ATP 3-05.1, Unconventional Warfare at the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Level, April 2021. This Army Techniques Publication is the Army's doctrinal foundation for UW. Available at the Army's Publishing Directorate.

DA, Special Operations, ADRP 3-05, January 2018.

A Leader's Handbook to Unconventional Warfare, by LTC Mark Grdovic, SWCS Pub 09-1, Nov 2009, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Unconventional Warfare Definition Brief.  Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, July 9, 2009.

U.S. Department of the Army.  Field Manual 3-03.130 Army Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare.  Washington, District of Columbia: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2008.


Magazine, Newspaper Articles, and Blog Posts
 about Unconventional Warfare (UW)

July 2021. "Enabling the Fifth Column and the Relevancy of Unconventional Warfare", by Mark Grdovic, Small Wars Journal. If UW is to remain a viable capability for the U.S. - it will require a realistic understanding of when it is applicable and what its successful application requires.

July 19, 2019. "SOCEUR and Resistance Operating Concept (ROC)", SOF News. This article by John Friberg explains how the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) has, working with NATO and other allies, developed the Resistance Operating Concept that will contribut to deterring and resisting agression in Eastern Europe.

Summer 2018. "The Conventionality of Russia's Unconventional Warfare", Parameters. Patrick Savage, a felllow at the American Security Project, writes about how Russia uses UW but supports it with conventional operations when needed. (10 page pdf).

September 9, 2017."Iranian Unconventional Warfare in Yemen", Small Wars Journal. Paul W. Taylor, an Army veteran of Iraq and Afganistan, explains how Iran supports the Houthis rebels.

September 28, 2016. "Enabling Unconventional Warfare to Address Grey Zone Conflicts", Small Wars Journal.

March 7, 2016. "Proposal of an Unconventional Warfare Strategy to Dominate the Human Domain", by Carole N. House, Small Wars Journal.

January 14, 2016. "Special Operations and the Challenge of Working in the "Gray Zone", by John Friberg, SOFREP.

January 1, 2016. Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone, by Joseph Votel, Charles Cleveland, Charles Connett, and Will Irwin.

December 29, 2015. "Congress Has Embraced Unconventional Warfare: Will the US Military and the Rest of the US Government?", Small Wars Journal, December 29, 2015. The NDAA of 2016 directs SECDEF to develop a strategy to counter UW being conducted by adversaries of the U.S.

May 25, 2015. "The Need to Understand and Conduct UW". Small Wars Journal. Interview of retired Special Forces Colonel David S. Maxwell by Octavian Manea.

February 9, 2015. "How to Win Covert Wars". by Richard L. Russel, The National Interest. The author points to the inexpensive use of covert operations to accomplish national objectives - saving money and lives.

October 24, 2014. "Give (unconventional) war a chance". The Strategist.

October 23, 2014. "Do We Really Understand Unconventional Warfare?", by David s. Maxwell, Small Wars Journal.

October 2014. Unconventional warfare and strategic optionality, The Strategist Blog. The author states that successful UW sometimes requires boots on the ground of SOF operators to ensure that your strategic goals are met; using the examples of early OEF and Libya. Available here.

September 8, 2014. "Send in the Guerrillas", Foreign Policy Magazine. In a world where our enemies don't wear uniforms, our allies don't have to, either. Available here.

February 4, 2013. "Pakistani Unconventional Warfare Against Afghanistan: A Case Study of the Taliban as an Unconventional Warfare Proxy Force", by Douglas A. Livermore. Posted on Small Wars Journal. . . UW ...-against-afghanistan

October 31, 2013. "Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots - Adapted for the Future", Small Wars Journal, by David S. Maxwell. The author, a retired SF 0-6, argues " . . . that the future of Special Operations rests in a thorough understanding of its fundamental and traditional missioins and then adapting sound, tried and true, and still relevant historical doctrine, mission sets, and tactics, techniques, and procedures for the uncertain future operating environment".

August 12, 2013. "Unconventional Warfare Does Not Belong to Special Forces", War On The Rocks, blog post by COL (Ret) David Maxwell refines thinking on SF role and UW.

January-February 2011. "Defining War," Special Warfare, Volume 24, Issue 1, by Jeffrey L. Hassler.

January 9, 2011. The Need to Create an Unconventional Warfare Advanced Studies and Training Center.  John Cochran.  Posted here on Small Wars Journal.

April 25, 2010.  "Why Does Special Forces Train and Educate for Unconventional Warfare?"  COL Dave Maxwell, Small Wars Journal.

April 23, 2010.  "Do We Still Need Special Ops?"  Robert Haddick, Foreign Policy.

March-April 2010.  "The Great UW Debate," by COL David Witty.  Special Warfare.  United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

January-February-March 2010.  "Developing a Common Understanding of Unconventional Warfare".  by Mark Grdovic.  Joint Force Quarterly, issue 57, 2nd quarter, 2010.

June 2009.  "Unconventional Warfare: The Missing Link in the Future of Land Operations," Tony Balasevicius, Canadian Military Journal, Volume 9, No 7.

March - April 2009.  "Robin Sage", Special Warfare, Volume 22, Issue 2, pages 14-20.

November 12, 2008. "Army Rethinks Unconventional Warfare".  Secrecy News.

November 2007. "Support grows for standing up an unconventional warfare command".  by Sean D. Naylor.  Armed Forces Journal.

August 2007. "Special Operators Criticized for Snubbing Unconventional Approaches".  National Defense Magazine.

May 2007. "UW Support to Irregular Warfare and the Global War on Terrorism".  Special Warfare Magazine, Volume 20, Issue 3, pgs 12-15. ARSOF's unique training lends itself to operations within the UW environment. By Lieutenant Colonel Dave Duffy.

February 2007. "Naval Unconventional Warfare: Supporting GWOT on the Cheap".  By Chris Rawley, Excerpted from Small Wars Journal, Volume 7.

July-August 2006.  "UW/FID and Why Words Matter," Special Warfare, Volume 19, Issue 4, MAJ D. Jones. The discussion of current UW and FID trends seeks to provide clarity to UW and FID definistions in the light of the Global War on Terrorism by showing the transition between these two core missions during major contingency operations.

March 18, 2005. "A Joint and Interagency Unconventional Warfare Training Strategy for Special Forces in the 21st Century", Colonel David G. Fox, US Army War College Strategy Research Project.

April 11, 2004. "Afghan duty offers ultimate in unconventional warfare".  USA Today.

April 9, 2002.  Current Unconventional Warfare Capability Versus Future War Requirements.  LTC Walter M. Herd, United States Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 2002.  Accessed here on Small Wars Journal.

Winter 2002.  "The Renaissance of Unconventional Warfare as an SF Mission", Special Warfare Magazine, by Major Michael Skinner, Vol. 15, No. 1, pages 16-21.

1995. Special Forces Missions: A Return to the Roots for a Vision of the Future.  by David S. Maxwell.  Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  Accessed on Small Wars Journal here.

1994.  Unconventional Warfare and the Principles of War.  MAJ E. Deborah Elek, USMC.  CSC, 1994, PDF, 86 pages.  Accessed on Small Wars Journal.

July 1962.  "Unconventional Warfare in Communist Strategy", by Raymond L. Garthoff,  Foreign Affairs.

January 1962.  "Unconventional Warfare", by Franklin A. Lindsay, Foreign Affairs.


History of Unconventional Warfare

Jedburgh Teams During World War II in Europe

Jedburgh teams were infiltrated into Europe during WWII prior to the invasion to organize resistance forces.  These teams were early practioners of unconventional warfare.  See the following references for more information.

Jedburgh Team Operations in Support of the 12th Army Group, August 1944, by S.J. Lewis, Combat Studies Institute, published October 1991. Posted on Army University Press, PDF, 94 pages.

Operation Jedburgh by Wikipedia

Partisan Warfare in the Balkans During World War II

The Allies provided advisors, intelligence, equipment and supplies to partisans fighting the Germans in the Balkans during World War II.  The partisans proved to be a constant irritation for the Germans that drained fighting formations from the fight on both the Eastern and Western fronts.

Partisan Warfare - A Treatise Based on Combat Experiences in the Balkans, by Alexander Ratcliffe, Generalmajor a.D., Foreign Military Studies, Historical Division, Headquarters US Army, Europe, MS # P-142, 1953.

Unconventional Warfare in the Pacific During World War II

The Pacific also saw unconventional or special operations types forces utilized during World War II.  These operations took place in Burma, Philippines, and elsewhere.  These units, along with their counterparts in the European theater, would lay the foundation for the establishment of special warfare capabilities within the CIA and Special Forces in the 1950s.

Paddock, Alfred H. Jr.  "American Guerrilla: A Review", 2010.  A critique of a book by Mike Guardia.  Article is accessed on Small Wars Journal here.

Unconventional Warfare in the 1960s

President Kennedy helped usher in a new phase of unconventional warfare training for the United States Army. He recognized the changing nature of warfare in a speech before graduating cadets at West Point on June 6, 1962. 1.

"This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin - war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It is a form of warfare uniquely adapted to what has been strangely called "wars of liberation," to undermine the efforts of new and poor countries to maintain the freedom that they have finally achieved. It preys on economic unrest and ethnic conflicts. It requires in those situations where we must counter it, and these are the kinds of challenges that will be before us in the next decade if freedom is to be saved, a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore, a new and wholly different kind of military training".

Although the U.S. Army Special Forces had already existed as a unit (since 1952) his embrace of Special Forces and its UW mission accelerated and expanded the growth of SF units and Special Forces training.

Unconventional Warfare in the 1980s and 1990s

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe the need for UW capabilities was seen as secondary to direct action and counterterrorism missions. However, there were some in the Special Forces community who believed that UW needed to remain a core mission for SF and the SOF community at large. Read more in Special Forces Missions: A Return to the Roots for a Vision of the Future, U.S. Army CGSC thesis, by David Maxwell, 1995, PDF, 145 pages.

Unconventional Warfare (UW) as an
Activity of Irregular Warfare (IW)

Sometimes the concept of Irregular Warfare (IW) is confused with Unconventional Warfare (UW).  Unconventional Warfare is one of the five principle or core activities of Irregular Warfare. The other four principle IW activities are Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Counterinsurgency (COIN), Counterterrorism (CT), and Stability Operations.  IW is not an approved, official U.S. military doctrine but is best described in Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept, Version 2.0, dated May 17, 2010 (Adobe Acrobat PDF file).  The document mentioned above (IW JOC) provides us with a description of Unconventional Warfare (pages 23-24) within the context of Irregular Warfare.


Proxies and Unconventional Warfare

The use of surrogates or proxies as a component of unconventional warfare has a long history. Using surrogates can offer a cloak as to who is behind the action but there is the strong possibility of 'blowback'. 4.

Unconventional Warfare and the Gray Zone

In 2015, the special operations community rolled out a new term to describe the space between peace and war. While there are a number of terms - such as unconventional warfare, political warfare, hybrid warfare, low intensity conflict, etc. - none seem to fit the needs of the SOF world in describing where they operate short of full-scale war.

Project Gray - US Army Special Operations Center of Excellence (no longer online)

Special Forces Training


Bibliography about Unconventional Warfare (UW)

Basilici, Steven and Jeremy Simmons, Transformation: A Bold Case for Unconventional Warfare. Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, June 2004.

Maclaren, Roy.  Canadians Behind Enemy Lines: 1939-1945.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004.

Marquis, L. Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces.  Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

O'Donnell, Patrick K.  Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of World War II's OSS.  London: Free Press, 2004.

Rigden, Dennis.  How To Be A Spy: The World War II SOE Training Manual.  Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2004.

Rothstein, Hy S.  Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare.  Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2006.

Southerland, Ian. "The OSS Operations Groups: Origin of Army Special Forces".  Special Warfare Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 2, June 2002.



1. Remarks by President John F. Kennedy at the graduation of cadets at West Point on June 6, 1962. Text provided at The American Presidency Project at the below link.

2. For the relationship of UW and Special Warfare see ADRP 3-05, Army Special Operations, Aug 31, 2012.

3. For more discussion on IW definitions see "Irregular Warfare: A Clear Picture of a Fuzzy Objective", Small Wars Journal, by US Army Irregular Warfare Center, October 22, 2013.

4. For more on the blowback possibilities of using proxies or surrogates see "Of Planes and Proxies", by Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, July 19, 2014. The article discusses the problems Putin (of Russia) faces with the shoot down by his proxies in eastern Ukraine of the Malaysian airliner and deaths of almost 300 non-combatants.

5. See SOF Support to Political Warfare White Paper, United States Army Special Operations Command, March 10, 2015, PDF, 44 pages. "This white paper presents the concept of SOF Support to Political Warfare to leaders and policymakers as a dynamic means of achieving national security goals and objectives. Embracing the whole-of-government framework with significant targeted military contributions, Political Warfare enables America's leaders to undertake proactive strategic initiatives to shape environments, preempt conflicts, and significantly degrade adversaries' hybrid and assymmetric advantages."

6. For more on Counter-UW see Counter-Unconventional Warfare White Paper, United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), September 26, 2014, PDF, 46 pages.

7. ARSOF Core Tasks are listed on page 8 of A Vision for 2021 and Beyond, 1st Special Forces Command - Airborne, February 2021, PDF, 20 pages.









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