The Special Forces community has struggled with the definition of Unconventional Warfare for some time. Recently there have been attempts to rewrite, consolidate, and distill an updated definition only to default to the current Joint Publication definition. The effort continuously fails because the object of the definition is viewed by each participant differently. This thought paper attempts to frame the question, “What is the scope of Unconventional Warfare?” By identifying the characteristics, environmental conditions, activities, and limitations, we can identify the scope and take a fresh look at the definition. The scope will allow all of us to see the same object, from the same direction, in the same light.
The following framework for discussion has been derived from historical documents and past manuals. While not exhaustive, it is representative of UW in its many forms throughout the years. This most recent discussion began circa 1994 when COL Mark Boyatt published his paper on Unconventional Operations. It seems to be an extension of COL Glenn Harned’s endeavor in the development of the UW definition created in the late 80’s for the 1990 version of FM 31-20, Doctrine for Special Forces Operations, which was later incorporated into Joint Pub 1-02, the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and largely remains the current joint definition today:
Unconventional Warfare. A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes guerrilla warfare, and other direct offensive, low visibility, covert, or clandestine operations, as well as the indirect activities of subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and evasion and escape. Also called UW. (Joint Pub 1-02)
The current joint publication definition (above) is very broad and is well liked by many for that characteristic. That broadness creates problems with the definition. The biggest question is what specifically makes an operation unconventional warfare. The JFK Special Warfare Center attempted to refine the definition by distilling the current JP definition to its core.
Unconventional Warfare. Operations conducted by, with and through irregular forces in support of resistance movements, an insurgency, and conventional military operations. (FM 3-05.201)
This definition has not been approved by USSOCOM and has been returned to USASOC for reanalysis. The problem of defining UW has its roots in the very origin of Special Forces. COL(R) Al Paddock relates in his exhaustively researched book, U.S. Army Special Warfare: Its Origins (page 120), that,
The comments of Volckmann and Bank, made in retrospect, may give the impression that a rather clear delineation of roles and missions for Special Forces was clearly understood from the beginning. The evidence suggests otherwise. In actuality, the path that led to the concept for organization and employment of Special Forces was tortuous and marked by controversy. … The task of clearing up this doctrinal confusion proved to be no easier in 1951 than it had been during the period prior to Korea.
And COL Arran Bank in his book, From OSS to Green Berets (page 166) states,
Neither of us (Volckmann and Bank) liked the fact that so much terminology was being bandied around concerning behind the lines operations. The terms UW, clandestine operations, unorthodox warfare, and special operations were being used interchangeably.
The term UW first appeared in the May 1955 FM 31-21 Guerrilla Warfare, where the authors attempted to scope and define the term with the following entry,
b. Unconventional Warfare. Unconventional Warfare operations are conducted in time of war behind enemy lines by predominantly indigenous personnel responsible in varying degrees to friendly control or direction in furtherance of military and political objectives. It consists of the interrelated fields of guerrilla warfare, evasion and escape, and subversion against hostile states (resistance).
In the August 1955 FM 31-20, U.S. Army Special Forces Group (Airborne) (U), a different definition is present in the glossary.
Unconventional Warfare – Consists of the inter-related fields of guerilla warfare, escape and evasion, and subversion against hostile states.
This definition derived three of the [inter-related] lines of operations from Army Chief GEN Collin’s requirements and encapsulated them under the term UW. The remaining lines of operations were left unaddressed. Below is the paragraph from Paddock’s Special Warfare (page 144) reflecting this change,
Indeed, not only did OCPW make a distinction concerning the missions and capabilities of Special Forces and Rangers, but the term "Special Forces operations" itself underwent a metamorphosis. Volckmann's original definition in early 1951 established that Special Forces operations were behind-the-lines activities that could encompass guerrilla warfare, sabotage and subversion, evasion and escape, Ranger- and Commando—like operations, long-range or deep-penetration reconnaissance, and psychological warfare. From January to late September 1952, OCPW recruiting material used the term to embrace the following: organization and conduct of guerrilla warfare; subversion and sabotage; political, economic, and psychological warfare as it pertains to behind-the-lines activities; infiltration and/or organization of agents within the enemy's sphere of influence in support of actual or projected Special Forces operations; Commando-type operations; escape and evasion, as effected through Special Forces operations; and antiguerrilla warfare in areas overrun by friendly forces. Both "Ranger operations" and "long-range or deep penetration reconnaissance" disappeared during this transformation; only "Commando-type operations" remained as a hint of the earlier conceptual confusion. By November 1952, the focus became even more precise, and potential volunteers for this new elite unit were told that Special Forces operations included guerrilla warfare, sabotage, and "other behind-the-lines missions, which are within the capabilities of guerrilla warfare." The lack of reference to Ranger or Commando operations is evident; shortly thereafter, General McClure chastened General Liebel for contemplating using the 10th Special Forces Group for those types of activities in Europe. In effect, "Special Forces operations" were now synonymous with "unconventional warfare."
Since then, as originally envisioned counterguerilla or counterinsurgency reemerged, and many of the other tasks were again assigned to SF under the heading of Direct Action, Special Reconnaissance, Counterterrorism, etc.
Essentially, in all subsequent manuals the scope of UW operations has been fluid at best. In many instances it reflects the politics and situations of the times. A few manuals are very conservative in their scope depending on Army leadership. The early 60’s political environment was reflected in the following statement from the 1961 FM 31-21 Special Forces Operations (para 3.c page 4).
“The term Unconventional Warfare is used in this manual to denote all of the United States Army’s associated responsibilities in the conduct of guerrilla warfare. The term guerrilla warfare is used to denote the primary overt military activities of the guerrilla forces.”
The scope of UW at this point entailed only support to overt guerrilla operations in a combat zone. Other manuals are expansive, especially when necessitated by ongoing operations such as during the mid to late 60s. The 1969 FM 31-21, Special Forces Operations (para 3-1, a(4) to 3-2 page 3-1) states.
(4) Unconventional warfare consists of military, political, psychological, or economic actions of a covert, clandestine, or overt nature within areas under the actual or potential control or influence of a force or state whose interests and objectives are inimical to those of the United States. These actions are conducted unilaterally by United States resources or in conjunction with indigenous assets, and avoid formal military confrontation.
b. Concept. UW is conducted to exploit military, political, economic, or psychological vulnerabilities of an enemy. It is implemented by providing support and direction to indigenous resistance forces where appropriate, or by unilateral operations of U.S. UW forces. Its conduct involves the application of guerrilla warfare and selected aspects of subversion, political warfare, economic warfare, and psychological operations in support of national objectives.
3-2. Unconventional Warfare Operation.
Unconventional warfare operations may be covert, clandestine, or overt in nature. Covert operations are conducted in such a manner as to conceal the identity of the sponsor, while clandestine operations place emphasis on concealment of the operation rather than the identity of the sponsor. Overt operations do not try to conceal either the operation or the identity of the sponsor. In an established theater of operations in which significant ground operations by a conventional U.S. military force will be undertaken, UW is conducted primarily to complement, support, or extend conventional operations. Within geographical areas under enemy control or influence, to which conventional U.S. forces will not be deployed, UW maybe conducted as an economy of force measure, and to reduce or dissipate the enemy potential.
These paragraphs are probably the nearest to a fully explained scope of all the writings. The 1977 FM 31-20 Special Forces Operations retained the essential of the original definition with the following,
“Operations, which include but are not limited to guerrilla warfare, evasion and escape, subversion, and sabotage, conducted during periods of peace and war in hostile or politically sensitive territory.”
This definition is accompanied by a non-exclusive bullet list of some of the activities conducted under UW. The 1990 FM 31-20 Doctrine for Special Forces Operations (page 3-2) explains UW as follows:
UW is the military and paramilitary aspect of an insurgency or other armed resistance movement. Armed resistance provides UW with its environmental context. UW is thus a protracted politico-military activity. SF units do not create resistance movements. They provide advice, training, and assistance to indigenous resistance organizations already in existence. From the US perspective, the intent is to develop and sustain those organizations and synchronize their activities to further US national security objectives. When conducted independently, the primary focus of UW is on politico-military and psychological objectives.
Military activity represents the culmination of a successful effort to organize and mobilize the civil population. When UW operations support conventional military operations, the focus shifts to primarily military objectives. However, the political and psychological implications remain. Regardless of whether UW objectives are strategic or operational, the nature of resistance and the fundamental UW doctrine, tactics, and techniques remain unchanged. UW includes the following interrelated activities: GW, E&E, subversion, and sabotage.
In the 2003 FM 3.05.20 Special Forces Unconventional Warfare Operations the definition remained unchanged, with the exception of the addition of “through, by and with”. The following is an augmenting paragraph that was placed at the end of the definition in the introduction to the manual.
“The intent of United States (U.S.) UW operations is to exploit a hostile power’s political, military, economic, and psychological vulnerability by developing and sustaining resistance forces to accomplish U.S. strategic objectives”.
The most recent publication issued in September 2008, FM 3-05.130 Army Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare (page 1-2) makes an attempt at identifying the scope with the following paragraphs:
1-9 In the subsequent Cold War decades, the definition expanded and contracted, verbiage changed, and missions conceived as a part of this unconventional enterprise were added or subtracted. The common conceptual core has nevertheless remained as working by, with, or through irregular surrogates in a clandestine and/or covert manner against opposing actors. It is common for definitions to evolve, and ARSOF have distilled the definition below to highlight the essentials of UW and eliminate the nonessential. In this era of definitional and conceptual change, ARSOF—and its joint, interagency, and multinational partners—must be unified with a clear and concise understanding of the UW core mission.
1-10. The current ARSOF definition of UW is as follows:
Operations conducted by, with, or through irregular forces in support of a resistance movement, an insurgency, or conventional military operations. FM 3-05.201, (S/NF) Special Forces Unconventional Warfare (U) 28 September 2007
This still does not give a definitive answer to what is encompassed in UW. The manual goes on to explain the distilment of the definition.
This definition reflects two essential criteria: UW must be conducted by, with, or through surrogates; and such surrogates must be irregular forces. Moreover, this definition is consistent with the historical reasons that the United States has conducted UW. … Finally and in keeping with the clandestine and/or covert nature of historical UW operations, it has involved the conduct of classified surrogate operations.
Based on this historical precedence considering ongoing and future operations, is unilaterally operating as a guerrilla (even commanding those units in occupied territory as Volckmann and others did in WWII) UW? Is supporting an insurgency against a hostile nation (as the 5th SFG did in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance) UW? Is supporting a resistance against an occupying power (such as the OGs and Jedburghs did in France 1944 or the lesser known SOF efforts in Kuwait in 1991) UW? Is supporting irregulars against a regional (illegal or extra legal) authority, UW? Is the development of unilateral recovery mechanisms (similar to SOG in Vietnam (E&E)) UW? Is the conduct of subversion by SOF against an occupying force, hostile nation or opposing actor (as Ramsey conducted in the Philippines) UW?
Special Forces personnel are products of their era in training. Generally someone trained in the late 50s and very early 60s, without later experience with a new developed scope, will understand UW as it was presented at that time. Additionally, many of the manuals had a classified volume such as the Secret volume of 1961 FM 31-21A Guerrilla Warfare and Special Forces Operations. The unclassified volume’s definition or scope only addressed the unclassified aspects. So an individual who only read the unclassified version would never know the full scope of the operations.
These periods in U.S. UW history, coupled with the division of the scope between classified and unclassified manuals, makes having a discussion on UW very difficult. Even though the definition had not changed significantly over the years the scope had, creating a different picture in the heads of those discussing the topic. If the scope, reflecting the characteristics and environment in which UW is conducted is identified, then defining it will prove much less problematic.
So what is the scope of UW?