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Unconventional warfare (abbreviated UW) is the opposite of conventional warfare. Where conventional warfare is used to reduce an opponent's military capability, unconventional warfare is an attempt to achieve military victory through acquiescence, capitulation, or clandestine support for one side of an existing conflict.

On the surface, UW contrasts with conventional warfare in that: forces or objectives are covert or not well-defined, tactics and weapons intensify environments of subversion or intimidation, and the general or long-term goals are coercive or subversive to a political body.


The general objective of unconventional warfare is to instill a belief that peace and security are not possible without compromise or concession. Specific objectives include inducement of war weariness, curtailment of civilian standards of living and civil liberties associated with greater security demands, economic hardship linked to the costs of war; hopelessness to defend against assaults, fear, depression, and disintegration of morale.

The ultimate goal of this type of warfare is to motivate an enemy to stop attacking or resisting even if it has the ability to continue. Failing this, a secondary objective can be to emasculate the enemy before a conventional attack.

Methods and organization

Unconventional warfare targets civilian population and political bodies directly, seeking to render the military proficiency of the enemy irrelevant. Limited conventional warfare tactics can be used unconventionally to demonstrate might and power, rather than to substantially reduce the enemy's ability to fight. In addition to the coercive use of traditional weapons, armaments that primarily target civilians can be used: atomic weapons, urban incendiary devices, white phosphorus or other such weapons.

Special Forces, inserted behind an enemy's front line, can be used unconventionally to spread subversion and propaganda, to aid native resistance fighters, and to ultimately build environments of fear and confusion. Tactics of destroying non-military infrastructure and blockading civilian staples are used to decrease the morale of civilians and, when applicable, also the soldiers in the field through concern for their families. Globalization dissenters broadly criticize the managed-trade system as a planet-wide version of the blockading tactic of unconventional warfare.


Unconventional warfare structure by guerilla organizations.
The United States Department of Defensemarker defines UW as 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. Organization varies by culture and type of conflict.

In the People's Wars conflicts of Vietnam and China, a clear structure of rural bases, different troop types and leadership by a strong centralized political group or party prevailed. In other conflicts the pattern is more fragmented, and unconventional warfare need not rely on rural bases at all. Generally, organization is divided into political or military wings.

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