What is conventional warfare?

Surprisingly tough question, posed by a friend hard at work on her research proposal. I thought I’d crowd source an answer from learned readers here. But first, here’s what I suggested:

Conventional warfare isn’t just about capabilities employed – that is, industrially manufactured, technologically advanced equipment, deployed by recognisably military organisations. Rather it is a society’s way of fighting that encompasses the doctrinal thinking, the organisational structures, the rules of engagement, and even the appropriate goals of violence. What makes it ‘conventional’ is just that it adheres to the dominant conventions of the time.

Of course, all this changes through time as the societies and conventions involved in generating ‘conventional’ approaches to war evolve. Thus, the conventional forces of Napoleon look radically different from the ‘conventional’ forces of France today.

Such an evolution in conventional war might include changes in permissible conduct – For example – why were chemical weapons seen as conventional in the context of WW1, but not now? Why could you flatten Dresden in 1945, but not now?

They might also involve changes in force structure – Why use conscripts as part of a conventional military in Vietnam, but not now? What about the use of private contractors? Is outsourcing violence like that ‘conventional’, or does it profoundly change the relationship between the state/society and those who enact its violence?

And it might also involve changes in concepts, as for example on attritional force v manoeuvre, where the ‘conventional’ approach of British strategic thought (and American, from the early 1980s onwards, if not before) was to substitute manoeuvre and shock action for firepower.

Such conceptual changes might include the actors against whom force is used – ‘conventional’ warfare is sometimes supposed to involve armies fighting armies. Allied forces in WW2 would figure in many people’s definition of ‘conventional’ armed forces – but they put most of their resources in the European theatre into the strategic bombing of the enemy’s civilian morale and war-production capability, not the destruction of his main force.

All these variations, which are profound, are sometimes subsumed within a blanket definition of ‘conventional’ warfare. So, what we understand by ‘conventional’ as a heuristic is a particular approach to warfighting that Russell Weighley describes in his American Way of War – which captures some of the elements one might instinctively think of as ‘conventional’: state centric, firepower intensive, industrialised, focused on armies as the enemy centre of gravity, regularised and regulated. But even that covers a multitude of approaches to warfighting, and neglects a great deal of variation, even within individual societies in a particular period.

It might just be that ‘conventional’ warfighting is simply a good way of making a polemical point in favour of one’s own view of appropriate strategy. Conventional warfare is stale, attritional and inappropriate to the challenges of the modern era. Or conventional warfare is neglected at our peril, given skill fade in critical branches, like artillery and armour.

With all that in mind, does it still make sense to talk about ‘conventional’ war?

Drafting this response to my friend, by the way, distracted me from reading about the size of the clitoris and the aggressive tendencies of female spotted hyenas. Which is, perhaps, a story for another day.


40 thoughts on “What is conventional warfare?

  1. MikeF says:

    Well done Kenneth. I’ll begin by explaining unconventional warfare- an attempt to achieve military victory through acquiescence, capitulation, or clandestine support for one side of an existing conflict.

    Think OSS, sabotage and deception.

    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.

    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, 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.

  2. Jason says:

    Of course it makes sense to talk about conventional warfare today, in yesterday’s context, in tomorrow’s context. If we professionals are to analyse, understand, and guide military operations, it kinda is important to understand the rules of the game. “Conventional” warfare refers to a specific set of guidelines for NATION-STATES (important point) to observe in the conduct of inter-state conflict. The United Nations had several conventions on what was meant by conventional (traditional military) weapons, unconventional (nuke-bio-chem) weapons, and certain other conventional weapons (flame munitions, mines, lasers).

    It becomes important to define these not just in terms of the laws of war, but to understand and anticipate the reaction of adversaries who are attacked by particular weapons, and in kind, to warn adversaries who use particular weapons what the consequences will be. Not that anyone should expect these rules to be followed, but there are formalities to be observed. After all, the victor needs these guidelines to illustrate why his adversary deserved to be beaten, etc etc.

  3. MF says:

    Conventional warfare is the predominant type, organisation and practice of war in any given era (or indeed timeframe if a particular era is susceptible to rapid advances which can happen) or geographic region.

    In sum I would agree with everything you outline except for the odd semantic difference. Convention today dictates that conventional warfare is thought of in terms of mechanised industrial armies. These are dependent on particularly complex and rigid organisational structures and bureaucracies to get the best out of them in era that they exist. The conventional force of the 2010s already has in some ways loser structures from the conventional AirLand battle force of the 1980s.

    • Quintin says:

      Conventional warfare is the predominant type, organisation and practice of war in any given era or geographic region.

      In my opinion, an excellent start at a tight definition of this beast – though I’d call it the primary type… as opposed to the predominant type (but that could be argued as word-smithing).

  4. MikeF says:


    I disagree. I’ve deployed in combat in tanks, bradleys, HMMWVs, Helicopters, and on foot for missions ranging from the Thunder Runs to drinking chai. For the military practitioner, maneuver and firepower is maneuver and firepower. The structure that you’re looking at is irrelevant. For example, take drones. It’s just another way to find, fix, and finish the enemy instead of using a human (which is actually better). It just depends on how you look at it. For this discussion, you must understand the military lens. If you don’t listen to us, then you’ll overlook the nuance.

  5. Dave says:

    Perhaps one of the most comprehensive descriptions of US Unconventional Warfare comes from the 1997 Joint Doctrine Encyclopedia (which by the way has not been updated since then).

    The 737 page document can be accessed on line and a PDF file downloaded at this link:

    Unconventional warfare (UW) includes guerrilla warfare (GW) and other low visibility, covert, or clandestine operations, as well as subversion, sabotage, intelligence collection, and evasion and escape (E&E). (See figure below.) GW consists of military and paramilitary operations conducted by irregular, predominantly indigenous forces in enemy-held or hostile territory. It is the overt military aspect of an insurgency or other armed resistance movement.
    Guerrilla forces primarily employ raid and ambush tactics against enemy vulnerabilities. In the latterstages of a successful insurgency, guerrilla forces may directly oppose selected, vulnerable enemy forces while avoiding enemy concentrations of strength.
    Subversion is an activity designed to undermine the military, economic, psychological, or political strength or morale of a regime or nation. All elements of the resistance organization contribute to the subversive effort, but the clandestine nature of subversion dictates that the underground elements perform the bulk of the activity.
    Sabotage is conducted from within the enemy’s infrastructure in areas presumed to be safe from attack. It is designed to degrade or obstruct the warmaking capability of a country bydamaging, destroying, or diverting war material, facilities, utilities, andresources. Sabotage may be the most effective or only means of attacking specific targets that lie beyond the capabilities of conventional weapon systems. Sabotage selectively disrupts, destroys, or neutralizes hostile capabilities with a minimum expenditure of manpower and materiel. Once accomplished, these incursions can further result in the enemy spending excessive resources to guard against future attack.
    In UW, the intelligence function must collect, develop, and report information concerning the capabilities, intentions, and activities of the established government or occupying power and its external sponsors. In this context, intelligence activities have both offensive and defensive purposes and range well beyondmilitary issues, including social, economic, and political information that may be used to identify threats, operational objectives, and necessary supporting operations.
    E&E is an activity that assists military personnel and other selected persons to:
    • move from an enemy-held,hostile, or sensitive area to areas under friendly control;
    • avoid capture if unable to return to an area of friendly control;
    • once captured, escape. Special operations personnel often will work in concert with the Joint Search and Rescue Center of the joint force commander (JFC) while operating in an E&E network.
    UW is the military and paramilitary aspect of an insurgency or other armed resistance movement and may often become a protracted politico-military activity. From the US perspective, UW may be the conduct of indirect or proxy warfare against a hostile power for the purpose of achieving US national interests in peacetime; UW may be employedwhen conventional military involvement is impractical or undesirable; or UW may be a complement to conventional operations in war. The focus of UW is primarily on existing or potential insurgent, secessionist, or other resistance movements. Special operations forces (SOF) provide advice, training, and assistance to existing indigenous resistance organizations. The intent of UW operations is to exploit a hostile power’s political, military, economic, and psychological vulnerabilities by advising, assisting, and sustaining resistance forces to accomplish US strategic or operational objectives.
    When UW is conducted independently during military operations other than war or war, its primary focus is on political and psychological objectives. A successful effort to organize and mobilize a segment of the civil population may culminate in military action.
    Strategic UW objectives may include the following:
    • Undermining the domestic and international legitimacy of the target authority.
    • Neutralizing the target authority’s power and shifting that power to the resistance
    • 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.
    When UW operations support conventional military operations, the focus shifts to primarily military objectives. However, the political and psychological implications remain. UW operations delay and disrupt hostile military activities, interdict lines of communications, deny the hostile power unrestricted use of key areas, divert the hostile power’s attention and resources from the main battle area, and interdict hostile warfighting capabilities. Properly integrated and synchronized UW operations can extend the depth of air, sea, or ground battles, complement conventional military operations, and provide the JFC with the windows of opportunity needed to seize the initiative through offensive action.
    During war, SOF may directly support the resistance movement by infiltrating operational elements into denied or politically sensitive areas. They organize, train, equip, and advise or direct the indigenous resistance organization. In situations short of war, when direct US military involvement is inappropriate or infeasible, SOF mayinstead provide indirect support from an external location.
    UW may be conducted by all designated SOF, but it is principally the responsibility of Army special forces. Augmentation other than SOF, will usually be provided as the situation dictates by psychological operations and civil affairs units, as well as other selected conventional combat, combat support, and combat service support forces.
    Related Terms special operations Source Joint Publications 3-05 Doctrine for Joint Special Operations

  6. Nick Ritchie says:

    ‘Conventional’ appears to mean, or imply, ‘legitimate’, ascribed variously through legal, moral, cultural and habitual processes and discourse for political purposes.

  7. I would suggest that one aspect of “conventional” warfare, is that it has traditionally been deployed by a state. That is to say a country looks at a target (usually another state) and says “go deal with that” to its military. That covers your WW1, WW2, but it also covers your Vietnams, where the state goes after a network and another state in combination.

    Unconventional warfare is more often instigated by a network, either against a state or against another network, for example Mexican cartels, or insurgents, who seek to undermine or subvert the environment that they find themselves in.

    I guess that might be another aspect to consider in considering differences. Conventional warfare usually seeks to achieve a specific strategic goal, often territorial, or to displace the leadership of another country. Unconventional warfare often seems inspired in order for a network to change the operating structure of the society around it, the ultimate goal being the creation of an environment in which it can operate without friction.

    The more I think about this the more detail and complexity I can see in it, far more than my fuzzy morning brain can cope with to be sure! But there are my initial two cents.

  8. I’m not sure that I qualify as a ‘learned reader’ but will venture an opinion nonetheless…

    For me, the irony about conventional and unconventional warfare is that the first term is often used to describe types of warfare that don’t happen very often, and the latter is used to describe types of warfare that seem to occur a lot. So, for example, during the Cold War the types of war waged most frequently (e.g. insurgencies, civil wars, etc) are usually entitled unconventional or irregular, whereas the types of war that didn’t happen very much were (e.g. open shooting wars) are usually referred to as conventional or regular. The same sort of irony is apparent with terms such as small wars or low intensity conflicts, which have been used to describe civil wars or insurgencies, including those where many thousands if not millions of people have been butchered in unbelievably horrific and tragic ways. They don’t seem very small or low intensity to me.

    Without intentionally obsfucating more, I think the question needs to be asked whether your colleague is looking to answer the question normatively or positively? The answer to the question will vary dramatically depending on which she is looking at. Most of the very interesting and insightful answers so far seem to take a positive approach – describing what is usually considered to be ‘conventional’ warfare – which has definite value and cannot be overlooked. But if she is looking for a definition based on how unconventional should be defined, then she is into murkier, but probably more interesting regions of military/political/sociological discourse. I personally would argue that there is no such thing as conventional or unconventional warfare. War involves killing and coercing, both of which tend to force people into adopting whatever measures necessary to a) avoid being killed or coerced and b) to kill and coerce the enemy. This means that even traditional ‘shooting wars’ tend to involve significant portions of messy, unchivalrous actions that go beyond the classic conception of Napoleonic lines and columns on a battlefield. Of course, if she’s looking for an easy-to-use, single sentence definition, that’s probably about as helpful as trying to extinguish a fire by pouring dry wood kindling onto it.

  9. Callum Lane says:

    Interesting debate.

    The cynic in me says that conventional wars are those that militaries want to fight, and unconventional are those they do not want to fight.

    Conventional warfare is normally associated with nations and nation states. What would be interesting is to explore where the delineation lies between conventional warfare, unconventional warfare and criminality. Is what we are seeing in Mexico unconventional warfare or criminality?

    • In a similar vein, I would suggest that conventional wars are the ones you are having now, unconventional wars are the ones foisted on you by your opponents who have figured out a better way to fight.

    • Francis Grice says:

      Ah, but then as we know “The atom bomb is a paper tiger which the United States reactionaries use to scare people. It looks terrible, but in fact it isn’t.”

    • Quintin says:

      Our beloved Chairman… In fairness, he did make this original statement in 1946, before the true capabilities of nuclear means were realised. But this much can be said of the man: even after the potential of nuclear means became apparent, he stuck to this line and he believed it. For instance, in his address to the party faithful in 1958, the Chairman argued that if a thermonuclear war outcome had to result in: ‘900 million are left out of 2.9 billion [the world population at the time]… It is not a bad thing’ (on these conditions of course: that he was one of the survivors and any non-communist was not). Naturally, we could offer a ‘talk is cheap…’ observation, but then again, the Chairman had no problem in dropping 30 million of the Chinese population during the famine that followed his Great Leap Forward.

      Given the above, is it then not possible to argue that this is but an instance of: the predominant type, organisation and practice of war in any given era or geographic region?

    • MikeF says:


      Do you think we need to throw out all of our Mutual Assured Destruction Theories and the other Cold War Stuff to include Containment Theory? I’m kind of leaning that way particularly given that more people are dying from small wars than nuclear attack.

    • Personally, I’m all in favour of containment (my thesis has mutated into an examination of the legitimacy of containing non-state actors). I don’t think mutually assured destruction can ever be thrown out as long as so many nuclear weapons are operational, even though policymakers probably don’t want to trigger armaggedon, I like to think that they’re aware of the possibility!

      I always thought the “conventional” tag stunk of condescension, which I imagine that von Neumann’s RAND types suffered from when Pentagon generals were still thinking in terms of tanks and planes while they were dreaming of nuclear annihilation. In reference to small wars and unconventional warfare, I think the problem goes both ways. I can see why people like Gian Gentile get angry when people look down their nose at combined arms, but at the same time, and I can also understand why the now-maligned COINdinistas got angry at people who didn’t consider small wars/insurgency to be as “serious” as pushing tank battalions around a map. Quite simply, I think all of them need a straw man to burn to prove themselves right, and I’m not particularly sure that given the nature of war and conflict, anyone can ever truly be proved correct.

    • Mike Few says:


      It will be interesting to see how you pull together your thesis. I think, in my mind, the two biggest limitations to containment in the Post-Cold War is 1. Lack of a USSR opponent (even though we’ve definitely searched for one! and 2. the concurrent/cumulative costs associated with maintaining a persistent presence or stabilization force globally.

      As far as Gentile and that stuff goes, there is much more to the story. If I ever have the pleasure to meet y’all in person, we can talk it all out. Bottom line is that many, many folks in the military were thinking long and hard about small wars for a long, long time.

      As for emotion, 1. Gian and I are Cav officers. Ask Dr. Betz what that means! We don’t mind being unruly. 2. All of us are pissed about the prospect of not winning. We put our hearts and soul into these wars and much of our young lives.

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      We put our hearts and soul into these wars and much of our young lives.

      Perhaps these affairs would turn out a little better if you also put some of your brains into it.

    • MF says:

      Indeed. Part of the defining process might be a discussion about whether ‘conventional’ relates to a specific 20th century type of warfare or whether you are attempting to define the norm throughout history.

      For Callwell there were of course Wars and Small Wars which says something. Jack’s point is vital. Does post-1945 warfare pan out to something like:

      The amount of ‘firepower’ to use Mike’s term was somewhat larger with nuclear weapons. But then WWII was rather good at creating sacrosanct category boxes that are problematic, Strategic Air, Tactical Air anyone?

    • Mike Few says:


      To add to your point, one assumption when the braniacs out in Santa Monica were devising the Prisoner’s Dilemma or Billy Mitchell was testing out Strat/Tact Air off the coast of NC was the FACT that the nation-state had sovereignty outside its borders and control inside.

      Today, in light of the rapid increase in technology and communication along with shifts in other areas, the control of the nation-state is being challenged.

      So, perhaps, it is a bit larger than just conventional war or even the Cold War. Is it up to the question of the Nation-State?

  10. Here’s a question, amongst a plethora of questions, but one I think needs asking. Where do you put cyber war, setting aside for the moment whether cyber war is a ‘real thing’. (For the record: I come down on the side that it is a real thing, but has not yet been used, although all the tools of cyber warfare have been used in isolation)

    The tools of cyber war are very much part of cyber crime, something anyone who has recieved an email from the King of Nigeria is familiar with. The difference between this type of activity and a cyber war is that the objective of a cyber war would be to degrade an opponent’s operational capabilities (as they relate to electronic systems) to the point he is no longer able to meaningfully make war. This result is either due to the offensive party disrupting those networks, or because he has complete access to those networks, utterly dispelling the fog of war.

    The tools used in cyber war and cyber crime are startlingly similar, trojans, worms, brute force attacks, DDoS, these are tools used every minute of every day by huge numbers of professional (and non professional) hackers.

    So the capabilities are there, well understood and already in use. Plans have been made to deal with these attacks if they are ever applied to a cyber war, and the experience base in many countries (not the US, or most European countries) exists to conduct an offensive cyber war, or operate defensively (as much as that is possible in real time).

    If a type of conflict has never happened, but the principles of it are well understood, can it be considered conventional?

    • Mike Few says:

      I concur on your concern on the threat of cyber, but do we need to call it war? I think one mistake we’ve made over the last thirty years is classifying everything as war (drugs, poverty, etc) that provokes a military response. I’ve worked with several defense proponents who specialize in cyberwar, and I keep thinking that they would be better suited being detached to a Google, Apple, or Norton Antivirus to work the problem set. Plus, this is one area where unconventionally others like China are outmaneuvering us and fast. They are at least ten years ahead of the curve on this one.

    • I agree with you Mike that there is a willingness to attach the word war to too many things. Perhaps there is a case that cyber activities can be linked to war, but are separate from it.

      The reason I choose to use the term war is because there is the potential for open conflict via the internet between nations, (or networked groups), which could cause physical damage to infrastructure. It hasn’t happened yet, but the capacity and likelihood of it is growing over time. (All in my opinion, and I can wholly see the argument that it may not, I just disagree!).

      I absolutely agree with the assessment that we years behind China and Russia in terms of developing cyber capacity however. They have been enormously successful in drawing their black hat community inside the tent, whereas the UK, US and most European counties continue to persecute and prosecute this group to our detriment.

    • Mike Few says:

      Let me propose an alternative construct. I don’t know what to call it, but I know how I would organize to counter it. Take a look at the early OSS and MI5 propaganda and deception operations in the beginning stages of WWII. They recruited ruffians, criminals, circus entertainers, poets, artists, and technology geeks from what would become IBM and put them under the command of Wild Bill Donovan. This is an example of unconventional warfare as currently defined- decentralized, little bureaucracy, creativity, with a specific mission, task, and purpose. Imagine if we did that today to counter irregular threats such as cyber or non-state actors instead of occupying other countries or creating the Department of Homeland Security. Another example would be the Mossaid going after ex-Naxi’s in South America during the Cold War.

    • Its certainly an interesting idea, and I would argue not a million miles from what you see China and Russia doing with many of their ‘patriotic hackers’. Individuals who are expected to broadly act under orders from the state when necessary, with some indications that they recieve state support (either in terms of experience, from other hackers, or hardware). The trade off is that you get left alone by law enforcement the rest of the time.

      This is where the huge weakness is for the UK, US and most of the rest of NATO. We’re not willing to stomach the idea that criminals might be damn good at certain things, so we can’t bring them into the tent. Thats why ‘cyber war’ terms in these countries are staffed by well meaning university grads, rather than grizzled 50 year olds who can remember when phone phreaking was a thing.

    • Quintin says:

      …rather than grizzled 50 year olds who can remember when phone phreaking was a thing.

      Sir, I believe the term you are looking for is ‘rugged’, as opposed to ‘grizzled’. And to that effect, you will no doubt be pleased to learn that I have conducted a comprehensive field survey regarding the sought-after effect (I asked my daughter if she thought her daddy looked nice – whilst toying with a £25 iStore voucher), and the conclusion of my quantitative research is that ‘chicks dig it’.

      I intend to appeal the decision of the ethics committee (my wife) to not approve my research on the basis of methodology, and upon successful conclusion, (following a trip to John Lewis), I intend to publish my findings on a recognised forum (Facebook).

      Thank you

      grizzled my *ss

      PS How was that Marcus?

    • Thanks, I just laughed extremely hard. I will refrain in future from using the term grizzled without prior approval in the context of former phone phreakers.

      You have my apologies.

    • MF says:

      Chris: We’re not willing to stomach the idea that criminals might be damn good at certain things, so we can’t bring them into the tent.

      Fair enough, China and Russia are hardly paragons of good governance or the rule of law. But the problem is that the criminal element does not have a good track record of successfully delivering. Take the CIA, the mafia and Cuba.

  11. MF says:

    To Chris’s point about the converge of crime and warfare in the cyber sphere (and similarly not engaging where it’s the real thing) being somewhat of a generalist international historian I cannot help but see reoccurring patterns throughout history. Same really with Mike’s point about the influence of the nation-state.

    The rather Westphalian construction of what a state is, what a sovereign government is, what conventional military power is has NEVER been clear-cut. The national state had a powerful couple of centuries but its power was never absolute. War and criminal activity in the wider sense have always been closely connected. Medieval war is by our standards one big protection racket. War in the maritime domain has principally always been about securing trade whether by legitimate or illegitimate means. Indeed the origins of 20th century intentional law essentially emerge out of the British attempting to create a legal framework of naval dominance and everyone else trying to create a legal framework to curtail British naval dominance. And when 1914 kicks off everyone breaks the law.

    The problem is that ‘war’ technically has particular legal definitions and of course we don’t use the term officially too much. But there are lots of other activities be it sabotage, economic warfare etc. we can engage in and in many of which the military component doesn’t take the lead.

    Oh yes and while my initials are MF, I am really not Mike under a different name, I am Marcus of the occasional DWS people just in case that confused anyone.

    • To MF,

      I agree with you, that the legal definition of war can blind us to what I am going to term “activities to achieve war like objectives”, which is where I naturally see something like cyber conflict (I’ll drop the word ‘war’ for the sake of Mike Few’s sensibilities! Said as a joke, I promise).

      Its worth reading Currency Wars, by James Rickards, which contains a fascinating history, right up to early 2011 on the concept of a currency war, and why they are as important as armed conflicts. Again, a conflict with no guns, bombs or boots on the ground, but with significant impact, and certainly in support of a military objective, that of degrading your opponents ability to support their spending at home.

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      A conflict where each combatant attempts to boost the competitiveness of the other’s exports! Oh, wait, that’s right. The value of one’s currency is not a symbol of male potency, it is a complex economic phenomenon with both upsides and downsides. I’m sorry I forgot that.

  12. MF says:

    Thanks Chris I’ll add it to the reading list. I suppose the problem with cyberwar is that no would ever officially declare it so cyber operations will always remain clandestine and unconventional… Perhaps a measure would be if anyone was ever willing to get physical about damage done by this means. Anyhow its been an interesting read.

  13. I have 33 years of military service, from the lowest enlisted ranks to senior officer rank, and I submit that the terms generally discussing conventional and unconventional warfare are muddled as they refer to tactics not war.
    Under older definitions, what was unconventional before 9/11 is now conventional. Special Forces, drones, insurgencies, cyber activities, monetary manipulation, coalitions of the willing etc., are the favored tools of the trade of warfare now…and the associated missions are now standard tactics. We have libraries full of books on the various techniques.
    I believe that a more logical term of reference in our post 9/11 world of continuous warfare is “conventional warfare” is a formally declared action by a Nation State or organization, and “unconventional warfare” is the commission of military action without a formal declaration of intent to conduct military action.
    This may seem like an oversimplification, but it is the simplest way to explain it in a paragraph or two. Warfare is conducted
    with numerous tactics, but the purpose of warfare is the same today as it has been for thousands of years. Only now, the most recent massive military actions are all essentially undeclared wars. Unconventional wars… perhaps.

  14. Conventional Warfare is war that is conducted within a framework of conventions. These conventions are not technical and material in nature. These conventions are instead legal and moral limits mutually recognized by actual or potential opponents. They serve as mutually recognized limits within the scope of the materially possible. Conventional warfare is only possible between opponents who share the conventions. Conventional warfare, for practical purposes has only existed in modern times where European countries, or European-derived countries waged war against each other. The conventions are meant to keep some lawful limits on the use of violence because those holding to the conventions believe that this is in their interest. This in turn derived from centuries of thought and practice regarding what was once called the Law of Nations, which set limits on the use of force, which served to make war a useful instrument of statecraft, since it did not lead to a descent into primal violence, as well as allowing societies to carry on in the expectation that outbreaks of violence would have some limit on their brutality. This shared understanding exists in the current era in treaty language and other recognized and shared norms. One critical source of guidance to what constitutes the conventional is the Geneva Convention, which contemplates war between uniformed militaries, bearing arms openly, fighting on behalf of recognized states, mainly aiming their violence at equivalent forces, sparing civilians, protecting the wounded, etc. All other types of warfare are “unconventional.” Since the overwhelming number of actual occurrences of purposive, politically motivated violence is NOT, or is NO LONGER of this type, conventional warfare and militaries structured to execute it, are increasingly irrelevant to the resolution of actual conflicts as they are waged today. However, states persist in building and funding and using conventional forces because those are the only ones they are lawfully allowed to use, and the defecting from the legal conventions imposes political costs they do not want to bear.

  15. Lexington Green, a well written response Sir, and before 9/11 it would remain so. I would submit that, to a soldier, close quarters combat has no moral, legal or conventional rules. You just want to live and you do what ever it takes to achieve that for you and the man next to you. Those modern written guidelines for conduct of battle are only for the consciences of those sending men to their deaths. War is statecraft I grant you, but rather than an act of the last resort, it is more often the most expedient form of statecraft. The Geneva Convention is a wonderful wish list of desired behavior, but has never been adhered to by any of the signers, and is irrelevant to those who have not signed it. We, to our credit, have kept mostly to the path, but again, non compliance is not an issue to the winners. In the Middle ages there were “conventions” of warfare, and they were adhered to as often as not. Mostly based on the privileges of the Nobility and chivalry but “conventions” of war just the same. For them, in their times, I would venture that it meets the definition of “conventional warfare” as it is referred to today. On occasion, even formal discussions of how and where the battles of the war would be fought were carried to and from the Kings and War lords. A common form of pre-war or pre-battle counsel was to formally agree at what point “quarter would be given or lost”. The killing of ranking Knights and warriors was refrained from, as the favor was desired in return, and the use of ransoms was profitable as well. While not helpful to the common soldier there was some organized rule of warfare. In later years, during the Napoleonic wars for example, British and French Officers and those aligned to each, were able to remain free from prisons by offering their word of honor that they would not escape. An exchange of equal ranks was often arranged as well. This was not commonly written down in treaties, but was often in letters to heads of state. Kings and Generals of the field, woulds exchange letters and pass so-called courtesies of war back and forth. For the common soldiers, ceasefires were called from time to time to allow fellows, the families and camp followers to police up the wounded and dead. I submit conventions of war have been around a long time, although not necessarily written down in modern treaties and such. As for tactics, they have not changed much, but the capabilities have. In WWI, there was much use of chemical weapons and it was not considered “unconventional” then. It was in later wars, but it was still used. Chemicals are commonly used today, small and great wars, but in different ways. Tactics again. Finally, the use of “conventional warfare and materials” is NOT (If I may emulate your bold writing to emphasize my point) due to law or politics, it is due to costs! War is now a preferred method of statecraft. It is not necessarily a failed diplomatic end state, or a Nations last desperate act to survive. War is often an economic necessity. One of the most significant measures of improvement to advanced nations is the professionalization of armed forces. Well paid and motivated soldiers with top notch equipment is a key of success on the battlefield. For those organizations or Nations that have neither, they must improvise. What may have been considered unconventional for some, is conventional for others. example; IED’s. They are no longer unconventional, they are standard. Killing civilians, or non-combatants, whether it is accepted collateral damage or an intended effect, unfortunately, they are dead all the same. So, I agree your response was accurate in the past, I again submit that a redefining of the terms is required.

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