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.