UW or Political Warfare – Doctrinal Revision for SF?

UW or Political Warfare

UW or Political Warfare – Is it time to update Special Operations doctrine?

Unconventional Warfare (UW) is one of the five primary missions of U.S. Army Special Forces. [1] Most Special Forces (SF) veterans associate the term UW with guerrilla warfare where an SF detachment infiltrates behind enemy lines to train, equip, advise, and assist indigenous forces in denied areas. A typical scenario would be an SF team working with a resistance movement that has guerrilla force, underground, and auxiliary components. (Think OSS Jedburgh teams linking up with the French resistance in World War II).

By doctrine an Unconventional Warfare operation could last months or even years. Various types of missions would likely be conducted (in conjunction with indigenous forces) to include intelligence collection, armed attacks against enemy forces or infrastructure, sabotage, subversion, and unconventional assisted recovery.

UW and SFQC. Currently the seven phases of UW are taught at the basic level to Special Forces students during their training in the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC). Completion of the Robin Sage exercise in the later part of the SFQC exposes the Special Forces candidate to the basics of UW. The successful graduate will then be exposed to the advanced UW skills required of the Special Forces Soldier through unit training exercises and advanced academic courses within the military educational system.

Flintlock. 10th Special Forces veterans of the 1950s – 1980s era will fondly remember yearly Flintlock training exercises with an isolation phase at an English airbase, infiltration in the middle of the night by parachute into a German farmer’s field, linkup with a guerrilla force, a training period with the guerrillas, and then the conduct of combat operations. While the focus of the recent Flintlock missions has shifted to Africa (and CT / COIN) other more contemporary exercises conducted by the various special operations units put into practice advanced UW skills.

UW Beyond SF. Of course, the conduct of UW is not just the domain of U.S. Army Special Forces. It is a core activity of Army Special Operations (ARSOF) and the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). There are also a few three-letter agencies that dabble in the art (or science) as well.

Recent UW Campaigns. A very recent (and successful) UW operation was the infiltration of Special Forces detachments into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime. SF teams from the 5th Special Forces Group linked up with the Northern Alliance in the north of Afghanistan as well as resistance forces in the south of Afghanistan. Joined by Air Force special operations airmen (who controlled airstrikes) and the occasional CIA agent (with bags of money) the SF teams were able to quickly assist the resistance movements in routing the Taliban from the major cities of Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kandahar. And one shouldn’t ignore the success of 10th Special Forces teams linking up with the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq prior to and during the 2003 invasion.

Little ‘Green Men’. The United States is not alone in its use of Unconventional Warfare. Russia, China, Iran and other nations are very adept in the use of UW. However, these countries use of UW is as a function within a larger construct – often referred to as Hybrid Warfare or Irregular Warfare. Some military observers have pointed out the successful use of ‘little green men’ by Russia in the Crimea and western Ukraine as examples of modern day Hybrid Warfare. [2] There are a number of other terms that could be used to describe this type of warfare to include UW, Political Warfare, Gray Zone, Asymmetric Warfare, Irregular Warfare, and more. For many people the complex set of terms are bewildering.

UW or Political Warfare. One writer, Douglas Livermore, has penned a paper that suggests the special operations community is handicapped with the UW term. He believes that senior policy makers have trouble understanding UW and that the broader concept of Political Warfare needs to be introduced (or reintroduced). He also thinks that the SOF community should move away from the unhelpful doctrinal term of Unconventional Warfare and replace it with the more descriptive term of “support to indigenous resistance”. This term would be a function within the broader concept of SOF support to Political Warfare. Livermore believes the UW term served us well during the Cold War (think Flintlock) but that over the course of time the term has been distorted. He thinks the more comprehensive ‘whole of government’ concept of Political Warfare “. . . incorporates all elements of U.S. national power . . .” and is more useful for senior policy makers in the support of U.S. national objectives.

Author. Douglas Livermore is a Special Forces Officer with Special Forces Detachment – NATO (SOD-N) in the Maryland Army National Guard. He also works for the Department of Defense as an operational advisor and has had multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. His article (link provided below) is a good read and would be very informative for the special operations practitioner.

“It’s Time For Special Operations to Dump ‘Unconventional Warfare'”, by Doug Livermore, War on the Rocks, October 6, 2017.


[1] The other core missions are counterterrorism (CT), direct action (DA), foreign internal defense (FID), and special reconnaissance (SR).

[2] A great concern of the Baltic States and Poland is the use of Hybrid Warfare by Russia to expand its influence and control into eastern Europe. NATO is taking a very proactive stance in signaling their opposition to Russia’s aggressive moves by the forward staging of air and ground assets into Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia and through the conduct of numerous exercises in eastern Europe. However, the likely threat from Russia will not not be conventional but a form of Hybrid Warfare (or Political Warfare).


A listing of documents, publications, and articles about Unconventional Warfare can be found at the following link:

UW Pocket Guide, United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), April 2016.