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Irregular warfare (IW) is defined in United States joint doctrine as "a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations." Concepts associated with irregular warfare are older than the term itself.
One of the earliest known uses of the term irregular warfare is in the 1986 English edition of "Modern Irregular Warfare in Defense Policy and as a Military Phenomenon" by former Nazi officer Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte. The original 1972 German edition of the book is titled "Der Moderne Kleinkrieg als Wehrpolitisches und Militarisches Phänomen". The German word "Kleinkrieg" is literally translated as "Small War". The word "Irregular", used in the title of the English translation of the book, seems to be a reference to non "regular armed forces" as per the Third Geneva Convention.
Another early use of the term is in a 1996 Central Intelligence Agency document by Jeffrey B. White. Major military doctrine developments related to IW were done between 2004 and 2007 as a result of the September 11 attacks on the United States. A key proponent of IW within US DoD is Michael G. Vickers, a former paramilitary officer in the CIA. The CIA's Special Activities Division (SAD) is the premiere unit for unconventional warfare[clarification needed], both for creating and for combating irregular warfare units. For example, SAD paramilitary officers created and led successful irregular units from the Hmong tribe during the war in Laos in the 1960s from the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and from the Kurdish Peshmerga against Ansar al-Islam and the forces of Saddam Hussein during the war in Iraq in 2003.
Former CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer and Deputy Secretary of Defense Mick Mulroy said at an October 2019 workshop at RAND that the Irregular Warfare Annex is a critical component of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. He said irregular warfare included counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, sabotage and subversion, as well as stabilization and information operations. It had traditionally been perceived as a predominately counterterrorism (CT) effort used to fight violent extremist organizations but it should be applied to all areas of military competition and against global powers competitors like China and Russia as well as rogue states like North Korea and Iran. Mulroy said that the U.S. must be prepared to respond with "aggressive, dynamic, and unorthodox approaches to IW," to be competitive.
Irregular warfare favors indirect warfare and asymmetric warfare approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode the adversary's power, influence, and will. It is inherently a protracted struggle that will test the resolve of a state and its strategic partners. The distinction between regular and irregular forces is unrelated to the term "irregular warfare". The term, irregular warfare, was settled upon in distinction from "traditional warfare" and "unconventional warfare", and to differentiate it as such.
- IW is a form of warfare that has as its objective the credibility and/or legitimacy of the relevant political authority with the goal of undermining or supporting that authority. IW favors indirect approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities to seek asymmetric approaches, in order to erode an adversary's power, influence, and will.
- IW is defined as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s)
- IW involves conflicts in which enemy combatants are not regular military forces of nation-states.
- IW is "war among the people" as opposed to "industrial war" (i.e. regular war).
Nearly all modern wars include at least some element of irregular warfare. Since the time of Napoleon, approximately 80% of conflict has been irregular in nature. However, the following conflicts may be considered to have exemplified by irregular warfare:
- Afghan Civil War
- Algerian War
- American Indian Wars
- American Revolutionary War[nb 1]
- Arab Revolt
- Chinese Civil War
- Cuban Revolution
- First Chechen War
- First Sudanese Civil War
- Iraq War
- Kosovo War
- Lebanese Civil War
- Portuguese Colonial War
- Rwanda Civil War
- Second Boer War
- Second Chechen War
- Second Sudanese Civil War
- Somali Civil War
- Philippine-American War
- Vietnam War
- Libyan Civil War (2011)
- Syrian Civil War
- Iraqi Civil War (2014–2017)
- Yemeni Civil War (2015–present)
- Libyan Civil War (2014–present)
Activities and types of conflict included in IW are:
- Asymmetric warfare
- Civil-military operations (CMO)
- Colonial war
- Foreign internal defense (FID)
- Guerrilla warfare (GW)
- Insurgency/Counter-insurgency (COIN)
- Law enforcement activities focused on countering irregular adversaries
- Military Intelligence and counter-intelligence activities
- Stabilization, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction Operations (SSTRO)
- Transnational criminal activities that support or sustain IW:
- Unconventional warfare (UW)
According to the DoD, there are five core activities of IW:
- Counter-insurgency (COIN)
- Counter-terrorism (CT)
- Unconventional warfare (UW)
- Foreign internal defense (FID)
- Stabilization Operations (SO)
Modeling and simulation
Wargames and exercises
- Unified Action 
- Unified Quest 
- January 2010 Tri-Service Maritime Workshop,
- Joint Irregular Warrior Series war games,
- Expeditionary Warrior war game series, and
- a December 2011 Naval War College Maritime Stability Operations Game focused specifically on stability operations in the maritime domain conducted by the Naval Service.
- Che Guevara
- Clarence Ransom Edwards
- François Géré
- Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte
- John R. M. Taylor
- T. E. Lawrence
- Michael G. Vickers
- Michael P. Mulroy
- Robert Rogers' 28 "Rules of Ranging"
- According to the definition of "regular forces", which came much after the American Revolutionary War (ARW), the American forces did not meet the following criteria at all times during the ARW:
- having a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance
- carrying arms openly
- conducting operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war
Notwithstanding, in terms of modern international humanitarian law which was also developed much later than the ARW, the American forces formed part of the armed forces of a party to an armed conflict but not belonging to that party's regular forces (since the United States of America did not exist and hence could not have had regular forces; the American forces were an insurgency at least until 1776) and operating in or outside of their own territory even if the territory is under occupation. American forces did become regular forces but cannot be considered regular forces during the entire period of the ARW. For example, the American flag got established (1777) 2 years after the ARW started (1775). Also, there were great disparities between the American and British forces. It was not until France started to assist American forces (1778) that the disparity started to be narrowed. Conflict during the disparity surely counts as Asymmetric warfare. Also, the Boston Tea Party (1773) can be viewed as guerrilla tactics. At the very least, a good portion of the ARW should be counted as IW although the entire ARW being counted as IW is controversial. However, since more than 1/2 of the ARW was fought as ARW then it is thought that it is safe to classify it as IW even though that the American forces acted in all respects as regular forces towards the end of the conflict.
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