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Historically, conventional wars between states fighting for sovereignty peaked between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while national wars rose to prominence from the Napoleonic Wars at the start of the nineteenth century until the end of World War I. Other forms of warfare include the horrendous religious wars, which have long been overcome, and unconventional warfare (UW), which spawned a lot of variation since emerging and becoming a popular mode of stirring up chaos amid the Second World War into the Cold War era, evolved significantly through the twenty-first century. The latter has become a preferred mode fought by mercenaries, insurgents, subversives, guerrillas, special force units, and sometimes for-hired or for-a-cause assassins. Occasionally it can be fought directly through infiltration and raids, and other times indirectly, such as political and economic sabotage, espionage, and orchestrating an uprising behind closed doors—UW has spawned many variations of its own, which drastically evolved since the turn of the twentieth century.
But why has it grown in popularity? For one, UW has proven to be a viable, most cost-effective indirect action method that has aided superpowers in achieving their tactical objectives in the last few decades.
Below are some popular classic unconventional tactics used by Western militaries throughout history.
Among the most common and popular forms of unconventional warfare is espionage, typically used by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6).
By definition, espionage is obtaining top-secret intelligence by employing undercover agents and spies or using covert gadgets such as “bugs” and monitoring/listening devices that are usually considered illegal.
This unconventional tactic commonly occurs in foreign territories where a suspecting nation wants to uncover confidential, potentially sensitive information that may or may not threaten the latter.
As mentioned, Britain’s MI6 is one of the agencies charged with utilizing espionage, which has been believed to have existed since the 1500s. It was formally constituted in the early 1900s, just a few years before the First World War broke out. The covert human intelligence gathering grew during the rise to power of the Third Reich – operating across Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
The United States also formed its version of the British Secret Service when it joined World War II, with the MI6 training American personnel under the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—later succeeded by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Despite its illegal nature, and if discovered, it could catapult into a bloody war; espionage is a popular tactic as it provides vital information in a nation’s defense setup. It keeps the state up-to-date on what its adversaries are doing, omitting potential threats to national security and unprecedented attacks or invasions.
Some of the top intelligence agencies in the world include the CIA, MI6, Israel’s Mossad, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, and China’s Ministry of State Security.
Let’s face it. Politics will always be tied to war. It could even be the driving force behind why one could arise. In recent years, this type of unconventional tactic has been widely used to paint an opponent in a bad light in the eyes of the public.
It is a calculated approach to instill a certain narrative according to an objective to gain the upper hand or control other national power. It could include overt propaganda and covert psychological operations, as well as a combination of violence, economic pressure, subversion, and diplomacy. This UW can also occur even in peacetime, with the skirmish taking place either in plain sight or behind closed doors between state administrations in the name of national objectives.
One of the popular examples of this was during the Cold War Era, with the back-in-forth “white” and “black” propaganda exchange between the United States and Russia.
The most recent instrumentalization of political warfare would be the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing Invasion of Ukraine, where Russian leader Vladimir Putin widely utilizes political propaganda and rewriting history to fit into his target narrative and subjugate the Ukrainian government, as well as steer the latter nation away from the European influence.
Intelligence gathered through espionage plays a significant role in political warfare, as it provides leverage to the side that maintains a couple of steps ahead of its adversary.
Money makes the world go round, including the stability and readiness of national security. Thus, keeping the economy of one’s nation healthy is a way to keep the defense sector on its toes. Any sabotage could easily derail a strong state’s military power.
Strategies such as embarges, sanctions, capital freezes, and suspension of aid are how economic warfare plays out, as these approaches weaken the flow of profit and supplies of other states.
During World War I, the Royal Navy used its naval strength to establish a tight blockade against German shipments, which repeated in the Second World War to deprive the Axis Powers of their critical resources. For years, it has proven its efficiency in either slowing military efforts or dispelling a conflict entirely.
This is why sanctions on Russia immediately ensued as soon as the invasion of Ukraine occurred and why other states are discouraged from lending a hand to the aggressor—even China. In retaliation, Moscow pulled off a naval blockade on the Black Sea port months later, greatly affecting the global food supply. The port stored about 13 percent of the world’s grains, as Ukraine is a wheat giant. Thus the intervention of Russia caused disruption in the flow of the most basic food across the globe and triggered price hikes.
Ukraine has finally begun shipping grain out of its Black Sea ports again after months of blockade, under a safe passage agreement with Russia, and with hope that it will help ease global food shortages https://t.co/2GEgP0OfFspic.twitter.com/tAeTx4TWWJ
Economic warfare has been used for thousands of years to crush adversaries, bringing them to their knees without mobilizing much of their armed forces.
Throughout centuries, guerrilla warfare has been used commonly against the traditional military and police forces of a state, which by definition, is being “fought by irregulars in fast-moving, small-scale actions.”
The first recorded guerrilla can be traced back to the 1800s, during the Peninsular War, when combined Spanish and Portuguese forces successfully pushed the French off the Iberian Peninsula. As the years passed, the “little war” transcended into a skirmish typically used by insurgents, partisans, mercenaries, and rebels in a state, fighting for a different ideology, policy, or simply against current military leaders or ruling government administration. Bandits, terrorists, and outlaws are also commonly associated with guerrilla warfare.
It usually targets civilians and highly utilizes mediums that could easily stir strong emotions—particularly anger and rage—among the public to gather enough force of resistance.
The mode of UW further rose to prominence at the start of World War II throughout the Cold War Era and well into the present. Aside from the political, economic, and social drives, guerrilla warfare had also been stirred and motivated by extreme religious fanatics—most prominently enforced by Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS).
Even way before the term guerrilla was coined, such small battles had been fought by great warriors—leading battles against non-traditional warriors—including Alexander the Great of Macedonia and Carthaginian General Hannibal (en route to the Alps). Even the great Roman Empire fought these little skirmishes during the campaign to conquer Spain.
Despite referring to it as “little war,” the effects of guerrilla warfare can be severe and impactful. Just look at the 9/11 terrorist attack and the neverending saga of warring nations in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia that continue to experience the damaging repercussions of active guerrilla combat in their regions.
New Unconventional Warfare Arises
Other known UW tactics include small planned assassinations, large-scale raids, and airborne operations. But, at present, a new form of UW tactics arises through social media and the internet.
Also considered a remote UW, this 21st-century warfare poses a new kind of threat to both the government and the civilian infrastructure. What’s worst is it could pull off other UW tactics thanks to the widespread use of handheld gadgets and devices almost everyone uses today.
Pervasive electronic surveillance, digging up top-secret information, and media manipulation are just some factors that can trigger explosive wars among nations.
Among the notable cyberwarfare in the last couple of decades include the 1988 worm experiment that led to billion dollars worth of computer restoration and the 2009 Operation Aurora, a series of cyber attacks conducted by a Chinese-based company—that has ties with China’s People’s Liberation Army. The latter affected dozens of Western, mostly US private sector organizations, including Adobe Systems, Akamai Technologies, Yahoo, and Northrop Grumman, to name a few. It siphoned hundreds of sensitive information, such as intellectual property, some of Google’s source codes, and the personal information of some Chinese activists, as well as confidential intel from defense industry suppliers.
As the world shifts digitally, UW tactics will continue to evolve toward utilizing cyberspace. Even so, the traditional UW tactics remain the most basic form and will remain the trend, at least for the next foreseeable years.
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