Unconventional Warfare (UW) is the bread and butter of Army Special Forces teams

One of our readers asked if we’d discuss some of the training that goes into UW. But it is somewhat of putting the cart before the horse. Some of our readers are aspiring Special Forces candidates. And the UW phase of the training comes at the end of the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC). But what the heck, it was our favorite part of the training and the course overall so we’ll give a very brief primer for our candidates out there.

Someone else asked if Selection is the biggest obstacle especially mentally that a candidate will face in the course. And the answer is no, it isn’t. The final phase of the training, the UW phase, what we call “Robin Sage,” beats that by a sight. Without giving too much away, the prospective Special Forces (SF) A-Teams are put into extremely difficult situations where there are no right or wrong answers and they’re going to have made some extremely difficult decisions. It is as close to real-world decision-making as they can make it. All of this while trying to build rapport with and train a guerrilla force.


Unconventional Warfare Terminology

Multinational SOF and Sky Soldiers combine unconventional and conventional warfare at Saber Junction 19
Subscribe 45 A Special Forces Soldier from the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) provides security for paratroopers from the Italian Army’s Folgore Brigade as they parachute onto a drop zone on September 16, 2019, as part of exercise Saber Junction 19 in Hohenfels, Germany. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes/U.S. Special Operations Command Europe)

Ok, pump the brakes old man, you’re getting ahead of yourself. First here are some terms you’ll have to learn… these are NOT a catch-all list but just a few that you’ll need to remember right out of the manual:

Resistance Movement: An organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability.

Insurgency: The organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region. An insurgency can also refer to the group itself.

Counter Insurgency: Comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to defeat an insurgency and to address any core grievances.

Foreign Internal Defense: Participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security.

Underground: Cellular organization within the resistance that has the ability to conduct operations in areas that are inaccessible to guerrillas, such as urban areas under the control of the local security forces.

Auxiliary: Refers to that portion of the population that provides active clandestine support to the guerrilla force or the underground.

Guerrilla Force: A group of irregular, predominantly indigenous personnel organized along military lines to conduct military and paramilitary operations in enemy-held, hostile, or denied territory.

Denied Area: An area under enemy or unfriendly control in which friendly forces cannot expect to operate successfully within existing operational constraints and force capabilities.

Become familiar with these terms, I guarantee you, you’ll hear them countless times more down the road. So, you now have an idea of what we’re talking about here, however, we’re not quite ready to become Jedburgh Teams just yet, and for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Jeds…. There is a great history of the Jeds, the forerunners of the SF and CIA UW teams on the agency’s website.

Remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg here, as the subject of UW will be long and time-consuming. But in our brief overview, first what is unconventional warfare? In the simplest terms, unconventional warfare is the United States’ support for a resistance movement. And UW is defined as activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating by, through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area. The U.S. supported the French Resistance in World War II and most recently, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001.

Preparing the Special Forces Operator for the Unconventional Warfare Environment

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One of our other readers asked if supporting the Kurds in Syria is classified as UW? That’s a great question. In some matters, it is a classic UW scenario, where our coalition forces are training a resistance movement to kick out the Islamic State forces or Daesh as they are known, from the Syrian and Iraqi countries. But what is our end-state in Syria? The true power is the Assad government and we’ve stated we aren’t attacking Assad’s forces. A difficult subject there so we’ll leave it as, yes it is.


What Is a Resistance?

U.S. Special Operations hosts Baltic resistance wargame
U.S. Army Special Forces Soldiers assigned to 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and members of the Lithuanian National Defence Volunteer Forces (KASP) conduct a raid during exercise Saber Junction 2018 at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, September 17, 2018. (Photo by Sgt. Avery Cunningham/U.S. Special Operations Command Europe)

The resistance to an occupying power is organized into several indigenous components. The underground, auxiliary, guerrilla forces, public components, shadow government, and a government-in-exile. We’ll take a look at each and how they interact and fit with one another. Keep in mind, that there are no hard and fast rules here, every resistance movement is different and the levels of development will depend on the goals, objectives, and the level of success that the resistance movement has.

The Underground and Guerillas are the main military unit of the resistance but they also can conduct political activities. Their activities can be overt, or clandestine. Guerillas are military in nature but are not mercenaries or a militia. They are irregular troops who believe in the cause. The Montagnard tribesmen of Vietnam would be a good example of irregulars although they operated in a counterinsurgency environment. The guerillas are organized along military lines and conduct military operations.

The underground, however, is organized in cells to protect itself from exposure. They are designed to conduct operations in areas that the guerrillas wouldn’t normally operate such as in areas under the control of the occupying power. Some of the functions that the underground conducts include but are not limited to intelligence and counterintelligence networks, subversive media, (leaflets, newspapers, clandestine radio broadcasts), sabotage, and fundraising.

The auxiliary is the segment of the population that provide clandestine support for the guerillas and the underground. They are part-time volunteers who blend perfectly into the fabric of the operational area and who provide logistical support, safe house management, intelligence gathering, and early warning networks.

During Robin Sage, having an effective and active auxiliary is paramount to success. The auxiliary will provide tremendous early warning networks against the government forces of Pineland… nuff said.

The public component is an overtly political organization. These are the faces of the resistance movement and they may negotiate on behalf of the resistance movement with the occupying power. If the host nation outlaws the resistance, it may force the public component to dissolve or go underground.

The shadow government consists of a government completely comprised of the resistance organization that performs all of the same functions as the host nation that they are replacing. A good example was the FARC in Colombia that provided security, health services, and taxed the citizens in Colombia’s countryside. The shadow government operates in the denied area of an occupied territory.

The government-in-exile is a government displaced from the operational area, yet remains recognized by the people as a legitimate sovereign authority of a nation. One example of this was the Free French of World War II.  A government-in-exile will normally take up sanctuary in a nearby allied or friendly nation-state

We’ll cut this one-off right here, in the future we can talk about the different phases of a resistance movement and other UW subjects. But keep in mind, this is by no means the entire picture but just a brief overview of the subject matter.

Once you get to the course, the cadre members will spend quite a bit of time going into detail that you’ll need to understand and operate in the unconventional warfare environment.


This article was originally published in May 2019. It has been edited for republication.