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Current Operations

Painting: Battle of Queenston Heights

Library and Archives Canada C-000273-LAC

The Battle of Queenston Heights during the War of 1812-1814, which featured the extensive use of ‘irregulars.’

Unconventional Warfare: The Missing Link in the Future of Land Operations

by Tony Balasevicius

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In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 (9/11) terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York and Washington, Canada’s military is increasingly being called upon to deploy into complex operational environments where it must deal with highly adaptive adversaries seeking to destabilize society through a variety of asymmetric means. In articulating this new security paradigm, Steven Metz, Chairman of the Regional Strategy and Planning Department, and a research professor, argues: “... [that] rather than being discrete conflicts between insurgents and an established regime, they are nested in complex, multidimensional clashes having political, social, cultural, and economic components.” He goes on to assert: “...[that] in an even broader sense, contemporary insurgencies flow from systemic failures in the political, economic, and social realms. They arise not only from the failure or weakness of the state, but from more general flaws in cultural, social, and economic systems.”1

The Canadian Army has long recognized the multidimensional nature of this security environment, and, over the last few years, it has attempted to develop a new operating concept for its future army in an effort to deal with its complexity.2 The concept, approved by the Chief of the Defence Staff, has recently been released under the heading of Land Operations 2021: Adaptive Dispersed Operations (ADO). Although it is still under development, it is clear that there are a number of issues with the concept that will need to be addressed if it is to move from a theoretical construct into a practical operational doctrine.3

Paradoxically, the ADO’s main weakness is its adaptability. In its present form, the concept focuses exclusively upon asymmetric threats, and is based upon little more then a counter-insurgency (COIN) methodology. As such, it is structurally unable to transition forces from dispersed operations to conventional warfare without sacrificing combat power in the one area to carry out operations in the other. In this regard, although the concept is adequate to meet today’s security requirements where sustained conventional operations are unlikely, its ability to deal with unexpected changes to this environment is less certain.

To overcome this problem, the concept needs to take a more futuristic and all-encompassing approach to the problem of modern war by developing a more versatile force structure and operating concept that is capable of covering a broader range of threats. This can be done simply by integrating an unconventional warfare (UW) component into the ADO construct. This article will examine the army’s current vision for future land operations, highlighting specific areas of concern. It will then explore options to mitigate those issues, using UW as an integrated component within ADO. Finally, it will identify some of the organizational and training challenges that will need to be addressed in order to develop such a capability.

Cover: Land Operations 2021

DND photo

Adaptive Dispersed Operations

Despite its shortcomings, Land Operations 2021 is an innovative and forward-looking document that recognizes both the changing nature of the modern security environment and the need to develop forces that are far more “...agile, ... multi-purpose, and full-spectrum capable” than is currently the case.4 The document emphasizes that, in order to create and exploit battlespace opportunities, future forces must be able to operate “dispersed in terms of time, space, and purpose-throughout the width and depth of the battlespace.”5 The over-arching concept will still be grounded in manoeuvre warfare and use an effects-based approach to operations, which will allow commanders to control the tempo of engagements, thus quickly overwhelming an adversary.

In order to accomplish this level of battlespace saturation, the document stresses the need for operations to be “...coordinated, interdependent, full spectrum actions using widely dispersed teams across the moral, physical, and informational planes of the battlespace.”6 In fact, the foundation of this theory has been validated by the Americans as far back as Operation Just Cause in Panama (December 1989), and it is also showing potential in ongoing operations by coalition forces in Afghanistan. That being said, it does have limitations.

One of the difficulties with executing ADO is having the right mix of enablers in sufficient quantities to create the synergistic effects that are being sought. In essence, a compromise in capabilities, such as the number of forces available for an operation, could impact upon the ability to achieve the desired operational outcomes.7 This issue is especially relevant when dealing with high technology enablers that, over time, may not fulfill the concept’s expectations. More importantly, however, the theory, as it applies to Western military forces, has not been battle tested against a sophisticated enemy with a large, well-organized military.

This factor cannot be overlooked when one considers that forces operating in a widely dispersed manner violate the principle of “concretion of force” for that of simultaneous operations across the battlespace, thus becoming vulnerable to interdiction by larger threats.8 In fact, the concept document acknowledges this vulnerability, suggesting that situations could develop that will require forces to concentrate in order to carry out what is referred to as aggregated force operations (AFOs).9

Such an eventuality becomes a challenge when ADO forces must engage a sustained threat and are unable to return to their dispersed layout. In such instances, the idea of dispersal envisioned within ADO would begin to look like today’s conventional operations, and any advantages initially produced by utilizing the concept could be lost. To overcome this problem, future doctrine and organizations must allow forces to fight dispersed and conventional operations simultaneously without losing combat power in one to fight in the other. Moreover, with manpower limitations always an issue, this simultaneous fighting must be done without significantly increasing the size of the forces currently available.

To achieve this construct, it may be possible to develop an underlying concept and enabling capability for ADO. A solution would be to pair conventional units with irregular forces, creating a holistic force structure operating from within a common and flexible doctrine. Interestingly, the idea of pairing conventional and irregular forces is nothing new. In fact, it has been used extensively throughout history with great success, and it has sometimes been referred to as compound warfare.10

Compound Warfare

Compound warfare can be defined as the simultaneous use of conventional and irregular forces against an enemy.11 According to Thomas M. Huber, editor of Compound Warfare: That Fatal Knot, operations of the regular and the irregular forces are extremely complementary. He explains that the irregular forces can give important advantages to the regular force, such as developing superior intelligence information while suppressing enemy intelligence. They can also provide supplies and quick passage through territory that they occupy, while denying these advantages to an enemy.12

Huber also believes that regular forces can give important advantages to irregular forces. For example, they can pressure the enemy to withdraw, forcing them into or out of areas where irregulars are operating, thus creating the conditions for greater freedom of action. “The main force can provide strategic information, advising the guerrillas of when and where to act to accommodate the overall effort.”13

From a historical perspective, Huber’s thesis appears to have merit, as there are numerous examples of armies employing various forms of compound warfare. The more famous cases include Wellington’s use of irregulars in Spain (1808 and 1814), Mao Zedong during China’s revolutionary wars (1927 to 1949), and Ho Chi-Minh in Vietnam’s wars of independence (1945-1975).14 In fact, compound warfare was an integral part of the early Canadian ‘way of war,’ as both the English and French used conventional and militia units in North America that integrated irregular forces, such as native allies, during much of the 18th and early 19th Centuries.15

Interestingly, French Canadian militiamen adapted these tactics to the conditions of fighting in the North American wilderness faster and better than did their British counterparts, and, for this reason, the French usually had a tactical advantage. Eventually, however, the British discovered that they could overcome this very effective form of warfare by adopting similar tactics.16 Michael Pearlman, an associate professor of history at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, points out: “The British did more than slavishly copy the French. They domesticated irregular operations... [this was done] by substituting rangers for Indian auxiliaries, and then more reliable light infantry regulars for American rangers.”17 Ironically, once the British had developed a capacity for irregular warfare, they used it to great effect upon their enemies, and even exported the idea to the Spanish theatre of war, where they ravaged a far superior French force.

The number of irregulars operating with Wellington’s forces during the Spanish campaign provides some insight into effectiveness of compound warfare. Huber states: “...[that] France had 320,000 troops in Spain at the height of its presence in 1810 and... during their six-year campaign, French forces lost 240,000 men. Of these, 45,000 were killed in action against conventional forces, 50,000 died of illness and accident, and 145,000 were killed in action against guerrilla forces.” By comparison, he estimates: “...[that] Wellington’s army in Spain at its height had only about 40,000 troops, with some 25,000 Portuguese forces attached.” Incredibly, despite enjoying a conventional force advantage of four to one, the French were unable to achieve any type of measurable success, let alone victory, during the six-year campaign.18

The synergy derived by combining regular and irregular operations at both the tactical and operational level makes compound warfare especially effective for operations by smaller forces over large areas, and in difficult terrain. If properly developed, such operations would significantly enhance the flexibility and combat effectiveness of Canada’s future doctrine.19 However, if such a concept were to be integrated into ADO, a capability would be needed to organize, train, and employ irregular forces within the framework of the Army’s overall campaign plan. In fact, this issue has a simple solution – namely, the use of SOF trained in unconventional warfare.20

Jedburgh team


Jedburghs in planning.

Unconventional Warfare – Historical Background

In its most basic terms, unconventional warfare (UW) can be defined as the ability to organize, train, equip, advise, and assist indigenous and surrogate forces in military and paramilitary operations. According to the American Joint Special Operations Joint Publication 3-0517, unconventional warfare is defined as operations “...that involve a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces that are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source.”21 The publication explains, “...[that] UW is unique in that it is a SO [special operation] that can either be conducted as part of a geographic combatant commander’s overall theater campaign, or as an independent, subordinate campaign. When conducted independently, the primary focus of UW is on political-military objectives and psychological objectives.”22

UW has not been well received or understood by conventional military commanders, which may be the reason it originated outside of the armed forces establishment. Despite this lack of interest on the part of the military, the American and British governments devoted significant effort to such activities during the Second World War, as both the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were set up to coordinate various UW activities in occupied countries in Europe and Asia. These activities included the insertion of teams to support and coordinate existing resistance movements.23 One such organization was based upon a three-man liaison team, commonly referred to as Jedburgh. These teams consisted of a British or American officer, a French officer, and a radio operator, who would be deployed into areas known to have active resistance movements with sufficient arms to supply about 100 men.24

Once deployed, teams made contact with local authorities or other allied organizations to distribute arms, and to coordinate offensive operations. In the process, they attempted to convince local resistance leaders to be selective in their assaults. According to historian Denis Rigden: “In giving such advice the agents needed to be skilled negotiators, able to persuade guerrilla groups when to strike and when to hold back.”25 Rigden emphasizes that “...when Resistance fighters undertook operations independently, it usually achieved little or nothing of military value and often resulted in the enemy taking savage revenge on the local civilian population. Trained to be aware of the dangers of rash guerrilla action, SOE agents strove to ensure that all irregular warfare served the strategic aims of the Allied leaders.”26

In the United States, General William J. Donovan, head of the OSS, believed that America provided the Allies with a pool of recruits possessing the necessary language and cultural skills for UW, and, given the proper training, successful candidates could be infiltrated into targeted regions. By necessity, much of the initial training undertaken by the Americans was modeled after the SOE experience. However, over time, the Americans developed a number of their own unique and innovated concepts for the selection, training, and employment of UW forces.27 In addition to the Jedburgh teams, the OSS developed and successfully employed operational groups (OGs).

OGs were unique, as they were deployed on missions that required a wider range of capabilities than could be provided by the three-man Jedburgh teams. As a general rule, an OG consisted of between 15 and 30 men, and included two specialists, a medical technician, and a radio operator.28 These groups were organized and trained to work independently or in cooperation with either the Jedburghs or partisans, and they undertook a variety of activities that ranged from ambushing enemy columns, cutting lines of communications, blowing up railroad lines and bridges, and providing supplies to various resistance groups. According to Patrick K. O’Donnell, historian and expert on Second World War espionage and special operations: “The typical OG team was described as ‘a small self-sufficient band of man who might be required to live and fight in the manner of guerrillas.’”29

During the course of the war, the success of the OSS validated the concept of UW, and it provided the SOF with a unique mission. The idea was refined in post-war analysis, as members of the OGs indicated that their extensive training was effective, but also felt that some adjustments needed to be made. Specifically, greater emphasis needed to be placed upon such issues as the operation and maintenance of foreign weapons and vehicles, methods of instruction, French military nomenclature, and radio maintenance and repair.30 Members of the groups realized that any type of team functioning behind enemy lines for extended periods needed highly developed skills in critical areas, such as communications, medical procedures, weapons knowledge, and vehicle and equipment maintenance and repair.31

Jedburgh team


Jedburghs about to venture in harm’s way.

Employment of the Unconventional Warfare Capability

At the end of the Second World War, the OSS was disbanded and most of its operational intelligence activities were handed over to the newly-created Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Initially, the United States Army did not see a need to develop a UW capability; however, a growing Soviet threat resulted in the activation of the 10th Special Forces Group (Green Berets), albeit reluctantly, in 1952. From the beginning, this group’s primary mission was to conduct guerrilla warfare behind any Soviet advance in the event of a Russian invasion of Western Europe.32 The organization of the 1952 SF operational detachment (OD) was very similar to the OGs that had deployed to France, with the addition of many post-war recommendations.33

ODs were authorized a strength of 15 men, which included. “...[a] detachment commander, an executive officer and 13 enlisted men. In theory, these teams were capable of organizing, supporting and directing a regimental-sized guerrilla unit. The functional specialties used to carry out this mission included medical, demolitions, communications, weapons, [and] operations and intelligence.”34 During the Vietnam War (1959-1975), the Americans had the opportunity to again prove and refine this concept, as the Green Berets were tasked to employ indigenous troops using many of the same small-war methods the enemy was using.35 In fact, for much of the war, “...the 5th Special Forces Group trained and led Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDGs), which included Mobile Strike Forces (‘Mike Forces’) and reconnaissance companies that were manned by ethnic minority tribes from the mountain and border regions.”36 These forces carried out reconnaissance along the border regions and provided security for their home bases. The idea of having CIDG forces was to broaden the COIN effort by asserting security over much of the tribal-minority-populated areas of the highlands and remote districts of the Mekong Delta to provide a buffer against Viet Cong infiltration.37

Controlling the region allowed the Americans to set up a system, “...[of] indigenous trail watchers, whose mission was to locate and report Viet Cong movements near the border. The trail watcher program was significant in that it was the precursor to the border surveillance program, where area development and border surveillance combined to create one of the more valuable components of the CIDG program.”38 Over time, these forces developed an offensive capability, and, by 1964, they were carrying out operations against Viet Cong safe havens and interdicting infiltration routes into Vietnam. By 1965, these operations had developed into more aggressive search and destroy missions using larger forces.39 Other CIDG-type forces included mobile guerrilla teams, which raided enemy base areas, using hit-and-run tactics against regular enemy units.

To put these operations into perspective, 2500 Special Forces soldiers raised, trained, and led an army of 50,000 tribal fighters that carried out operations in some of the most difficult areas in Vietnam. This force patrolled the border areas, provided intelligence, and developed a security force in areas that otherwise might have been controlled by the enemy.40

The adaptability of the UW capability has remained valid in the contemporary operating environment. In fact, in the aftermath of 9/11, SOF has played increasingly important roles in military operations throughout the world. As has been the case in Afghanistan, they proved they have the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Despite having as few as 300 soldiers on the ground, SOF teams were able to successfully rally unorganized and rival anti-Taliban opposition groups within the country to focus a northern alliance, which defeated Taliban forces. These well-planned operations included very intense and precise bombing campaigns that used state-of-the-art equipment coordinated by SOF soldiers. However, what is even more astonishing than the effectiveness of these operations was the speed at which they were accomplished. Only 49 days were needed from the time they became directly involved with operations on the ground until the fall of Kandahar.41

Vietnam-US war adviser

Associated Press AP 62070404

Vietnam-US war adviser.

Training the Unconventional Warfare Capability

In order to meet the specialized requirements of training and controlling irregular forces in operations, and in achieving the efficiency and results displayed with the CIDGs or with elements of the Northern Alliance during the opening stages of the Afghanistan mission, UW specialists need a specific organizational and training construct. Organizationally, today’s UW company consists of six 12-man Alfa detachments.42 Each detachment includes a captain, a second-in-command (warrant officer), and 10 non-commissioned officers that are trained in one of five functional areas: weapons, engineering, medicine, communications, and operations and intelligence.43 Training for this organization is quite extensive, with the process being broken down into a number of phases: individual skills, military occupation structure qualification, collective training, language training, and survival and evasion training.44

Candidates start with individual skills training that includes land navigation (cross country), marksmanship training, and military operations on urbanized terrain, small unit tactics, mission planning, live fire exercises, and a number of patrol exercises.45 General Carl Stiner, former commander of SOFCOM, captured the essence of the training conducted when he stated:

Everyone in an A-Detachment was trained in the following: each soldier had to be an expert marksman on his individual weapon (a pistol) and his M-16 rifle, and be familiar with weapons, such as AK-47s... In the case of larger weapons such as mortars and machine guns, he had to be able to emplace and employ them properly... Each soldier was trained in explosives... If he had no explosives of his own, he was taught how to obtain what was needed to make them from local sources. Each soldier received communications training ...[and] was capable of operating any kind of communications gear they might be using. Each soldier received advanced first-aid training... how to establish intelligence nets and escape and evasion nets; how to conduct resupply operations at night; how to set up a field for landing airplanes and bring them in, and how to set up parachute drop zones.46

The first phase of training lasts about 65 days, and, once completed, soldiers move to what is commonly referred to as their functional specialties training. According to unclassified sources, each member of the team is trained in different specialties, and this starts with the detachment commander. His training emphasizes the leadership skills and knowledge necessary, “...[to] direct and employ other members of his detachment.”47 The second specialty in the team is the weapons sergeant, and he is given training in “...tactics, anti-armor weapons utilization, the functioning of all types of US and foreign light weapons, indirect fire operations, man portable air defense weapons, weapons emplacement, and integrated combined arms fire control planning.”48

The engineer sergeant is trained in “...construction skills, field fortifications, and use of explosive demolitions.” Next is the medical sergeant, who receives training in “...advanced medical procedures to include trauma management and surgical procedures.”49 Finally, there is the communications sergeant. His training includes the installation and operation of high frequency burst communications equipment, antenna theory, radio wave propagation, and communications operations procedures and techniques.50 The decision regarding who goes into which specialty is based upon a number of factors, including an individual’s background, aptitude, desire, and the specific needs of the organization.51

Once this specialty training is completed, candidates are brought together for collective training and a final conformation phase that lasts approximately 38 days. During this period, soldiers are given additional common skills training, based upon developing UW fighting techniques.52 The final exercise in this phase is called Robin Sage, and it is conducted to bring together all the previous instruction and training. Candidates are placed into simulated detachments and deployed to a fictional country, where they must organize the local population into guerrilla forces.

After completing the collective training phase, candidates attend the Special Forces Language School at the Special Operations Academic Facility, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. This phase can last from six months to a year.53 The importance of language training for the UW specialist cannot be overstated, as the benefits of speaking a native language were clearly evident when the Jedburgh teams and OGs deployed into the occupied territories during the Second World War. In addition to pure language training, soldiers also receive extensive cultural training, so that when they enter a given country, they understand local customs and do not alienate the people they want to help.54

The ability to operate behind enemy lines for extended periods requires soldiers that can live off the environment, and evade local military forces and other authorities. As Captain Shaw, a former officer in the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) states: “To exist at all in the Qattara Depression or in the Sand Sea in June or in the Gebel Akhdar in February is in itself a science which practice develops into an art. The problem is to make yourself so much master over the appalling difficulties of Nature – heat, thirst, cold, rain, fatigue – that, overcoming these, you yet have physical energy and mental resilience to deal with the greater object, the winning of the war, as the task presents itself from day to day.”55

For the Americans, this type of conditioning is carried out during the training process, and it is then reinforced during the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) course. The course is 19 days long, and it is conducted at Camp MacKall, North Carolina. The aim of the training is to teach soldiers survival, evasion, resistance, and escape, and personnel are taught the basics of how to survive if they become separated from their unit. They also learn how to live off the land by catching their own food, to evade a hostile force and make their way back to friendly forces, and to avoid capture.

In the event that soldiers are captured, SERE training prepares them to resist the enemy’s attempts at exploitation, and to escape from captivity. Classroom lectures can include talks from former prisoners of war who discuss their experiences and how they were able to live through their respective ordeals. The course ends with a final exercise.56 Once all the phases of training are completed, soldiers are posted to their units, where, depending upon the unit’s specific requirements, additional training may take place. Regardless, at this juncture they are now considered UW specialists.


DND photo


Moving towards a Canadian Unconventional Warfare Capability

Although UW has proven to be a versatile capability at the operational level, in order to be a successful part of ADO, it will have to work within the construct of compound warfare. This means that, at the operational level, UW activities would be focused upon establishing and/or maintaining the overall framework for dispersed operations around which conventional forces would manoeuvre. However, to be truly effective, UW also needs to provide tactical support to conventional forces operating in theatre on an ongoing basis. Such a change would significantly alter the working relationship that has historically existed between SOF, irregular, and conventional units. Once these issues have been worked out, the possible combinations of UW and conventional forces could be as numerous as the situations they would be expected to encounter, and it is this flexibility that lies at the heart of compound warfare’s strength.

When looking at the development of UW for Canada, it is important to note the ongoing debate within the United States Special Forces community regarding this capability, since this debate will likely affect Canadian attitudes. Despite having one of the best and most versatile SOF capabilities in the Western world, the American Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) appears fixated upon DA missions that emphasize the capturing or killing of terrorists and their leaders. Interestingly, this concept is actually imbedded in the 2006 Capstone Concept for Special Operations, which states: “While conducting surgical direct action operations on a regional and global scale is imperative for USSOCOM, Joint SOF must also be able to maintain persistent presence with...”57

This emphasis upon DA has not necessarily been for the better, nor has it been without criticism. In a thesis produced for the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, Steven Basilici and Jeremy Simmons believe, “...[that] with the Taliban gone the military was able to direct Special Operations teams to ‘capture or kill’ so-called High Value Targets (HVTs).” They then go on to assert: “The Military had no understanding of the post-Taliban environment. Instead of applying solutions based on the dynamics of the conflict, it preferred to pursue counterforce operations at the cost of indigenous based operations.”58

Max Boot, a scholar and leading expert in modern warfare, is very direct in describing the result of these efforts when he states: ...[that] although this strategy can occasionally pay off, as with the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi... the immobilization of major enemy leaders proved to be only temporary setbacks for a large-scale, decentralized terrorist movement.” Boot’s solution is that real progress in the current operating environment can be achieved only by placing greater emphasis upon the “...more difficult and far less glamorous tasks such as establishing security, furthering economic and political development, and spreading the right information to win over the populace.”59 And, as Boot – correctly I believe – points out, such tasks clearly fall under unconventional warfare.

In Canada, the obvious choice for a UW role would be Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM). However, there are a number of issues that would have to be resolved if this option were to be pursued. First, it would require CANSOFCOM to develop a distinctly new capability. And with limited resources, such changes would likely have to come at the expense of current capabilities – specifically by de-emphasizing DA units within the Command.

This transition might prove difficult, given the fact that, for the last 20 years, Canada’s primary SOF experience has been based upon DA units, such as JTF-2. In fact, the institutional culture within CANSOFCOM has derived from Canada’s counter-terrorist experience and its emphasis upon DA. Such a mindset is unlikely to change, especially when the American ‘War of Terror’ is placing such a heavy demand upon these types of missions, and, in the process, is validating the current thinking towards the existing force structure.60

Another issue that would have to be addressed when considering the development of a UW capability for ADO is the need to closely align SOF operations with the Army’s new doctrine. To achieve the necessary coordination, SOF would have to become an integral component of the land operations team, and this would require a major cultural shift for both the Army and CANSOFCOM. In the end, even if CANSOFCOM developed such a capability, it is unlikely that the Command would accept the type of integration this concept would need in order to be successful. For the aforementioned reasons, the Army should consider developing its own UW capability. In developing its own UW organization, the Army could better tailor the capability to meet the specific requirements of ADO, rather than trying to make employment compromises with other commands that might reduce ADO’s full potential.


There is no question that adaptive dispersed operations hold great potential, and, with some improvements, I believe it is clearly the way ahead for the Army. However, in its current form, the basic constructs of ADO are better suited for the demands of COIN than they are for conventional operations, and this one-dimensional construct is a limitation that should not be built into Canada’s future forces. Development of a UW capability that links the concept of compound warfare to ADO would go a long way in dealing with this issue. In the process, it would give the Army greater flexibility in responding to unforeseen threats that are lurking within the future security environment. This added flexibility is derived from the fact that UW is a modular capability suitable for use within ADO, or as an independent entity capable of carrying out other SOF operations that may be in the national interest. Historically, the potential of UW has never been fully exploited, even by the Americans who developed the initial concept. Perhaps it is time for the Canadian Army to show the world how it should be done. The move toward incorporating a UW capability within ADO and better integrating SOF into conventional operations at the tactical level is an idea whose time has come. All we have to do is go back to the future.

CMJ Logo


DND photo

Major Tony Balasevicius is an experienced infantry officer who is currently serving with the Department of Applied Military Science at the Royal Military College of Canada.


  1. Steven Metz. New Challenges and Old Concepts: Understanding 21st Century Insurgency, (US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Winter 2007-2008,), pp. 22-23.
  2. Department of National Defence. Land Operations 2021: Adaptive Dispersed Operations The Force Employment Concept for Canada’s Army of Tomorrow, (Kingston, ON: Directorate of Land Concepts and Design, 2007), p. 2.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., p. 16.
  6. Ibid., pp. 20-21.
  7. This is due to the fact that in order to hit the breadth and depth of the battlespace simultaneously, sequencing of the operation becomes more difficult.
  8. The argument will be that this is not correct, as it is based upon Cold War thinking. This is because simultaneous operations using an effects-based approach to operations constitute a concretion of effects. This is, of course, correct. However, there is no getting around the fact that the bigger the force and larger the area one attacks, the more resources one is going to need
  9. Ibid., p. 21. The document expects that such operations would occur in circumstances “...where the adversary can locally mass more combat power than the dispersed force.”
  10. For the purposes of this article, irregular forces are defined as militia, light infantry, and indigenous forces. Employment of light conventional forces could occur at the tactical level when indigenous forces are not available or have not been developed to the point where they are capable of carrying out operations. Conventional units are defined as medium or heavy units conducting manoeuvre warfare.
  11. Thomas M. Huber.(ed.), Compound Warfare That Fatal Knot, (Fort Leavenworth, KA: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 2002).
  12. Ibid.
  13. Huber does qualify this by stating: “Although the model of compound warfare offered here has been kept simple in hopes that it will serve as a convenient framework for analysis, readers should remember that enormous variety exists in the historical cases of compound warfare. As in most other realms of military thought, the theory is simple but the reality is complex. The CW model assumes that one side in a CW conflict uses CW methods and the other does not. In reality, both sides may use CW methods. In most historical cases of compound warfare, one side uses CW methods predominantly; the other side deliberately uses them to the extent it is able. The model assumes two kinds of force, regular or conventional force, and irregular or guerrilla force. Several types of mobile regional militias may fall between these two poles and may contribute importantly to the leverage of the CW operator. In other words, various intermediate types of force are possible between the regular and irregular models promulgated here for simplicity.” See Ibid., pp. 2-5.
  14. See Gérard Chaliand, Guerrilla Strategies An Historical Anthology from the Long March to Afghanistan, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982), pp. 1-32.
  15. Huber, p. 312. Huber makes it clear, “...[that] accordingly, an important feature of the analytical framework of compound war is that although it informs and illuminates, this volume makes no claim that it is a quantitative or predictive model – at least not in terms of the scientific experimental method. Despite its utility in defining a historically significant pattern of warfare, it does not function well as a rigid template. Rather, it must be understood as a flexible framework that comfortably incorporates innumerable additional variables such as geography, social forces, culture, intensity of motivation, and the role of personalities which shape both the course and outcomes of events.” Ibid., p. 308.
  16. Bernd Horn, Forging a Nation: Perspectives on the Canadian Military Experience, (St. Catharines, ON: Vanwell Publishing Limited, 2002), pp. 46-47.
  17. Michael D. Pearlman. The Wars of Colonial North America 1690-1763, in Huber, pp. 39-40.
  18. Quoted in Huber, p. 92. He does acknowledge: “...[that] Analysts calculate membership in Spanish guerrilla bands to have been about 50,000. Even if these are added to Wellington’s conventional force, the French still enjoyed a favorable force ratio of almost 2.2 to 1.” Also see David G. Chandler, “Wellington in the Peninsula,” pp. 155-65, in David G. Chandler, On the Napoleonic Wars (London: Greenhill, 1994), pp. 156-174, and David G. Chandler, “Wellington and the Guerrillas,” pp. 166-80, in Chandler, p. 172.
  19. It should be pointed out that, from a historical perspective, compound war has often been used by weaker forces to provide them with an advantage over larger and stronger armies. This is a fact that should be of interest to modern western forces that are reducing their overall numbers in an attempt to substitute technology for ‘boots on the ground.’
  20. Max Boot, senior fellow in national security studies with the Council of Foreign Relations, Statement to The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats, and Capabilities, 29 June 2006. He goes on to state: “...[that] there is widespread concern within Army SF circles that their ‘softer,’ but no less vital missions are being shortchanged by SOCOM in favor of ‘sexier,’ SWAT-style raids. One recently retired SF colonel wrote the following to the author: “The current problem with SOCOM is that it is unbalanced. Most of the leadership and planning staff have come from the DA [Direct Action] side. They have no understanding of UW [Unconventional Warfare]. To the degree that they are starting to develop an appreciation for it, it is only as an enabler for DA operations. In other words, they want to cherry pick techniques developed to wage unconventional war and use them to support conventional commando operations.”
  21. Ibid., 4-5.
  22. Department of Defense. Doctrine for Joint Special Operations Joint Publication 3-0517 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, December 2003), pp. 2-7.
  23. Roy Maclaren. Canadians Behind Enemy Lines: 1939-1945, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004), pp. 1-2. The SOE was established by the British War Cabinet on 22 July 1940, and, among other things, its mandate was: “...to co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas.” The mandate did not specifically state UW.
  24. Ibid., pp. 602-605.
  25. Denis Rigden. How To Be A Spy: The World War II SOE Training Manual, (Toronto: The Dundurn Group, 2004), pp. 1-3.
  26. Ibid., pp. 1-2.
  27. Patrick K. O’Donnell. Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of World War II’s OSS, (London: Free Press, 2004), p. xv.
  28. Ibid., p. xv.
  29. Ibid., p. 58.
  30. Ian Southerland, “The OSS Operations Groups: Origin of Army Special Forces,” in Special Warfare Magazine, Vol.15, No. 2, June 2002, p. 10.
  31. In fact, by the end of the war, the SOF’s ability to carry out long-range independent operations had become one of its defining characteristics. This was due in large part to their move away from the short-duration DA missions, which had been prevalent during the early stages of the war, to more highly specialized tasks, such as UW, that often required a long-term commitment in order to be successful. In the end, the excessive casualty-producing DA missions were left to highly trained conventional forces, but they remained a capability that all SOF units were expected to carry out, when and if necessary.
  32. History of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), at <http://www.soc.mil/SF/history.pdf>, accessed 10 January 2003, p. 1.
  33. Sam Young, “A Short History of SF assessment and Selection,” in Special Warfare Magazine, May 1996, p. 23.
  34. “A field radio repairman was added to the FA Team organization because of the problems the OSS operational teams had experienced with their communications equipment in the field.” “The next echelon in the OG organization functioned in a similar manner to that envisioned for the FB Team, Special Forces Operational Detachment District B.” Southerland, pp. 10-11.
  35. Robert M. Cassidy, “The Long Small War: Indigenous Forces for Counterinsurgency,” in Parameters, Summer 2006, pp. 55-56.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid., p. 56.
  38. Ibid., pp. 58-59
  39. Ibid., pp. 58-59.
  40. Ibid., pp. 59-60.
  41. John, T. Carney, Benjamin F. Schemmer, No Room for Error: The Covert Operations of America’s Special Tactics Units From Iran to Afghanistan, (San Francisco: Presidio Press Book, Random House Publishing Group. 2002), p. 13.
  42. Ibid., p. 13.
  43. US Army SOCOM Homepage. Fact Sheet: Special Forces “A” Team Organizational Structure, at <http://www.soc.mil/SF/SF_default.htm.> accessed 10 July 05. As was shown so effectively in Afghanistan, this organization provides the cadre that is more than capable of training and controlling guerrilla operations of about unit size. It is expected that during the course of UW operations, Special Reconnaissance and Direct Action missions would be carried out by both the SOF and guerrillas. However, the level of expertise will tend to vary. In the end, UW is the most versatile core mission a nation can develop.
  44. American Special Forces training is broken down into the following phases: Phase I – Special Forces Assessment and Selection, Phase II – Small Unit Tactics, Phase III – Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) Specific Training, Phase IV – Culmination Exercise (Robin Sage), Phase V. Language Training, and Phase VI – Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) see <http://www.soc.mil/SF/SF_default.htm>, accessed 10 July 2005.
  45. Tom Clancy and Carl Stiner, Shadow Warriors: Inside the Special Forces (New York; Penguin and Putnam, 2002), pp. 132-134.
  46. Ibid., pp. 132-133.
  47. Department of Defense. Special Forces Assessment and Selection: Overview of SFAS and “Q” Course at <http://www.goarmy.com/job/branch/sorc/sf/sfas.htm>, accessed 14 December 2003.
  48. Clancy, p. 133.
  49. Ibid., pp. 133-134. There is a good description of the training SF candidates undertake at <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/jfksws-training.htm>, accessed 1 January 2005.
  50. Special Forces Assessment and Selection, pp. 1-4.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid., Also see <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/jfksws-training.htm> accessed 1 January 2005.
  54. L. Marquis, Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces (Washington, DC: Bookings Institution Press), pp. 20-40.
  55. Shaw Kennedy, The Long-Range Desert Group (San Francisco: Presidio Press, 1989). pp. 18-19.
  56. Special Air Service, at <http://www.specwarnet.com/europe/sas.htm> accessed 02 February 2004.
  57. United States Special Operations Command. Capstone Concept for Special Operations (Washington, DC: United States: Department of Defense, 2006), p. 6.
  58. Steven Basilici and Jeremy Simmons, Transformation: A Bold Case for Unconventional Warfare, (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, June 2004), p. 75.
  59. Max Boot to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats, and Capabilities, 29 June 2006.
  60. The most likely argument will be that a large military, such as that of the US, can afford to have a variety of capabilities within its SOF capability package. However, smaller countries, such as Canada, cannot do so. Therefore, we must prioritize, based upon what will provide Canada ‘the greatest bang for the buck.’ I believe the answer is a UW unit. This is because, in addition to providing UW skills, it can also do DA and Special Reconnaissance (SR) missions that are carried out by an SAS type capability. In this regard, had CANSOFCOM gone with UW, rather then a CSOR capability, it could have used the best of the UW unit to fill the JTF, and, in the process, given all Canadian SOF a ‘green’ (pure) capability. This would have doubled the number of pure (green) SOF the command could have drawn upon, and, in the process, increased flexibility and enhanced capabilities significantly. DA missions can be done by the Army, and, when augmentation is necessary, this could have been provided by airborne-type troops. Such a solution would have kept things focused while providing the greatest versatility possible.

Canadian soldier training Afghans

DND photo IS2009-1014-09 by Sergeant Paz Quillé

A combat engineer from the 4 Engineer Support Regiment, Master Warrant Officer Andy Walsh, mentors an Afghan soldier, 4 June 2009.

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