Irregular warfare is defined in US joint doctrine as “A violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.”
Irregular warfare favors indirect 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. Concepts associated with irregular warfare are older than the term itself.
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 to differentiate it from "unconventional warfare."
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 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 non "regular armed forces" as per the aforementioned Third Geneva Convention.
Nearly all modern wars include at least some element of irregular warfare. In fact, since the time of Napoleon, approximately 80% of conflict has been irregular in nature. However, some conflicts may be considered to have exemplified by irregular warfare are:
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).
^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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