Irregular military

Irregular military

Irregular military refers to any non-standard military. Being defined by exclusion, there is a lot of variance in what comes under the term. It can refer to the type of military organization, or to the type of tactics used.

An irregular military organization is a military organization which is not part of the regular army organization of a party to a military conflict. Without standard military unit organization, various more general names are used; such organizations may also be called a "troop", "group", "unit", "column", "band", or "force".

Irregulars are soldiers or warriors that are members of these organizations, or are members of special military units that employ irregular military tactics. This also applies to irregular troops, irregular infantry and irregular cavalry.

Irregular warfare is warfare employing the tactics commonly used by irregular military organizations. This involves avoiding large-scale combats, and focusing on small, stealthy, hit and run engagements.

Other names for irregular military formations

The term "irregular military" describes the "how" and "what", but it is more common to focus on the "why". Bypassing the legitimate military and taking up arms is an extreme measure. The motivation for doing so is often used as the basis of the primary label for any irregular military. Different terms come in and out of fashion, based on political and emotional associations that develop. Here is a list of such terms, organized more-or-less oldest to latest.

* False flag or pseudo-operations where troops of one side dress like another to eliminate or discredit them and their support, such as the Selous Scouts of the Rhodesian bush war
* Freedom fighter — irregular military motivated by higher goals — very subjective
* Franc-tireur — French irregular forces during the Franco-Prussian War. But is also used in international legal cases as a synonym for unprivileged combatant, (see for example the Hostages Trial (1947—1948).
* Guerrilla — someone who uses unconventional military tactics, tends to refer to groups engaged in open conflict rather than underground organizations. Term coined during the Peninsula War in Spain against France.
* Insurgent — an alternate term for a member of an irregular military. Tends to refer to members of underground groups such as the Iraqi Insurgency rather than larger rebel organizations such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
* Partisan — In the 20th century, someone part of a resistance movement. In the 18th and 19th century, a local conventional military force using irregular tactics. Often used to refer to resistance movements against the Axis Powers during the Second World War.
* Paramilitary — non-regular Armed Force with a claim to official status
* Revolutionary — someone part of a revolution, whether military or not
* Terrorist — irregular military who target civilians in order to gain political leverage; this term is almost always used pejoratively, and is, like the term freedom fighter, very subjective.
* More recently, private military companies, in particular the armed private security Forces that some operate could be considered an example of Irregular Military formations. In conflict zones such as Iraq such forces, whose members tend to be referred to as "Security Contractors", are often heavily armed and engage in supporting activities for the regular Military forces such as supply convoy escort and force protection. These forces are sometimes referred to as Mercenaries.

Intense debates can build up over which of these terms to use when referring to a specific group. Using one term over another can imply either strong support or opposition for the cause being fought over.

It is possible for a military to cross the line between regular and irregular. Isolated regular army units forced to operate without regular support for long periods of time can degrade into irregulars. As an irregular military becomes more successful, they may transition away from irregular, even to the point of becoming the new regular army if they win.

Regular military units which use irregular military tactics

Although they are part of a regular army, Special forces are trained in and implement irregular military tactics. See List of special forces units.


While the morale, training and equipment of the individual irregular soldier can vary from very poor to excellent, irregulars are usually lacking the higher-level organizational training and equipment that is part of regular army. This usually makes irregulars ineffective in direct, main-line combat, the typical focus of more standard armed forces. Other things being equal, major battles between regulars and irregulars heavily favor the regulars. However, irregulars can excel at many other combat duties besides main-line combat, such as scouting, skirmishing, harassing, pursuing, rear-guard actions, cutting supply, sabotage, raids, ambushes and underground resistance. Experienced irregulars often surpass the regular army in these functions. By avoiding formal battles, irregulars have sometimes harassed high quality armies to destruction.

The total effect of irregulars is often underestimated. Since the military actions of irregulars are often small and unofficial, they are underreported or even overlooked. Even when engaged by regular armies, some military histories exclude all irregulars when counting friendly troops, but include irregulars in the count of enemy troops, making the odds seem much worse than they were. This may be accidental; counts of friendly troops often came from official regular army rolls that exclude unofficial forces, while enemy strength often came from visual estimates, where the distinction between regular and irregular were lost. If irregular forces overwhelm regulars, records of the defeat are often lost in the resulting chaos.

Use of large irregular forces featured heavily in wars such as the American Revolution, the Irish War of Independence, the Franco-Prussian War, the Russian Civil War, the Second Boer War, Vietnam War, and especially the Eastern Front of World War II where hundreds of thousands of partisans fought on both sides.

The ongoing conflicts of post-invasion Iraq, the renewed Taliban insurgency in the 2001 war in Afghanistan, the Darfur conflict, the rebellion in the North of Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army, and the Second Chechen War are fought almost entirely by irregular forces on one or both sides.

Historical reliance on irregulars

By definition, "irregular" is understood in contrast to "regular armies," which grew slowly from personal bodyguards or elite militia. In Ancient warfare, most civilized nations relied heavily on irregulars to augment their small regular army. Even in advanced civilizations, the irregulars commonly outnumbered the regular army. Sometimes entire tribal armies of irregulars were brought in from internal native or neighboring cultures, especially ones that still had an active hunting tradition to provide the basic training of irregulars. The regulars would only provide the core military in the major battles; irregulars would provide all other combat duties. Notable examples of regulars relying on irregulars include Bashi-bozouk units in the Ottoman Empire, auxiliary legions of Germanic tribes in the Roman Empire, Cossack regiments in Imperial Russia, and Native American forces in the far west of the Confederate States of America.

One could attribute the disastrous defeat of the Romans at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest to the lack of supporting irregular forces; only a few squadrons of irregular light cavalry accompanied the invasion of Germany when normally the number of "foederati" legions would equal the regular legions; however, since irregulars won that battle, there are few surviving details. During the decline of the Roman Empire, irregulars made up an ever increasing proportion of the Roman military. At the end, there was little difference between the Roman military and the barbarians across the borders. Throughout history, most civilizations eventually fell to "barbarians", that is, irregular military forces, with minimal historical details.Fact|date=February 2007*

Following Napoleon's modernisation of warfare with the invention of conscription, the Peninsular War led by Spaniards against the French invaders in 1808 provided the first modern example of guerrilla warfare. Indeed, the term of "guerrilla" itself was coined during this time.

As the spread of industrialism dried up the traditional source of irregulars, nations were forced take over the duties of the irregulars using specially trained regular army units. Examples are the light infantry in the British Army. By the modern age, all regular military are trained to also perform the actions previously left to irregulars.

ee also

* Asymmetric warfare — Military theory that also includes regulars vs. irregulars
* Bashi-bazouk — Irregular mounted mercenary in the Ottoman Empire
* Camisards Huguenot insurgency in the beginning of the 17th century in the Cevennes mountains
* Commando
* Filibuster (military)
* Fifth column
* Guerrilla warfare
* Legion of Frontiersmen An irregular quasi-military organization that proliferated throughout the British Empire prior to World War I
* List of guerrillas
* Manhunt (military)
* Militia
* Mercenary
* Minutemen — American irregular troops during the American Revolution
* Partisan (military)
* Pindari — 18th century irregular horsemen in India
* Private Military Contractors
* Prussian "Landsturm", created by a 21 April 1813 edict of the King of Prussia
* Resistance movement
* Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War
* Unconventional warfare
* Viet Cong


* Flavius Vegetius Renatus, [ "Epitoma rei militaris"]
* Dr. Thomas M. Huber, [ "Compound Warfare: An Anthology"]
* Clifford J. Rogers, [ Military Technical Revolution debate among historians]
* John M. Gates, [ "US Army & Irregular Warfare"]
* Harold P. Ford, [ "CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes 1962-1968"]
* Robert R. Mackey, "The UnCivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865," University of Oklahoma Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8061-3624-3

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