In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Low-Intensity Operations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Guerilla Warfare
  • Counterinsurgency
  • Air Power
  • Peace Operations
  • Counternarcotics
  • Twentieth Century
  • Twenty-First Century
  • United States
  • Britain
  • US Civil War
  • US Reconstruction
  • Boer Wars
  • The Philippine Insurrection
  • World War II
  • The Malayan Emergency
  • Mau Mau Rebellion
  • The Vietnam War
  • Central America
  • Peru
  • Colombia
  • Africa
  • Soviet-Afghan War
  • Chechnya
  • East Timor
  • Yugoslavia
  • Afghanistan War
  • Iraq War

Military History Low-Intensity Operations
Mark Moyar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0090


Low-intensity operations are defined as any military operations other than those in a conventional, high-intensity war. For an organized government, they may include counterinsurgency, counterguerrilla warfare, counterterrorism, unconventional warfare, intelligence, peacekeeping, peace enforcement, security force assistance, nation-building, civil affairs, and information operations. For nonstate actors, they include insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism. Although high-intensity military operations tend to attract more attention from historians, low-intensity operations came first. They started with groups of cavemen carrying sticks and stones into combat against other cavemen, and have taken place continuously at some point on the globe ever since. The practice of low-intensity operations has become more sophisticated as experience has been gained and disseminated, and as new technologies have enabled the transmission of information and the infliction of damage on scales unimaginable in earlier times.

General Overviews

A true overview of “low-intensity operations” has not been written, but a number of books have come close, focusing on related umbrella categories such as irregular warfare—which includes all types of low-intensity operations in a state of war—and guerrilla warfare. Ellis 1995 covers irregular warfare since ancient times, whereas O’Neil 2005 and Shultz 2006 deal with conflicts in the modern era. In terms of low-intensity operations, the biggest areas of omission in these works are peace operations and security force assistance.

  • Ellis, John. From the Barrel of a Gun: A History of Guerrilla, Revolutionary, and Counter-Insurgency Warfare, From the Romans to the Present. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1995.

    This book is a much-revised version of a 1975 book, which began with the ancient world but was largely focused on the 19th and 20th centuries. In this volume, the author tones down his praise for the Maoist model and reduces the importance attached to political and guerrilla warfare in Vietnam.

  • O’Neill, Bard E. Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse. 2d ed. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005.

    Each chapter covers a major feature of low-intensity conflict, drawing examples from a wide range of cases, most of them in the 20th century. The author’s primary purpose is to describe low-intensity conflict, rather than to argue in favor of particular approaches.

  • Shultz, Richard, and Andrea J. Dew. Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

    The authors address a range of nonstate combatants in Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.