I think my favourite answer so far has come from
Surprisingly tough question, posed by a friend hard at work on her research proposal. I thought I’d crowd source an answer from learned readers here. But first, here’s what I suggested:
Conventional warfare isn’t just about capabilities employed – that is, industrially manufactured, technologically advanced equipment, deployed by recognisably military organisations. Rather it is a society’s way of fighting that encompasses the doctrinal thinking, the organisational structures, the rules of engagement, and even the appropriate goals of violence. What makes it ‘conventional’ is just that it adheres to the dominant conventions of the time.
Of course, all this changes through time as the societies and conventions involved in generating ‘conventional’ approaches to war evolve. Thus, the conventional forces of Napoleon look radically different from the ‘conventional’ forces of France today.
Such an evolution in conventional war might include changes in permissible conduct – For example – why were chemical weapons seen as conventional in the context of WW1, but not now? Why could you flatten Dresden in 1945, but not now?
They might also involve changes in force structure – Why use conscripts as part of a conventional military in Vietnam, but not now? What about the use of private contractors? Is outsourcing violence like that ‘conventional’, or does it profoundly change the relationship between the state/society and those who enact its violence?
And it might also involve changes in concepts, as for example on attritional force v manoeuvre, where the ‘conventional’ approach of British strategic thought (and American, from the early 1980s onwards, if not before) was to substitute manoeuvre and shock action for firepower.
The cynic in me says that conventional wars are those that militaries want to fight, and unconventional are those they do not want to fight.A rather astute observation I would say.
I've been getting involved in the debate over there and am currently trying to figure out where I think the idea of cyber war fits into the framework of conventional/unconventional warfare, and being challenged as to whether cyber war is even a real thing.
Well worth taking a look.