Friday, September 13, 2013


Since my service in Vietnam, I’ve been very interested in insurrection, guerilla war, “asymmetrical war,” and the whole paradigm of a war on terror.  Some months ago, I wrote an essay on this blog called, “Rebellion and Folly.”  This is something of a followup to that essay.

It is a truism that any guerilla action must have the support of at least a large percentage of the population.  But such action requires other things, too. 

1:         It requires what von Clausewitz called, “the economy of force,” or the principle of bringing one’s greatest strength against the enemy’s greatest weakness, which is probably a good working definition of “asymmetrical war.” 

2:         It requires that the guerilla force (May I abbreviate “GF?”) be decentralized, or scattered, so that the enemy can’t use economy of force on it. 

3:         It requires, as a corollary to decentralization, a means of communication, so the GF can alert troops to travel to a point of concentration.

4:         As a corollary to both the previous points, it requires that the GF have a means of transportation that is stealthy enough to avoid detection and interdiction, but able to move enough people far enough and fast enough to get there before the battle is over. 

5:         Finally, it requires that the GF take charge of the operational tempo; the smaller force must be able to pick the time, the ground, and the objective.

That last one is really the object of all the others.  If the GF allows the enemy to pick the time, the ground, and the objective of any action, it surrenders, by definition, its ability to use economy of force.  The GF then finds itself in the position of being where a larger, generally better armed enemy expects it to be.  When this happens, the asymmetry goes over to the enemy’s side, and the GF gets clobbered.

Only by being able to communicate with scattered forces and bring them to the fight can the GF actually take control of the operational tempo.  These should not be viewed as unrelated abstractions, but as spokes of a wheel, or sides of a box.  Each of these points is worthy of a book, and I don’t have time to do that.  What I’d like to do here is analyze potential actions by an enemy, and explore how a GF might counter such tactics.

SCENARIO:  A politically active, extremely vocal, and effective leader of the GF is targeted for removal.  The conflict has not escalated to the point where he might simply be shot, and the authorities have not gained sufficient control over the population to allow them any egregiously offensive action.  They know that the GF is very dangerous, and they understand points one through five.  They have the advantages of open movement, surveillance equipment, and communication. 

They watch the leader until they have documented his patterns:  where he lives, where he works, where he shops, and the routes and times he travels between these points.  Pertinent information on his friends and family is also gathered.  When the authorities are ready, they move.  Because of their resources, they put a half-dozen armed “police” in a nondescript van or SUV.  It is parked at the curb on a lightly-travelled residential street the leader uses to get home – and the nearer his home, the better.  Another vehicle is marked to resemble a city or county police vehicle, and positioned to swing in behind the leader a block before he turns onto the residential street.  (The bad guys’ following the good guys for blocks is baloney.  They may be crazy, but they are seldom stupid.)

As the leader turns that last corner, the trailing vehicle turns on his flashing lights and siren.  The leader pulls to the curb, kills his engine, and gets out his registration.  An officer from the trailing vehicle approaches and engages him verbally. As armed men suddenly spill out of the van, the officer at the car door draws his weapon and covers the leader at very close range.  In a matter of seconds, the leader is out of his car, handcuffed, and put in one of the other vehicles.  A search of his car is guaranteed to find some contraband, which is used as an excuse to search his house.  Within two minutes of the leader stopping his car, the “police” are kicking their way into his house.  His family is handcuffed and intimidated.  Any firearms in the house are seized, along with his computers, correspondence, personal papers, two-way radios, and address books.

Within 30 minutes or less, the leader is on his way to jail and much of his property is in the possession of the authorities.  They will hold him for weeks, then release him on what amounts to house arrest or parole, in which he is denied freedom of movement and every interaction with other people is documented and investigated.  His property is never returned, or if it is, his computers are erased and his firearms rendered unusable.  He is never charged, so there will never be a trial to determine guilt or find the authorities in violation of any law.

Next week, the same thing happens in another city, and in another the week after that. One leader may be pulled out of line at a DWI checkpoint.  Another may walk into his house and find his wife and children with guns to their heads.  Word of these arrests will not get out.  There may be whispers or rumors, but they will be dismissed and discredited by the propaganda organs that are all controlled by the authorities

So.  Because of the speed at which these operations occurred, there was no chance for any GF units to communicate, much less to concentrate.  The seizure of families gave the authorities effective shields against any but the most ambitious sniper, but that sniper would never be on the scene, anyway. The asymmetry of force is 100% with the authorities.  By the time the GF concentrated enough force to do anything, they were in the position of storming a police station or whatever government fortress to which the leaders had been taken.  It may be days before they are even aware of the events.

In many cases, the members of a GF will be honest, law abiding citizens, possessing no desire to just shoot agents of the authorities.  Many will be held back by moral considerations and a loathing to kill except in self-defense.  Others will be held back by an entirely justified fear of being attacked by overwhelming force.  Some will be waiting for someone else to start the shooting war.  At some point, the GF will have lost so many leaders and organizers that it will be crippled.

The question, then, is this:  how can a GF prevent this sort of slow erosion of its cadre? I can think of two ways:  (1) travel in groups large enough to offer resistance sufficiently substantial to give the authorities pause, which would destroy the GF’s anonymity and leave control of the tempo to the authorities.  (2) Use tactics to lure enemy squads into ambushes that could be assembled, sprung, and dispersed very quickly. 

The former would mean utter defeat for the GF, and very quickly.  The latter would be impossible without communication and transportation, both of which would be very dangerous if the authorities have an overwhelming superiority in monitoring over-the-air communication, and the means of pouncing on vehicles moving on streets or highways.  This will lead to a rapid escalation in hostile action, and the GF that embarks on this course had better be ready to “go big or stay home.”

13 Sept., 2013

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