The key to fighting and winning an insurgency is having the greater will. Resources and technology will get you only so far if you don’t have the will to use them. You need the will of your countrymen and the political leadership, and not only the will but also the trust of the military leadership. That will and trust is transferred to the junior leaders on the ground through decentralized operations. Cobus Claassens, a commander of Executive Outcomes’ airmobile Fire Force of light infantry in Sierra Leone, recalled South Africa’s war in Namibia:
“You would find that a platoon commander . . . would be given a piece of land half the size of England to patrol and dominate with his 30 men. And he had to figure out, after being given a block on a map and enough ammunition to sustain his men . . . how to do this. This is how I grew up.” Claassens argued that this same emphasis on decentralized decision-making was present in EO. For instance, he recalled that, “Our [senior] command element” encouraged “the guys on the ground,” meaning junior officers and senior enlisted men, to make tactical-level decisions on their own.
That kind of trust needs to be enforced from the top down. The reliance on technology, blue force tracking, and real-time or near-real-time communications has cultivated an institutional stagnation of innovative thinking and leadership. The leader on the ground knows that everything he does or fails to do is being observed by his entire rating chain, which discourages him from taking risks or coming up with creative and unorthodox solutions to problems he encounters.
The leadership needs to trust the guy on the ground to get the job done without looking over his shoulder. And the guys on the ground need to be able to trust their leadership to provide overhead cover so they can accomplish the mission, no matter the costs.
The following ideas are variations on operations that have proved successful in a wide range of military situations, against adversaries that run the gamut from conventional armies to insurgent and guerrilla fighters. Most of these were conducted by a few men outnumbered and surrounded and alone, deep behind enemy lines. Many times their only lifeline was a radio and overwhelming air power aimed like a laser by those at the tip of the spear, and sometimes their only advantage was their wits, training, and the balls to risk it all. As the British Special Air Services motto states: “Who Dares, Wins.” No matter what the mission or what the war, they were all conducted by men who were independent and unconventional thinkers, men who were willing and able to make the decision on the ground independent of higher command’s input. They were given a mission and then the latitude to accomplish it, however they saw fit, with the full trust of everyone above—and below—them.
During the late days of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was able to run supplies almost unimpeded up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The jungle had been deforested, but most of the camps along the border had been emptied and torn down as the United States was handing over the fight to the South Vietnamese Army (SVA). Occasionally, just to let the NVA and the VC (Viet Cong) know that it wasn’t over, MACV/SOG (Military Assistance Command Vietnam/Studies and Observation Group) would put together a couple of teams, load them down with mortars, heavy and light machine guns, and all the ammo they could carry on the choppers and fly in and land at one of the abandoned bases. These bases were on high ground overlooking the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and even though the bunkers had all been blown up, wire taken down, and trench lines filled in, they still provided a tactical advantage and enough supplies to build a hasty defense. As soon as they hit the ground, they worked like madmen to get the weapons operational and defense started, while the guy on the radio began calling in air strikes on the enemy down below.
The only way the NVA could get rid of the eyes on the hill was to assault up the hill. Every time they assaulted up, they were taking direct and indirect fire from the .50s, M60s, mortars, rifles, and grenades from the guys higher up as well as dodging bombs and gun runs of the air power that was stacked up and being called down on them. Eventually the NVA would be able the get close enough that the air power couldn’t be used, and the men would call in an emergency extraction, blow all their heavy weapons in place, and unleash everything that was overhead on the position they had just vacated.
Historical: Afghanistan, Helmand Province, Marjeh, Loy Choreh Bazaar, 2009
The Loy Choreh bazaar served as an opium collection and processing center, with well-supplied labs nearby able to refine raw opium into finished heroin, while doubling as an insurgency command and munitions storage center. According to military sources, Taliban insurgents ran a shadow government and weekly shuras (consultations) for the Marjeh area from the Loy Choreh bazaar, which was one of three narcotics bazaars in the Marjeh vicinity.
Afghan National Army commandos from the 205th Corps and U.S. Special Forces launched a surprise helicopter attack around 1 A.M. on May 19, when shops and buildings at the bazaar were closed for the night. (Like their historical Special Ops brethren, they went in extremely heavily armed, with four- and six-wheelers loaded down with ammo and guns.) The attack took insurgents and narco-traffickers by surprise. Afghan and U.S. forces occupied the market area and established a perimeter without resistance, but insurgents later counterattacked dozens of times over the four-day operation, calling in reinforcements from other parts of Helmand and Pakistan. Military sources say sixty-four insurgents died in the fighting, including several commanders and subcommanders. Insurgent resistance was still stiffening when U.S. Special Forces called in air strikes to destroy the narcotics and war matériel, which had been consolidated in a few buildings, on the last night of the operation before airlifting out. Shaping operations in weeks prior to the assault on Loy Choreh bazaar had destroyed three Russian-made ZPU anti-aircraft systems.
The total haul from Operation Siege Engine: 18,164 kilograms of opium, 200 kilograms of finished heroin, 90 kilograms of morphine, 1000 kilograms of hashish, and 72,727 kilograms of opium poppy seed. The DEA estimated that if all the finished heroin along with the opium and morphine found there were processed into heroin, the value would be over $5 million in Afghanistan; the wholesale value in the United States could exceed $80 million.
Afghan and U.S. forces also found large amounts of bomb-making and war materials in buildings near the narcotics caches: 27,000 kilograms of ammonium nitrate, 700 gallons of diesel fuel, five 40-liter drums of preprimed homemade explosives, 6 pressure-plate triggers, 3 IED battery systems, 1,000 commercial electrical blasting caps, 2,000 feet of detonating cord, and 44 blocks of Iranian-made C-4 explosive.
Option 1: U.S. Special Forces, after proper intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB), identify the location in Northern Iraq, Syria, or somewhere along the border that has some form of significance to ISIS. The significance could be tactical or strategic value, or it could have historical or religious importance, or it could just be a location with large insurgent population—anything that would make them want to stay and attack a force that dared to land in their backyard. Whatever this location, is it has to be defendable relatively quickly. Whether it’s a hilltop overlooking lines of communications (LOCs) or within an insurgent-held city, the assault force needs to be able to land multiple helicopters quickly and move to a position identified to strongpoint without delay.
As with the two historical examples, the assault force would move in extremely heavily, armed with multiple heavy and light machine guns, mortars, and a lot of ammo. The assault force would have to be ready to repel an attack and would continue to improve its fortifications and, if able, enlarge its area of influence.
The assault force would need to have continuous overhead close air support, and multiple intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to give them every advantage against an enemy force that vastly outnumbers it. The command and political leadership would have to be willing to level every building in the vicinity of the assault force that could provide cover or concealment to an enemy buildup prior to attack. The assault force could go in with three to four days’ worth of water and ammunition with on-call resupply being provided by either helicopter or parachute.
The exfil would be coordinated with a massive aerial bombardment to cover and mask the assault force disengaging and the helicopters approaching to pick them up. The duration of the mission would be flexible: long enough to disrupt enemy operations in the entire area, kill as many enemy fighters as possible, destroy enemy supplies, and send a message to the ISIS supporters and leadership that we operate anywhere we want and stay for as long as we want and there isn’t anything they can do about it.
Multiple combat camera (COMCAM) and civilian reporters could be embedded with the assault force to push the Information Operation message through news reports and via a coordinated social media campaign: 24/7 coverage, live-feed cameras, Twitter and Facebook updates, along with interviews and news reports about the attack. Cover identities could be created for “members” of the assault force with a full history and Facebook and Twitter accounts. The attack would be blasted across the airwaves not only in the United States but also into ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Northern Iraq. It would allow us to finally get our message out and would mitigate some of ISIS’s propaganda, and it would show the world that ISIS isn’t as tough as it would like everyone to believe.
There would need to be a substantial support package for an operation like this, as well as a large Quick Reaction Force (QRF) with air assets available to act either as reinforcements or a second assault force to support the main element wherever it would be most effective.
Option 2: This involves higher risk but also a higher gain. After conducting IPB, identify the place that would cause the greatest disruption to the freedom of movement of ISIS, whether in Syria or Iraq. (It needs to be in a location where the force was not in immediate danger of an attack with overwhelming numbers.) Fly in with a massive ground force and an engineering element. Air-drop heavy equipment and supplies to build a fortified base with enough engineers or Seabees to run 24/7 construction operations to build a firebase complete with artillery and a Ranger company to provide base security and local patrols, and allow multiple Special Operations Forces (SOF) elements to run long-range interdiction and disruption operations. The base would be supported by close air support and ISR, and resupplied by either airdrop or helicopter sling load operations, depending on the enemy situation. The SOF element would fly in with Ground Mobility Vehicles to conduct far-ranging movement to contact operations. Their mission is to locate, identify, and destroy the enemy.
There is always the danger of this type of mission being compared to Dien Bien Phu or Stalingrad, which is why this operation is considered high risk. The ability to permanently disrupt the enemy would force it to react to us, instead of us always reacting to it, and would have the potential to cause ISIS significant problems depending on the value of the terrain that is being held.
Historical: Long Range Desert Group, World War II, North Africa
The LRDG was formed to conduct long-range vehicle patrols throughout the deserts of North Africa. Its mission was to carry out deep penetration, deploy covert reconnaissance patrols, gather intelligence, act as guides or pathfinders for covert agents or other units, and employ direct action (DA). While reconnaissance and intelligence gathering were their primary missions, they also conducted hit-and-run ambushes, raids, and harassment of the enemy.
Historical: Special Air Service, World War II, North Africa
The purpose of the SAS was to mount raids behind enemy lines. In the beginning, it attempted to infiltrate by parachute, but that usually ended badly. Until the SAS got its famous jeeps, it would be infiltrated by the LRDG, and even afterward the jeeps often were guided by the LRDG. Whereas the LRDG’s primary mission was reconnaissance and intel gathering, the SAS’s responsibility was strictly DA—cause as much commotion and create as much havoc and destruction as their twisted imaginations could come up with.
During one of the most successful missions, after driving for days through the desert, the SAS attacked the German airfield at Fuka. Colonel David Stirling (founder of the SAS) led the attack. His plan: “Right lads, we haven’t got much time. At the edge of the aerodrome form a line abreast and all guns spray the area. When I advance follow me in your two columns and on my green Very light open fire, outwards at the aircraft—follow exactly in each other’s tracks, 5 yards apart—speed not more than 4 mph. Return to the RV independently moving only by night.” They ended up burning thirty aircraft and damaging more. They lost one jeep and one KIA, before they disappeared into the desert.
HISTORICAL: 3/3 SFG(A) Battle of Debecka Pass, Iraq, 2003
Long story short: A mounted Special Forces Group with peshmerga fighters rained death and destruction down on an Iraqi division and enabled coalition forces to capture Kirkuk and the oil fields. They were mounted in fully loaded Ground Mobility Vehicles (GMVs):
GMVs were virtual war wagons, with mounts for a .50-caliber machine gun or 40 mm automatic grenade launcher, along with 7.62mm medium and 5.56mm light machine guns. In addition to the mounted weapons, each 3rd SFG GMV carried two AT-4 anti-tank rockets, a sniper rifle, either a Javelin anti-tank or Stinger surface-to-air missile launcher, 80 pounds of demolition materials, and personal weapons (M4 5.56mm carbines and M9 9mm pistols) for each SF soldier. Add to this water, food, ammunition, personal gear, radios, computers, digital cameras, GPS receivers, and fuel for 800 miles of road driving, and each GMV tipped the scales at around 12,200 pounds.
These were supported by the Ground Resupply Vehicles (GRVs), affectionately known as “War Pigs”:
5-ton medium trucks with cut-down cabs, mounts for medium machine guns, and radios and satellite communications gear. In back were racks and stowage for enough fuel, ammunition, and other supplies to let a GMV-mounted ODA [Special Forces Operational Detachment A Team] stay out an additional 10 days. The idea was for the “War Pigs” to deliver the required supplies to a field resupply point so that the GMV-mounted ODAs would not have to leave their observation stations. 3/3rd SFG’s GRVs had some extra features, including a winch for handling 55-gallon fuel drums, a trailer hitch for towing, and one extra touch, a 60mm mortar.
With a mission like the SAS’s in World War II, but armed and supported like 3/3 SFG(A) during the invasion of Iraq, Special Forces companies would be given an area of operations (AO) that was completely owned by them. No one could enter or conduct operations anywhere in there without the approval of the company commander. They would be given the AO and the mission—go and kill maim and destroy. The company and detachment commanders would have the latitude to use whatever method or combination of methods they decided were most effective. With the detachments given their specific areas within the AO and managed (notice we didn’t say controlled) by the company commander, the ODAs would have free rein to close with and kill the enemy however they saw fit. The higher commands’ main function would be to coordinate and direct whatever support was needed to whoever requested it. The company commander and the ODB (B Team) would be mobile, just like the ODAs, and able to resupply them in the field, so they could stay out longer.
These operations by their nature are dangerous. They would be conducted not along the front line but deep in ISIS-controlled territory in Northern Iraq and even into Syria. Although dangerous, the amount of firepower available to an ODA mounted in GMVs offers the distinct advantage of being able to unleash an ungodly amount death and destruction backed up by close air support.
Along with enabling the ODA commanders’ complete freedom in how they conduct missions in their space, they would be given the choice of armored or nonarmored GMVs. Whatever that ODA decides, it does so willing to accept the risks because the rewards are seen as greater. Leadership has to accept that decision and fully support it, whatever it turns out to be.
Like the strongpoint operation, each element would have a COMCAM, and their own cover identities to social media, as described above.
Air Mobile Assault Force
Historical: MIKE Force, Vietnam
Mobile Strike Forces were indigenous troops (composed primarily of persecuted minorities) and led by Special Forces soldiers. Their mission was to act as a country-wide QRF to secure, reinforce, and recapture A Camps. They were also used for search-and-rescue and search-and-destroy missions.
Historical: Hatchet Force, MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—Studies and Observations Group)
Hatchet Forces were platoon-size elements consisting of five Special Forces and about thirty indigenous troops, primarily Nung or Montagnards. They acted as QRFs for recon teams (RTs) that got in trouble, acted as strike forces using intel the RTs uncovered, or conducted ambushes in their AO. When two or more Hatchet Forces combined, they were called Havoc or Hornet Force, and a full SOG company was called a SLAM company (search, location, annihilation, monitor or mission).
Call them SLAM companies. They would be similar to Task Force Raptor and Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) during the Iraq War. Each company would consist of one ODA from a SF DA company and a vetted and trusted company of either peshmerga soldiers or ISOF counterterrorists. They would be used to conduct air mobile time-sensitive targets or raids. They would not focus on high-value targets or be used for capturing enemy soldiers. Their mission would be to conduct raids for the purpose of killing large groups of insurgent fighters, or destroying resources used by them. They could be used as a blocking force for the hunter-killer teams and ambush enemy forces that are attempting to maneuver around or run away.
Their ability to maneuver around the battle space utilizing air assets would enable them to follow Sun Tzu’s advice “to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”