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.


Historical: Vietnam

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.