In the US Army’s field manual on guerrilla warfare, entitled Special Forces Operations, the authors go further than the general principles of war to kindly describe the specific properties of successful asymmetric conflict. “Combat operations of guerilla forces”—and, I would add, resistance and asymmetric forces in general—“take on certain characteristics that must be understood.”2 Six key characteristics must be in place for resistance operations:
Planning. “Careful and detailed.… [p]lans provide for the attack of selected targets and subsequent operations designed to exploit the advantage gained.… Additionally, alternate targets are designated to allow subordinate units a degree of flexibility in taking advantage of sudden changes in the tactical situation.” In other words, it is important to employ maneuvering and flexible application of combat power. It’s important to emphasize that planning is not about coming up with a concrete or complex scheme. The point is to plan well enough that they have the flexibility to improvise. It might sound counterintuitive, but the goal is to create an adaptable plan that offers many possibilities for effective action that can be applied on the fly.
Intelligence. “The basis of planning is accurate and up-to-date intelligence. Prior to initiating combat operations, a detailed intelligence collection effort is made in the projected objective area. This effort supplements the regular flow of intelligence.” That’s strategic and operational intelligence. On a tactical level, “provisions are made for keeping the target or objective area under surveillance up to the time of attack.”
Decentralized Execution. “Guerrilla combat operations feature centralized planning and decentralized execution.” It is necessary to have a coherent plan, and in order for that plan to be a surprise, the details often have to be kept secret. A centralized plan allows separate cells to carry out their work independently but still accomplish something through coordination and building toward long-term objectives. Decentralized execution is needed to reach multiple targets for a group that lacks a command and control hierarchy.
Surprise. “Attacks are executed at unexpected times and places. Set patterns of action are avoided. Maximum advantage is gained by attacking enemy weaknesses.” When planning a militant action, resisters don’t announce when or where. The point is not to make a statement, but to make a decisive material impact on systems of power. This can again be enhanced by coordination between multiple cells. “Surprise may also be enhanced by the conduct of concurrent diversionary activities.”
Short Duration Action. “Usually, combat operations of guerrilla forces are marked by action of short duration against the target followed by a rapid withdrawal of the attacking force. Prolonged combat action from fixed positions is avoided.” Resistance groups don’t have the numbers or logistics for sustained or pitched battles. If they try to draw out an engagement in one place, those in power can mobilize overwhelming force against them. So underground resistance groups appear, accomplish their objectives swiftly, and then disappear again.
Multiple Attacks. “Another characteristic of guerrilla combat operations is the employment of multiple attacks over a wide area by small units tailored to the individual missions.” Again, coordination is required. “Such action tends to deceive the enemy as to the actual location of guerrilla bases, causes him to over-estimate guerrilla strength and forces him to disperse his rear area security and counter guerrilla efforts.” That is, when those in power don’t know where an attack will come, they must spend effort to defend every single potential target—whether that means guarding them, increasing insurance costs, or closing down vulnerable installations. And as forces become more dispersed in order to guard sprawling and vulnerable infrastructure, they become less concentrated and correspondingly make easier targets.
Other writers on resistance struggles have shared these understandings. Che Guevara outlined similar strategy and tactics in his book Guerilla Warfare (1961), which itself followed from Mao Tse-Tung’s 1937 book on the subject. Colin Gubbins, former head of the British Special Operations Executive, wrote two pamphlets on the subject for use in Occupied Europe (written not long after Mao’s book). These pamphlets—The Partisan Leader’s Handbook and The Art of Guerilla Warfare—were based in part on what the British learned from T. E. Lawrence, but also from their attempts to quash resistance warfare in Ireland, Palestine, and elsewhere. In The Partisan Leader’s Handbook, Gubbins touched on the elements of surprise (“the most important thing in everything you undertake”), mobility, secrecy, and careful planning. “The whole object of this type of warfare is to strike the enemy, and disappear completely leaving no trace; and then to strike somewhere else and vanish again. By these means the enemy will never know where the next blow is coming,” he wrote.
Gubbins also urged resisters to “never engage in any operation unless you think success is certain.” Small resistance units don’t have the numbers or morale to absorb unnecessary losses. Resistance groups should only engage the enemy at points and times where they can overwhelm. The first step to take before any action is to plan a safe line of retreat, and “break off the action as soon as it becomes too risky to continue.” A newly founded resistance group often lacks the experience and training to accurately gauge how risky a situation is, which is why Gubbins recommends erring on the side of caution. It is better to learn iteratively and build up from a number of small successes than to get caught attempting operations that are too large and apt to end in failure. The takeaway message: successful resistance movements choose their battles carefully.
Just as asymmetric strategies require specific characteristics for success, they also have definite limitations.3 Resistance forces typically have “limited capabilities for static defensive or holding operations.” They often want to hold territory, to stand and fight. But when they try, it usually gets them killed, unless they’ve spent years developing extensive social and military groundwork and have a large force and popular support. Another limitation is that, especially in the beginning, resistance forces lack “formal training, equipment, weapons, and supplies” that would allow them to undertake large-scale operations. This can be gradually remedied through ongoing recruitment and training, good logistics, and the security and caution required to limit losses through attrition; however, resistance forces are often dependent on local supporters and auxiliaries—and perhaps an outside sponsoring power—for their supplies and equipment. If they can’t find those supporters, they will probably lose.
Communications offer another set of limitations. Communications in underground groups are often difficult, limited, and slow. This also applies to organizational command; the more decentralized an organization is, the longer it takes to propagate decisions, orders, and other information. And because resistance groups have small numbers and finite resources, “the entire project is dependent upon precise, timely, and accurate intelligence.”