As the United States turns its attention from the post-9/11 wars that have occupied its military for two decades and the focus of the US government continues to shift toward Great Power Competition, the US Army Special Forces have seemingly found a new mission set—building and enabling resistance networks in small countries. Special Forces operators are embracing the mission for obvious reasons: it means a return to their traditional, unconventional warfare roots. The top leadership of the Army also seems to support the idea. During a June 29 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on the Army`s fiscal year 2022 budget request, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth testified that “I think you’ll see us . . . putting an emphasis on unconventional warfare.” She continued, arguing in favor of small US partner nations developing “resistance capabilities,” explaining that Army Special Forces’ “expertise” and “deep knowledge base” can enable such capabilities.
The foundations of this mission set have already been codified in the Resistance Operating Concept (hereafter, ROC), a handbook that provides planning guidance for the United States and partner nations that ensures “each side speaks the same [operational] language, and they can go ahead and plan together for resistance.” While the ROC focuses on the European theater it has also gained a lot of attention from the Indo-Pacific theater since it is seen by many as a potential panacea not only against Russian aggression but also to rising Chinese influence. While the fundamental principles and characteristics of resistance prescribed in the ROC are indeed timeless its flawed assumptions regarding future Russian (and Chinese) actions, ignorance of useful contemporary examples, and insufficient consideration of modern-day capabilities and limitations seriously limit its long-term usefulness. If US Army Special Forces do indeed intend to focus on building and enabling small countries’ resistance capabilities in multiple theaters, then its guiding manual must be updated to better reflect current and future requirements.
The initial version of the ROC was born out of the cooperative efforts of the US Special Operations Command Europe, the NATO Special Operations Headquarters, the Baltic and Scandinavian states, and several educational and research institutes. The document was developed based on the results of several field and tabletop exercises, seminars, and related publications that explored options for defending the Baltic states from potential Russian aggression. Its stated purpose is to “encourage governments to foster pre-crisis resiliency through Total Defense . . . a ‘whole-of-government’ and ‘whole-of-society’ approach, which includes interoperability among its forces and those of its allies and partners.” More specifically, “The ROC seeks to identify resistance principles, requirements, and potential challenges that may inform doctrine, plans, capabilities, and force development.”
The ROC must be given credit for correctly identifying several critical considerations. First, small countries do not stand a chance against potential Russian or Chinese military aggression if they try to fight them conventionally. Second, resistance is indeed the only logical defense approach that small countries can implement to deter and potentially defeat occupation. Third, resistance movements have a higher chance of success when they are selected, organized, trained, and equipped before the conflict rather than during an occupation. And fourth, US Army Special Forces should be involved in building and enabling small countries’ resistance capabilities and its unconventional warfare roots serve as a strong starting point for such mission. However, beyond these four points, the other principles and characteristics described in the ROC are limited in their usefulness and need rigorous revision before being implemented to avoid grave outcomes.
First, the ROC uses cases from World War II (French, Polish, Philippine, and Baltic resistance) and the Cold War (NATO, Italian, and Norwegian stay-behind groups, and Switzerland`s total defense model) to identify principles of future resistance. While it is indeed important to learn the appropriate lessons from history to best predict the future, one must carefully select the cases for analysis to avoid flawed lessons and interpretations. If one wants to predict the essence of future successful resistance, then contemporary examples must be studied in detail. Technology, weapons, doctrine and more all change over time—the character of warfare itself changes. This doesn’t entirely negate the value of historical case studies, but it limits their applicability to a much greater extent than it does recent ones. Developing a resistance concept today should involve assessments of the Chechen resistance against Russia, Hezbollah`s defense against Israel, the Iraqi and Taliban insurgencies, the Syrian insurgency, and other similar recent cases. To become successful in resistance small countries must understand how contemporary insurgents have resisted the most advanced conventional militaries.
Second, the ROC describes resistance as a supporting activity to the operations of conventional military forces, conducted by partially trained volunteer civilians. This is a mistake. If a country really wants to wage successful resistance it must place it in the center of its national defense approach. To have a chance for success against technologically and numerically superior militaries small countries should maintain their civilian resistance networks as force multipliers, but should also completely dismantle their existing conventional forces and create a new military framework, a professional resistance force that is specifically designed for resistance operations. The ways small countries select, organize, train, and equip their resistance forces and the tactics, techniques, and procedures these forces use should more closely resemble those of current terrorist, insurgent, and organized crime groups than of romanticized resistance organizations.
Third, the case studies that form the basis of the ROC give an obsolete and misleading understanding of the operational environment. While leveraging the nostalgia of rural resistance might make it more acceptable for Western societies, future resistance operations will have their best chance for success in densely populated urban environments. Given the recent development in the capabilities of weapon systems and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies, modern resistances forces should seek an operational environment where these advanced capabilities can be degraded or made irrelevant, either naturally or artificially. Preconflict infrastructural preparation of urban areas is critical for the success of resistance forces. Small countries under threat of occupation are in a unique situation where they can build their future operational environments. In urban areas, that means turning their cities into modern-day fortresses, both physically and digitally. Examples of such developments might include building structures that force the occupying forces to take specific routes, pre-positioning weapons caches, building camouflaged firing positions, having plans ready to mine key terrain and buildings, building dummy positions to mislead occupying force intelligence, predeploying concealed intelligence and surveillance technology, and setting up multiple modes of communications.
Fourth, the ROC does not recognize the need for purpose-built equipment and weapons to effectively conduct resistance operations. Instead of traditional individual soldier gear and weapons, modern resistance fighters will need equipment that allows them to effectively hide in plain sight while providing maximum protection from the effects of the enemy`s weapons. Resistance equipment must enable fighters to move quickly while delivering lethal effects. Weapons and equipment should be roughed and easily producible domestically. Resistance forces must utilize cutting-edge technologies such as unmanned and remote-controlled platforms, weaponize commercially available robots, and develop high-tech, easily concealable explosive devices. Weapons and equipment must be designed to deliver maximum effects within urban environments while mitigating the effects of the weapons and systems of the occupying force.
Finally, the ROC mostly considers resistance as an activity conducted within the sovereign territory of the occupied country. However, if a small country wants to utilize resistance to its fullest potential, then activities conducted on the soil of the occupier and in third countries must also be considered. Modern resistance concepts should also include a plan, ready to execute, to leverage ties with sympathizers in the territory of an aggressor country—or even to infiltrate trained members of the resistance into the aggressor country’s territory. Doing so would provide valuable support to resistance by inflicting damage to the aggressor within its own territory to make the occupation more costly. Additionally, in the digital age resistance approaches must utilize cyber activities. The best way to do so is not only developing defensive and offensive cyber capabilities at home, but also predeploying such capabilities to third countries (allied, partner, or neutral) and launching cyber operations from these locations in support of ongoing resistance activities.
A new, updated version of the ROC that explores these topics would have several major implications for US Army Special Forces and would also affect the entire US defense establishment. First, US professional military education and training programs must develop new curriculum at every level to ensure that future military leaders fully understand the characteristics and principles of modern resistance. Second, US doctrinal publications must include appropriate tactics, techniques, and procedures enabling US forces to best fight alongside these twenty-first-century resistance warriors. Unconventional warfare doctrine is a good start, but it is far from enough, because it does not reflect the realities of modern, technology-enabled, professional, urban resistance forces and their operations. Third, training infrastructure and exercise scenarios must be designed to enable US forces to practice activities in large urban areas and to conduct experiments about how to synchronize the effects of conventional military capabilities with resistance-specific equipment and weapons. Fourth, the defense industry must understand that modern resistance requires purpose-built equipment and weapons both for those who are executing it and those who are enabling it. As outlined earlier a completely new subset of individual and collective equipment must be developed and fielded to enable resistance fighters and the US Army Special Forces operators who would work and fight with them. Fifth, US foreign security assistance programs must incentivize and reward countries that are developing innovative and unique resistance solutions (including organizations, tactics, techniques, procedures, equipment, and weapons) instead of trying to insist on standardization and interoperability. We must start enabling local solutions instead of trying to build mini-US militaries. Finally, the US military establishment must rethink its rotation plan. Instead of rotating leaders around in many theaters during their careers they should be limited to the same regional locations. As theoretically commendable as it is to seek to have an Army of well-rounded leaders, experience and knowledge that are a mile long but only an inch deep leaves the US military unprepared. We must strive to build regional experts who really know their theaters, have an intimate understanding of what is happening, and can build long-term and deep relationships with appropriate stakeholders.
The ROC rightfully recognizes that the only viable defense option for small states is resistance, and US Army Special Forces will play a significant role supporting such activities. The ROC provides a strong foundation of principles, requirements, and potential challenges of such an approach, but it does not reach its full potential because it fails to properly address the realities of the twenty-first century. To avoid falling into the trap of preparing for the last war and ignoring the concepts and capabilities of our potential adversaries, the ROC must be revised and updated. We must make sure we do not look back at a romanticized past of mainly rural resistance but instead find relevant contemporary sources of lessons and develop bold and innovative concepts that are right for our time.
Dr. Sandor Fabian is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. A former Hungarian special forces officer with twenty years of military experience, he served in multiple national assignments and held the force assessment and evaluation branch head position at the NATO Special Operations Headquarters. He is currently an instructor, curriculum developer, and team leader at LEIDOS, where he supports NATO special operations education, training, exercises, and evaluation. Dr. Fabian is a graduate of Hungary’s Miklos Zrinyi National Defense University, holds a master`s degree in defense analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, and earned a graduate certificate in intelligence studies and a PhD in security studies from the University of Central Florida.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Patrik Orcutt, US Army
As to what our "resistance" forces will be up against, consider the following three related matters:
a. "The Main Battlespace is in the Mind:"
"Thus, the Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind and, as a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, in order to achieve superiority in troops and weapons control, morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population."
(See “Russia’s New Generation Warfare in Ukraine,” in National Defense Academy of Latvia [April 2014], Page 5, by Janis Berzins.)
2. "Create a Permanently Operating Front Through the Entire Territory of the Enemy State:"
"Asymmetrical actions have come into widespread use, enabling the nullification of an enemy´s advantages in armed conflict. Among such actions are the use of special operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected."
(See the initial quotes at "Russian New Generation Warfare: Deterring and Winning at the Tactical Level," in Army University Press Military Review [Sep/Oct 2020] by James Derleth.)
3. The Problem of Capitalism:
"… It is increasingly clear that globalization and automation have helped break up the socioeconomic model that under-girded postwar prosperity and domestic social peace, and that the next stage of capitalist development will challenge the very foundations of both the global liberal order and many of its national pillars.
In this new world disorder, the power of identity politics can no longer be denied. Western elites believed that in the twenty-first century, cosmopolitanism and globalism would triumph over atavism and tribal loyalties. They failed to understand the deep roots of identity politics in the human psyche and the necessity for those roots to find political expression in both foreign and domestic policy arenas. And they failed to understand that the very forces of economic and social development that cosmopolitanism and globalization fostered would generate turbulence and eventually resistance, as ‘Gemeinschaft’ (community) fought back against the onrushing ‘Gesellschaft’ (market society), in the classic terms sociologists favored a century ago.”
(See the Mar-Apr 2017 edition of “Foreign Affairs” and, therein, the article by Walter Russell Mead entitled “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order.”)
The problem for the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, this is that "revolutionary" capitalism — much like "revolutionary" communism in the Old Cold War — provides one's "containment" opponent with a worldwide "army," a worldwide "arsenal," of:
a. Status quo-loving/conservative/traditional folks who
b. Are clearly threatened by the political, economic, social and/or value "change" requirements of the "revolutionary" entity and, thus,
c. Are easily won over by nations advancing "conservative"/"containment" causes:
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past."
(See "The American Interest" article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
“Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.”
(See the “National Review” item entitled: “How Russia Wins” by David French.)
"During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived by American conservatives as an 'evil empire,' as a source of destructive cultural influences, while the United States was perceived as a force that was preventing the world from the triumph of godless communism and anarchy. The USSR, by contrast, positioned itself as a vanguard of emancipation, as a fighter for the progressive transformation of humanity (away from religion and toward atheism), and against the reactionary forces of the West.
Today positions have changed dramatically; it is the United States or the ruling liberal establishment that in the conservative narrative has become the new or neo-USSR, spreading subversive ideas about family or the nature of authority around the world, while Russia has become almost a beacon of hope, 'the last bastion of Christian values' that helps keep the world from sliding into a liberal dystopia. Russia’s self-identity has changed accordingly; now it is Russia who actively resists destructive, revolutionary experiments with fundamental human institutions, experiments inspired by new revolutionary neo-communists from the United States. Hence the cautious hopes that the U.S. Christian right have for contemporary Russia: They are projecting on Russia their fantasies of another West that has not been infected by the virus of cultural liberalism."
(See the December 18, 2019, Georgetown University, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs article "Global Culture Wars from the Perspective of Russian and American Actors: Some Preliminary Conclusions," by Dmitry Uzlaner. Look to the paragraph beginning with "Russia and the United States as screens for each other’s projections.")
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
THIS, I suggest, is what our "resistance" forces will be up against.
Thus, the "resistance" forces, accordingly, must be developed, trained, organized, equipped, funded, etc. — SPECIFICALLY so as to deal with the "threat" that I describe above?
As David Kilcullen notes in his "Counterinsurgency Redux," "resistance warfare," this is often seen more through the lens of:
a. The more-conservative/the more-traditional populations of the states and societies of the world (now to include even those such populations in the U.S./the West?)
b. Fighting to preserve the status quo, and/or fighting to achieve a status quo anti; this latter, if too much unwanted political, economic, social and/or value "change" is thought to have already taken place. This such "resistance" effort being undertaken so as to:
c. Preserve one's traditional way of life, way of governance, culture, etc., against the "transformative"/the "modernizing" efforts of a foreign government and/or its local government proxy:
"Similarly, in classical theory, the insurgent initiates. Thus, Galula asserts that ‘whereas in conventional war, either side can initiate the conflict, only one – the insurgent – can initiate a revolutionary war, for counter-insurgency is only an effect of insurgency’. Classical theorists therefore emphasise the problem of recognising insurgency early. Thompson observes that ‘at the first signs of an incipient insurgency … no one likes to admit that anything is going wrong. This automatically leads to a situation where government countermeasures are too little and too late.’ But, in several modern campaigns – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example – the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in ‘resistance warfare’). Such patterns are readily recognisable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counter-insurgency theory.
Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan's campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernisation, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalisation."
From this such perspective, should we not see Russia and China, today, as being the one's engaged in resistance warfare? This given, for example, Russia's appeal to both its own, and the rest of the world's, "conservative" populations:
"In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this 'independent path' ideology by contrasting Russia’s 'traditional values' with the liberal values of the West. He said: 'We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.' He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to 'prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.'
In Putin’s view, the fight over values is not far removed from geopolitical competition. '[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades,' he said in an interview with the Financial Times in 2019. 'There is also the so-called liberal idea, which has outlived its purpose. Our Western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable,' he added. …
As Putin passes his 20th year as Russia’s president, his domestic and foreign policy appears intended to contrast his country’s 'independent path' with the liberal and decadent regimes in the West. The invented battle of Western values versus Russia’s 'traditional values' is part of a Kremlin effort to justify its broader actions in the eyes of Russian citizens, placing them in the context of a global struggle in which Russia is the target of aggression. Ignoring and violating the provisions of international organizations to which it is a party thus becomes a demonstration of defending its conservative values from European liberalism. … "
(See the "Open Democracy" article "Inside the Fight Over Russia’s Domestic Violence Law," by Alexey Yurtaev, dated 17 February 2020)
Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:
From the information that I have provided above, should we not see, accordingly, the U.S./the West (and our partner governments') effort — to thwart Russian (et. al) such "resistance" efforts, more as a "revolutionary" point-of-view?
This such understanding allowing us see, for example, how the U.S./the West — re: our such "revolutionary"/"modernizing" purposes — would be working (a) more "by, with and through" the more-liberal/the more-pro-change/the more-pro-modernization elements of a states' population; this, so as to (b) overcome the "resistance" efforts of both Russia and its local proxies?
Here is yet another example suggesting that (a) resistance warfare, this must be seen more through the eyes of the more-conservative elements of the population and that, accordingly, (b) our actions, these must be seen more from a "revolutionary warfare" point of view:
"Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about 'indirect approaches' or 'limited interventions', but the question is 'approaches to what?' What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?
Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly."
(See the Small Wars Journal article "Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency" — an interview by Octavian Manea of Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
From a "revolutionary" rather than "resistance" point of view, thus, what would our ROC look like?
At the close of my last comment above, I asked the question:
"From a "revolutionary" rather than a "resistance" point of view, thus, what would our ROC look like?
In this regard, let us look to some of our top military personnel have said:
"The Achilles’ heel of our authoritarian adversaries is their inherent fear of their own people; the United States must be ready to capitalize on this fear. … An American way of irregular war will reflect who we are as a people, our diversity, our moral code, and our undying belief in freedom."
(See the "Conclusion" section of the "Introduction" to the Rand paper "The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir" by Charles T. Cleveland and Daniel Egel.)
"Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests."
(See the National Defense University Press paper "Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone" by Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin)