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