The New Blitzkrieg

3 July 2014, 1537 EDT

A new version of maneuver warfare is being utilized mainly by Islamic fundamentalist forces to seize territory from government forces trained, equipped and organized along the Western model.

This “new blitzkrieg” relies on lightly armed fighters mounted on “technicals” – 4×4 trucks with heavy machine-guns, light cannons, or automatic grenade launchers mounted on the vehicle. Here are some key factors we should be thinking about in order to potentially combat these forces in the future.

  1. This isn’t new. The exact same tactics were used by the Taliban in 1994 to seize massive areas of Afghanistan in the early phases of their military takeover of the Afghan state.
  1. This is asymmetric warfare at its best. When this method is used against government forces in the Middle East and Africa, the decision-making cycle of the non-state forces, (which are organized as a network) will consistently outperform the rigidly hierarchical government forces, which will frequently be paralyzed by a lack of communication and poor understanding of frontline realities. Real-world examples have repeatedly confirmed earlier studies which predicted the superior performance of networks in crisis situations.
  1. The tactical prescription for success is a swift initial reaction by a regionally-located Quick Reaction Force (QRF). The French version of this force, and a suggested US counterpart are described here. Like fighting a bacterial infection, the key is to quickly administer the antidote – in this case, airstrikes to break up the columns of advancing technicals, which will usually be exposed and highly vulnerable to air attacks, followed up with ground operations integrated with government forces. We have examples of the success of this approach – the French succeeded in stemming the tide in Mali using exactly this method, but not without losses – one Gazelle attack helicopter was shot down by the rebels, and eight French soldiers killed. We also know that when this does not happen quickly, the non-state forces will tend to overrun their government opponents, as seen in Afghanistan, Central African Republic (CAR) and now Iraq. The side that enjoys air superiority has a better chance at tactical success – this is true even when it is the network which gains the upper hand in the air through the support of Western air forces, as in the case of the Libyan rebel movement in 2011.
  1. Few regional government forces can succeed on their own; this has been demonstrated by the recent cases of Mali, CAR, and Iraq. Even Syria, which boasted the fourth strongest military force in the region found itself on the ropes when attacked by the networked forces of Syrian rebels and their Islamist supporters, and one of their major advantages was in maintaining control of the air, thus eliminating opportunities for their opponents to maneuver freely on roads and in open country. Mali required additional French and African Union forces on the ground to break up the Islamist/Taureg offensive once it had been stalled by French air strikes.
  1. Outcomes; the best cases are still pretty bad. Where the state is able to blunt the initial network assault, the outcome in Syria (and the earlier example of Afghanistan in the 1990’s) is civil war along sectarian lines. If the network forces win and the state is overthrown, as in CAR and Libya, the result appears to be weakened government institutions, endemic in-fighting between rival militias, and sectarian violence up to and including ethnic cleansing. Mali represents the “best case” where the state remains in power and the network opponents are more or less completely dispersed, but even here, the picture isn’t pretty. The newly installed democratic government recently faced a no-confidence vote over its handling of the ongoing Taureg insurgency in the North.

What does all this mean? That will be the subject of another post, but for now, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

It should be clear, though, that the “new blitzkrieg” is here to stay, until its effectiveness can be disproved to those forces that will otherwise choose to use it. In fact, we should not discount the probability that well-funded organizations like ISIS will be able to improve upon the model by adopting the use of light civilian aircraft modified to drop barrel bombs and serve as aerial gunnery platforms, or deployed in a kamikaze role against fortified positions or key infrastructure.