Rational Security

Beware the Few

You can't beat a lone terrorist -- or al Qaeda for that matter -- with shock and awe.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The terror bombing of the Boston Marathon is yet one more item in a bloody skein of evidence that has emerged over the past decade proving that war is now, more than ever, the province of "the few." The destructive and disruptive power of small groups and even individuals — in the physical world as well as in cyberspace — just keeps growing. While we tend to think of this phenomenon as quite recent, perhaps just dating from 9/11, the trend actually began at the dawn of the machine age, well over a century ago. What we have seen ever since has been dichotomous conflict: big wars in which large numbers of soldiers, sailors, and airmen learned to fight in small bands and squadrons, and little wars in which each side has hunted the other as if they were roving Neolithic tribesmen. And while our gaze is drawn, again and again, to bands of terrorist and insurgent fighters, it is just as important to contemplate the power of the few in larger conflicts — such as the kind that might erupt one day, sooner or later, on the Korean Peninsula.  

A paradox of war in the modern era — a time distinguished by the mass production of advanced weapons and the ability to mobilize millions of soldiers — is that the burden of fighting in pivotal campaigns has often been borne by so few. On both sides. Winston Churchill’s tribute to the gallant handful of Royal Air Force pilots who won the Battle of Britain in 1940 — just a couple thousand, many of them Polish refugees — obscures the point that Luftwaffe attackers were similarly small in number. Another dire menace that Churchill and the Allies faced during World War II emanated from U-boats. For all the terrible threat they posed, there were never more than a couple thousand German submariners at sea at any one time. Same with the American undersea warfare campaign against Japan, which wreaked absolute havoc in the Pacific. And in the key carrier confrontation at Midway in June 1942, just a few hundred American naval aviators turned the tide of the whole war in about half an hour of furious dive bombing. As for the Japanese, the loss of a few hundred of their naval aviators in this battle had a crippling effect from which they never recovered. Again and again, in a war of many millions, the few determined the outcome.

Even in land battles, with huge overall numbers comprising the opposing orders of battle, the basic infantry fighting formation became the small squad of soldiers — that is, little more than Tom Hanks had with him when hunting for Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan. With their roots in World War I "storm troop" units, these dispersed squads, and the platoons and companies to which they belonged, replaced the massed ranks that had been so easily mowed down during 1914-1918. Yes, millions were in the field during World War II, but they almost all fought in small packets, even in this biggest of all wars. And it was the few who made the breakthroughs, out there at the "tip of the spear." As the French novelist Roger Vercel had his protagonist put it in the classic, autobiographical Capitaine Conan, about a leader of a World War I commando squad: "We won it, I tell you. I and my handful of fellows made whole armies shake in their shoes."

For the past 70 years, the infantry squad has been the norm in the many irregular campaigns and wars that have increasingly bedeviled the world — and in particular the great powers, which have so regularly become frustrated when, instead of relying on "the few," they have tried to win with overwhelming force. The Vietnam War offers an interesting case in point. Rejecting the small-scale approach embodied early on in the Green Beret teams operating with highland tribes and the squads of Marines helping protect villes in the coastal zones — something much like today’s "village stability operations" in Afghanistan — senior American leaders shifted to a "big unit" war. From a few thousand in-country, U.S. troop levels rose to over half a million. All in vain, as the only way of effectively engaging the enemy was to send out…small groups of infantrymen.

An interesting new pattern has emerged over the past 20 years along with the rise of flat, networked organizations like al Qaeda and Hezbollah: "The few" have sometimes gone straight at their larger foes. Perhaps the best example of this is provided by the Russo-Chechen war that ran from 1994 to 1996. The Russians tried to steamroll their opponents, but the Chechens, already vastly outnumbered, broke their few thousand fighters into a couple hundred teams of a dozen or so — then went right at the enemy, striking from multiple directions simultaneously. This is what my longtime research partner David Ronfeldt and I call "swarming." These small bands of fighters drove the Russians out of Chechnya; though, when Moscow made up its mind to return, their invasion force looked a lot nimbler than the first time around, and fought in small units. That time they succeeded.

Al Qaeda, of course, is an organization that has completely adopted the notion of fighting in small packets. In addition to the 19 who attacked America on 9/11, al Qaeda and its affiliates have struck repeatedly throughout much of the Muslim world using this approach. They have had some success in Libya and now are roiling troubled waters in both Iraq and Syria. Hezbollah, too, has relied on "the few" to take on larger forces, fighting the Israel Defense Forces to an arguable draw in Lebanon in 2006.

In pre-industrial times it was common to see a large proportion of a nation’s field forces or fleets gathered in some small space or in narrow seas. During the Napoleonic era, for example, there were Borodino and Waterloo on land, and Aboukir Bay and Copenhagen in terms of naval battles. The American Civil War, a "bridge conflict" to the machine age, saw massive slugfests like Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg — yet also featured the countless small groups of freebooters William Tecumseh Sherman unleashed to swarm from Atlanta to Savannah. But when mechanization truly came, and married up with longer-ranging weapons of all sorts, theaters of operations expanded in size, logistical "tails" grew, and the time of the few truly arrived. Remaining massed now meant being massacred.

Today, in the early decades of the information age, technological advances in communications, sensors, and weapons guidance systems are empowering small groups even more. The new possibilities were hinted at in the American-led campaign in Afghanistan late in 2001, when just 11 Special Forces A-teams — about 200 soldiers on the ground — riding with outnumbered allies but supported by air power, were able to topple the Taliban and put al Qaeda on the run. This was truly the vision that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had. It was neither of remote-control wars nor of massed armies — he opposed the "big package" proposed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — but of new technologies that made it possible for small yet strong military formations to find and fight a range of enemies. Moving faster, going farther, fighting smarter.

President Obama leans a bit in Rumsfeld’s direction, though his general reluctance to let "the few" loose on the ground hobbles us and cedes the field to our enemies. Al Qaeda’s few had and still have influence in Libya — not only in the overthrow of Qaddafi and its aftermath, but in the humiliating blow struck against us in Benghazi. Perhaps in Boston as well. Small groups of al Qaeda fighters now pose the prospect of an even greater, bloodier outcome in Syria. Clearly, we already owe much to our own few — many of them serving in the special operations forces — for all their efforts and achievements over the past decade. But we must not hesitate to call on them yet again. The enemy few will not be defeated by massive "shock and awe," or b
y Colin Powell’s concept of applying overwhelming force. Only our few can defeat theirs.          

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