Small Wars Journal

Unconventional Warfare: Think Outside the G-Base

Unconventional Warfare: Think Outside the G-Base

George Schwartz

The Green Berets are in danger of self-inflicted irrelevancy because of shortcomings in their training.  Most current Unconventional Warfare (UW) training events take the Unconventional Warfare template from Robin Sage and simply impose it on other environments and threat situations.  This trend has persisted despite the lack of modern UW examples that resemble Robin Sage.  Green Berets should be considering other models of UW that may be more relevant today.

Special Forces doctrine depicts resistance partner forces as having three elements: a rural-based full-time paramilitary guerrilla force, an urban-based underground, and an auxiliary that serves as the link between the two.  The ODA partners with the guerrilla force and teaches them US-style small unit tactics.  That is what every Green Beret did in Robin Sage.  It is the common understanding of UW shared by all SF Soldiers.  Virtually every UW exercise I have taken part in (Cobra Gold, Foal Eagle, Jade Helm, home station UW mission profiles) mirrors this model.  That is what I mean by the “Robin Sage” model.  

Our doctrine, as depicted by the Robin Sage model, reflects what some UW missions have looked like in the past.  But our doctrine is just that: our doctrine.  It does not describe every resistance movement or UW operation.  Not all resistance movements conform to it.  Resistance movements and UW exist all over the world, carried out by various powers, and very few of those resistance/UW models resemble our doctrine.  The Iraqi insurgency, Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2014, and the subsequent Russian-sponsored UW in the Crimea do not.  Neither does Hezbollah.  We conducted UW against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and that did not look much like Robin Sage.  Rather than re-fight Robin Sage, we should look at current insurgencies (or try to envision future insurgencies), think of how we would partner with them, and let that guide our training.

Recent UW models seem to fall into two broad categories: 1) the resistance force is already capable of taking and holding terrain against the opposing regime/occupying force, 2) the resistance force is underground.  For examples of Category 1 resistance forces, we have the Northern Alliance in 2001, the Peshmerga in northern Iraq in 2003, the Crimean separatists today, or the anti-ISIS forces we worked with in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria.  UW partnership with such a force often looks a lot like a JCET or a CNT, where we train our partner force in a secure location, then send them forward or accompany them to fight against our common enemies.  Preparing for such a mission would be very similar to JCET prep: identify the skills the partner force needs, prepare ourselves to train those skills, provide the training, and continually evaluate to make sure we are having the desired effect.  Conducting regular JCETs and CNTs has made Special Forces adequately trained, equipped, and experienced to conduct this type of operation.

Category 2 is where the Robin Sage model of the rural-based full-time guerrilla force breaks down.  Surveillance technology is so advanced and readily available that a semi-permanent G-base could easily be detected by a flying Cessna or Huey and a spotter with a commercially available thermal scope.  Virtually all state actors can (and do) field that level of ISR.  Also, most rural terrain (with the exception of triple-canopy jungle and similarly dense forest) still favors, on balance, large conventional force maneuver.  These two facts combined mean the Robin Sage model is not viable in very many rural areas.  A state actor with rudimentary commercially available surveillance tech would be able to find a large group of guerrillas and SF troops if they have air superiority, or even if the air space is contested.  If the state actor retains freedom of maneuver and has the capacity to field a company of infantry or mass indirect fires, that G-band could easily be cut off and destroyed, together with its advisors.  So the Robin Sage model is not practical unless the US already has air superiority and the enemy cannot field large conventional forces anymore.  In other words, it is only useful after it is unnecessary.

Furthermore, our doctrine does not provide an all-encompassing picture of resistance forces.  There may not be a clear distinction between underground, auxiliary, and guerrillas.  The resistance force may look like a guerrilla force with auxiliary-like capabilities or an underground with guerrilla-like capabilities, much like insurgent cells in Iraq.  Or it might not have any paramilitary component at all, like the Orange Revolution in 2014.  The paradigm of teaching small unit tactics may not be relevant to partnering with a resistance force.  Teaching US-style small unit tactics just makes the resistance force more symmetrical with their conventional opponent.  And if there is no G-Force, as is the case in many resistance groups, small unit tactics are irrelevant.  It is essential to recognize that SF doctrine does not describe resistance organization accurately and completely.

It is still possible to operate in rural terrain and to partner with resistance forces that do not conform to our doctrine, but it does require thinking outside of the Robin Sage-style static G-base. In rural terrain, Special Forces should use mobile G-bases, much as the FARC has done.  In this model, the guerrillas and their ODA advisors would move whenever they can while avoiding detection. Properly executed, frequent movement can decrease the UW force’s profile and mitigate the threat of surveillance.  Training for mobile G-bases is a lot harder because it requires a large training area and it is more physically demanding.  However, it is more survivable.  Emphasizing land navigation, tactical movements by day and night, as well as patrol base/RON site occupation and rural camouflage (particularly how to evade thermals) can support UW tactics of this kind.

Alternatively, the resistance force may choose to operate in urban terrain simply because urban terrain on balance strongly favors small units and guerrilla tactics over large conventional forces.  Case in point- the Iraqi insurgents used urban terrain very effectively as long as they avoided decisive engagement.  Another advantage to urban terrain is that it provides natural camouflage for communication systems.  It is not impossible for an ODA to do UW in urban terrain: the Iranian Quds force did just that to us in Iraq.  But urban UW comes with its own set of requirements.  The UW force would need a network of safe houses and a mobility system to avoid getting pinned down.  In this model, the urban guerrillas would go about their day jobs, then meet up with the ODA at predetermined places and times to receive training on how to take on specific objectives and exchange intelligence with the ODA.  For skills that would enable this type of UW, SF should conduct urban evasion training, urban land navigation, and urban tactical movement.

Another possibility is an urban-rural hybrid.  It is not necessary for the ODA and the resistance force to be co-located.  The guerrilla force could be urban-based while the ODA that stays mobile in rural areas.  In this case, the ODA would not be dependent on resistance safe houses, and the rural areas can furnish lots of space to train their resistance force.  The ODA would need to have adequate infrastructure to support its mobility (patrol base sites, routes, training sites, communication sites, etc).   The resistance force would maintain its daily life while the ODA maintained its tactical posture, then they would conduct linkup for training or operations.  They could remain dispersed to maintain a low profile until they mass at the decisive moment.  It may not even be necessary for the UW force to physically enter the operational area.  ISIS used a decentralized form of UW to recruit, train, and employ terrorists through cyberspace.

In all of these possibilities, the resistance force may not resemble our doctrine at all.  In time of invasion or rebellion, social structures that existed before conflict may still exist after the conflict, but take on a different character.  For instance, the Bowling League is still the Bowling League, and its members still have their day jobs, but on the weekend they get together to destroy an enemy checkpoint or ambush a police patrol.  That is very different from the doctrinal vision of the full-time G-force, but it is no less plausible. 

Alternatively there may not be a need for G-force at all.  In such a case, the ODA should not necessarily attempt to stand one up: the Green Beret’s job is not to get the resistance force to comply with our doctrine. Rather, one of the best capabilities an ODA can provide is a link to the outside world and the international community.  Advice in how to stage demonstrations and protests and how to produce and broadcast propaganda can be more important than having an element capable of carrying out paramilitary operations and executing small unit tactics.  Training in Information Operations and video editing could be the most useful skills in this situation, especially if the ODA cannot get any PsyOps enablers, or if those PsyOps enablers are inadequate.

Instead of teaching US small unit tactics and making the resistance for more symmetric to its enemy, the ODA should instead emphasize training that accomplishes US goals while increasing the asymmetric advantages of its resistance partner force.  If the US goal is simply to disrupt the enemy regime or occupying power, the ODA could accomplish this by sabotaging enemy personnel and equipment.  In that case, the ODA may need to teach its resistance partners how to conduct simple sabotage- how to destroy a vehicle with materials at hand, how to build and employ a Molotov cocktail, how to neutralize a power relay or a communications tower.  Instead of co-locating with the G-band long-term, the ODA could linkup with the G-band only when necessary and give them the training the need to execute their next target.  So rather than practicing Battle Drill 1A, the UW force would spend time rehearsing actions on objective and training on the skills needed to take that objective down. 

Currently, the Green Berets are undoubtedly capable of conducting UW from secure bases in semi-permissive areas with air superiority.  They did that effectively against ISIS, and they practice how to do that with every JCET, CNT, and UW exercise.  Whether they are capable of conducting UW outside those conditions is questionable.  The Robin Sage model that they are practicing is probably not survivable in a denied environment, let alone against a peer adversary.  The resistance organizations they are training to partner with do not resemble current resistance movements.  Current Special Forces team leadership should be asking: if your team had to partner with the Orange Revolution, or with an organization like Jaish al-Mahdi, would it even be capable of doing so?  If so, what skills make that possible?  If not, how has your training failed you, and what needs to happen to make it possible?  Guerrilla bases like the ones we all saw in Robin Sage are increasingly rare in modern resistance movements.  If that is all we know how to do, we will march into irrelevance.  It is time to think outside the G-base and train to partner with modern resistance movements.

About the Author(s)

George Schwartz is a Combat Arms officer, veteran of small wars, and a student of Unconventional Warfare. He has served in the Army in various roles for 12 years.