Small Wars Journal

Building and Enabling Urban Resistance Networks In Small Countries - A Crucial Role For U.S. Special Forces In Great Power Competition

Sun, 04/11/2021 - 3:31pm

Building and Enabling Urban Resistance Networks In Small Countries - A Crucial Role For U.S. Special Forces In Great Power Competition

By Dr. Sandor Fabian



During the last couple decades U.S. Special Forces have become champions of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. However, with the recent changes of the global strategic landscape and the increasingly multipolar world they are required once again to adapt to emerging challenges. While as many practitioners and scholars already argued the U.S. Special Forces must maintain all their hard-earned irregular warfare skills, they must also find new niche capabilities to effectively support the activities of the rest of the U.S. government during the competition. This article argues that one such capability is building urban resistance networks within allied and partner nations pre-conflict and enabling such networks during war.


The 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy and the NATO 2030 strategic concept document cemented what we have known since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the recent Chinese activities in the South China Sea, the primacy of counterterrorism is a thing of the past and the world has returned to the era of great power competition. While many argue that this competition is not a new Cold War, others suggest that its characteristics are extremely similar since all sides` activities focus on securing influence, shaping conditions, deterring the other side, and building a more lethal force in case of armed conflict occurs. Another factor frequently cited by proponents of the era of new Cold War is the fact that the likelihood of armed confrontation between the competitors are extremely low and just like during the Cold War while we see some activities occurring directly against each other and on the soil of the competitors the majority of the competition and potential conflicts are (will be) done by proxies and occur within the territories of allied and partner states. This latter fact makes small countries` defense capabilities a priority for U.S. national security and a key factor regarding the potential outcome of the great power competition.


The U.S. military has started preparing for such competition and approaching this challenge through the recently developed “deter and defeat” strategic framework. This concept focuses on building a ready and lethal force to deter and if needed, defeat any military aggression either at home or around the globe. This is the general strategic framework that U.S. Special Forces must find ways to make themselves relevant and effective. Some argue that simply maintaining their competency in irregular warfare skills and sustaining their operations against non-state actors are themselves already crucial contributions since they allow the rest of the U.S. military to focus on the other elements of the great power competition. Others propose that U. S. Special Forces have much more to offer. They can gather critical information, impose costs on competitors, manage crisis response, conduct strategic raids, help to improve the capabilities of foreign militaries and develop and lead resistance networks in small countries in case of a foreign invasion and occupation. Let us explore this last task.


Emergence of resistance-based concepts

It has been long understood that given the substantial time-distance-force ratio advantage of their neighbors many U.S. allied and partner countries could defend themselves against great power aggression. This assertion has recently been confirmed several times through a series of wargames. One such simulation conducted for the Baltic scenario concluded that Russia could defeat and occupy the three Baltic states within less than 60 hours while another wargame in Poland found they would lose a conventional war against Russia within just 5 days. Simulations conducted in the East China Sea region where Taiwan was the subject of the aggression also showed catastrophic results. As a response to these findings small countries started to look at asymmetric defense solutions to strengthen their defense capabilities and to mitigate the conventional advantages of major powers. Small countries have come up with concepts in which their conventional military capabilities are augmented with civilian resilience and resistance efforts. Besides the fact that these concepts are based on civilian contribution they also capitalize on the defensive advantages of built-up areas since all of them are situated in urban areas. The point of these urban resistance concepts is to increase the cost of an armed attack to a potentially unacceptable level and with that effectively contribute to both deterring and if necessary defeating conventional military aggression. Such asymmetric approaches have already been introduced in the three Baltic states, the Scandinavian states, Poland, and Taiwan. Some scholars argue that these kinds of approaches might proliferate to other small countries threatened by Russia and China, and some even suggest that they might materialize in even more radical ways such as transforming the small countries` entire militaries into professional resistance forces. The strategic importance of small states in great power competition and the emergence and proliferation of resistance based national defense concepts present a unique opportunity for the U.S. special forces to make significant and effective contributions.


Although at least some elements of the U.S. Special Forces seem to have recognized the emerging pattern of resistance-based strategies and started investigating their potential role in supporting these approaches they still seem to be far away from fulfilling their potential. While for example, the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (hereafter, U.S. SOCEUR) helped the Scandinavian countries, the Baltic States and Poland to develop a Resistance Operating Concept which seems to serve as a foundation for these countries` resistance activities, U.S. special forces have much more room to involve themselves into small countries` resistance activities both during the pre-conflict period and in war. To do that effectively they must consider several key factors regarding building and enabling such networks.


Why building resistance networks before, not during conflict

The idea of incorporating resistance networks and especially urban resistance networks into their national defense strategies did not come out of the blue for many countries. There are several major factors that influenced the introduction of these concepts. First, many countries, the Scandinavian and Baltic countries in particular, have a rich history of operating covert organizations in difficult physical terrain during foreign occupation and with that they have vast knowledge about the usefulness of such networks. Second, due to their participation in expeditionary counterinsurgency operations over the last two decades small countries` such as the Baltic states militaries experienced first-hand how ad hoc organized networks with off-the-shelf equipment in urban environments can challenge a numerically and technologically superior conventional force. While these factors indeed advise us about the potential usefulness of resistance networks utilizing difficult terrain and built-up areas in small states` defense strategy these same historical examples and current experiences must also lead to another major recognition. Recent conflicts such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria demonstrated that resistance networks organized in an ad hoc way during the conflicts could operate very effectively against the world's most advanced militaries. They did so without specific prior training in resistance operations, without purpose-built organizations, specifically prepared terrain, or custom-made equipment. So it is quite clear that if such resistance networks could be so effective than similar organizations created, specifically trained and equipped before conflict should be much more effective when it comes to fighting against foreign forces. Recent scholarly research supports this theory.


In his 2015 research article, titled “The Phoenix Effect of State Repression: Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust” Evgeny Finkel examines urban Jewish resistance groups in World War II Eastern Europe. Finkel finds that urban resistance networks possessing a specific prewar “toolkit” are more likely to operate successfully against overwhelming forces than those who lack such knowledge and experiences. According to Finkel such toolkit includes the ability to communicate securely, the ability to possess/acquire weapons covertly, the ability to create safe havens, the ability to conduct effective forging and the ability to identify and neutralize informers and infiltrators. Another recent study by Andrew Boutton and Thomas Dolan provides additional evidence of why resistance networks should be organized, equipped, and trained locally before the conflict occurs. In their 2021 research article, titled “Enemies in the Shadows: On the Origins and Survival of Clandestine Clients” Boutton and Dolan explores the characteristics of World War II French resistance networks. They find that resistance networks that were organized locally and later supported by coalition forces are more likely to be successful than those resistance networks that were organized during the conflict by foreign operatives inserted covertly into France. Boutton and Dolan suggest that operations security is one of the key elements of resistance networks survival and with that it is a necessary condition for their success. They argue that prewar local networks can be more proficient in security measures than those organized by foreign operatives during the war leading to higher success rate in case of the former. So what does this all mean for U.S. Special Forces.


Enabling resistance networks both before and during conflict

While maintaining their current engagement with small countries` military forces to help them sustain current capabilities and improve their conventional military skills and interoperability U.S. Special Forces should extend their cooperation with these countries` existing or developing civil resistance networks. During the pre-conflict period U.S. Special Forces should focus on helping local resistance networks create and master the “toolkit” they will need to effectively fight against a numerically and technologically superior enemy independently and also in support of a conventional coalition. The already existing regionally focused U.S. Special Forces units must develop a habitual relationship through training and exercising with the small states` resistance networks, build trust, mutual understanding, and common standing operating procedures pre-conflict to maximize the utility of these networks when it comes to actual armed confrontation. It is important that both the U.S. Special Forces (at all levels) and the resistance network members clearly understand their goals, capabilities, expectations, and limitations. However, the U.S. Special Forces are not ready yet to take on such a challenge without some significant adjustments in their training and changes in the way they currently operate. Although probably most green berets will argue that their unconventional warfare training already includes all the fundamental principles and tools that they would need to take on the proposed task there are some elements that are either missing or need to be altered to ensure maximum effectiveness. Here are some potential examples for consideration.


First, U.S. Special Forces training must go back to the basics in many aspects while also inventing new basics. Since almost all new resistance-based concepts are focusing on urban resistance U.S. Special Forces operators must become experts in all aspects of the urban operational environment. Skills like urban navigation, urban movement and maneuver, urban survival skills, weapons effects and limitations in built-up areas, communication opportunities and challenges in cities, and operating non-standard, civilian transportation platforms are just some examples that must become training priorities starting from the famous Special Forces basic training, the Qualification Course.


Second, U.S. Special Forces training must focus on skills necessary to effectively operate within a foreign society hidden in plain sight for an extended period of time. Special Forces operators need skills enabling them to effectively operate without their 21st century personal gadgets and without all the combat support and combat service support they have become accustomed to during recent decades. This requirement must also generate major adjustments in the development and fielding of new equipment and weapon systems. U.S. Special Forces need gear (both individual and collective) that is specifically designed for operations conducted in urban environments and in civilian clothes.


Third, U.S. Special Forces training must include elements that address how to extend existing resistance networks, how to recruit and wet new members, how to create and maintain urban safe havens and how to conduct tactical training for new members given the opportunities and challenges of built-up areas and how to do all this during an ongoing conflict in a foreign country.


Fourth, the enemy is no longer low-tech insurgents but professional military forces with peer or near-peer conventional and specialized capabilities. U.S. Special Forces must become intimately familiar with the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the weapon systems and major equipment of the potential enemies. Besides knowing how to exploit the features of the urban terrain to avoid the strengths of these systems it is also crucial that U.S. Special Forces members understand and master how to best attack and destroy these systems. Intimate knowledge of adversaries’ equipment, doctrine, formations, decision-making processes, leadership principles and operating procedures must become a focus area in the curriculum of Special Forces training at all levels.


Fifth, U.S. Special Forces must learn how to teach all these skills to part-time, half-civilian resistance members during both peace and conflict as well as how to enable the resistance networks to maximize their fighting capabilities during war. Finally, such changes in training, equipment and potentially in mindset should also generate some serious debates whether the U.S. Special Forces` sacred team organization is appropriate for such tasks. A deep analysis of the future urban operational environment, the small countries` defense concepts, the structures of the different resistance networks, and the capabilities and limitations of the competitors might even require some organizational adjustments.



The U.S. is and will be engaged in great power competition with peer and near-peer competitors for a long time. The outcome of such competition will largely depend on small countries and their defense capabilities. Recent developments and shifts in small countries` defense strategies suggest that urban resistance networks have become a major part of their defense establishments. This development has created an opportunity and arguably a need for U.S. Special Forces to go beyond their current contributions and provide even more meaningful support to the U.S. government's other efforts to succeed in great power competition. Accordingly, helping small countries building their urban resistance networks and enabling these networks in conflict should become a fundamental task for the U.S. Special Forces. This article argued that although there are some useful foundations for such tasks in the green berets’ unconventional warfare toolkit, successful 21st century urban resistance will require some major adjustments in mindset, tools and potentially even in structure. This analysis did not intend to provide a blueprint for such changes rather to serve as a fire starter for the much needed debate about what and how to change within the Special Operations community to remain strategically relevant and the tip of the spear.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Sandor Fabian is a former Hungarian Special Forces lieutenant colonel with more than twenty years of military experience. He is a graduate of the Miklos Zrinyi Hungarian National Defense University, holds a master’s degree in Defense Analysis (Irregular Warfare) from the US Naval Postgraduate School, has a graduate certificate in National Security and Intelligence Studies and a PhD in Security Studies from the University of Central Florida. Dr. Fabian is currently a research associate at the University of Central Florida and a curriculum developer and team leader at LEIDOS. Dr. Fabian is the author of the book titled “Irregular Warfare, The Future Military Strategy For Small States.” His research has appeared in Defence Studies, Defense & Security Analysis, the Special Operations Journal, the Combating Terrorism Exchange Journal, the Florida Political Chronicle, and the Hungarian Seregszemle Journal.




Wed, 09/22/2021 - 8:52am

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john dorwin us…

Sat, 04/17/2021 - 1:56am

This Article is very timely and also provocative. The founders of the SF Community were

unprepared officers who were caught in the WW 2 Japanese occupation of the Phillippines. Arron Banks, Wendell Fertig, Clay Connor, all had to learn survival behind

the lines with very little to no support from their former commands. So what is being proposed in this Article is a return to the original SF mission of stay behind forces for

intel, interdiction, and advance force operations. The manual for these operations are found in the work of Maj. Hans Dasch in his work on Total Resistance which turned out

to be a best seller in the Iraq insurgency for the bad guys. This whole concept is very

controversial because of the Gladio and Super Nato operations  of the Cold War. It is very

disturbing politically because of what happened in Europe and the creation of parallel structures by the CIA and their subsequent abuse by radical right wing extreme elements

in Italy. These type of operations are exactly what is happening with Sweden in the Baltic

States right now and the build up of survivable networks of resistance forces in the event a country is over run by little green men, or other hostile elements. This type of

training and preparation is often carried out in third countries or by allied entities as the

logistics can disclose methods and sources as well as compromise participants. This is

exactly what we should be looking at right now in the Afgan/Pakistan situation where we

will soon find ourselves on the outside looking in. Stay Behind operations are something

SF was born to do and are high risk high reward propositions for everyone involved. I am reminded the British SOE was patterned on the IRA of the 1920ies by Gen Colin Gubbins. To support resistance first requires security, then communications and lastly

logistics to keep the operators alive in a hostile environment. The Author knows his subject because of his nationality. In 1956 the Suez crisis doomed his Country to further

occupation by the Red Army, but the SF community acquired lots of talent who were able to speak Hungarian who escaped across the Austrian border before it all went wrong. Having battalions of ex pats is helpful in setting up exactly what the Author is

proposing as a realistic mission for the SF community in the shifting borders of Eastern

Europe and Central Asia. The historic problem has been making sure that the military equipment does not end up in the wrong hands and becomes the insurgency of tomorrow.