A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article
Tactical Surprise in Small Wars: Lessons from French Wars in Afghanistan and Mali
“Well surprise, surprise, come on open your eyes”
In small wars, it seems that resorting to tactical surprise rarely benefits the strongest actor. Studying past ambushes illustrates this idea. Indeed, history shows the extent to which Western armies have proven incapable of surprising their adversaries and how, they have often been surprised in turn. French military history emphasizes this argument. Indeed, the “Dalat convoy” ambush during the Indochina war (1948), the Palestro ambush (1956) during the Algerian war, or more recently the Uzbeen ambush (2009) in Afghanistan serve as prime examples. Have these events highlighted the fact that it is nearly impossible for the “strongest” actor to surprise its opponents during small wars? Or rather, is it simply more difficult to surprise during small wars?
These questions can partially be answered by looking into French interventions in Afghanistan (2001-2012) and in Mali (2013-operation “Serval”). These are two very different small wars, in terms of their context and course of actions. Therefore, they offer a widespread overview of how to better surprise our future irregular adversaries.
Tactical surprise is dependent upon four main factors:
- Speed, because a swift movement limits the adversary’s preparation time;
- Secrecy, which is key to maintain uncertainty about one’s intent;
- Deception, by forcing the opponent to misinterpret attitudes and intents;
- Intelligence, to not over- or underestimate the adversary’s strength in order to deploy the main effort at the appropriate time and place.
During small wars, the “strongest” actor rarely manages to fully integrate these four elements into its strategy, when mounting operations. According to the traditional pattern of warfare, regular forces are expected to put an emphasis on delivering massive fires, while insurgents concentrate on mobility. This dichotomy seems to have widened over the past years. Western armies have struggled to enhance their mobility, which depends on a balance between two contradictory factors: flexibility/vulnerability and increased load/protection. This can be explained by two main factors. On the one hand, because death is a sensitive concept in Western societies, soldiers are burdened by having to wear their protection equipment, among other heavy things. In Afghanistan or Mali, French soldiers often carried 50 to 90 kg worth of equipment. This contradicts the original “corps francs” concept, according to which some French units were to reduce their load in order to foster mobility. On the other hand, maneuvers are also less flexible because combat units receive multiple reinforcements to respond to the wide range of threats. For instance, in Afghanistan, captains often had nine subordinates units under their command. Conversely, insurgents combat within small autonomous units, carrying light equipments, which allows them to move around faster than armies do.
Being secretive during small wars is also difficult for conventional armies. According to Colonel Roger Trinquier, “Surprise, that essential factor of success, is practically never realized. As we have seen, the people among whom our troops live and move have as their mission the informing of the guerrillas, and no movement of troops can escape them.” In Afghanistan, as soon as units left a COP or a FOB, the Taliban almost immediately took over the initiative, thanks to their efficient intelligence networks. Vehicles columns were always watched, counted and followed. Moreover, the local topography and roads did not allow units to vary their maneuvers. Often, in order to prepare for an operation, units conducted reconnaissance operations along the axis they would be using the following days. These reconnaissance operations foresaw plausible future positions for platoons. As a result, opponents could watch, booby-trapped them and mount an ambush.
The concept of deception seems harder to apply to the context of small wars. Indeed, Western armies, including the French Army have limited capabilities. In Mali, the troops counted approximately 6,500 men and in Afghanistan, France deployed around 6,200 soldiers. Because bases must be guarded by a large amount of units and logistics convoys always need to be escorted, it is difficult for the remainder of the troops to be deceptive. Indeed, for deceptive maneuvers to be credible, the army should hire almost as many soldiers as it needs for “real” operations. Moreover, waging an effective deception operation requires knowing one’s adversary in order to try to anticipate its actions. This becomes increasingly complex when the latter is irregular and belongs to a fundamentally different culture.
Finally, intelligence in small wars is profoundly different from that of conventional wars. In conventional warfare, armies focus on their enemy, whereas in COIN operations, emphasis is put on the population as a whole. This makes the intelligence environment more complex and ambiguous. For instance, the boundaries between ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ are blurred and whether the population supports one side or the other is never straightforward. Moreover, insurgents tend to neither have established pre-determined doctrines nor set up well-defined structures. As a result, it is harder to understand their mindset and course of actions, which makes them difficult to surprise.
However, in spite of the theoretical difficulties listed above, French armed forces have still found ways to surprise their adversaries in Afghanistan and Mali. This was possible thanks to a high operational tempo, soldiers’ hardiness, leaders’ inclination to take risks and to favor tactical imagination and the frequent resort to heliborne operations.
“I lose control and shiver deep inside. You take my breath away”
As noted above, speed is one of the four main factors facilitating surprise. This is not a new idea, even in regards to small wars. As noted in Calwell’s renowned book, this was already true for the French in Algeria in 1840: “Four battalions were marching over the pass of Muzaia in 1840, when they learnt that the Arabs were at hand in force. The baggage under one battalion was quickly sent off, two battalions were hidden in a fold of the ground close to the route, the fourth battalion, by getting touch with the enemy and then retreating rapidly, drew the hostile forces after them into the ambuscade which had been prepared. The two battalions which had been concealed suddenly charged out with the bayonet upon the Arabs, and threw them into complete confusion”. Before launching an operation against an adversary, armies must find the appropriate balance between having a large number of troops combined with a reliable logistic network and engaging the enemy while retaining a high operational tempo. David Galula has also accurately described this dilemma: “If the counterinsurgent, on receiving news that guerrillas have been spotted, uses his ready forces immediately, chances are they will be too small for the task. If he gathers larger forces, he will have lost time and probably the benefit of surprise.” This was also the case in Mali in 2013. GTIA 3launched two consecutive 500 km armored raids, at the beginning of the operations, to retake Gao and Tessalit airports. The first lasted 36 hours, while the second lasted 30 hours. Most of the time, columns had to drive off the main paths by night. By doing so, they clearly intended to surprise their opponents.
Moreover, the French army maintained its momentum in Mali, after its initial successes - achieved thanks to operative and tactical surprise - by risking the launch of an immediate counter-offensive operation, even before taking the time to gather all required means. This contradicts the pre-established conventional standards dating from the Afghan conflict, whereby the army prepared its troops and equipment over a long period of time. The “Serval” brigade sought to impose its own rhythm on its adversary by using continuous and simultaneous actions. Although the French units’ conquering of towns during their deployment can be seen as a heresy; it still considerably surprised the enemy. Communication and information systems were expanded beyond their limits over these unusually long distances. Consequently, SATCOM was necessary but its supply was limited. The rapid progress followed a three-tiered pattern: first, Special Forces and airborne units seized key airfields. Then, they were joined by French and Malian ground troops, which in turn were replaced by MISMA units. Because the troops needed to quickly be supplied with logistic support, securing airfields was one of the army’s key objectives. The rapid series of air assaults and ground moves under constant air cover - including MALE UAV Harfang and maritime patrol aircraft - greatly disrupted the enemy. The lessons learned from Libya on targeting fleeting objectives were put to good use, as the army tried to deny respite to its adversary. In fact, the entire “Serval” operation was defined by the speed and high tempo of its in depth air-land maneuvers and this practice marked a shift in the unfolding of COIN operations in Afghanistan.
This high operational tempo is likely to improve in the near future. During the “Serval” operation, tactical air control parties, helicopter pilots and VBCI IFV crews already benefitted from improved digital equipment. However, dismounted infantry units did not benefit from the same advantages as they struggled to communicate between various echelons using different information systems. The introduction of a new communication system called SICS (Scorpion command and information system) in the Army’s future equipment program “Scorpion” will be a real tactical game changer. It will facilitate information sharing enabling collaborative C4ISR and blue force tracking.
“And let's go back to the basics. Let's go back to the basics, baby.”
Another way of surprising insurgents is by showing endurance. This can primarily be achieved through hardiness. This allows a unit to stay on the ground for a long time while retaining its military efficiency, in order to surprise its opponent by operating in unexpected places or resorting to unforeseen methods. For commanders, “endurance consists therefore, in power of overcoming conditions - by foresight, judgment and skills” and this is not an easy decision. However, endurance is required to surprise an adversary. Indeed, most often, during small wars, our opponents observe Western armies waging well sequenced short termed operations. The latter often last 48 hours, after which all the units return to their bases. One way to surprise insurgents is by staying on the ground longer than usual
In Mali, rough and partitioned terrain forced French units to “rediscover” infantry maneuvering through the combination of disembarked and embarked warfare. This was particularly true in the Amettetaï valley in the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains. French soldiers were forced to dismount because of the terrain’s peculiar characteristics and jihadists taking cover in the boulders and caves. The outdoor temperature was high during these operations (50-degrees Celsius) and soldiers had to carry heavy loads. Using dismounted combat patrols was necessary to surprise the enemy in its sanctuary. Jihadists “simply did not expect French troops to come after them under such conditions”. The French army forced its enemy to reveal itself in order to then neutralize it with standoff weapons. As a result: “French have drawn as a “lesson learned” that unless the enemy is already exposed, standoff weapons have to be used in conjunction with “old-fashioned” dismounted infantry.”
Interestingly, this kind of hardiness can be considered as the means to “take revenge for Uzbeen”, which had really shaken up the French army. This tragic event marked the French Army’s entrance into the XXIst century. Thereafter, the Army began deploying new equipments to Afghanistan (Tigre attack helicopters in December 2008, VBCI IFV in September 2008, CAESAR self propelled artillery trucks in July 2008, etc) and implemented a “get back to basics campaign to raise the preparedness level of Afghanistan-bound troops.” As a result, a stronger emphasis has been put on soldier’s seasoning during the operation’s preparation phase. Operations in Mali took full advantage of this renewed hardiness.
Audacity is useful when attempting to surprise an opponent. Military culture must increasingly encourage leaders to take risks. However, asking this of them is difficult because any effort to surprise an enemy can be detrimental to forces, which could have been used in different circumstances. Most often, in order to surprise an opponent, one must be prepared to be "deliberately weakened". Moreover, risk-taking is not a natural behavior and requires a leader to be bold and audacious. A timid leader can easily be read by its adversary. However, one is often shaken up by its opponent’s willingness to take risks, because the latter’s spectrum of action is widened and harder to evaluate.
During operation “Serval” in Mali, the French brigade’s daring course of action helped surprise the enemy despite the landscape preventing it from being discrete. Gao and Timbuktu re-conquest operations were waged thanks to swift maneuvers that allowed French units to maintain pressure on the adversaries and confuse them. During these operations, airborne assaults were used for the first time since Kolwezi in 1978. In the Ametettaï Valley, French officers chose to undertake a bold maneuver in order to surprise the 600 to 900 jihadists that were entrenched there. The French forces split in order to reach the jihadists’ position located at the heart of the valley. While some followed the path between the mountains, others descended from the northern stony flank. This maneuver required the soldiers to walk 15 km over 12 hours under the heat (even though the infiltration took place at night) through a tough terrain, while carrying heavy loads. Fighting in these circumstances was tough but the French units successfully contained the jihadists. The latter lost the battle because they were surprised in their sanctuary.
Sometimes, surprising an enemy in a small war requires armies to also ‘surprise’ their allies. In Afghanistan, tight links between afghan security forces members and insurgents made it difficult for the Coalition units on the ground to retain their secrets regarding their operations. As a result, they had to be somewhat secretive about elements of their operational tempo. The GTIAs never disclosed the precise aim of an operation before it was launched. Some even went so far as to lie to Afghan leaders. For example, the disengagement from COP ‘Anjiran’ was executed 48 hours prior to what the French OMLT had told the Afghan Kandak 36. Of course, this is a risky maneuver, both on a political and tactical scale, but in this case it was the only way to surprise the enemy.
“See what imagination can do”
During small wars, the weakest actors’ tactical thinking tends to be more creative and dynamic than that of the strongest. Indeed, armies benefitting from technological superiority tend to reproduce similar tactical schemes, focusing on delivering fire. Consequently, they risk becoming predictable for their opponent. On the other hand, the weakest can only be imaginative if it wants to circumvent its adversary’s superiority. However, tactical non-conformity can be attained.
In 2011, French troops in Afghanistan were able to take the lead over the insurgents thanks to their fluctuating course of action rather than new technologies. Indeed, they managed to successfully implement so-called “nomadisation” and “compoundisation” tactics. In this case, the French wanted to stay within the inhabited area of the Kapisa province’s green zone, rather than leave the ground after operating for a few days. This allowed the French units’ intentions to retain their unpredictability while they occupied the villages for several days. However, this course of action also highlighted the limits of tactical imagination. Living and fighting among the population was risky in terms of the collateral damages it could engender and because it was a very intrusive to a society that valued its privacy. Cultural awareness is a vital factor for tactical thinking in small wars. Finding a cultural advisor is an invaluable asset.
Insurgents often perceive Western armies as predictable, which tends to be an accurate statement. Because most insurgents share this belief, armies can take advantage of it to be deceptive, pushing the enemy to reveal itself. For example, in 2010, in Kapisa, insurgents noticed that the French troops’ operations generally lasted 48 h and that they accompanied their withdrawal with smoke and explosive shells. For their part, French officers noted that Insurgents consistently attacked them while they withdrawed. This phase was a real challenge for them and they often suffered great casualties. The “Hermes” French Task Force (Kapisa, June-November 2010) relied on the fact that the insurgents thought the army’s actions were predictable. For example, a stratagem was used during operation “Hermes Square 2” (4-5 August 2010) in the Alah Say valley. During this mission, on order, French artillery launched deception fires as close as possible to friendly lines, often beyond the established safety boundaries. Because the insurgents were expecting the French units to withdraw at that time, their actions intensified and their positions were unveiled. This allowed soldiers, which were still positioned, to deliver massive fires onto the insurgents. On the eve of an operation, French units resorted to a similar type of stratagem, which consisted of opening fire in an area, which was irrelevant. As a result the insurgents’ informant networks was activated, enabling electronic warfare units to locate the insurgents’ phone conversations and collect valuable information about the group and their leaders. Offensive electronic jamming was also an important tactical asset in Afghanistan, notably in order to prevent insurgents from calling for reinforcement.
Insurgents rarely take initiative. Most often, they only react to the armies’ actions. This is a key factor used to surprise them. To exploit this advantage, Colonel Chanson, commanding TF Korrigan (June-December 2009), decided to implement the well-known « counter-reaction » tactical principle. According to him, insurgents’ actions are predictable because they are a reaction to those of the Coalition. This is especially true during convoys or withdrawals, when insurgents believe the Coalition to be vulnerable. For Colonel Chanson, enemies should be surprised once they have reacted to the first phase of an operation. If achieved through this process, tactical surprise enables the Coalition to demonstrate its superiority over the Insurgents. Moreover, the insurgent’s credibility is undermined because they are always the first to attack, while French troops tend to respond in an act of self defense.
It is clear that imagination is a crucial component of surprise during small wars. This argument is encapsulated in D. Kilcullen’s remarks: “Changing political strategies, altering tactical methods, or varying operational patterns are ways of seeking operational surprise. Surprise tends to be more effective than shock because it seizes the initiative, forcing insurgents to react to security forces. To be effective, however, this method demands constant innovation in new measures.”
“It's coming through a hole in the air”
As mentioned above, regular armies find it it difficult to act at a high speed during small wars. As a result, armies need air assets to compensate for this disadvantage. Indeed, “Mobility sets the tempo of war. Not only does it provide the capacity to move and support a military force; it also allows he who possesses it to seek out the enemy, pursue him and surprise him by applying fires and a volume of force at the place and time of his choosing. […] Because of its characteristics and its unique flight capabilities, the helicopter initially provided ground troops with an unprecedented ability to free themselves from terrain barriers and from the reliance on major infrastructures.” Mobility is important on both a physical and psychological level. In terms of physical benefits, helicopters provide intelligence, swiftly transport troops to remote areas on the battlefield, support troops on the ground and can even undertake autonomous action. Helicopters can also have a psychological effect on the insurgents. Often, the insurgents are surprised because they do not expect choppers to fly over their positions. They end up being caught under heavy fires before having the time to anticipate their arrival.
The French military has valued the use of helicopters since the Algerian war, which is often labeled as “the first Helicopter war”. Helicopters were also used in Afghanistan and Mali. During the “Serval” operation, helicopters were vital during close combat attacks as they helped support ground troops, especially in remote areas. They were also used as reconnaissance assets during the long range raids towards the Northern part of the country, helping units on the ground find their way and maintain the tempo. Jihadists managed to hit helicopters with small weapons and machine gun fires. However, thankfully, the fear that the enemies may use MANPADS never materialized. In Afghanistan, the army resorted to heliborne operations approximately ten times per month. Thanks to a low ground to air threat, these operations help units become exceptionally mobile, both by day and night. They also put the insurgent group into a state of permanent insecurity. Deceptive heliborne operations also contribute to the creation of a surprise. The combination of artillery fires and heliborne operations allowed the French units to divert insurgent groups from their main effort axis, among other effects.
In light of these events, the French Army is trying to strengthen its air capabilities by creating a new command and reestablishing an airmobile brigade. However, it is lacking a heavy helicopter in order to reach its full capacity. The following statement illustrates this argument: “The lesson learning process shows that the requirement exists. The natures of the environment, tactical imperatives and the decisive importance of logistics support have not only increased the need for mobility; they have also highlighted the key importance of the volume transported. Four CH-47s can set down the volume of one Infantry Company in a single rotation, thus enjoying the advantage of surprise and a favorable balance of force. Air assault operations conducted in the past have always validated the significance of these findings, which are particularly important for infantrymen.”
“Surprise, surprise. You're only foolin' yourself”
The nature of a surprise does not depend upon the type of warfare. Just like the nature of war, surprise results from an interaction between two human wills. Everything depends upon one’s relationship to the other. As a result cultural awareness is crucial. Modeling the concept of surprise is difficult given that it is double-action phenomenon. Indeed, to surprise and to be surprised are two sides of the same coin. To successfully surprise an opponent, an actor must be willing to surprise on the one hand and on the other hand, the opponent must incorrectly assess the situation. One must understand what its adversary is expecting in order to do something unpredictable.
As a result, surprising an enemy during small wars is no different by nature than that during conventional wars. All the components of tactical surprise are relevant in both conventional and irregular warfare. However, the way they are balanced differs. As stated above, it is very hard for conventional armies to be secretive. Nevertheless, if leaders keep the initiative, use deception operations and are maintain a high operational tempo, surprising irregular adversaries becomes possible.
Above all, the insurgent is not a perfect warrior and can always make incorrect assessments. Though, according to Calwell, insurgents are most inclined to misinterpret their adversary’s actions: “The characteristics of a tumultuary assemblage of fighting men rather expose them to getting into pitfalls if they are cunningly devised. […] fond as they are of stratagems, [they] are not nearly so difficult to deceive as might be imagined. Opportunities often present themselves for preparing ambuscades for such foes, and when these have been skillfully planned remarkable results have sometimes been achieved.” D. Kilcullen says something similar: “[Insurgencies] are more vulnerable to surprise, but this demands continuous innovation: there will never be a single optimal solution. Indeed, the more effective a measure is, the faster it will be obsolete, because it will force the enemy to adapt more quickly.”
Ultimately, successfully surprising an opponent rests on two elements: knowing one’s adversaries and being capable of resorting to tactical imagination. This enables an army to lead the course of action, which its adversary would find unexpected.
 Bruce Springsteen, “Surprise, Surpise”, 2009.
 Ivan Cadeau, La guerre d’Indochine, Tallandier, Paris, 2015, p.214-219.
 Raphaëlle Branche, L’embuscade de Palestro, Algérie 1956, Armand Colin, Paris, 2010.
 Christophe Lafaye, L’armée française en Afghanistan, CNRS éditions, Paris, 2016, p.131-140.
 Christophe Lafaye, op. cit.
 Christopher S. Chivvis, The French War on Al Qa’Ida in Africa, Cambridge, 2016, p.110.
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 The French corps francs during WWI are well described in a famous French novel translated in English: Roger Vercel, Captain Conan (Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War), University of South Carolina Press, 2008.
 Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency, Praeger, 2006, p.49.
 David Kilcullen, “Intelligence” in Thomas Rid and Thomas Keany (ed.), Understanding Counterinsurgency, Routledge, 2010, p.141-159.
 Queen, “You take my breath away”, 1976.
 Colonel C.E. Calwell, Small Wars. Their principles and Practice, General staff-war office, London, third edition, 1906, p.233.
 David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, Praeger, 2006, p.50.
 GTIA stands for Groupement tactique interarmes, a combined tactical group of about 1,000 men and French Army’s key operating unit.
 Colonel François-Marie Gougeon, « Témoignage d’un chef de corps engagé dans l’opération Serval » in « Opérations Serval : le retour de la manœuvre aéroterrestre dans la profondeur », Réflexions tactiques numéro spécial, 2014, p.47-50.
 Michel Goya, « La guerre de trois mois : l'intervention française au Mali en perspectives », Politique étrangère 2/2013 (Eté),p. 157-168. www.cairn.info/revue-politique-etrangere-2013-2-page-157.htm
 Christopher S. Chivvis, The French War on Al Qa’Ida in Africa, Cambridge, 2016, p.110.
 Mission internationale de soutien au Mali sous conduite africaine, a multinational peacekeeping mission.
 For a good overview of the Scorpion program in English see: Nicholas de Larrinaga, “Enter the Scorpion: French Army vehicle fleet modernization”, Jane’s defense weekly, 24 May 2016.
 Lana del Rey, “Back to the Basics”, 2013.
 J.F.C Fuller, The Reformation of War, Hutchinson and Co, London, 1923, p.45.
Michael Shurkin, “France’s war in Mali. Lessons Learned for an Expeditionary Army”, Rand, 2014, p. 22.
 Thomas Schumacher, « Uzbin, ou le jour qui fit entrer l'Armée de Terre dans le XXIème siècle », blog Pax Aquitana, 19 août 2016. http://www.paxaquitania.fr/2016/08/uzbin-ou-le-jour-qui-fit-entrer-larmee.html
 Michael Shurkin, op. cit. See also: Olivier Schmitt, “French Military Adaptation in the Afghan War : Looking Inward or Outward ?”, Journal of Strategic Studies, 2016. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01402390.2016.1220369
 Kelly Clarkson, « Breakaway », 2004.
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 Hubert le Roux et Antoine Sabbagh, Paroles de soldats, les Français en guerre : 1983-2013, Tallandier, 2015, p.321-334.
 Gilles Haberey, Combats asymétriques en Afghanistan, Nuvis, Paris, 2014, p.93.
 Earth Wind and Fire, “Imagination”, 1976.
 Rémy Hémez, “Tactics : Mandatory Imagination in Leadership”, The Strategy Bridge, April 2016. http://www.thestrategybridge.com/the-bridge/2016/4/1/tactics-mandatory-imagination-in-leadership
 Christophe Lafaye, op. cit., p.244-248.
 Colonel Olivier Fort, L’artillerie des stratagèmes, Economica, Paris, 2016, p.193-194.
 Général Benoit Royal, L’artillerie dans les guerres de contre-insurrection, Economica, 2015, p.113-114.
 Guillaume Lasconjarias, Kapisa, Kalachnikovs et Korrigan, Cahier de l’Irsem n°9, 2011, p.33-35. http://www.defense.gouv.fr/content/download/153063/1551098/file/Cahier%20n%C2%B09%20KapisaKalachKorr.pdf
 David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, Cambridge, p.204-205.
 Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”, 1992.
 Etienne de Durand, Benoît Michel and Elie Tenenbaum, “Helicopter Warfare. The Future of Airmobility and Rotary Wing Combat”, Focus stratégique, no. 32 bis, January 2012, p.7. https://www.ifri.org/fr/publications/enotes/focus-strategique/helicopter-warfare-future-airmobility-and-rotary-wing-combat
 Charles R. Schrader, The First Helicopter War. Logistics and Mobility in Algeria 1954-1962, Praeger, Westport, 1999.
 Etienne de Durand, Benoît Michel and Elie Tenenbaum, op. cit. , p.47.
 The Rolling Stones, « Surprise, surprise », 1965.
 Calwell, op. cit, p.249.
 David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, Cambridge, p.205.