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Pardon my lack of warfare jargon.

Modernization of warfare in the last 3-4 centuries including the use of mobile artillery, tanks, mortars, etc., and relative/approximating implementation of the United Nations Convention (in the last ~70 years) of basic human rights while carrying out military operations, being able to create human corridors to evacuate civilians, etc. these are examples of how responsible state actors conduct military operations.

If we contrast that to how guerilla warfare is conducted, it basically defies all those humane aspects and we observe that guerillas have also upgraded themselves and have made the opportunistic use of handheld but lethal weaponry like RPG, kamikaze drones, rocket launchers, suicide bombs, minefields, paragliding, etc. to their decisive advantage.

There are numerous examples including but not limited to the Vietnam war, Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, American retreat from Afghanistan, Inconclusive operations in Iraq and Syria, and the attack on Israel on 07 October 2023.

Things like air strikes are far cries otherwise many of the previous examples might have been spectacularly successful, but they haven't.

It seems that large and capable armies representing nation-states are not able to give a decisive defeat without spending a huge cost on lethal equipment and human life.

At one point, Americans were so desperate that they proposed using the N-bomb in Vietnam.

Why is it that guerilla forces despite having fewer resources are able to use the situation to their advantage while conventional armed forces are not able to do so before they spend huge amounts of resources?

Is there any example, or way, where guerilla forces are subdued without paying (exceedingly, prohibitively) heavy costs of resources of money, life, machines, and time?

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    Don't know about cost-efficiently, but in the mini Kargil war between India and Pakistan, Pakistani military used hybrid tactic to occupy highly defensible posts and India fought it effectively with conventional warfare, including the unexpected and creative use of its Air Force - Airpower at 18,000’: The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War. (Note though that the conclusions that all future wars will be mini-conflicts has now already been debunked by the ongoing Ukraine - Russia war)
    – sfxedit
    Oct 11, 2023 at 15:56
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    Are you asking about irregular warfare (guerrillas, etc), or lawless warfare (massacres, mines, attacking civilians)? All the tools you list have been used by regular forces, too.
    – bharring
    Oct 11, 2023 at 17:48
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    Part of the issue is that counterinsurgency campaigns (i.e. campaigns against guerilla warriors) that are successful almost always include a mix of military and non-military means so its hard to parse out an exclusively military conventional approach.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 11, 2023 at 19:47
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    @prosfilaes Did you mean to say that "Northern Ireland is still part of the U.K.?" Because it isn't a part of the Irish Republic.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 12, 2023 at 23:41
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    @alamar, that would make an interesting answer. Especially regarding the "cost efficiency" part, given that Russia didn't so much "defeat" the insurgents as it signed a pact (effectively bought) one of the fighting clans, and keeps paying to this day.
    – Zeus
    Oct 12, 2023 at 23:56

9 Answers 9

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Cost-effectively isn't that important a metric. Let's say you use a $500K missile to take out a $10K Toyota pickup truck with 6 AK-47 wielding guys. A really rich country can, to an extent manufacture $500K missiles all day long.

The kill count metric is also a flawed, and frequently used, one: if the 6 guys have family that gets upset and their cousins replace them, you've done nothing all that useful.

Scale that up to winning tactical engagements and even large scale battles (Tet, Vietnam, 1968) and you are left with the same problem. You can very well win all of those and lose the war.

With guerrilla wars, what really counts is both a contest of will: will the industrial country outlast the will of the guerrillas? And yes, there the industrial country's population will be tallying up costs, their own casualties. And most of all, the duration this has been going on and their own stakes in the outcome. (I'll return to this at the end).

With indigenous, home-territory guerrillas, you need success at political outreach towards the population. Make it less attractive to support the guerrillas. Quite often by making some concessions and setting up a better government. Don't get trigger-happy on them. Casualties, on civilians, do matter. A lot. Those namby-pamby UN limitations about human rights? An industrial state's ally in winning hearts and minds, not its enemy.

With external guerrilla crossing a border, you need tighter border security. Even with a locals-only insurgency, you need to control weapons flows.

Neither cost calculations, nor enemy kill counts are important thing to focus on.

All that said, there haven't been all that many high-tech/low-tech * counter-insurgency wars/unrests fought successfully:

  • Malaysia (UK vs Communists) in the 50s. But there were both some very favorable political conditions (the guerrillas were mostly ethnic Chinese, not majority Malaysians and the UK was planning to decolonize anyway) and troubling human rights violations.

  • Chechnya in late 90s (Russia vs separatists). To talk about human rights violations is putting it mildly **. And the current peace is kept by a rather bloodthirsty local warlord, not Russia.

Stakes in the outcome

If this question is motivated by the current events in Israel and Palestine then this is a key metric. Everything I said about political outreach, not overfocussing on kill counts and avoiding civilian casualties holds true.

But what is also a massive factor, unlike most guerilla wars, is that the Jewish population - the industrial state counterpart here - really has nowhere to go and an almost infinite stake in it themselves. So what gets most industrialized nations to pack up and go home just doesn't apply.

Now, this might not be the case with a Palestinian government that recognized Israel's right to exist and was willing to negotiate, even on demanding terms. (And this answer is far from claiming that Israel has been a good faith negotiator in the past) But that nothing-to-lose calculation does apply with Hamas, which in the past said it doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist and just wants to gets rid of it.

At times, some have seen that as negotiating point and something Hamas said for popular consumption. With the atrocities they have perpetrated recently, it would be foolish to make that assumption.

On the flip side, Israel's proposals towards the status of Palestinians have also generally been non-starters, from the Palestinian PoV, so they have also no incentive to cease fighting.

So weapon costs and kill counts go out the window: both sides, with the current setup, very much will continue fighting. For that reason, historical evidence of looking at past COIN/guerrilla wars is comparing apples and potatoes. Except as regards the need for political settlement, just like the others. That and the extent to which past civilian casualties motivates ongoing enmity.

But looking for that type of long-term political solutions will have to wait till the current cycle of violence is over.

* High-tech/low-tech wars, which seems to be the intent of the OP's question. As opposed to police actions in rich countries, or counterinsurgencies by poor countries.

** An industrial country which really, really, doesn't care about human rights can fight a COIN war in a different fashion, that of maximum coercion, as pointed out in vsz's answer.

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  • Interesting analysis. I would say other factors that favor the "guerilla" are 1) home-advantage (though to a lesser degree in the case of the current conflict, if at all, but certainly in other well-known conflicts) and 2) ideology/religion/motivation, creating a very asymmetric picture of what's at stake for each side, among other things. Oct 12, 2023 at 22:28
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    "On the flip side, Israel's proposals towards the status of Palestinians have also generally been non-starters". This is simply not true. There were plenty of of offers that genuinely could well be starters, from which they could expand once first goals were achieved. It takes both sides to compromise in negotiations, not just one. One might say, perhaps, that any proposals were "non-starters", because the Palestinian leadership was evidently never interested in peace, and would (did) find a pretext to refuse any offer.
    – Zeus
    Oct 13, 2023 at 0:19
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    @Zeus Do you have examples of what you would consider starter proposals? If there exists solutions, as you claim, that could be acceptable for both parties in a good-faith negotiation, that would definitely be relevant to this answer.
    – Birjolaxew
    Oct 14, 2023 at 22:07
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The cold war examples (you gave) have the insurgents having safe havens and being [rather] freely resupplied by some neighboring country. And even the Taliban in the 2020s benefited from double play by Pakistan. Such conditions are not universal though.

Recent example of an insurgency ultimately crushed (not mentioned in the other answers) is in Tigray, Ethiopia. Yeah, the insurgents even did pretty well for a while, but they had nothing to counter Chinese etc. drones in the end. (N.B. I'm aware it formally ended with a ceasefire.)

Another [somewhat forgotten] example from Africa: Biafra.

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    FWTW, in both cases the conflicts were rather brutal for the civilian population. And a [rather strict] blockade was also imposed in both cases, leading to starvation etc. (much moreso in the Biafra case.) Oct 11, 2023 at 18:10
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Not sure its possible to address the exceeding prohibitively aspect of this without defining what resources to include. However, one might include the Malayan Emergency in this category.

For sure, the hundreds of thousand of malayan home guard, and tens of thousands of regular troops might be described as overwhelming compared to the around ten thousand communists, but perhaps it might not be prohibitively excessive. After all, the communist uprising failed, and malaya (later Malaysia) remains a democracy.

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    From the wikipedia page, I'd say that the conflict was more nuanced than "communist vs democracy" (independence and british colonialism were also part of the question). From the conclusion of your second paragraph, I suppose you're for democracy (no judgment whatsoever), and saying it wasn't "prohibitively excessive" because the side you support won is a very subjective argument : opponant would probably find it "prohibitively excessive". This combined with a more nuanced conflict leave me wanting more context from your answer. Oct 13, 2023 at 12:13
  • I agree that the malayan emergency is very nuanced. Without bias, I believe that the british forces conducting the operation would have described their expenditure as not 'prohibitively excessive' since they were able to maintain it until their strategic goals were met. See the portugese colonial wars as an example of the opposite, where the financial stress of pursuing their strategic goals accounted for 40% of gdp, and following their revolution, were unwilling or unable to maintain (ie prohibitively excessive).
    – code11
    Oct 13, 2023 at 20:34
  • I don't think this was cost-efficient. "Over 451,000 troops" vs "Over 7,000 troops". "forcibly relocated between 400,000 to 1,000,000 civilians into concentration camps". 1948-60 12-year-long Emergency (even though any serious threats were mostly over by 1950).
    – user103496
    Oct 14, 2023 at 3:41
  • malaya (later Malaysia) remains a democracy. This is also incorrect. It was thanks at least in part to this heavy-handed Emergency (and general anti-communist hysteria) that ensured Malaya/Malaysia was dominated by one party (UMNO) for 60 years (1957 to 2018). (Similarly in Singapore which remains dominated to this day by the PAP.)
    – user103496
    Oct 14, 2023 at 3:44
  • @user103496 Fair point, for some reason I fixated on OP's last sentence where they were interested in 'prohibitively excessive'. The trick also is, how can you compare the expenditure with what would have happened had they not acted? Sure, the UK and malayan gov spent far more men and resources than the insurgents, but had they not acted, there was the chance the country would have gone communist. In some sense then, anything short of the full GDP of malaya could have been thought of as 'efficient' since failure to act would have lost everything.
    – code11
    Oct 16, 2023 at 15:12
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Yes, if the dominant country

  • doesn't care about human rights and doesn't need to fear (or just doesn't care about) diplomatic repercussions from other strong countries
  • doesn't need to fear that their own citizens will become sympathetic to the guerillas and demand an end to hostilities.

Dictatorships can often fulfill both these conditions. The Nazis have done this during the war, and the Soviets during and for a short while after the war, in countries which resisted or rebelled against communist rule. (Afghanistan in the '80s was a different thing than rebellious subjects in the late 40's and in the 50's, because by then the world became more interconnected and wiping Afghanistan off the map was not what they were willing to go for... but under Stalin, it was different. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. would have had no trouble with killing civilians until they stop fighting or are all dead to the very last man)

The main advantage of guerillas is that they can intermingle among the civilian population, the civilian population supports them, and the dominant country tries to not massacre civilians. However, if the dominant country does not care about civilians and does not care about committing genocide, then this advantage of guerillas goes away. If guerillas from a village attack a military outpost, and the military in response kills every single man, woman and child in that village as punishment (or drags them all to gulags), then the resistance in that village is wiped out, including the relatives who might want revenge. And it will make other villages rethink whether they want the same thing happening to them as well.

Democratic countries (or dictatorships trying to soften up and democratize, like the Soviets in the late 80's) try not to indiscriminately massacre civilians, and have a rule of law which prevents them from persecuting relatives of dissidents if they otherwise did nothing wrong. A brutal dictatorship can just round up and kill or enslave the entire extended family of anyone who stands up against them.

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    See the mass Chechen deportations after WWII as an example. You can’t fight a guerrilla war if 99% of the population is deported. Oct 12, 2023 at 16:19
  • Even against the Nazis there were successful insurgencies, whether briefly (Italian Partisan Republics) or lasting (Yugoslavia). So a completely ruthless regime might succeed against an insurgency, it is still not a given (wiping out a village is easier said than done if they have all run for the hills and are hiding in booby-trapped caves).
    – gerrit
    Oct 13, 2023 at 6:47
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Partial answer perhaps, very brief version:

COIN - counter insurgency comes to mind.

First and foremost the British campaign in Malaya - though the British considered the end result a victory, the withdrawal of British forces and the establishment of an independent state meant that many considered this not the case. However, the tactics gave invaluable insight for future operations.

(The following is culled from Wiki - I'm short on time atm):

The Dutch campaign, The Westerling Method.

Westerling ordered the registration of all Javanese arriving in Makassar because of the large numbers of Javanese participating in the Sulawesi resistance. He also used scouts to infiltrate local villages and to identify members of the resistance.[82]

Based on their information and that of the Dutch military intelligence service, the DST surrounded one of more suspected villages during night and drove the population to a central location. At daybreak, the operation began, often led by Westerling. Men would be separated from women and children. From the information gathered, Westerling exposed certain people as terrorists and murderers, who were shot without any further investigation. Afterwards, Westerling forced local communities to refrain from supporting guerillas by swearing on the Quran, and it established local self-defence units with some members recruited from former guerrillas deemed as "redeemable".

Westerling directed eleven operations throughout the campaign. He succeeded in eliminating the insurgency and undermining local support for the Republicans. His actions restored Dutch rule in southern Sulawesi.

India

The Kashmir insurgency, which started by 1989, was brought under control by the Indian government and violence has been reduced. A branch of the Indian Army, known as the Rashtriya Rifles (RR), was created for the sole purpose of destroying the insurgency in Kashmir, and it has played a major role in doing so.

The complication is that most recent COIN operations are in the shadow of global decolonization. Whilst tactical operations may have succeeded, this mattered little when the end result was ultimately the loss of the territory that the guerrillas had been fighting for anyway, and civil war aside, the guerrillas could be conceived as having got their victory in the end, even if they themselves did not survive.

Aside: Northern Ireland Troubles.

Probably needs a larger section (than i can cover) but the end result is that an accord was drawn up, ceasefires held and it has largely been peaceful since, with violence largely limited to within the related communities.

Vietnam: I'm sure a lot will be said, but tactically there were successes, but the political situation deteriorated with the end result.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterinsurgency

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles#Political_process

4

I think there are plenty. It is true that among the famous insurgencies/guerillas, we see nation states strategically defeated quite often (the answer by Italien Philosphers explains the mechanics IMHO quite well). However, those insurgencies are famous precisely because the weaker side won over a stronger opponent. Including less famous conflicts, guerillas have much less favorable track record.

Below are some examples of insurgencies that were defeated (or seem to be winding down), via a brief random clicking throuh insuregencies mentioned in Wiki category insurgencies - I don't doubt it would be easy to find more, this is just where I ended. I also looked at death counts for both sides (there's some guesswork, I did take middle of any ranges and added some rounding). The numbers are imprecise, but notice that in all cases the insurgents suffered greater causalties than the nation states, sometimes much greater.

Insurgency Result accordign to wiki Deaths of nation state / Deaths of insurgents
Sinai Egyptian victory 0.75
Naxalite-Maoist Ongoing since 1967, "steadily declining in terms of geographical coverage and number of violent incidents" 0.7
Ingushetia Russian victory 0.5
Balochistan Ongoing since 1947, "This insurgency has begun to weaken.", "Baloch militants have taken some reconciliation offers from the government and offered to hand in their weapons." 0.7
Assam "Peace agreements signed, rebel groubs disbanded or disarmed" 0.15
Punjab Indian victory 0.4

One of the common themes here is that insurgents can lose (or fail to gain) popular support as well as foreign support and without it, they can be overcome.

The book "Invisible armies" by Max Boot (which I didn't read) is also cited to support a more specific claim about insurgencies in the Fremen Mirage series by Bret Deveraux

Boot’s book is a useful corrective to [the view that guerillas rarely lose], noting that in 443 insurgencies in the modern era, almost two-thirds unambiguously failed and only about a quarter appear to have unambiguously succeeded.

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  • Yes, excellent point about pointing out survivor bias. You can add to it Shining Path in Peru. One thing to notice is that many of these are home ground for the main state as well. So in that sense Israel's current survival, at least against the Palestinians, not the past decades' Arab wars really isn't that unusual. Oct 15, 2023 at 16:47
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Militarily US could win in Vietnam (with or without using Nuclear weapons) - but such a victory would be a political disaster. Similarly, Israel could reoccupy Gaza, returning to pre-2005 state (see Israeli disengagement from Gaza), which would allow effectively (i.e., cost-efficiently) preventing terrorist attacks and would significantly improve the living conditions for the Palestinians - but this is a political impossibility: it would be costly in terms of Israeli and Palestinian casualties, and it would create a situation where Israel rules over a significant population that does not have the same rights as Israeli citizens - such a situation cannot last in a long run, as the experience has shown.

Background
Gaza and West Bank came to Israeli control after the Six Day War of 1967. Previously they had been controlled respectively by Egypt and Jordan. Palestinian National aspirations were acknowledged by Israel in the framework of Oslo Accords, and Israel subsequently ceded some parts of the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian control/administration, although keeping the effective military control (by occupying strategic points and restricting the size of the Palestinian police forces.) Israel de facto withdrew from Gaza in 2005, including the removal of the Israeli settlements in this territory, although it still exercises the control over its border and air space.

Update
In response to comments: there has been significant increase in terrorist attacks and fatalities in Israel since the Oslo accords, i.e., transfer of some parts of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinian self-control (image source). The big peak corresponds to the so-called Second Intifada, and the stop of violence is often credited to the construction of the separation barrier along the Green line (=1967 border=1949 armstice line), which limited Palestinian access to Israel and deprived many Palestinians of their livelihood. enter image description here

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  • which would allow effectively (i.e., cost-efficiently) preventing terrorist attacks and would significantly improve the living conditions for the Palestinians : both claims seem very dubious to me. Physical occupation before 2005 didn't prevent terrorist attacks and living conditions have been abysmal both then and now.
    – Evargalo
    Oct 13, 2023 at 9:01
  • @Evargalo I expanded the answer. It is not clear where your information about living conditions come from. It is generally believed that open borders and population mobility facilitate economic growth.
    – Roger V.
    Oct 13, 2023 at 9:26
-2

Guerilla warfare works because they are one with the local populance (just as Mao has said: "The guerilla is the fish in the ocean of people"). The local either supports the cause of the guerilla fighters, or at least believe they are the least worse alternative to the "enemy". If the guerillas don't have the support, or ambivalence of the locals, they would lose--unless they have robust support from a foreign source, like CIA Special Activities Division.

What is even detrimental to the leadership of the "enemy" is that guerillas often appear when they enter a place where they, the "enemy", are consider "foreign". So the populance of the "enemy" would not support keep sending their own young to die in fruitless counter-insurgency combat. Unless, of course, like this time, it is a racial + territorial conflict, and both side is prepared to end the other's existence. Soldiers from both side will die, their leaders will use their death as propaganda, and the tears from the grieving families will ignite the fuse for the next conflict.

-3

I thought 'everyone knew' that no regular army has ever defeated any significant guerilla movement nor, prolly, ever will.

I say 'movement' because a mere 'force' doesn't have the support of the general population for supplies or concealment.

On the simplest level, guerillas need fewer resources because they use 'hit-and-run' tactics which pretty-much by definition are not available to conventional forces.

However well guarded, a conventional column can always be worn down by attacks from any direction. It matters not whether that 'column' is a trading caravan, a medieval military mission or a bomber stream flying over Europe in World War II.

In that case the only real hope is that the journey is short enough for the column to absorb the damage before it is overwhelmed.

Archers, machine-gunners or MIGs armed with missiles my tiny force of unseen attackers will usually be able to strike down some of your much larger formation from such a distance that even before our arrows or bullets kill your people, we have turned away and are out of range.

While your people remain with the column, we can keep doing that until the cows come home… and you don't.

If your people do leave the column in pursuit of mine, and manage to make up the distance, by the time they reach us they will be in the minority and more likely than not, be overwhelmed.

What more is needed?

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    There have been counterinsurgency successes. The Irish Troubles and the Malayan Emergency come to mind.
    – Mark
    Oct 13, 2023 at 2:56
  • Thanks Mark and those two do indeed come to mind… and what measures are you using to class either as a 'counterinsurgency success'? Surely in Ireland behind-the-scenes diplomacy, not any 'warfare technique' did the trick. Is it not true that in Malaya, even diplomacy and 'warfare technique' combined failed and basically, the insurgents got their way? Oct 14, 2023 at 23:01
  • You win a guerrilla war the same way you win any other war: by getting the other side to do what you want. Cutting off the other side's base of support, as happened in Ireland, is a pretty good way of doing that.
    – Mark
    Oct 16, 2023 at 21:38
  • @Mark Clearly, yet how does that help here? How is that not like saying 'You win by winning'? Oct 16, 2023 at 21:43

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