Guerilla warfare combatants under cover

Guerilla warfare involves leading a small group of soldiers, such as armed civilians, while using unorthodox military tactics including ambushes, sabotage, raids, and hit-and-run attacks, to fight a larger, more organized (and typically state-sponsored) enemy. Operations typically include a variety of strong surprise attacks against transportation routes, individual groups, and enemy installations and structures. While attacking in small groups and using camouflage and often captured weapons of the enemy, the guerrilla force can keep constant pressure on its foes and diminish its numbers, while still allowing quick escape possibilities. To succeed against a larger and better-armed foe, guerilla warfare units must be organized and prepared.

Mission objective

Preparation begins with a mission objective. Using no more than one-third of your time for this stage, construct the mission objective including initial instructions for the mission. When constructing the order, be sure to consider weather, daylight, and travel time in your mission statement.

Next, notify the guerilla unit that a mission is imminent (called the “warning order”). State the overall nature of the operation and name all personnel who will likely be participating in the mission. Finally, provide a general timeline and location that the operation will occur. Offer the unit enough information so they can begin preparation for the mission.

Understand that surprise is almost always a primary objective in guerilla warfare missions. If it is discovered that the operation has been betrayed, it must be called off immediately.

Tentative planning phase

Next, make a tentative plan. Plan the group’s tasks including security during movement, resupply operations, and any potential coordination with adjacent groups. Make a list of any limitations that could hinder the mission. Identify mission-critical tasks that must be completed to rate the operation as a success.

Create a mission statement which documents the task, participants, timeline, location, and purpose of the mission. Think of the mission statement as the who, what, when, where, and why declarations. For example, a mission statement may state: “Our group will attack X to seize their supply garrison on Tuesday at 5:00 AM in order to procure supplies for our area.”

Develop a sketch of the operation – identify courses of action

Example operations sketch used in combat mission

Next, develop potential courses of action (COA). COAs describe the strategies and leadership actions required to achieve the mission’s objective.  COAs are similar to the mission statement and consist of the type of action, the time the action begins, the location of the action, the method to be used, and the leaders intent.

Design COAs that are feasible and reasonable. Make sure each COA is distinguishable and unique – not just minor variations of another COA.  They are the foundation of the plan.

Start with a sketch of operations which should include intelligence – everything that is known about the enemy. Document what you know about their forces including their available weapons, position and known defenses, unique strengths, and recent activities. Document any potential reinforcement capabilities they may have and *their* possible courses of action. Don’t forget to consider the enemy’s disposition and morale – sympathizers can provide a steady flow of information before and after the attack.

Consider how terrain and weather could affect the operation. Identify obstacles you may encounter along the way and during the operational movement. Identify cover and concealment areas (terrain of course, should be used to provide cover and concealment).


In your operations sketch, determine and document locations that provide optimal observation points and locations that offer the best attack positions. Then determine how to reach and move about these areas (called “avenues of approach”). Consider the following: How can these avenues support movement? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each option? What routes will the enemy likely use to counterattack?

Next, consider defensive aspects of the avenues of approach. Consider how the enemy could use these approaches and then decide which avenue is the most dangerous – and the least.

Finally, wargame the plan. Analyze courses of action against the enemy’s most probable courses of action. Compare the potential courses of action and select the one that is most likely to succeed.

Guerilla soldier movement and reconnaissance

Guerrillas must plan carefully for withdrawal once an operation has been completed or if it is going badly. The withdrawal phase is sometimes regarded as the most important part of a planned action – to get entangled in a lengthy battle with superior forces is usually fatal to guerrilla operatives. Withdrawal is usually accomplished using a variety of different routes and methods and may include quickly scouring the area for loose weapons, evidence cleanup, or disguise as peaceful civilians.

If time permits, rehearsals can be used to reveal weaknesses or problems with the plan and to ensure subordinates understand the plan’s operation. However, it is possible, likely even, that the unit may need to begin movement while the leader is still planning. Determine when movement of the unit should begin and at the appropriate time, give the order to move out.

Preferably the leader of the unit makes a reconnaissance run first but if time does not allow this, the leader may make a reconnaissance map from general knowledge. If neither option is available, a scout can be sent to conduct reconnaissance.

Completing the objective

The plan is considered complete after taking into consideration any new information gleaned from reconnaissance. Once the plan is complete, the “complete order” is announced. Typically within sight of the objective or while positioned in defensive terrain, the unit leader issues orders directing movement and objectives using the sketch developed earlier.

The leader should ask the subordinates to repeat the orders not only to ensure they are understood, but to reinforce the directions they’ve been given. Finally, question the soldiers to ensure they understand the mission.

Additional information

Sir Robert Thompson’s guidelines for battling counter-insurgents

Military drawing of a typical combat base camp

The adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closers” rings true. It’s important to understand how the enemy will react to guerilla warrior’s ambitions. Sir Robert Thompson penned a widely distributed work that presented the basic principles of counter-insurgency warfare. Any guerrilla warfare leader should be familiar with Thompson’s guidelines which are presented below.

  1. The people are the key base to be secured and defended rather than territory won or enemy bodies counted. Contrary to the focus of conventional warfare, territory gained or casualty counts are not of overriding importance in counter-guerrilla warfare. The support of the population is the key variable. Since many insurgents rely on the population for recruits, food, shelter, financing, and other materials, the counter-insurgent force must focus its efforts on providing physical and economic security for that population and defending it against insurgent attacks and propaganda.
  2. There must be a clear political counter-vision that can overshadow, match or neutralize the guerrilla vision. This can range from granting political autonomy to economic development measures in the affected region. The vision must be an integrated approach, involving political, social and economic and media influence measures. A nationalist narrative, for example, might be used in one situation, an ethnic autonomy approach in another. An aggressive media campaign must also be mounted in support of the competing vision or the counter-insurgent regime will appear weak or incompetent.
  3. Practical action must be taken at the lower levels to match the competitive political vision. It may be tempting for the counter-insurgent side simply to declare guerrillas “terrorists” and pursue a harsh liquidation strategy. Brute force, however, may not be successful in the long run. Action does not mean capitulation, but sincere steps such as removing corrupt or arbitrary officials, cleaning up fraud, building more infrastructure, collecting taxes honestly, or addressing other legitimate grievances can do much to undermine the guerrillas’ appeal.
  4. Economy of force. The counter-insurgent regime must not overreact to guerrilla provocations, since this may indeed be what they seek in order to create a crisis in civilian morale. Indiscriminate use of firepower may only serve to alienate the key focus of counter-insurgency – the base of the people. Police level actions should guide the effort and take place in a clear framework of legality, even if under a State of Emergency. Civil liberties and other customs of peacetime may have to be suspended, but again, the counter-insurgent regime must exercise restraint, and cleave to orderly procedures. In the counter-insurgency context, “boots on the ground” are even more important than technological prowess and massive firepower, although anti-guerrilla forces should take full advantage of modern air, artillery and electronic warfare assets.
  5. Big unit action may sometimes be necessary. If police action is not sufficient to stop the guerrilla fighters, military sweeps may be necessary. Such “big battalion” operations may be needed to break up significant guerrilla concentrations and split them into small groups where combined civic-police action can control them.
  6. Aggressive mobility. Mobility and aggressive small unit action is extremely important for the counter-insurgent regime. Heavy formations must be lightened aggressively to locate, pursue and neutralize insurgent units. Huddling in static strongpoints simply concedes the field to the insurgents. They must be kept on the run constantly with aggressive patrols, raids, ambushes, sweeps, cordons, roadblocks, prisoner snatches, etc.
  7. Ground level embedding and integration. In tandem with mobility is the embedding of hardcore counter-insurgent units or troops with local security forces and civilian elements. The US Marines in Vietnam also saw some success with this method, under its CAP (Combined Action Program) where Marines were teamed as both trainers and “stiffeners” of local elements on the ground. US Special Forces in Vietnam, like the Green Berets, also caused significant local problems for their opponents by their leadership and integration with mobile tribal and irregular forces. The CIA’s Special Activities Division created successful guerrilla forces from the Hmong tribe during the war in Vietnam in the 1960s, from the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the war in Afghanistan in 2001, and from the Kurdish Peshmerga against Ansar al-Islam and the forces of Saddam Hussein during the war in Iraq in 2003. In Iraq, the 2007 US “surge” strategy saw the embedding of regular and special forces troops among Iraqi army units. These hardcore groups were also incorporated into local neighborhood outposts in a bid to facilitate intelligence gathering, and to strengthen ground level support among the masses.
  8. Cultural sensitivity. Counter-insurgent forces require familiarity with the local culture, mores and language or they will experience numerous difficulties. Americans experienced this in Vietnam and during the US invasion of Iraqi and occupation, where shortages of Arabic speaking interpreters and translators hindered both civil and military operations.
  9. Systematic intelligence effort. Every effort must be made to gather and organize useful intelligence. A systematic process must be set up to do so, from casual questioning of civilians to structured interrogations of prisoners. Creative measures must also be used, including the use of double agents, or even bogus “liberation” or sympathizer groups that help reveal insurgent personnel or operations.
  10. Methodical clear and hold. An “ink spot” clear and hold strategy must be used by the counter-insurgent regime, dividing the conflict area into sectors, and assigning priorities between them. Control must expand outward like an ink spot on paper, systematically neutralizing and eliminating the insurgents in one sector of the grid, before proceeding to the next. It may be necessary to pursue holding or defensive actions elsewhere, while priority areas are cleared and held.
  11. Careful deployment of mass popular forces and special units. Mass forces include village self-defense groups and citizen militias organized for community defense and can be useful in providing civic mobilization and local security. Specialist units can be used profitably, including commando squads, long range reconnaissance and “hunter-killer” patrols, defectors who can track or persuade their former colleagues like the Kit Carson units in Vietnam, and paramilitary style groups.
  12. The limits of foreign assistance must be clearly defined and carefully used. Such aid should be limited either by time, or as to material and technical, and personnel support, or both. While outside aid or even troops can be helpful, lack of clear limits, in terms of either a realistic plan for victory or exit strategy, may find the foreign helper “taking over” the local war, and sucked into a lengthy commitment, thus providing the guerrillas with valuable propaganda opportunities as the toll of dead foreigner’s mounts. Such a scenario occurred with the US in Vietnam, with the American effort creating dependence in South Vietnam, and war-weariness and protests back home. Heavy-handed foreign interference may also fail to operate effectively within the local cultural context, setting up conditions for failure.
  13. Time. A key factor in guerrilla strategy is a drawn-out, protracted conflict that wears down the will of the opposing counter-insurgent forces. Democracies are especially vulnerable to the factor of time. The counter-insurgent force must allow enough time to get the job done. Impatient demands for victory centered around short-term electoral cycles play into the hands of the guerrillas, though it is equally important to recognize when a cause is lost, and the guerrillas have won.