Stopping a New Class of Militants

August 28, 2014

Technological improvements are changing the power relationships between non-state and state actors. At War on the Rocks, TX Hammes made this argument with an eye toward Israel and Hamas. One of his key takeaways is that technological advances have afforded Hamas the opportunity to become a more capable and deadly military force and thereby blunt technological advantages Israel has traditionally enjoyed. This insight is not only relevant for Israel-Hamas interactions, but is indicative of a larger regional trend involving an array of militant groups currently in the news from Hezbollah to the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL). The implications for state actors seeking to roll back these groups are severe, and will require a new approach to irregular conflicts characterized by greater interaction between tactics, strategy, and technology.

Militant groups have displayed an increased capability across a range of warfighting functions such as fires, maneuver and communications. Augmented by new technologies, these developments indicate that militants are growing in their lethality and capacity to launch fires at state actors, as opposed to indiscriminate attacks. As General Robert Scales (ret) and WOTR’s Douglas Ollivant argued in The Washington Post a few weeks ago, “terrorist armies are fighting smarter and deadlier than ever.” For example, militants used to engage in sporadic hit-and-run attacks characterized by ineffective AK-47 fire or an RPG launch. Now they are skilled soldiers, demonstrating their ability to successfully utilize indirect fire support and maneuver effectively. A seasoned military official recently told ABC News that ISIL fighters are “incredible” and “use special operations TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures].”

The strategic considerations of the state are being challenged. And some of their technological responses may be counterproductive. For example, despite the Iron Dome’s tactical success, it did not bring Israel closer to destroying Hamas, but rather reinforced a siege mentality and exposed the political weakness of Israel’s strategy. In Iraq, U.S. troops travelled in MRAPs and up-armored Humvees, separating themselves from the population. This became an impediment to conducting population-centric counterinsurgency. Technology, on its own, has limited utility. It is the congruence of the technology with an innovation in tactical and doctrinal concepts that can provide state actors with game-changing capabilities to overcome the threats posed by militant groups.

Militant tactical and technological innovation puts the onus on state actors not only to pursue a high degree of operational flexibility, but also a high adaptive capacity at the strategic level. This is because the spectrum of warfare for which regular forces must be prepared is more complex and diverse than the fixed poles of counterinsurgency or maneuver warfare. Tactical technologies must be supported by innovation at the strategic level in order to ensure a proper feedback loop between tactics and strategic outcomes. Thus, the implication for state actors seeking to defeat these groups is to maintain their technological edge through both a superiority of capabilities as well as a degree of strategic flexibility. A failure to better align tactics and strategy will fail to counter the tactical and technological advances of violent non-state actors.


Jack Miller is currently the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Technology and National Security Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington D.C. He has also spent time at the Center for Strategic and International Studies working for the Transnational Threats Project and The Washington Quarterly Journal. He received his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in political science from the University of Pennsylvania.