John Arquilla and “The Coming Swarm”

Professor John Arquilla, who teaches in the special operations program at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California, and who is the author of “Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military,” published an important article recently in the New York Times entitled “The Coming Swarm.” In it, he outlined the trend towards the use of swarming tactics by terrorists. Going back to the events of September 11th, he shows how many small teams are used to overwhelm local sentinel and patrol forces. The recent attacks in Mumbai and Lahore conform to this general plan of action.

Arquilla explains that the terrorists are not sophisticated in their tactical procedures or armed with high-tech weaponry. They only use sufficient firepower to overcome individual policemen, or small groups of them, and then proceed to extract a terrible human toll amongst unarmed civilians. It is in the design of their operating concept that they show a degree of sophistication.

Military and government targets enclosed by a prepared perimeter and guarded by heavily armed sentinel forces are of no interest to terrorists. Soft targets are their preferred point of aim. They know that with only a small degree of concentration of force and modest firepower they can overwhelm both the police guards and their immediate response patrolling units. On the off chance that a specially equipped and trained rapid reaction team is close enough to intervene in a timely fashion, they use multiple teams as a hedge against any operation failing completely. These attack teams can be used against the same target or against multiple targets in close proximity. While military and police special forces units may easily outmatch a single terrorist team, the others will be free to wreck havoc, at least for a little while. That small interval of time provides the other terror squads sufficient freedom of action for them to accomplish their blood-soaked aim.

Arquilla’s conclusions provide several simple and effective counters to swarming tactics. Simple though they may be, they represent serious challenges to the way Canada’s JTF2 is organized. First, far more units are needed than the one currently established. Unless they are organized for multiple and separate simultaneous tactical actions, they will be overwhelmed by the general tempo of the situation. Second, special forces units need to be spread across the country. One central location is an administrative convenience, not a design for operational effectiveness. The time lag between the alarm and the response will provide the terror squads with all of the freedom of action they need to murder and destroy to the limit of their capacity. Third, he says special units should “not [be] ‘elite’ but rather ‘good enough’ to deal with terrorist teams. In dealing with swarms, economizing on force is essential.” The simple equipment and rudimentary skills of terrorists are not a threat to even standard readiness military forces. Resorting to unrealistic levels of technical superiority and training proficiency drive up costs and lower the number of units that can be generated.

Arquilla argues that the ideas behind employing overwhelming force through the rapid dispatch of technically and numerically superior anti-terrorist units are holdovers from Cold War military thinking. A dispassionate analysis of the threat produces a more realistic assessment. Surprise will be a central element of all successful terrorist attacks; it is their greatest advantage. When intelligence services fail to provide sufficient warning to ward off the attackers, cutting down on response times by special force units is the key to limiting damage. Within a country the size of Canada, this realization demands dispersal rather than concentration of those forces. The definite move towards swarming tactics in terror attacks means that small sub-units must be organized, equipped and procedurally prepared to deal with two and three-person tactical teams that will be proficient, but not expert, in their fighting skills. Arquilla concludes by saying, “the swarm will be heading our way, too. We need to get smaller, closer and quicker. The sooner the better.”

I echo his sentiments.