Due to growing concerns about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, its large-scale military exercises in the Western Military District, its cyber and information operations against several European countries, and its frequent airspace violations, many countries have been forced in recent years to take a critical look at their national defense strategies and the capabilities serving those strategies. The need for such national defense revision has been further fueled by the recognition that international decision-making processes have become extremely complex and slow, potentially delaying if not preventing any meaningful international reaction to Russian aggression. As a result of the review of their national defense frameworks, more and more countries—especially the Baltic and Scandinavian states—have realized that their existing defense establishments would never be a match for the Russian war machine and have started to look at alternative solutions to defend their national sovereignty.
To respond to the reemergence of an aggressive Russia with a strategic approach that would increase their chances to achieve victory, the Baltic and Scandinavian states seem to have been trying to dust off and upgrade an old concept: total defense. This approach is based on the combination of conventional military activities and civilian resilience and resistance during foreign occupation. Sweden, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have each been making significant steps to develop a national, whole-of-society, total defense concept in which all segments of the government, private organizations, and civil society have tasks in the defense of national sovereignty. Beyond the efforts of these individual nations, the United States and NATO seem to have been supporting such approaches as well. Using the results of numerous seminars, tabletop exercises, panel discussions, and research papers on this topic, and with help from NATO and other allies, the United States’ Special Operations Command Europe recently developed a Resistance Operating Concept to help enable countries to deter and resist any potential Russian aggression. Although the general idea of these total defense concepts—using an asymmetric approach to offset Russia’s overwhelming conventional capabilities and to involve all stakeholders in a defense strategy—is a good starting point, the concepts suffer from an important mistake. They use the countries’ existing conventional military forces as the cornerstone and assign them significant roles and responsibilities in the defense of national integrity and sovereignty.
If the conventional military capabilities of the Scandinavian and Baltic states were combined into a single military force, they would still be outweighed by Russian capabilities in the Western Military District. In the case of a Russian attack on a state (or states) in this region, what would result is the quick and complete destruction of the defenders’ military force and full occupation of the attacked country. In fact, a simulation of a Russian attack on the Baltic states conducted by the RAND Corporation concluded that it would take only about two days for Russia to defeat the militaries of the Baltic states and occupy all three of them. According to the total defense concept, a situation like this would trigger a resistance phase during which survivors from the military and recruits from civil society would start organizing in order to fight against the occupying Russian force until international help arrives. Both the simulation and total defense concepts seem to agree that the fate of current conventional military forces is unavoidable and mostly total destruction. So if this is the case, why would these countries continue maintaining traditional military frameworks that contribute so little to their new national defense strategies? What is even more puzzling is why these countries do not transform their militaries into forces that can actually be an effective instrument in support of their total defense concepts.
If countries really want to implement total defense, then their first step must be the complete dismantlement of their existing defense forces and the creation a new military framework that, by design, is best suited for such an approach. Countries with total defense strategies should abandon the idea of trying to mount a conventional defense against Russian aggression and should instead focus all of their efforts on the resistance phase of the conflict. These countries must break from the traditional military culture and get rid of that culture’s most fundamental elements—conventional services, formations, and rank structures—and create something entirely new: a professional irregular defense force with new types of forces that are purpose built for resistance operations.
Twenty-first-century resistance only has a chance to succeed against Russian occupation if it is executed by a force that is specifically selected, organized, educated, trained, equipped, and supported for such operations. To find examples of such formations, planners should turn not to the romanticized notions of World War II resistance networks; rather, they should draw lessons from the Taliban, Hezbollah, and ISIS. To be sure, these groups employ certain tactics that represent clear violations of the law of armed conflict and that should certainly not be adopted. However, they have undeniably achieved significant success against the largest and most advance militaries over several years—which presents a strong case that some of their practices, especially if they were to be implemented with the backing of a nation-state’s resources, would be extremely effective against the Russian military. Both realism and prudence suggest that it would be strategically wiser for vulnerable countries to direct their limited human and financial resources toward the creation of such forces than to waste them on the maintenance and further development of conventional forces. The budget, size, and capabilities of these current forces are, frankly, meaningless in the event of a conflict with Russia. By contrast, dismantling these frameworks and reallocating resources would allow these countries to create and maintain a much larger irregular force that would be much more effective in the event of a Russian aggression.
So if any of these countries were to proceed accordingly and replace their current conventional forces with a professional irregular defense force, what factors should they consider? Although there are considerations unique to each nation, one can still identify some initial and common factors. The professional irregular defense force must be a flat organization without the traditional hierarchical structure of conventional militaries. It should be comprised principally of small units—as many of them as can be resourced—that can conduct unilateral operations while maintaining the ability to swarm on a target and operate as part of a larger formation. The units should be organized much like current US and allied special operations forces and manned by individuals with specific expertise (medical, engineer, cyber, intelligence, communication, demolition, Russian language, etc.). Military education and training infrastructure and supporting educational material should be tailored to support the professional development of such capabilities. This new type of force must also be specifically equipped for resistance operations. Professional irregular defense forces should abandon traditional military equipment such as tanks, artillery pieces, and armored vehicles, and instead be equipped with hardware that enables them to inflict maximum damage on the occupying force while reducing the effects of its conventional weapons systems or even making them completely irrelevant. The weapons and equipment used by the professional irregular force should be produced within the given country to ensure self-sustainment to the greatest extent possible. These forces should employ swarms of unmanned and remote-controlled platforms, stockpile and pre-position thousands of shoulder-launched antitank and antiaircraft missiles, weaponize commercially available robots, and develop high-tech improvised explosive devices. Nonmilitary platforms should be produced in a way that they can be weaponized or at least utilized to military purposes.
The characteristics of the operational environment will also play a crucial role in the potential success of this proposed approach. Since rough natural terrain will remain a key enabling factor for the resistance force and a major limiting factor for the occupying force it is crucial to maximize the benefits of existing terrain while also creating artificial features. Infrastructural preparation of the country should be a heavily prioritized task within the total defense concept. Because of modern technological developments, twenty-first-century resistance concepts only have a chance to succeed in areas where the capabilities of the modern intelligence and weapon systems can be degraded or rendered irrelevant. The preparation of natural terrain features and urban areas to best support the operations of the irregular warriors are crucial for success. Countries should enhance and fortify existing features and build new artificial ones to limit the maneuver abilities of the occupying force while maximizing the effectiveness of the irregular formation. Countries should also turn urban areas into fortresses by preparing underground avenues of approaches to potential targets and preparing escape routes, pre-positioning weapons caches, building camouflaged field hospitals, pre-mining key terrain, and building dummy positions to mislead occupying force intelligence. These are just some examples of infrastructural preparation. Again, it might be useful to look at examples like the Hezbollah’s infrastructural preparations in southern Lebanon before the 2006 war with Israel.
Additionally, countries adopting a professional irregular defense force must exploit conventional militaries’ increasing dependence on technology, especially in the cyber domain. Countries building total defense concepts should develop capabilities that can support the irregular forces’ activities in the cyber domain both defensively and offensively. Investing significant resources into cyber capabilities that can mitigate Russian military capabilities is vital. Pre-positioning cyber experts and equipment in allied countries to avoid adversarial efforts to disrupt the defenders’ cyber operations is also a potential consideration as a part of the total defense concept.
Planning for existing military organizational frameworks to serve as cornerstones within a total defense concept cannot succeed against Russia. Countries should harvest from the extreme edges of military strategic thought. Instead of looking at the modernized re-creation of the Forest Brothers of World War II or the stay-behind groups of the Cold War, a better result would come from combining the lessons that we have learned from our most recent enemies. These groups were remarkably successful despite ad hoc organizational structures, limited supplies, and “primitive” weapons against the most advanced militaries in the world. A professional force that is trained for such operations for years, equipped with state-of-the-art and purpose-built weapons, and deployed in a specifically prepared battlefield would be even more successful against Russian aggression—and certainly more so than the small conventional forces vulnerable states currently have.
Of course, part of the value of the total defense concept in its current form (including the minor conventional military capabilities) is in its ability to deter Russian aggression because of the threat of disproportionate cost inflicted in case of aggression. So to evaluate the proposed approach to total defense, it is important to compare the deterrent message of the current total defense concept and one that features a professional irregular defense force. For the purpose of this exercise, let us try to adopt Russia’s perspective.
The current approach to total defense sends the following message: I, country X, will initially mount a conventional defense with approximately 34,250 active-duty troops and 379 artillery pieces, but no tanks or warplanes (according to The Military Balance 2020, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, this is the combined total capability of the three Baltic states, and represents a best-case scenario if all three states are willing and able to bring their full capabilities to bear) against your approximately nine hundred thousand troops, 3,250 tanks, 1,259 warplanes and 5,325 artillery pieces, while also mobilizing my society. I know very well that I am not a match for your conventional military capability, so I have this plan to build a resistance force using civilians after you occupy my country and try to inflict damage on you while waiting for international help to arrive.
On the other hand, this is what a total defense concept based on a professional irregular defense force would signal: Russia, you are more than welcome to try to occupy our country, but here is what you can expect. You will find yourself fighting a ghost force from the minute you cross our border. This force will attack you from every direction without any rest. My force will employ nonstandard organizations, tactics, techniques, procedures, and weapons that you have never encountered before. These techniques and weapons will significantly reduce the capabilities of your military systems and could even make them irrelevant. You will bleed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in our country. And your task will only become more difficult, and your losses greater, when international help arrives. I will let the reader decide which message is more likely to deter.
Winston Churchill famously declared during World War II, and at a time when the British nation was facing considerable danger, that “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” The fact that Baltic and Scandinavian countries have started to implement total defense approaches clearly demonstrates that they understand that they will face similar danger if Russia decides to attack. But while Mr. Churchill never had a chance to design an appropriate strategy and a purpose-built force for such a fight before the conflict, the countries in question are given this luxury. The only question is whether they are ready to use their chance.
Sandor Fabian is a former Hungarian Special Forces lieutenant colonel with more than twenty years of military experience. He is a graduate of the Miklos Zrinyi Hungarian National Defense University, holds a master’s degree in Defense Analysis (Irregular Warfare) from the US Naval Postgraduate School. Sandor is a faculty member at the NATO Special Operations School and a PhD candidate in Security Studies at the University of Central Florida. His research has appeared in Defense & Security Analysis, the Special Operations Journal, Combating Terrorism Exchange, the Florida Political Chronicle, and the Hungarian Seregszemle journal.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Senior Airman Sarah M. McClanahan, US Air National Guard