How can Hannibal’s invasion of Italy in the third century BC and Custer’s campaign against the Sioux in 1876 possibly apply to the 21st century war on terror?
Principles of warfare are timeless and unchanging. During the campaigns of both Hannibal and Custer, timing and tempo played a huge role in the success and failure of their operations. Today, the US has a narrow window of opportunity to exploit the chaos in the Muslim world and degrade terrorist capabilities and operations for years using the principles of timing and tempo. In the military sense, timing and tempo refer to the conduct of military operations at the critical time and at the rate of execution that best exploits friendly capabilities and inhibits the enemy.
Timing & Tempo in action
Hannibal used these principles to extraordinary effect against the Romans near the town of Larinum in 216 BC. Due to the bizarre political environment, command of the Roman Army was shared between two Generals with radically different temperaments and leadership styles. Quintus Fabius Maximus was cautious and methodical while his counterpart, Marcus Minucius was ambitious and recklessly aggressive. Hannibal knew this and would use both personality types against them in the coming battle.
Fabius and Minucius each took half of the army and pitched separate camps while Hannibal had taken a defensive position in the nearby town of Gerione. In danger of being besieged by the numerically superior Romans, Hannibal marched a small contingent to a nearby hill to lure Minucius out to fight. Minucius took the bait and charged out in full strength only to be ambushed by Hannibal’s main force concealed in the woods. Knowing that Fabius was cautious and would not peremptorily abandon a secure position, Hannibal committed all of his forces to the fight with Minucius. By the time Fabius marched out to join the battle, Hannibal had routed Minucius and was able to disengage, turn, and engage Fabius with his full force. Had Hannibal engaged Fabius and Minucius together, he would have been overwhelmed by the Roman manpower advantage. Instead he timed the application of his force and controlled the tempo of the battle to win the day.
The legendary massacre of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn River in 1876 was the result of a lack of timing and tempo in battle. Without conducting proper reconnaissance, Custer prematurely attacked an enormous force of Sioux Indians, whom historians estimate outnumbered him by as much as nine to one.
Since the Sioux did not preserve or store their food, they hunted and foraged. With so many warriors assembled in one camp, there was simply not enough game or fish to support them and it is estimated that they would have been forced to disperse after only three days to forage for food. Unfortunately, Custer’s timing could not have been worse, as he attacked during these fateful three days. The Sioux quickly overwhelmed him and the loss of men and horses slowed his tempo so much that the Indians were able to maneuver around him and eventually envelop him. Had he timed his attack correctly, he could have engaged the Sioux after they had disbanded into smaller increments and thus control the tempo of the battles.
An opportunity for the US:
History is full of countless examples of extraordinary military victories resulting from unexpected and fortunate opportunities. The US is now presented with another opportune moment to time a series of offensive operations in conjunction with the upheaval in the Middle East to gain ground against its terrorist adversaries.
Al Qaeda is composed almost entirely of dissident Jihadists who fled persecution in their home countries. Typically, Arab nations are ruthless in dealing with Islamic Jihadists due to the constant threat of being overthrown by a fundamentalist movement and replaced by a Muslim Theocracy. If they remain at home, they are either rotting in medieval prisons or running for their lives. With little education other than the Koran and terrorist field craft, these men have no other choice but to join Al Qaeda or one of its franchise groups.
Since January, the unrest in the Middle East has over-extended Arab security forces, which have understandably slowed or halted the pursuit of domestic Jihadists to try to preserve their regimes. With the more permissive environment in their home countries, transnational terrorists are abandoning their global jihad in favor of joining protests on their native soil in hopes of regime change to Islamic Theocracies.
This is the time for the US to act.
Like any organization, when a terror cell loses members, the operation is disrupted until replacements can be recruited, trained and prepared to assume the duties of the lost personnel. With many terrorists going home to fight the secular governments, Al Qaeda and other terror groups are experiencing a great deal of personnel loss. This will leave them vulnerable for a short time. This is the time for the US to strike.
The US must now conduct aggressive offensive operations against known terror groups while they consolidate and reorganize their force structure to adjust to the personnel losses. The US must collaborate closely with its allies in the realms of diplomacy, intelligence sharing and military action to determine which terror groups are losing members, generate more specific information and then target the cell for destruction.
The existence and general operational areas of many terror groups and cells are known to the friendly intelligence services, but they may lack certain data that prevents them from destroying those cells, such as specific locations, times, names, descriptions etc. Other groups may be under surveillance, but rather than targeting them, intelligence services wait for the terrorists to lead them to their higher echelon of command.
Step 1 in the well-timed offensive is for US and allied intelligence services to determine which known terror cells can be exploited for vulnerabilities due to personnel losses. Key indications of terrorists attempting to exfiltrate their operational areas include:
- Decreased cell optempo: They cannot maintain the same pace of terrorist operations with fewer men.
- Decreased local phone traffic accompanied by increased long distance and international phone traffic: Cell and group leaders will be calling their bosses requesting replacements and reinforcements.
- Decreased violence in Iraq and Afghanistan: About 20% of Jihadists in these theatres are Libyan, and as we are all well aware, Libya is currently experiencing the most intense conflict between resistance groups and its government.
- Discovery of dead terrorists: While some cell and group leaders will respect a member’s loyalty to his home nation, others will kill a member who tries to leave the cell in order to maintain operational security. Each member of the cell is familiar with that group’s tactics, techniques and procedures, safe-house locations, methods of communication, true identities and security measures. The cellleader will not want these secrets compromised. Also, some terror leaders may consider a member’s departure a betrayal of the cause and kill them out of vindictiveness.
- Increased trafficking through known rat-lines: Rat-lines are essentially human trafficking methods, routes and infrastructure used to discreetly transport terrorists from one place to another. Known and suspected terrorists will attempt to return to their home nations through both commercial travel and other illicit methods such as rat-lines. When they are travelling, they are vulnerable and more easily identified by surveillance assets.
Step 2 is where tempo is important: Once intelligence sources have verified that a terror cell is vulnerable due to personnel loss, an operation should be planned to neutralize the target. This kind of operation is no different than those currently being conducted in the Special Operations realm, but the tempo of the action must be quick and discreet. Many terror cells and groups are mutually supporting and have regular contact. If the tempo is too slow and word gets out that a cell has been neutralized, related cells will disband, melt into the local population and be very difficult or even impossible to re-acquire.
The US can significantly degrade terrorist capabilities and operations by exploiting their disorganization resulting from losing members to anti-government movements in the Middle East. However, these losses are only a temporary vulnerability and the US must use the principles of timing and tempo to exploit them before the terrorists re-constitute their organizations. Hannibal applied both throughout his fifteen year campaign in Italy and suffered not a single tactical defeat. Custer applied neither, and his defeat is considered one of the most decisive in US Army history.
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