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The Requirements of Training Insurgent Tactics

To Deter and Respond to Invasion

Australian Army soldiers from the 3rd Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment prepare for a dawn raid on a suspected insurgent position at the Tully Training Area on July 17 during Exercise Hamel 2014.

‘In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity’

Sun Tzu


Modern history depicts some decisive military trends. Among these, counter-insurgency wars are inherently unpopular, demonstrably costly and, for the most part, unsuccessful. If this is the case, it follows that Australia’s Defence policy must include layers of defence that guarantee sovereignty and that capitalise on the asymmetric advantage traditionally experienced by insurgent forces. Specifically, for the ADF to deter and disrupt an invasion and occupation of Australia, it is necessary to arm and train our force to conduct asymmetric warfare against an occupying enemy.

Insurgencies of the Modern Era

Following the end of WWII, the most successful western-backed counter-insurgency operation was the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). This campaign, between communist insurgents and Malaysian Forces, had significant assistance from Commonwealth forces. Despite this outside help and the campaign’s ultimate success, the conflict was nevertheless extremely costly for the counter-insurgency forces. While the Emergency began among a mostly sympathetic population, the military effort still required massive authoritarian legislation to counter the threat of suspected insurgent sympathisers.[i] The resources required to tame an entire population in support of the existing authority was also extensive. Further, it was the lack of military and political power within the insurgency’s leadership – rather than the efficacy of the Malaysian government’s resistance to it – that ultimately allowed the counter-insurgent forces to prevail.

For United States forces operating in Afghanistan, the War was far less costly in terms of military personnel than was the Malayan Emergency,[ii] but it had similar hallmarks.  For example, the Afghanistan War proved to be increasingly expensive and socially unpopular among the United States’ population. Indeed, while an estimated 91% of Americans supported the War in 2001, by 2021, 71% of Americans saw the War as a failure.[iii] In its efforts to rid Afghanistan of Al-Qaeda supporters and the Taliban, the United States was initially unprepared for asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency operations.  As observed by the US Press at the time, “[p]rior to the 2004 doctrine, the last official counter-insurgency doctrine field manual had been published in 1966.’[iv] The reason for this is attributed largely to ‘Vietnam Syndrome.’[v] Specifically, there was extreme reticence to revisit the unsuccessful counter-insurgent doctrine of the Vietnam War which saw 58,220 fatalities of US Service personnel against a mostly militia force.

Despite the 20 years of conflict that preceded it, when the United States’ withdrew its forces in 2021, the West witnessed Afghanistan’s rapid reversion to a condition almost identical to that which existed pre-9/11. Thousands of coalition lives had been lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, against an insurgency force of untrained militiamen who were able to take back an entire country in mere weeks. The insurgency had once again prevailed. This time against the world’s most powerful military.

Why Insurgencies Prevail

The USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 saw fierce resistance from Western-backed Anti-Soviet insurgent fighters. Supplied by the West with weapons, these mostly untrained insurgents managed to make the conflict a ‘bleeding wound’[vi] for the invading force. The constant asymmetric warfare, and the inability of the USSR’s conventional forces to make progress, saw Soviet Forces withdraw unsuccessfully from Afghanistan in 1989.  Ultimately, the USSR recognised the Islamic State of Afghanistan in 1992.

More recently, the conflict waged by the USSR against Ukraine demonstrates the effectiveness of man-portable force multipliers, such as smart anti-armour weapons, as well as the utility of very-short-range-air defence (VSHORAD) systems such as the Javelin and Stinger respectively. These relatively cheap weapons enable a foot soldier to both destroy enemy armour and aviation with minimal training, to disrupt the enemy’s plan, while simultaneously inciting fear amongst the ranks of a much more powerful force.

In Ukraine today, every route in is a potential ambush. Every rest stop is a potential drone target. Russian Forces must be on constant alert in order to forego further armoured losses to drones, mines or anti-tank weapons. In response, Russian tanks have been observed speeding through urban areas in order to negate the risk of anti-tank munitions. In this way, the Ukrainian Forces have achieved decisive effect, including denying the occupying forces’ opportunity to use its strongest land assets.

Further man-portable risks to Russian forces include the myriad of VSHORAD systems. Weapons such as the Stinger have a low likelihood of interdicting an aircraft due to their inaccuracy and low ceiling altitude. By contrast, VSHORAD systems have been widely dispersed and sufficiently persistent to restrict the capability and effects that helicopters afford on the battlespace. As a result, many Russian helicopters have been destroyed.

More than two months after Russia began its invasion in Ukraine, the expected raw land power of the Russian military has been delayed and deterred by the insurgent-like guerrilla tactics employed by the Ukrainian forces.  The ADF would do well to adopt these same tactics as Australia prepares for an increasingly uncertain regional security environment.

Concept of Operations

The Australian defence policy of relying on other countries to secure our nation’s sovereignty has failed previously.  For example, despite its power and promises, Great Britain was unable to deter invasion of Australia in WWII.  In the contemporary strategic setting, Australia would be equally misguided to rely on the United States to guarantee Australian sovereignty against expanding regional threats that overmatch the ADF, both numerically and technologically.

Australia’s defence posture of maintaining a centralised and conventional military force is necessary, but is by no means sufficient to meet Australia’s growing security challenges.  Such a stance should just be one layer of a broader strategy to deter and respond to a hostile nation that may wish to occupy Australia. This assertion does not imply that the ADF should transition into a guerrilla force.  Instead, it is proposed that the bulk of the ADF, specifically Reserves, must be trained and ready deploy as an anti-occupation force, capable to conduct activities dislocated from a central command authority.

For such a guerrilla force to offer the capability options that government may require, all soldiers would need to understand targeting priorities whilst being dislocated from command and communication.  They would also need the teaching and training to understand what makes an occupation force successful, and what makes it fail. Australian soldiers would be required to blend into society and be able to occupy populated or remote areas, sustaining their force and striking precisely to inflict the most damage possible. The force therefore must be capable of a diverse range of ambush tactics in both the urban and rural environments against targets of opportunity.

This new way of warfare will also require the establishment of caches that are known, secured and potentially mobile to enable a long-term insurgency to succeed. In establishing such stores, it will be necessary to account for Australia’s dislocation from the remainder of the world.  Our relative isolation will inevitably make it difficult for allies to assist Australia to resupply weapons and stores.

Civilian communication networks can also be capitalised upon.  They should be exploited to maintain limited command and communications; rapidly disseminating intelligence and information through pre-existing civilian networks. Complementing this effort, soldiers will require training in the use of civilian products to conduct asymmetric warfare, such as explosive construction and the use of off-the-shelf drones.

The ADF must also facilitate a large-scale weapons training package. This training must ensure that the ADF’s capacity to employ ‘force multiplying weapons’ is sufficiently diverse.  Soldiers must be able to both employ weapons such as the Javelin and Stinger, as wells as to pass-on their skills and knowledge to many within a rapid timeframe. The purpose of these skills is to delay, scare and degrade the occupying force to the point that the occupation is no longer viable.


Insurgencies are not always successful. They are however, always costly and painful for counter-insurgent forces. The ability of insurgents to inflict damage on the enemy, at the time and place of their choosing, degrades the occupying forces’ morale and capability. As history has shown, in many cases it has denied victory to some of the strongest militaries in the world.

Regional threats technologically and numerically outnumber Australia’s. It is therefore essential that the ADF generates force elements with the skills of insurgents in order to deter and respond to any attempts of an invasion to ensure Australia’s sovereignty.

This article is an entry in the 2022 AARC Short Writing Competition, 'Transforming Land Power'.


[i] (Hack 2009)

[ii] (National Army Museum 2022)

[iii] (Shortridge 2022)

[iv] (Jehl 2004)

[v] (Corum 2007)

[vi] (Ro'I 2022)


Corum, James S. 2007. Rethinking US Army Counter-insurgency Doctrine. Contemporary Security Policy.

Hack, Karl. 2009. "The Malayan Emergency as Counter-Insurgency Paradigm." Journal of Strategic Studies (Journal of Strategic Studies) 4-5.

Jehl, D. 2004. "For the First Time Since Vietnam, an Army Prints a Guide to Fighting Insurgents." For the First Time Since Vietnam, an Army Prints a Guide to Fighting Insurgents. The New York Times, November 13.

National Army Museum. 2022. Malayan Emergency.

Ro'I, Yaacov. 2022. The Soviet War In Afghanistan and the Collapse of the Soviet System. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Shortridge, A. 2022. The U.S. War in Afghanistan Twenty Years On: Public Opinion Then and Now.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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