Swarming is an ancient military tactic—in fact, Alexander the Great pioneered the first effective counter-swarming maneuver over 2,000 years ago. However, it is also one of the most contemporary of military topics: how to defeat asymmetrical swarming tactics in counter-insurgency operations, how to effectively employ swarming in a modern military, etc. In the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, the anarchist “Black Block” pioneered a new form of swarming technique by using text-messaging and cell phones. Swarming has been at the cutting edge of military theory of millennia, but what is it? I hope to answer that question, and explain why it is the most compatible tactic for rhizome and open-source warfare. I will also examine how swarming works, what factors are critical to its success, and how it may be employed in the future by non-hierarchal forces to effectively confront the modern, hierarchal military.
Masked protester at the Seattle WTO Protests in 1999
What is Swarming?
Swarming is the tactical (or, in some cases, operational) maneuver of converging of highly distributed forces at a single point to leverage the military principle of mass. That is, you don’t need to have more powerful forces than your opponent, you just need more powerful forces than they have at the point of conflict. For example, the anarchist “Black Block” in Seattle consisted of a relatively small number of individuals prepared to use violence amongst a sea of peaceful protesters. From this highly dispersed position, using their superior communications capability (in the form of text-messaging), they were able to quickly converge on a single place, overwhelm the localized police presence with brief but intensely violent protest, and then disburse and blend back into the crowds before the police could reallocate forces. They repeated this pulsing nature of swarming forces over and over again, and the police were never able to adapt.
Alexander and the Scythians at Eschate: Defeating Swarming
While fighting to gain control of the province of Bactria, Alexander the Great was confronted by the swarming tactics of Scythian horse-archers. His primary unit—the Macedonian Phalanx—could not cope with the mobile, pulsing, ranged attacks of these units, which would swarm around his fixed formations like wasps, darting in, firing arrows from a standoff range and quickly retreating. Alexander pioneered what remains today the US Army’s counter-swarm (though normally labeled counter-guerrilla) tactic: Find, Fix and Defeat. Initially Alexander used fixed geographical obstacles to corner, or Fix, the Scythian cavalry. But at the battle of Eschate, with characteristic tactical genius, Alexander adapted to the lack of terrain by using a formation of his own forces as an artificial terrain against which to Fix and Defeat the Scythian swarm (see tactical graphic below):
Principles of Swarming and Counter-Swarming
Swarming depends on a few very simple principles: achieve them, and it will succeed, but deny these principles to a swarming force and it will be defeated:
1. Elusiveness, in the form of mobility or concealment
2. Standoff Firepower, relative to the opposing force
3. Situational awareness of the local environment, relative to the opposing force
No swarming force has even been defeated if it has achieved these three principles. In several instances, swarming has succeeded even without one or more of these principles. However, swarm tacticians should aim to ensure all three principles, while those hoping to defeat a swarming force must be concerned if they cannot deny all three.
NYC Police Obviously Learned from Alexander
Anarchists, among other protesters, had great hopes that the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York would be another repeat of their success in Seattle. Their efforts largely failed, as they were unable to secure any of the three principles of swarming. In particular, the NYC police were able to deny the protesters their principle strength of elusiveness/mobility. Borrowing directly from the playbook of Alexander the Great, police rolled out mobile plastic-mesh fences to quickly create artificial terrain obstacles, trapping large groups of more violent protesters before they could blend away into the city masses. Anarchists and other protesters, for their part, facilitated this successful tactic by advertising the locations of their actions well in advance (by reacting to convention events they forfeited the initiative), eliminating the need for police to Find them, and facilitating the staging of the forces required to Fix and Defeat.
The Potential Synergy of Swarming and Rhizome
Swarming is not a perfect tactic: It can win battles, and it can be defeated. However swarming forces are currently enjoying great success in confrontation with the traditionally hierarchal US military in Iraq. Iraqi insurgents have clearly achieved the three key principles of swarming—if the US military cannot deny at least one of these principles, they appear to have no chance of gaining the upper hand:
1. Elusiveness through Concealment & Mobility: Insurgents are in their native environment. They can blend in at will and have a robust support infrastructure.
2. Standoff Firepower: Sniping, rocket propelled grenades, roadside bombs and truck bombs, combined with suicide tactics represent a clear edge in standoff firepower over US forces.
3. Situational Awareness: Again, the insurgents are fighting in their backyard, and clearly have the advantage in situational awareness.
Training videos from al-Qa’ida and a new push to prepare for asymmetrical warfare by Iran are also revealing interesting developments in swarm warfare. Both groups are preparing to use small, highly-mobile (usually via motorbike), independent squads or pairs of soldiers armed with standoff weaponry (MANPADS, long-range rifles, RPGs, etc.) to confront larger, hierarchal militaries. This is, in effect, the creation of a network, a rhizome military. Rhizome has the potential to be a very effective military force, provided that it does not ignore the three principles outlined above.
A rhizomatic, swarming method of defense is probably the most practical, effective means of defense for the postulated rhizome civilization of Netopia. It provides a means to defend a rhizome network against the tendency of external hierarchies to intensify and expand. And, most importantly, it provides a means to do this without adopting a hierarchal form (see “The Problem of Physical Power” and the tendency for rhizome to become a hierarchy itself in its defense against hierarchy in A Theory of Power).
Open Source Warfare and Communication in Swarming
The success of a rhizome swarm depends in large part on its ability to communicate and affect the “pulse” of swarm operations coherently. Hierarchal forces that utilize swarm tactics (i.e. most historical examples) utilize hierarchal command and control to decide and communicate when and where to swarm, to mass forces. However, dependence on such hierarchal methods presents a great risk to any rhizomatic structure: the potential to involuntarily transition to hierarchy. Even the clearly rhizomatic Black Block in Seattle relied upon the hierarchy of cellular phone networks to affect their rhizome command and control. Word of mouth networking and other rhizome means of communication are effective, but potentially too slow and exposed for use in swarm warfare. The dependence on existing hierarchal communications systems is, at present, the Achilles ’ heel of any rhizome swarm—I know from personal experience just how easy it is for hierarchal militaries to deny such communications networks at will. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to state that the future potential of rhizome militaries will rest on the need to identify and utilize a non-hierarchal communications vehicle… However, this need also represents an opportunity: due to the nature of swarm warfare, it is an ideal candidate for using a completely open communications network. It doesn’t matter if a hierarchal force intercepts the communications that result in the pulse of a swarming opponent—they will neither be able to process the rhizomatic nature of the information (i.e. flash mobs), nor will they be able to react fast enough to counter the pulse before it has disbursed.
This is the future of warfare: rhizome, swarm and open source.