Watching ISIS irregular forces effortlessly roll up 30,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria in a matter of weeks has seemed shocking. How does what is essentially a guerilla militia force take on not one but two well-equipped professional armies along with an unknown number of opposition militias and win victory after victory?
The main thing to know is that these are not the kinds of battles we're used to seeing from here in the US. There is no technology, very little in the way of decisive air power, and an extremely small number of heavy weapons. These are the ultimate in small-unit infantry battles, all about using maneuver to locate a weak point and bring massed fires to bear on that point. It's about avoiding head on fights unless you have overwhelming numerical and firepower advantages, and rather working flanks, enveloping and bypassing positions of strength and cutting them off from resupply.
A successful guerilla or insurgent army needs very little in the way of equipment. It fights and moves on funding and ideology, demanding incredible service and sacrifice from its members. In the end this is a throwback to the combat of a century ago, before armor and air power and massed artillery changed the nature of warfare. This is people with guns and courage fighting it out at short range in desperate firefights and long sieges.
And over the years, third-world insurgencies and militias have perfected the mix of weapons they issue their infantry troops. You might think these fighters are under-equipped, but these are the weapons that are re-drawing the map on two continents. I often think of them as the unholy trinity.
|Too bad they didn't make more of these|
With this lighter round, 30 round magazines and the capability of full automatic fire, a squad of infantry equipped with AKs can bring a truly awesome level of firepower to bear at short ranges. This storm of lead from a dozen or more AKs is nearly impossible to stand against, and often results in an advance by the attackers. These rifles are very forgiving in damp or dusty environments, can go thousands of rounds without cleaning, and are therefore ideal for local irregular forces with minimal training. The AK makes up in reliable firepower what it lacks in accuracy, range and knockdown power. But as we are about to see, it is only one of the weapons that make these forces so effective in this kind of fighting.
PKM Machine Gun
|Allah's gonna have a whole lot of sorting 'em out to do|
The PKM gives a small unit the ability to lay down a base of fire out to 1500 meters without waiting for heavy crew-served weapons to be brought to the front. Pushing this kind of firepower down to the squad level was innovative in WWII - the Germans were big believers in this doctrine, but even the US with the BAR and the UK with the Bren began to adopt it - but it is now SOP among armies all over the world. But it's even more critical for these third-world militias and irregular fighters. They aren't going to get much in the way of heavy weapons or indirect fire support, so they'll need the ability to put heavy fire on specific targets while the other units maneuver to close or to break contact.
That's two thirds of the unholy trinity. Equip your guerilla forces with one rifle, one machine gun, and just a couple different standardized ammunition types. Logistics and training are simplified, and in any relatively numerically even battle the insurgents should have a quantitative edge in downrange firepower.
Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher (RPG)
|You want me to do WHAT?|
In essence, the RPG is a hollow tube with a trigger unit and a sighting device. The business end is a 4 kilogram grenade-on-a-stick. When fired, a small gunpowder charge pushes the grenade out of the tube whereupon the rocket motor fires for about 10 seconds, boosting the grenade to a velocity of about 375 feet per second. It can be fired accurately at ranges inside 200 meters and is effective out past 500 meters. There is virtually no felt recoil.
This is another classically Soviet cheap, simple, reliable, portable and powerful weapon. Added to the AKs and the PKMs, the RPG gives that same squad of insurgents the ability to knock out vehicles, to eliminated bunkers and strongpoints and to breach walls and doors. In addition to their own gear, the other members of the squad carry a couple belts for the PKM or a couple rounds for the RPG.
And that's the Unholy Trinity. In a combat environment without the luxuries of a modern 21st century military - particularly air and armor - this is the weapons loadout your well equipped Jihadi army carries into battle. And with the right tactics, under the right conditions, it is all they need to win.
Bonus Jihadi Weapon System - The Technical
|Looks like we got us a convoy|
Today the Technical has evolved to fill many niches. They carry troops and supplies, they protect the leaders and warlords of the movement or militia, and they carry the wounded to aid stations. But most of all they are fighting vehicles, serving in the role that would have been filled by cavalry a hundred years ago. They can move quickly off-road, getting behind enemy positions and blasting them with massive firepower. Lacking armor, they are vulnerable to any opposing heavy weapons, but the advantage they provide in highly mobile firepower is unmatched.
An entry-level Technical might mount a PKM, but they more commonly carry much heavier guns. The 12.7mm Russian DShK, an equivalent to the US .50 caliber M-2 is most common, but you will also see KPM 14.5mm and even 2A14 23mm anti-aircraft guns.
If you think about a Company sized attack by militias armed like this and supported by three or four Technicals, you get a sense of the speed and violence an attack like these can deliver, and you can begin to understand why ISIS has been so successful. The training, courage, will and leadership it takes to get a unit to hold the line against that kind of assault at close range is rare in that part of the world, and until you find enough troops with the commitment to stand fast, ISIS holds a substantial tactical advantage.