Alpine Advantage: Unconventional Warfare in Mountainous Terrain


This article first appeared Forward Observer Magazine’s Spring 2014 issue.

From the historical perspective, successful guerrilla warfare operations by irregular forces have usually been conducted in three environments: thick deciduous forests (as in partisan resistance to the Nazis during World War II), swampy, lowland-jungle environments (most notably like the Vietnamese Communists in that conflict), and alpine environments (the Afghan resistance to the Soviets and our own conventional-force incursions since 2002, and numerous resistance forces in World War II).

Since the first is only viable for the partisan in today’s world of thermal imaging and aerial infrared (IR) in summer months (the leaf canopy can provide some protection from this threat), and since the U.S. lacks large areas of lowland jungle (exception: the Everglades, bayous, and some notable areas of the southeastern states), the alpine advantages of the Appalachians and— more notably—the American Redoubt’s Rocky Mountains offer some significant advantages to a resistance movement in proverbial Shit-Hits- The-Fan (SHTF) scenarios.

While there are innumerable arguments that can be made for the (supposed) advantages of urban or suburban environments for guerrilla operations, the historical fact is: no successful insurgency has ever been sustained in the long-term, in a built-up, inhabited area. While many like to argue the examples of the Chechen resistance against the Russians in the first battle of Grozny, the sequel to that fight aptly demonstrated that a determined conventional force can simply raze the city and destroy the guerrillas’ urban defenses.  Likewise, the oft-cited example of Fallujah in Iraq. While certainly expensive, it’s not a particularly challenging feat for a modern combined-arms force to destroy a city through bombardment. Destroying a mountain range? Somewhat more challenging.

Small-unit operations in alpine regions present some very unique, specific, and constantly shifting challenges and opportunities for the partisan. A well- disciplined, trained, and prepared irregular guerrilla force—specifically trained and acclimated for operations in mountain environments—has the ability to leverage the unique climatic and terrain considerations to overcome technological advantages of superior forces. Units composed of mountaineers can create opportunities to adapt and utilize the challenges of these environments for tactical victories. Nevertheless, mountain operations demand extreme physical conditioning, beyond the norm mental and physical toughness, and near superhuman endurance as well as a high level of tactical and technical expertise on the part of individual guerrilla fighters and leaders.

You must have training and experience in this environment. The physical characteristics of mountains create unique conditions favoring the guerrilla force who can utilize them as de facto allies.

The presence of intervening terrain features and extreme differences in elevation can severely limit the technologically superior enemy to use artillery and/or mortars.  These same features also serve to canalize terrain, forcing the dispersion of numerically superior forces into smaller sub-units, providing the smaller guerrilla force a parity of numbers.  This reduction in the immediate battlespace allows the trained and well-disciplined guerrilla force to attack larger forces piecemeal.  This is known as the tactical principle of defeat in detail.

Steep angles and alpine mass negatively affects even the most advanced communications devices. Radios, cell phones, and even satellite communications: the usefulness of all of these is severely influenced by the cut-up nature of alpine terrain.  For the trained, disciplined guerrillas, this allows the leverage of more primitive communications methods, such as couriers, to multiply force.

The broad vista characteristic of alpine provides the ability to engage hostile forces at—and beyond—the doctrinal limits of direct fire small arms range.  This allows the guerrillas — with an appropriate emphasis on intermediate-distance marksmanship skills, individual movement techniques, and the near and far ambush — to leverage superior physical conditioning, knowledge of the local terrain, and technical and tactical expertise to their advantage.

The use of many aerial assets, such as close-air support from rotary-wing assets and troop transports, are severely curtailed by their limitations at high altitudes. The tight confines of alpine regions also limit the use of parachute-deployed airborne infantry to extremely limited applications in suitable drop zones (one very important exception to this is free-fall trained personnel to conduct HALO operations in “pinpoint” drop zones). When aircraft are used in alpine environments, their reduced performance thresholds leave them extremely susceptible to interdiction by man-portable weapons.  Available to guerrilla forces internationally, these range from the relatively rare surface-to-air missile (SAM) weapons like Stingers and the SA- 7, to the more commonly available RPG and SMAW devices. Another available option is the use of special application sniper systems in heavier calibers (ranging from .338 Lapua Magnum to .50BMG) as counter aircraft weapons due to the reduced speed, performance, and handling characteristics of rotary-wing aircraft at high elevations.

Finally, despite the concerns of thermal imaging and IR capabilities, alpine environments offer significant advantages to counter these threats, including the sizable numbers of large wildlife to confuse heat signatures, heavy overhead foliage in coniferous forests, and especially caves, overhangs, and other terrain features that o er thermal masking shelter and the restrictions of field of view, which even drones and aircraft have difficulty surmounting.

While the comforts of the city or suburbia sing a siren call for many people, the dedicated survivalist must consider the tactical applications of the alpine advantage as a significant factor in long-term preparedness planning.

John Mosby is a former U.S. Army Special Operations soldier, and is the author of several books, including The Reluctant Partisan, Volume One and Volume Two.  He lives somewhere in the mountains with his family.


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So that explains why the Nazis didn’t attack Switzerland. Good to know.

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