The Use and Effectiveness of Sabotage: A Historical Analysis

Editors note: sabotage is a key tactic for asymmetrical conflicts, such as the struggle to defend the planet from capitalism and industrial civilization. This material is excerpted from a paper written by U.S. Air Force Captain Howard L. Douthit III. You can read the full paper on

The Use and Effectiveness of Sabotage as a Means of Unconventional Warfare — an Historical Perspective from World War I Through Vietnam

By USAF Captain Howard L. Douthit III

To be effective, sabotage had to accomplish what is expected of any  offensive military operation–inflict damage on the enemy’s ability to wage war. Again, history supported the thesis that sabotage is an effective means of warfare. Sabotage was used against both strategic and tactical targets. It was proven capable of being used near the front line, in the rear areas, and even in support areas out of the theater.

To be sure, sabotage had to be performed properly to obtain the desired results. However, that is true of any operation. Also, as with any type of operation there were failures to go along with the successes. The failures seen,  however, seemed to be due more to faulty planning, inadequate time for planning, inadequate or improper equipment, and not following the plan of operation rather than a failure due to the actual act of sabotage. Again, these problems could spell failure for any operation. The multiple target types that could be hit in the multiple depths of operation, the ability of sabotage to accomplish what conventional operations many times  could not, the flexibility of not necessarily needing sophisticated equipment, and the seeming lack of effective countermeasures shown all bear out the logical conclusion that sabotage was  deemed effective in history. Military leaders who employed sabotage saw its effect on the enemy and increased its use. Enemy leaders wrote about the ill effects it had on their side. In all these ways, sabotage proved itself effective in history.

Lessons learned

There are several lessons to be learned from this research effort:

  1. Sabotage can be accomplished after the person(s) has infiltrated an organization,  industry or factory. This sabotage could take on the form of physical destruction of material, facilities or personnel.It could also take on the form of subversion in an effort to reduce or stop production.
  2. Underground/resistance movements make use of printed material to spread instructions on how to commit sabotage.
  3. Timing of the sabotage could mean the difference between knocking out an asset that could be used by both sides  or only hindering the enemy. For example, blowing up a bridge prematurely to prevent enemy use may impede a possible advance should the momentum of a battle turn. Timing can also spell the difference between knocking out one asset or several assets at once (eg, just blowing up a  section of train track or waiting to also demolish a supply train as well).
  4. Sabotage may sometimes succeed when conventional forces cannot. Skorenzy’s ability to blow up a bridge that stood the test of 500 failed dive bomber runs illustrated this well.
  5. History does not point to an effective countermeasure to sabotage.
  6. Sabotage can be used to draw troop strength from vital battle zones.
  7. Selective sabotage is used to destroy or render inoperable assets not easily replaced or repaired in time to meet the enemy’s crucial needs. The required down time of the target depends on the target itself. For example, a crucial route might only need to be impassable for several days near the front, whereas an oil refinery might need to down for months to show the effects of its loss on a war.
  8. Sabotage can be used against both tactical and strategic targets.
  9. Any nation, rich or poor, large or small can effect sabotage against an aggressor.
  10. Sabotage is an economical form of warfare, requiring only a mode of transportation (possibly walking), a properly trained individual, and an applicable sabotage device.

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