A Guide to Desert Warfare


    1.0. What is Desert Warfare?

    Desert warfare refers to warfare conducted in desert terrain and often the specific characteristics of navigation, mobility, logistics, and maintenance. Desert warfare is unique because of the hostile and often lethal environment. The hot, cold, dry, windy, and featureless terrain of the desert brings challenges to any actor aspiring to conduct successful operations.

    Moreover, deserts are generally sparsely populated, relatively empty, and undeveloped. Hence, there are limited opportunities for natural cover and severe challenges facing personnel in upholding adequate individual fighting capabilities and maintaining crucial equipment. Therefore, desert operations demand adaptation to such challenges and the limitations imposed by terrain and climate factors.

    Global tensions are increasing from the sandy deserts of Africa to the buildups and the increasing attention paid to the cold polar deserts of the Arctic. Hence, the ability to conduct desert operations and account for the specific characteristics of the desert battlefields is and will continue to be crucial for any war-fighting entity in the 21st century.

    Pilots and aircrew assigned to the Firehawks of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85 (HSC 85) conduct desert landing training in an HH-60H helicopter near El Centro, Calif, Aug. 10, 2016. HSC-85 provides dedicated rotary wing support to U.S. Special Operations Command worldwide. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Chad M. Butler/Released)

    2.0. The Properties of the Desert Warfare Theatre

    Three factors characterise the properties of the desert warfare theatre: the type of desert, the weather, and the terrain. The combination of these factors makes up the harsh battlefield in which the desert will test the soldier’s professional skills as the environment develops into an enemy.

    2.1. Types of Deserts

    There are four main classifications of deserts:

    • Mountain deserts
    • Rocky plateau deserts
    • Polar deserts
    • Sandy or dune deserts

    The common denominator of all four desert classifications is the lack of significant annual precipitation. Desert bedrock may have a layer of sand, ice, or gravel over it. Topsoil has often eroded or never formed because of a lack of water, heat, cold, or wind. Standard land features in the desert comprise dunes, escarpments, dry riverbeds, and depressions. The lack of annual precipitation and topsoil leads to reduced wildlife and plant densities, often with unique and potentially hazardous adaptations, that give deserts their characteristic barren appearance (source).

    A Burkina Faso Soldier simulates conducting a patrol during FLINTLOCK 20
    A Burkina Faso Soldier simulates conducting a patrol during FLINTLOCK 20 in Thies, Senegal Feb. 19, 2020. Flintlock is an annual, integrated military and law enforcement exercise that has strengthened key partner-nation forces throughout North and West Africa since 2005. Flintlock is U.S. Africa Command’s premier and largest annual Special Operations Forces exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean Castellano)

    2.2. Weather

    Desert regions feature the most incredible extremes of temperatures and weather volatility. Temperatures vary from extreme highs to extreme lows based on latitude and season. Temperatures can exceed degrees Celsius in the deserts of Mexico and Libya to minus 88 degrees Celsius in the Antarctic Polar desert. In some deserts, day-to-night temperature fluctuation exceeds 21 degrees Celsius. Even the slightest rainfall in the desert can cause flash flooding because of a lack of vegetation and the soil’s inability to absorb the precipitation. 

    Lack of precipitation is the defining characteristic of the desert; desert environments receive less than 25 centimetres of sporadic rainfall annually. Desert rainfall varies from one day in the year to intermittent showers throughout the winter. Severe thunderstorms in the desert bring heavy rain, which can result in flash flooding. Rainstorms tend to be localised, affecting only a few square kilometres at a time.

    Moreover, the air stability in desert regions varies due to the extreme fluctuations between day and night temperatures. At night and early morning, the desert air is usually stable. However, high desert temperatures in the middle of the day decrease density and create volatile air. The three types of air stability are:

    Unstable – This condition exists when air temperature decreases with altitude. In the desert, this mainly occurs between late morning and early evening. 

    Neutral – This condition exists when air temperature does not change with altitude, mainly in the early morning and evening.

    Stable – This condition exists when the air temperature increases with altitude. In the desert, this mainly occurs between late evening and early morning. Furthermore, high winds occur in certain desert seasons and can significantly affect operations due to reduced visibility. Blowing sand limits visibility, limits aviation support, inhibits the effectiveness of obscurants, causes health concerns, and increases the risk of accidents (source).

    2.3. Terrain

    The presence of water or landscape that restricts movement often determines key terrain in the sandy desert. The few roads available may become key terrain, primarily when the desert floor cannot support wheeled vehicle traffic. Water sources are vital if a force cannot sustain long-distance resupply. Where they exist, defiles play an essential role. However, the actor that can protect its line of communication while preventing those of the enemy will most often prevail (source).

    Desert terrain has many variations ranging from nearly flat, with high trafficability, to impassable mountain ranges. Therefore, units preparing to deploy to specific desert regions should seek detailed information on terrain prevalent in the expected area of operations. 

    Desert terrain can canalise operations because of poor cross-country mobility, limited hardened roads and trails, and the need for bridges and hardened crossing points. Some landscapes inhibit cross-country mobility with soft sand, rocky areas, fractured ice sheets, glaciers, salt flats, and marshy areas. Such terrains create poor trafficability. Roads in the desert are usually scarce, poorly maintained, and primitive. More infrastructure is needed to reduce hardened crossing points over or through water features.

    The steep slopes of dunes and rock-strewn mountains can severely restrict vehicular movement. Dry riverbeds compartmentalise terrain. The banks of these stream beds can be steep and loose, severely limiting operations. Slopes covered in rocks can hinder vehicles if rocks easily dislodge.

    In the polar and Antarctic deserts, vast, glaciated areas present additional hazards. Such threats can include hidden crevasses, fractured ice, and snow avalanches. Consequently, operations in these deserts require special training and equipment.

    Finally, most deserts’ limited terrain features can make land navigation difficult. Therefore, soldiers must dead reckon and verify their position in deserts without significant terrain features with space-based precision navigation devices when available (source).

    3.0. History

    Even though conducting operations in the desert is as old as warfare itself, some examples in modern warfare illustrate the challenges of fighting wars in sandy desert environments.

    3.1. The Western Desert Campaign

    The Western Desert campaign is the term of the Axis military operations taking place in the deserts of Egypt and Libya during the Second World War. The campaign started in June 1940 with the Italian declaration of war. It continued with Germany joining its Italian allies in 1941 under Erwin Rommel. As a result, the Axis forces pushed the allies back from large territories in North Africa. However, with the allied troops mainly conducting defensive operations and utilising small sabotage units from the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the Special Air Service (SAS), they eventually gained the initiative. Finally, after the second battle of El Alamein, the Allied troops pushed the German/Italian forces back into Tunisia, where they surrendered in May 1943.

    Members of the SAS in North Africa during the Second World War.

    3.2. Longe Range Desert Group

    The LRDG was a British reconnaissance and raiding unit during the Second World War. It was specifically designed to conduct covert reconnaissance patrols and intelligence missions deep behind Italian lines in North Africa. LRDG’s expertise was mainly desert navigation and guidance of secret agents and other units operating in the desert, such as the SAS.

    3.3. Desert Warfare in the Middle East: The Gulf War

    The Gulf War was the US-led coalition campaign to respond to the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The coalition troops carried out the campaign in two phases: Operation Desert Shield, starting in 1990 and Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Coalition forces liberated Kuwait roughly a month into the second phase, on 28 February 1991.

    3.4. Desert Warfare in the Sahel: Task Force Takuba

    Task Force Takuba was a French-led European military task force operating from Malian Armed Forces bases between March 2020 to June 2022. The task force worked closely with Malian Armed Forces and neighbouring Sahel partners to counter and contain the developing jihadist threat in the region.

    Members of the Takuba EU task force patrolling in Mali
    Soldiers from the EU Takuba task force patrolling in Mali

    4.0. TTPs of Desert Warfare

    The uniqueness of desert warfare stems primarily from the extreme temperatures and lack of moisture. Although most of the tactics, techniques, and procedures in desert environments also apply in other theatres of war, these two factors bring potentially fatal consequences. The challenge of conducting warfare in the desert lies primarily in the capability of adaption (source).

    4.1. Survival in the Desert

    If unprepared, any military actor conducting operations in the desert will inevitably face increasing and potentially fatal fatigue. Hence, it is of great importance that troops are kept healthy and physically fit to conduct such operations. Furthermore, to survive the harsh climate, military personnel operating in the desert will need to handle the challenges imposed by the lack of water, the temperature, the sunlight, and the winds.

    4.1.1. Dehydration

    Any unit lacking water supplies in the desert is doomed to disaster. Water is essential to accomplish desert operations and will require monitoring efforts to ensure that units drink enough. As 75 per cent of the human body is fluid, it is highly dependent on adequate hydration to maintain its function, which is required to conduct desert operations. Hence, finding and keeping water sources may be the most crucial issue in desert warfare.

    4.1.2. Heat

    In the sandy desert, heat from the sun and the air is extreme, quickly reaching temperatures above 38 degrees Celsius (source). Besides coping with such demanding heat, the body also produces additional heat. When the air’s temperature rises above the skin’s temperature, the evaporation of sweat is the only operative heat reduction mechanism. Hence, extra water must replace the fluid lost through sweating to avoid dehydration. An inability to sweat due to dehydration can rapidly lead to heat injury.

    Additionally, evaporation rates drop when humidity rises, and the body cannot cool itself by sweating. The inability to control the rising body temperature further increases the risk of a heat injury. Moreover, excessive heat near the ground causes thermal bending. Such heat can produce mirages and make it extremely difficult to judge distances.

    4.1.3. Cold

    All deserts can be dangerously cold. So naturally, the polar deserts are some of the coldest places on Earth. However, all deserts’ dry air, wind, and clear sky can combine to produce bone-chilling discomfort and injury. In the sandy desert, this is a common phenomenon during nighttime. The body’s ability to maintain its temperature within a narrow range is as important in the cold as in the heat. Loss of body heat to the environment can lead to cold injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia. Because of the reduced humidity, hypothermia is the primary cold weather risk in the desert, but frostbite can also occur.

    4.1.4. Sunlight

    Direct sunlight can produce eyestrain, eye fatigue, and temporarily impaired vision. Moreover, exposure of the skin to extreme sunlight will cause sunburn. Even though different skin types react differently to sun exposure, all types are susceptible to sunburn. Sunburn can result in blistering, inhibiting the body’s ability to sweat and transfer heat, increasing the risk of dehydration, heat stress and potential death. Hence, adequate protection and sunblock are crucial when conducting desert warfare.

    4.1.5. Wind

    High winds in sandy deserts can prove highly detrimental. Dust and sand propelled by desert winds can make life intolerable, maintenance difficult, and visibility restricted to a few metres. Sandstorms often occur in the spring and summer and may last for days or weeks (source). The wind can be as physically demanding as the heat by burning the face, arms, and any exposed skin with blown sand. Sand gets into the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, lungs, ears, and hair. The combination of dry air, wind, and sand can irritate mucous membranes, chap the lips and other exposed surfaces, and cause nosebleeds. Cracked, chapped lips make eating difficult. Conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, can occur when fine particles or other contaminants introduce microbes into the eyes. Constant wind noise and exposure to blowing sand can be exhausting and demoralising, make communication difficult, and increase fatigue. 

    Moreover, harsh winds causing limited visibility will increase the risk of personnel becoming separated from their units. Hence, it is crucial to develop measures to improve coping with such challenging circumstances, especially if operations must continue during sandstorms.

    4.2. Medicine in the Desert

    The desert will bring challenges in terms of hygiene-related diseases. Hence, individuals conducting desert warfare must take every opportunity to maintain a proper level of personal hygiene.

    Intestinal diseases are common in the desert (source). Therefore, it is crucial to prevent such diseases through proper mess sanitation, siting and sanitation of latrines. Moreover, other common conditions in the desert include plague, typhus, malaria, dengue fever, cholera, and typhoid. As fever, vomiting, and diarrhoea are common symptoms, dehydration will increase, as well as the detection of indicators of heat injury. Furthermore, skin diseases can result from polluted water, and heat rash and fungal infections can come from excessive sweating. 

    The following are additional health-related considerations when operating in a desert:

    • Most diarrheal diseases result from ingesting water or food contaminated with faeces. 
    • Flies, mosquitoes, and other insects carry fever-causing illnesses such as malaria, sandfly fever, dengue fever, and typhus. 
    • Natural or untreated water and standing water in the desert are usually contaminated and too salty for safe consumption.
    • Water supplies with low chlorine residuals, native food and drink, and ice often carry disease.


    4.3. Offensive Desert Operations

    When conducting offensive desert operations, aggressive reconnaissance is critical. Pushing reconnaissance units as far out from the main body as possible will allow early warning advantages in the often-flat landscape. In most deserts, the scarcity of large areas of defensible terrain means that a defending force has at least one flank open to attack. The attacking force must seek this flank and attempt to manoeuvre around it into the defender’s rear before the defender can react and block the development with mobile reserves.

    Successful offensive desert operations depend on rapid, responsive, and violent manoeuvre, seeking a vulnerable enemy flank while exposing none to the enemy. Realising the danger of remaining stationary in this terrain, the adversary may choose to conduct spoiling attacks or counterattack. The resulting engagement between the two attacking forces often consists of a series of flanking actions and reactions with success going to the force that can find the other’s unguarded flank first.

    A Spanish Soldier assist Chadian forces during military operations in urban terrain, or MOUT, training during Exercise Flintlock 2019, Feb. 19, 2019 in Atar, MR. Flintlock is a multi-national exercise consisting of 32 African and Western nations at multiple locations in Burkina Faso and Mauritania that is designed to strengthen the ability of key partner nations to counter violent extremist organizations, protect their borders and provide security for their people. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Steven Lewis)

    4.4. Defensive Desert Operations

    Typically, the defence sets the conditions for a counteroffensive or counterattack, enabling forces to regain the initiative (source). Purposes for performing defensive operations include:

    • Deterring or defeating an enemy offensive.
    • Gaining time.
    • Achieving economy of force.
    • Retaining key terrain.
    • Protecting the population, critical assets, and infrastructure.
    • Refining intelligence.

    The defence provides time for a commander to build combat power and establish conditions to transition to the offence. A defender will likely be at a relative disadvantage against an attacking force since the enemy can choose when and where to strike. In desert environments, this is often compounded as unrestricted or open terrain provides the attacker with numerous options for their scheme of manoeuvre. The defender is at a further disadvantage in sandy or dune deserts where the lack of easily defensible terrain requires significant counter-mobility and survivability operations to improve defensive positions.

    However, when planning for defence, there are some critical factors for success (source). These include:

    • Timely detection of the enemy’s course of action.
    • Concentrating effects at the decisive time and place.
    • Depth.
    • Security (forward, flank, and area security/rear area security in support areas).
    • The ability to shape and exploit the terrain.
    • Flexibility.
    • Designation, composition, location, and employment of the reserve.
    • Timely resumption of the offence.

    Furthermore, particular terrain may require specific defensive measures, such as deep water ports, key logistics installations, railyards, water pumping stations, airfields, bulk fuel storage sites, ammunition depots, and oil wells.

    4.5. Maintenance of Equipment and Materiel in the Desert

    The demanding desert climate will inevitably damage equipment if not properly maintained and operated. Extreme temperatures accompanied by other climate-specific factors will degrade the performance of most vehicles, sensors, and weapons. Hence, any actor aspiring to conduct desert warfare efficiently must be fully trained to maintain their equipment. Among the factors that substantially affect equipment and materiel are heat, sunlight, wind, dust, and sand.

    9th Regional Commando Battalion, Iraqi special operations forces soldiers leave behind a trail of dust as they near a suspect’s home during training in Iraq’s Anbar province. The commandos used the vehicles to enter the area before completing the mission on foot. During the training, commandos were able to experience several different scenarios including incoming fire, mortars and a maze of debris and obstacles that made the simulated even more dangerous.

    4.5.1. Heat

    Rising and falling temperatures will affect the air and fluids. For example, suppose tires are inflated to correct pressure during the cool of the night. In that case, they may burst during operations in the heat of the day. Moreover, in temperature extremes, all engines are apt to operate above optimum temperatures, leading to excessive wear or leaky seals that can lead to engine failure. Furthermore, high temperatures adversely affect electronic equipment. Radios, computers, and network components tend to fail when they overheat. Failure of electronic components can cause advanced weapons, communications systems, aircraft, and vehicles to be non-mission capable. Hence, units operating in desert terrain must plan for increased consumption of tires and tracks and conduct appropriate measures to keep electronic equipment and weaponry operational.

    4.5.2. Sunlight

    Severe sunlight is easily detrimental to plastics, lubricants, pressurised gases, some chemicals, and infrared tracking and guidance systems. Hence, military personnel conducting desert warfare must protect such materials and sunlight-sensitive equipment when possible.

    4.5.3. Wind

    Desert winds can damage materiel and equipment such as aircraft, tents, and antennas. In addition, desert wind velocity can exceed the operating limits of tilt-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, radar systems, and communications antennas. Hence, operations in the desert must be planned and executed based on adequate weather information with alternative plans available.

    4.5.4. Dust and Sand

    Dust and sand pose the most significant harm to vehicles and equipment. Furthermore, they severely affect ground vehicles and aircraft and are unavoidable in all deserts aside from polar deserts. Rubber components such as gaskets, tires, track components, and seals become worn more quickly in such environments. Moreover, wind-driven sand can clog filters and air ducts, rapidly disabling vehicles. Furthermore, fuel and fuel filters are contaminated more speedily. Therefore, they must be checked and replaced often in dusty and sandy conditions (source). In sum, it is crucial to actively monitor and conduct proper maintenance of vehicles to increase mobility and prospects for success when waging war in the desert.

    5.0. Desert Warfare Theatres: Prospects for Future Conflicts

    In early 2023, there are ongoing tensions around the world. Wars and conflicts are taking place from the sandy deserts of Africa to the cold polar deserts of the Arctic. Hence, there are prospects for increasing importance and value of the capability to efficiently wage desert warfare from the sandy dunes of West Africa to the freezing glaciers in the Arctic.

    5.1. Desert Warfare in the Sahel: Looking into 2023

    In the Sahel region, the Niger delta stands out as the world’s most lethal region regarding terrorist violence. Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) constitutes an evolving threat in the area and will likely increase its operations in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Moreover, there are indications of an expansionist agenda targeting neighbouring countries such as Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Benin. Finally, the international coalition’s withdrawal from Mali in 2021 and 2022 indicates an inability to translate tactical victories into strategic objectives of peace and increased security. 

    The current power vacuum will likely offer opportunities for external actors’ influence, mainly from Russia, China, and more peripheral actors such as Turkey. Hence, 2023 will likely require increasing stability-seeking presence and efficient capabilities among security providers to conduct efficient military operations in sandy desert environments.

    A Senegalese Soldier practices marksmanship fundamentals learned by Spanish Special Forces during Flintlock 20 in Mauritania, Feb. 18, 2020. Flintlock is an annual, integrated military and law enforcement exercise that has strengthened key partner-nation forces throughout North and West Africa since 2005. Flintlock is U.S. Africa Command’s premier and largest annual Special Operations Forces exercise. (US Army photo by Sgt. Conner Douglas)

    5.2. Desert Warfare in the Arctic: Looking into 2023

    When looking at the polar deserts of the Arctic, there is an increasing interest among global actors to conduct military operations in such environments. NATO and its adversaries, namely Russia and China, openly express an interest in the Arctic region. Moreover, as climate change enables increasing external presence, 2023 will likely see growing tensions among global powers in the Arctic. Hence, the importance of the ability to conduct efficient polar desert warfare will significantly increase in the next 12 months, both in terms of deterrence and in terms of utilising the resource-rich region and maintaining crucial transport routes.

    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren is a student at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm. His main focus area is the Sahel Region and West Africa. Specific interests are asymmetric threats, mainly terrorism, covert action, and cyber threats.

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