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I am currently working on a somewhat dystopian world (not quite as bad as 1984, but heading there) and a big point in the narrative is that the old Regime of an extremely powerful nation with access to advanced weaponry (drones, long range missiles, etc.) and nuclear warheads was overthrown by a large-scale rebellion.
As the leader of this rebellion cornered and confronted the old dictator, he managed to convince the rebel leader to take his place and spare him, granting him access to both the nuclear warheads and the advanced military.

Now my problem is, how (and with what weapons) could the rebels have waged a multi-year war against the regime while leaving most of its military capabilities intact?
I am generally against the old-fashioned 'a small group of rebels infiltrated the headquarters', but it could work with the right spin.

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    $\begingroup$ bluff a stalemate....threaten mutually assured destruction if they use a nuke with a nuke(bluff or stolen) of your own $\endgroup$ – depperm Aug 7 '17 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ -1. You're asking us to storyboard a coup; doesn't matter what weapons anyone has. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Aug 7 '17 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura I am sorry if I misphrased my question. I meant to ask with which weapons of the modern/post-modern era this coup could have been fought that are both strong enough to keep the army from crushing the rebellion but still leaves it (mostly) intact. Do you have suggestions on how to rephrase it? :) $\endgroup$ – Crowley Astray Aug 8 '17 at 9:38

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Three possibilities occur to me, and two of them could coexist quite nicely:

a) the rebellion had an overwhelming cyberwar capability - say, a quantum computer capable of defeating most encryption, or simply the keys to most of the old government's primary codes, giving them carte blanche to shut down power grids, communications, military and government networks, and giving them access to classified intelligence.

and/or

b) the rebellion used guerilla tactics, irregular warfare, and terrorism to fight a numerically superior foe. Worked for the Viet Cong, the Afghans, and a lot of others.

and/or

c) the rebellion attacked internet, power grid, transportation and utilities choke points, hamstringing the country until concessions were made.

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    $\begingroup$ With regard to (b), I would point out that guerrilla tactics were specifically crafted to meet the OP's needs =) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Aug 7 '17 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ Viet Cong : exactly what you are looking for : the stereotypical "a bunch of farmers beat what was basically the most powerful army in the world" over a multi-year war. $\endgroup$ – everyone Aug 8 '17 at 9:32
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Water:

The greatest military defeat in British history came at the Battle of Singapore in 1941. The city was incredibly well garrisoned and defended (I recall hearing 30,000 troops were stationed there), but those defenses didn't extend to the city's water supply. In a lightning attack the Japanese were able to take it and force the garrison's surrender. You rebels probably couldn't hold the military's water supply if they took it, but they could maybe have poisoned or otherwise destroyed the military base's water supply. If the base was in an area without natural freshwater then the military would be faced with the choice of attempting to fight their way across inhospitable terrain while dying of thirst, or surrendering and letting the rebels truck in water.

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    $\begingroup$ Indeed; acts of infiltration/sabotage are anyway much more easily carried out with small groups, so the fact that the military force is overwhelming would not be an issue. If anything, their very strength could lure them into complacency and neglect (a commonly used trope, though). $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Aug 8 '17 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ Even just holding the water supply and threatening to poison it if attacked might work, essentially holding it hostage. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Aug 15 '17 at 13:46
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The rebels didn't fight.

Force can always be met with force. Freedom fighters seldom win. Terrorists hardly ever win. But popular peaceful uprisings against civil people...

Think about Gandhi or Mandela, they both fought and won their wars for freedom, without violence!

There is a point where soldiers will not fire upon their own people. Once that point has been reached, the dictator had better be running.

Don't forget: war is politics continued with violence. And war is often not the best way to get what you want.

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure Mandela is the best example given the bomb controversies. $\endgroup$ – Pharap Aug 8 '17 at 0:56
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    $\begingroup$ Far from "hardly ever", in fact terrorist often do win; guerilla tactics are very effective way of fighting a war against superior forces. Look at the Bush War in Zimbabwe for a good example, or the French Resistance during WW2. True, the final resolution of the conflict generally requires peaceful politics to take over, but the violence beforehand is a major driver to get to that point; both your examples of South Africa and India are actually good demonstrations of this point. $\endgroup$ – Simba Aug 8 '17 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Mandela is not so good example, as South Africa had to fend off both crippling sanctions of the West and armed forces of Cuba, Libya and other similarly enlighten countries. As better example I'd suggest collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. $\endgroup$ – Shadow1024 Aug 8 '17 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for your totally different approach, but a big part of the history of that country is the bloody rebellion and how it left the civilian populace scarred. $\endgroup$ – Crowley Astray Aug 8 '17 at 11:27
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Mostly from the inside out, armies aren't made of the technology they control, they're made of the people who control the weapons. People can change their mind about whether it's worth fighting for a given cause, if your rebels can convince enough fighters to come over to their side then they can win without killing most of them.

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Defeating 1,000,000 soldiers on their home turf is going to be very difficult, but it is possible to get them out of the way for a week or two. A combination of trickery, guerilla tactics, and very efficient espionage seems most plausible. Cyber espionage combined with few traitor logistics officers can be very effective in making an army vulnerable to a guerilla assault.

If the giant army's logistics and intelligence systems both are hacked or betrayed, the rebels can plant intelligence that sends most of the army on a wild goose chase. Large portions of the army go to the jungles expecting to find a stronghold with 100,000 rebel soldiers. Instead, they find a few hundred men pretending very hard to be a huge force. The US military in WWII had a ghost army, that used inflatable tanks, constant fake radio chatter, and sound trucks, to misdirect the axis army. The rebels have also left a small fraction of their army in the jungles to raid the army supply lines and depots.

The logistics officers in charge of supplying this whole operation are secretly helping the rebels. To "protect" the army's fuel and vehicles, they gather it into a single "heavily guarded" location, which the rebels promptly destroy. Maybe they had buried their one stolen nuke underneath the site they knew the army would store their fuel. After this, the government army will try to hike out of the jungle, commandeer civilian vehicles, and call in all of the available transports from nearby units. The rebels have maybe a couple of weeks before the bulk of the army gets back to the capital. Some units will be able to scrounge up fuel and make it back much sooner.

Meanwhile, the actual rebel army breaks out of hiding and makes a bee line for the capital. Unless the government army has been very stupid indeed, the capital will still have a fraction of the army guarding it. This will probably mean that there is a heroic final battle for your rebel leader to fight.

When the army gets back to the city the generals are not going to be happy about being led by their old enemy. Under the previous regime, they held a position of respect and power. Under the rebel regime, they will probably be unemployed or tried for war crimes. If this was a series of books, I would end the first book after the capital falls, and make the second book about solving this problem. The army no longer has a legitimate supply base and they have a bunch of nukes pointed at them, but the generals are far from powerless.

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Politics. A rival leader on the Board or whatever the governing body is has been working tirelessly, but quietly, to undermine the Director for years. It hasn't been easy. It takes subtle work to make it look like the many failures were from low-level incompetence, sabotage, and accident rather than the work of her hand. But she's succeeded. A budget change here, a staff change there, an untimely "accidental" death there, leaked intelligence, stolen materials. Each event shifting the outcomes just enough to lead to failure.

Disease. A targeted genetic virus that lays dormant in most people, but is set to target specific individuals has been found infecting roughly 90% of the government. Official spokespersons are refusing to comment, but sources indicate the genetic markers of this disease are responsible for a number of deaths in the last few years. We are still working to confirm the list, but it looks like the assassins targeted military strategists, key research personnel, and other critical members of the military. More as this story develops.

Incompetence. Any number of dictators have been brought down by their own mistakes. Or by refusing to listen to good advice from underlings.

Guerrilla tactics. Strike fast and melt into the shadows. No single command structure, each cell acts alone. Maybe a few insiders to help supply logistical support or intelligence. Sure, a few martyrs will get caught or killed. But that only fuels the flames. Vive le resistance!

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Discipline.

One problem which plagues corrupt and ruthless politicians:

Those who cheat for you will cheat against you!

So you can have an army with good equipment and strong organisation, but if the soldiers find that their pay is not sufficient, they are inclined for selling things on the black market for a fraction of the original value. Or they can have the idea that fighting is risky: You could lose your life. So they reluctantly enter an area, look the other way round if they see something suspicious and think: "It's not my fight". In short: It is of no use to have an organized army with good equipment if the determination is missing.

This was a real issue during the German reunification. The Soviets were leaving East Germany and they knew that the living standard back at home was much worse than in East Germany. As hosts in East Germany told me they sold out everything, including the kitchen sink: pistols, machine guns, equipment whatever. I really do not want to know what equipment got "lost" and "out of order" during this time.

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A common scenario is that the rebels have many sympathizers among the working classes, and/or among the ruling class.

If the army takes actions that are unconscionable to the populace -- and the populace becomes aware of these actions -- it risks economic collapse. In his book on Guerilla Warfare, Che Guevara explained that the goal of Castro's revolutionaries was to bring about "the most powerful" of revolutionary actions -- a general strike. The general strike would then force the government to resign, and allow the revolutionaries to take power.

Historically, many country's militaries have been more mercenary than patriotic. If the government failed to pay the soldiers for long enough, it risked having its armies desert to someone who was willing and able to pay them. (Fortunately for most such governments, the same circumstances that prevent a government from paying its soldiers also make it difficult for someone else to pay them instead.) An economic collapse could allow the rebels to "outbid" the government for the support of soldiers who control key locations in the country.

Jerry Pournelle's Prince of Sparta realistically describes how these dynamics (except for the general strike) can limit the choices available to a government fighting a rebellion.

Piers Anthony's Executive provides a not-quite-farcical scenario where the "leader of the rebellion" is the alter ego of the "dictator". The dynamics described above are in play in this book, too. In real life, many "rebel movements" have had so many government informers (or actual government agents) that it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a genuine "small rebellion" and a government "false flag" operation.

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Ruthless Brutality.

A small group can intimidate a large group by pinpoint assassination of those in power, their siblings, parents, friends, and (for all of those people) their children.

The rebels do not have to kidnap people to hold them hostage: they just need to be good enough (and heartless enough) that if the politician or general or cop refuses to comply with their private (not public) demands, people they care about start dying. In car accidents, of illness, of drug overdoses or accidental medication issues or heart attacks at 29. Whatever. If the politician talks, they are gone or discredited or framed for pedophilia with child porn found on their computers: And the rebels have in their pocket, developed for years by the same tactics, judges, prosecutors, police chiefs, Congressmen, Senators, and so on (or whatever the equivalent is, in your world).

Reportedly Al Capone once said, "99% of men will fold up the second you cut them. The other 1% work for me."

Your coup is silent, nobody knows it is happening. The rebels do not ask for much, but when they do, deliver: or your daughter in college is about to die of a drug overdose at a concert, just like her dorm roommate did three months ago, and nobody could believe it. But you believe it, because you got an instagram of that girl with the words "the prime of her life" scrawled on it, and you didn't know what that meant. Until that night she died. A little hacking (obtained willingly or by intimidation) and there is no record of the photo or any proof of their messages.

Your rebels can be smart enough to play a long game; take a small city first, councilman and a mayor, a city manager and local cops and judges that dare not disobey their infrequent requests to look the other way, lose some evidence, accidentally throw a case. All just as an exercise in building compliance.

By the time the rebel leader actually confronts the President; he's terrified for his life; it is about to look like he committed suicide in the Oval Office (or whatever your equivalent is).

But make sure your rebels are never brutal for no reason, and do ensure rewards for compliance. Whispered words will travel, they may be brutal and ruthless, but they keep their word. The rebel leader gives his word, the President will live in comfort and no harm will come to him. As long as he keeps his mouth shut, his pockets will be full. If he cannot keep his mouth shut, his head will soon be empty. He hands over the codes; everybody that was supposed to protect him is dead or under a rebel thumb.

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Several classic examples of defeating a well equipped and trained adversary without destroying their armed forces exist, even post-WW2.

The most obvious one is the Vietnam war, where the US were soundly defeated through the very clever and successful use of propaganda. This turned the American public against the continuation of hostilities so much that the US government was forced to effectively admit defeat, turn tail, and flee the country, abandoning the South Vietnamese people to occupation by the North.

Another case that comes to mind is the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This was turned into a bloody stalemate by attrition warfare, causing it to become economically unsustainable for the USSR, as well as the high losses being impossible to hide from the civilian population, causing trouble for the government who at that time were incapable (due to unrelated events) to suppress dissent with the ruthlessness they would have used not a decade earlier.

Then there is the defeat of Dutch colonial forces in the East Indies, brought about by political pressure, increased losses, and declining popularity of the idea of holding on to the colonies at home. While the local rebel forces had little to do with that changing sentiment and increasing political pressure on the Dutch government to grant them independence, a smarter opponent (like the NVA in Vietnam) could well have brought that about.

To summarise: Yes, you can do it by manipulating public opinion among the enemy civilian population and international politics to the point where the opponent has no option but to withdraw.

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Asymmetrical warfare doesn't target infrastructure generally, it targets personnel and public opinion. That is, with traditional wars.

For a more scifi approach, you could try a genophage that kills those who were not vaccinated beforehand. So the rebels are vaccinated because they know they have this super weapon, maybe from a rebel team of doctors or something. They release it and it wipes out their enemy on a large scale. No genophage is likely to be perfect however, as with any disease there are likely to be survivors who were genetically adapted/suited to be immune.

*Another thought, what if the empire just ran out of money, and couldn't afford to pay that army? In time this would lead to division in the ranks, defections, food shortages, etc.

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I think some of the other answers hint at a similar thread about trying to destroy various things or ways of to destroy them, but this question was already addressed quite famously in Dune.

The ability to destroy something critical with which it is nearly impossible to live without is the ability to control a thing.

In that universe, it was the spice. Others here have mentioned computer control and other various forms of infrastructure.

In this particular scenario a single individual chose to abdicate his position and authority, so there are other more personal options based around that character such as family, pride, honor, integrity or public image.

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If the regime's army is well-equipped and well organized but not necessarily up-to-date on military tactics, your rebels could find an inroad there. For instance, during the American Revolution, the British forces employed the traditional European style of fighting: marching in straight lines and shooting at the enemy. American rebels used a different tactic: they shot from behind trees and stone walls, as well as conducting slightly more organized forms of guerilla warfare (see this link about Francis Marion), particularly in the South. Additionally, geography could be used to your advantage. If the rebels have some sort of "home turf", they could force the regime army to fight them there, where they have the advantage, deplete the regime's forces, and then proceed inward toward the regime's main centers. Finally, the rebels could do the unimaginable. Is there some impossible military feat, never to be accomplished, that would be to their advantage? An example of this would be Hannibal's crossing of the Alps in early winter with troops and over thirty elephants. This gives the rebels the element of surprise, and, if they do everything else right, it could potentially allow them to win.

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Another way could be from inside out, the rebels could mask their identities and join the army, this would allow them to exploit the weaknesses and then the possibilities of attacks that others have mentioned are a lot easier with access to core. An example of it could be to poison the food or intoxicate the water slowly weakening them

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Biological warfare

Make your enemy sick with diseases they never encountered before. Just look what the Europeans did to the Native Americans in the past.

Native American disease and epidemics

When your opponent is unable to act you can easily stage a coup.

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Well, the easiest and most obvious answer might be to simply bypass the army to what they are protecting, plant explosives all over the place, and hold the location hostage and get the army to stand down and disarm themselves. This is of course assuming that the family and friends of the army are in the same location along with the top management of the army and its country.

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