2009/08/12

Infantry on the offensive

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This video was apparently published to show the problem of heavily laden infantry being attacked and avoided by more nimble enemy infantry at will.

It shows something much more universal to me; infantry needs cover (or at least concealment) for its survival even against light infantry armament.

Infantry advances - infantry is being fired upon - infantry seeks cover - advance stalled.

That problem was 'solved' in the past (when infantry arms were less lethal) by using armoured vehicles, lots of support (smoke and other indirect fires) and a much higher casualty tolerance.

It's well-known that infantry isn't a primarily offensive arm. Its suitability to the tactical offensive was diminished almost as much as that of horse cavalry as long as a century ago.

Armour is different; it uses the power of the internal combustion engine to move (mobility) the tank's weight (protection and firepower) in face of strong opposition. No tank is fully invulnerable, but capable enough that tactics and training can overcome the remaining threats.
A much too primitive understanding of survivability and tank combat has led many (again and again) to believe in the end of the tank, but that has been proved to be premature again and again.

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Nevertheless, some (usually not professional army personnel) still come up with ideas of an infantry-centric battlefield. Such ideas look like the Stryker combat team (with wheeled armoured vehicles that would drop infantrymen to do most of the fighting). Other 'visions' are about elite infantry, with every infantryman being a forward observer (modern speak: fire support team) himself. Seriously; I saw graphics on professional presentations and in professional journals that depicted infantrymen(?) hiding behind rocks and targeting individual enemy targets for indirect fires. They had at most a PDW-like individual armament, symbolizing the changing relevance of support fires and small arms.

Such concepts are fine for the application of support fires, but they're utterly off in regard to what armies really need.

An army doesn't need to kill every enemy soldier on the battlefield (how many enemies could be taken prisoner by FO teams?). Conventional ground wars look differently (unless you fought against some of the historically rare, very cohesive and disciplined enemies): There's some combat to fix the enemy reserves, then some combat to break the enemy locally and then there's the extremely important exploitation (a.k.a. pursuit) phase till an operational or strategic victory is achieved or till the offense stops because of the culminating point of attack.

It's great if a brigade can defeat a division in a battle, but that's of little value if it's not nimble enough to exploit that success decisively.

The most significant difference between the 1918 Spring offensive and Blitzkrieg was in the exploitation of success.

Im Ausn├╝tzen des Erfolges liegt die Keimzelle des Sieges.
("The germ cell of victory is in the exploitation of success." Guderian, 1940)


The mobility (and logistical capabilities) given by the internal combustion engine and the use of radios for much of the tactical communication coupled with daring commanders and much initiative down to junior NCO ranks enabled a stunningly fast and decisive exploitation of breakthroughs. The breakthrough battle was a phase of high ammunition and low fuel consumption, while the exploitation phase had reversed needs.

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Conventional ground war fantasies related to FO infantry and Strykers have some relevance in the tactical and operational defence, but not in the offense. They would even fail to achieve a breakthrough, being the equivalent of the French army's offensive tactics in this example.


Infantry cannot sustain a high-speed pursuit in face of occasional resistance, that's obvious. It's also a reminder for the huge importance of heavy combined arms teams in conventional ground war.
Some (many? all?) firepower-centric approaches to modern tactical (technical) ground war seem to ignore the importance of exploitation.

Sven Ortmann
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6 comments:

  1. Call me cynical but isn't the real problem that most modern Western forces are against too high casualties? Perhaps my view is old-fashioned and wrong, but my impression is when modern infantry (I include the Israelis) confront a threat they stop and call fire-support, which slows down the whole momentum of an attack. The enemy simply slips away. It reduces casualties, but also gives the enemy more than enough time to think and get away to fight another day.

    I don't want to go back to Somme-style human wave attacks, but the German military showed with their Stormtrooper-tactics that infantry can attack decisively during the great offensives of 1918. But this also means heavy casualties obviously.

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  2. Less casualty-sensitivity "helps" on the tactical level, but it doesn't help at all on the operational level.

    Infantry needs to dismount to fight, that reduces the mobility (in terms of speed) to almost nothing. That's insufficient for pursuit and exploitation.

    Infantry can win fights with good support and on the right terrain (short lines of sight, enough cover and concealment), but it was a very tough job in both World Wars and the increased firepower made it even harder.
    Winning a fight doesn't mean much, anyway: The old WWI problem persists. Infantry can advance slowly, but the enemy's reserves move much faster and seal the gaps. An advance on foot against enemy reserves on trucks is operationally hopeless.

    That's why heavy ground forces are still necessary; they can carry huge firepower and sufficient protection thanks to the power of the internal combustion engine.

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  3. Interesting ideas but the world seems to be moving in the other direction. Leaving out the special forces ideas one still recognises the ideas of E. Afhledt, L. Unterseher and others who proposed infantry centered defensive concepts. Basically the Iraqui militias, the Israeli concepts and the clear, hold, build strategy in AFG. and elsewhere are based on these ideas.
    I can personally see no need for armour based blitzkrieg capabilities in any realistic scenario- if one leaves out fighting regular forces- an increasingly rare phenomenon

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  4. Well I consider political adventures with troops in distant places as a mistake, therefore I don't care much about the associated theory.

    Major conventional ground wars are not very unlikely or irrelevant. There were such wars in Southern Asia and in the Near East. Most of the Eastern NATO frontier has great terrain for it.
    Half of our brigades are meant to be used in AFV-based mobile warfare as well.

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  5. Lovely,

    the Afheldt/Unterseher et al theories were alternative defense plan for western Europe. I can see your point but in my view the blitzkrieg capabilities armour offers are only needed by the attacker and not the defender. Even Foertsch wrote that armour is not suitable for the defender. In any case a flexible net of well trained infantry is, whether in national defense or some far away scenario, a match for armour

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  6. I recalled those militia-like theories.

    You are in my opinion in error about defence, though.

    Effective defence requires counter-attacks, and an attacker can much easier prepare for his offensives if he doesn't need to fear any enemy attacks.

    There's also the possibility of stalling attacks by attacking offensive preparations. Guderian did this to protect the Sedan bridgehead, for example.

    Finally there's the true statement (Clausewitz iirc) that the attack is the decisive action, while defence merely prepares for later decisive actions.

    Armour isn't good for holding (closed) terrain (which isn't the same as not being good for defence). Maybe that's the misunderstanding.

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