2009/09/18

On defensive firepower and much else...

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Many proponents of the "Revolution in Military Affairs" argued that future wars would include many precision strikes. Some even argued that future armies would not need much armour to prevail on the battlefield; the enemy could or even would be defeated before line-of-sight combat begins. That was an important assumption as it helped to create a 'light-itis' in the U.S. Army (the development and procurement of light and medium weight vehicles with the hope of replacing heavy main battle tanks at least partially) and European armies It wasn't entirely innovative, though; the belief that fires could destroy an enemy and reduce the advance to a policing action was already invented (and shattered) in WWI. Watered-down versions helped the Soviet and American armies to break through deliberate defences in WW2.


It wasn't surprising that these firepower-centric views were especially strong in the U.S. and in Russia/the Soviet Union. Both had armies with a tradition of emphasizing firepower.

The Russian tradition dates back to at least 1943. The losses of the war in 1941-1943 had wasted their pre-war junior officer corps and a shortage of young and well-trained infantrymen limited their options. Their solution was a strong emphasis on indirect fires in breakthrough battles.

The U.S. Army tradition (of emphasizing support fires) is older; it dates back to WWI when the inexperienced and quickly inflated U.S.Army arrived in France and accepted the French army (itself relatively short of quality infantry and heavily emphasizing artillery) as its teacher for the trench war (the U.S. Navy looked at the Royal Navy as its mentor in WWI).


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RMA applied the precision fires idea to the offence and defence, with an emphasis on hitting targets (forces and their supplies) that are not in ground combat at the time.

That feature had been emphasized a lot in the early 80's AirLand Battle doctrine which in itself was based on the expectation that Soviet reserves would arrive at a WW3 Central Front in waves.

Earlier (WW2 air war) examples of such battlefield interdiction (like the bombing campaign of the Normandy invasion) had similar intents, but often with an emphasis on operational effects (like slowing down reserves or deception - especially over France). The interdiction bombing effects on a division in WW2 was often as much about affecting its movements as it was about inflicting damage.

RMA critics considered the fog of war still as a valid problem that reduced the effectiveness of interdiction and standoff fires in general and they don't believe that brigades could reliably be ruined before close combat.


I recall a RAND study about the employment of different precision weapons in a defensive battle scenario They assumed that a highly dispersed march (packages of at most three tanks) could overwhelm the U.S.'s ability to meet RMA expectations (even with an imaginary ideal stand-off missile).

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An U.S. Army unit was completely surprised by an Iraqi counter-attack in force in 2003 despite quite easily observable terrain. This practical experience eroded the RMA fashion. The Anaconda battle in Afghanistan and the last Lebanon War had similarly disappointing lessons learned; even a very high concentration of sensors and time for preparations revealed only about 50% of the actual enemy fighting positions before they opened fire.

The assumption that the enemy would need to be defeated in actual battles - not so much by interdiction and standoff fires - has been fashionable again in the last few years.


That's not the whole story, though. Warfare is complex and defies most easy answers.
The golden mean is probably a neither/nor. Stand-off fires work surprisingly fine in a tactical defence and surprisingly poor in the tactical offence. They're no 100% reliable option, though.

Look at this quote from a German 50's book about WW2 Eastern Front experiences:

Der Wert der neuzeitlichen Verteidigung liegt in erster Linie in der abstoßenden Feuerwirkung aller Waffen. Sie ist aber nur dann von kampfentscheidender Wirkung, wenn sie zeitlich und örtlich zusammengefasst wird und den Feind in einem Schwächemoment trifft.
Ein Charakteristikum der meisten abgeschlagenen Angriffe des vergangenen Krieges ist es, daß sie bereits 200 bis 400 m vor den vordersten Verteidigungsanlagen abgeschlagen wurden.


("The value of the modern defence lies in the first instance in the repelling fire effect of all weapons. It is however only of decisive effect if it is combined in time and space and hits the enemy in a moment of weakness.
A character of most defeated assaults of the past war is that they were defeated already 200 to 400 m in front of the most forward defensive positions." The emphasis is original.)

Major soviet assaults were defeated - if enough resources were available at all - more by very competent and military intelligence + flexible artillery leadership and observers (quite the same; battery commanders were often up front as forward observers) than by anything else. The infantry controlled the terrain and was capable of defeating small attacks, but large ones were smashed by focusing several artillery battalions on one target area for a very short time (like two minutes). The German army developed this as its model defence against infantry attacks because its infantry had been reduced to a shadow of its former self by years of extreme warfare.

The same author (Middeldorf) also wrote that German fires on Russian marshalling-areas often did more harm to the Red Army than battle itself:

Das Bekämpfen feindlicher Bereitstellungen durch "Gegenfeuerschläge" hatte bei der russischen Eigenart, die Angriffstruppen dicht geballt in den Angriffsvornächten vorzuführen, eine außergewöhnliche Wirkung in allen Großkämpfen im Osten der Jahre 1943 bis 1945. Der Munitionseinsatz hierfür übertraf sehr oft den des eigentlichen feindlichen Angriffstages; wie Gefangene häufig bestätigt haben, waren die Verluste hierbei wesentlich höher, als bei dem Angriff selbst. Zahlreiche Angriffe sind durch diese "Gegenfeuerschläge" bereits in der Bereitstellung zerschlagen worden.

(The battle against enemy marshalling-areas by "counter fire hits" had due to the Russian characteristic to present the assault troops densely concentrated in the night before attack, an extraordinary effect in all great battles in the East of the years 1943 till 1945. The expense of ammunition for this exceeded very often the one of the actual enemy day of attack; as prisoners often confirmed, were the losses at this significantly higher than at the assault itself. Numerous attacks were already broken up in the marshalling-area by these "counter-fire hits".)

(I attempted a most direct translation, please bear with me concerning the poor syntax.
The original syntax is already quite intricate itself.)



The combination of RMA theory and WW2 experiences suggests that indirect fires were and are indeed able to defeat* enemy offensives before any close combat.
We don't and didn't even need air power or electronics to achieve this.

The WW2 precondition for such a success was an orderly (not 'fluid') situation. Those defensive successes were achieved at a (poorly manned) defensive line, after all.


Defensive success in mobile warfare looks different; it's usually a combination of delay actions and counterattacks. The missing factor was the order and surveillance by an infantry picket line. The observation capability of a front line can today be emulated in large areas with the right organization, tactics and technology.

Improved communications, sensors, artillery ordnance (self-propelled systems) and navigation have certainly improved the artillery's capabilities beyond the fantasy of WW2 generals. These are even more reasons for much confidence in artillery.

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Western artillery has suffered a lot in the wars that NATO member forces were involved in since the 60's. Artillerymen were (mis-)used as infantry or military police and often didn't even deploy with their full equipment. Several (not all) artillery modernization efforts have been postponed. Air forces were able to rival artillery in its core role (with close air support) because of very weak (or none) opposing air power and air defences.
Many modern NATO generals hold the belief that today's artillery needs much less ammunition than in previous years (opposite to the trend) because of precision weapons. Precision weapons should probably be regarded as a niche application due to their cost and info requirements. Many promises can be kept with old-fashioned artillery as well.

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We've got ongoing discussions about whether to prepare more for conventional war, to prepare more for future and present occupation wars or to do both. The artillery seems to be among the biggest losers of the past two decades' focus on peacekeeping and occupations.

It might help Western artillery forces if we re-emphasize the fact that a healthy army's indirect fires can defeat a powerful offensive without necessitating much close combat.

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At the same time it's a good idea to acknowledge that this doesn't work as well on the offensive. It's just as the Middeldorf wrote; the enemy needs to be hit in a moment of weakness. He needs to be exposed.

Even well-hidden defensive positions can be exposed by modern sensors, but that's still a slow, laborious and unreliable process. It will likely not become much better against competent enemies anytime soon because of a predictable race between sensors and ECM+C C D**.

Finally, mobile warfare (usually very fluid) requires neither silver bullets nor is the enemy in strong positions; the full exploitation of such an opportunity-rich situation requires very agile leadership and agile units with good endurance (sleep, consumables consumption and reserve, low maintenance requirements).

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We don't need one magic solution for land war. Land war isn't all the same even in one type of terrain with one type of enemy. The emphasis needs to be different, depending on on the situation.
Deliberate defence, deliberate offence and the exploitation of fluid situations (movement to contact doesn't describe it well enough) place the emphasis on very different virtues.
This is no news for hundreds of thousands of active and former soldiers, but as an insight it's strangely absent in military fashions.


It's really disappointing that one-size-fits-it-all receipts with supposed silver bullets keep attracting so much attention. Meanwhile, important strengths like battlefield agility, quantity indirect fires and unit endurance remain well below the potential because they don't receive the well-deserved attention.

Sven Ortmann

*: "to defeat" doesn't mean that "to end" here - it just means that the attack is already destined to be a failure.

**: CCD = camouflage, concealment & deception. Countermeasures to enemy vision and sensors.

edit: On the U.S.Army unit that got surprised by an Iraqi attack in 2003:
A quote from the paper "Trading the Saber for Stealth":

The largest conventional tank battle of the war occurred on the morning of 3 April 2003 when elements of three Iraqi brigades consisting of no fewer than 100 armored vehicles and up to 10,000 soldiers converged on 3d Battalion, 69th Armor, as they guarded a critical bridge crossing the Euphrates River at Objective Peach. This type of large conventional force is the ideal formation that the extensive surveillance network operating in Iraq should have been able to detect. Lieutenant Colonel Earnest "Rock" Marcone, commander of 3-69 Armor, claims that the Iraqi Republican Guard did nothing special to conceal their intentions or their movements. They attacked en masse using tactics that are more recognizable with the Soviet army of World War II. LTC Marcone reported that, despite the large conventional force moving against him, we got nothing until they slammed into us. In fact, the battalion did not receive a single piece of intelligence from their higher headquarters to indicate that such a large attack was imminent. The commander had terrible situational awareness that night in spite of the large array of airborne reconnaissance platforms that were supposedly watching his front.
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1 comment:

  1. Enjoyable analysis.
    Stephen Biddle in his book Military Power criticizes the RMA trend, using the fog of war concept similarly to how you mention it.

    RMA was indeed shortsighted because of not incorporating the fog of war reality of conflict. RMA's successor, Network centric warfare tries to remedy this issue through creating near-real time ISR capabilities, giving the bomb the proverbial target. This too is shortsighted since ISR capabilities today are the operational equivalent of having a man in the sky with a missile, albeit at a significantly reduced cost.

    In order for NCW to penetrate the fog of war and thus become a more viable tool, it must incorporate true multi-layered sensor fusion. What does this actually mean and look like? It is the ability to see an aggregated perspective of any and all objects and events within the observable network, incorporating data fusion from multiple sensor sources to create the most coherent information product given available sensor data. But what does this look like?

    Consider for a moment the questionable effectiveness of London's CCTV network. Thousands of cameras recording nearly years worth of footage every hour nearly, with only a few token observers manning the stations. It is essentially a retroactive tool used only after a crime is permitted due to the practical realities of manpower and an inefficient communication chain. If this same network were fused so the data was incorporated into a single information stream and then assessed by algorithms, or even observer with now the ability to see a bird's eye view, we find the ability to identify and act upon transgression in real time become a more practical reality.

    Incorporating such as concept has several technical hurdles, many of which will be solved through commercial enterprise well before the defense industry can produce it. These hurdles include the tremendous computing power required to transcribe raw data (Visual, IR, Radar, audio) into usable information, algorithms to assess said information into discernible intelligence, and a variety of sensors that can penetrate a variety of environments, from foliage to urban settings.

    Such a concept is not achievable now, nor will it be in the next decade. Computing power, artificial intelligence, and sensors must make significant strides in power, accuracy, and cost before this idea could come into fruition.

    ReplyDelete

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