2010/08/20

The "age of movement to contact"

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Movement to contact is the most primitive form of offensive movement with deployed forces. Tactics and Operational art manuals & books are full of much more effective and elaborate forms of offensive movements.

This didn't prevent the "age of movement to contact".

Exercises are often about incredibly slow-paced and do often allow for the "deliberate attack". This attack requires reconnaissance, planning, orders, preparations, movement into positions and finally the attack itself. It's the philharmonic orchestra version of battle.
Officers are usually aware that this is utterly unrealistic unless it's about a breakthrough battle in otherwise static warfare.

A hasty operation is an operation in which a commander directs his immediately available forces, using fragmentary orders (FRAGOs), to perform activities with minimal preparation, trading planning and preparation time for speed of execution. A deliberate operation is an operation in which a commander’s detailed intelligence concerning the situation allows him to develop and coordinate detailed plans, including multiple branches and sequels. He task organizes his forces specifically for the operation to provide a fully synchronized combined arms team. He conducts extensive rehearsals while conducting shaping operations to set the conditions for the conduct of his decisive operation.
FM 3-90 (2001, U.S. Army)



Fortified, static front lines as in much of WWI and WWII are impossible in almost all modern warfare scenarios, though. The German, French and Soviet armies of WW2 consisted of a few highly mobile divisions and about 85-95% foot-mobile infantry divisions. The latter formed the static front lines while the mobile forces prepared for the next mobile warfare phase.
Today's armies are smaller versions of the mobile forces, with no bulk of slow infantry divisions.
Land warfare between conventional forces would probably have calm phases when no side dares to close in, but there would be almost no set-piece, deliberate attack battles.

The established alternative to the deliberate attack in less slow motion-ish situations is known as "hasty attack" in English. "Hasty attack" is deceptive; it's still nothing that's done without substantial preparations.

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Forces which were presented with a new tactical situation every two days in peacetime exercises found themselves reacting to new developments every few hours against the Iraqi forces in 2003. The Iraqi forces were certainly not known for their mobile warfare prowess. A hostile force that masters mobile warfare would pose an even greater challenge and likely often times cause a temporary breakdown of command by brigade and division staffs.

A German armour regiment commander defeated a clearly superior French tank concentration in 1940 with a handful of competitive tanks and many light (rather suitable for training) tanks. He moved a lot, attacked here then there - employing his useless light tanks for deception and his few medium tanks as the hard hitters. This kind of tactical brilliance decided many battles against superior tank forces, even against the T-34 in late '41 and in '42. A movement to contact against such tactical brilliance is a recipe for disaster if not outright suicide (+manslaughter of subordinates).

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This is usually the time when writers begin to blather about the OODA loop (observe-orient-decide-act) and how completing the loop quicker than the adversary means to get inside something and to win.
The sad fact is that instead the OODA theory breaks down at this speed. The "observe" part is the first one that breaks down; the iconic situational awareness (holy golden calf of ground forces RMA and focal point of the marketing of many military hardware suppliers) fails.

Ground forces which operate at high speed often lose their understanding of the surroundings - they simply stumble into the enemy - they do movements to contact if they advance at all.

Movement to contact is a type of offensive operation designed to develop the situation and establish or regain contact (...). A commander conducts this type of offensive operation when the tactical situation is not clear or when the enemy has broken contact.
FM 3-90 (2001, U.S. Army)

This is not necessarily a bad thing; many incredibly one-sided battles in military history were begun with a movement to contact by either one or both forces. The problem is that in a movement to contact the only qualitative advantage to be had is the superior readiness for battle. A commander who conducts a movement to conduct does not use more advanced tactics for additional, unfair advantages over the enemy.

This readiness for battles includes everything associated with small units; hardware, morale, training, ammunition, vigilance, leader's talent, relative positioning and facing and so on.
It does not include operational art at all. A force which conducts a movement to conduct and stumbles into an enemy has likely few if any advantages built up on the operational or formation tactical level.
The exception is of course the specific case when the operational leader intentionally seeks decisive combat ASAP because he is sure about the own forces' superior battle readiness. There's a name for this tactic that slips out of my memory once I read it.

This was the standard in 2003, and the Iraqis were way too demoralised and incompetent to exploit this negligence. The failure of the operational and formation tactical level to create substantial advantages through clever manoeuvres was not punished. No harsh punishment (such as the French were punished for their operational failure in 1940 and the Soviets in 1941, the British in 1942) meant little attention and little learning effect.


The Israelis blundered into Lebanon in 2006, were punished for their blunders by Hezbollah (embarrassing!) and worked hard on rectifying their issues ever since. The Russians blundered into Georgia and succeeded against Georgian forces that were about as incapable of exploiting blunders as were the Iraqis - but nevertheless the Russians seem to have recognised their blunders in that short episode.

NATO members on the other hand became immediately distracted by occupation duties including the frustrating fight against pesky, minimally capable yet elusive opponents. They replaced the failed RMA fashion with the COIN fashion and oh boy, we know how well that one performed.
It looks as if they slept over the necessary learning and issue correction phase in regard to mobile warfare proficiency on the operational and formation tactical level.

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Modern operational art has nice books with basics, but it seems to be out of synch with modern ground forces' mobility.

The age of movement to contact should be ended ASAP. The key to this is to fix the "situational awareness" thing - but not the military-industrial way. That one has failed badly, and at high fiscal cost.
Instead, the answer should be operational and tactical.

I have a proposal for this, but I have also mercy for the readers of this text, so I won't turn it into a long book chapter right now.


Sven Ortmann

edit:fixed a typo

edit 2014: In hindsight, I should have written about "meeting engagements" instead of "movement to contact", for it's more what I had in mind.

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5 comments:

  1. Sven, the best advice I ever received on the OODA loop is where it starts, it's not at observation, the loop starts at orientation. A move to contact is not something any commander should want to do unless they are absolutely sure of the opposing strength. At best your chances are fifty-fifty otherwise.

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  2. Does this tie into your thesis about the lack of recon capabilities in modern forces? That against a competent opponent, smart recon and deliberate attack should be the norm?

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  3. Well, yes. Although recce forces such as armoured recce battalions are merely similar to what we need.

    My thesis is more about skirmishers; see the "square trick" post (Sept 09).

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  4. As someone blissfully ignorant of post-Napoleonic warfare, doesn't this basically sum to the same old dictum, scouting is everything? And that most attacks are direct, head-on blunders straight into an enemy, with the corollary that defensive/counterattacking victories will be easier and cheaper than offensive ops?

    (I'll admit to more or less complete ignorance of the basis of this discussion, so this may be better just to be ignored by you)

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  5. It's more complex.

    For starters, scouts on the ground are nowadays rather slower than combat troops on the move. This was different when riders on light horses with good endurance and scouted for foot-mobile troops.
    Aerial reconnaissance is only an imperfect substitute.

    The widespread movement of contact problem of the last decades is also in part (not in the case of Israelis) the consequence of having no front lines. Line troops fix and reconnoitre the enemy, and a front line allows for a deliberate breakthrough assault.
    Today's brigade vs. brigade combat is more like two bears walking through the landscape, stumbling into each other as rivals.
    The for of war - far from being lifted by technology - is so dense that the location and time of an encounter becomes unpredictable.


    A solution could of course be to find, track & fix the hostile brigade with combat-capable reconnaissance forces before it'll be engaged by multiple friendly brigades in a somewhat prepared attack.

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