2010/11/11

The truck convoy security challenge, seen from the operational level

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It's a tough job to escort a vehicle convoy properly. It's rarely done in (conventional) wartime because the threat is either too small or the probability of escorting success doesn't justify the employment of rare combat units.


It's commonly preferred to escort convoys with units or small units which have at the moment only a small utility in their primary role. Armoured reconnaissance and ill-equipped anti-tank small units often meet that fate in situations that don't favour their employment in their supposedly more typical missions.

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The basic problem is that even a strong convoy escort would still be at a disadvantage against ambushers because the latter can exploit the strength of tactical defence and they can abort disadvantageous ambushes, thus create a systematic tactical bias in their favour.

Convoy self-defence has very serious limitations, too. Gunners on truck cabs have often times a field of fire of only about 320 degrees because the tarpaulin, container or module is too high. The personnel costs of the additional gunners are high in wealthy countries and loaded trucks cannot really counter-attack off the road.

It makes therefore sense in conventional warfare to escort convoys only with a small escort, barely enough to defeat or discourage weak opposition, such as hostile stragglers and infiltrators.

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Now let's have a look at the air and naval domains, in search for solutions to analog problems.

There's first the example of WW2 bomber escorts. Both the Germans in 1940 and the Americans in 1944 recognized that close escorts (fighters close to the bombers) were not very successful. They succeeded in keeping some hostile interceptors busy, but they scored rather few kills themselves because fighter/fighter lethality rested largely on the element of surprise in both World Wars. The close escorts simply surprised nobody as a formation. Interceptors were also able to dive to safety and escort fighters were then obliged to stay at altitude to protect the bombers, and thus unable to complete the interceptor's kill.

The more successful approach was "freie Jagd" ('free hunting'); patrols of fighter squadrons in the general area.
Interceptors attempted to avoid these and thus rarely used opportunities to surprise them. The far escort fighters on the other hand attacked every time. The result was that the far escort fighters had much more success because they had what is known as "initiative". They chose their optimal cruise speed, their optimal altitude and were often able to attack with surprise effect.



A naval example is the Second Battle of the Atlantic. The Allied attempts to secure ship convoys in the Atlantic were modern and innovative, but they weren't decisive. The Allies only finally defeated the German pre-War submarine generation when they had enough ressources (bombers and sub hunter ships) to turn the whole Atlantic into their submarine hunting ground.


Well, what could modern ground forces learn from these examples?

Close escorts may be necessary as a 'last line of defence', but they are likely not the most promising component of an operational-level convoy security concept.

Truck convoys and their escorts have another problem which both examples did not have; the escorts cannot cruise much faster than the escorted vehicles. In fact, tracked combat vehicles may have a considerably lower (technical) cruise speed than all trucks. Armoured trucks as escorts are unlikely to move significantly faster than loaded trucks as well.
This makes it even more difficult to 'hunt' ahead as a kind of detached vanguard or to escort closely.

The general problem persists; far escorts can run into ambushes just as easily as truck convoys - and they will do if the ambushers consider them to be worthwhile targets.

Something better is needed, an approach that dissolves the initiative problem.

This approach could be a distant relative of what was done in several occupation wars: Secure the route (or the general area) permanently instead of providing powerful escorts to all convoys!

[***This fits well to another approach to logistical transportation, the dispersed transportation (which enables much more ton-km per truck). It's obviously impossible to escort pairs of trucks with an escort which can defeat serious ambushes. Such dispersed logistical transportation would nevertheless benefit much from a secured area (they don't all use a single main supply route, thus "dispersed").
Dispersed log movements have many other advantages as well, an example is the crossing of  log movements on a junction. Two convoys meeting each other would lead to one convoy waiting while the other would pass. Dispersed log movements would not require this, for the trucks would be spread much more over time and rarely if ever arrive at the junction at the same time. Dispersed log movements also save time at depots, or every truck can begin its march once it's loaded and does not need to wait for others. Well, now back to escorts.***]


It's simply better to be first in the area, before the ambushers arrive. This way you don't run into their ambush, but they may stumble into yours. The way to go is therefore to detach convoy security forces from the convoy body almost entirely or entirely.
The logic works in other areas (such as recce and security for combat brigades) as well and leads to the desirability of a more general area control with dispersed small units instead of dedicated convoy security forces. Many army challenges can be addressed with this approach (and several new challenges need to be mastered in order to suceed with it).
That's a long story, of course. It holds much potential for an operational art revolution.


Sven Ortmann
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3 comments:

  1. The approach in Afghanistan seems to swamp the routes with trucks. So even if a couple are lost, overall it's probably not more than the natural "lion's share" of low single digit percentages.

    Still it is said that the local clans take pretty huge amounts of cash and gold not to interfere with the convoys.

    But Afghanistan is a totally untenable situation anyway, especially in logistics. 120.000 men literally hanging in the air. Totally crazy.

    For pre-emptive anti-guerilla tactics , as you propose, there are not enough men in Western armies. That works only with auxiliary troops. Careful of course that those don't cost more than a heavy escort by regular troops. Let them loot and rape as their payoff (well, might not be so good for the hearts and minds stuff).

    Right now I'd say for bulk convoys through unsecured areas can't be done on the cheap and aerial support is the way to go. Two tiers of scout UAVs, a few COIN aircraft on standby in the region (like a Bronco with a belly gun turret), and a few IFV. But still: Keep in mind the point where air transport becomes more cost effective.

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  2. I remember back many years to the concept while vital/vulnerable points on a convoy route would have "pickets" placed on them to observe for and restrict enemy attempts to disrupt or ambush a convoy. Length of route may be a factor in manpower requirement and certainly IMHO in todays warfare helicopter insertion and immediate CAS (close air support) would be vital for this type of operation.

    JMA

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  3. The Russians even established fire bases for arty support along the ring road of Afghanistan, but this MSR-specific coverage is not what I meant.
    It doesn't work well in mobile warfare to secure routes like that.

    I thought more of a kind of net that catches stragglers, armoured recce and the likes.

    Some distant guerrillas are no actual threat to my country and will most likely never become one.

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