On the "modern system" tactical defence and the look forward into a low force density reality

I think I hinted before that the lack of WW2-esque front lines should have lead to much greater updates to land warfare doctrine than it did. I've recently read again the key chapter (ch. 3) of Stephen Biddle's "Military Power" and would like to present an example argument for my case.

Biddle describes what he calls the "Modern System" of land warfare; how to survive firepower in the tactical defence, how to survive firepower in the tactical offence and how to break through and exploit.

His "Modern System" is in my opinion both an excellent description for much 20th century warfare and a total misnomer at the same time. I think it's a misnomer because it's not "modern", but far below the potential and behind the times by half a century. We were just lucky to not have experienced a war that exposed the obsolescence of the now traditional doctrines.

My example is this one:
Biddle assumes that defenders cannot defend a static position without being overwhelmed by firepower (which is correct). He goes on to assume that the defender thus needs to withdraw from his position after brief firefights in order to fight another fight a bit farther back. Or another team needs to do the same. In either case, defence needs depth in order to slow down the breakthrough, delay the beginning of the enemy's exploitation phase and thus enable friendly reserves to launch a promising counterattack.
It's a beautiful description of the state of the art defensive system of 1917-late 30's.

There's a crucial problem, of course: This very same system wasn't much more than a WW1 Western Front and later a doctrinal system. It was impossible in late 1941 because of overextended forces; there are often simply not enough forces available to defend in depth. Biddle paid much attention to the breakout attempts of the Western Allies in Normandy '44; again a high force density scenario.
His "modern system" is valid, save for the exception that it's invalid in low force density scenarios - that is, in most modern warfare.

A defending (direct fire) team in a high force density scenario does indeed need to shoot and scoot - and to scoot backwards or at most sideways, for these are the only survivable routes. Backwards 120° is the most likely sector for withdrawal because concealed routes for repositioning are most likely to be found in this sector. The advancing enemy might be able to see other routes an reach them with his unbearable firepower.

This is very different in a low force density scenario. Again, a defending team does indeed need to be effective in a quick firefight (ambush) and then break combat asap in order to survive for a later fight.

This doesn't force it to retreat, to go backwards - to trade ground for blood. It could just as well reposition itself in order to get behind the attacker (an astonishingly effective tactic; tank platoons and snipers who did this in WW2 wreaked utterly disproportionate havoc). There aren't enemies everywhere "in front" of them, after all - there aren't "enough" enemies to restrict their choice of routes as much as in a high force density scenario.

Low force density furthermore lowers the chance that defenders are actually in place in order to meet an attacker. There's probably just a brigade on a 60 km 'front line' - with 20 km per battalion. That's about twice the width allocated to WW2 divisions and easily four times the width that an entire brigade should be assigned to defend in a delaying mission in a high intensity scenario. In short: The presence of defenders might be the exception to the rule. Many attackers could advance on roads using loud, bright red motor scooters and still reach their objective.
Even many higher force densities leave plenty room for infiltration and exfiltration on most terrains. No frontages can be assigned to formations in many conflicts; instead, areas and missions are being assigned. There is simply no front line, thus no portion of a front line can be assigned to a formation (or the other way around).

The lack of a high force density front line, a partial collapse of Biddle's modern system tactical defence character and the lacking necessity of a breakthrough phase change very much. Biddle's "Modern system" is obsolete whenever modern forces cannot meet the force densities observed by Biddle in his look back on 20th century land warfare.

We should look forward, understand what we need to do without a front line (and its very important functions), what we need to do with the forces that we have today and in the near future. Much has changed.
Again, just as before 1914, we only get partial and often misleading hints from small wars in underdeveloped countries. We need to read these signs, but we also need to reason ahead of the already observed in order to prevent that we're as awfully unprepared in the next great war as we've been in 1914.



  1. We have now an incredible - never before seen - spread between high-end and low-end warfare. And no real answer.

    The offensive has all the aces currently.

    Defensive is possible, tactical/operational mostly, but not as "hard" defence, and certainly not as strategic defence.

    Everything stationary is dead.

    Increasingly even mobile things with a clear military signature (especially EM) and behaviour patterns are dead. They might survive a little longer, but they are dead.

    Thus mobility is key, not becoming a target - so much is clear.

    But I think no answer has yet been found, or let's say adopted, to the signature problem and the behaviour pattern problem. I say adopted because I think it requires a cultural and doctrinal caesura in the way warfare is conducted against a high-end enemy.

    What is still decried as in-human and against the laws of warfare, the mixing with civil infrastructure and population, will have to become the norm, especially on the defence, and especially taking into account that the majority of humanity is living in urbanized areas now and that following the "Schwerpunkte" concept even the smallest operation will have to include some elements of strategic warfare.

    For the offensive that might mean that there is even less clear distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in C3ISR everything can be dual-use and has to be targeted (at least electronically, if not kinetically).

    I have no clear idea how that translates into near-peer high level warfare. A highly (air)mobile battle into the depth of the enemy land, much like battalion-sized commando actions maybe. Truth is that the U.S. armed forces, dominating the Western game, are basically stuck in the 1930 and not even up to the mobile warfare game of the Wehrmacht. In fact Russia, despite all the problems, is furthest down the road of combined arms mobile warfare "in die Tiefe". With better PGMs they would be deadly - also because they are not fooling around with restrictive RoE and similar do-gooder notions.

    But it's very complex ...

  2. I agree with the thinking, but dont think its relevent.

    Any war the west fights anytime in the future will likely see us heavily outnumbered, overall, but heavily outnumbering in any tactical situations.

  3. @RT:

    The opposite is true in AFG.

  4. SO
    True, but I dont see AFG as a likely indicator of the future.

    Actualy, AFG proves my point.
    We are numericaly superior, there being some 400,000 ISAF, ANP and ANA combatants, compared with 30,000 assorted, mostly part time, rebels.

    And yet virtualy every battle see's western forces outnumbered.

  5. You're kind of 'flexible' here.

  6. Whenever I hear "low force density", I'm thinking Robert Heinleins brilliant book "Starship Troopers". I wonder how long it will be until our soldiers are jumping around with similar exoskeleton suits, each man being able to cover an area of several kilometers by himself.

  7. The starship troopers never really fought in a forest or a city...


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