2012/06/26

Risk management and Sacrifice

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Recently I got into an argument with some people on another blogs' comments. 
I offered a certain argument/assertion among others; that a (small) unit (a platoon or company) should march divided, with some spacing. This would leave some elements free to respond by manoeuvre once contact with opposing forces has been made - one possible alternative to airstrikes and other huge material superiorities in the event of an ambush.

The response flabbergasted me, because it was from such a different world of thought: Some elements - moving and difficult to track or not - would still be overwhelmed and a flank attack would follow (or maybe he meant that a flank attack on the elements would happen - doesn't matter).

This made no sense to me. He seemed to prefer that the unit as a whole gets flanked instead of only a fraction. He also seemed to assert that the early warning of an element getting overwhelmed would not negate the "flank" characteristic of the attack.
Well, it's not exactly a secret that surprise is amongst the huge drivers of battlefield success, and having security details with some spacing has thus been utterly self-evident for a long time. Until recently, I guess.

The same discussion opponents brought forward the claim that Western military forces knew that Afghanistan is only a small war and would keep this in mind.

Well, that's the problem. People who get it wrong rarely get it that they get it wrong. They keep their confidence. This applies to me, too - no doubt. All humans suffer from this defect as far as I can tell. I still happen to think they were wrong, of course.


So what's the problem exactly?
I think that we -in the broad sense- have lost too much of old wisdom in recent small wars. To expose a fraction of a force to extreme risks in order to reduce the overall risks (and overall losses) has been a successful concept for thousands of years. Pickets, reconnaissance patrols too weak for a real fight, vanguard, rearguard, decoy forces - it has been self-evident, standard practice.

The entire idea that high risks may be acceptable and even the utterly correct choice if they apply only to a fraction of the force was lost. We reduce risks, without discrimination between useful and wasteful risks. We up-armour, we add support, we hesitate, we hunker down in bases, we throw more and more money at cheap problems, we mandate minimum patrol strengths that suffice for a firefight against local opposition if support is available (not a necessary characteristic of classic recce!), we don't expose decoy forces - we have lost much of the art of war.


This goes so far that quite often people cannot grasp basic and time-proven concepts any more - said concepts are too far away from how our forces do their business today.

I would love to buy into the optimism that we're oh-so competent and oh-so aware of the difference between small and great wars. I can't.

My professional experience has included contact with many different professions. Soldiers, engineers, economists, managers, lawyers, bureaucrats, workers, clerks - and they all had their profession-typical pattern of thinking. Their pattern of thought is often coined by their professional education at a university or by their social upbringing.
In the case of army troops I suspect that their pattern of thought forms within years of experience as well, and many junior leaders of Western armies had their formative years not in basic or in a NCO course, but in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their pattern of thought is a small wars pattern. They may believe that they understand the difference between small and great wars, but I suspect that all-too-often they only understand the superficial differences. They cannot switch to a great war pattern of thought.
They probably really lost this mental capacity.
"They" being of course only a majority or loud minority, for no military bureaucracy is 100%  homogeneous.


Small wars are much more expensive than most accounts suggest: They badly reduce the efficiency of our spending on great war capability by manipulating our thinking into the small wars pattern of thought, and might even lead to eventual defeat in a great war.

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17 comments:

  1. Was he concerned about having the units beaten piecemeal? I would rather have part of a unit attacked and use the others to manoeuvre to help than have all of them caught by suprise.

    Tim

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  2. Dead on! Thank you.

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  3. S Ortmann,

    I was part of that discussion you speak of. Two things;

    1) Afghanistan is not like a conventional war in the sense of the enemy having fixed positions which they have to defend. You might have a village and hidden in a hole somewhere they might have stashed a small number of AK's. They don't have to "spring" their trap on the first enemy that walks by. They can stand around posing as normal villagers until they believe the opportune moment has come, waiting days if really needed.

    Thus if you split your formation into two coloumns, with a distance between them equivalent to the range of the their small arms (lets just say 500 yards for the sake of it), the enemy can wait until you're in a position such that they can attack one coloumn while the other is 500 yards and completely unable to join the fight, especially if the terrian has been pre-laced with IED's to hinder movement.

    By keeping the coloumn together as one you permit them to string out under contact and return fire. 4 Afghans cannot pin down an entire spaced platoon, which can then split sections or fire teams off to move against/suppress the enemy.

    2) Not sure how other forces do it, but once UK forces return from deployment to Afghanistan they first go through a period of just resting and reorganising after their campaign. Their next six month stint after that sees them returning to exercises and training for their designated role, be it armoured infantry or whatever.

    So within six months of returning, Afghanistan is put behind them and they are back to conventional training for a conventional role. Officers and NCO's still receive their training based around conventional warfare.

    In a sense Afghanistan appears to be seen as something that soldiers gear up for specifically (6 months pre-deployment training), go out and do, and then when they return they are considered back to "normal" fighting.

    I hope this would address some of the concerns you have.

    Chris. B.

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  4. The topic was how to substitute for heavy non-organic fire support and dispersal into sub-teams was one of my examples.

    The example wasn't about columns, though. It was about dominating heights and marching divided, not about columns. The dispersion was even meant to create unpredictability; whoever attacks a small team would have to fear another small team in his flank or back and another one on a hill in LOS. It's important to divide forces because this prevents that all of them could get pinned down or enter a kill zone. This is vital for maintaining the ability to respond by offensive manoeuvre with tolerable exposure to firepower.
    The "4 Afghans cannot" thing is an optimism that comes from occupatiopn duty. "4 Afghans" are no greater threat to a cluster of small teams than to a compact platoon either.
    There's a great bias towards keeping troops bunched up for reasons of control (see entire brigades moving in formation in the desert), but this is not good practice. It's lazy practice.
    The events where entire platoons were pinned for hours were not about "4 Afghans" anyway - but such events happened.

    It's interesting that you equate conventional warfare with fixed positions. The only fixed positions I envision in conventional warfare are hideouts, overwatch positions and graves of fools who trusted in digging too much.

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  5. I equate conventional warfare for armoured infantry to mean moving in an aggressive and rapid manner. Nowhere did I equate conventional warfare with fixed positions so I'm not sure how you came to the conclusion that I did?

    The trouble is, again, the enemy in Afghanistan has the absolute luxury of initiative. They can stand around close to their arms caches, or even disperse but in the general area, using "dickers" with binoculars to observe ISAF forces.

    They then have the luxury of waiting until the ISAF force has moved to such a position that very few of them are able to directly engage in return fire, at which point they can grab their weapons and open fire.

    Such ISAF forces would be moving in coloumn, due to the dangers posed by IED and because of the greater ease of movement of a coloumn.

    Dominating high ground is of no use to the infantry if the nearest village to the high ground is 10km away. You can't just hug the hills and hope the Taleban will march all the way onto your favourable ground to engage you.

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    1. "You can't just hug the hills and hope the Taleban will march all the way onto your favourable ground to engage you."

      That's the point, and it's one I hadn't thought of. I believe that S Ortmann is thinking of an enemy unit picking a good ambush position, and then having to deal with whatever formation 'we' are in when we hit it.

      The situation that Chris is describing is more like an ambush which is hidden so well that the enemy has the options of letting us walk through it and not springing it at all, or of letting us walk almost through it, and hitting the sub-unit which they expect.

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    2. A patrol which walks past an ambush team within small arms range and still doesn't even notice it is no patrol, but a waste of time.

      Besides; moving in multiple elements instead of in a solid block decreases the probability of not detecting the enemy.

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  6. "Nowhere did I equate conventional warfare with fixed positions"
    Sry, I thought u did:
    "Afghanistan is not like a conventional war in the sense of the enemy having fixed positions which they have to defend."

    Now onto the next disagreement: Why do you imply that the OPFOR in a conventional war would not have the choice of whether to engage or not to engage as do the TB?
    Conventional forces could just as well allow an armoured spearhead to pass and then assault the support units (or infiltrate past the combat units to the same end). See Korea '50, see Jagdkampf, see many examples from WW2 and Cold War exercises on the tactical and operational level.

    It's very disconcerting to me to face people who equate conventional warfare with having the initiative or with much formation movement.

    The problems encountered in Afghanistan are not unique to Afghanistan. In fact, it's embarrassing that problems were discovered at all, since the OPFOR is of so marginal capability. AFG combat missions are easier than mopping up already encircled forces in conventional warfare.

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  7. Perhaps I should explain "Afghanistan is not like a conventional war in the sense of the enemy having fixed positions which they have to defend,".

    I was relating to the enemy (defending nation) having to defend fixed positions, not necessarily in the sense of a fort or a base, but in terms of fixed geographical locations.

    At some point the enemy has to stand on the battlefield and defend their territory. Normally this would be done around favourable defensive terrain such as a river, or a city. The defender cannot just exist in a field and allow the aggressor to dominate the rest of the terrain.

    Certain key areas will naturally have to be protected and the defender will eventually have to fight, so will choose to do it around a defendable (in their opinion) position. This position may be a few square miles or tens of square miles, depending on the nature of the forces involved.

    This leads into the next question. An armoured division cannot, on the modern battlefield, just hide. Maybe on a very local, short ranged level it can conceal itself but the presence of a division will not go unnoticed in modern warfare.

    In Afghanistan the size of the enemy is much, much smaller, and they have the option of blending in with the civilian population in a manner that a conventional force cannot hope to achieve.

    The OPFOR in Afghanistan is not of marginal capability. They are well supplied with assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, RPG's and small, portable IED's. They have the luxury of blending in with the population and then choosing their moments to engage. When an engagement goes against them (which is basically every engagement) they can simply throw their weapons in a ditch and withdraw.

    Further, ISAF forces are restricted by very strict rules of engagement. They must positively identify targets before returning fire and are often attacked while approaching local Afghans to make contact and try to build bridges with the local population. It is significantly harder than mopping up already encircled forces in converntional warfare.

    Still, loss exchange ratios between ISAF forces and the Afghan OPFOR show over whelming superiority of the ISAF forces with kill ratios grossly unbalanced in the favour of ISAF. ISAF forces routinely dominate the Afghan OPFOR in fire fights.

    The problem in Afghanistan is more complex than just killing the enemy. If it was down to numbers of enemy killed than ISAF would be winning by an absolute land slide.

    I just don't understand where you get the impression it is so easy from? You make it sound like a cake walk that could be finished off in just a few months? What drives this line of thinking?

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  8. "At some point the enemy has to stand on the battlefield and defend their territory."
    Frederick the Great would disagree, for he survived a war even after allowing the Russians to occupy Berlin (1760). He offered battles, but rarely so because he was forced to.

    "Certain key areas will naturally have to be protected and the defender will eventually have to fight, so will choose to do it around a defendable (in their opinion) position."

    An armoured division isn't the complete embodiment of conventional warfare. Besides, it could easily hide in about 50% of Germany's terrain features. It was done before, many times.
    Armoured battlegroups of two-battalion -equivalent size can be very difficult to track in many terrains as well (even in face of GMTI).

    "They are well supplied with assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, RPG's and small, portable IED's."
    Otherwise known as paramilitary border troops' armament. Now let's not waste time on trying to find a conventional war in which border guards proved to be a substantial obstacle to a conventional military...

    "It is significantly harder than mopping up already encircled forces in converntional warfare."
    Really? Let's invite a Russian and talk about Russian experiences in mopping up encircled German troops.

    "You make it sound like a cake walk that could be finished off in just a few months?"

    You're making a overly bold interpolation from tactical remarks to strategic conclusions here. My position on the strategic level in Afghanistan is that military troops are almost useless, for the conflict is predominantly political in nature. It's the greatest folly to believe that troops could substitute for political power and diplomats. They can only deactivate much of the armed opposition's repertoire and reduce the intensity of the organised violence for a while.

    The war is lost and has been so for a long time, for there's nothing to gain anyway - never has been. The invasion and AQ hunt of 2001/2002 was a psychological necessity for the Americans, everything afterwards (and all non-American involvement) was plain stupid.

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  9. "Frederick the Great would disagree..."

    -- Frederick the great didn't have to face airborne ISTAR and laser guided bombs. Look at GW1. The objective was to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait and neutralise the threat to Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi's had two choices; fight or withdraw. Withdrawing would have served the coalition purposes just as well.

    Modern warfare centres around certain objectives, often terrain based. Modern armies do not have to return home for the harvest or withdraw to winter quarters. Trying to paralell modern warfare with Frederick the Great is essentially a waste of time.

    "An armoured division isn't the complete embodiment of conventional warfare. Besides, it could easily hide in about 50% of Germany's terrain features. It was done before, many times.
    Armoured battlegroups of two-battalion -equivalent size can be very difficult to track in many terrains as well (even in face of GMTI)."

    -- The armoured battlegroup might remain hidden, but its logistic support would struggle. Things have advanced immesurably since world war 2, especially in the area of ISTAR. There are certain cases where the terrain proves exceptionally favourable to the defence, but few nations can count on a Serbian level of terrain masking.

    "Otherwise known as paramilitary border troops' armament."

    -- What border force carries mines around with it on a routine basis, along with medium and heavy machine guns, and anti-tank rockets? The Afghan OPFOR may not be the greatest shots in the world, but they do possess the firepower to occasionally test ISAF forces.

    "Really? Let's invite a Russian and talk about Russian experiences in mopping up encircled German troops."

    -- Encircled forces in a conventional war have certain factors that would make them easier to mop up. Like wearing uniforms and being confined in a rough geographic area with little means of escape. A Taleban fighter can bury his rifle, jump on a motorbike with a friend and ride right through multiple ISAF check points to go to another village where they're expecting a tough fight.

    "The war is lost and has been so for a long time,"

    -- Not really. Even after ISAF forces leave assistance and money will still come into Afghanistan and US companies will seek to develop the natural resources of the country. That will provide ample opportunities, along with Satellite observation, to check whether Afghanistan is being used as a safe haven for terrorist groups.

    If not, then the war is won. That was and always has been the goal.

    "The invasion and AQ hunt of 2001/2002 was a psychological necessity for the Americans,"

    -- No it wasn't. There were clearly identified training camps being used by AQ, along with intelligence relating to the whereabouts of Bin Laden, who had been identified positively (through his own admission and other evidence) as the prime plotter and financer behind the 9/11 attacks.

    This was the original goal and it largely succeeded.

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  10. I think I wrote about the difference between notional and actual performance of military equipment. Sensors and communication are very much affected by this gap.

    "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."

    http://tinyurl.com/yaqqzrk
    pp.9-10

    You should see the armament the Russian border guards are using. They would pass as a regular Military.

    "A Taleban fighter can bury his rifle, jump on a motorbike with a friend and ride right through multiple ISAF check points to go to another village where they're expecting a tough fight."

    So what? There's not enough personnel to keep an eye on a whole country (unless you're Russia and occupying Chechnya) in any war. Conventional forces could just as easily slip away. Nobody in the West has the infantry quantities of WW2 any more to control areas, and they won't make a comeback soon. They would merely use different tactics. Nothing keeps soldiers from simply entering village houses - and almost no army has enough infantry left to inspect all villages in parallel to an ongoing mobile warfare campaign.

    The TB have no magic advantage that couldn't be matched by a conventional OPFOR. To believe otherwise is a dangerous underestimation of the troubles lying ahead in the next great war. It's not the TB who have so great advantages - it's the Western forces who fail so badly. In part so because of their wrong strategic employment, of course.

    "US companies will seek to develop the natural resources of the country"

    This joke made my day.

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    1. You say: "You should see the armament the Russian border guards are using. They would pass as a regular Military." Well. In fact they are part of the regular army. It is only western european idiocy to make out of the border guard something else...

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  11. Being under the same ministry as intelligence and federal police actually excludes them from being considered military by Western norms.

    On the other hand, even French Gendarmerie was usually considered being paramilitary even when it was under command of the French defence ministry.

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  12. Hey sven, I saw your comments on think defenses hawkeye post. I was suprised to see you dismissive towards the idea of a lightweight, highly versatile and modular 105mm howitzer. Wouldn't such pieces be excellent for direct fire support of the infantry? Fitted onto the back of an armored truck, they could also be used (on a provisional basis) as assault guns.

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  13. You have written several times that you consider bunkers, fixed positions etc useless: "The only fixed positions I envision in conventional warfare are hideouts, overwatch positions and graves of fools who trusted in digging too much."

    Obviously, trench lines without top cover and camouflage are easy to destroy, esp. when one side has overwhelming fire superiority (Taliban trench lines at the beginning of the Afghanistan intervention).

    On the other, properly hidden bunkers with multiple alternative positions and good hidden connections between them would seem largely impervious to artillery, especially in calibres and amounts which can be realistically used by a modern army. Guided missiles and artillery rounds are much more scarce and expensive than cement and holes in the earth.

    Of course, everything can be destroyed by superheavy bunker-buster bombs dropped from aircraft, esp. things like B-52 - but bunkers are cheaper to construct than a bomb, and the number of them that could be destroyed that way is irrelevant in a serious war.

    Eg in the Hezbollah war Israel, which has a fairly modern army, found it rather difficult to overcome bunkers of Hezbollah - which had no air defences or militarily useful artillery of their own.

    Against an enemy with artillery and useful air defences, using artillery and airpower to dig up an extensive, hidden bunker network seems likely to end with the destruction of the aircraft (by air defences) and artillery (by counter-battery fire) of the offensive side, many months before any noticeable amount of bunkers can be destroyed.

    I think any discussion of the problem, most of all pointing any mistakes I am sure to have made above could prove interesting and instructive not only for me, but also for other readers.

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  14. @kesler:
    Why dismissive? The overall concept is very old and a specific technology employed is a questionable choice.
    A 105 or 122mm on a truck could be a nice Third World budget solution, but it has no particular strengths in a European context.

    @baduin:
    Fixed positions need to be set up before a fight, and end up on the wrong spot or facing the wrong direction more often than not. Furthermore every field fortification is susceptible to blast effects.

    Belief in the protective value of field fortifications is misplaced.
    My usual countermeasure to such beliefs is a video like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_DxwZsjmf4

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