The Western approach to conventional warfare developed towards a quite linear delaying action with much firepower during the 70's and early 80's. The challenge was the (in part perceived, in part true) threat of multiple waves of numerically superior Warsaw Pact ground forces. To delay and decimate them while reinforcements (mobilised and strategically redeployed forces) arrive was in the focus, what to do once the reinforcements arrived was an afterthought.
The result was that albeit no defensible front-line could have been established, no deep penetrations by Warsaw pact forces (such as the "Operational manoeuvre groups" which could be called Panzerkorps) would be tolerated.
The threat was generally expected to come from a approx. 120° cone by divisional staffs.
The need to hold some kind of line to protect the rear targets (airbases, surface-to-air missile belt, Rhine bridges, depots, forming Reforger and mobilising units) did override considerations about how to operate (as a spearhead or whatever) between hostile forces.
The long-term impact of this distortion are still visible in Western military equipment, organisations, force structures and field manuals. No large-scale conventional ground warfare forced a different concept of warfare on our minds (which is a good thing!), except bashing Arabs.
This post shall highlight some of the results of this distortion, and long-time readers (and readers who dived through my archive) may recognise some pet peeves of mine.
(1) 120° cones and radar.
110°-120° happens to be the useful field of view of a electronic scanning array radar antennas unless you turn them mechanically as well. The rise of these antennas in 1970's development projects did not seem to be troublesome with the frontal paradigm in mind. The navies simply installed several such antennas on their ships for 360° coverage, while air forces and armies trusted their frontal paradigm.
|early NATO SAM belt, from here|
One consequence is that the famous Patriot surface-to-air missile didn't replace IHAWK during the 90's because it was in reasonable battery quantities only useful for establishing a line of air defences, and incapable of defending all-round satisfactorily. Clusters of Patriot and IHAWK batteries were formed in 1990's doctrines to compensate for this shortcoming. One of the big and recurring selling propositions of the (too expensive) MEADS program was its 360° improvement over Patriot systems.
Counter-artillery radars were similar; AN/TPQ-36, -37 and also Cobra were not specified for a mobile, penetrating spearhead in mind. They were specified with artillery duels along relatively static (on large scale maps) defence in mind. The numbers purchased did not suffice to compensate for this. Counter-mortar challenges in Afghanistan quickly showed that at least a 360° 24/7 surveillance alerting radar was necessary, and such technology was provided relatively quickly.
Even as of today, radars for all-round coverage in support of moving forces are almost non-existing. Some self-propelled anti-air gun systems are claimed to have such a capability, but only for low level air defence and we (the West) tend to get rid of these systems.
(2) Supplies and endurance
Fuel and ammunition supplies carried and efficiency of their use should be much greater if we were focused on mobile ops. Even relatively orderly advances such as 2002 in Iraq tend to permit resupply only about every 2nd day for a manoeuvre formation. A freely manoeuvring battlegroup would need to have rather four or five days worth of endurance. More movements than during WW2 precedents, some supply losses and a safety margin especially for artillery and tank gun (HE and HEAT) ammunition consumption are reasonable assumptions. A self-propelled howitzer may shoot 200 rounds in a day, for example - but it could easily be three times as much on some days, and the relation between the different shell types may differ from expectations. On the other hand, mobile ops tend to emphasize fuel consumption over ammunition consumption.
So what's about the driving range of vehicles (particularly tracked ones), and how much fuel is carried by a battlegroup? Fuel trucks aren't particularly attractive or impressive during peacetime, and Western military forces expect to bolster their fuel transport capacity a lot by adding civilian trucks steered by reserve personnel. This leads to their systematic under-consideration in peacetime doctrine and practice.
(3) Security effort
The demands are much higher for 360° security on the move than for frontal security with little rear security in a relatively linear setting. The nature of the required security effort differs as well. More static tactics allow the use of quite long-lived observation posts, while more mobile tactics require a more armoured reconnaissance/light cavalry-like approach.
(4) Handling of prisoners and the wounded
Vanguard detachments of WW2 were often unable to handle prisoners. Officers and some specialists were kept, but lesser soldiers were often only disarmed and told to go to some prisoner rally point for food and administrative processing. A vanguard / spearhead force would have bled its typically already weak infantry even more during its advance if it had detached infantry to keep many prisoners under control.
After all, the result of surprising and overwhelming a battalion is not the latter's disappearance, but rather hundreds of prisoners of war. Units suffer ~80% casualties without breaking almost exclusively in exercises. In real combat, most would yield or break altogether after 20-30% casualties. You end up taking 80-90% of the hostiles prisoner if you do well - and then you're supposed to handle them.
So far I have still not seen any conclusive answer to this issue in field manuals or other sources. Nowadays the dominant view appears to be that you either slow down or you're satisfied by destroying major equipment (such as tanks), paying little attention to surviving hostile troops. The latter greatly exacerbates the security issues in a conflict against well-motivated hostiles, particularly for supply convoys.
(5) Scouting effort
German and Soviet armies were mostly composed of slow, only partially motorised forces during WW2. The few fully motorised ones stood out and their efforts were restricted to some areas. Modern forces are fully motorised. The modern meaning of "mobile warfare" thus includes that potentially all forces are moving quickly and much, almost at the same time. The scouting effort has to differ accordingly.
Back in WW2 it was enough to scout ahead of the axis of advance of one or two main efforts. Nowadays all manoeuvre formations may move much, and need recce results in advance. The limited scouting needs to be replaced by a theatre-wide recce effort. This change is certainly not visible in the share held by reconnaissance forces in modern armies, nor did recce become a theatre-level asset. Instead, modern brigades and divisions have organic dedicated recce units.
(6) Time management
It's quite common for leaders and combat troops to become near-useless temporarily after four days. The sleep discipline is usually insufficient. Yet even if sleep discipline was maintained and the point of collapse pushed to a week, how would the unit as a whole maintain mobile ops in parallel?
So far I haven't seen any bunks in military trucks (they're quite common along long-range heavy trucks in Europe, installed on top of the driver's cabin). Army forces' chains of command and staffs are rarely if ever set up for a shift-based approach. The 2nd in command is typically believed to be substantially less competent than the #1. They are no "A shift" and "B shift" leaders. The old and successful concept of having two crews per tracked armoured vehicle (to compensate for exhaustion) isn't mainstream now either.
Of course, all this would be no pressing problem if you still assumed that your forward-deployed force is going to be consumed by frontal combat within a few hours or days any way.
Artillery ranges are hugely important in linear combat. You don't want your artillery to be shot at by hostile artillery while they're beyond your reach. Yet what's the relevance of range if the primary use of your artillery is to provide fire support when your spearhead encounters hostiles?
Your artillery would hardly prefer to lag behind your 'tip of the spear' by 30 km while providing overwatch in a leap-frogging mode. It would strive to stay more close, maybe within 10 km. Special munitions with decreased warhead volume in favour of base bleed or rocket assistance functionalities for more range would be rather inefficient in such a context.
And said hostiles would not need to be engaged from afar, since you're moving towards them (and maybe stumbled into them). Sure, counterfire to protect march columns may be demanded, but I doubt anyone really believes that it's possible to protect a march column with counterfire against a substantial threat, nor is it sensible to allow occasional fires to stop your movement often. Which leads to #8:
(8) Protection of support vehicles in the manoeuvre forces
Fuel trucks, ammunition trucks, electronic whatever trucks, staff trucks, medical trucks - all these ought to be survivable in face of the hazards of mobile warfare between (instead of in front of) hostiles. This is about camouflage, light armour (against most fragmentation from >15 m and occasional bursts from normal machine guns) and the ability to leave a road that's under fire and proceed off-road or on unpaved roads (this is more about the ability to cross small ditches and residential or agricultural fences than about soft soil performance).
There's an old dream of an all-tracks, all-armoured mobile strike force. This has always been too expensive, too maintenance-demanding and too thirsty. Still, the unprotected trucks are hardly satisfactory either.
Humans get used to almost everything. We got used to the paradigms of the Cold War and were never forced to shake some of them off because we luckily had enough peace to avoid the necessary campaign lessons.