2007/11/05

Tactical visibility

Discussions in the past years on military technology were often about new sensor technologies to find and identify enemies and about new communications technologies to relay this information to someone who can engage the target effectively.

Well, this is an utterly offensive approach that has its merits, but also its limits. The best-case scenarios never worked out in practice - not the least because the enemy adapts, as always.

This fits into the general trend in warfare since the mid-19th century's Minie rifle:
The enemy will likely kill you if he can see you.

Firepower in terms of accuracy, range and also rate of fire has been improved steadily since smooth bore weapons became outdated in the 19th century.
Dispersion and camouflage and since World War 1 (again) armour were successful means to negate much of the enemy's firepower.
The lack of troop numbers would force us to embrace the concept of dispersion in today's conflicts even if there was no the firepower argument, and armour has spread even to personal bullet-resistant armour for non-infantry soldiers.
But dispersion only reduces excessive casualties and has severe drawbacks such like locally reduced capabilities.
Armour has its drawbacks as well, like heavy weight and movement restrictions. Neither tanks nor soldiers can be fully armoured to withstand all typical attacks. Tanks have their weak spots, and body armour protects only the torso (partially) against rifle fire and the head against fragments. Wounds in the extremities reduce the fighting power of the infantry a lot and being hit at an unprotected spot is quite likely.

But let's have a look at the third element - camouflage. Its purpose is to enable troops and equipment to not recognized by the enemy. It's a primarily non-technological means to survive firepower and therefore not in the spotlight, just like dispersion.
The ability to fight without being seen is a distinct strength of indirect fires as indirect fire support troops attempt to stay out of line-of-sight, but also infantry can use the principle to its benefit (and does to some extent).
Not being seen is more than just camouflage. It's about deception, careful movement, manipulation of night sight, obstruction, ability to sense while being unseen - and it's a mindset.
A mindset that tells all infantrymen and even more so scouts that they need to remain unseen as much as possible.
Imagine how this vital mindset is ruined by vehicle patrol, diplomatic, symbolic, construction, checkpoint, garrison and escort duties during counter-insurgency and peace-keeping missions. A generation of NATO soldiers becomes accustomed to the idea that the enemy sees you all the time while they themselves can see but not identify him. This creates a completely different mindset than the one necessary for inter-state wars (those wars which are sometimes really about defending ourselves). The result is an over-emphasis on armour (keyword: MRAP) that leads to excessive costs and logistical problems as well as tactical and movement restrictions.

In a discussion some time ago I was amazed how someone considered supporting fires as the only viable solution to the tactical problem of an infantry or recon squad being pinned down by the fire of a single MG.
This scenario reminded me immediately of a device of World War I, a device that allowed a sniper to aim and shoot with his rifle without exposing himself. Stuff like this has been attempted with modern camera and monitor technology, but in fact it doesn't require much more than a simple mirror and mechanics system. It would enable a squad marksman to shoot effectively while being pinned down. Add some obstruction by smoke and you can defeat a 1,000 US-$ MG without the need to call a 50 million US-$ fighter-bomber or (admittedly much cheaper) tank/artillery/mortar fire for help.

Staying pinned down and wait for superior firepower to arrive is sometimes the best choice when you're fighting low quality enemies like Central Asian irregulars, as it promises a happy ending without casualties. But it's no useful mindset for a large-scale war against medium or high quality enemies (which would outflank you or use indirect fire weapons to counter the cover) and very different ratios between ground troops in combat, available fire support and available bandwidths (resulting in much less available supporting fires).

Well, the tricky thing about being unseen in combat is to see the enemy at the same time. That's tricky because the latter often requires a line of sight. Mirrors and camouflage help to combine these conditions, as do the much more expensive remote sensor and robotics systems.
A real infantry combat revolution comparable to the Minie bullet is about to happen with the wide-spread use of infra-red sights by infantrymen. An extreme infantry fighting power inequality will arise once at least all infantry leaders, scouts, machinegunners and designated marksmen are equipped with such sights. The army which can equip its troops like this can use obstruction by smoke to break the line of sight for the enemy while retaining its own ability to see the enemy as IR sights can see through some smokes.
It's still possible to camouflage against IR observation, but very difficult and sometimes even outright impractical.
This (expensive) technological advance could help us getting back to a "I see you, but you cannot see me" mindset.

It's really necessary to preserve mindsets suitable for large-scale wars, and to restore skills and mindsets lost in the recent needless overseas adventures to stay up to the task of protecting our sovereignty.

Sven Ortmann

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