Suppressive fires

Suppressive fires have been used in fire & maneuver tactics ("no movement without fire") since at least the First World War. The basic principle is simple; you shoot at opponents, these opponents seek cover and cannot observe & shoot effectively for some time. Meanwhile, some comrades move (or assault) - and survive.

Interestingly, this seems to have worked well with low firepower weapons like 20 rounds magazine light machine guns/automatic rifles in the Second World War. Well, if one such 20-rds-magazine-weapon was able to suppress a machine gun nest - how much can a modern squad suppress? Every single soldier has that much firepower today.

The only possible conclusion is that in absence of quick victory/defeat in small firefights, suppression is certainly extremely effective today. In fact, modern weapon development rather aims at killing suppressed forces behind cover (improvement of grenade weapons including air burst munitions) than at improving the suppressive effect.

Suppression has some requirements, though.
A good morale, good training, good small unit leadership, good body armor and good cover (which still permits observation & fire) helps a lot to resist suppression and stay effective.
Another requirement is to find & identify the opponents before the suppression - and to communicate this to your team.
Finally, you won't suppress the opponent if he succeeds to suppress/hit you first - and to keep that up.

These requirements highlight yet another time how important camouflage and deception are for infantry survivability.
A great camouflage can prevent that the opponent spots your team first, can prevent that he shoots & suppresses first. The opposing team still lose valuable seconds even if some of them succeed to find AND identify your team because some team members will do so later than others. Your team might also be only partially under suppressive fires if (thanks to camouflage) some teammates are detected and others are not.

Deception can help as well - especially muzzle fire deception. Small LED & firecracker devices could be used to simulate firing from a wrong location, drawing suppressive fires into empty spaces, confusing the opponent and adding to the (morally important) impression of larger numbers.

I've got the impression that modern ground forces have more firepower than necessary, and that it would be wasteful to focus attention on improving the armament. A new grenade launcher, machine gun or assault rifle deserves less attention than improvements of camouflage (camouflage, not mere patterns on clothes!) or small tools and tricks that really help to win the firefight.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Are you familiar with Stephen Biddle's book "Military Power?" He makes similar arguments about firepower vs. survivability.

  2. I've got a bookmark at page 43 in that book and remember that I stopped reading when I realized that he was going to develop formula.
    I prefer almost always a qualitative approach.

    Combat reports of WW2, my knowledge about small arms and my experiences in the Bundeswehr were on my mind when I wrote this blog article.

  3. I agree---it's kind of easy to sum up his idea after only 20 pages actually.

  4. Well, I don't really see much commonality even though I've revisited the first few dozen pages of the book.

    To 'win' a firefight by suppressing the enemy is the equivalent of having a preparation advantage and inflict confusion in an ambush.
    Tank tactics tell pretty clearly that the team that opens fire first wins - not only because of the high hit probability and the ability to easily penetrate from most aspects - it's also about morale factors.
    Many different sources lead to my conclusions on infantry survivability.

    A recurring theme is that superior camouflage/concealment puts a team into a superior position - even if it has inferior hardware.

    The importance of camouflage/concealment/deception cannot be stressed too often.

    The industry and bureaucracy live better with a focus on high-tech sensors and communications to gain superior 'awareness' by sensing better than the enemy. The proven counterpart of being less visible is quite a red-headed stepchild.
    Boeing cannot earn much money with camouflage/deception. FCS otherwise...

    Some people can discuss camouflage patterns for hours, but camouflage patterns are not effective camouflage. BDU patterns offer only the absence of conspicuousness.

  5. The commonality is the skepticism about the ability to build total battlefield awareness and targeting capabilities sufficient enough to live up to the contractor hype and the focus on covering/concealment and deception (Biddle's "modern system").