Strike Complexes vs. Countermeasures and Friction

Something bothered me recently. A military theoretician whom I respect a lot expressed an opinion that did in my opinion not account enough for friction.

(...) with modern fire complexes, if you get found, you get struck.
(I assume he meant the "surveillance-strike complex" or "reconnaissance-strike complex" concepts with "modern fire complex", but I wouldn't be surprised if there's already a new term of the week.)

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The idea is actually not new at all. The high art of the German artillery in the defensive battles of 1943-1945 was a quick reaction time-over-target fire mission to break an attack. Such missions included a very short period of fire for at times several artillery battalions at once.

It was even turned into a technical concept with the advent of a fire control computer that knew all battery types and positions. The soldiers just had to feed the target coordinates and mission (ammunition) and the pre-transistor computer was able to send the necessary fire missions to the individual batteries automatically. We didn't really advance that much over this capability; the advances were rather incremental.

Battlefields were always really dangerous places, but people tend to overestimate the lethality of battles (and especially the lethality of munitions and weapons) nevertheless. The ground war in WWI and naval aviation in WW2 were huge, yet rare exceptions to this rule.

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His view resembled an old rule of thumb / thought model:

(1) What's on the battlefield will be discovered.
(2) What's discovered will be aimed at and fought against.
(3) What's been fought against will be hit.
(4) What's hit will be destroyed.

That was obviously terribly simplistic (albeit not entirely useless). The utility of this simple stuff was in pointing out the potential for survivability enhancements, for countermeasures. There are thousands of countermeasures imaginable, and many have been applied. This is easily visible with tanks. Their countermeasures range from camouflage (1) to powerful armour and automatic fire extinguishers (4) plus dozens of others in at least 18 categories of tank-specific countermeasures.

One aspect of warfare is the contest between action and countermeasures. There were few - and exceptional - moments in time when there was no balance, when a lack of war experience allowed action to get a huge advantage over countermeasures (as in 1914-1917 and 1939-1942). The other turn around (countermeasures triumphing over action) is usually a no-show and difficult to find in military history sources (an example being the inability of the Royal Air Force to fly effective daylight bombing missions over Germany in 1939-1943).

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It may be true that being seen by a modern and competent enemy almost equals being dead, but that should not bother military theorists as much as it should bother force planners, trainers and procurement officials. It's a temporary exposure. This problem will be reliably and quickly solved (albeit at a possibly terrible price).

We should look ahead, and also have an eye for the art of war in a modern strength-countermeasure equilibrium or for fluent situations of short-lived advantages for either side.

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Countermeasures and friction explain why we shouldn't be extremely pessimistic about survivability.

Let's take an armoured deliberate attack as an example.

The tanks move into marshalling areas.
Airborne reconnaisance could already spot and identify them, but camouflage, concealment, deception, electronic jamming and air defences blind the enemy.

The unit moves forward and could be visible to enemy ground forces. Again, CCD, electronic jamming (jamming radios and battlefield radars), suppressive fires and smoke pose serious challenges to the defender. Being well-equipped, well-trained and aware of enemy capabilities and shortcomings helps a lot.

The unit enters direct combat. It's difficult to avoid hits entirely, but the chaos of combat and the proximity to the enemy make it quite tough for enemy fire controllers. They need to avoid hitting friendly troops, after all. The close combat may also disrupt landlines and create disorder. Fearful troops may report false contacts. Vehicle acceleration and the exploitation of cover and concealment to limit exposure to seconds. People make mistakes and waste some of the few opportunities.

Dozens of countermeasures can be applied to reduce the effectiveness of the in itself simple observe-identify-report-order-calculate-order-fire-hit chain. Counter-countermeasures (like better sensors, more jamming resistant radios, redundancies) can be applied to this firepower chain as well.

In the end, it's just another action-countermeasure contest. 20th century military history suggests that it's no good idea to bet on either side for more than three war years* in a row, for this kind of contest doesn't tend to stick to extremes for long.

Sven Ortmann

Some armies use lists of "principles of war". I'm no fan thereof, but if I would have to compile such a list, I would add "Countermeasures" to it. Countermeasures are universal and important enough to require all combat and combat support officers to understand the full extent of the relevance of countermeasures.

*: Some advantages even lasted only for months in wartime.


  1. Interesting post. But how does this square with the ever-increasing complexity and development-time of systems that we see? While past R&D + technical realization of concepts have been measured in months or years, nowadays it seems more like decades or significant fractions thereof.

    On one hand this trend seems to favour countermeasures as the cost of defeating them can be vastly more complex than the subsequent counter-counter. Aircraft stealth seem a good candidate for this... Defeat the shape and there is little that the designers can do about it (although broadband stealth seem more resilient).

    A possible counter-example (no pun intended) may be conventional submarines and the added stealth achieved by AIP systems. Perhaps (or: very likely) due to the medium (water vs air) and the speeds involved this has proven to be a much more difficult nut to crack.

    As the 2 year lease with the Swedish sub in San Diego showed (if in no other way than the projects the US suddenly conjured) the new generation subs are so difficult to detect that only a network of in-theatre active-sonar buoys can have any reliable inpact.

    Or are perhaps submarines the ultimate countermeasure? After all, they force inaction on your opponent by virtue of just being active, somewhat like a single undetected sniper can tie up an entire batallion.

  2. I wrote about submarines here:
    The Swedish sub episode isn't extraordinary in any way; modern navies did chose long ago to mostly ignore SSK survivability and to live with illusions instead. Quality SSKs were never really under control, but they weren't decisive in the Cold War or later either.

    The length of development cycles has many reasons, and this problem doesn't exclude the possibility of countermeasures.

    Some developments are much longer than necessary for budgetary, industrial policy and other reasons. We have seen quick wartime product developments of a few weeks or months many times - in projects that would normally have taken years.

    Some countermeasures are long-established and only need to be adapted to new challenges, while others can be developed while the threat itself is still under development.
    Look at the F-22, for example. Its concept based on opinions formed in the early 70's, and even the public knew about the concept back in '90.

    The "RMA" and "Strike complex" concepts date back to the late 60's and the early 40's. Nevertheless, they had still full mainstream credibility ten years ago and partially even today.
    The mainstream doesn't seem to take the degrading effect of countermeasures into full account, which leads to wasteful developments and procurement and wasted opportunities.

    Most people simply ignore the likeliness of countermeasures because we spent the past decades without any war against competent, well-equipped and well-supplied enemies. Nobody provided an obvious reminder about the importance and power of countermeasures.

    We were subjected to marketing hypes from hardware developers and project offices instead.

  3. The Kosovo War showed the surviveability of Serbian hardware.

    Such a complex is meant for eliminating reported observations. What does it do with fake observations and counter-observation of strike positions? If you take de-camouflage by strike and fake targets into account the question will be not if you can strike, but if you will strike. Here we get to an information warfare because the degree of reliable observation and transmission of that information to strike tools all contains many information leaks that each strike complex is looking for in order to cripple the enemy complex beyond effective capabilities. Such crippling must not be physical destruction, but can be effective hacking of known communications and causing friendly fire for example.

    It's my theory that the shorter an OODA-loop gets by programmed reactions, the easier you can predict and play with it because the less information and evaluation leads to the action.