Infantry survivability in high-end infantry combat

It's about time to continue where I left after writing the blog post "Future War: The infantry perspective" months ago. I've left out any distracting eye candy symbol pictures this time. Let's focus on the content.

The German army uses a standard maxim "Wirkung vor Deckung!" (effects are more important than cover).
A standard maxim is convenient for training, but such a dumbed-down training won't cut it against a competent enemy. A simplistic maxim is not the way to go any more.

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The highly incompetent enemies who face Western forces in Third World countries have almost no capabilities and are unable to exploit most tactical mistakes. We must not misunderstand that for a useful snapshot of modern warfare, though. A competent, motivated, well-equipped and well-supplied enemy leaves almost no room for mistakes.
Mistakes are suicidal against a modern army. A pinned-down squad that didn't move for two minutes couldn't expect to have time for a last prayer left before a mortar strike kills it off. It would be doomed if it faced a competent, intact enemy on the modern, unforgiving battlefield. Meanwhile, entire platoons can survive being fixed for hours in combat without a suffering a single KIA - in small wars.

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We could of course deny the need for the elimination of mistakes and risks and stick to a "1980's + skirmishes against ragtag AK+RPG teams" level in the tactical art of war. That would be a dereliction of duty and ethically unacceptable in face of the taxpayers and subordinates, of course.

We need to at adapt to the extremely high effectiveness of modern sensors and firepower. The Western infantry branches need to ditch many WW2-leftovers.

Infantry is vulnerable. It's soft with only partial very light armour and it's slow. The infantry's great strengths are its unmatched ability to negotiate difficult terrain (at very slow speed) and the small size/low noise of individual soldiers. Its survivability needs to be based on being undetected for 99.999% of the time.

Infantry must only be visible to the enemy if it takes a (preferably well-aimed) shot or runs from one large concealment/cover to another. This exposure needs to be short (few seconds) and unpredictable (unexpected locations, especially no repetitions).

Forget about the practices of peacekeeping and small wars where infantry is being tasked with showing presence. A high-end enemy would massacre such "demonstrating" forces, no matter how much passive protection they have. All trends, lessons, experiences, hardware that stem from such "presence" activities is dangerous to insane in regard to conventional warfare against competent opponents.

Discovered infantry needs to begin to break contact soon.
The observation/shadowing of the enemy (if the enemy survived the encounter) should be left to non-compromised elements. Short, intense firefights (ambushes if possible) and quick disappearance are advisable. Conventional infantry (not just guerrillas) needs to be most elusive.

Suppressive fires are fine - if there's no acceptable alternative left. A competent enemy is dispersed and well-sited enough to prevent his total suppression - and anything short of total suppression invites a massacre due to the extreme lethality of modern weapons.
Suppressive fires also consume much ammunition that weighs much. Heavy weight impairs the soldier's battlefield agility.
Suppressive fires are fine only for a few seconds, as an additional support for a short activity (running a few steps, aiming a heavy weapon). The suppression may have after effects that last much longer than the actual suppressive fire does, but that's unreliable. Determined opponents with effective leaders will resist suppressive fires well.

"Wirkung vor Deckung!" is still partially right - but it's also misleading. Being suppressed is bad, really bad. Being suppressed and behind (of course incomplete) cover in a compromised position is an almost sure ticket to afterlife against a strong enemy. An emphasis on firing yourself doesn't cut it either, though.

A maxim for the future - if we really have to use such simplistic phrases for training - should be very different than "Wirkung vor Deckung!". A rule of thumb or slogan could be used, for example: "Nur tote Feinde wissen, wo wir sind!" ("Only dead enemies know our whereabouts!")
That's way too distasteful for actual adoption by the Bundeswehr, but it fits high end combat much better than "Wirkung vor Deckung!".
The point is that the exposure needs to be minimised. A team at a compromised location needs to move and break contact ASAP before it can re-establish contact with help of camouflage/cover/concealment.

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Infantry needs to morph into something very close to a sniper. The present fashion tilts more towards the weightlifter computer geek in stylish gear than towards a master of field craft.

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There IS of course a demand for classic assaults in a relatively high force density (a company assault on a small village, for example) even against 1st grade opposition. Infantry is still tasked with seizing and controlling terrain.
Such risky, highly exposing actions need to be exceptions, though. These exceptions require a short burst of strong support to mitigate the problems. Such exposing actions must not be allowed to coin the infantry - neither in ethos nor in TO&E. The British Army asserts in an infantry field manual that

The Infantry Mission is - ‘to defeat the enemy through close combat.’

I think this is misguided. Closing in and defeating the enemy is necessary for clearing areas; one of many missions and not exactly a very favourable one.

Very much exposing infantry tactics should be confined to "mopping up" ops; if possible clearing ops against enemies who were already defeated as a major formation or vastly degraded in their abilities (as for example suppressed fire support, jammed radio comm, impaired morale). Doctrine should strive for tactics that turn the infantry assault more often than not into a mere prisoner-taking action with very little combat.

High-risk actions should always be reserved to very unfair conditions. Being unfair to the enemy in combat should be a major part of modern soldier ethos in general. Fair combat ends in a bloodbath.

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The 'performance' of tools and weapons on the battlefield and modern training methods deserves huge respect. An ill-prepared infantry branch could bleed white in a few weeks of combat before it can properly adapt. We need to adapt to modern battlefield threats up to the state of the art and far beyond.

A disaster as in 1914-1916 is our Damokles sword. Even the then most modern armies failed to become well prepared for modern warfare. They had only misleading small war experiences and never faced the full range of modern warfare tools and weapons until 1914. The untypical Boer Wars were especially misleading and basically taught lessons that should have been incorporated half a century earlier.

We must not underestimate our potential enemies, no matter whether we can anticipate them or not. The performance of the Finns in 1939/40, Greeks in 1940, Germans in 1940-1941, Japanese in 1941/42, Soviets in 1939 (Nomonhan) and 1942/43, North Koreans in 1950, Red Chinese in 1951 and Israelis in 1956 all came as a surprise to overconfident opponents. Military history is full of fools who sealed their fate by underestimating their enemy.

NATO is large and powerful enough to suffer much and keep going, but the exploitation of this capability is certainly less desirable than the prevention of most of the suffering.

The task of the modern infantry NCO and officer is the preparation of infantry small units for the most tough, unforgiving battles. Quite the same holds true for other combat and support troops, of course.

Incompetent enemies are not guaranteed in defensive wars - legitimate wars. Incompetent enemies must not be associated with the constitutional task and only justifiable raison d'être of the Bundeswehr: The defence of Germany and NATO in real wars.
NATO is powerful - no incompetent, ill-equipped and ill-supplied opponent would challenge us in decisive warfare.
Our future enemies in defence of our country would either be competent foreigners or (heaven forbid!) our present allies.



  1. AFAICR, in an earlier post, you were critical of the claim that the infantry weapons in Afghanistan are underpowered for the long range firefight; and that the purpose of infantry is to fight close - long range fire will only alert the enemy. (Sorry if I misremembered). Or does this particular logic apply only to fighting irregulars?

  2. http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2009/07/infantry-combat-ranges.html

  3. If you believe that the infantry should expose themselves for only a few seconds, what do you think about the effectiveness of programmable air burst grenades? I haven't seen your text about that topic anyway (maybe I'm wrong?)

    You might write something about that, considering that one army (South Korea) has already adopted a rifle with air burst grenades (Daewoo K11) as a service weapon.

  4. So do you think the future infantry squad should be based around sniper rifles, rather than an LMG/SAW like currently? How would you change the distribution of weapons in a future squad?

  5. @rax: http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2009/03/combined-arms-theory-application-in.html
    It's possibly a misunderstood weapon. The K11 seems to be fine for protracted firefights - probably not a good approach.

    It depends. An emphasis on combat in close terrain requires weapons with good penetration, just not necessarily for everyone.
    Infantry should not be employed on open terrain, thus sniper rfles have quite limted value. It's important to have them, though - the assumption of their presence already reduces the range of the enemy's promising options.

  6. About Sven's thought "Infantry need to morph into something really close to a sniper".

    Do you hint to the slogan "One shot, on kill? If the point is that infantry soldier can destroy target from hidden position with one shot, then you explained for me your thought here, Future war: The infantry perspective, very well.

    a) keeping up its camouflage/concealment
    * Snipers can fire without compromising their location.
    * Forward observers can call for effects without compromising their location.
    * Mines (preferably command-detonated mines) do not (immediately) compromise the location of their users.
    * Flanking fire can be undetected for critical seconds.
    * Technical means (IR sights for effective fire through smoke) can create one-way vision opportunities.
    * Indirect fires (like fibre-optic guided missiles) maintain a concealment or cover between shooter and target.

  7. The quote goes on "Infantry needs to morph into something very close to a sniper. The present fashion tilts more towards the weightlifter computer geek in stylish gear than towards a master of field craft."

    The emphasis was meant to be on field craft. Accurate shooting is much, much less important than good survivability.

    The other quotes (behind "a)") was meant to list how risky enemy contacts could be kept to a minimum in order to enhance survivability..

    Indirect fires are the great killers, armour is the arm of decision and infnatry is what offers stability and the ability to hold (closed) terrain.

    Infantry does not need to be tasked with killing on a grand scale or deciding battles. It shall offer stability and persistence instead - survivability is the key.

    There's nothing wrong with ceteris paribus more lethality - except that you won't get it in reality. The trade-offs are a problem, and we cannot allow our infanry to approximate WW2 modes of combat as suggested in modern field manuals. That would lead to way too high casualty counts and could bleed white the infantry arm in a matter of weeks, resulting in serious risks and capability gaps.

  8. Sven, maybe you should use words scout or observer instead on sniper. Sniper is directly related with shooting act. And those infantry guys better follow in their TTP this point "We should maintain a concealment or cover between shooter and target"

  9. Well, a sniper pair's opbserver is a sniper. It's a common peacetime doctrine that they switch roles frequently (to compensate for eye fatigue), after all.

    "observers" is misguiding because many would think of FOs and scout isn't much better either. Some armies don't have dedicated scouts in infantry Bns, for example. That would leave the impression of armoured recce.

    Anyway - I have learnt to emphasise the word "fieldcraft" to avoid misunderstandings next time.

  10. Ok, Sven :)

    Take a look at book "Sniping in France", where is professional sniper-observer-scout :)


  11. I read much about sniping in both World Wars. That's why I wrote "peacetime" in the previous comment.
    The typical sniper team works differently in wartime; there's usually one much better at shooting for real.

    Anyway; the most interesting thing about snipers is in my opinion their fieldcraft. I know this doesn't fit to the more common fascination with the act of shooting.

  12. Sven said:

    "the most interesting thing about snipers is in my opinion their fieldcraft"

    If you exclude "one shot" sharp shooting act, maybe it is better if you use word "scout"?