About why we think we're great and about army structures

Western armies think they're great in comparison to others, and for several reasons. We've made huge improvements in many key areas of military art.

Troops discipline - major leap forward since the late 17th century

Training - major leap forward early in the 20th century

Equipment - major leap forward since early 20th century, enabled by industrialised economies

Supply system - major leap forward in mid 19th to mid 20th century based on railroad and internal combustion engine (trucks)

Detect and identify enemies - major leap forward in 20th century thanks to aviation and sensor technologies

Lethality - major leaps forward during mid-19th century till late 20th century (rifled weapons, rapid fire, precision guidance)

Mobility - major leap forward in mid 19th century to mid 20thc entury (railroad, internal combustion engine)

Communication - major leaps forward in late 19th to mid 20th century (wire and wireless comm)

Protection - partial great advances since early 20th century (armoured vehicles, body armour)

A job well done, we're state of the art -
problems mostly solved, no real need to change?

Well, that's a common attitude, but I beg to differ. Look at the Think Defence blog, for example. Its current topic is the British army structure. Their underlying assumptions are quite conventional as usual in such dicscussions.

I think there's a significant problem with the aforementioned list: Warfare is a contest against intelligent opponents who adapt. The different advances leave different potentials for adaption. The most potential for countermeasures seems to exist in regard to the "detect & identify" topic.

The current insurgency-centred conflicts seem to emphasize the point. There's much attention on protection and some on supplying and equipment, but those conflicts are ultimately about the identification of enemies. They would long have been over if the enemy was permanently clothed in military fatigues. He isn't.

Guerrillas master an extreme form of countermeasure against identification; blend in with the environment (population). This proves the potential of such countermeasures.
Military forces can also use countermeasures against "find & identify". Radar "stealth" and submerged silent submarines are obvious example, camouflage clothing another one.

Countermeasures against "detect & identify" pose probably the greatest problem for offensive-minded armies in modern warfare.

We have little difficulty eradicating enemies whom we have detected & identified if they are nice enough to not move too quickly out of sight. The Western forces' lethality (firepower + accuracy of the same) is enormous. The real problem is to detect & identify without exposing yourself too much to the enemy's lethality.

Using mostly combat troops for the "find & identify" seems to be rather primitive and costly. It violates predictably the ideal of "seeing without being seen". Moving combat forces to the enemy to get into contact tends to yield intense fights, they tend to have limited stealth, they have few specialisation advantages in the "detect & identify" business and their employment tends to provokes a decisive fight.
I'm under the impression that it's better to shape the battlefield to your advantage before you should engage in a decisive fight - there's little time for this if you let combat forces do most of the recce.

This seems to pose a challenge to the existing balance between combat and reconnaissance. The problem can be interpreted as a strong argument in favour of more reconnaissance/scouting and counterreconnaissance/ counter-scouting capabilities.

Additional scouting capabilities (and troops, units) aren't for free, of course (at least not beyond a small degree of improvement by minimising waste).
Combat forces and recce forces are competing for ressources.

I am under the impression that we didn't adjust well enough to this challenge. I have the suspicion that the optimum balance would have a greater share of recce forces.

How could we address the ressource allocation conflict between combat and recce elements? Taking away too much combat strength is no good idea, after all.

One way out is the use of extremely efficient scouts; many small teams that offer a great coverage, can easily hide or break contact if necessary and require little if any elaborate support. I think of Long range surveillance (LRS) teams that do not make use of expensive army aviation support except in emergencies. We could make good use of much more of them.

Another way out of the ressource allocation dilemma is to combine combat and recce in one type of unit that leans more toward recce than combat in order to make a difference. Again, this unit would need to be small to achieve a good coverage at low cost. One example of this kind of hybrid Recce/Combat unit could be what I call "skirmishers" or "light cavalry".

The more conventional answer would be armoured reconnaissance, but that branch has experienced a shift towards observation technology (away from combat) in several countries since the 90's.

This was but one rather unconventional point that I'd like to raise in regard to EVERY Western army structure. There are more, such as about infantry numbers in general or about the mix and interaction of formations on the operational level.
We could instead discuss army structures in a less fundamental approach and just discuss topics like "light vs. medium vs. heavy", "brigades vs. divisions", "disband this tradition regiment or not" and similar. I have a suspicion that such a discussion would not be radical enough. It would ignore rather fundamental challenges that were built up by technological and other developments during decades of relative peace (no great war among high-end powers since 1945).

Sven Ortmann


  1. Sven

    You seem to wonder around this subject a little. You talk about insurgents and guerrillas not having to wear uniforms, but state that hiding is the biggest issue for offensively minded armies. I am not sure what point your trying to make? You note that long range recce / surveillance teams might be the way to go. I agree you can use these against insurgents as well as tanks armies, but really in counter-insurgence are your sneaky beaky intelligence operatives not even more pertinent?

    You also suggest Recce forces are competing with combat forces for resources. Are recce forces not combat forces ? Does it not depend on context and national doctrine as to whether you conduct 'reconnaissance by fire' ?

    Just a tad confused about what your really getting at.

  2. I'm not really interested in guerrilla wars. The guerrillas merely show off an extreme that I pointed at.

    Many recce elements in modern armies are not meant to fight; even armoured recce doctrine tends towards avoiding combat almost at all costs in some countries. That's why I didn't count them as combat forces in this text.

    I'm "really getting at" the two last bold parts.

  3. OK, thanks for the response :-)