Waves of offence and defence techniques

I was working on a rather specific text on infantry (a strangely attractive topic) when I realised that the whole thing needs more context. Thus context first:

(As I see it:) Waves in combat techniques / art since about Napoleonic times, descriptive of best practices only:

Offence 1st wave

Early on (up to mid-19th century), offence took the shape of troops closing in with the enemy in close order formations.

Defence 1st wave

During the same period, infantry and artillery defence took the shape of troops still being upright and on ground level, giving their best to break up the attack with their firepower. Cavalry was an exception, as attack proved stronger, not weaker for cavalry. Defending cavalry was thus either luring pursuers into a trap or counter-attacking itself.

Defence 2nd wave

Firepower had grown due to spin stabilised bullets, and the (fixed) defenders adapted by making more often use of field fortifications (trenches). This began during the mid 19th century and was perfected by about 1917 when only a small share of an army held the front line with main resistance line being kilometres in the rear, more difficult to reach for enemy artillery..

Offence 2nd wave

Firepower affected the exposed attackers a lot, so they had to adapt, too. Artillery adapted first by switching to indirect fires. This gave the attacking artillery the survivability to bring its weight into battle - soon (by 1915) it played a major role in creating gaps in the defender's lines.
Infantry had to adapt on the offensive (by 1916) by avoiding fields of fire as much as possible; the exploitation of micro terrain for cover and concealment became standard instead of an exception.
Tanks were another contribution to offence as their armour allowed them to keep moving and fighting under fire even (and especially) on an open field.

Offence and defence 3rd wave

1944 carpet bombing and incredible artillery concentrations (naval gunfire at Normandy, 44/45 Red Army breakthrough concentrations of artillery) were early indicators, but tactical nukes made it obvious to anyone: No high force density defence could really withstand a focused attack, no matter how well it was dug in.
Even temporary field fortifications in mobile warfare had lost much of their value, since techniques and technical equipment for effective indirect fire support for mobile forces had been introduced and highly mobile armour units with lots of high explosive firepower were able to appear almost everywhere.
This did not seem to affect Cold War military theory much, since there weren't enough troops for continuous front lines even in Central Europe anyway (26+ divisions only on a 1,000+ km frontier). Tanks had become operationally mobile by the 1930's and Cold War offensive thinking was very much coined by mobile warfare ideas. Corps would still form a front line on a war theatre map, but many of their brigades (the 'heavy' ones) would behave more like 18th century battle cavalry, preferring offence over defence.
Defence theory reached its peak for small units, but to late; stationary defence was reduced to the (small) unit level; formations in static positions would be overwhelmed by firepower or simply be bypassed by advancing opposing forces.

Offence 4th wave
Guided weapons, increased accuracy and responsiveness of attacks with non-guided munitions and a major increase in technical sensor capability lead to a (often-criticised) attitude reminiscent of 1915-1916; firepower would pave the way by knocking out who got detected. Detection, not destruction of the enemy, became the primary difficulty for the offence.

Defence 4th wave
Defence looks in theory still a lot like during WW2; even some well-reputed armies never fully mastered defensive techniques, and more importantly, didn't delete defensive techniques from their manuals even if they're already obsolete against a state of the art offence.
Both armour and field fortifications are already largely devalued as tools of defence. The modern defence against modern attacks struggles to defeat the offence's critical strength; the ability to find, identify and allocate and targets (=defenders) in time.

There's a modern response to this challenge which has surprisingly old roots.
Nowadays, there exist in my opinion two major advisable templates for the tactical level (in addition to calling for striking from a distance only); elusive raids and elusive ambushes. "Elusive" means in this combat mostly that neither raiders nor ambushers allow themselves to become fixed*; they attempt to disrupt spotting, identification, communication to enhance their survivability - and on top of that they vanish in time, making the "in time" challenge for the attacker even more challenging. This in turn means they need to finish their action real quick.

Even though "raid" / "ambush" sound offensive / defensive, the offence (attack)  / defence categories have probably ceased to be relevant. A more relevant categorization is certainly whether a certain area is controlled by one side or disputed. This is especially relevant as a description of the safety of (road) marches through the area. A unit with an area skirmish mission may stage ambushes and raids depending on circumstances. Operational offence in this context means that the area of operation is being extended into a formerly enemy-dominated area. Operational defence would mean that the enemy is doing this. Aside from this, only the passing through of a formation through the skirmish area could be considered an offensive move, but it could in fact be a withdrawal through an infested area!

The interesting thing about this is that in my opinion small unit- and unit-level defence has merged with offence. The difference was already often theoretical for a while (just remember the successive counter-attacks of WW1 which made it almost impossible to tell whose army was on the offence and whose was defending after the first few days of an offensive).

More about this later.

S Ortmann

*: "fixed" in military terminology means that you don't dare / cannot move because of the enemy's effort. It's only a subset of "static", not entirely the same.

I don't care much about the division in waves. What counts to me is what has been done so far, what's the influences today and what's left to do now.

I'm 100% sure that almost nobody will grasp this stuff because (a) I don't express it well in such a short form and (b) it's 'different'. I can't help it, am too busy for writing a book these days.


  1. Am I correct in assuming that artillery and close air support coverage is central to whether or not an area is controlled? If so, is the destruction of artillery and aerial assets a major goal of raids and ambushes?

    What sort of time scale are you considering for a peer–to–peer conflict? I would think that the first side to run out of planes or guns (or just missiles, bombs, and shells) would be at an all but insurmountable disadvantage. Would this be a matter of days or of weeks?

  2. Control depends on whether the enemy contests the control or not and on whether the (low or high) force density suffices to keep an eye on all routes through the area (not the whole area).
    Support fires only tell about the expactable attrition of OPFOR formations passing through the area.

    Fire support and aerial assets will be well-protected and thus difficult to take out withoutsubstantial losses, but occasional successes in this regard would have a great and highly useful diversion effect (= fix reservist infantry and AT troops on object security missions).

    The scale depends fully on the scenario. My working model is about a corps-sized effort. A border conflict between Russia and the PRC (a kind of Nomonhan II) is probably the least unlikely high end peer vs. peer scenario on flat ground. The East European scenarios look quite unlikely (unless the Ukraine develops a secession war) nowadays.

  3. 'Operational offence in this context means that the area of operation is being extended into a formerly enemy-dominated area.' So this means low presence patrols and stakeouts, right? Interesting idea. If artillery is accurate on the first barrage, I have trouble seeing how even small armored formations will survive extended missions.

    I guess the time is coming when we'll just have to dump most of the battlegroup drills that are present in the army manuals. None of it applys in this type of scenario.

    Speaking of which, how is your book coming along, sven? Are we to get a sneak peak at its title and main concepts?

  4. Between Sparta and Napoleon the developments were only minimal. Even the reach of the infantry remained pretty constant, at around 50 meter.
    What really dropped was the required skill level of the individual trooper. A phalanx required half a life of training from teenage years on and a certain physical condition, a musket only a couple of weeks of training even for a weedy guy.

    Around 1800 things started to move. Artillery became dominant. Or in other words the triangle mobility - firepower - reach became *the* factor:

    For a few years the explosive shell made the defense absolutely dominant [firepower], until the Minie bullet changed this for a couple of years [reach]. Artillery regained its superiority with rifling and breech loading. Breech loader, smokeless powder, machine guns, artillery with rifling - everything made the defense stronger. Luckily strategic mobility increased with the use of railroads. To counter that mass armies were needed to cover everything all the time.

    Again the defense dominated - see WW1. Until the tank, which gave mobility (tac + ops) a huge boost, plus introduced resiliance as a factor, giving the offensive the upper hand for few years.

    Fast forward: Tactical nuclear weapons changed everything between top-tier enemies. Massed formations are dead. Aerial robotic PGM currently gives the attacker the upper hand against all things technical, as long as he finds the target. But you can't find a ATGM squad, so on the ground the defensive again has the upper hand. Also because modern mechanized formations require huge logistics, so their operational and strategic mobility suffers. That is one of the areas where one could optimize, which is what the U.S. lighter-leaner-meaner (aka transformation) idea is about.

  5. About my book fantasy; I'm terribly busy (and lazy).

    About your survivability concern; this ain't the problem, for the skirmish corridor could extend hundreds of kilometres if not geographical or political obstacles apply.

    Infantry skirmishing as described above is limited by mobility, and limited on the operational level to regions of (temporary) special interest - plus possibly a kind of last ditch intercept corridor to protect rear services.

    Most of the skirmish corridor (operational level) would be the skirmish ground for armoured recce-reminiscent forces - mostly tracked in the more combat-intensive low depth part and mostly wheeled in the far part (and beyond rivers, for the wheeled component would be more lightly armoured and could thus be amphibious).

    My concept still includes battlegroups, as mobile strike forces that exploit the favourable conditions created by skrimishing: Skirmishers ruin the chances of a red brigade/division caught in their net, one or two blue brigades with their battlegroups descend on the de facto encircled red formation and smash it in a shock attack.
    The key to the whole concept is how to keep the reds from advancing too much. You need to raise fears without setting up a classic front line.

  6. I think everyone would say fixed defenses days are over and yet Israel went into Lebanon and ran into fixed defenses that while made up of small teams of light troops with guided weapons took some heavy hits. What I would say is that on paper they shouldn't have. They failed at doing the recon work that was needed and also I would say thought their enemy not up to the fight. Russia did the same in Chechnya I would say. I think a fixed point target of more then just a few troops would be hard to keep alive on a battlefield these days. But I would also say that few countries these days have the ISR to keep eyes on teh battlefield around the clock. Europe fond that out in Libya. Having a nice shinny military that can't do all the jobs that are needed means that you will fail at many that you thought you could do.