Elusive raids and ambushes

I wrote about defence before and I wrote about infantry before, this time I'll try to elaborate on the elusive ambush and elusive raid thing.

See, combat in Afghanistan does not tell much about first-rate peer vs peer combat at all. A platoon can be fixed by a smuggler gang or a Taliban group and not dare to leave cover for hours. It still survives.
In a high-end conventional war, that same platoon would be wiped out long before the first hour ends, and the enemy infantry wouldn't even need to sweat because such a fixed target is a favourite target for support fires. A really top of the line infantry battalion would destroy such a fixed target within minutes with its mortars.

So whenever you think about what's the difference between AFG combat and combat against really capable opposition; imagine the Taliban had a bomber with a precision bomb on station, ready to strike within minutes. It's a good start.
I am, of course, fixated on really capable opposition because there's little reason to believe that forces of little competence will ever be sent to invade Germany or one of its allies. Their leaders would understand the pointlessness. Wars of choice on the other hand should be avoided.

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The aforementioned problem of survivability in contact is part of the reason why I insist so much on quick and short exposure (if possible with a well-timed burst of support efforts). A lot needs to change in tactics once you need to cut your exposure time short.

Very short combat actions still need to be worthwhile, and they still should be very advantageous for 'us'. This means it's best to combine them with other, more established drivers of military tactics.
Surprise is one such driver; surprise describes a temporary advantage created by the exploitation of a fleeting superiority in readiness for battle. To exploit this advantage is a good idea, but it's not always possible.
Damn it, doctrine and theory are still more about what to strive for than about what's inevitably going wrong sooner or later.

The offensive form that exploits surprise and is compatible with a short duration is the raid, and a fine defensive equivalent is the ambush.

Let's use some imagination to describe the point:

Imagine cats fighting for territory. I don't say they do it like this, but imagine it:
A cat sneaks through the territory, attempting to find the rival cat. Once done, it closes in and finally pounces the rival, hitting the resting and surprised rival badly. Then it vanishes into the undergrowth again in order to not be surprise-attacked itself by a third cat.
This would be (elusive) raiding.

Now imagine the cat patrolling or observing its own territory and sensing a moving rival. It sneaks or hurries into an anticipated intercept position, lurks there and finally pounces the rival when it came close. Again, a quick withdrawal follows after dealing a severe blow.
That would be (elusive) ambushing.

The cat surely has a good use for some well-selected if not prepared hideouts, but it has no use for lots of prepared defensive positions, and the whole dynamic would be entirely different if the terrain was very flat and open or even bristling with cats.

I think this is where infantry-centric defensive tactics should go, and where they are in part already (Central and North European Jagdkampf, U.S. Distributed Operations). On the surface, these tactics are very similar - but the theoretical works about them (= the ones I know) and the assumptions are deficient in my opinion. Jagdkampf lacks the organisational support for widespread intentional employment and the theory of it is rather unsuitable (too demanding) for unintentional employment in/after a crisis in battle. It's an incomplete concept that shows its lack of a real baptism of fire. DO on the other hand was/is too tech-heavy in my opinion and about too small teams. Granted, I didn't go enough into details yet to assert the superiority of my concept art all. This is rather about provoking some thoughts.

Fixed defensive positions are largely out of fashion today despite the sandbag castles seen in Bosnia and Afghanistan. What's still lacking is the appraisal of enemy fire support as a factor that requires you to break contact even while the action appears to go well (simply because it already lasted almost for too long).
To expose yourself long enough for enemy fire support is near-suicidal, but it's a traditional weakness that indirect fires effects are poorly simulated and communicated in tactical exercises. In short: They're chronically under-appreciated. Many armies know this, but the attempts to fix this problem do not appear to have lasting decisive success.

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What's remarkable about elusive raids and ambushes is the "territory" (area) thing. It's not about a line or an objective - both would restrict the tactical choices a lot and create predictability. Instead, you need to think of this as an area mission.
I'd like to call it a "skirmish area mission" on the (small) unit tactical level, while on the operational (corps) level its somewhat different cousin concept might be called a "skirmish corridor". "Skirmish area missions" of different small units may have overlapping areas - this requires horizontal cooperation.
The average area for a platoon-sized area skirmish mission would be about 100-200 square kilometres, about the same size as envisioned in Jagdkampf. It could be much smaller in an evacuated urban area (even down to less than 10 sq km).

In such a "skirmish area mission", there would be rather few modes;
(1) intruding into enemy-controlled terrain,
(2) contesting control aggressively (trying to eliminate the presence of hostiles),
(3) contesting control cautiously (trying to stay active in the area without trying hard to expulse hostiles),
(4) reacting to major enemy forces passing through (presence of a hostile skirmish element becomes secondary in this scenario) and
(5) control and withdrawal (allowing them to control the area).

The benefits would already pile up while contesting control, namely the ability to communicate from-the-ground info if major enemy forces pass through the area. It's even better if the enemy isn't present with his skirmishers, and thus causes less stress and enforces less caution. The stress of the cat vs cat game would make troops rotation an advisable feature, and that's not what you want (it drives force strength requirements up and the average knowledge about the terrain down*).

On the operational-level picture, major enemy forces passing through such an area would suffer because of the ambush and raid threat, but first and foremost because the present skirmishers could cause attrition by calling for long-range fire support (let's say 120 km range GUMLRS+ missiles, see page 24). The passing forces' movement, strength and composition would furthermore be reported and this could lead to them being outmanoeuvred, subjected to air attack or surprised on the formation level (by manoeuvre brigade(s) or battlegroup(s)). Ambush and raid would be most relevant against supply convoys and scarce yet important equipment (such as various engineer tanks, air defence and electronic warfare vehicles).

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This whole concept is NOT suitable for decisive obstacle-related missions, such as clearing a bottleneck or closing it, holding a river front, establishing or destroying a bridgehead. Some of these missions could be met by larger (than unit level) combined arms forces with a very different mindset


* Digital ground level pictures of the area might help the replacement small unit to familiarise itself with the terrain without exposing itself much on patrols.

P.S.: Sorry, I know that illustrations and photos make it much more pleasant to read such long texts. I did simply not find any suitable ones, fr we don't really want to see photos of a cat in a bush here, right? The key problem with depicting troops with great camouflage is that the photo should really just be a landscape photo, without visible troops. That would be quite irritating, though.
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  1. Hi.

    While it is certainly true that dispersal into small units is a must in the face of modern effectors, I see a problem with supplying your skirmishers. After all, we would have to assume that any larger logistics tail could be tracked and targeted. Therefore, either your skirmishers have to have ample supplies and weapons mix (for how long?) or are limited in target choice?

  2. Very short combat requires a modest amount of direct fire ammunition. Much of the firepower would come from long-range indirect fires (think: GUMLRS+).

    The troops could sustain themselves fairly easily in European terrain (compact food reserves, filtered water) if small vehicles (up to SUV size) are being used (and hidden most of the time; that's a different topic).

    The most problematic limit would likely be the psychological endurance; about two weeks until redeployment into a less stressful environment might be realistic.

  3. Nice out of the box thinking!

    You would face the same options/limitations a general on a Napoleonic battlefield had:

    1) Skirmischers buy time, screen own heavy inits, i.e. they are essential, but they do not decide anything.

    2) The art is to determine how much of your force is spend as skirmishers, how much is retained for the decision.

    2) Do you use specialised soldiers (expert skirmishers and expert heavy forces) or do you try to train an allround soldier...?


  4. This goes back (as so much else here) to the "Square Trick" post:

    The skirmishers would be on a recce & battlefield shaping mission if viewed at from the operational level. Combined arms shock brigades would shatter those red formations which are badly disadvantaged by the skirmisher's effects (these and more armoured recce-like skirmishers).

    The light skirmisher infantry should be organisationally separate with little organic battalion support, but I'm not entirely settled on how to draw the lines between different infantry types. It would certainly not be the classic general infantry (Jäger) / mechanised infantry (PzGren) / mountain infantry / paratrooper mix, though.

  5. I am not sure that any western country is ready for a peer fight. Not one western country has faced a peer in a long time. Without the US I am not sure any western country could face a near peer let alone a peer. I think the Fakland's is a good test case. While the UK has far better trained forces they are hit hard by distance and yet if they had to refight the war of 1982 I am not sure they would win today. We have become used to having total control of many parts of the fight we have now. Land, Air and Sea. The Faklands war was the closes that there has been a all out fight in every domain of the combat environment in decades.

  6. Sometimes, timing in life almost unbelivable. For many years, I have tried to locate a book written in the early 1950s by the Swedish Waffen-SS volunteer Gösta Borg. The book is called "The russians are coming", and deals with how the outnumbered and massively outgunned Swedish army should be fighting the Soviet army, if that gruesome scenario had ever become reality.

    About a week ago, I finally got hold of the book, and I finished reading it only yesterday. In the book, Borg champions almost exactly the same tactics you describe in this post, based on his experiences fighting the soviets during the last years of WWII. He talks about the need for using "defensive zones" instead of front lines, having very large areas dominated by teams of snipers and ranger (jäger) units (what you call skirmishers, I guess?), and the need to operate by ambushes, limited surprise counter attacks, and relying heavily upon support weapons to achieve the desired effects against enemy forces. All in an effort to avoid being crushed by the opponent's heavy firepower.

    Quite remarkable how I have come across such similar ideas from two such different sources, separated by so many decades, on almost the same day! :-)

  7. Indeed, it's not very original in the form presented here.

    Sand bag castles in Bosnia, desert warfare and fighting rag-tag militias who aren't even capable enough for handling a mortar properly did not help to remind the modern forces about what they need against a peer enemy, though.

  8. Sven, why do artillery barrages that are accurate on the first salvo feature so heavily in all your thoughts? How are you so sure that the OPFOR will be able to achieve such accuracy? Surely you don't imagine they will rely on the crutch of precision guided munitions?

  9. For one, 30% probability of dying on first enemy indirect fire strike experienced is way too much, too. It doesn't need to be 100% to require a strong adaption.

    Second, it's simply state of the art. Modern navigation, direction finding, measuring propellant temperature, ballistics calculation with computer, use of proximity fused HE fired in upper elevation group (can be used relatively close to friendlies), accurate (digital) maps with accurate altitude info, guns with vastly improved dispersion over earlier types...modern indirect fire support is extremely accurate and exposure to it is unacceptable.

  10. Okay, I guess that was kindof a dumb question that I asked, lol. Its just that, in other posts, you have put much more emphasis for arty on suppression than destruction, even when the OPFOR is not dug in. Isn't this is a case of either or neither, to some extent? I mean, switching out all the battalion 81mm mortars and replacing them with 60mms (which, yes, I realise have more range than the 81mm mortars of WW2 vintage) for the benefit of ammo quantity -and thus suppression- at the expense of bang is what gives this impression.

    I don't necessarily disagree with a stronger suppression role: Its a better compromise, and after all, the infantrys job is to close with and destroy the enemy (at least, as long as nothing else is better suited to do the job for them. Overhead cover and C-rams, wherever they are encountered, present obstacles for arty).

  11. Suppression is for when you merely suspect hostiles or otherwise don't have good enough info for accurate destructive fires. Fire for effect is meant to be used when you got a good chance of hurting them really bad.

    Again; a support fires officer may be totally unsatisfied with a low kill chance percentage while the same is utterly unacceptable for those on the receiving end. Even suppressive fires can easily cause 10-50% casualties in a platoon and are thus a great motivator for more elusive behaviour.

    There's furthermore a difference between mechanised warfare (where often times the forces just want to pass through an area, not defeat everyone in it - and where the speed and armour makes indirect fires-dodging much easier) and infantry warfare as depicted here (infantry gets way more easily pinned down 'fixed' than AFVs).

    It makes rarely sense for mechanised forces to attempt to destroy a defensive position because this would be a slower and often more ammunition-intensive process than suppression. Speed is their key to success once they leave their staging area and the amount of ammunition that can be carried by a mechanised battlegroup into a deep incursion is not very large.

  12. 30% probability of complete destruction? Where are you getting these figures, sven?

    As for state of the art in artillery, yes, I can verify your statements on ballistic computers (the pinnacle of which is the Digital Gun Management System [DGMS] produced by SELEX, for the now infamous M777 howitzer), but all the rest is speculation.

    I certainly don't see any sources backing up these outrageous accuracy estimates of yours. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

  13. I would probably scramble to bring forward a source if you could point me at where I wrote
    "30% probability of complete destruction" as you appear to quote it.

    I could have written "A % probability of dying" with 0 < A << 100%, but I doubt that such a mathematical way of expressing oneself unmistakably would motivate anyone to read it.

    Point being, infantrymen cannot accomplish a mission if they're dead or badly wounded. There aren't 2 million of them around either. It doesn't need to be anything close to 100% probability of getting hit before it becomes highly important to avoid getting hit.
    10, 20, 30, 40 % - that's all too much, especially from the POV of the grunt.

    Back in WW2/Korea era indirect fire support was capable of great accuracy and responsiveness (in the 1-2 minute range) with great preparations (registering guns, pre-defining locations for impacts based on guesses) and at modest ranges.
    Nowadays technology replaced much of said preparations and the improved accuracy of guns enables the same or better dispersion at the now much greater ranges.

    Active defences, armour, vehicle speed, field fortifications - none of this will work well for the infantry, and beginning to run when the incoming fire can be heard is badly unsatisfactory. Modern infantry needs to be a shifting, elusive target - it basically needs to be too quick for the enemy's fire support.

    The worst imaginable mistake is to become fixed, and that's an incredibly tough nut of a problem since this happens to infantry all the time. The ability to break contact needs to be available for modern infantry; that's the key challenge. My best idea for it is to build this into the tactics repertoire even before combat begins, and to expect that even seemingly successful actions be aborted in time.

  14. I understand the need for camouflage and concealment, and also that foot soldiers cannot safely run away from an artillery barrage, but I was interested more specifically in the advances that lead to this unprecedented accuracy, which is, quote: 'Modern navigation, direction finding, measuring propellant temperature, ballistics calculation with computer, use of proximity fused HE fired in upper elevation group (can be used relatively close to friendlies), accurate (digital) maps with accurate altitude info, guns with vastly improved dispersion over earlier types.'

    Are there specific technologys, like those ballistic DGMS computers, which promise this? I'd certainly appreciate a short list of such things, plus that elusive source for your '30% probability of dying on first enemy indirect fire' statement. If thats not too much to ask, of course :)

  15. * observers know their position better and quicker than before because of
    widespread availability of good maps, increased quantity of landscape features for orientation, satellite navigation

    * observers can communicate their call for fire quickly by radio (calls for fire were mostly limited to company level or fixed positions in WW2 because of scarcity of radios and dependence on landlines)

    * quicker ballistic calculations

    * no pre-defined impact points necessary any more because of improved calculations (useful only for quicker communication)

    * calculation speed allows for better accuracy today
    (taking into account propellant temperature or environment temperature, barrel wear, radar-measured muzzle velocity of previous shot fired, for example)

    * HE can be fired more closely to friendly troops than the Cold War favourite DPICM. Its proximity fuse allows for 'good' fragmentation effect (almost never available in WW2)

    * gun design has been improved for a smaller dispersion (tighter tolerances, vibration design, better barrels) and greater range (shell aerodynamics, propellant power, barrel length, barrel friction)

    On the 30%: You misunderstood.
    "For one, 30% probability of dying on first enemy indirect fire strike experienced is way too much, too. It doesn't need to be 100% to require a strong adaption."
    is an example. 10% is arguably too much, 20% is too much, 30% is too much, 40% is too much ... I stated what's too much, not what's going to happen.