Combined Arms

Combined arms is a military theory thing that resembles rock-scissor-paper a bit: One part of the mix trumps when the others don't succeed. Some advanced theorizing about combined arms talks of dislocating enemy strengths, while more doctrine-oriented theorizing raises combined arms to a golden rule for force composition. Combined arms doesn't always have the same meaning, though. 

Combined arms on an ancient battlefield would mean heavy infantry, missile troops (bowmen, slingers, javelineers) and cavalry (substituted for by light infantry in horses-poor regions). 

Combined arms on a European 17th century battlefield would mean pikemen, musketeers, cavalry and artillery.

Combined arms on a European 18th century battlefield was no doubt infantry, artillery and cavalry (the bayonet had joined musketeers with pikemen).

Combined arms in a WW2 sea battle could be escorts (DD/DE/CLAA), armoured gunfighter ships (BB/BC/CA/CL) and aircraft carriers (CV/CVL/CVE/CVS). 

Combined arms in a modern air force strike package could be fighters, bombers, SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) specialist aircraft and stand-off jammer (radio and radar) aircraft. 

Combined arms on a modern battlefield would usually be defined as armour, infantry and artillery (including mortars for this purpose).

This is where I tend to disagree. The list already shows that technological development may change the meaning of combined arms; the meaning is not carved in stone.

It is rather likely that combat engineers should be recognised as a worthy component of combined arms; they are a supporting branch, but they do what combine arms is about: Be the ace in the hole that leads to success when the other branches don't succeed.

Another component that deserves attention -especially at these times- is battlefield air defence, possibly in union with C-RAM (counter rocket artillery mortar (munitions)). Battlefield air defences are necessary in face of aerial drones, but too many people still think that we need little or no battlefield air defences because of our oh-so great fighter fleets.

Modern warfare is very sophisticated and it shouldn't surprise that modern combined arms should have more components than the ancient one.

Here's yet another component; electronic warfare. This comes almost straight out of university physics departments. The physics behind electromagnetic stuff are really tricky, and EW is mostly about exactly this stuff.
Back during the 17th century a line of pikemen in front of the musketeers usually broke up a cavalry charge without actual fighting - a charge into an orderly line of pikes was stupid. Nowadays the well-timed and correct application of a radio jammer could break up a tank company attacking movement because tanks without radio comm would be at a severe disadvantage (example).

Finally I would claim that reconnaissance and observer troops deserve a place of their own, but that's a long story.

Combat engineers
Air defences
Electronic Warfare

Three of these are embodiments of military power. A matchup of army forces for public information would count personnel (kind of representing infantry), main battle tanks (or AFVs in general) and artillery pieces (usually ignoring mortars). Some such inter-military matchups also add air power elements such as combat aircraft and battlefield helicopters.

The others - combat engineers, air defences, electronic warfare - don't appear in such matchups, and that's symptomatic of how they get a lot less attention. This doesn't hurt much unless the budget gets rigged for style over substance (overemphasising armour, infantry and artillery) or unless doctrine neglects some combined arms elements. There's usually a field manual for everything, so total doctrinal neglect is unlikely, but one might still be concerned over infantry battalion field manuals paying no or almost no attention to the cooperation with electronic warfare troops or combat engineers, for example.

I have to admit I didn't find a single military theory work so far that lays out the dynamics between all six combined arms elements (or even recognises the seventh) properly. In fact, a written theoretical work on combined arms is often stuck at the level of explaining the three obvious elements and their dynamics. 

It appears as if there's a lot of room for improvement in military theory left in regard to combined arms theory.
Too bad; it's overshadowed by small wars with their military intelligence and civ-mil relations emphasis and also overshadowed by the after-effects of RMA (revolution of military affairs; buzzword for a huge confidence in electronic equipment).



  1. There seems to be a little misunderstanding of what the concept of combined arms is. Its use doesnt stem from analysing the infinite interactions of systems of systems within a military machine, not even its most importants ones, but from the experience, that arms, that in theory are capable of defeating an enemy force on its own, tend, because of the inhibitions they pose upon each other, to fight battle on their own. For all of your additions cooperation is by default and a technicallity of best practice if you will. On the other hand the combat arms included into combined arms theories need some set of rules, even convictions, to bind them together in an environment of scarce information that constantly tempts them to seek their own "victories".

    On the other hand, if this was supposed to be just some kind of comment about who is important your list falls awfully short, dont you think?

    The rock-paper-scissor analogy, although commonly used, is utter nonsense, btw. Dont go with all papers, ever, is essentially basic combined arms theory.

  2. Combined arms is about using the effect that the sum of a mixed force is bigger than the sum of its components, and it's less susceptible to adaptive enemies.

    The blog post was meant to point out that the literature on combined arms (including many field manuals) falls very short. The much-discussed triad of armor/infantry/artillery looks dumbed-down even in comparison to the reality of the late 30's. EW is especially underappreciated in writing, probably because it's a relatively inaccessible topic.

  3. Soult...What was that? Was that English? Talk about run on sentences and gibberish. I'm no expert on grammar nor am I some genius but one thing is I know Bull when I see it.

    If you have a valid point please make it in normal English and stop trying so hard to sound intelligent, it's not working.

    Combined arms is a very simple and broad term. It just means and simply put using more than one type of unit within a group designed to accomplish a mission.

    The best explanation of using it was the unit I was in. The 1/11th ACR circa 1980s. We had everything from Commo to engineers to artillery, tanks and scout vehicles. We could go anywhere and attack any type of unit 24/7 in all weather and terrain. We even had helicopters, both scout and anti-tank, OH-58, AH-1 Cobra's.

    What we really needed was some infantry, we really needed that and did not have any. That was a weakness if we did go to war. In Vietnam they did use infantry. But it was very similar in structure to the way it was setup in the 80s.

    We used M113 Dragons, M106s, ITVs, M577s, M109 155mm howitzers, M1A1 tanks, I think we still had M88s, no M578s Stinger units for triple A, no M163 as far as I could see.....when I left we where getting the Bradley's.

    1. The ACRs were really strange beasts.
      brigade-sized, supposedly for recon and fighting stretched-out.
      Far too weak dismounted combat element, strangely many helicopters (should have been under corps control given their radius of action and their logistical tail).

    2. @bd: No pretension there. I am not a native english speaker and german tends to be more liberal on the subordinate clause, so please bear with me. ;)

      For the point I was trying to make: Combined arms theory is not a theory of all conceivable interactions on a battlefield. It focuses on relations that are problematic. In other words those, that include a dilemma where parties must sacrifice some of their potential to maximize their combat power as a whole. You could probably see this kind of relationships anywhere, but most of them are resolved in a straightforward way by refering to general principles without need for elaborate theory. The benchmark I guess would be the existence of "one-arm" theory. You can find this for infantry (pretty much of pre-WW1 tactics), armor (pre WW2 all-tanks theory), artillery (WW1s artillery conquers infantry occupies) and the airforce. On the other hand it is hard to conceive an all-engineer-theory or an AA-conquers-theory, nor would any military applaude the notion that the bravery of your EW-personnel is all that matters.

      In short: DOING combined arms (what you are talking of) requires a lot more than combined arms THEORY even wants to provide. This limited intent of combined arms theory, I argue, accounts for the perceived lack S.O. pointed to.

  4. You are correct that combined arms is referenced a lot in military literature, but there are very few good works that focus on how and why combined arms work—probably because it seems self evident. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote a ways back that describes two writers that bear on the subject:

    “Two military writers provide much of the insight necessary to further understand combined arms. In his book, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (2001), Jonathan House explains that while the make up and application of combined arms has had different meanings and implications, there are three related elements in all references to the term. The first element is the combined arms concept: “…the basic idea that different arms and weapons systems must be used in concert to maximize survival and combat effectiveness of the others…Exactly which arms and weapons are included in this concept varies greatly between national armies and over time.” The second element is the combined arms organization: “…the command and communications structure that brings the different weapons together for combat. This may include both permanent, peacetime organizations and ad hoc or ‘task-organized’ combinations of the different elements in wartime.” The third element is combined arms tactics and techniques: “…the actual roles performed and techniques applied by these different arms and weapons in supporting one another in battle.” House’s construct provides a point of departure for looking at combined arms. A closer look at his elements reveals that the first, the combined arms concept, is actually built from the other two elements, combined arms organization and combined arms tactics and techniques.

    The second writer with relevance to this discussion is Robert Leonhard. In both The Art of Maneuver (1991) and The Principles of War for the Information Age (1998), Leonhard introduces the terms the “paradox of lethality” and the “attack profile.” In essence, a weapons system does two things: it kills and it forces enemy reactions. The “Paradox of Lethality” is the phenomenon that, when viewed in isolation, as any system becomes more lethal, enemy reactions decrease its effectiveness; it does not produce more kills. That enemy reaction, however, can serve to increase the enemy’s exposure to other weapons systems, especially as the enemy’s reaction becomes more extreme. An “attack profile” is a broad description of how a weapon works on the battlefield and how effective it is. For example, a 120mm tank gun and a 120mm mortar have different attack profiles. The importance of the attack profile is that it largely drives the nature of the enemy’s reaction to that weapon. Leonhard argues that the real measure of any weapons system (or combined arms component) is not its individual attack profile, but the interrelationship of the reactions it causes with those of other weapons systems—its role in a combined arms system.

    The physical building blocks of combined arms capability are the differing arms and/or weapons systems. The concept of combined arms seeks to use these components, not necessarily to achieve their individual maximum effectiveness, but rather to employ them in combinations to achieve the (situationally dependent) optimal individual effectiveness—for maximum effectiveness of the combined arms force as a whole. More specifically, the optimal individual performance of any component is primarily defined by how well it creates vulnerabilities in the enemy to other systems. For a combined arms force, the prime consideration for fielding a weapons system, or developing a capability must be how they interact with the other components of the force, not their individual characteristics.”

    1. Even Leonhard (who nowadays only writes difficult-to-find articles: http://www.jhuapl.edu/ourwork/nsa/publications.asp ) focuses on infantry-artillery/mortars - armor as combined arms, though.
      He's the #1 in published thought about combined arms (albeit I may have missed some Russian), but his work is still simplistic in comparison to practice.