LOS and NLOS firepower

I got annoyed - again - by a clueless remark on milporn toys infantry weapons.

The topic this time is thus the substitution relationship between line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight firepower, or more specifically the firepower of troops in contact (infantry or tanks, for example) and the firepower of troops either not on the ground or far away (indirect fire artillery, for example).

Example clueless question:
Couldn't we replace mortar fire with grenade launcher fire?
Most likely we would be very, very stupid if we did.

This answer is not self-evident for people who look at milporn toys weapons themselves. After all, both weapons kill with exploding things spraying fragments, right?

Here's the somewhat abstract summary why this particular substitution would be idiotic unless the status quo ante was even more idiotic:

LOS troops* are usually the most vulnerable ones during a battle because they are most exposed to detection and identification; hostile ground forces can detect them not only through NLOS means (as aerial recce), but also through LOS means (such as simple eyes).
LOS troops are also relatively immobile; once in contact, they are at least somewhat fixed. It's a historical constant that troops committed to a fight are difficult to pull out of it; breaking contact is hard. Valuable, but hard.
LOS firepower is also typically short-ranged. Lines of sight are short, and LOS firepower is optimised accordingly. This means LOS firepower cannot shift its impact by a long distance in a short time. An artillery unit may shoot at two different targets with a spacing of 70 km within five minutes. LOS firepower would  -depending on LOS troops type- be limited to about 1-8 km. NLOS firepower can thus participate in more fights per week and is thus quite efficient in its own way.

All this - and particularly the first point - lead to a preference for rather few LOS troops in contact. The areas of the battlefield which are exposed to LOS observation must not be crowded.
The British were probably the last Europeans to understand this; even as late as early 1918 they still had a 'forward strong, little depth' defence on the Western Front. They suffered accordingly, with the many infantrymen in the observable forward trenches getting hammered by artillery. Other armies had previously (at least partially) moved to a defence with a thinly manned continuous forward trench for pickets with most infantry beyond the LOS.
You better keep your exposed LOS troops rather few in number.

Well, how to gain an advantage if you don't strive to have the 'bigger battalions' up front all the time?
One answer is to add 'effects', not troops. And by 'effects' I mean first and foremost artillery firepower; NLOS firepower.
Whenever possible (especially within the constraints of unreliable radio comm) one should strive to substitute LOS firepower by adding NLOS firepower quality or quantity. Less firepower applied by LOS forces allows for less LOS forces exposed, for longer endurance (until ammunition runs low) or for lighter loads (for more agility and mobility).

To attempt to substitute a NLOS firepower asset which is acceptable at its job in favour of more LOS firepower gets this entirely backwards. It's an example of how hardware fandom (or a man with simple professional training without enough thinking) doesn't get the concept of some tool right. 
There's a conceptual difference between LOS and NLOS firepower.
LOS replaced by NLOS = usually an improvement
NLOS replaced by LOS = usually nonsense

Try to get the idea and the concept of what, why, where and when of the milporn toys weapons in question.
A layman can get this right just as easily hardly as a professional soldier because a layman isn't burdened by indoctrination. It requires thought beyond the spec sheets, beyond the visual appearance, beyond the doctrinal teachings (which were all too often devised for the most stupid students).
Weapons of war are no fun toys or sports equipment. They serve a role in an intricate web of restraints, environment, capabilities, organisation and much else. Your odds of getting the "is it good idea or not" question about weapons right are almost exactly as poor as the flip of a coin if you don't even attempt to understand this background in detail.

This assertion of mine is spanning very much the entire world of military affairs. Think about the question whether the German submarine fleet of September 1939 was right, too weak or too strong for example. Form your opinion without trying to heed my advice and then compare with what I wrote on the topic five years ago.


*: I will call troops in line of sight (or "duel") fights "LOS troops". The others "NLOS troops". Also, "LOS firepower" and "NLOS firepower" respectively.

P.S.: I've been trying to get this point across for more than five years, and now it was about time to drop the subtlety. Subtlety doesn't work well here.


  1. LOS has an inherently higher precision than NLOS and is ideally suited to ambush of targets that can be eliminated with the first attack or the coup de grace after a NLOS attack.
    You get your point across, but could better balance the advantages of LOS.

  2. This is an interesting thesis, thanks for posting.

    Since NLOS firepower generally relies upon blast and fragmentation for effect, do you see that as also being a call for increasing the HE capability for LOS weapons? This is in addition to more NLOS.

    I am imagining not just adding more NLOS, but also adding more commando mortar and, RPG type weapons to the infantry. Some Italian mech infantry already have PzF 3s in 6-man elements, mirroring some of the Chechen formations; and I observe that the USMC has always pushed more artillery into its formations than comparable USA infantry.


  3. Commando mortars are most relevant for illum rounds, which can even be fired without signature (IR, noticeable sound, flash, smoke, radio emission), but can usually be substituted for by battalion mortars.

    PzfF3 is too heavy and thus a poor (and historically too late) design. The choice against a reusable tube was a mistake weight-wise.
    I consider such heavy grenade projectors as platoon-level weapons; two LRAC F1 (STRIM) like weapons per platoon sounds about right. More capable weapons could be issued for an AT or route blocking mission.
    BTW, I wrote about Panzerfaust et cetera in late October.

  4. The push for more LOS firepower is almost always driven in the West, particularly the Anglo-American military sphere (British Commonwealth to include Canada, Australia et al + America) as a result of the Afghan War experience. In this experience, NLOS (Indirect fire / IDF) firepower was tightly controlled and only DF (LOS) assets were granted reasonable freedom of action. In the Canadian military, the 60mm mortar was slated to be removed in favour of a 40mm GMG with a "sight that would enable indirect firing."

    The CF also procured tanks to provide some large caliber, highly precise direct fire. They were a necessity for national defence also, but the fashionable "LOS > NLOS" argument at the time - which persists as we attempt to assimilate the Afghan experience - caused the procurement of a good (by Canadian standards) number of vehicles. Earlier, it was decided tanks were not needed, based on a petulant child argument wherein the gov't would not release funds for the procurement of viable vehicles, and the military justified it with "Well, we don't need it anyways" thinking and statements.

    It seems that some militaries (British, Canadian, American, I cannot speak for the Australians and others) have engaged in a 'back to basics' push, by which they mean conventional warfare, in response to some units dramatically failing combat readiness tests for conventional operations and, in my opinion, as an extension of "We lost the war in Afghanistan, but that doesn't matter, because we don't need that anyways. That's not real warfighting." This is the wrong attitude but the correct sentiment to have: the war was superfluous, men died in vain (not as bad as Iraq; which was naked aggression) but, counterinsurgency in RC South was not vital to the national security of participant nations.

    1. NW:"The push for more LOS firepower is almost always driven in the West, particularly the Anglo-American military sphere..."


      This is a rather superficial observation.
      Consider the USMC MEU, which routinely deploys a 155mm howitzer battery alongside an infantry battalion with the heavy lift helicopters necessary to move artillery and ammunition. The USMC infantry battalion has a prodigious amount of organic mortar support as well; and none of this addresses the attached attack helicopters, or the firepower of the ships in the ESG.

      Consider also the USA ranger battalions, and striker battalions (120mm mortars at the company level!).


  5. The topic this time is thus the substitution relationship between line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight firepower, or more specifically the firepower of troops in contact (infantry or tanks, for example) and the firepower of troops either not on the ground or far away (indirect fire artillery, for example).

    Can you recommend a good introductory reading, preferably written for those with no firsthand military experience, on the basic principles of tanks in modern warfare? I don’t understand how they do (or don’t) compliment self-propelled artillery and APCs. I also don’t understand the degree to which their survivability depends on being able to break contact and seek cover.

    1. I think "On Armor" by Bruce I. Gudmundsson may be up to this.

      Tank combat can be very, very quick. A tank company surprising another one will likely win, and in more chaotic situations targets may be exposed for only a few seconds or may hit you after only a few seconds, so your own tank crew has to be alert and drilled enough to shoot a crucial one or two seconds earlier. To reach cover before *they* complete their detection-ID-aiming-fire drill may keep your crew alive without taking out all hostile MBTs which try to kill you.

      But fair and (seemingly) chaotic MBT vs. MBT combat is likely overrated, kind of like within visual range combat of modern fighters or dogfighting of propeller fighters.
      Tactical leaders should strive to defeat opposing forces in unfair fights, and this may include taking out a tank company in its bivouac. A flanking ambush and quick withdrawal after two shots fired per ambushing tank is another favourable option.

    2. Much appreciated! Gudmundsson’s book sounds like what I am looking for, and it looks like he has a couple of others I want to check out.