The belief that "war works"

Not long before his untimely death the historian Tony Judt observed that “For many American commentators and policymakers the message of the twentieth century is that war works.” Judt might have gone even further. Well beyond the circle of experts and insiders, many ordinary Americans at least tacitly share that view.

This reading of the twentieth century has had profound implications for U. S. policy in the twenty-first century. With the possible exception of Israel, the United States today is the only developed nation in which belief in war’s efficacy continues to enjoy widespread acceptance.

Others – the citizens of Great Britain and France, of Germany and Japan – took from the twentieth century a different lesson: War devastates. It impoverishes. It coarsens. Even when seemingly necessary or justified, it entails brutality, barbarism, and the killing of innocents. To choose war is to leap into the dark, entrusting the nation’s fate to forces beyond human control.

Americans persist in believing otherwise. That belief manifests itself in a number of ways, not least in a pronounced willingness to invest in, maintain, and employ military power.

I'm not sure I would group the British with the continentals on this, at least not their national level politicians.

Other than that I think this quote is fine. It offers an explanation for very much - military spending, foreign policy, tolerance of warmongers' commentary in the mass media and the general tone in public discourse about military and foreign affairs.

The lessons were already fading away in Europe, with the German governments applying a salami tactic towards a more militarised foreign policy (the Greens criticised this a lot, but once they were in power, they supported the Kosovo Air War participation, assuming fitness to govern would require being pro-war!).



The missing information on equipment (II)


I recently mentioned in a comment that acceleration (from standstill to almost maximum practical off-road speed) is a much more interesting spec of tanks than their top speed, and has been so since the 1930's. Cruise speed on a road without excessive wear would be another very interesting spec, as are maintenance and repair times and pat durability (such as durability of track segments in km).

The typical data sheets don't have this kind of information, though - and thus we cannot tell much by looking up such superficial information as dimensions, top speed on roads or on-road endurance.

There's another very interesting example, and it does bug air forces (and navies*) even as of today:
The trouble caused to infrared guidance by the sun.

Infrared seeking missiles did in their most primitive type merely correct their stabilised flight towards a source of thermal radiation (a hot spot) in their field of view. The earliest applications involved experiments with teaching bombs to fall onto ships or smelting works.** A relatively new (late 80's in-service) one involves anti-tank missiles.
The classic approach is to use such a passive IR guidance against aircraft, though.

The sun does cause problems to this; it's severely hot, and large, and IR guided missiles tend to be unable to aim at a target that's within an approx. 5-15° angle to the sun.

Early surface-to-air missiles with IR guidance were only looking for "hot", not for "warm" targets, and were thus only able to lock on the exhaust nozzles of aircraft. This meant they were only able to be fired at departing aircraft, not at aircraft attacking something close to the launcher. This was bad because this way the aircraft's speed was subtracted instead of added to the missile, reducing its effective range very much.
But consider this: The attacking pilot was able to execute his attack run safely and then withdraw towards the sun - again "safely".
There are plenty remarks about how IR missiles such as Redeye, SA-7 or Chapparal were unable to attack head-on, but when did you hear or read about the problem with the sun?
So that's an example of how even when "hidden values" are described in addition to spec tables, you might still miss out on critical info.

What about Stinger et al? Well, Stinger can in theory attack head-on (still difficult, especially due to early warning and IFF issues), but what if the attacker approaches with the sun in his back? Again, even Stinger et al would be restricted to play tailchaser, with an according reduction of the effective engagement envelope.***
And other times, when they were launched nicely, the pilot may still have the opportunity to move between missile and the sun.

Last but not least, a pilot could approach (for attack or recce) with the sun in the back, turn within a few seconds and withdraw between missile and sun.

(The challenge is in all these attack patterns to guess the launcher position correctly and to not face many dispersed launchers, albeit they could be countered by staying above their service ceiling most of the time.)

In the end, the time of day and missile technology in use might be used to predict the favoured direction of air attack!

This kind of hidden values explains why the military is largely a technocracy, with relatively little successful interference by politicians in regard to tactics and technology. It also means that the military bureaucracy can hide impotence and incompetence fairly easily until it flunks the live fire test of warfare.
Oversight is thus not only difficult, but also especially important. Maybe testing establishments should report not to the ministry of war (defence), but to the parliament, similar to accounting oversight agencies?


*: Rolling Airframe Missile (RIM-116) against sea skimmer missile at dawn, for example.
**: You might find this document about an IR seeking Japanese WW2 missile interesting. It's rare information on largely unknown Japanese PGM technology. Germany had similar developments, and IIRC the British and Americans as well
***: In case you think those optic filters solved the issue; at least the early Stingers were still vulnerable: "If IR cannot be obtained, the seeker may be locking on the background instead of the target. The sun is an extremely strong source of IR radiation and the seeker may lock on it instead of the target. The sun's IR radiation is also reflected from objects, causing these objects to become secondary sources of background radiation. When the target is approaching through clouds, haze, close to the ground, or is between the gunner and the sun, background lock may occur." link.



Anglophone military literature places much emphasis on surprise, and rightly so: Surprise is a huge lethality multiplier in combat. Air, sea and land.
There was even a time when the concept of surprise was interesting enough to distinguish between moral surprise and material surprise.
The classic counter to surprise is security; basically defensive reconnaissance by satellite forces (pickets or small teams moving in parallel to the protected force).

It is -as so often - possible to look at the same subject through a different lens, though. And a different lens may be very useful on this subject.

There's a German word - Gefechtsbereitschaft - for readiness for battle.

This is similarly far-ranging as "surprise". A force deployed in the field and moving forward can be expected to have maximum battle readiness against foes in front. Less of its potential strength is available for sudden contact on either flank. Even less is available for a sudden contact in the rear.
The same force - not deployed, but marching on a road or two - may have had a very low readiness for battle an hour earlier. And yet another hour earlier it was probably in bivouac, with some vehicles undergoing immobilizing repairs and much of the personnel at sleep. The readiness for battle at that time was marginal.

And that's the normal: Marginal readiness for battle. No force can maintain a high readiness at all times. A high readiness for battle is the exception, and "surprise" is about getting in contact with the enemy when the enemy is not ready for battle, while your forces are.

Gefechtsbereitschaft / readiness for battle provides a different lens, a different perspective on the issue because it looks at the own forces.

Now look at the standard recipe of security: Assuming your security effort is at a substantial distance (say, varying from 2-20 km), you're likely not able to maintain it without diverting a huge share of your forces to it. The circumference of a circle grows quickly with an increasing radius, after all. A thin security effort won't have much delaying effect.
Modern mechanised forces could push through such a distance within minutes if their leader suspects a great opportunity to surprise you.

It's in this light not a good idea to trust "security" much, or to look at the problem dominantly through the attacker's lens ("surprise"). Instead, your forces need at the very least the readiness to elude the enemy, as readying for meeting him in battle would be even more demanding - often demanding too much.

This in turn requires a lot of training. The breaking of camp within minutes into one of several possible directions (and in satisfactory order) takes much practice. You need to do it again and again, and you need to have the troops truly settled (maintaining and sleeping), so you cannot simply run ten such exercise alarms on a single day.

Now what do you think may be a rather neglected skill in an age in which large scale military manoeuvres involve computer screens more than actual units camping in the fields (and outside of permanent military training areas)?



The portable weapons crisis

Did you notice how little harm was done to armoured combat vehicles with portable anti-tank weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The descendants of the once awe-inspiring Panzerfaust were largely impotent, with occasional (apparently lucky) penetrations of tanks being newsworthy enough to become knowledge of the world-wide armour community and fanbois.
RPG-29 (PG-29V munition) and "Kornet" are among the few which succeeded to penetrate modern MBTs.
The rebels were so very much impotent with conventional anti-tank weaponry that they had to focus on mine warfare. Not the normal conventional AT mines; bigger, artillery munition-derived mines. Eventually, improved mine protection of vehicles forced them to use mines so heavy not even Olympic weightlifters would call them "portable".
One might use more powerful rockets and missiles against tanks, but the tanks could just as well be equipped with active protection systems.
In the end, almost all of today's man-portable and even crew-portable anti-tank weapons can be considered defeated technically or tactically by high-end opponents.

The story is similar with ManPADS, the famous Stinger and similar missiles. Supposedly the nightmare of Soviet Su-25 aircraft and Mi-24 helicopters over Afghanistan during the 80's, by now we know very few Su-25s were actually shot down by Stingers. The Soviets were easily able to adapt to the threat by attacking from higher altitudes, beyond the service ceiling of the missiles.
The more recent conflicts even showed that infrared seeker missiles even of the modern pattern can be defeated with infrared countermeasures, re-opening the lower altitude band for hostile aviation.
The laser beam riding guidance principle appears to be the only reliable one that's left for ManPADS. The Starstreak is the only such true ManPADS (emphasis on man-portable!) weapon in use, and it's unsuitable against slow drones because of its 'three darts' principle. The more conventional alternative development BAC Thunderbolt had been cancelled when the drone issue wasn't pressing yet. The same happened to the similar Stinger competitor Ford Saber.
In the end, almost all of today's ManPADS can be considered defeated technically or tactically by high-end opponents.

Did you notice how modern armoured fighting vehicles are nowadays equipped with night sights and gun stabilization even for mere machineguns? Meanwhile, the infantry's machineguns are rarely equipped with even only a magnifying sight, and rarely with a better night sight than a starlight scope good for about 200 metres. Some machineguns such as the MG3 family aren't even really suitable for sights because of difficult mounting thereof.

Back in 1940, German infantry panicked when 37 mm anti-tank guns proved incapable to stop French B-1bis heavy tanks. They fled into woodland or into buildings.
Their machineguns proved impotent against armoured Il-2 attack aircraft and fast-moving Typhoon fighter-bombers as well.

I suppose we might be at that point again, but the power myths around "Javelin" and "Stinger" keep most of us from seeing it.



Challenging the IFV concept - Part 4

First, a clarification:
I don't think there's no use for an IFV, or there's no use for its autocannon, or the (small) squad in an IFV is entirely ineffective. Instead, I argued that if it wasn't with us, we wouldn't introduce the IFV concept based on the state of military art and technology.

The IFV (infantry fighting vehicle / Schützenpanzer) benefits from a technological lock-in.
The standard example of a technological lock-in is the QWERTY/QWERTZ keyboard. Many millions of people have learned to type quickly on such keyboards, so other (supposedly better) keyboard layouts cannot have a commercial break-through any more.
It's similar with the IFV: Millions of people have been convinced by its concept and all armies with IFVs have an established pro-IFV lobby.

Those who would trade an IFV for an (H)APC would experience a loss in some squad capabilities*, and it's against human nature to like this no matter whether it's beneficial in the greater picture or not.

IFVs are also much preferred by the arms industry; as the integration of a turret and of MBT-like sensors and other electronics yields much more turnover and thus profit per vehicle than an (H)APC would ceteris paribus.

On the other hand, the in-service IFVs are mostly developments of the 60's or 70's, a generational change is necessary anyway. It's an opportune time for shedding the IFV that's on a gold-plated road to a dead end and to add a replacement to the vehicles fleet that strengthens the infantry arm to the proportion required for a good mechanised combined arms team.


*: It's at least in some armies common to consider vehicle, vehicle crew and dismount element as a single squad.


Challenging the IFV concept - Part 3

Combined armour and infantry attack, Soviet WW2 style

The above photo -staged or not- roughly shows the classic combined attack by armour and infantry.
Both are line of sight forces, and complement each other - in this example at the expense of the tanks' speed and the infantry's stealth.

The tanks carry much firepower and much protection, but cannot sense much (poor fields of view) and cannot deal well with infantry underground or in buildings. The preferred defence against this was to chip away the infantry with mortars, artillery, machineguns and rifles and then exploit the tanks' weaknesses.

The introduction of the Panzerfaust in the German military during the Second World War forced the Red Army to prefer a combined attack with an infantry screen ahead of the tanks, so the infantry could clear most Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck threats for the (even) more scarce tanks.

This was also an important tactic during the Cold War, with the infantry screen pushed forward up to about 400 m in front of the tanks to counter the increased effective range of man-portable anti-tank weapons. The ground forces of the Cold War knew other patterns of attack as well, but this one is the most interesting for the purpose of this article.

Back in 2009 I criticised the IFV (infantry fighting vehicle) concept because technical changes had made the idea of having the infantry fighting mounted on its own tanks very questionable - the original rationale for such a pattern has become invalid long ago.
Over the years I became aware that I hadn't addressed the other rationale for the IFV nearly as much - the perceived utility of the autocannon. And this is where the notion of a combined infantry/armour attack with infantry in front of the armoured vehicles is most important. 

25 mm Sabot discard hazard area - 400 m x 14°
A minor quibble in this regard is that APFSDS is an important munition for modern IFV's main weapon, the autocannon - and that "DS" stands for "discarding sabot", which can be described as "a good reason for infantry NOT to be in front of a firing IFV". The sabots are dangerous, and dozens if not hundreds of them can be sprayed by an IFV's autocannon within seconds.
The hazard area is only "forward" of an IFV on a firing range; in battle, it's all-round because sudden threats which provoke an answer with 25-40 mm APFSDS may appear in all directions. The problem was recognised in the 70's and led to restrictions put into field manuals.

This problem didn't exist when the original IFV idea was formulated, though. Back then discarding sabots were very uncommon and not employed in autocannons.
Discarding sabot, kinetic energy penetrator (the arrow)

Think about it; when would an autocannon make much sense?
For firing not at close range, but for firing at longer ranges. Machineguns and low muzzle velocity 76 mm guns would make much more sense at short ranges.
The original call for a (modest 20 mm) autocannon was in large part about supporting the dismounted infantry from behind - several hundred metres behind.

And that's pretty much what's rarely going to happen the way it was intended by the inventor(s).

Under which circumstances would the IFV support dismounted infantry in such a way typically?

Cold War literature (field manuals, books, articles, letters) gives a clear impression: Defensive positions were identified and subjected to artillery (or mortar) fires, the mechanised team moves forward, infantry dismounts, combined attack happens, armoured vehicles keep exploiting their great firepower to help the infantry attack, infantry clears defensive positions in the path of the attack, another mechanised team dashes through in good order and engages hostiles farther behind, survivors of original mechanised attack team reform and push forward as well. With variations.

The implicit assumption (and all too-often the foolish doctrine for infantry defence) was that the hostile forces would defend in Second World War style, preferably in field fortifications, maybe even in elaborate field fortifications with top cover. Well, this or an equally dumb defence in the outskirt area of a settlement or woodland area.

And that's simply not relevant any more. Top cover was amazingly efficient during the Cold War, but nowadays even 'dumb' high explosive shells can be fired with very good accuracy and very small dispersion (dispersion worsens at long range, though). Howitzers aren't about area fires any more, modern ones are a point attack weapon on the first round. 'Smart' munitions improve this even more - even the still relatively cheap range dispersion correcting ones.

So you cannot survive for long in a detected, identified and reported position if you face such fire support. Top cover or not doesn't matter all that much any more.
Keep in mind soldiers only keep fighting after 80+% casualties in exercises. In real combat, 20-40% casualties break an assault or a defence. Two thirds surviving the artillery fires would not suffice to maintain the resistance.

So the typical defence of today would rarely allow for a prediction of the points or lines of resistance. Instead, the defenders may rather ambush. They would typically initiate contact without forewarning.
The fight may also easily be over before infantry could dismount and advance hundreds of metres in front of IFVs. And IFVs which dashed forward to dismount their passenger infantry very close to the defenders would rather not be able to exploit the long range (~2 km) qualities of their autocannons. It's also questionable whether the theoretically possible employment of electronic timed shrapnel munitions such as the German IFV Puma's 30 mm air burst munition (sounds so much more modern than "shrapnel") would be practical during such a dash under actual battle conditions.
And the advisable employment of smoke to mask the IFV dash forward would play into the defenders' hand by masking their withdrawal at no smoke ammunition costs to them.

not going to be a dominant scenario anytime soon

Defenders could just as well initiate contact at a long ranges (600+ m), but hardly any other defenders than those with long-range anti-tank missiles would have a good reason to do so, as long range combat allows the armoured vehicles to make use of their strengths.
Besides, even Cold War experiments showed that hardly any anti-tank guided missile team was knocked out by direct fires. Indirect fires accounted for most (simulated) casualties, another punch in the face of the case for 20-40 mm autocannons on infantry-carrying armoured vehicles.
And Post-Cold War anti-tank guided missiles have further reduced the chances of IFVs and MBTs to reply with direct fires: Fire-and forget missiles with infrared seeker, missiles with fibre-optic link and laser beam rider missiles which have their beam only directed at the target (and thus detectable by laser warning equipment) as late as possible have reduced the time window for effective return fire to less than the few seconds required for a target engagement. New propellants have also reduced the exhaust flame and smoke trail of such missiles to 'barely visible' in daylight.

The hostiles have thus the tools to render obsolete the old school armour/infantry cooperation during an assault. They can tactically react to the firepower of IFV autocannons and thus render them much less relevant. The all-mounted infantry/armour combat team would run into infantry AT weapons and would be unable to pre-empt their fires. The infantry/armour combat team with dismounted infantry would still be slowed down to foot soldier speed in armour-friendly terrain, while rarely being able to deploy to good effect.

The IFVs' autocannons are unlikely to be a decisive weapon in all but a few exceptions. Said exceptions will tend to include either unlucky or incompetent adversaries.
The suppressive tactical effect of autocannons may actually be detrimental: They reduce the worthwhile tactics repertoire of the hostiles, but that's not necessarily beneficial in itself. Hostiles who see little prospect in fighting in face of autocannon firepower will tend to be more elusive, and thus less vulnerable, to attempts of creating quick and decisive tactical successes. In other words: Hostiles which don't accept a duel on relatively open terrain because autocannons and indirect fires are too powerful there will retire to more infantry-friendly or defence-friendly terrain, and clearing an area for safe employment of 'rear' support troops will require much more effort in face of such defenders. Much more infantry (or paramilitary forces) will be required. And infantry numbers isn't exactly a strength of the IFV concept, with as few as seven or eight seats per multimillion Euro vehicle.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -
The entire IFV concept is unsound.

And this shouldn't surprise: As I've described almost fire years ago, it's based on experiences from 1945. It hasn't been adopted by the one 'Western' army with relatively much high intensity warfare experience (the Israeli one). The IFV concept has 'proved itself' only in concepts against hopelessly outclassed enemies (Iraqi army: Tactics and training on the level of 1916, equipment from 1970's, largely destroyed in 1991 by 1980's opponents, remnants mopped up in 2003 by 1990's opponents).

- - - - - -

Now at least a fig leaf of constructive criticism again (and this time not as hardware-centric as in 2009):

Infantry and armour can be combined for good effect.
Some terrains permit almost no involvement of armour (such as when only two or three tanks of an entire battalion can be effective because the fight is on a forestry road). Some terrains offer no excuse for exposing infantrymen to risks (such as flat, low vegetation areas as they're common in Eastern Europe where collectivised and mechanised agriculture made use of huge fields). Other terrains on the other hand allow infantry and armour to employ their strengths - but rather not one behind the other or even both intermingled.
It's much more realistic to assume that the dismounted infantry would fight where armoured vehicles' field of view or mobility would be badly restricted. Such as in woodland or among houses. The infantry has now its own explosive shell projection ability in form of bazookas, Panzerfaust-type weapons, RPG-type weapons and portable recoilless guns (and had so for 70 years!). There's no need for direct fire support by assault guns or infantry guns any more. Autocannons have little relevance in such places as well, though they can in principle fire through walls and tree stems. This niche can be filled with machineguns if it's deemed relevant enough by an army.

German doctrine emphasized the quick change from dismounted to mounted combat and back for quite some time, but the insistence on tying both vehicles and infantry together in both modes hasn't been helpful. The infantry fight without much line of sight support by IFVs or MBTs is going to be the normal, not the exception.

In the end, dismounted small unit-sized combat teams need to fight in their tactical niches and mounted unit-sized combat teams need to fight in their tactical niches. The "combined arms" of infantry and armour will both be able to combine with indirect fires (artillery, mortars) through radio calls, but their proper combined employment is one of fighting alongside on different terrain and of fighting serially: Armour fighting alone with infantry as quick reaction reserve on call and infantry fighting alone after leaving the vehicles or fighting on quite confining terrain with very few armoured vehicles as fire support.
I don't see how anyone could come to the concept of an IFV from this. I do understand how the conditions of 1945 motivated the (original) concept of an IFV, though.



Source for the 25 mm sabot discard hazard area graphic: U.S.Army (link). A German field manual (for the Panzergrenadier company) once warned about a danger zone for 20 mm sabots of 700 m length and 100 m width! IFVs use saboted munitions only with penetrating projectiles, though; those are meant to penetrate walls or light armoured vehicles.

P.S.: I assure you, (West) German field regulations did pretend even as late as in the 1990's that Panzergrenadiere infantry shall fight either dismounted with support by IFVs or mounted on IFVs. The field manual (AnwFE 232/100, dated 1990) wasn't exactly a zenith of military art, though; it had some inconsistencies and avoided contentious issues. I don't know today's version, but the Heer is buying a new IFV these days.




There was once a Western leader who - after having his own great power adventure in that area 'blow up' - learned and concluded that those folks are too crazy to deal with. He did quit (after promising the exact opposite a few days earlier, and that's how his fans still remember him).

Yet somehow there are still a seeming gazillion of people who think that an active, meddling foreign policy in that area makes any kind of sense.


The NSA scandal stays below the threshold

One of the most important German national newspapers, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, recently published an article titled "Der hat doch gar nichts enthüllt" ~ "He didn't didn't reveal anything after all", about Edward Snowden.
The author's thesis was that the NSA scandal is all about abstract activities, not about something that affects us on a gut level.

I think he was onto something here. 
The STASI outrage was so great because the East Germans were under very tight surveillance, and after the reunification they were able to read details of their private lives such as "sex at 20:00, sex finished at 20:15" (an example taken from an East German sports celebrity).
The Snowden leaks don't have such details.

So far the Snowden leaks addressed the ratio: We just intellectually know that a free peoples' government doesn't treat its citizens like that, and we just intellectually know that a free country ought not tolerate such an intrusion by a foreign country.
But it's only the intellectual self which is in protest. There's no gut-level revolt.

A while ago I wrote about how Putin manoeuvred below the threshold of forceful reaction in his empire re-establishment foreign policies, and I suppose the United States do the same with their "Global War on Terror" and whatever slipped under this umbrella.

On the gut level, the Western World has it right, is the lighthouse of freedom, liberty, well-organised government. Yet a rational, intellectual inquest reveals how Western governments are actually exploiting the freedom of action left by our complacent gut feelings.

Intellectuals have revolted against mass surveillance, but those driven by intellect are inept at inciting a revolt of gut feelings - so little comes of this political revolt.

I suppose this manoeuvring below the gut feeling revolt threshold is a common problem; it's the exploitation of complacency, rigidity, secrecy and laziness for agents of the people to act in violation of their preferences if not interests.

A common problem deserves a general reaction: We need to lower the threshold for punishment of such behaviour.

The people won't change much. Different cultures, different education, different era - there's little reason to believe that any such difference will yield a much lower threshold.
One of the ways to still lower the threshold is to allow for a reaction without much of an occasion, by bypassing complacency. I suppose if all of us had a pop-up window on our computer asking whether the German government shall kick out all real or suspected U.S. intelligence personnel from Germany because of the mass surveillance by the NSA, we'd easily get a majority "yes".

That's because the threshold for punishment can be lowered in more than one way: We can get more easily agitated (in theory), but we can also make dealing out punishments less of an effort.

And I think that's a route which we should follow in the perpetual challenge to improve the own society. It's just unlikely that our politicians who are enjoying so much freedom of action for their games will hand us this directly. We just might get the power and opportunity to correct such manoeuvring in the gray zone through plebiscites, though.



The historical problem of carrier-borne reconnaissance

I do occasionally write about ground reconnaissance such as armoured recce, for it's close to my pet interest.

Here's a naval analogy which is quite interesting: 

Carrier air wings of the Second World War had rarely any dedicated reconnaissance aircraft. The Japanese had an extraordinary one late in the war when Japanese carriers weren't really important any more, the C6N Saiun. They also had a handful D4Y Suisei reconnaissance aircraft earlier; dive bombers not yet fully developed for diving and thus used for recce / naval search. They simply used the float planes of carriers and cruisers for naval search most of the time, though.

C6N Saiun

The British spent some thought prior to WW2 on developing a dedicated carrier aircraft for shadowing once-detected hostile fleets throughout the night*, so the carrier group would be in position for attack and could possibly even strike at dawn. The outcome were overly specialised, ugly aircraft.

General Aircraft G.A.L. Shadower
The Americans had no use for such a concept, for the radar-less experiments of the 30's had led them to believe that a carrier group once found will be attacked and defeated by the first attack (this is apparently part of the reason why their carriers were not united in one task force at Midway). They focused on being the first to strike instead.

Dedicated reconnaissance aircraft were a rare sight in practice, though.


Well, let's assume there's a task force with a single carrier carrying about 50-90 aircraft. It would take almost two dozen of them to maintain a 360° search in a fine radius. To dedicate such a large share of aircraft to reconnaissance only would have reduced the air combat and strike capability a lot.

This becomes utterly unacceptable once you look at a task force involving multiple carriers, say three. 3x 24 dedicated reconnaissance aircraft means 48 too many in this scenario - an utter waste of hangar capacity.
Eight each isn't better, though: Imagine the task force splits again; there would suddenly not enough planes for naval search.

The combined search and strike aircraft was thus inevitable. Those slow and sea state-dependent float planes were no adequate answer, after all.

Carrier fleet leaders of WW2 understood that the need for naval search was exogenous, independent of the quantity of carriers they have at hand. They could vary this need by varying their ambition (such as no search in unlikely directions, or search only out to a more moderate radius) or by using more efficient search aircraft (using active and/or passive radars), but the quantity of carriers did not influence it (unless there's none at all).

Likewise, I hypothesise that ground forces have a demand for reconnaissance which depends on ambition and efficiency, but hardly on the quantity of army formations (divisions, brigades, battle groups) involved.

It's thus one of my positions that dedicated reconnaissance forces should not be organic to manoeuvre forces, but to the theatre or corps command.
The carrier fleet's approach of using strike forces for reconnaissance is mildly convincing in the ground war context; it's the second-best backup approach which all ground forces should be capable of. Dedicated recce has big-enough advantages in efficiency, to speak within the analogy.

An unusually blunt way of reinforcing the point of this text: "The demand for area reconnaissance is exogenous and independent of the strength and quantity of manoeuvre combat formations in the area." Think about this, for its consequences are huge!


*: You know you have spent too much time reading about military aviation if you know this aircraft.


Snake oil and gun shields


You may have heard about a new gun shield that's on the market, with spring-based mountings and a left and right side plate. There's also a fancy video of it on The Firearm Blog.

Well, the makers appear to have annoyed 'someone', for 'someone' ;) felt motivated to write a satirical response about how to sell "snake oil" to tacticool enthusiasts !

(Read the PDF in Adobe Reader in case the text is distorted in scribd.
The file is fine, but Scribd has issues.)



A case for a future infantry arms trend

I made the case that infantry fighting against a great power's land forces needs to be highly elusive. In fact, I wrote about this repeatedly.
We can see this most easily from the Taliban's perspective; a Taliban group that's being pinned down can  sooner or later be taken out by support fires of some kind or another. Ready and very competent infantry battalions could have lethal mortar fires on target within two or three minutes.
It is under such circumstances unacceptable to be in contact for long, much less pinned down in one place.

A desirable tactic would be to stay in contact only for a very short time with individual elements, and to break contact (withdraw or at least make one's exact location uncertain) within at most two minutes after the small team exposed itself. Multiple teams (small or half squads) could be in alternating contact to keep the opposing forces busy - and fixed behind cover - for more than a mere two minutes.
Suppressive fires would be applied occasionally to support a withdrawal, but their value would be questionable. It would be rather unreasonable to trust suppressive fires with both parties trying to be elusive in face of support fires. It's too likely that troops rushing forward with support of 'suppressive fires' are being hit by a previously undetected hostile element.
Even 'long' engagements would offer little opportunity for suppressive fires because some alternating fire team may already be ready to shoot, but not exposed yet. So basically you may apply suppressive fires, but would likely do so against an already withdrawing team and not the really threatening fire team. The dominant face of modern infantry combat - suppressive fires - could lose quite a lot of its relevance in such tactics.
There's an antidote to elusiveness, and that's surprise.
Propeller fighters were most lethal against other fighters with surprise, as most fighter models had decent enough characteristics to avoid being hit with defensive manoeuvres. Fighters being shot down in an aerobatic dogfight was always rather the exception than the rule. The rule was that an estimated 80% of pilots didn't see the pilot/aircraft who shot them down before it was too late (many historical pilot memoirs and interviews yielded approximately this picture).

Surprise is also powerful in dismounted ground combat: It's easiest to shoot someone unaware, and very inefficient and difficult to do so after a firefight has developed already. The Americans are working hard on driving up the cartridges expended : kills ratio with their way of war (with much suppressive fires), but even beginners would be more efficient killers if killing someone in an already developed firefight wasn't so hard.

The more successful fighter aircraft designs were well-suited for surprise attacks with a high speed and powerful armament. Likewise, it's possible that the more successful infantry arms for conflicts between very capable ground forces would rather emphasize the effect of the first few seconds than being well-suited for a large volume (suppressive) fires.

This may take several shapes:
(1) Single shot explosive munition capability for the opening salvo, probably even rifle grenades or light Bazooka/Panzerfaust/RPG type weapons (which can individually be much more powerful than an underbarrel grenade weapon)
(2) Very high rate of fire for initial salvo (sustained by the necessary magazine size/belt length)
(3) More powerful munitions (with individual munitions too heavy for much use in suppressive fires)

Some more words about suppression: Suppressive fires are not only (sometimes) good for protecting movement or even the non-moving shooter himself, but also for pinning down ("fixing") unprotected hostiles.
The pinning down - while likely much less valuable than surprise - was previously mentioned as an important mechanic for bringing support fires into full effect. This has been true for generations, but inadequate supply and performance of radios and rather imperfect land navigation made full use of the 'suppression+indirect fires' combo rather rare. It was most feasible during deliberate attacks or positional defence. Now it's more easily feasible. You fix hostile troops without exposing yourself too much to direct fires, call in fire support and wait till air power, mortars or artillery take effect. That's in a nutshell the status quo of Western infantry against ragtag militias which cannot reply in kind.

There's a reason why I emphasise the importance of being able to break contact at will and quickly (link). And the assumption that competent adversaries would both emphasise the ability to break contact and be able to call in their own fire support is why I assume that the Muslim militia-bashing infantry mode is irrelevant for combat between peer infantry forces. And that's where the importance of suppressive fires is lost mostly.


The focus on elusiveness and alternating contact by small teams may add a new face to suppression: Sheer horror.* The uncertainty (and fear) about the appearance of yet another small team firing from a previously unoccupied position may lead to suppression even after all hostiles withdrew. Suppression rather by fear than by actually applied fires could be reinforced by greater uncertainty than we know it from conventional engagements during which hostiles preferred cover over elusiveness.
A bit repetition to make this point more clear: There's no doubt that many World War infantrymen were horrified and suppressed without some near misses only seconds ago. What I'm writing about here is that this - rather than the high volume of fire during some leap of a few infantrymen - might become the desired mechanism for fixing/suppression. To fix/suppress by inducing some rather general horror (instead of by revisiting a believed firing position with burst over and over again) saves a lot of ammunition. It wouldn't be reliable enough to protect much exposed movement, but I doubt that this reliability is achievable on a consistent basis (if the hostiles emphasize elusiveness) anyway . And they will be forced into elusiveness by the lethality of firepower just as First World War infantrymen were forced to dig in by the different nature of firepower encountered by them.

Then again: Suppressing and fixing the enemy only matters if you can exploit it - and the assumption of a competent adversary degrades your ability to do so because they may rather slip away in time. Hence the emphasis on exploiting the first seconds.

Summarized; suppression with large quantities of small calibre bullets may - if a set of assumptions plays out this way - cease to be the dominant face of outdoor infantry combat or may already be obsolete between two competent adversary infantry forces. 
The tactics between competent, well-supported infantry may emphasize elusiveness and as a result drive up uncertainty and fear among the opponents. The real lethality would come from surprise contacts (ambushes) - aside from support fires (mortar, missile and howitzer fires mostly).
A consequence may be that the optimal infantry arms would be much more optimised for few seconds of maximum lethality rather than for lengthy suppressive fires.


related: 2011-08 On infantry (breaking contact):
Finally, the greatest ability to break contact at the micro level doesn't help much if you don't prepare to exploit the short moment of contact (less than two minutes) fully. Weapons and tactics that achieve effect slowly are much less important than weapons and tactics that exploit surprise very well and achieve a great effect in short time, even if that cannot be sustained for long.
(I merely elaborated on this old remark this time.)
P.S:: Ask yourself; how many milblogs do you know whose authors would write at this length about small arms without mentioning any specific gun or calibre, thus skipping the whole hardware fascination aspect? And why is this so?

*: I understand suppression itself works by triggering fear, but this is about another level; a dominant fear even while there hasn't been suppressive fires for a while.

Edit: Clarification

Case 1: Blue surprises red
Blue calls for fire support, then doesn't reveal itself at all or reveals itself only shortly before the fire support takes effect. It may also open direct fire to entice red to take a desired action, such as taking cover behind a wall or in a building where indirect fire support will take effect. Direct fires would last less than a minute and the first few seconds would matter most. Blue slips away at the latest within 2 minutes after revealing itself.

Case 2: Red surprises blue
The dispersed blue small unit employs smoke and slips away because red may have called indirect fire support in already, giving them a decisive advantage in a more protracted (>1 minute) engagement.

Case 3: Meeting engagement; both (small) units stumble into each other
Both prepare escape routes with smoke, both call in support fires, both are ignorant about the other's size and thus should not dare an assault. The timing of slipping away depends on the small unit leader(s).

All three cases allow for engaging the reds again soon thereafter, from different positions and possibly with different (small) units. A protracted battle would be a series of hit and run actions. The density of blue forces would be kept low enough to make a red large area fire effort unlikely. "Hugging" (protecting oneself against red indirect fires by staying close to the reds) is unlikely to work because of the good accuracy ad low dispersion of modern howitzers (even "dumb" HE).