Imbalanced combined arms

Infantry divisions - when they still existed for real, not in name only - were known for having the infantry as their main arm of manoeuvre and combat. All other arms (usually only artillery*, sometimes also armour* and aircraft*) were supporting arms, and tactics showed this. Beginning in 1915, artillery still proved to be the most deadly arm - even if meant to fulfil a supporting role only.

Armoured divisions were known for having armour as their main arm of manoeuvre and combat. All other arms were supporting arms. Again, artillery at times exceeded the lethality of the armour, but armour at times excelled more at taking prisoners than at killing. Then, again, the infantry was supporting and especially collecting those enemy soldiers who surrendered, for armour is much better at accepting surrenders than at guarding POWs.

massed employment of armour, 1940
Artillery was rarely the main  arm. This was mostly due to the difficulty of killing much with artillery if no manoeuvre drives the enemy troops out of their positions (which were chosen in part for survivability). Some notable exceptions were sieges in which fortifications were disabled or destroyed by artillery, shelling of marshalling areas and harassing fires. Some WWI and Soviet breakthrough battles were essentially orchestrations of huge artillery concentrations, but even then artillery was primarily the arm that enabled manoeuvre by infantry (and tanks), thus fulfilling a supporting role.
Modern artillery with its new-found precision could in theory reach farther out and be most lethal even to troops in fortifications, and would in both depend on infantry (as observers) or aircraft (again, as spotters) as supporting arms. There were armoured forward observation vehicles since about 1940, but I don't recall any use of their in which artillery was the main arm for an entire battle.

17th/18th century siege in Vauban's style: Artillery breaches and suppresses,
infantry digs forward, defenders usually surrender in time to avoid the final assault.
Finally, air power. It began as a supporting arm in 1914, included substantial ground attack against front-line troops by 1917, by 1920 it was for the first time the main arm in the Somaliland campaign and by 1923 it was used without notable supporting arms in the British air terror campaign ("air policing") in Iraq. The all-air power campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 was no true first of its kind. Air power can make use of artillery (such as ATACMS missiles expended in 1991 Gulf War) and infantry (especially observers on the ground) as supporting arms, though both not at very great depths.

It is typical of medium-sized and large modern armed forces that they strive to be able to use any of the four principal arms as the primary arm, with others meeting the supporting role. At other times I called this behaviour the pursuit of a balanced mini army (in regard to small powers).

This isn't necessarily something that they achieve and sure it isn't easy in the first place.
Armour is typically preferred in mobile warfare, but getting the use of armour right above the level of companies is difficult. Peacetime training can be done well up to platoon level, training at mixed battalion level against equal or superior opposing forces is rather rare.
To employ armour as a truly swift force, taking no more than minutes of preparations before an assault, demands much of the command system and command culture, morale, communications and training in cooperation. There's little point to armour-centric approaches in Europe if hours of preparations are needed for an advance by four kilometres in face of any resistance. Armour-centric approaches are about mobile warfare.
Several NATO armies have a reputation for being rather sluggish with armoured forces. They do not seem to have mastered the employment of armour as the main arm, though they likely are proficient in using armour in a supporting (or equal) role in tank-infantry teams.**

I had to use some pictures to break up the desert of letters.
Even the most proud NATO armies may be largely incapable of using the infantry as the main arm, due to want of quantitative infantry strength. In many brigades the ratio between armoured fighting vehicles and infantrymen is between 1:5 and 1:10, resulting in a severe shortage of infantry - and this may worsen rapidly if infantry experiences a higher casualty rate than armour faces attrition during the first days of a campaign. Infantry as the main arm may in the first weeks of a conflict thus be limited to small engagements in most tank-unfriendly terrains.

Artillery as the primary arm is quite a challenge as well. The current structure of the German army includes so very few active artillery forces that it's impossible to us (on a large scale) without a prior mobilisation and training period of months. The underwhelming ammunition stocks prohibit artillery-centric operations as well. Artillery was at times the main arm in Afghanistan, though: Infantry was moving to contact, then cowered behind cover till artillery did hit the (often only assumed) enemy positions. Those were small actions, at most up to battalion size, though - hardly battles by historical standards. A combination of 90's tech guns with 2000's fire control and munitions doesn't suffice for an artillery-centric approach that hits most targets spotted by supporting arms*** if the quantity of guns and ammunition doesn't allow for it.

Air power as the primary arm is the most expensive approach. Helicopter-centric "air mechanisation" was never more than a pipe dream or a procurement racket in Europe. Bombing campaigns - their newest version being the aerial drone assassination campaign - are not challenging against defenceless targets, but an air power-centric approach to warfare in Europe against an aggressor that felt strong enough to attack you or your alliance is most dubious. NATO, for example, would face the Russian air force with its world-beating area air defences, short range air defences and quite respected fighter force in such a scenario. Only the USAF and USN would dare to assume that they could conduct such a campaign successfully.****

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A modern first rate military should have mastered more than one of these approaches. 
Sadly, the German military seems to be a master - on scales relevant to national or collective defence - only of the armour-centric version. We're lacking in (active) artillery and infantry, and I don't think that the rather neglected Tornado ECR force (and its ammunition supply!) suffices to enable an air power-centric approach in collective defence.
The German military wouldn't fight in its "traditional" way, of course; it would not fight alone or with weak allies only. Still, there's little reason to expect allied armies to contribute the necessary artillery or infantry power to enable any other than armour-centric approaches in the first weeks of conflict.
Air power-centric approaches are dubious at best during the first weeks; wearing down the missile supply and radar inventory of opposing air defences takes a while. We're largely lacking the long range artillery munition stocks to assist air power much.

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The ability to successfully fight battles with infantry-centric, armour-centric and artillery-centric approaches could be used as a metric for an army's preparedness for national and collective defence and for its value for deterrence.


*: For sake of simplicity I will use "artillery" for artillery, infantry guns and mortars and "armour" for all kinds of armoured fighting vehicles, including tanks, armoured cars, assault guns and tank destroyers in this article. Same for "air power"; this includes both fixed and rotary wing aviation.
**: Which is reminiscent of the typical U.S.Army tank-infantry team of 1944/45 and of assault gun tactics
***: This isn't so much about "artillery conquers, infantry occupies" as it's about delaying actions with minimised exposure for duel (line of sight combat) forces.
****: The USN's Super Hornet/Growler force is kind of the definition of how much air power the United States might need for defence purposes. All additional air power is excess, necessary -if at all - only for offensive purposes.


  1. Hi man i was reading your blog since 2009, you always amazed me by integrity of you thoughts on military theory and military themes. You blog is superb.
    And about combined arms. I think that tube artillery is main killer on a battlefield. Not a long ago Novorossian rebels presented their experience to the russian artillery academy, they used russian made Orlan-10 UAV to correct their fire from theis 122 mm 2s1 "Gvosdica" SpH. The UAV teams were not assigned to the arty Bn, but were acting as a organic part of the batteries. this is rised accuracy of arty fire almost by 10 fold. battery of 6 guns can supress stacionary target by firing only 30-50 rounds of dumb ammunition instead of 300 rounds.

    1. Thanks.

      That's the difference between observed and unobserved fires. Combatants in the Ukraine do AFAIK not use aerial observers (much) and the flat terrain allows a high rise position only when high buildings are present. Thus drones - if not countered - are a very valuable eye in the sky.

      Observers organic to arty batteries has been an obsolete approach since mid-WW2 at the latest. The modern approach is using separate joint forward observers who can call arty, mortars, fixed and rotary wing support and gives input to the digitized fire control network of the arty/mortars (such as ADLER III http://preview.tinyurl.com/zxtcult ). This could also be done a ground radar operator or someone who controls a drone like KZO.

  2. Rebels using soviet/russian three by three mtoe. They still have recon squad in arty btry command and recon platoon. Russians not tend to change their mtoe even today. They still organised like SA in mid 1980-e's

  3. Concerning the dire lack of infantry and the current war in the East. Beside the general state of unpreparedness of the Ukrainian military the lack of an working Conscript/ Milita/Miliz/Landwehr/Garde National system pushed volunteers to create various units from scratch. While this raised the price Russia had to pay for it's invasion and might have reduced Putins appetite it also came with notable drawbacks as witnessed during the conflict. For the Baltic states in particular and Poland it will be key to direct the energy and motivation of volunteers into an intelligent and efficient organization. Maybe you have enough material to write about current developments in those nations?

    In your 2009 post about a modern Landwehr you point out the necessity to avoid too influence of the 'standard' army over said Militia. I guess this was partly influenced by the problems suffered by the Austrian Miliz which suffered (ressource) starvation by the 'professionals' in a generally tight budget.

    P.S: Tech is just a part but such a milita company should get some experience with cheap quadcopters/drones and surveillance equipment. Coupled with equally cheap thermal cameras for smartphones they can be used to train with and against. Did not the Reichswehr train with Panzerattrappen



    1. Sch volunteer militias etc. need to be separate from the regular army because their purpose is to provide wartime strength, not peacetime strength.
      The regular army bureaucracy wants toys and prestige and jobs NOW, in peacetime, not maximised wartime strength. A militia is by its very nature so much against the self-interest of the regular arm that latter must not be allowed to be in control of it.

      I was under the impression that the Ukrainian government was partially holding back on the militia/warband/Freikorps elements, for in particular the neo-fascist ones turned out to be troublesome. The Ukraine for sure doesn't wage any kind of total war in its own defence, it's strange, they appear to wait for some unforseeable foreign policy luck to save the day.

    2. I agree with the seperation. One of the key disadvantages of the (Austrian) Miliz compared to the full-time members of the regular Army was the lack of said full-time lobbyists. In short the whole structure must be set up to protect the weaker service from the regular arm.

      I pretty much agree on your take on Ukraine's efforts.

      P.S: BTW wasn't it ironic that Renzi chose the likely biggest waste of capital to host Merkel and Hollande? The ship which was overtly designed as helicopter carrier against the mighty Soviet mediterranean submarine fleet but likely with the covert intent to finally get that own (jet) air arm so desired since WWII. It only got the first Italian jets after four years of service and it took some more to make it fully operational.

      Of course to defend it's hard-won price the Navy had to get a new carrier in time, cost it the taxpayer what it may...

      Nota bene that this new carrier started as a 13000 ton 'amphibious unit':

      "Nel 1995 si decise di optare per un'unità anfibia di 13 000 tonnellate, ma successivamente si passò ad una nuova unità anfibia maggiore, in grado di imbarcare 4 AV-8B e 6/8 EH-101; alla fine si passò al progetto 163/168 a favore di una nuova nave da più di 27 000 tonnellate di dislocamento a pieno carico, ossia la Cavour, poi consegnata alla Marina italiana nella primavera del 2008[9].

      Altre ulteriori modifiche fatte nel 2008 renderanno il tonnellaggio massimo della nave vicino alle 30 000 tonnellate in caso d'imbarco di mezzi militari di massimo peso per operazioni aeronavali di supporto ad eventuali sbarchi."

      Talk about a IMHO intentional 'mission creep'. And the most recent amphiobious units are of course celebrated as saving the 'cantiere'/shipyard of Fincantieri...


  4. With regards to Ukraine and their war effort: I think they're aware that the war is not hugely popular. The "protivo-Moskali" anti-Russian attitudes are only held by a minority of the population and of their military-age males it seems a large number have already been killed. Fatalism is a pretty dominant trend in Slavic cultures and with the war simmering away but not presenting an existential threat, it makes total sense from their side of the table to wait until a time when the West will come to Glorious Galicia's rescue. This seems to restrict the ability of the Ukrainian state to mobilize completely.

    S O, I think that they're holding back on the volunteer units because properly restructuring their army took priority, those units suffered heavy losses already, and especially because the neonazi ones were building their own OUN-legacy identity that is hugely problematic to the Ukrainian state by actively destroying any remnants of its "good guy" identity and making Russian propaganda a reality. In the last few months, I've met a great many Ukrainians who are seeking shelter here in Canada, actively trying to avoid conscription in Ukraine and avoid the simmering conflict. There's a large Ukrainian population base here already for them to integrate with.

  5. I think the problems that prevent flexible and balanced force structure are money (can't afford tanks/aircraft/SPHs), current hard/software (few dismounts, stiff artillery system), wanton to create and man all services. Small countries with little money have to select infantry as the main arm and build supporting arms accordingly. Little more money (Sweden, Norway) allows picking armor as the main arm. After that there's a big leap to have other arms in main role. Size of the armed forces is small in the before mentioned countries which contributes to selecting armor. Each country has their own threat picture which guides the selection of the main arm. For biggest countries even branches can switch main arms depending on situation (USMC).

    I think that even small countries can be on par with bigger countries locally balance vise. Terrain, goals and enemy determine which will be the main arm and little countries can focus on diminishing adversaries chosen main arms ability to wage war in peace time with training and procuring approriate equipment be it artillery radars, AA missiles etc.

    1. This isn't really about budget limitations. Dozens of countries could master all three - infantry, armour and artillery - as main arm options in their tactical repertoire, but don't.

      Germany, for example, neglects artillery active strength and stockpiling.
      Some NATO armies seemingly cannot generate high tempo mobile warfare, regardless of what tanks or substitutes they make use of.

    2. True when you put it that way. Budget limits the number of uses for more expensive arms. Finnish wartime strenght consist of roughly two mechanised combined arms brigades and "tens" of battlegroups made of INFBAT and ARTYBAT. Artillery, armor and infantry can be chosen only at some specific points where as artillery and infantry will be only options elsewhere. At a army/branch level all three can be mastered but the truth on the battlefield is a harsh one. The armored force size of about two brigades will be worn out in less than a week in intensive battles.The life of a panzerjäger is a short and violent one.

      I guess it depends on what you want and whats "hip" and trendy.