The mechanisms of delaying actions (I)

I mentioned a couple times on this blog (and elsewhere even more often) that I place a great emphasis on delaying actions in conventional warfare. The central reason is my opinion that battles should be won before they're being fought; the shaping of circumstances (the battlefield) prior to a battle between (temporarily) massed formations should predetermine the outcome. To not do so means to accept avoidable risk and avoidable losses (or to have failed to hone the battlefield-shaping abilities in peacetime).
It should be obvious that such shaping ops take some time before they achieve much effect. Efforts to cut off opposing forces from supply may take three days till there's much effect, for example. Efforts to tire out opposing forces' personnel requires to delay the battle for more than the four days that troops can go with "go pills" and little sleep until they become apathetic. As a rule of thumb you should expect anything from two days to three weeks (~the aerial bombardment that preceded the liberation of Kuwait).

The opposing forces' headquarters would notice if the shaping ops built up advantages for our side and would decide to seek battle quick. It might even be led by some Suvorov fan and rush with great haste, relying on pre-campaign preparations instead of shaping ops.

Either way, one would need to buy time for shaping ops to take effect. The tactics for this are deception and delaying actions (outright withdrawal only works if one has much area to give up).

A delaying operation trades land for time and tries to inflict losses. Ambushes and limited localised counterattacks are the typical tactical actions within a delaying operation.*

Sadly, even after years of studying the matter by reading literature including field manuals I'm still dissatisfied with my knowledge about delaying ops. So either the state of the art is unsatisfactory or  I missed something or I judge my knowledge incorrectly. Anyway; below is some of what I figured out:

How does a delaying operation buy time?
It relies on the opposing forces' fears and punishes first and foremost fearlessness!

One mechanism of delaying actions is that advancing opposing forces are motivated to maintain a security effort. To move with security elements on the left flank, right flank and a vanguard is noticeably slower than to simply drive forward in a convoy. The threat of ambushes and flanking counterattacks forces them to maintain such a security effort. The security effort in itself weakens the tip (an advance guard is usually small, typically one organisational level smaller than the main force - such as company-sized vanguard for a battalion battlegroup) and makes ambushes against it easier, which forces the vanguard to be more careful, which in turn slows it down. Entire battles were lost in military history  because powerful forces that had no proper security effort arrived too late after deploying against probing or even phantom flank attacks.

A second, very simple, mechanism is to force the advancing party to avoid the best routes. Harassing artillery fires on roads can achieve this, for example.

Yet another mechanism is to create obstacles (cratered road at bottlenecks, minefields, fake minefields, flooded areas, barricades (easily removed by MBTs, not so easily removed by autocannon-armed scout vehicles) and even crowds of civilians.

Another mechanism has its roots in the fact that battle-ready forces are typically slower than forces ready for an administrative march. This is not true on steppes and in deserts, but it's true in most more movement-restricting terrains. Ambush positions or nearby defenders force the advancing opposing forces to deploy for battle. They leave the road and instead of driving forward at 60-90 kph they go offroad, avoid the shortest route, wait till other elements report readiness and they may even probe, plan, disseminate orders, prepare ... and by the time they're ready to push forward against the delaying defenders the defenders are gone.

Delaying forces need at least two groups in most doctrines; one group is actively delaying, the other one gets ready to delay farther back. The forward delaying group withdraws before it becomes engaged in decisive combat, goes past the other group in a prepared fashion (no friendly fire if possible). Now the already prepared second group delays, while the other has enough time to find the next opportunity for a good ambush or counterattack threat.

Delaying forces can thus delay even - if not especially - when their ambush or counterattack preparations were detected by the advancing opposing forces. They just need to avoid getting engaged decisively - which includes that they should not be caught by accurate artillery fires.

A good tactic against delaying actions is to advance along several axes of advance. This may allow flanking actions against the delaying force, but the proper answer is to maintain parallel delaying action efforts - one on every axis of approach. Still, this parallel advance devalues some ambushes and counterattack threats, for a delaying force that delays better than its left and right neighbour forces would need to fall back due to the threat to its flanks.

A most interesting twist to delaying actions is that you do not necessarily have to follow the classic retrograde leap-frogging that I mentioned above.** You might also delay by get behind the advancing opposing force instead of falling back. Stay-behind forces could even achieve this without moving. To get behind opposing forces may compel them to turn and secure their 'rear' support services and supply lines first.*** This may even be an utter necessity if for example a pontoon bridge is threatened and the advancing force risks stranding on the far side of a major river.

Delaying actions done right can blunt the opposing forces' advance. Ambushes can take out some combat vehicles, but also some mobility enhancers such as bridgelayers and mineclearing vehicles. Counterattacks may be aimed at air defence vehicles (this may force them to prioritise survival against air threats, which may greatly affect how they move).

A few days (or even only hours) of delaying actions are extremely likely to reduce the dedicated scouting units and small units of the advancing force so much that regular combat units and small units need to be employed as scouts.

Opposing forces may even be 'trained' to become slower by punishing quick movements. Their scouts passed through a village and reported it to be vacated? Have some forces hide into buildings of another village. These forces can then wreak some havoc on a passing support unit, and those hasty scouts may then get orders to search villages more thoroughly.

The more the advancing force disperses to counter the risk of ambushes (and air/artillery attacks) the less it will be able to resist local counterattacks and break through temporary defensive 'lines'.

Part II: Much later.****


*: I generally use the three levels of warfare that are strategic level, operational level and tactical level. "delaying operations" sounds like operational level and that sentence up there makes it sound so even more, but delaying ops belong to the tactical level, just as counterattacks and ambushes. 
**: I wrote about this before, but didn't find where. It's not a new thing.
***: This happened in 2003 OIF when some leave-behind Iraqi forces actually attacked support units and disproportionately more effective combat forces were afterwards tasked to secure this axis of advance way behind the tip.
****: This blog post had already more to say about delaying actions than many tactics field manuals that feature a chapter on retrograde actions.


  1. Field Marshal Slim wrote about how, in jungle fighting in Burma, the most reliable way to halt a division's advance was to infiltrate an infantry battalion into their rear area and set up road blocks along their main supply routes. This was especially effective as the jungle made infiltration easy, while restricting supply vehicles to a handful of roads.

    1. The same in the korean war in which north korean and later chinese light infantry moved around us forces through difficult terrain. There are good examples for this in the book of Franz Uhle-Wettler (Gefahr der Übertechnisierung von Streitkräften)

      But i think Sven overestimates delaying because it fits so perfecly into his defensive agenda and overall doctrine to fight wars only for defence.

      You cannot invade other countries and beat the enemy desicivly if you are mainly delaying his forces. You can also shape decisive battles before they happen in other ways, even from offering the enemy opportunities through your own actions which then make the enemy reaction to your offensive actions more predictable. Often the more you risk the more you can win in an decisive offensive.

      So the overemphasis of low risk defensive operations of sven is in my opinion more a result of his political doctrine and his political beliefs (which are good and fine and moreover consistently with the spirit of the german constitution). But one can think also completly different and the come from a different political doctrine to completly different ideas about how to wage war.

      In the end the most important part is in my opinion to shorten the war as much as possible. So everything that makes the fighting longer is to avoid and delaying do exact this, it makes the fighting longer. The longer the fights going, the more opportunities for frictions, the higher the costs (for both sides), the bigger the devestation and moreover we cannot sustain a full war today for longer periods and cannot replace all the necessary weapon systems so fast as it would be necessary and losses of such systems will occur even if we are very succesful. Every kind of serious attrition warfare is therefore not bearable today but that is exactly to which delaying actions often leads.

      Therefore a short and decisive war can only be fought with an extreme aggressive offensive action, decisive battles as early and as fast as possible and with very restricted (political) aims which must be clear from the beginging even to the enemy so that you can end the war as fast as possible.

      To achieve this restricted aims (in an restricted and short war) you cannot waste time but you should overrun the enemy (within your restricted aims) as aggressive and as offensive as possible. You should even destroy as much as possible in the first hours/days of the war and fight as many offensive (and if achievable decisive) battles as possible as fast as possible. For this you need numericaly strong forces with a high readiness. This also forces the enemy to counter this and waste therefore moeny and efforts so the stronger more advanced economy will with time become superior and therefore save because it cannot be attacked any more.

    2. Actually, it could be used BETTER on the offensive than on the defence. Keep in mind my overall idea is one of skirmishing at several hundred km depth, with more stealth and less density and less combat against combat troops the farther forward the skirmishers are.

      So on the offence you can send the skrimishers forwrd, they affect the OPFOR ground combat formations till they are ripe for a crushing pincer attack by blue combat formations with 2:1 superiority. There's no reason why a strategic defender should not go on teht actical offence when facing such prospects, which means delaying actions buy the time for shaping the battlefield / making OPFOR forces ripe for a crushing blow.

      The entire concept is unsuitable rather in cases such as defence of Singapore or Taiwan where you don't have much area to work with.

      Regarding short or long war; keep in mind a vastly superior attacker might want to act as did the coalition in 1991; soften up for weeks. A strategic defender (say, NATO in case of Baltic invasion) on the other hand would need weeks if not months to assemble a superior force and should avoid decisive defeat of the forces in contact during this time.

      Imagine Russia invades the Baltics and 6x6 mobile armoured recce-like companies raid the international airports of St. Petersburg and Moscow, burning up dozens of large aircraft and the kerosene tanks. Russia would be compelled to secure its rear area instead of pushing all reserves to the 'front', which may very well help to shorten the conflict by weeks becuase NATO would achieve 2:1 or 3:1 superiority at the 'front' much earlier.

    3. If you regard deep combat reconaissance as an delaying action, i then agree completly that this is very useful and should be done. It fits perfectly to my ideas about a short and extreme aggressive / offensive style of warfare with the target of decisive results as early as possible.

      But the problem that the build up of a superior force (which is necessary for a early decisive battle) needs time (which contradicts the very idea of a early decisive battle) leads me exactly to the conclusion that we need a much higher readiness, higher mobility and also numerically stronger forces.

      Moreover what i wrote about higher risk is the main point here in my doctrine/ideas about warfare. We are too much opposed to risks today. You often do not need such a superior build up to start battles, but to the contrary. The 1991 experience shows clearly how to loose time, to waste efforts and to achieve much less than possible because the us leadership was to risk-averse.

      To soften up the enemy for weeks with air-power and so on is exactly the wrong thing and could even lead to a defeat because simple we cannot endure a protracted war. The ammunitions, spare parts and also the weapon systems and the living fighting power would run low very fast. The lybian war against gaddafi and also the israelis experience against hisbollah in libanon shows this very clearly and this were third grade enemies with nearly no serious capacities.

      In peer warfare we cannot afford a protracted war because todays weapon systems and even the necessary ammunitons are to complex, to slow to build and to expensive and our societies are also to complex and to sensitive for the damages of warfare in every aspect from culture to industry or energy.

      A attacker should therefore not wait and waste time for softening up the enemy and to build up forces. He should attack and should also not view himself as a stratetic defender but should go on the strategic offence as soon as possible. Only with that we can use the time slot that will close very fast in peer warfare. Otherwise in a protracted war the side with the more cost efficient systems, the bigger reserves and the better living fighting power will come out on top (which will be the russians in the baltic scenario).

      The fact that the nato would need weeks or months to assemble forces is the problem within and one main reason for this is the mixture of forces of different countries. Instead germany should take over responsibility and build up a high readiness force which is then able to attack decisivly as soon as possible.

      Without superior forces the risk would be higher, but the more we can win in a shorter time. So we should accept a much higher risk to enable early offensive actions.

      Offensive delaying in form of armed deep reconaissance and raiding would fit perfectly for this doctrine. Therefore i stronly recommend raiding forces and a attack as earyl and as deep into the enemy territory as possible. Which would also reduce the risk of the use of wmd against our troops because they would stand deep in the enemy civilian population.

      Defensive delaying with the target of Schlagen aus der Nachhand and for assembling superior forces to the opposite could lead to our defeat because we cannot endure serious war very long and we cannot endure a protracted war at all. Our western european societies lack the requirements for this.

  2. Taking out assets that enable maneuver and stopping the advance guard as often as possible works well. Minefields can't be dense and roads should be mined from a long way. Say 20 mines per km with fallen trees on top. Labour intensive yes but effective. Attacks shouldn't be aimed at main body but the weaker guards. After some time the guards could be weak enough to be destroyed by determined defender by means of ambush and motti tactics. Also deploying mines in areas where the guard has gone through by stay behind forces stirrs mine fear and slows down even more.

  3. Low force densitys will frequently result in platoons operating semi-independently in many instances. Thats where your theory of 'strong delaying actions' has to take effect. Independent, aggressive action by isolated platoons requires well trained 2nd lieutenants. Do you imagine there are an abundance of those in the US, british, or german armys? Its wishful thinking.

    1. It takes well-trained 2nd Lts and well-trained senior platoon NCOs and high morale and motivation.

      The German Jägertruppe actually (pretends to) emphasise this way of platoon-centric infantry combat, "Jagdkampf". There are even Jagdkampf-specific courses.
      The Jagdkampf doctrine in the field manuals is based on some poor assumptions that don't fit together, though.

      For example, which Bn CO would detach one of his better platoon leaders for a Jagdkampf stay-behind or even infiltration mission while the army is short on infantry without detaching any to guerilla-like activities? It would rather not happen.
      Unintentional stay-behind forces on the other hand would lack the doctrinal reinforcement by engineers for demolition tasks, the needed supplies and likely also the necessary high morale.

  4. What are the most important combat skills of a 2nd Lt? Organising pickets, leading raids and patrols, that sort of thing? These really aren't being prioritized in officer training. Look at the BOLC courses...

    How do YOU personally distinguish good officer training from the bad? How does one make a competent 2nd Lt in this day and age?

    1. An officer leading an infantry or mechanised platoon should be looking outward and make the major decisions. He should focus on superior's intent, cooperation with nearby friendly forces, calling support, arrange for supply, making manoeuvre choices, keeping situational awareness about threats and opportunities.

      The platoon NCO should be the inward-looking leader who makes sure that the training goals are achieved, morale is high, supply needs known, supplies distributed, enforce sleep schedule etc.

      The techniques of leadership aren't exactly a strong point of mine, but a 2nd Lt/SenNCO team that's a good team can adapt to different mission profiles by some studying, discussing and a few days or weeks of training.