The support group fractal (I)


(Warning; full military theory/organisation nerd-wonkery ahead. I didn't even attempt to make it more readable with lots of symbol pictures. Either the topic fascinates you or it's just a boring wall of text.)

Fractals are never-ending patterns, the discovery of mathematical algorithms to create such images led to many psychedelic room decoration posters.

Mandel zoom 00 mandelbrot set

I'm going to propose a fractal for the organisation of ground forces in action; a recurring theme for tables of organisation and equipment, with almost clone-like similarity of reasoning at all levels.

First the basics, though.

Armies usually organise with a certain preferred span of command; one leader (and this HQ) is responsible for usually three, sometimes, two, four and rarely five subordinate manoeuvre units/formations. A typical pattern in German 20th century history was to have one leader commanding three manoeuvre units/formations and one heavier armed unit/formation. The heavier weapons component was typically mortars and heavy (tripod) machineguns for a heavy weapons company at battalion level, whereas the artillery regiment at divisional level had howitzers and maybe cannons. This division was in part about mobility; 120 mm mortars are not supposed to change position every time an infantry company proceeds from one village to the next. Heavy machineguns were often parcelled out to reinforce defensive positions, and sometimes such HMG units were tasked to defend a frontline section or area of their own, where a static defence was deemed to be promising. Artillery regiments were able to move their fires relatively quickly, and thus often considered to be the divisional commander's main effort weapon. 

There were quite a few proposals to deviate from such conventional patterns; an interesting one came from Uhle-Wettler, who proposed to give the commanding officer of a battalion a Verfügungszug. You could expect 3 x 3 infantry platoons in a triangular infantry battalion (3 companies, each 3 platoons). The Verfügungszug would have been a 10th infantry platoon under direct control of the battalion leader without any company command in between. There are many ways how such a 10th platoon could be used and misused, and the key here is to trust the Battalion leader to use it well. The concept is reminiscent of the personal bodyguards of elite soldiers used by commanders from antiquity till the medieval age.

I don't intend to enter the discussion about the optimal span of command / span of control (this time). My interest is now rather on the non-manoeuvre component.

Let's begin at the lowest level for this, the infantry platoon. There are many specialist tasks and equipments that might make sense in such a platoon, but not in its squads/sections:

  • platoon leader (junior officer) 
  • senior non-commissioned officer of the platoon (with platoon leader for advice)
  • combat medic with dedicated combat medic backpack
  • signaller with longest-range (backpack) radio tech in the platoon
  • anti-material rifle user (counter sniper / penetrating single shots marksman)
  • portable infantry gun user (think M4 Carl Gustaf)
  • commando mortar user (for IR Illum, multispectral smoke)
  • munition porter(s)
  • demolition engineer (with enough demolition equipment to blow up a small bridge or block a few roads quickly)
  • ESM specialist (radio and radar detection, direction finding, interception) with ~15 kg ESM backpack
  • ECM specialist (fuse, drone and comms jamming) with ~15 kg ECM backpack
  • ManPADS user
  • ATGM team(s)
  • CBRN specialist with portable CBRN detection sensors
  • joint fire support control specialist with tripod-mounted forward observer sensor

That's more than a squad/section in its own right, and some people would even add tripod machinegun teams to such a list.

There's not much of a case for an equivalent at the company level unless we take into account reality; no army combines all the bullet points above into the platoon level. So some (particularly the last couple bullet points) could instead be in a company-level support small unit.

The battalion level offers more 'opportunities' for combat support: a military intelligence team to make sense of the ESM readings and other reports as well as to coordinate radio usage and ECM, civilian interaction specialists, messengers, radio relay operators, air defence warning sensors and coordination, indirect fire support (such as with 120 mm mortars), fibre-optic guided missiles against helicopters and high value targets on the ground, various portable-sized flying drones, a sniper platoon, more medics, supply platoon for water and munitions, recovery vehicles and more.

Next, the brigade level offers more opportunities for a support group, and this is where I will lay out my 'philosophy' behind it a bit:

Think of umbrellas span up by the support group. The umbrella covers the area in a certain radius with its support. This radius depends a bit on circumstances, but also on technical limits. An area air defence umbrella would have a radius determined by the kinetics of its missiles (or line of sight by lasers) and the target speed, altitude and evasive abilities, for example. An ESM or ECM umbrella would in part be dependent on how good the vantage points are. Other support is not so much limited in radius, some examples would be taking over and handling prisoners of war, providing medical support and providing military intelligence support, HQ 'services'.

The support groups of all levels of organisation should have a 'support umbrella span' (effective support radius) that fits best to their level. A brigade does not need a commando mortar company, and an infantry platoon needs no area air defence battery.

I prefer to skip the divisional level, thus the next support group of interest is the corps-level support group. This would have its own level-typical support abilities, and this can include missiles (air defence and fixed ground target destruction) for hundreds of kilometres range, a long range scout regiment, an army rotary aviation regiment, an armoured reconnaissance / light cavalry / mounted raiders regiment, two logistics hubs and units that take over supplies from civilian logistics vehicles at said logistics hubs to move them forward to brigade drop-off points using military 8x8 vehicles.

The corps support group would be different in one way from the lower level support groups; the lower level ones would often hug one of the manoeuvre groups of its own level for security. The corps-level support group would instead be in a secured 'rear' area (behind a river, for example) where exhausted manoeuvre and scouting forces would rotate into to get some rest (12 hrs of sleep + maintenance/repairs and assimilating reservists and late-coming personnel to fill gaps).

This 'fractal' can be repeated in other kinds of units and formations, such as tank battalions, independent artillery regiments and so on. A particular advantage of the separation between manoeuvre elements and support elements as described might be lost in some instances, though: The manoeuvre elements become more handy, agile, stealthy when we cut off some support to make them smaller. The manoeuvre element commanding officers would not be burdened with security for and maintaining mobility of support elements. Sure, a battalion battlegroup commander would still have to care about his support group company, but the manoeuvre composite company leaders wouldn't be encumbered like this.

Let's look at the difference between parcelling out two 120 mm mortars (self propelled) to each manoeuvre composite company of a battalion battlegroup and keeping all 120 mm mortars in a separate support composite company:

The mortars with the manoeuvre forces (say, a tank platoon and an infantry platoon) would have more reliable radio links to the company leader, the munitions would fly for a few seconds less, a little less auxiliary charges would be needed and dispersion would be smaller. The advantages of keeping them in a support composite company would be most of all better security (less stressful for the crews), ability to shoot when the composite manoeuvre company is on the move and most importantly of all; the manoeuvre composite company leader doesn't need to think about them. There's no 120 mm SP vehicle stuck in a ditch that needs recovery. 120 mm munitions are no concern. The company convoy is much shorter. Different offroad abilities of the 120 mm SP vehicles wouldn't matter. He needs not be concerned with how to hide the SP mortars while still letting them have a useful field of fire. The company becomes less easily visible and audible. The shots and radio comms of the mortar teams don't attract artillery fires onto the company. It's a lot less of a mess for a leader who can now focus on the line of sight concerns and call on support without being concerned with most downsides of support.

Other support assets should be on their level and not distributed to a lower level simply because their support service is rather relevant in context to the area of operations rather than the organisational elements. Reconnaissance and surveillance should be a corps-wide activity, with manoeuvre forces merely doing security (pickets for bivouac, vanguard/rearguard/flank security on the move).

Last but not least I'd like to emphasize that this was (as mentioned) about the organisation of land forces in action; optimal administrative and training organisations are different and may indeed change over time depending on the peacetime activity.

The described fractal describes a common pattern, a theme for how to provide level-suitable support without unduly burdening manoeuvre elements of the same level. I consider this highly advisable to reach the levels of agility, stealth and bearable burden on manoeuvre element leadership that are necessary to cope with the modern high end conventional warfare environment.







*: Some of these things are present in sections of certain armies. These details are peripheral to the real message here, and I insist anyway.


P.S.: In case you have questions or doubt the relevance of this; blog posts are scheduled for up to August 21 that build on this text, and the relevance of the concept will become visible.



  1. Off topic, it would be nice if you could analyze the retreat from Afghanistan. I just read a report that of the 500 people on base the weapons of 300 were sent home before their owners followed and the remaining equipment wasn't handed over to Afghan military and police, but looted as the Germans left. Does this mean there's a deeper management problem?

    1. The Taleban collapsed in 2001 not because of bombs but because of a cascade of desertions, local groups changing sides. The expectation was that at the very least the foreigners would take over the cities and the ring road like the Soviets did.
      This is very likely what's happening now. The previously West-supported central government (basically the non-Pashtu factions) is likely collapsing without giving much of a fight because local allegiances switch again. Their troops were motivated by the foreign money, not by patriotism, faith or ideology.

      This local allegiance thing is the whole reason for all thatr lieutenant-level diplomacy that was done for decades with the elders of villages and such. The foreigners were trying to have such local factions on their side, and this effort has ended with obvious consequences.

      Those few anti-Taleban forces that won't collapse (basically some narco warlord armies) will probably withdraw to some defensible section (IIRC they held a Northeastern valley by 2001) or to neighbouring countries other than Pakistan.

      The mobile Taleban troops are very, very few compared to the astonishingly large population, but the very much armed population doesn't fight for its freedom from pseudo-theocrats, so they will lose it.

    2. Why does the population accept these theocrats? Is it because of the drug money?
      Do Turkey and Iran (Hazara) stand a chance to prop up at least parts of the government regions?
      This was little about the specifics of the organization of the German withdrawal.

    3. The insurgency in Iraq was fuelled by Sunni Arab demographic feeling oppressed by the Shia majority. The democratic constitution that was kind of imported enshrined Shia dominance over Sunni Arabs without incentive to be nice.

      The situation is similar in Afghanistan; the Taleban are representing the Pashto demographic and rural Pashto customs more than religion. Yet the ~42% Pashto -and especially the rural ones- expect to dominate the country as biggest ethnic group, not to be dominated. The West did bet on the non-Pashto "Northern alliance" at first, and Pashto collaborators/crooks. Now Afghanistan is returning to the 'natural' dominance by its biggest ethnic group, and sadly, their main political (and military) representation isn't exactly liberty- or progress-minded.

      Iran only cares about the Shia minority in the border region and was able to mostly get along with TB, so they don't need to put up much effort to achieve what little they want.

      Turkey's current government would probably rather side with the TB than with the anti-TB. Their "fighting" against daesh in Syria was already a sham. Their pasha may want to play great power, but I don't see how they could have any major impact.

  2. About the topic: if you have support units in dedicated seperate units for them own, the problem is in many cases that they can not support the combat companies because they loose the contact with them. Also it is to often to much eggs in one basket which makes them a very nice target for the enemy. And moreover such units also slow down the other units, these are only more mobile on an tactical level but not overall. In the long term the perseverance of such a divided unit structure can lower and an rucksack mentality in which the units carries all what is needed can be more advantagous - also against frictions. Such units are more persistent.

    To increase the tactical mobility then the main target should be to reduce support troops through an intelligent use, novel composition and the use of different systems and new structures and doctrine. The standardization and consolidation of skills can drastically reduce the need for support units.

    Lets take the mentioned 120mm Mortars. Theoretically: if i make them the main combat system of the combat company, in form of an tank-mortar which can also fight against enemy MBT and fire directly on enemy targets the 120mm are not longer an support unit, so the amount of support units will be smaller (this is only an theoretical example and not an statement that tank-mortars are an solution). Or lets take Anti Tank Missiles and Air-Defence Missiles. If you can fight against tanks on the ground and against air-targets with one and the same system - then you spare support troops overall. Or lets take artillery, which can also be used against air targets, again the summary of skills makes it possible to save support units. This is true to the smallest level: if you use an commando-mortar in an infantry group instead of an 40mm grenade launcher, then you do not need an extra support group with commando mortars.

    the more you can standardize and summarize and the more you can reduce the number of systems, the more the number of support units also decreases. Therefore, everything should serve as many purposes as possible at the same time.

    Likewise, the number of support units decreases if you rely on technically simpler, simpler and therefore less complex systems. In many areas we have too extensive over-technology, which makes the support units an end in themselves. They no longer support the struggle, instead they tie up far too many forces and become the majority in an army. Especially when you pull them out of combat units and combine them into their own units, such support units develop a life of their own, with a tendency towards an end in themselves and self-enlargement. The armed forces base in the Bundeswehr is a very good example of this.

    1. Well, on levels above battalion the support group would de facto be accompanied by a manoeuvre group and thus receive security assistance by it.

      To rid the manoeuvre forces of the additional bulk and slowness of the support forces is 90% of the reasoning here. Some support forces are even better when not with manoeuvre forces, such as support forces that have long setup/decamp times as medical support or area air defence. Artillery is best when fired from a certain distance. Some MRLs have a minimum range of about 2 km, and SPGs have a MRSI capability only within a certain range window (17 km is a fine spot for PzH 2000 IIRC). Certain emitters are better not with maneouvre forces because they'd give away their location.

      Versatility can reduce the dependence on support forces only to some degree. Versatility helps with support forces outside of the support umbrella, of course. I'll later discuss raider forces in August, those could very well make good use of triple use (duel, AAA, SPG) main guns on their vehicles. Some missiles can double against ground vehicles and helicopters (fibre optic guided missiles, loitering kamikaze drones), but a dual ground combat and air defence vehicle won't get beyond ShoRAD ranges without being a silly contraption.

      The Bundeswehr has severe issues, but too much combat support is not amongst those. We have silly air-mobile forces without a sensible mission, a ridiculously oversized medical branch, too much useless army aviation, useless special forces, too much administration. In short; many combat battalions are of totally wrong kinds, too much gold-plating, too much what used to be called "combat service support" in DOD speak.

    2. In my opinion, the most important thing is to give up the previous structural extrapolation and to adopt new perspectives, i.e. a new point of view.

      Take the artillery, for example. If one understands this as a support unit, then the question arises of how to set it up at which level and how it relates to the combat troops it supports. But you could just as well classify the artillery as a combat force and understand, deploy and structure corresponding artillery brigades as maneuver elements. Already decades ago Simpkins presented such concepts in detail, in which independent artillery brigades no longer act as support, but are themselves the primary bearer of the fight. Correspondingly, such brigades would also have organic mechanized infantry as part of their structure.

      This basic principle can also be expanded in other ways and the more you expand it, the more you can drastically reduce the number of support units by reallocating units and using them in a new, different way. Keeping skills available organically within maneuvering units is not necessarily slowing down in every case.

      Maneuvering units are not automatically sluggish and more difficult to lead just because they contain support units, the question is more what kind of support units and how they are incorporated into the maneuvering units. Then there is the question of the management culture and how the management handles these support units within the maneuver units.

      If you significantly reduce support units per se and move the remaining ones correctly into the respective maneuver units, then these do not represent any significant hindrance for them, but offer the possibility of organically tapping their capabilities within the unit. In modern war it is becoming more and more difficult to get skills from a completely different association and to call them up from there. The low number of troops in the room, the problems with communication (EloKa) and frictions will make it more and more difficult to call in separate support units. Therefore it is better to have as much as possible within the unit itself (backpack).

    3. The dedicated artillery formations won't be attempted again anytime soon.
      The German artillery divisions of WW2 (which had some infantry for their security) were misused and were disasters.

      Such formations don't fit well into a low force density battlefield. They work fine if you have a somewhat stable front-line. Greece could have an artillery brigade in its Northeast where a land conflict with Turkey (hundreds of thousands of mobilized troops) would be compressed on a 20 km front.

      July 24th and August 21st posts may be relevant to your interests.