An alternative "mass" or "Schwerpunkt" paradigm


Linear warfare with about equal strength along a front has proved inferior to an unequal distribution of forces with offensive use of the strongest section, an early notable example being the Battle of Leuctra with its oblique order and another Alexander the Great's use of shock cavalry attacks. The principle has long since become enshrined in Western military thought and theory, famously by Frederick the Great and Carl von Clausewitz.


We had a great drive towards dispersion in order to maintain enough survivability in face of the rapidly escalating deadliness of firepower. Concentrated strength -mass- could prevail against high end firepower only under cover of such powerful support that not one army in the world could muster. No army has the combination of air defence, electronic warfare, artillery counterfires and even C-RAM hard kill defences to mass for long without being punished badly by fires of a high end opposing force.


The almost inevitable rise of various autonomous battlefield drones (ground/air/both, small bird size to a ton of weight) could replace the most obvious and most common expression of mass; a tank company or battalion fighting as one and overpowering opposition in line-of-sight combat.

The principle may still hold true; equal distribution of drone swarms may very well be inferior to massed efforts, though EMP area attacks (and to a lesser degree locally focused RF jamming) might prove to be an antidote to force concentrations the way that tactical nuclear warheads were to armies of soldiers and motor vehicles.

There is another possible paradigm for mass, and I will write about it, but first, let's assume a scenario for drone war:

The drones are of varying sizes and different specialisations, autonomous but also able to make use of radio links, most drones are very stealthy, they can recharge batteries in action (photovoltaic or by processing organic matter) and some may even be able to hide in underground or indoors.

The drones operate as swarms, which includes enough cooperation and mobility to apply pulsing attacks; movement for temporary concentrations for saturation attacks.

These temporary geographic concentrations wouldn't really the mainstay of "massing" and "Schwerpunkt", though. Instead, the temporary local superiority would be achieved by an unsustainably high degree of support effort. This includes especially electronic warfare. I wrote about this ages ago, and I stills tick to it; support assets are too much exposed to attrition risks if used constantly. Instead, we should use them when and where they matter most (or to pick low-hanging fruits, which is a rather attritionist approach).

So imagine drone swarms facing each other, but due to some dynamics that favour defence (such as stealthiness of stationary drones) it's ineffective to try to let them be aggressive on a wide front simultaneously (unless you're superior to a point that makes finesse superfluous). Even physical massing of drones per se does not yield much success (regarding losses ratio) for such reasons and because of quick counter-concentration. 

Now imagine that our party has the electronic warfare means to gain a significant temporary local advantage (such as our drones still have limited cooperation through radio links, but theirs have jammed links). A local breakthrough would become possible, and the opposing force would have to react to this local crisis with rapid reserves, akin to Blitzkrieg front-line penetrations by mechanised forces requiring counterattacks by similarly fast troops.

The support assets for temporary local superiority would be very mobile and sufficiently stealthy on the cruise to enable a quick breakthrough or attack with limited objectives elsewhere, rinse and repeat. 

But it wouldn't be the physical mass or quantity of drones at the Schwerpunkt that would matter the most; it would be the activation of an unsustainable level of support. A temporary, unsustainable exhausting use of battery power of ten thousands of drones for a joint effort could also qualify as such a Schwerpunkt effort, in place of (EW) support.


In the end, massing forces such as a super-deep Theban pikeman/hoplite phalanx was only serving the purpose of achieving temporary local superiority on the attack. We don't really need a physical concentration to achieve this. A hoplite army could also have had an oblique order if it had placed exceptionally strong and well-armoured hoplites on one wing (they kinda did this on one wing each, which gave an indecisive asymmetric obliqueness- just imagine that but one side did it).

Great strength of great offensive efforts along a whole front are unsustainable or impossible, so the classic Schwerpunkt recipe is to accept weakness in many places, but mass in one place for offensive access through local temporary superiority. There are other ways how an effort can be unsustainable or impossible than just area density of forces. Notably, support efforts, exhausting of supplies (or battery power) would qualify as well.

So essentially I'm trying to convince you that the "mass" and "Schwerpunkt" ideas can be thought more widely. "massing" could also be interpreted as an unsustainable effort that enables offensive success.




P.S.: This goes way beyond the 'massing of fires' (without moving troops), which had become ordinary military theory by WWI. The divisional artillery has been the division commander's primary Schwerpunkt tool at that time, later augmented by the specialised anti-tank units that created a geographic AT concentration if needed. 

Consider this model to see why what I wrote goes beyond massing of fires: Three howitzers defend three parallel valleys, one each. The outer valley's howitzers can mass the fires into the central valley. That's massing of fires. Now what I'm talking about is more akin to each of these howitzers being allotted 50 rounds per ordinary day, with a local reserve of 100 rounds. And any one such howitzer would be authorised to suddenly expend 150 rds in one day, exhausting its supply (=its support's ability). No fires from the other valleys would be needed for this unsustainable effort. It's not the same concept as massing of fires.

This model shows how awfully trivial the thought actually is. As so often, what I write isn't all that terribly complicated. The question is rather whether anyone ever bothered to write it down. I would have mentioned it if I was aware of anyone having done so.



  1. The development of directed energy weapons seems to go towards a weapon with a range of 1-2km which could be useful as a point defence. Could a number of such directed energy weapons shield a concentration of troops and vehicles from most enemy effects? Then you would have a more old fashioned "Schwerpunkt".

    1. The targeting is a major issue. Drive with your car through a landscape. Every time you pass a bush, a building, a tree, side rail within 20 m you know that some small autonomous drone would have gotten through to your gold plated laser tank and at the very least damaged some expensive soft equipment on the outside such as sensors.

      The #1 novelty that drones can bring to the battlefield is small size. I keep seeing that people don't try to anticipate what it means if your enemy can hide anywhere, and use almost any microterrain feature for concealed movement.

    2. Decreasing size limits the energy for sensors, computation and communication capability, the speed, range and the payload for effects. Very small drones are akin to minefields. To a degree they might be cleared with EMP or avoided thru speed, if movement is too fast within the detection range for a drone to catch up. EMP resistance, computation energy demands and speed all probably combine to create a lower size boundary for useful drones. So there can't exist supersonic intelligent sand grains.

      If you take bird strikes against aircrafts and replace it by a system mimicking birds that tries to attrition aircrafts. The closer to the ground, the more clutter there is to hide increasingly smaller systems, which have slower speed with higher distribution density, but also less chances for each system to detect and reach something for a strike.

      Movement on land is in a high clutter area as you pointed out, but the systems that can blend in also lose mobility compared to faster objects that are more likely to stand out. So land mobile systems could be described as an enhanced minefield, which needs to be cleared for any movement. EMP might be an effective solution against the smallest such systems, selecting for a survival of larger ones that can be cleared with directed energy point defences or other means.

      And your idea of electronic warfare might attract the smallest such systems like fireflies, making it difficult to enact without first temporarily clearing the area. So what measures do you see for clearing areas of small drones that work like minefields and negate gains thru movement that would follow the massing?

    3. Drones too small for a 500 g warhead won't do much to vehicles, but a 50 gram warhead is enough to kill a man or damage some sensors.
      The only drones that may find it difficult to regularly get to within 50 m of state of the art defences will sooner of later be the multi kg warhead drones.

      In the end, drone swarm vs. drone swarm battles may very well be decided the ordinary ways:
      - superior quality
      - superior quantity
      - one unhinging the other's combined arms cooperation

      The computational demands of chips optimised for pattern detection should allow for tiny drones; songbird size with a 50 mm RHAeq CE penetration shaped charge and ability for photovoltaic recharging seems realistic for the 2030's IMO. This doesn't mean that they'll be in service in quantity, but they could be.

      A problem with drone swarms that involve small drones might be that the small drones would abort a losing battle not by retreat, but by hiding. Winning battles would not wipe the defeated side off the battlefield, kind of like mines - just worse.

    4. If drone swarms hide and work like minefields, mobility becomes replaced by a more static battle, so it's back to a WWI situation, but with drones instead of trenches.

    5. Drones would not lose the ability to move only because they go into hiding. It would be more of a 'stay behind' or 'infiltration' ability than a static minefield.

    6. The drones go into hiding as long as a superior swarm is present. If they don't get hunted down and destroyed, they'll resurface as soon as the swarm present is no longer overwhelmingly strong and while in hiding, they can still commit to occasional peeks and strikes against things like logistics. So being able to execute a fleet in being operation with drones negates to advance over an area where the enemy drones have been forced into hiding. Call it infiltration, stay behind or enhanced minefield, it makes movement difficult to impossible. What sense does mass make if it can't be combined with movement?

    7. We arrived at the "Screamers" problem, btw.

      You're implying that winning battles should be good for something. It's very common in military history for battle victories not being terribly useful. Sometimes they're Jena/Auerstedt 1806 or Sedan 1871 -ish, other times there's a Cannae...

      Autonomous drone warfare may create useless wastelands, but so was already the experience of the Germans in 1941-1942 in the USSR.

      Another issue is how do you tell a million drones with photovoltaic recharging that there's a cease-fire or even a peace treaty? They cannot all obey the same coded command, or else it would be re-engineered from captured examples. Every single one would need to be able to receive the RF signal and have its own coded command.

    8. The problem with this development in drone warfare is that it makes every erupting conflict very difficult to end, because no decisive maneuvers with mass are possible, just constant skirmishing and hiding. It leads to endemic warfare with intelligent machines. While I don't fully support the Western way of war narrative, I think a cultural preference for short conflicts that require a combination of mass and movement are beneficial in reducing overall death and damage seen over time. This seems to be lost with drones, creating the Screamer problem you mentioned. So how do we get out of this mess? Drone hunting?

    9. The Western Way of War just lost a 20 year war against goat herders.
      A couple years ago the Ossetia War ended after a few days not because of battlefield success, but because of a political decision to be content with limited and already achieved objectives.

      The secret to end a war quickly isn't in the art of war, budgeting or military technology. It's in political frugality.


    10. The Western Way of War is a system of mobilization of mass and movement developed around the idea of making treaties and it helps to have reasonable demands to achieve such agreements. But many places in the world come from a history of endemic warfare where you did not make treaties, but rather enjoyed the spoils of war. As part of Westernization treaties were adopted, but can be more of a formality than actually observed agreements.

      Drone warfare strengthens this attitude of not observing treaties, because it creates a conflict situation which can't be quickly decided for technical reasons. This drone warfare would also favour small powers to persist, incentivizing a fragmentation of the current political map with many festering conflicts of internationally unrecognized political entities.

      As for Afghanistan, I'm sure the West will watch an unfolding short term catastrophe, but medium to long term the Taliban will stick to their treaties with the infidels despite their attitude. IS-K likely also plays a role in disciplining them towards the West, so it's a win for treaty based order, but a loss of the West in enforcing a favourable treaty.

    11. What you describe was last seen almost 50 years ago. That was the Western Way of War, it can hardly be claimed to still be so.

      Western political attitudes have prevented conflict conclusions. Our politicians always press for ceasefires whenever the preferred side is not about to win and we prefer to let conflicts linger and smolder rather than accepting the preferred side to lose.
      Few conflicts can reach a conclusion as is, additional technical issues will influence that little. Also keep in mind the kind of drone swarm warfare I'm fantasising about would be a rich man's warfare style. It would likely happen more often against vastly inferior opposition than against peers.

    12. Europe has the highest density of recorded battles compared to areas with similar records in Asia and North Africa. As Europeans we are soaked in the idea of mass in warfare, which probably explains the ancient European sonderweg in genetics, having developed into the area with the least patrilineal kin group conflicts in the world. This is why Hatfield vs. McCoy was notable. In other regions of the world the paradigm of warfare was less centred around mass. If mass losses mobility due to drones, then a very different idea from traditional European warfare could be more successful. And while drones are presently for rich countries, some years down the line they'll be cheap and ubiquitous.

      The general trend in warfare seems to have been from near constant death and destruction towards short intensity spikes with less destruction over time, but the recordings were made under a strong influence of European warfare. Shifting the population density to Asia and then Africa can change the pattern of observed behaviour due to the impact of previously suppressed local paradigma. I think therefore we are currently in a valley in between two spikes with ideas about peace treaties working only until the next spike in conflict. The spike behind us were WWI+II, which I count together, and the future spike in front of us is probably something that involves India, China and the US. I doubt many current ideas will make it thru the next spike, which is also the opportunity to settle conflicts the West turned into smouldering hearths of discontent. Because the last spike was so destructive, the idea grew to abolish such spikes at all. But I count this a European and Western idea, not something with universal acceptance.

    13. "And while drones are presently for rich countries, some years down the line they'll be cheap and ubiquitous."

      The rich countries will maintain the edge on quantity and quality unless the poor country was serious about preparing for war and the rich country wasn't. If anything, drone warfare will further move the imbalance in favour of the rich, as it takes the human numerical superiority of the poor world largely out of the equation.

      Mass warfare was very much a Chinese thing in the past and still is. They just didn't come up with a clausewitzian Schwerpunkt becuase the resource constraint isn't typical of their situation. Their problem was the poor quality of the provincial armies, and post-1948 until recently the militia.

    14. Thanks for the long discussion. I hope it was also fruitful for you.

      Mass warfare in China is interesting, because they have much larger numbers recorded for battle than were considered feasible to manage around the Mediterranean. But Europe is really the continent with most records of massed battles, China has the greatest masses in battles, but fewer such battles overall.

  2. One additional thought about drones: perhaps it will become possible soon to mix biological systems with technology in a way that you can use living beeings as drones. First steps of such an technology path are here today. For example i have seen for myself cockroaches which were remote controlled.

    The advantage would be that such systems are much more efficient in movement and staying in the area and that their persistance is highly increased. Also they would be more immune against technology countermeasures. On the opposite it would be more difficult to produce them on a industrial level but even this is thinkable (look for example into chicken factorys etc)

    Such "cyborgs" could solve many problems of drones, especially of small drones and would increase their abbilities very much.

    1. Large-enough animals need to forage for food (which compromises stealth) unless you can also force them into hibernation. It's trivial for battery-powered drones to enter an energy-saving sleep mode.

      There4 may be 'cyborg' drones in between, but I suppose the production side favours all-technical drones.