war on the rocks

Tactical Art in Future Wars

March 14, 2019

The flurry of self-congratulatory prose emerging from multi-domain warfare literature today obscures the fact that a slogan such as “multi-domain” is not doctrine, and doctrine rooted in the fundamental tenets of warfare is a prerequisite for meaningful reform.

Nowhere is the gap between sloganeering and meaningful doctrine more evident than at the tactical level. The thesis of multi-domain operations is that emerging technologies have added new dimensions to the traditional combined and joint layers of warfare: artillery, infantry, armor and air power. These new dimensions include space, cyber, electronic warfare, and information, among others. The literature suggests that new scientific developments will influence warfare principally in space and cyberspace.

But there is more to war than firing digits in space and cyberspace. As Prussian Gen. Wilhelm Balck famously professed: “Bullets quickly write new tactics.”

Balck was one of a class of experienced, practical soldiers who sought a doctrinal solution to overcome the tyranny of trench warfare during World War I. The Germans had no time for sloganeering in 1917. As Timothy Lupfer wrote in his groundbreaking 1981 Leavenworth Paper, “The Dynamics of Doctrine,” the Germans sought to restore maneuver to the battlefield by working from the bottom up rather than the top down. They believed that the surest sources of wisdom were sergeants and lieutenants who could see the problem from the viewpoint of a trench step.

The problem to be solved was simple: Prior to the Great War the small-bore rifle, machine gun and quick-firing artillery shifted the balance between firepower and maneuver dramatically to the former, making attacks by linear formations across no man’s land suicidal. Lupfer chronicles how the German General Staff followed a systematic process to fundamentally change their doctrine in the middle of the war. What fascinates the reader a century on was the discipline and intellectual passion that the Germans used to restore mobility on the battlefield, beginning with an early perception of the need for change followed by a detailed and thorough solicitation of ideas from common soldiers and junior leaders.

These efforts culminated in what historians term “Hutier” or “infiltration” tactics. As the name suggests, the Germans renounced traditional linear tactics for a system that relied on well-trained, well-led squads and platoons attacking independently, bypassing enemy strong points to infiltrate vulnerable rear areas. The concept almost worked. The Germans unleashed their new tactical method during the 1918 Michael Offensive, which came within a few dozen miles of Paris until stopped by the mass of newly arriving American forces.

Two decades later, the internal combustion engine and the wireless would eventually give Hutier tactics the mechanisms needed to accelerate the speed of the offensive by an order of magnitude and give the world blitzkrieg.

The wartime development of Hutier tactics offers lessons for today. What made infiltration tactics successful then conveys to contemporary wars. First is the valuable lesson that wartime innovation often comes from the field. Experienced, practical soldiers, most of them young, often have a passion for change amplified by the fact that they (quite literally) have skin in the game. Second is the element of trust among senior officers. Before the war the German generals kept to linear warfare in part because they did not trust their soldiers to rise up and continue to advance once they went to ground. In time the generals learned not only to trust their soldiers, but also to listen to them.

I see many similarities in today’s military. A hundred years on, technology again favors firepower and the defensive. No man’s land is now hundreds of miles deep.  Linear maneuver is again difficult thanks to the threat posed by precise long-range weapons, the unblinking eye of sensors and aerial killing machines that guarantee the offensive will be nearly as suicidal today as it was in 1914.

Perhaps the solution to restoring the offensive lies somewhere in the deep definitional recesses of multi-domain warfare. Time will tell. But what about the tactical consequences of a future battlefield dominated by the defensive? What can we learn today from those who fight close? Let’s begin with the immutable: A battlefield dominated by firepower and the defensive compels units to disperse, disaggregate and go to ground. Disaggregation is good in that it lessens the killing effects of firepower but bad because dispersed forces are less able to mass, and mass is essential if maneuver is to be restored.

Dispersal changes the shape and contours of the battlefield. Linearity disappears. Large groups of combat and support units moving together are replaced by smaller clusters of tactical units separated by empty spaces. A disaggregated battlefield favors autonomy and demands that close-combat units operate for long periods without reinforcement. An aerial view would leave the impression of emptiness. Urban terrain will provide sanctuaries for units seeking to avoid destruction by firepower. The smaller and more discrete the tactical disposition the more likely a force will be able to survive a Russian-style strike.

In turn, a dispersed tactical disposition alters both the shape and composition of the tactical units themselves. As the space between close-combat units opens up, units become more isolated, forcing greater self-reliance and independent decision-making. Traditional supporting enablers such as fires, intelligence, medical aid, logistical support and external sensors are positioned far to the rear to avoid destruction by fire strikes. The psychological “touch” that comes from the presence of adjacent units will dissipate. “Touch” thus must become virtual rather than physical. Isolated small units must increasingly fend for themselves, learn to survive, sustain and fight as self-contained entities capable of remaining effective for days without succor.

 

 

The purpose and utility of small units changes on a distributed battlefield. The mission of small units will no longer be simply to win the close fight. In fact a small unit or team engaged so decisively that it has no alternative but a face-to-face firefight might be considered to have failed. Direct action will distract them from their principal work as human sensors, decisional “gatekeepers” and facilitators responsible for translating killing power residing at a distance into killing effects on the enemy. In the future, small units will become virtual outposts, in effect the eyes and probing fingers of a larger supporting operational force placed out of reach of the enemy’s long-range fires.

In the words of retired Army Gen. Bill Hix, these “over the horizon” enabling elements will provide close-combat forces in the battle area with a “cone of impunity.” The cone protects the unit by projecting and overlaying it with distant intelligence, command and control, and sensor capabilities that are routinely provided today for special operations teams. The cone will insulate small units from surprise and will allow them to employ many of the assets formerly reserved for combat forces three or four levels above such as armed drones, intelligence feeds from operational and strategic assets, medical evacuation, and retail resupply from unmanned aerial and ground robotic vehicles.

Imagine an irregular, checkerboard-like pattern of small units embedded into complex terrain or urban clutter and scattered across a wide expanse. To advance, an enemy ground force would have to destroy in detail every small unit waiting in its path. But these close-combat units would be impossible to approach without being observed and killed by supporting ground- or air-delivered precision fires.

Tactical reform as postulated above would, in essence, be a 21st century version of Balck’s Hutier tactics that successfully restored mobility to a firepower-dominated battlefield. But though Hutier tactics made mobility possible again, von Balck’s larger tactical reforms — of which maneuver was just one piece — failed to get the German forces to Paris in part because  infiltrating teams could only advance at a walk. The internal combustion engine and the wireless would soon accelerate the speed of advance and restore the offensive in time for war to resume in 1939.

The question is whether or not technologies are present to permit today’s tactical forces to operate on a dispersed battlefield. The answer? Fortunately, yes, and soon. In 2018 then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis established the first national organization intended solely to enhance the lethality of close-combat small units. So far, the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, which I advise, has succeeded remarkably in reimagining the lethality of tactical ground forces. The sum of these new developments will change fundamentally how ground warfare is prosecuted. It’s interesting to note that so far most of the technologies embraced by the task force come from nongovernment sources: Artificial intelligence, micro-miniaturization, reach-back, the soldier’s “air force,” carry-along precision, soldier networks, robotics, and sensors.

To enhance the fighting power of tactical forces, many of the complexities of modern operations should be pushed downward. For this to work, decisions formerly made by colonels must be made by sergeants. Artificial intelligence offers a solution. Think of small unit apps that connect a leader to a constellation of decision-enhancement tools. Today it takes an entire multi-service bureaucracy to deliver air and surface fires. If we are to empty the battlefield this enormous kludge of humanity must depart to be replaced by a fires app that, with the engagement of a single icon, delivers all the necessary data to allow a strike to proceed in seconds rather than hours. Other icons on a leader’s device will order up medical evacuation and resupply. The device will give the leader access to intelligence from all agencies from tactical to strategic.

The world is getting smaller and with smaller size comes greater mobility and convenience. A radio that took up the back of a vehicle twenty years ago fits into a soldier’s pocket today. Hundred-million-dollar fighter planes can be kept at bay  by small shoulder-fired missiles. The tank isn’t dead but it’s far easier to kill today thanks to very precise and portable guided missiles. An onboard analog computer gives the M1 Abrams tank a single-shot kill probability out to two miles. Today, micro-miniaturization technology borrowed from civilian industry will allow Abrams-like precision to be squeezed into a rifle sight with the same one-shot-one-kill probability.

Tomorrow’s small-unit soldier and leader will never be able to carry all of the combat gear necessary to keep the unit functioning in the close fight. But they will be able to “reach back” to access combat resources residing well to the rear, at sea or perhaps outside the theater of war. Efficient supply chain technologies and methods borrowed from companies like Amazon and Google will allow battlefield delivery of supplies quickly enough to reduce the logistical load a small unit must take with it into the close fight.

Miniaturization has cheapened and proliferated unmanned vehicles to the extent that you can buy a drone at Walmart. Small units will profit from the drone revolution. Today units routinely fly command-guided, unmanned flying vehicles over the battlefield to sense and seek enemy locations and detect explosive devices. Think of a future close fight in which every small unit is surrounded by a constellation of unmanned vehicles ranging from hand-carried lethal drones to orbiting tactical weapons platforms robust and deadly enough to replace traditional air and surface fire support.

Recent developments in portable precision enhance the ability of a small unit to fight autonomously. Some precision weapons are in soldiers’ hands today: The Javelin anti-tank missile fundamentally changes the lethality equation between large armored formations and small units, in favor of the latter. Soon soldiers will possess precision mortars, precision grenade launchers, and immediate access to cheap, proliferated precision delivered from artillery and aircraft.

The battlefield is a lonely place and will only become more emotionally terrifying as it continues to empty. Twitter and Facebook keep people connected virtually. Similarly, a post-adolescent soldier could be able to connect with his buddies, leaders and the outside world by carrying Twitter-like communication technologies on to the battlefield. Such a network would share information up as well as sideways. Commanders connected to the soldier network would be able to keep track of their physiological and emotional condition by monitoring such data as pulse, breathing patterns, galvanic skin response, and brain wave activity..

One factor in servicemembers’ physical condition is the weight of the equipment they carry. A soldier’s load in World War II was about 60 pounds. Today that load has increased to over 100 pounds. Most of the difference comes from necessary weight added by body armor. A dismounted infantryman cannot fight effectively if his load exceeds about a third of his body weight. The only practicable solution to this problem is to use technology to take the weight off the Soldier and place it on a robotic vehicle. The Army is making progress in developing a wheeled robot that uses sensors to “follow” Soldiers on the march. This is progress to be sure. But the Army must do more to find a lighter, more mobile and handy robot capable of accompanying a small unit for days.

In order to dominate the close fight, small units must be enveloped in an impenetrable sensor bubble that provides early detection out to a distance beyond the range of enemy small arms and mortars. Sensors must be layered and redundant and should include feeds from tactical drones, body sensors and mobile, robotic sensors surrounding a unit on the march.

Tactical reform is dependent on more than just technology. The U.S. military must find the means to psychologically inure soldiers to the stress of close combat before the first shot is fired. The additional tasks and responsibilities placed on small units bring into question the size and composition of squads and teams. The Army’s squad consists of nine infantrymen; the Marine Corps’, 13. Perhaps a larger squad is the right solution. If small units have to do more than just fight close then perhaps the composition of the squad should be more diverse in talent and maturity to include squad members skilled in communications, specialized weapons, medicine, intelligence and unmanned vehicle operations.

If the Department of Defense is to make infantry small units an “excepted” category then perhaps it should pay them more and allow early retirement for soldiers worn down physically and psychologically by close combat. We have learned that unit cohesion is the essential ingredient for fighting effectiveness, so close-combat units should also be kept together for longer periods and perhaps commanded by more mature and higher-ranking leaders.

The list of things to do is daunting.

The example of German tactical reform in World War I suggests three insights relevant to today:

First, tactics influence strategy. Contesting powers on the Western front sought two competing solutions for restoring mobility to the battlefield. The first was technological. The allies invented and fielded the tank capable of overcoming obstacles and protected from small-arms fire. The other solution was doctrinal. The Germans, lacking material means to build tanks in large numbers, devised tactics that would allow infantry to advance at a greater pace. Both failed. But in time the Germans would devise the proper balance of technology and tactics to reveal blitzkrieg. And the imperatives of a mechanized battlefield forced the contending powers to alter their strategic approaches to war.

The second insight is more fundamental. Simply put, superb tactics will not make up for bad strategy. The Germans failed to do the basic “ends, ways and means” calculation that would have told them that their clever tactics (ways) came up short of the means necessary to overcome the crushing materiel dominance of the allies in 1918. No amount of cleverness or willingness to sacrifice would have been sufficient to allow the Germans to reach Paris on foot.

Third, the common denominator between the allied and the German tactical solution was speed. For all their best efforts the Germans were never able to accelerate the pace of advance beyond a walk. The United States faces a similar challenge as it seeks to accelerate tactical maneuver today. Tactical and operational speed for light forces can only be achieved by aerial envelopment. The Department of Defense is a long way from providing tactical forces with sufficient vertical lift to maneuver large formations by air. But the department should persevere. The alternative in the longer run is stagnation and the attending horror of attrition war.

As a national security priority, the ground services should seek a tactical corollary to the operational focus of multi-domain warfare. The task is made simpler by the fact that they possess the world’s most richly resourced, experienced and competent laboratory for experimentation in the tactical arts: Tier One forces in the Joint Special Operations Command. The Department of Defense, led by the Close Combat Lethality Task Force, should fully exploit the Joint Special Operations Command’s practical wisdom. In time it should be able to spread that wisdom among and within tactical units in the Army and Marine Corps. That’s certainly what the Imperial German Army tried to do in 1918.

The literature on multi-domain operations focuses rightfully on reform at the operational and grand operational level. This approach is proper and long overdue. Operational art has long been embraced as the intellectual centerpiece of Army doctrinal reform since the creation of AirLand Battle in the late 1970s. But new technologies are inducing new battlefield imperatives and are forcing the nexus of ground warfare continually downward. Thus, the Army should pursue a parallel path of reform that builds from the bottom up as well as top down. Balck’s caution that “bullets write new tactics” is as true today as it was a century ago. But the U.S. military’s challenge now is to write new tactics before the bullets start to kill soldiers and marines.

 

Robert Scales is a retired major general and former commandant of the Army War College. He currently serves as senior advisor to Secretary Mattis’ Close Combat Lethality Task Force.

Image: Army Press, adapted