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The Tactics Gap: Why We Wrestle With The Basics

William F. Owen

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William F. Owen is Deputy Editor of Military Operations
Owen, William F., “The Tactics Gap: Why We Wrestle With The Basics”, Military Operations, Volume 2, Issue No. 1, Winter 2014, pages 17-19.

This article is designed to promote discussion, and that discussion is about tactics. What tactics actually are will form part of that discussion. More to the point, this article will assert that Western armies have become confused about tactics, to the detriment of all else.

Tactics are not (quite) a discrete subject. ‘How you fight’ has to cover a multitude of conditions and contexts. Arguably that makes tactics ‘complicated’ but not necessarily ‘complex.’ The problem is that today we seem to have lost the desire to discuss tactics – or it may be more accurate to say that the desire remains, but the ability is lacking. For example, all too often what tactical discussion does occur is a subset of an equipment debate which is strongly coloured by budget and policy considerations. No one can deny that money is extremely important, but surely how you fight should drive what you use, and most critically what you can afford to train with. If anyone is inclined to doubt this, then the emergence of armed groups which employ large numbers of 4x4 SUVs equipped with HMGs and ATGM posts, in preference to heavy armour, may serve as an example. That preference occurs because five hundred Toyota Hilux’s mounting AT-14s costs a fraction, in every respect, of that of five hundred (or even two hundred) MBTs. They are cheap, simple, and easy to conceal and sustain in comparison with AFVs. Critically any discussion about the efficacy of that choice resides far more in tactics than equipment.

Thus it is fair to ask: could most serving officers formulate the tactical doctrine needed to apply such a force effectively? I would contend that most serving officers would find that extremely challenging, if not impossible. It should not be. Essentially we seem to have forgotten that tactics is about fighting, and fighting in ways that are simple and easy to achieve with the means and resources to hand. Most Western armies are now strongly inclined to seek equipment solutions, rather than training solutions. In many ways this strikes at the heart of the argument.

Strategy is done as Tactics

No matter who or where on the planet the armed force is, the enduring and immutable fact is that war is a political activity conducted for a political purpose. This remains as true as it ever was. War does not change; but warfare is an expression of politics, and politics is in constant flux. As warfare is the conduct of war, then at the point of application it is tactics that decide the issue. The reason why Clausewitz (possibly unconsciously) developed an understanding of war as an exclusively political activity was that he lived in a very politically complicated and unstable Europe. That Europe was far more politically (thus militarily) unstable, and complicated, than anything we see today.

Back when NATO was facing the Warsaw Pact, it was fairly obvious that it would be an existential fight for which all and any means were permissible. Simply put, because of the politics of Communism versus Democracy, there were no virtually restrictions on the use of force. Any amount of casualties and weapons usage was permissible as long as the total carnage of such a war would eventually exhaust one or both parties.

While the Gulf War of 1991 played entirely to NATO’s strengths (and were combined with an almost fantastically incompetent enemy), the Balkan Wars provided a nasty shock. Suddenly, tactics demonstrated their true political dimension in sometimes horrific ways. Politics does dictate tactics. The Israelis were likewise surprised when tactical conduct came under international political scrutiny during the various Palestinian rebellions on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Amazingly, almost the same issue came to haunt the British Army in Basra. That was despite the wealth of its Northern Ireland experience, which had displayed the strategic and political consequences of tactical action writ large.

This seems to have led to a collective tactical paralysis where tactical thinking has become highly defined by the political nuances of specific theatres, such as Afghanistan or Iraq. This means that if you give junior or even middle ranking officers of today a specific tactical problem (and I have direct and recent experience of doing so), they tend to flounder in a sea of Rules of Engagement (ROE), ‘legitimacy’ and equipment capabilities – almost always to the detriment of the mission. This may not be the experience of other people, but what this clearly shows is that officers now do have an intuitive understanding that war is conducted for political purposes. Therefore how you fight has to reflect why, and for what political purpose, you are fighting. The problem is that this has become an impediment, and not the enabler it should be.


Very, very few Western armies (including the Israeli Defence Forces) can foretell when, where, why, or against whom they will fight. Yet you have to be prepared to fight, which means that ‘how you will fight’ must be clearly understood and rehearsed. As the Israelis learned in 2006, no one can do in war what they have not learned to do very well in training. Explicitly this means you have to train for ‘a war’, not ‘the war.’ Unless combat formations continually and systematically exercise for combat, they will always be found wanting come the day. This is actually a simple and achievable task, but confusion as to what we are training for seems to have created a collective tactical paralysis via overly-nuanced political considerations that are largely imagined and self-inflicted.

The first thing to understand is that you cannot train to restrict military force into irrelevance. This merely enables a delusional belief in a highly nuanced form of fighting which cannot actually be carried out on the ground. The idea that you can fight an enemy amongst, or close to, a civilian population without accidently killing some civilians is frankly stupid and ill-informed. Moreover, the extant Law of Armed Conflict only takes a view on the killing of civilians when it is completely removed from military necessity. If the enemy Divisional HQ is in the basement of a hospital or an old people’s home, you can strike it with whatever force you deem reasonable to destroy it, regardless of the civilian cost. For modern Western armies, politics restricts force far more than law in allowing enemies to shield themselves with civilians.

Needlessly or deliberately killing civilians is often bad for the political objective for which you fight. So as a general rule, avoiding civilian casualties to the extent that they undermine your political posture is usually something which you would seek to do. Sparing civilian lives is not a new aspect of warfare. It dates back to the Middle Ages or even Biblical times, in terms of a general realisation that killing innocent people may not reflect well on your political legitimacy. Admittedly those eras saw some truly horrendous massacres of civilian populations, such as those of Biblical Jericho and Syracuse (in 878 AD), orchestrated by people remarkable unconcerned about how those civilians viewed their policy. However, more recent times have seen even greater excesses.

It is critical to understand that ROE exists to align violence with policy, not to protect civilians. Violence needs to be applied with precision, proportion and discrimination because that makes it more politically effective, not because you want to restrict force into irrelevance. Overly restrictive ROE would mean that the enemy could kill you but not vice versa.

The second thing to understand is that killing the enemy is the best way to collectively break his will to fight. The utterly false and intellectually vacuous distinction between ‘manoeuvre’ and ‘attrition’ forms of warfare has largely corrupted modern understanding of tactics. All armed forces should seek to inflict attrition while avoiding mutual attrition. At a mechanistic level this is expressed as the loss exchange ratio (LER), that shows comparative loss between two parties. For example, a LER of 30:1 simply means 30 enemy Killed in Action (KIA) for each KIA of your own. The simple guidance that you should seek to kill the enemy and break his equipment should not be disputed, yet today it is disputed and over-intellectualised because of the fallacies discussed above. This gets simplistically expressed as ‘killing the enemy does not win the war’, because modern officers fallaciously extrapolate the rapid defeats of the Taliban in 2001 and Iraqi Army in 2003 with the conditions of the subsequent insurgencies; combined with the evidence-free belief that you cannot defeat an armed insurgency by military means alone. This flies in the face of logic. An insurgency is an armed force that suffers defeat in exactly the same way as any other armed force. Defeat flows from a collective desire to cease engaging in combat. Killing and capture are the two mechanisms which create that effect better than anything else; regardless of whether the enemy is an insurgent or an ‘accidental guerrilla.’

The logic is simply that if there is no enemy to defeat via death or capture, then there is no role for military forces. None! All armed groups which seek political conditions via the effects of violence can be, and are, defeated in battle; regardless of whether that defeat occurs in the form of hundreds of burning AFVs or in the arrest of a named individual at a vehicle check point.

Thus two basic conditions obtain: not killing those who do not require killing, and making sure you kill those who you need to kill (because doing so will break the will of others to collectively pursue violence); these are the same two conditions which have dictated the course of the last 5,000 years of warfare. This is not complicated, yet inexplicably many people believe it to be so.

Tactics for THE War

Military forces defeat the enemy via combat. Explicitly, combat is the only means that defeats an enemy. Defeat means the enemy is no longer able and/or willing to fight. Only combat delivers that effect. The Delbrück conjecture of defeat having either the form of exhaustion (as in no longer wishing to fight) or annihilation (of being incapable of fighting) is an extremely good articulation of this. Both are delivered by combat. In extreme conditions that combat may be the discrete killing of an enemy commander, such as in the biblical tale of David and Goliath. It is more likely to be the widespread killing and capture of enemy personnel. It may possibly require the near-complete annihilation of the enemy, as on Iwo Jima in 1945.

There is nothing clever or very sophisticated about this basic fact. What defeated the Japanese in the jungle at the Battle of Kohima in 1944 is what defeated the Egyptian Army in the Sinai desert in 1973. It also defeated the French at Waterloo and, at the other end of the scale, Pablo Escobar in Medellin in 1993. If we understand that the basic requirement is to apply weapons effectively against men and equipment then the whole concept of tactics is greatly simplified.

Essentially, tactics has two basic expressions: organisation and terrain. For example, tactics of organisation can be expressed as ‘platoon tactics’ or ‘armoured battalion tactics’. They may even be equipment-specific, such as ‘Warrior Platoon Tactics,’ or ‘Stryker Battalion Tactics’. Tactics of terrain are basically those pertaining to mountain, jungle, urban, desert or arctic conditions.

The Enemy gets a vote

Yes he does, but so what? The aim of all tactics is defeat without being defeated. More to the point: if you understand that the enemy is trying to do to you what you are trying to do to him, then there is little basis for confusion. The enemy will either try to annihilate you or exhaust you. This is why tactics matter. One of the major reasons why armies can win all the battles and still lose the wars is because their tactics cost them too much. By 1973 US losses in the Vietnam War were so great that they ceased to persist in combat. Regardless of flawed US strategy, if total US deaths by 1973 had only amounted to 10,000, rather than nearly 57,000, then the political appetite to persist in combat would have been substantially different. Not only do you have to defeat the enemy, but also you have to defeat him at a cost your political masters can withstand.

Given the enemy’s need to defeat you, how he will fight (given equipment, numbers, training and terrain) is not hard to work out. If you cannot work it out, you cannot work out how to fight him. Military education is major part of this. If you are a combat arms officer, you should be familiar with most common enemy equipment capabilities and have a view on how you would employ them, given combination ‘X’ of numbers ‘Y’ under conditions ‘Z’. This is markedly different from thinking that you understand a specific enemy’s tactical doctrine, because the next force you fight may not have been trained the same way. There are only a limited number of sensible ways to apply given formations and equipment to given tactical problems. This is all information and perspective that can and should be taught; yet clearly it is not.

Talking Tactics

The tired old maxims, which warn us that ‘amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics’ or that good tactics are ‘the opinion of the senior officer present,’ seem not to want to deal with the reality of just how objective tactical discussion should be. For example, a dismounted infantry platoon only carries limited amounts of ammunition. It is purely a matter of arithmetic to work out for how long, and at what rate of fire, any part or all of that platoon will be able to suppress or defeat an enemy by fire. Likewise some fairly hard and fast rules of light weapons effect can be used to ascertain just how effective any given infantry weapon should be at any given range. We can, for example, state with some certainty (but in general terms) that the closer we get to the enemy the more effective our weapons become. Thus we should seek to use fire and manoeuvre to gain proximity until the enemy is either dead or unable to continue fighting.

Likewise, for MBTs we can state simply that the number of tank guns which we can rapidly bring to bear in an engagement will generally be the deciding factor. That will probably be best executed as a well-rehearsed drill, just like an infantry contact drill.

Tactics are not the domain of the infinite and the arcane. Tactics are basically how you organise for, and apply violence against, an enemy, given equipment capabilities and factors such as terrain, weather, light, and possibly civilians. All those factors will modify how and why you do things. This is not an attempt to make it sound easy. It is not. It requires training and skill. The real skill is being able to do very hard things in a very simple way. Moreover the simpler and more robust the tactical methods, the wider application they have. Clearing a multi-storey building in city ‘X’ will be the same basic skill as doing same thing in city ‘Y’ on the other side of the world. Fighting in a jungle in South America will not differ massively from fighting in a jungle in Borneo.

If we have come to believe that ‘tactics’ is what is described in 200-page .pdf file then we are failing. Tactics is about doing those things in combat that you have learned to do through training. If doesn’t work at two o’clock in the morning, in the cold and rain, when you have not slept for 36 hours and everyone (including you) is very scared, then it is not fit for purpose. Tactics is the art of the possible. It is what you know you can do – and, more importantly, what you can train and teach others to do. You also have to learn and understand what the enemy can do, and what you can do to prevent him being successful. The enemy can only fight you on Friday with the weapons, training and understanding he had on Monday, so there is simply no form of combat or tactical doctrine extant on the planet which we cannot come to understand. That just requires some fairly basic study, or tasking others to gain that information for us, and testing the assumptions that underpin those ideas.

Western armies do not currently face the defeats or challenges on the scale of the Cold War. They do face Dien Bien Phus, Mogadishus and Ia Drang Valleys, where discussions of heroism and sacrifice consistently obscure critical military and tactical analysis. They also seek to forgive bad decisions, and thus do not enable useful learning. Until we recover the discussion of tactics and tear down the self-inflicted veil of complexity, we are likely to make no useful progress.