These short pieces are written in response to articles that have appeared in previous editions of Military Operations. Underpinning each of them is a certain amount of research, operational analysis, or both. You may agree or disagree with them. If you disagree, please write in and tell us why or how.
Use it and Lose it
I thought William Owen’s article on infantry fighting vehicles[i] was excellent, but missed a critical point. That is: if you give armoured carriers to the infantry, you cannot afford to lose them.
If you give armoured carriers to the infantry, their main purpose is to transport that infantry at more-or-less the same speed as the tanks in the all-arms force. Not necessarily at exactly the same speed in all terrain; but to enable the infantry to move at broadly the same speed as the armoured force, rather than on foot. Those carriers are armoured so that they can cooperate with the tanks. If they weren’t, the infantry would have to debus at the first sign of small arms fire. That’s not a showstopper, but it really slows down the tempo of the force as a whole. The big problem, however, is that you need to keep enough carriers to keep the infantry mobile.
That has simple consequences. Take two scenarios: attack and defence.
In the attack, the carriers carry the infantry onto, through, or to just short of the objective (the details vary with all sorts of things, not least national practice). Some carriers may get damaged or destroyed en route. Some of the infantry in those carriers will be killed or wounded, but the expectation is that more of it will survive to fight on the objective than if it was on foot. Now, in a well-handled attack with lots of indirect fire, good support from tanks, good coordination and well-selected routes that may be the case. In addition, it can all happen much faster than if the infantry was on foot. That’s all good.
However, what happens when you give those carriers significant offensive weapons? Those weapons will be used; be it in the approach, whilst fighting through the objective, or on the reorganisation. That means exposing them. And that means that some of them will be disabled in the process. And each disabled carrier represents a section, or a command team, that has lost its mobility. Consider the traffic on the battalion command net:
‘Well done on clearing that village and beating off the counterattack. Now mount up and be prepared to continue the advance.’
‘Will do. Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave a platoon or so behind to catch up on foot.’
In defence, if you give those carriers significant offensive weapons, they will be used. They will be used to engage enemy armour, or to assist in defeating enemy troops on foot. As before, that means exposing them. And that means that some of them will be disabled in the process. And each disabled carrier represents a section, or a command team, that has lost it mobility.
‘Well done on defending that village and beating off the attack. Now mount up and be prepared to take part in the counterattack.’
‘Will do. Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave a platoon or so behind to catch up on foot.’
In both cases, there are four possibilities:
- That you lose virtually neither infantry nor carriers.
- That you lose some infantry, but no (or a few) carriers.
- That you lose a few, if any, infantry; but proportionally more carriers.
- That you lose infantry and carriers in roughly equal proportions.
If the carriers provide the infantry with mobility, then Option 3 is the one you can’t afford. have. Unfortunately, if you mount significant offensive weapons on those carriers, then Option 3 is the most likely.
Armies don’t have spare carriers lying around ‘just in case’. The lesson is quite clear. Mounting significant weapons on infantry carriers means that those weapons will be used. Some carriers will be lost whilst doing so, and infantry’s mobility will be reduced. And if you issue carriers to the infantry for mobility, then you can’t afford to lose that mobility. So you can’t afford to lose those carriers.
So Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) are a bad idea. They are, basically, armoured infantry carriers equipped with significant offensive weapons. The purpose of giving them those weapons is in order to use them. That means that some of them will be disabled, at times and places that leave their infantry stranded.
This is an observation from those massive force-on-force exercises on the North German Plain during the Cold War. Armoured warfare takes place at several kilometres per hour. The next engagement typically takes place several kilometres away. Troops moving on foot just get there too late. Therefore the infantry needs its section, platoon and company carriers. It can’t afford to lose them. In the Second World War the Wehrmacht, if given a choice, would rather have recovered an APC than a tank.
Some people say that you need IFVs to contribute to the anti-armour battle. There are better ways of doing that. They include: more ATGW; small cannon; longer-ranged LAW; indirect fire; mines; or more tanks. But don’t confuse the need to kill more armour with the need for mobility for the infantry. The infantry are those who fight on foot. In an armoured battle they need to be taken to the fight. For that, they needs armoured mobility. And if you give them armoured mobility, you can’t afford to lose it by having the carriers do someone else’s job. IFVs are basically a bad idea.
It really is that simple.
Not a Snowball’s Hope in Hell
Rupert Smith’s article[ii] prompted me to think whether British forces today could repeat their actions in the First Gulf War, 20 years ago. In many ways they are better off today. They now have AS90 155mm self-propelled guns, rather than M109s. They had MLRS then, but now they have Guided MLRS with the same sort of throw-weight as a M110 203mm gun, but much more range and greater accuracy. They have the much more reliable Challenger 2 MBTs. They have Apache attack helicopters, rather than the Lynx/TOW combinations which scarcely fired a shot in 1991. They have all sorts of improved digital CIS. And the headquarters …
Oh, yes, the headquarters. If you visit that same divisional headquarters on exercise today, you will find that much has changed, and much of it for the worse. The Plans cell is basically immobile, and the main command post takes 24 hours to strip down and move. On those grounds alone, British armed forces would be unable to repeat their actions of 1991. There was no way that the HQ could control the division during a long advance in contact, during which the HQ had to move several times and the plan had to be changed. It is simply too big, too cumbersome, and too slow.
Then I read the article on wargaming at the operational level by Kevin Benson and his colleagues[iii]. Let us read between the lines. The most powerful nation on earth sent several of its best military brains out to the Theatre HQ in Iraq. They engaged with the senior Theatre commanders for a whole week. The net result was a minor amendment to the theatre plan, and no evidence that that made any difference to the outcome in the real world. And the chief recommendation of the article is that large HQs should indulge in even more explicit process! Looked at in a different way, the HQ did not feel that it could do its job of campaign planning without even further augmentation. At the same time the HQ is full of relatively junior officers who aren’t staff-college trained, so they can’t really contribute to campaign planning.
What on earth were they doing there? What were their colleagues in the British HQ doing? Probably sat reading articles like this and then getting outraged that anyone questions the justification for them being there. Yet, scientists have analysed work patterns in modern HQs and concluded that many people do nothing useful, and a goodly number do things that are actually counterproductive.
A few years ago a colleague worked in a Coalition corps-level headquarters. Someone suggested that we should pay unemployed youths to clean up run-down urban areas. That way, they would have something to keep them occupied; the environment would improve and the feel-good factor would return; and the Coalition would be seen to be helping. Good idea! So the staff had a meeting about planning the meeting, then a meeting about briefing the briefers, then a meeting in which the decision was briefed to the decision maker. All that took five days.
During that time one of the insurgent groups started to pay unemployed youths to clean up run-down urban areas. It immediately became a bad idea: the Coalition would be seen as playing copy-cat and catch-up. The HQ was simply far too big and had taken far too long to decide to do something simple. And why on earth did it take a brigadier general to make a decision that simple? The Danish armed forces have made an observation that says that once you get more than 200 people in an HQ, you don’t need any input! It just runs itself and makes itself busy. How true.
You might think that this doesn’t matter. Well, in a sense it doesn’t. In contemporary operations, it’s just horrendously inefficient. Those HQs make mediocre plans that take unnecessarily long to formulate. Those plans are produced in orders that are inches thick and which few people read, let alone understand.
But just look out for the next time a coalition meets someone who can make simple, quick decisions and put them into practice equally quickly. It would be the 21st Century’s equivalent of the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). All you had then was some intelligent, motivated, moderately well-led farmers with modern bolt-action rifles. It took the British Army years and a huge amount of trouble to deal with something so simple.
The problem of overlarge HQs did not taken place during the Cold War. There are all sorts of reasons for this. There are also a number of things that should be done to rectify it. But the biggest issue is to recognise that a problem exists.
Could British, or Coalition, forces today repeat their actions of 1991, with all their modern kit and all their digital command posts?
Not a snowball’s hope in hell.
The Airborne Fallacy
One afternoon a few years ago I was looking out of my office window. About three miles over my shoulder there was a parachute drop zone (DZ) on one of our major training areas. In front of me I could see about eight or nine Hercules flying slow, low and level, one behind another towards the DZ. They were clearly about do carry out a battalion-level parachute drop. I went and watched. They did.
How often have we seen insurgents on the TV news, with ‘technicals’ (utility 4 x 4 trucks) mounting 1950s Soviet-style antiaircraft (AA) machine guns or cannons? A bit of research tells us that a ZPU-2 twin 14.5mm AA machine gun weighs about 600kg. You often see them on the back of technicals. They have a practical combined rate of fire of 300 rounds per minute; a range against slow, low-flying aircraft of about 2,000m; and fire incendiary rounds weighing 60 grams each. The ‘technical’ can move at perhaps 40 or 50 kilometres per hour on roads or tracks. A ZU-23-2 twin 23mm AA cannon weighs about 950kg. It can also be carried, and fired, on the back of a truck. It has much the same range. Its rounds are high explosive fragmentation and weigh about 180 grams each. The ZU-23-2 has a combined rate of fire of 400 rounds per minute.
Imagine an irregular force in an undeveloped country at risk of airborne attack:
‘Orders for the AA guns on seeing a number of transport aircraft flying low, slow, and one behind the other:
a. Do not delay. Whether on the move or static, get into action and engage as soon as possible.
b. Engage immediately the aircraft get into range.
c. Fire long bursts at the nose of each aircraft.
d. Do not worry about shooting aircraft down. The aim is to get rounds into the fuselage of as many aircraft as possible.
e. Once the aircraft have gone overhead or out of range, drive towards the drop zone. Fire long bursts along the drop zone if possible. Continue to fire as the paratroops land and as they gather on the ground’.
In this imaginary example, our battalion of Paras was lucky. Just two technicals were within range that day. Five aircraft were hit. The cockpit of one was destroyed. That aircraft crashed with the loss of all on board. Bursts hit the fuselages of two others. A few paratroopers were killed immediately, but in the carnage many were injured and none of them landed safely. One of the damaged aircraft limped home with its wounded Paras still on board. A couple of dozen Paras were killed or wounded as the technicals strafed the DZ afterwards. The Paras lost 97 dead and 161 wounded before they fired a shot. The Paras’ medical platoon couldn’t cope.
There is a lot that you can do to counter shoulder-fired missiles, but little you can do against technicals with heavy MGs or cannon. They are easy to hide, and can move frequently and quickly. In practice it would be very difficult to be sure that there would be none near the drop zone on a given day.
However, our Paras’ misery was not over. Have you ever seen a medium mortar? They are tiny. A 1950s-era mortar weighs about 40kg all up. You can throw one into the back of a technical (or even a car) with several dozen rounds of ammunition. Another technical can carry a couple of hundred more rounds. They have a range of 4,000 metres or more. Even if the Paras have the element of surprise and land before the AA gets them, mortars are a real challenge.
The Paras land and form a hasty perimeter. The Hercules will come back and land to extract them. Alternatively, their job is to secure a landing strip for the fly-in of the rest of the brigade. Either way, they need a landing strip several hundred metres long and there are only a few hundred of them.
A circle with a radius of 4,000 metres has a circumference of about 25 kilometres. You can fire a medium mortar from any small dip or hollow; or behind a few bushes; or behind a building. So our Paras have to control the whole of a perimeter 25 kilometres long. They move on foot, whilst the insurgents can throw the mortar into the back of a perfectly innocent-looking technical, drive it a few hundred yards, and be back in action in a few minutes.
‘Orders for the mortars on seeing an airborne landing:
a. Deploy and fire the mortars singly, several hundred metres apart. Each mortar team leader is to fire on his own initiative.
b. Work out where the Paras will try to bring their planes in; watch for planes trying to land; or both.
c. Wait until a plane comes to a rest on the ground, then engage it quickly.
d. Fire only a few rounds at each plane. You don’t have to destroy them; just damage them so that they can’t fly off.
e. Move frequently. If the enemy engages you, move the mortar in the technical. Find somewhere else to come into action. When you get there, fire only if there are undamaged planes.’
120mm mortars are considerably bigger. They need a slightly bigger truck in order to tow them. But many forces have them, and their range is about 8,000 metres. That makes the perimeter about 50 kilometres. Mortars are pretty easy to locate if you have mortar-locating radar. That, however, doesn’t normally come in on a parachute drop. Mortars are pretty easy to hunt down, if you have attack helicopters that can afford to stooge around doing just that. But, if you can deploy attack helicopters to the drop zone, why on earth didn’t you land your infantry by a helicopter as well? Or by V-22 Osprey?
Airborne forces are disgustingly vulnerable to the sort of 1950s Soviet-style threats that many insurgent forces possess; let alone more capable enemies. Since the Second World War, there have been many occasions when the ground threat has simply been too high to use them. There have been incredibly few occasions when airborne assaults were actually carried out. There were virtually no occasions when heliborne forces could not have been used instead. With the advent of the Osprey, there will be even fewer.
In real terms, airborne assaults are not an act of war. What they are in reality is a fallacious justification for the continued existence of parachute infantry forces. We pretend that we have parachute infantry forces so that we can carry out airborne assaults. We pretend that airborne assaults are practical so that we can have parachute infantry forces. Spot the fallacy.
[i] Wrong Technology for the Wrong Tactics: The Infantry Fighting Vehicle William F Owen, Military Operations, Volume 1 Issue No 3, pages 17-20.
[ii] A Commander Reflects, Rupert Smith, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No 3, Winter 2012, Pages 4-7.
[iii] 21st Century Operations and the Art of Wargaming, Kevin Benson and Colleagues, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No 3, Winter 2012, Pages 12-16.