How We Fight

In my last post I suggested that the history of the Cold War is still what defines the way we fight. I looked at some battle plans and equipment requirements to give a feel for what this all actually means – what a national (and international) battle plan looks like at that scale.

Continuing this I’ve written a summary of the doctrinal changes  over the Cold War – how and why NATO and the UK have planned to fight, and how it shapes the way in which we intend to fight now.

Western Doctrine (Part 2):

  • The History
    • Defence in depth;
    • Active Defense;
    • AirLand Battle;
    • Network Centric Warfare, Full Spectrum Operations, and AirSea Battle;
    • British Defence Doctrine.
  • The Future.

We start with late defensive thinking at the end of WWII – the most (only?) successful defensive strategic doctrine in that conflict other than “put the sea in the way and maintain air superiority”.

Defence in Depth

It would be an exaggeration to say that Russia invented defence in depth, but it has certainly perfected it. Defence in depth is the strategic surrender of ground by defending forces to slowly wear out an attacking army. It aims to slow down an attacker, cause them to lose momentum, and buy time for friendly forces to regain momentum and attack the flanks of an enemy advance (for example).

In 1811/1812 Russia used this strategy, with excellent intelligence and good use of mobilisation and strategic reserves, to defeat Napoleon’s Grand Armée (giving rise to the first ever Sankey Diagram as a result). This helped them to eventually defeat Napoleon by using their slowly mobilised war machine to support armies marching through Poland/Lithuania, Prussia, and then into France.

The world’s first Sankey Diagram – charting the route that Napoleon’s Grand Armee took marching into Russia. The width of each line is the number of men remaining in the army. The tan line is the army advancing, the black is the retreat from Moscow.

130 years later the Soviet Union adopted the same strategy to absorb and then defeat the German invasion (through necessity rather than planning).

When Western nations looked at the Soviet horde that would invade East Germany, in the 50s and 60s, it looked to this tried and tested plan to defend.

Active Defense

The issues with Defence in Depth are that it requires the political will to give up large areas of land, and tactical patience and sacrifice of units. Western forces in Germany had increasingly less of these as the Cold War went on – they weren’t able to give up sufficient ground to stall the attack (as forces became more mobile the ability to stall the enemy was reduced) without it being counted as a loss.

Suddenly the Yom Kippur war kicks off, and is finished almost as soon as it has started. Within a month Egypt has invaded to re-take land, rebuffed a heavily armoured Israeli force with air support, and eventually been overcome. That conflict immediately showed the utility of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), which had advanced leaps in the preceding decade.

So along comes Active Defence – exploiting the West’s better technology (a dubious claim at that point) to blunt the Soviet spearhead. The plan was to use mobile defensive positions to cluster Soviet forces, and use the suddenly very powerful ATGMs to tear them to pieces. Pick up your defensive position and find a new target.

9M14 Malyutka (AT-3 Sagger) – while also probably winning awards as the least attractive ATGM, the Sagger is credited for knocking out 800+ Israeli tanks in the Yom Kippur war. Difficult to guide, and not terribly accurate in the stress of war, this was a game-changer for the Egyptian Army of the time. The Israeli Defence Force was armed with the (very) new BGM-71 TOW; a more accurate and faster weapon credited with destroying 11 T-72s in the Lebanon War – one of the first field encounters with this new tank.

AirLand Battle

Soviet forces had their own ATGMs and SAMs though, and they were quite good.

The 2K12 “Kub” (SA-6 Gainful) – grandfather of the “Buk” missile that shot down Malaysian Airlines MH-17, the 2K12 surprised Israeli (and NATO) forces during the Yom Kuppur War. Egyptian and Syrian SAMs downed a claimed 100+ Israeli aircraft in that war, and some modern aircraft since (e.g. F-16s in the Gulf War and Bosnia).

Analysts were predicting that the huge attritional battle would benefit the Russians, and their absurd number of tanks, helicopters and IFVs. And Western commanders didn’t like the idea of giving up ground and sacrificing units. It felt like losing. The enemy maintained the momentum. We weren’t in control. And that won’t do.

AirLand Battle re-wrote the defensive rules. AirLand Battle says that the best way to defend is to fight fire with fire and attack an enemy attack. In fact it is a pretty big shift in thinking that harks back to the German stormtrooper tactics in WWI – avoid the enemy main thrusts and forces, instead attack weakly defended areas like the flanks of a salient or logistics sites and reinforcement staging areas. Similar to Active Defence, but more aggressive and offensive.

The main premise was that, as well as slowing down the enemy by degrading their ability to keep frontline troops supplied, rapid attacks would exploit the one strength that NATO had over the Warsaw Pact at this point: the initiative and decisiveness of unit-level commanders. This improved command and control allowed them (so the thinking went), to be more agile, to confuse the enemy, to get inside their OODA loop, to regain the initiative.

The OODA loop.

This is the single most important doctrinal development for understanding the way we do things now. It drove a focus on deep fires (the ability to cause long-range reasonably precise effects, e.g. through cruise missiles, MLRS, or deep-strike interdiction aircraft), on close air and ground coordination, and on finding and exploiting enemy weaknesses.

Is it (probably) significantly more effective? Yes. Would appeal to the military mindset. Absolutely yes, and it’s this that (in my view), led to adoption and continuing use of these warfighting tenets.

So what has changed since?

Network Centric Warfare, Full Spectrum Operations & AirSea Battle

Very little really.

Network Centric Warfare (Network Enabled Capability here in the UK) took the explosion of computing power in the 90s together with the increasing quality of ISTAR and command and control and communication computer (C4) systems, and decided that through the power of computer networks we would be able to identify the enemy, determine the appropriate course of action, target them, and cause an effect (usually destroying them) far faster than before.

It promised a great increase in operational effectiveness, but nobody planned to actually DO anything different. Faster, yes, and requiring more ISTAR and comms, yes, but war after was effectively the same as war before but with more information. If anything it’s AirLand Battle(+), speeding up OODA loops even more. There’s a slight assumption here that there’s nothing our adversary can do about our super-comms and  ISTAR: jamming, counter-jamming, and other Electronic Warfare back to the fore, and would be sorely tested against a peer adversary.

The latest named doctrinal developments to come from the US are Full Spectrum Operations – opening up the focus from the direct battle to information (e.g. PSYOPS and influence), cyberspace, civil support and nation building – and AirSea Battle. Full Spectrum Operations is a post-Cold War development that says that the military doesn’t just fight huge set-piece battles against nations, it also does a lot of peacekeeping, peace support, and nation building. The basic tenets of battle are the same, but that battle has always been driven by the need to beat everyone else, not to support or rebuild a nation.

AirSea Battle is effectively AirLand battle set in the Pacific instead of Germany – it’s not really anything new or different, instead it’s an evolution that codifies how air and maritime / littoral units will operate together.

British Defence Doctrine

Joint Doctrine Publication 01: UK Defence Doctrine sets out the overarching guidelines for how British forces fight. It sets out the context in which the UK Government would fight as a lever of governmental power. It sets out the general themes of what “fighting power” means (e.g. it isn’t just equipment, it includes trained, high-morale personnel, who think in the right way, who are just and follow appropriate rules, supported by a solid supply chain, etc.).

JDP 0-01: UK Defence Doctrine

And ultimately it sets out the key themes of the way we fight:

  • The Manoeuvrist Approach: “applies strength against identified vulnerabilities, including predominantly indirect ways and means of targeting the intellectual and moral component of an opponent’s fighting power. Significant features are momentum, tempo, and agility which, in combination, aim to achieve shock and surprise.
  • Selection and Maintenance of the Aim: set out to do the right thing, and do what you set out to do;
  • Maintenance of Morale: feel like we’re doing the right thing;
  • Offensive Action: gain advantage, maintain momentum, and seize the initiative;
  • Security: gain and maintain freedom of action, where and when required, to achieve objectives;
  • Surprise: OPFOR uses confusion. OPFOR hurts itself in its confusion (strangely I can’t find a simple explanation of that phrase anywhere. Sorry to the confused. Don’t hurt yourself in your confusion. Have this instead).
  • Concentration of Force: “involves decisively synchronising superior fighting power”;
  • Economy of Effort: use the minimum power required to achieve effects;
  • Flexibility: agility, responsiveness, resilience, adaptability;
  • Cooperation: sharing dangers, burdens, risks, and opportunities;
  • Sustainability: maintain fighting power and freedom of action.

And if you can’t look at that list and start to get a glimmer for what each bit is and why it’s there (admittedly with more focus on some than others), then this quick step through history has failed.

So, where next?

The Future

The UK armed forces are having a bit of an understated crisis at the moment. We are trying to recover from a position where we substantially failed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we are re-realising that we might have to face peer nation militaries (something we can’t do at the moment), and we still have ambitions of meaningfully contributing to large military goals.

My very personal view is that our current doctrine fails the current situation. We cannot fight how we’d like to – the military is underfunded and poorly structured to sustain large forces in theatre. Goals to have a deployable Division are laudable, but the methods are dubious.

In general, our doctrine fails to suit two of the three tasks (really there are several others, but these are the main ones) that we might be called upon to perform:

  • We cannot fight a peer nation with this doctrine. Relying on an intelligence and C2 picture is risky at best (really just naive) when adversaries can jam our signals and target our ISTAR assets. Our technological edge is eroding fast (if it still exists), and our inherent C2 edge doesn’t sufficiently cover the fact that any adversary we’d consider a “peer” has a bigger military than us in terms of numbers. And numbers matter.
  • Our doctrine is perfectly suited to fighting non-peer militaries. Air and Special Forces support to allied efforts, turning up and destroying large numbers of technologically inferior enemies in a clear military command structure, even conventional deterrence (pointing out the risk to enemies of performing an action) – yes all of those we’re good at.
  • Our doctrine is too military to be suitable to long-term peacekeeping and nation-building. How does “concentration of force” engender trust in the target population and cause alienation of belligerent forces? How long does “selection and maintenance of an aim” actually stand up, if the aim is creating a successful society and it’s much easier for military people to measure success as enemy body count? How does the manoeuvrist approach encourage military decision-makers to think beyond “kinetic effect” (destroying things), and instead train themselves to be better-armed policemen?

So where will British Defence Doctrine be in 10 years time? My fear is that it will be where it is now.


As Tom Lehrer said: “Spring is here, Spring is here. Life is skittles and life is beer.”

The exit from Afghanistan has all three services, but particularly the Army, looking at their place in the world and realising that all isn’t well. Change is in the air, both in macro-level structure (e.g. the new Adaptive and Reactive forces – encouraging long-term engagement in specific areas of the world, taking on the lesson from the successful French operation in Mali (Op Serval)), and in small-unit tactics (e.g. proposal for getting rid of the section-level Light Machine Gun (Minimi) and organic 60mm mortar).

In the land environment I think the most promising initiative for changing the way we fight is the attempt to separate deployed forces from needing sustainment for as long as possible: reducing power use / battery carriage cuts down on resupply needs, and reduces the weight carried by average soldier. Reduced resupply means increased freedom of action, freedom of manoeuvre, surprise, reduced protection requirement, etc.

Deployable field renewable power. Solar panels charge this satcomms equipment. This can last indefinitely (to a point), and reduces the battery carriage requirement.

But the strongest change in thinking, and one that might need to be learned in the civilian world too, is that in this new world our forces again aren’t the strongest and we keep overpromising: we think we can deliver too much with too little. As such, we will take casualties, and they may be heavy. We must be able to bear that, and to fight on regardless to achieve the military objective.

If we can re-learn that Cold War lesson then we may yet retain some strong military credibility.