Contours Part V

Sub Title : Evolving Nature of Land Warfare and Tactics

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2021

Author : Col Ashwani Sharma (Retd)

Page No. : 11

Category : Military Affairs

: March 27, 2021

Future wars’ is a complex subject. It deserves a careful analysis of a number of factors, in particular, emerging technologies which are likely to impact warfare’s nature. In the first four parts of ‘Contours’ we have featured technologies. It is time to look at their implications as they necessitate change in tactical approach for fighting future wars. And before we get on with nuts and bolts, let us, in this essay, examine the doctrinal implications of technological changes within the three levels of war viz; Strategic, Operational, and Tactical. The analysis would suggest that in future, the technologically altered battlefield will merge the three levels of war into a single new structure for the integration of complex air-land-sea combat operations. Add to it Cyber and Space domains to complete the picture. Greater scope for directing joint simultaneous operations provides capability to convert tactical success on the battlefield into decisive strategic results. Tactical drills thus will have to change and we shall look at those suggested changes as we proceed further.

A recap on evolution of modern warfare is unwarranted and is beyond the scope of this essay. It is however, possible to infer contours of change in the levels of war from a few watershed events in history. Let us, therefore, take a quick glance at some selected wars of the past: (i) Napoleon’s Ulm campaign in 1805, (ii) The Schlieffen Plan, (iii)the Blitzkrieg in 1940, and (iv)Operation Desert Storm, 1991. It will establish the extent to which the levels of war are evolving into a new conceptual structure. This will also establish one important factor, which is – ‘Time and Space’ prevalent in the previous wars often become outmoded, and turn into a cause for defeat in subsequent wars, if military leadership fails to grasp and adapt to modern warfare’s potential for accelerated reaction time and extended battlefield space.

Evolution of Time and Space

Before we set out to discuss modern era battles, one example in the Indian context is relevant. In BC 346, during the battle of Hydaspus, in the course of his invasion of India, Alexander the Great used manoeuver to great effect in ensuring the stalemate against the Purus; this, despite their war elephants which managed to break the Greek cavalry phalanx. Alexander the great indulged in simultaneity of operations while crossing the river, telescoped time and expanded space to surprise the gallant and well organised Purus. Superior manoeuvre paid dividends and checkmated an equal adversary, a basic military principle that remains unchanged till date.

As military technology advanced, superior means of communications facilitated faster manoeuver in less time and greater space. Let us take a brief look at some of the great battles in modern history in chronological sequence.

Battle of Ulm: 1805 . (La Grande Armee outsmarted and defeated the Austrian Army with minimum losses. Significance of Manoeuvre and its effect on time and space as dominant factors in deciding the outcome of operations was established at Ulm, which shaped subsequent wars.)

Of Napoleon’s campaigns, none is more important to an understanding of modern warfare than the Ulm campaign of 1805. After the Napoleonic wars ended, numerous military observers set out to make Napoleon’s military genius intelligible as he left no written record of mil doctrines.

Analysis of Napoleon’s conduct of the Ulm campaign illustrates how depth and simultaneity of operations become the chief defining variables. Napoleon, who was both French head-of-state and army commander-in-chief, translated his vision of the national strategic aim into the practical application of force on a theater-wide basis.

Europe had been embroiled in the French Revolutionary Wars since 1792. Britain remained the only opponent for the new French Consulate. In May 1803, Britain declared war on France followed by an Anglo-Swedish agreement leading to the creation of the Third Coalition.  Keen on revenge, Austria joined the coalition a few months later.

Prior to the formation of the Third Coalition, Napoleon had assembled the “Army of England,” an invasion force meant to strike at the British Isles. Although they never set foot on British soil, Napoleon’s troops received careful and invaluable training for military operations. The men at Boulogne formed the core for what Napoleon would later call “La Grande Armée” (The Great Army). By 1805, La Grande Armée had grown to a force of 350,000 with a battle-hardened officer class.

Karl Mack the new commander in Austria’s army, instituted reforms on the on the eve of war that called for a regiment to be composed of four battalions of four companies rather than the older three battalions of six companies. The change came with no corresponding officer training.  Austrian cavalry, regarded as the best in Europe, was detached in units to Infantry formations and thus precluded the combat power of their massed French counterparts.

Austrian plans and preparations. General Mack thought that Austrian security relied on sealing off the gaps through the mountainous Black Forest area in Southern Germany. Mack decided to make the city of Ulm the centerpiece of his defensive strategy, which called for a containment of the French until the Russians under Kutuzov could arrive and change the odds against Napoleon. Ulm was protected by the heavily fortified Michelsberg heights, giving Mack the impression that the city was virtually impregnable.

French Preparation. Based on earlier experience, the Aulic Council thought Napoleon would strike in Italy again. Napoleon however, had other intentions – 210,000 French troops would be launched eastwards from the camps of Boulogne and would envelop General Mack’s exposed Austrian army if it kept marching towards the Black Forest. The main attack in Germany would be supported by French assaults in other theatres.

The Battle. Alerted by French intelligence agents to Austrian and Russian military mobilisation, Napoleon moved his 200,000 troops 300 miles from their encampment in Boulogne in a wide envelopment along multiple axes across western Europe to converge on the Austrian rear in Ulm. Thanks to careful French diplomacy, strict security measures, and the elimination of the French army’s dependence on fixed supply points, the operation was completed in only seven weeks. Separate corps-size elements were given independent missions with mutually supporting objectives. Occupied with a French cavalry screen in the Black Forest region, the Austrians discounted the possibility that the majority of French forces would advance on a broad concentric front over difficult terrain. Surprised and isolated by the crushing rapidity of the French advance and by the presence of the French army far behind their front, the Austrian forces at Ulm were compelled to surrender.

Lessons and Significance. The Ulm campaign is considered to be one of the greatest historical examples of a strategic turning movement. The decisive victory at Ulm is also a product of the long training, minimum logistics, and highlighted the utility of the Corps d’Armée system; corps went on to become the fundamental strategic building block for the major wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. Two key points emerge from this brief historical review. First, prior to Ulm armies were generally small and the battlefield rather than the theatre of war was the commander’s arena. Social and industrial revolution in France created mass armies and the means to mass-produce weapons and supplies. Second, Napoleon’s appreciation of new battlefield dynamics enabled him to wage a war of greater spatial scope and duration. Moreover, Napoleon’s willingness to delegate command, to accelerate the tempo of operations, to risk dispersion on the approach march, and to concentrate large, independent bodies of troops at critical points on the battlefield produced a relatively inexpensive victory. Napoleon’s acute sense of timing and the depth of his operational focus guaranteed that the effect of the whole French campaign was greater than the sum of its individual parts-single engagements. Under the weight of Napoleon’s strategic offensive, the Austrians imploded and their will to resist collapsed.

The Schlieffen Plan. (Its non-implementation in WW I by a timid commander led to years of trench warfare, instead of a possible quick victory through a bold manoeuvre)

World War I witnessed trench warfare and attrition that followed in this positional warfare. However, it was not meant to be, not if the original German plan is to be believed, which envisaged envelopment of French forces and their eventual destruction, much like Napoleon’s strategy at the battle of Ulm.

The Schlieffen Plan was a name given to German war plans, due to the influence of Field Marshal Alfred Schlieffen and his thinking on an invasion of France and Belgium, which began on 4 August 1914. In 1905 and 1906, Schlieffen devised a plan for a war-winning offensive against the French. German forces were to invade France through the Netherlands and Belgium rather than across the common border.

After losing the First World War, German official historians of the Reichsarchiv described the plan as a blueprint for victory. Generaloberst (Colonel-General)  Moltke the Younger, succeeded Schlieffen as Chief of the German Gen Staff in 1906 and was dismissed after the First Battle of the Marne. German historians claimed that Moltke had ruined the plan by meddling with it out of timidity. Post-war writing by German officers and the Reichsarchiv historians managed to establish a commonly accepted narrative that Moltke failed to follow the blueprint devised by Schlieffen and condemned the belligerents to four years of attrition warfare.

Blitzkrieg 1940

Battle of River Meuse (Innovative application of automotive, aviation, and communications technology to military use in the context of the 1940 German blitzkrieg implied that the operational dimensions of time and space were subject to radical change)

The failure of the German 1918 offensives had fostered a compulsion for self-examination in the German officer corps for the potential impact of new technology on the battlefield dimensions of time and space. In 1933, Heinz Guderian wrote about the use of armour in future war: “The manner of its engagement is not in prolonged battles, but short well-timed operations launched by brief orders. The principle of surprise is essential in order to avoid enemy defensive action.” It was no accident that when war came, the impact of changing battlefield dynamics enabled the Germans to exploit radio communications, aircraft, and tank technology in order to change plans minute by minute in the face of enemy opposition. For the first time, real-time communications allowed operational commanders to coordinate directly with their tactical leaders on the battlefield. This accelerated response time accentuated by quicker movement of maneuver and support elements. Once probing actions revealed a weak spot in the enemy’s front, German armoured columns would shift to that point quickly, attacking on a narrow front to cut lines of communication, overrun enemy command and control nodes, and immobilise the enemy defence system.

In the case of Guderian’s assault across the Meuse River at Sedan on 13-14 May 1940, heavy strategic air assets were concentrated for employment at the operational level in a four-hour attack to support the three Panzer division assault that split the Anglo-French front. When the breakthrough came, Guderian’s decision to turn northward and advance on the English Channel with only a part of his force captured the strategic initiative for the Germans. Much like the Austrian command structure in 1805, the French command’s resolve to fight vanished under the intensity of the German onslaught. Relative to their opponents, German casualties were remarkably light.

Whereas the British and French armies of the period calculated the speed of any combined-arms unit as that of the slowest element, the Germans measured it by that of the fastest – the tank, and insisted that their divisions move as rapidly as possible. Aviation allowed for the deep attack of many targets far beyond the visual range, helping to incapacitate the enemy’s strategic resources. Air power also supplanted artillery as the principal means of fire support in order to sustain the momentum of the armored thrusts.

In this second evolution of the levels of war, blitzkrieg entailed a distinct overlapping of strategy and tactics by operational activity. Continuous coordination among commanders at the three levels permitted the achievement of multiplied effects of mobile air-land operations.

Op Desert Storm 1991 (Transition in doctrinal thought)

The campaign to liberate Kuwait was no true military contest. It was, in fact, a strategic victory so overwhelming that the outcome was never seriously in doubt. Coalition casualties were negligible and not one American tank was destroyed by enemy fire. Thus, in outline, Desert Storm bears a superficial resemblance to the 1940 blitzkrieg. The enemy whose territory was to be attacked provided an area of operations offering the space to execute brilliant manoeuvers. The winning side was commanded by military leaders whose thinking relative to their opponents was unconstrained.  Moreover, the troops were better trained and better equipped than their opponents. What changed in 1991 was the availability of precise deep strike delivery systems on land and aboard ships and aircraft, combined with a vast inventory of lethal conventional munitions and long-range aircraft which could be guided to enemy targets under near constant surveillance.  Decisive American overmatch in the direct-fire battle was as important. The theater commander thus, was technologically positioned to influence action on the battlefield by directing global military resources to the points in time and space he regarded as critical to the campaign’s success. For the Iraqi enemy, whose air defences failed and whose int-collection capability was either destroyed or deceived, the close, rear and deep battles were compressed into one seamless, continuous fight. In effect, Iraq was subjected to a new form of multidimensional envelopment. Iraq’s successful combat operations were patterned after Soviet concepts of static defensive warfare. Iraq’s war philosophy, based on traditional attritions tactics which incorporated advanced technologies in the form of Exocet missiles, Scuds, and RPVs wore down the Iranians, they were ineffective against the American-led coalition. Being steeped in this doctrine appeared to prevent the Iraqis from adopting a different form of warfare.

On the other hand, American Air Land Battle doctrine predisposed the American armed forces to deploy specialised combat formations configured to exploit Iraqi weaknesses throughout the Iraqi defences.

As we are discussing land domain tactics, one more factor stands out here – it was the ground offensive that compelled the Iraqis to submit unconditionally to the Coalition forces. As in previous wars, only ground forces in concert with air and naval forces could fundamentally transform the geopolitical landscape and reorient hostile state-to-state relations to coincide with vital ‘Coalition strategic interests’.

The foregoing historical discussion against the backdrop of an evolving structure for the levels of war points to the possibility of dramatic change in the concept and practice of warfare. New equipment and weapon systems, employed in great numbers at the critical points in time and space, now offer the potential for continuous offensive operations. They permit the retention of initiative and the exploitation of opportunities for the annihilation of the enemy’s forces in a rapid, integrated campaign.

Emergence of new technologies, space and cyber domains have expanded not only battle space, but also added new mediums in which wars would be waged. These are invisible mediums, unseen by human eye. History stands witness to the fact that wars are always fought in the medium of communications. Repeating whats stated above, at the end physical annihilation is imperative.

Next edition of the series will deal with that.