Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Dec 13, 2012 in Draft

Tactics for test

Gerald D. Swick

Adaptation in War

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

Sun Tzu

In our last article, we focused on the combat raid. For an operation that strives to be as stealthy as possible; it perhaps receives more publicity than any other attack. This is because it is such a high risk/high reward operation. There have been many successful raids in history that have had a huge impact militarily and politically. Conversely, a failed raid can have the same dramatic impact. In our discussion of the raid, we keyed on a few areas. First, we reminisced a bit with a war story from days gone by. Second, we highlighted some of the more famous/infamous raids in military history. Finally, we dissected the planning, preparation, and execution of the raid.


Our article this month will be a little more thought-provoking than normal. We will look at adaption in war. Throughout history, there are numerous examples of leaders/units/countries who have adapted in war and reaped the benefits. This adaption may have been out of necessity or simply brilliance. On the other hand, there are just as many instances where the failure to adapt ultimately led to defeat. This failure can be the result of numerous factors which we will address later.

In tackling this subject, we will key on a few areas. These include: 1) Recognizing success or failure. 2) Examples in history where adaptation in war was clearly evident. 3) Times in history where adaption did not take place. 4) Tactical adaptations tried and true. 5) What happens when the enemy adapts and you do not. LET’S MOVE OUT!

In war, you either impose your will upon the enemy or he imposes his will upon you. There are the occasional draws, but usually someone comes out on top. If you’re on the losing side, will you recognize it coming? If you do, will you adjust what you are doing or will you ‘stick to the book’ and hammer him in the only way you know how? The answer seems obvious, but it actually isn’t. Too many times we just keep on doing what we’re doing, thus validating Einstein’s definition of insanity; “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

Recognizing Success or Failure. Combat leaders cannot afford to don rosy glasses, they must assess the situation in the light of cold rationality. Commanders use a decision support template that lists critical events linked to decisions to track battlefield progress. Tracking the reports tells the commander if he’s headed in the right direction. If he’s not, it’s time for a change. Lee missed this key point at Gettysburg. Lee’s attacks were repulsed two days in a row, thus indicating the strength of Meade’s positions. Rather than recognize failure, Lee tried again with Pickett’s charge on day three—a disaster.

Pickett’s Charge

What do you do when you recognize failure? A good answer is to break contact to buy time and look for ways to do things differently. This was the essence of Grant’s approach during the Vicksburg Campaign. He tried a multitude of approaches, but wasted little effort or resources repeating failed attempts. In short; adapt or die.

“It is also greatly in the commander’s own interest to have a personal picture of the front and a clear idea of the problems his subordinates are having to face. It is the only way which he can keep his ideas permanently up to date and adapted to changing conditions. If he fights his battles as a game of chess, he will become rigidly fixed in academic theory and admiration of his own ideas. Success comes most readily to the commander whose ideas have not been canalized into any one fixed channel, but can develop freely from the conditions around him.”

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

Failure to adapt: USSR 1989. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to protect their many interests. Many would contend they went in perhaps over confident and did not dedicate the resources they truly needed. Others say that from the moment the Red Army entered Afghanistan until they departed ten years later, the Soviets fought as if it was WWII the sequel. Their forces were road-bound and tied to forward base camps. They relied on heavy firepower, artillery, and air attacks to intimidate the insurgents. Instead of pacifying the rebels, the Soviets presence rallied them. While the Soviets controlled the ring road and the cities along it, the rebels ran the other 80% of the country. The Soviets refused to accept Afghanistan as a people’s war, or guerilla war, rather than a conventional war. They never adapted to the insurgency and thus quit in 1989 after ten years of wasted effort.

Adapting too late: Germany 1918. World War I saw a great deal of adaptation as both sides grappled with the riddle of the trenches. The commanders on all sides quickly realized the old modes of warfare didn’t work, but they were at a loss for solutions. The list is exhaustive, thus justifying the notion that WWI was a watershed. From 1914 to 1917, the following adaptations were tried:

­ Chemical warfare to break the lines
­ Open ocean submarine warfare to strangle the opposition
­ Centrally controlled indirect artillery fires to mass on points of penetration
­ Strategic air bombardment
­ Tactical air attack
­ Tactical wireless communications
­ Motorized logistic resupply
­ Shoulder fired automatic weapons
­ Tactical front to rear medical support
­ Opening of new fronts to create vulnerable flanks
­ Light mortars
­ Mechanized armored vehicles
­ Tanks
­ Indirect approach through new fronts: Gallipoli, Salonika, Italy
­ Economic Warfare: blockade and U-boat offensive

In 1918, the Germans created Storm-troop units and trained them in infiltration tactics. They were not going to launch massed frontal assaults across broad fronts. Now they were going to send small groups forward to probe for weaknesses to be followed by larger formations. They shifted from command push tactics (befelstaktik) to recon pull tactics (auftragstaktik).

­ Reorganization: Divisional and Regimental assets were pushed down to squad and platoon level.
­ Command: From massed units led by officers to small decentralized storm troops (stosstruppen) led by NCO’s.
­ Training: Storm-troop training that emphasized small unit independent action and initiative.
­ Outcome: Broke the stalemate.

The Germans came to the conclusion that the solution to the problem did not lie in weapons or technology, but in the way they were fighting; their tactics, techniques, and procedures. A lesson from WW I is that small unit tactical changes can have tremendous strategic level effect. Storm-troops employed new methods and carried a more diverse package of weapons. The follow-on forces also followed new procedures. Pre-1918 attacks began with extended artillery barrages followed by a massed infantry assault across a broad front. The new offensive techniques employed new phases:

­ They replaced the barrage with a short concentrated artillery bombardment to neutralize front lines rather than to destroy them. The new fire plan was phased to hit the front then walk back as the attack began—what became modern artillery techniques.
­ After the artillery lifted and shifted, the storm-troops began their infiltration under the creeping barrage. They’d avoid combat whenever possible while destroying or capturing enemy headquarters and artillery positions.
­ Regular units then followed the storm troops on narrow fronts, attacking bypassed strongpoints and clearing resistance.

The new tactics were designed to; achieve tactical surprise, focus at weak points, bypass strongpoints, and abandon operations controlled from afar. Junior leaders exercised on the spot initiative. On 21 March 1918, Germany launched ‘OPERATION MICHAEL’ using the new tactics. Four offensives followed and for the first time in four years the stalemate was broken, but it was too late for Germany.


Slow but steady: Iraq 2006. From 2003 to 2006, the US-led coalition in Iraq faced a rising insurgency. The stability and reconstruction mission became a stability, reconstruction and counterinsurgency mission. The US-led coalition adapted, albeit very slowly. Coalition forces integrated special and regular force operations. National strategic and joint operational assets were pushed down and in support of small units running tactical missions. Forces began shared planning, collaborative execution, and ops/intel fusion. Training focused on building teamwork that accelerated operations. The newly flattened command and control structure coupled with small unit empowerment led to initiative oriented and intent driven operations.

The 2006 adaptation in Iraq introduced highly skilled small units, grounded in the fundamentals of irregular warfare, collaborating together, armed with access to an arsenal of weapons traditionally employed by upper echelon commanders. US units on the ground adapted to a degraded security situation by developing a streamlined and shared targeting cycle, lowering the threshold of actionable intelligence, and enabling distributed execution empowered by collaboration and shared awareness and purpose. Teamwork and trust was developed through mutual agreement to work together to dominate the environment. Units cross-organized and integrated thus sharing responsibilities and risks. They exploited horizontal intelligence sharing and integrated command & control. Decisions were made at lower levels and decisive action followed.

“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after they occur.”

General Giulio Douhet, Command of the Air, 1921

Gaining an edge: Tactical adaptations tried and true.

Combined arms platoons. The US Army mixes tanks and infantry at the company level and above. Such groupings are called combined arms. For some reason, it’s deemed inappropriate to build combined arms units below the company level—the platoon. Some may think that green lieutenants are incapable of exploiting the dynamic mix of infantry and armor at platoon level – we disagree.

• MOUT. This one is not only a no brainer, it’s doctrine. Unescorted tanks moving through city streets are sitting ducks, even for a neophyte urban warrior. Tanks in cities need infantrymen out front, spotting bad guys for them. This is not a one way relationship either. Tanks add excellent suppressive fires from their onboard machine guns and can breach buildings by firing a 120mm round through the walls. In short; a combined arms platoon including a rifle platoon and a tank on the urban battlefield is highly lethal.

Korean War

• Defile drills. Korea is a land of steep hills and narrow valleys and tight defiles. It is all too easy to stop an armored column cold as it tries to muscle its way through a defile. Kill the lead tank and the one or two that try to bypass the wreck and you block the defile. An answer is to lead off with a combined arms platoon. It could be composed of a tank platoon and an infantry platoon; a tank platoon and an infantry squad; or an infantry platoon with a tank—it depends on the nature of the threat covering the pass. The concept is consistent though; the infantry can seize the untrafficable ‘edges’of the defile. They pick off armored targets from above or suppress fellow infantrymen directly. Once enough space is ‘created’, the tank or tanks can rip through and seize a foothold on the far side. Their job is to hold on until a larger force can break through and the infantry provides an invaluable service as ‘the eye in the sky’.

• Open terrain and high-speed Avenues of Approach. During Operation Desert Storm, my company team was defending the right flank of my Brigade Combat Team (BCT). My company team had to cover the BCT flank and link up with the neighboring BCT and cover the main high-speed Avenue of Approach in the sector. The problem was that it was late and both BCT’s were set in their positions. There was a gap; not side by side, but front and rear…we were farther back than they were. I now had to link the BCT’s while closing a gap along a highway. I could not move my company. I had a problem; I could only send a platoon. If I sent an infantry platoon, I would not have rapid fire capability. If I sent a tank platoon, I would lack stand-off anti-tank fire and would risk exposure to infantry on foot. I decided to send a combined platoon consisting of two tanks, two Bradleys, and my XO’s Bradley with my forward observer. This balanced platoon with a Headquarters’ element was like a mini-company team. It worked well.

Special Purpose Forces/GeneralPurpose Forces—Expertise and Numbers. In the aftermath of the combat phases of OIF and OEF, the forces on the ground soon discovered that they couldn’t remain in their comfort zones where conventional guys do what they do and Special Forces do what they do. The conventional infantry and armored forces had the manpower while the SOF had the expertise. The conventional troops were responsible for establishing security and for tracking mid-level insurgents and terrorists while SOF focused on top priority targets. Each force traditionally pursued their respective missions separately from one another. This is fine during a conventional conflict, but it doesn’t work in a counterinsurgency.

• Targeting. What happens when regular infantrymen and Marines are hunting low level enemy bomb makers in neighborhood X while the special forces are tracking the bomb making financier in neighborhood Y? The money man wanders into a bomb lab in neighborhood X and is killed or captured in a raid or worse, is let go since he is unknown to the regular troops. The solution is to make targeting non-proprietary and to share targets. This is exactly what happened. The conventional troops told the SOF who they were after and vice versa and both sides were empowered to take action on any threat target that popped up in their sector. By sharing targets and targeting, both forces enhanced their chances of success. There were more eyes searching. Furthermore, the SOF shared their precise techniques with the regulars, thus making them more effective in the man-hunting realm.

• Fusion. Once the conventional and special forces began to share planning and execution; they had to share everything else. Each force had its own support, planning procedures, sources and chain of command. They usually didn’t even know exactly where each other was working. The solution was to create shared command and control centers where all information from all sources and location could be fused in order to create a shared vision of the battlefield. The new facilities were called ‘fusion centers’ and the goal were to generate a common operating picture (COP). Like cops getting the morning brief before hitting the beat, the newly integrated force now knew who was looking for what and where. They know where each other was operating and could alert each other if a priority target wandered into their area of operations. The Marine Corps Gazette summed up the new arrangements nicely:

“. . . teammates share a common knowledge of the events taking
place around them. In this way, shared mental models enable
teams to adapt to new and dynamic environments by allowing
them to predict the needs of their teammates, thus
coordinating their actions.”

– Marine Corps Gazette April 2007

Helicopters and troops: the Ground Air Team. The AH64 Apache attack helicopter was developed to prosecute the deep attack as part of the old AirLand Battle plan. Their role was to fly over the close battle in order to strike the uncommitted reserves and follow on forces. Apaches are tough, well-armed, have excellent acquisition technology, can deliver precision fire and are also very expensive. The employment of the attack helicopter battalion (AHB) traditionally rests in the hands of a division commander or higher. The problem in Iraq and Afghanistan was that there weren’t huge armored forces in depth waiting to rush the line through the hole created by their predecessors. The battlefield was no longer linear and clearly populated with an identifiable enemy army. The new enemies were insurgents and terrorists who looked like civilians and moved among civilians within cities and villages. Indirect fires that landed inside US bases didn’t originate from fielded artillery battalions; they came from two or three man teams firing a portable mortar.

• The AHT: Attack Helicopter Team. The integration of attack helicopters and small hunter-killer recon teams was a nice adaptation to respond to random mortar attacks. The traditional method of using artillery counter-fire against the source of enemy indirect fire was not acceptable since such an action would devastate an entire grid square full of non-combatants. The solution was to put attack helicopters into the hands of sergeants manning observation posts looking for mortar teams. The ground team perched on rooftops could spot the guerilla mortar men, designate them, and call in precision fires from the Apaches. This technique was devastatingly effective and is one you should consider when facing guerilla warfare as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

• CCA—Close Combat Attack. As stated above the AHB mission is, by design, the deep attack against uncommitted follow on forces and reserves. But what if you are stuck in a narrow and long valley where an armored force is denied the ability to mass and artillery cannot find space to establish firing points to support forward troops? The answer was to remember adaption from the past (specifically Vietnam) and resurrect the concept of close combat attack. In this case, the attack helicopters strike enemy troops in their forward positions in support of direct ground attack. It’s the attack helicopter version of close air support and it is a technique that works well when planned for ahead of time.

What happens when your opponent adapts and you don’t? The answer to this question depends on the overall competence and general luck on each side. If your opponent is significantly inferior in men and material then his adaptations may do nothing more than extend the war. If his adaptations are launched prematurely or without a clearly defined purpose, then he might just squander resources like the Brits did when they sent tanks into Cambrai. The tanks broke through, but there was no real plan to exploit their success.

• The Fortunate One. You may get lucky and prevail in spite of yourself. In this case, the least incompetent side wins. In Russia 1941, the Red Army was out of position, poorly commanded, and was totally unprepared to respond to the new form of warfare—blitzkrieg. The Russians lost one disastrous engagement after another until they found their backs to Moscow. They managed to turn it around, not based on their own sudden burst of competence, but rather based on Germany’s incompetence. Like Napoleon before, the Germans fell victim to vast distances, poor roads, and the harsh winter. The Germans in fact, failed to adapt to the physical environment.

• Irrelevance. Another outcome is that your actions end up having no appreciable effect. In this case, the enemy embarks on a series of adaptations while you stand still. This is, in effect, losing in slow motion. This was the fate of the Ottoman Empire on the Arabian Peninsula from 1916 to 1918. The Arabian Tribes banned together from time to time to assault fortified Turkish garrisons inside fortified cities and were repeatedly defeated given their disadvantage in equipment and training. When T.E. Lawrence joined the Arab army as an advisor; all that changed. The Arabs started to attack the Turks along the rail lines, away from their bases. The tactics were hit and run guerilla tactics and the Turks had no effective response. They lost in slow motion.

T.E. Lawrence

• Chaos. The worst outcome when a static system collides with an adaptive one is systematic failure. In this situation, the enemy adaptation shocks the system to such an extent that every action taken in response only hastens the ultimate collapse. A good example of this was France 1940. The French expected and planned for a repeat of 1918. They saw themselves as invulnerable to a repeat since they built the largest, most extensive, and most expensive series of fortified defensive positions ever seen in history; the Maginot Line. The problem for France was that Germany cheated. They didn’t attack the vaunted line; they went go around it. The French Army ended up sending its armored units here, there, and everywhere. Confusion reigned as units fell like bowling pins. The collapse was spectacular, comprehensive, and complete.

Maginot Line

When you are on the battlefield, the situation is not what you expected, and nothing seems to be working; you’d better be thinking about what you can do differently. Doctrine is a start point not an end state. It grows and develops as leaders in the filed adapt and innovate to overcome unexpected challenges. It’s ok to break the rules especially when the alternative is defeat. Be creative and try new tactics, techniques, and procedures.

As we begin the new year, we will again shift gears. Our first two articles of 2013 will focus on two areas that may not be as “glamorous” as some. These are the tactical road march and the tactical assembly area. As we have stressed throughout our series, there is no such thing as an admin mentally in combat. Every action and operation must be planned, prepared, and executed tactically. With this in mind, we will address how you plan, prepare and execute the tactical road march. Following that article, we will dissect the tactical assembly area.

“In any problem where an opposing force exists, and cannot be regulated, one must foresee and provide for alternative courses. Adaptability is the law which governs survival in war as in life – war being but a concentrated form of the human struggle against environment.”

Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart