Combat Operations

All manner of warfighting activities are usually planned and have many similarities. There are a wide variety of missions from attacking a hill to hostage rescue. Each operation requires a different approach and different planning requirements.

In the movies you usually see the Lieutenant, Captain, Major or whoever saying “We attack at dawn,” or “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Movies rarely, if ever, show the extensive planning and the movement to the objective. Fighting the battle usually isn’t even half the problem. It wouldn’t be the first time a unit got lost on the way to the attack and missed it, or tried to attack an objective loaded down with heavy, useless gear.

A lot of movies will say “We’ve passed the point of no return” but what does that really mean? What is an Objective Rally Point, what is a rally point? What is the edge of the battle area and why is a dawn attack preferred? What’s so special about a patrol?

Entire manuals have been written about Offensive and Defensive Operations, Patrols, Raids, and tactics. There are a lot of fine points to all these operations. For instance a patrol is not just a group of fighters wandering around in the jungle looking for the enemy. There are six types of patrols and each one has a very specific mission.

Defensive Operations are not just a line of fox holes where the fighters will fire at the enemy while artillery rounds explode around them. The deployment of machine guns, barbed wire, grenade launchers, mines, and secondary and tertiary positions are all of critical importance.

An Offensive Operation is not just a bunch of fighters attacking some hill, or enemy camp. Fires should be coordinated so only the enemy gets shot, how far should the unit attack or will it be a mile long assault course that ends only because the troops can’t run anymore.

It is often said that the most difficult operation is patrolling. If a unit can patrol well, it can do everything else. Patrols are very highly planned and can have very unpredictable results. All patrols are basically the same with the differences being on how it will react to contact with the enemy and the end results desired. All other types of combat operations implement some aspect of patrolling.

War is a means to an end. It involves people and like people it cannot be stereotyped. Every conflict is different because the people and circumstances are different.

In essence war is about people who cannot solve their problems peacefully and for one reason or another find it better to kill their fellow man. Humans have been fighting since the dawn of time. With the ability to write and pass on knowledge the art of war has been codified and studied for thousands of years.

Scholars and warriors have studied war long and hard and several basic truths have emerged. Each nation and military has their variations based on their experience and history.

Dimensions of War

There are three dimensions of war and each one can have a different affect on the outcome of the conflict.

The first Dimension of War is the Physical Dimension. The abilities of men, equipment and logistics. This is the most recognizable dimension and it is usually the easiest to measure. It can have a powerful effect on the outcome of a battle or war but it is not the only factor.

The second Dimension of War is the Mental Dimension. The capacity to plan, think and act tactically. This is frequently the theoretical aspect and is not so easy to measure.

The third Dimension of War is the Moral Dimension. This is the courage, Esprit De Corp, the morale and will of the combatants. This can have a very powerful effect on the conflict, more than most people realize. Many of the less educated generals tend to underestimate.

Nature of War

War by its very nature is chaos incarnate. War is fought by people under pressure and people become very unpredictable under that pressure. People think differently, interpret orders differently, see the situation differently and are under pressure so they react differently than may be expected.

Although wars are different in respect to reasons and actions, the nature of war remains consistent and can be characterized by having the following different aspects.

Friction is what makes the seemingly easy tasks into difficult tasks. Digging a hole is usually easy and relatively stress free. Digging a hole while under fire and bombardment is not.

Uncertainty is the Fog of War. In a war zone one never knows exactly what the enemy is up to, where he is and why he is doing what he is doing. Uncertainty is about those secrets you don’t know and uncertainty is not knowing exactly what your commander or subordinates are thinking or doing. It is so easy to make a mistake if you don’t have all the facts and information but facts and information is frequently the last thing you have.

Fluidity is the constantly developing situation. Each situation is different and requires a different approach. Things do not just ‘happen’ they evolve. The enemy doesn’t just attack from nowhere. They have to come from their base and they usually have a very specific goal, failing that goal they WILL try something else. The side with the best ability to adapt to the situation and shape it to their advantage has a powerful tool.

Disorder is what conflict usually becomes. The longer a battle is fought the more chaotic it will become. If a subordinate leader is killed or gets lost then the commander will have no idea what is going on with that sub unit. The longer a battle goes on the more chances are that the someone will get killed, wounded or lost. When that happens a link in the chain of information is removed.

The Human Dimension is the clash of opposing, violent wills. It is human nature that leads us to fight. It is lies and truths of others, tied together in a tapestry of confusion, that leads people to fight and kill each other.

Violence and Danger is also the nature of war. This causes a great deal of fear among the combatants. Fear of getting killed, fear of getting friends killed, fear of killing another man. Killing is the final option. You cannot apologize to a dead man and some people find that they are unwilling to use that final option. Others realize that if they do not use that final option then someone they know and care for may die. The violence and danger affect people in many different ways and everyone is different, and until they have received the baptism of fire, unpredictable.

Principles of War

History has taught us time and time again that certain principles apply to all wars. The lesser leader will forget or ignore these principles and that will usually lead to his defeat.

Mass: This is the concentration of fires and forces at the decisive place and time. It is not about having more troops although that helps, it is about applying what you have in the most effective and powerful manner.

Unity Of Command: There should be one decision maker. One person who sets the goals and objectives. It is up to that leader to insure the soldiers or Marines are working together to achieve that objective. Without one commander the force will be torn apart by indecision and lack of coordination.

Objective/Aiming Point: This means there must be a reason for the battle or war and it must be adhered to. Changing the aiming point or objective halfway through the conflict will lead to chaos and possibly defeat.

Economy of Force: This is balancing your force to get the most out of it. There will never be enough troops or planes or tanks to satisfy a commander so careful planning must be done to insure the force is well managed and deployed. It also means the commander must accept the risks inherent in deploying that force. For example, if supply lines are well protected then it is unlikely the commander will have enough troops to find and engage the guerrillas. If enough troops are not deployed to protect the supply lines then the troops looking for the guerrillas may starve.

Flexibility: War is characterized by chaos, disorder, indecision and uncertainty. The situation is usually changing constantly so the commander must be ready to take advantage of the situation when an advantage presents itself.

Initiative: This is making the enemy react instead of act. By taking the initiative you are forcing the enemy to try and counter you. You force him to try and figure out what you are up to and you force him to guess, possibly guessing wrong. If the enemy does guess wrong then he will likely make a mistake that you can use to your advantage.

Maneuver: This is linked with initiative. By moving around you are forcing the enemy to expend time and resources figuring out where you are and what you are up to. If you remain stationary then the best you can achieve is a stalemate. A chess game is not one by both players staring at the board, it is won by moving pieces in a threatening manner and seeking a weakness in the enemy defense.

Security: This is about keeping secrets and making sure the enemy does not surprise you. If the enemy knows what you are up to, where you are and what you are planning he will set a trap for you. If you don’t have someone watching behind you then the enemy will sneak up and cut your throat. Security is basically about not getting surprised.

Surprise: It is always best to surprise your opponent and a surprise attack can inflict damage way out of proportion to the defending force. Everyone from the general to the private knows it is safer to sneak up and bash your enemy from behind than to call him out to a fair fight.

Simplicity: Because warfare is chaos orders and equipment must be simple. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy and a simple battle plan makes it easier to adjust to the situation. When people are scared they do a lot less thinking and fumble much more easily so equipment should be as simple as possible. As Murphy once said “The side with the simplest uniforms wins.”

Morale: Most people don’t consider this much but it can have the greatest impact on a battle. Conscript troops for instance would rather be at home with wife and kids than fighting someone so when the rounds start flying that conscript will be less willing to risk his life than a fanatic with a grudge.

Speed: This is about acting quickly, keeping the enemy in a position trying to counter what you are doing. By staying active you are putting the enemy on the defensive and taking away his initiative. Speed is the best way to confuse and cripple an enemy.

Offense: This ties in with speed and maneuver. By taking the offense and attacking the enemy you are forcing him to try and counter you. You are also taking the initiative away from the enemy. By attacking the enemy’s willpower and equipment you are destroying the enemy’s ability to react and counter you.

Entropy: Basically this means that the longer a conflict goes on the more predictable and “plodding” it will become. Of course there are exceptions as each side tries different ploys to end the conflict but for the most part the conflict grinds along because both sides have learned what they are capable of and what they are not. Surprise is less easily obtained in the big picture and the war frequently becomes a war of attrition.

Combating Force

When two different forces clash very rarely are they actually equal. Commanders will seek to concentrate their forces in a decisive time and place. In order to ‘control’ the enemy and maneuver him into an advantageous position the commander can employ one of four methods for dealing with the enemy force.

Leading Force: The enemy will usually seek to attack weaknesses so by pretending to be weak the defender may draw the enemy into a trap.

Turning Force: By attacking a flank or from a certain location the defender can force the enemy to turn and face him with the intent of concentrating his force against the defender. This can take the enemy off balance and give the defender a chance to lead the enemy into a trap. For instance by attacking a flank and forcing the enemy to turn to meet the defender the enemy may open up his rear to another defending force.

Absorbing Force: This can be costly. The defenders intent is to strike at the enemy in brief attacks to blunt and disorganize his attack. This is one method of absorbing the enemy’s attack while avoiding casualties and allowing the enemy to concentrate his forces.

Force on Force: This is a head on collision betting your force will be victorious. This is more of an Attritionist concept because it is a dare and a bet that your forces are more powerful. It is like trading blows to the face with the enemy, painful and blood, but one of you will win.

Combat Operations are planned with these factors in mind. A commander always seeks to maximize his advantages and minimize his weaknesses. By using one’s strength against an enemy’s perceived weakness is the best method of defeating the enemy.

Battles are usually fought with this in mind. Many war movies make it look like soldiers run around looking for an enemy to fight. In some wars this may have been the case. Those days are over however. The enemy can be ‘destroyed’ through the use of nukes or nerve gas but that will not be acceptable to the international community. It does not take into account civilians and innocent people.

Wars and battles are fought for a reason and it is people who determine that reason, not technology. Technology just makes it easier for combatants to find and kill each other.