2006-03-05 : No, THIS is the perfect medium

Down in the marginalia to a minor comment, J and Sydney Freedberg have been having an interesting conversation about infantry, tanks, and such things military. Hey you two, mind having it up here in the open? I hope you don't mind, because by the power vested in me:


OK, smartypants...
... why is it said that infantry are needed to hold territory (as opposed to armor or helicopters or whatever)? What is it that the infantry are doing there to "hold" an area?


Being cheap! ;)


It's efficiency, not cheapness, I'm sure...
... I don't know that it's pure "cheapness"; I think that if a dude costs $n and a tank costs $100n, 100 guys will still be worth more in a territory holding position than a tank - at least that's what they tell me - and I'd like to know why.

I think it's probably the number eyes, weapons, and personal-scale decision makers. Particularly in the era of the RPG.


Infantry hold ground best because...
Because no amount of armor your tank (or knight) can carry will protect you well as cowering in a hole. Look at Monte Cassino 1944, when the Allies bombed the monastery flat—and afterwards, German infantry crawled out of the rubble and kept fighting. Look at any attempt to bombard WWI trenches. See how fast we plinked Saddam's tanks from the air, and how long it's taking to dig out the guerrillas on foot hiding in buildings. Build me a tank that can cower in the dirt while I bombard it, and I'll hold ground with that tank and no infantry support. Until then, infantry.


Is that the reasoning behind the buried Iraqi tanks?
So vehicles are all about mobility? Like a tank, helicopter, plane, they're all about hitting first to increase the odds against a wounded opponent?


Tanks = mobility
Iraqi tank parked in sand berm visible from air = dead. 100 expensive tanks charging headlong into 100 cheap anti-tank guns/missile launchers = 100 dead tanks. BUT the 100 tanks can move to where there are only 10 anti-tank weapons and run over them.... And marginalia is SO not the venue for military theory. Crap, am I going to have to get a blog?


Oh, no, this is the perfect medium for discussing this!
But aren't infantry cheaper for taking out those 10 anti-armor dudes?

Carry on. We're listening.

[edited to fix an incorrect attribution]

1. On 2006-03-05, Jason M said:

Not sure if you have looked at, or have the inclination to look at, field manuals, but they are available and provide definitive answers to why infantry can do what armor and air power alone cannot.  If you have access to a federal depository library, they should have these FMs on a shelf in the basement, too.


Combined arms in MOUT

Infantry Division ops

Tank and mechanized infantry battalion ops

Maybe also interesting:

Army Universal Task List


2. On 2006-03-06, Larry L said:

"Particularly in the era of the RPG."

Right. See, infantry will entrench and play Dungeons & Dragons. Tanks are not nearly as sociable.


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This makes...
LL go "Yes, I know..."*

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3. On 2006-03-06, Ninja Monkey J said:

RPG="rocket propelled grenade".

So, a tank costs, I dunno, a million dollars, plus the training for the crew of three or so inside the thing. That seems reasonable. It's a traffic lane and a half wide, and while it can get to like 50 mph in the open, it moves the speed of a walking guy in a city, where current wars are taking place.

A dude costs whatever it costs to train a dude to shoot an RPG - I'd guess it's a weekend to train someone on one of those things - plus, I dunno, a thousand dollars.

Now, that tank, you can hear coming from a quarter mile away, roaring down the street. It's got tremendous armor on the front, back, and sides, and I guess armor underneath because of mines. So, in the time it takes the tank to come up the street a quarter mile, the dude with the RPG walks up the stairs, looks through a window, then shoots the tank from above where it's weakest. And no one knows what happens.

So let's say sometimes the tank crew sees a guy with an RPG and shoots him. First, they're shooting into buildings. Sometimes those buildings have civilians in them. So they have to be sure that there aren't any, or at least no one's going to find out that there were (this is my cynical self; I don't know what military policy and actual tactics actually are). So let's say they shoot the guy.

To even up, not counting the training for the guys, the tank has to eliminate 1000 dudes with RPGs for every one they destroy in order to stay even.

Jason, thanks. I'll look at those. But use HTML fer Pete's sake.

Sydney? I'm waitin' on your response.


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4. On 2006-03-06, Sydney Freedberg said:

Thanks, J; thanks, Vincent.

Small correction: the "being cheap! ;)" comment wasn't me, actually, but "SDL" (who is... err... I forget).

Larger correction: The "being cheap!" logic is what lots of Industrial Age bureaucrats, 3rd World warlords, & the like think before they decide to throw a bunch of guys with guns (or spears, or RPGs, or whatever) together and call it "infantry." The result is lots of dead infantry.

In war, there is nothing easier to produce than crappy infantry units. There is nothing harder to produce than good infantry.

Giant, screaming correction:

Forget the efficiency calculations for a moment. In war, efficiency and effectiveness are often enemies, and the inefficient solution is often the best solution.

And I'm loopy with exhaustion, with one funeral down, one toddler birthday party down, and one more funeral to go, so bear with me if I'm a bit sketchy in these posts.


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This reminds...
SF of My contact information, naked to the world...

This makes...
SDL go "Yep..."*
VB go "Sydney, email me."*

*click in for more

5. On 2006-03-06, Sydney Freedberg said:


The problem with studying the military is that it's easy to get hung up on all the fiddly numbers—an RPG has X range, but an M1 has Y armor, but an RPG costs Z.... Screw it. It's like people discussing the relative merits of different kinds of power tools for home construction without know what the difference is between "floor," "wall," and "roof."

So let's get back to basics, which no one ever teaches you, because War Iz Bad 4 Puppies & Other Livin Thingz, so young boys are left to learn about it on the street like sex before the sixties.


There are three things you can do in a fight:

1. HURT THE OTHER GUY—how hard can you hit the other guy with your rock/RPG/railgun?
2. PROTECT YOURSELF—how hard are you to hit, and how hard a hit can you take?
3. MOVE AROUND—how fast can you move, over whatever ground?

The core dilemma: Anything you do to make yourself better at one of these things makes you worse at one or both of the others.

That applies on all scales:
1) "As long as I stay in this ditch, they can't shoot me! But I can't shoot back, unless I stand up—which makes it easier for them to shoot me, too—and I can't move except back and forth in the ditch—unless I get out and run—which makes it easier for them to shoot me and I'll be moving too fast too aim."
2) "Men, form a square! Excellent, now Napoleon's cavalry cannot hope to overrun us. But with men facing all four directions instead of in a line, we can't concentrate our musket fire against any one target, and if we wanted to march anywhere, we would really move faster in column formation."
3) "This new tank has impenetrable armor! But that means no engine we can put in it will move it very fast. And if we want to put a bigger gun in it, it'll be even slower, unless we get rid of some armor...."
4) "Our clan has always been safe in the mountains! If those filthy lowlanders try to attack, we just slaughter them like sheep in the narrow passes! Of course, if we try to attack the lowlanders, they just slaughter us coming out the other end of the passes. And even in a year with little snow, we can barely move warriors from one village to another."

See how the same iron triangle of tradeoffs repeats itself? The only way out of the dilemma—sometimes!—is higher technology, but even then, once you get the more powerful engine for your tank (or whatever), you just move from your old trade-space to a new, slightly better trade-space.


Three functions:
Hurt the other guy.
Protect yourself.
Move around.

Three combat arms:
Infantry. (In ancient times, this means specifically your spearmen, axemen, swordsmen, whatever).
Artillery. (In ancient times, this means your archers more than your siege engines, which aren't much use in open battle).
Armor. (Until the invention of the tank, cavalry).

Okay, everybody: Which of the three arms is best at which function? I don't know how to do the funky "this text only shows up when highlighted thing," so the answer's just out there nekkid below. Don't scroll down yet—think about it for a moment before looking.

[imagine me humming Jeopardy theme]

Okay, ready?

Pencils down....

Artillery is best at... hurting the other guy.
Infantry is best at...protecting yourself.
Armor is best at...moving around.

"But it's armor!" I can hear someone yelling. "It's got, y'know, armor on it! And a big gun! Yeah!"

Yes, it does. But it is also a big, noisy target.

Here's the basic thing about the human body: It's pretty small. It's pretty light. It's even compressible, within limits. Human bodies can crawl through tiny, narrow tunnels (a Viet Cong favorite), or hide behind trees (think American Revolution vs Brits), or live like rats the rubble of a ruined city (e.g. Stalingrad), or pack into flimsy boats and wade to shore, or pack into airplanes and jump out to drift down on a piece of silk (an 82nd Airborne favorite), or stand literally shoulder-to-shoulder in a dense mass holding pointy spears or pikes or muskets with bayonets towards an enemy (everyone from the ancient British to the redcoats).

You can't get a tank to do any of those things, or, in early ages, a horse: Can't fit in the tunnel unless it's made really huge; will throw a track (or break a leg) in the rubble unless you go really carefully; can't pack into the same tiny boats; can't pack into planes, unless the planes are really big, and can't jump out without tremendous prep work; can't pack as close together.

The advantage of infantry is not that they're cheap. The advantage of infantry is that they're small.

Before the machinegun, the main way smallness became an advantage was in that packing problem: You may be able to line up 10 horsemen, charging knee to knee, to attack me, but I can line up 20 footmen in the same space, plus another 20 right behind them sticking spears over their comrades' shoulders. After the machinegun, the main way smallness becomes an advantage is taking cover: You may be carrying foot-thick armor plate, but I can dig a hole and surround myself with six feet of dirt.

So why does anyone ride in a tank, or on a horse?

Because victory in battle is not about charging headlong into the other guy and seeing how our weapons compare to their armor and vice versa. Victory in battle is about going around the other guy and killing something he cares about while he's not there: his family, at the ugliest; his headquarters, if you're more refined. If you have to fight someone, at least go around and hit him from behind.

The main advantage of a tank is not its tons of armor, or its gigantic cannon. The main advantage of the tank is the ability to move.

The importance of the armor is that it lets the tank keep moving even if someone's shooting a machinegun at it and dropping artillery shells near it—conditions under which horses cannot keep moving and survive, which is why World War I forced people to invent the tank. (Which is another of our triple dilemma tradeoffs: Yes, the tank is higher technology than the horse, so it's both much better protected and much more powerful at hurting the enemy—but its mobility is arguably worse on many kinds of terrain).

Then we've got "artillery"—which, as a theoretical construct, can mean "an enormous howitzer" or "an English longbowman at Agincourt." It's all the same function. They can't protect themselves as well as other combat arms (compare longbowman to a mounted knight or to an armored footman with a big shield, or the howitzer to a tank or an infantryman who's hit the dirt). They can't move as fast (even a self-propelled artillery piece generally has to stop to fire, which a tank doesn't). But they are optimized to hurt the other guy as badly as possible at the longest distance, which is a damned handy thing.

In modern warfare, artillery is often the biggest killer. (Unless you have ethnic militias slaughtering each others' villages....). But here's the thing: deadly is not always decisive.

If I just have artillery (the power to hurt you), I can pound you endlessly and slaughter you...until you come up and destroy my vulnerable guns.

If I just have infantry (the power to protect myself), I can survive all sorts of pounding...until you move around me faster than I can keep up and destroy what I've left unguarded.

If I just have armor/cavalry (the power to move), I can keep outmaneuvering your most dangerous forces, keeping away from your power to hurt me and not testing your power to protect yourself...but I can never force a decision.

The combinations are left as an exercise for the reader, because I'm tired. Think about it, though: Infantry + Armor with no Artillery, Artillery + Armor with no Infantry, etc. etc. You're always missing something essential.

Coming at some damned point: Dislocation, culmination, and why even the best military unit is unready for battle most of the time.


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This makes...
TLR go "Didn't learn in school?"*
NinJ go "My answers and reasoning, in the interest of full disclosure"*
SF go "J, close but backward"*
SF go "TLR - it's non-arbitrary rock-paper-scissors"*
NinJ go "Oh, that's an interesting model for a game there, Sydney."
KSb go "Agincourt"*

*click in for more

6. On 2006-03-06, Sydney Freedberg said:

Wait, wait, I need to complete that combined arms bit:

We're talking tradeoffs, right? Attack/defense/movement, artillery/infantry/cavalry, that stuff. Victory is about giving the other guy bad trade-offs in the triple dilemma. Conversely, the high-efficiency approach—find the best weapon, buy lots of that, use it and nothing else—is begging for trouble, because you've just taken away the dilemma and given your enemy a single-variable optimization problem.

Are you only using airpower (or artillery) and not ground forces (or infantry and/or armor)? Then I can just spread my forces out, hunker down, and wait: I know you'll never come over here, so I can spend all my energy on improving self-protection. This is what happened in the Kosovo air war, when President Clinton told everyone—including the Serbs—he wasn't going to use ground troops. This is also what happened during the long artillery barrages in World War I, when troops huddled in their deepest bunkers in the knowledg that the enemy couldn't attack through all this shelling, either (and when the shelling stopped, everyone raced up to the trenches to machinegun the attackers they knew were coming). The inverse case is the Germans in France in 1944, trying to reinforce their defenses in Normandy but getting hit so badly from the air that they had to get off the roads, scatter, and hide to survive (mobility being sacrificed to self-protection).

Conversely, if the enemy has no long-range killing capability that can really hurt you, and no mobile forces that can move and survive, so that his main ability is to dig in and stay put, all of a sudden you can take amazing risks to keep moving as fast as possible—like the US Army racing to Baghdad in 2003 and barely bothering to protect its own supply lines or flanks.


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This makes...
MB go "Thanks"*
NinJ go "This is not what I meant when I said "efficiency"..."*
SF go "Efficiency's still a trap"*
ecb go "responsiveness is deadly"*
NinJ go "Ah, dig."
KSB go "Efficieny is what . . ."*

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7. On 2006-03-06, Ben Lehman said:

Sydney, this is really awesome stuff that I totally did not learn in hippy school, and only vaguely had intimated at my by wargames, which usually flub up the maneuverability part.  Thanks for your clear explanation.

Please continue.



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This makes...
SF go "Wargames flub morale & command-control worse"*
JBR go "Most Game Battlefields Are Too Small"*
Chris go "I also wanted to applaud"*
BL go "Truly, there are many things that wargames flub!"

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8. On 2006-03-06, Tris said:

Infantry hold ground because they are more concealable, and require less supply.

I understand the first in more depth than the second, though I imagine that as "experts study logistics" the second is actually more important.

So more concealable.  In fact, most of an infantryman's defence comes from concealment.  This lends itself excellently to reverse slope defense, not necessarily on a slope, but also in tree lines, cities etc.

Conventional wisdom is that, in general, a three to one ratio of force is required for an attack.  If a defender tries to engage on even terms, it clearly doesn't go well for him.

If however, the attackers do not even see the defender until he opens fire, at his ideal range, on a vulnerable attacker, things start to look better.  The best example of this is the RPG guy in a house looking down at a tank (but it can also be a guy with a MG looking out from the edge of a forest at an advancing squad, and so on...)

As to logistics, any army has a limited logistical capability.  Supplying armour consumes a large amount of this.  Armour requires fuel, shells, parts, maintainance, recovery, repair.  Plus all the crew requirements.  Infantry require food, and a few bullets, and they can manage some of that by scavenging.

So, put a large part of your war effort into supplying a tank to drive about on defence, and be taken out from a distance by bombers, AT guns, other tanks, missiles.

Or put a much smaller part of your capability into supplying a few guys to sit in a woods, and ambush anyone in the wrong colour uniform who tries to get past.  Freeing up capability to supply the armour to concentrate somewhere else for a breakthrough attack?


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This makes...
luke go "not just..."*
TB go "true, but not relevant"*
SF go "You're both right AND wrong!"*
TB go "Right where it counts"*
KSB go "Three to one"*

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9. On 2006-03-06, Jason M said:

A couple of notes - some of the field manuals I didn't link to properly are from 1979 or so and pretty much all of them focus on the last war we envisioned, which was going to take place in central Europe against the Warsaw Pact.  So some of the best practices (particularly the MOUT stuff) don't reflect modern reality.  Current Lessons learned documents are very interesting and make for some compelling reading.

Much of the combined arms doctrine is being rewritten in light of fourth-generation warfare, in which distributed groups seek to maximize returns by focusing on systems rather than traditional military targets.  John Robb's Global Guerillas site is a great and terrifying resource on 4GW.


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SF go "4GW - yes and no..."*
JM go "Naw"*

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10. On 2006-03-06, Valamir said:

Sydney's doing a pretty great job of summarizing this issue, I thought I'd add a couple of additional pertinent ideas.

1) On the matter of efficiency vs. is quite correct to say that they two are often at odds.  The simplest example is that the most efficient way to organize a bunch of soldiers is to have them all together where Command, Control and Communication (the 3Cs of all miliatery endeavors since cavemen days) is MUCH easier (and Logistics/supply even more so) if all the men are in the same place.  Keep them together = maximum efficiency.  It also means, dang easy to blow them apart with air strikes and artillery...which is why standard doctrine of any top tier modern military in a combat zone is to disperse the infantry as far as possible...something made possible only with the development of man portable communications...the single most revolutionary factor in warfar ever (vastly more revolutionary than steel, or gunpowder, or even the stirrup...though the last comes close)

2) the value of tanks and helecoptors and air power lies principally in their offensive capability.  Each has a defensive role as well (tanks can make handy portable pill boxes in a pinch, the presence of armor busting choppers can put a damper in the mobility of enemy armor, and gaining air superiority is a good way to help keep your boys from getting bombed), but the principal role of each is to deliver maximum firepower onto a target.

The idea here is the standard principal of ground warfare (also largely true throughout history) of Find, Fix, and Flank.  The neat thing about FFF is that its one of the few military maxims that is equally true regardless of the scale of battle you're talking about.  A squad of infantry encountering facing an enemy strongpoint will find, fix, and flank.  Several divisions, thousands of men strong, will endeavor to find, fix, and flank.

Finding is the key.  Unless the enemy is found, they can't be fixed or flanked.  If you're found, you can be.  Tanks and choppers are horrible for finding.  You can't see or hear much of anything in a tank.  You might think that choppers being airborne are great for finding things but (as any player of the old battle suit wargame will attest) being airborne makes it far easier for the enemy to find you, than for you to find the enemy...which is why choppers spend most of their time flying nape of the earth and hiding behind hills.

For awhile it looked like the Find mission would be taken over by sattelites, high flying recon planes, or even drones...and to be sure those assets have proven very useful and Finding enemies who are helpful enough to hang around out in the open to be spotted.  But in the end, the main thing those technologies have done is scared the enemy off of the "battle field" and back into "civilian" areas.  Since sattelites are really bad at telling the difference between civilian sitting in the window talking on his cell phone to his wife, and civilian sitting in the window calling in Forward Observor coordinates to RPG armed bad guys hiding down the street...all that vaunted technology is, while not entirely useless, at least much less useful than they wanted to believe when they were paying for it all.

So, once again it falls to simple human eyeballs to Find the enemy.  Where in the past, this was a key role (and indeed, except for the relatively brief dominance of the armored knight, the primary role throughout history) of cavalry, today it falls to the infantry...although, to be sure, sometimes to mechanized infantry riding in a variety of small, fast, scout vehicles.

Even today, however, nothing quite matches the tried and true method of finding the enemy...marching in until someone starts shooting at you.  We try to use intellegence, and recon, and the like to swing the odds, but bottom line, most enemies are discovered simply by putting your infantry into a place where the enemy is unwilling to allow them to remain unmolested...and considering them "found" when they start molesting you.  While the media likes to build up all of the "ambushes" and the like against our troops in Iraq as being some horrible terrible truth...most of it is simply the normal way of finding out where the enemy is.

Fixing the enemy simply means keeping their attention, keeping them occupied trading fire with the fixing unit.  The fixing unit is not supposed to defeat the enemy, that's not their job.  They're supposed to keep the enemy pinned down, and if possible prevent them from withdrawing (very difficult in an urban environment).  Defeating the enemy is the job of the Flanking unit.  This is the role that Tanks, Choppers, Airstrikes, and over the horizon artillery was designed to play.  Anyone who's spent any time watching Vietnam war movies has seen this in action...although many movies take the angle of the infantry being hung out to dry.  In reality, the infantry in Vietnam were doing their job admirably...finding the enemy, and fixing them until they could be blasted apart by artillery or airstrikes (terrain not be conducive to tanks).

Unfortuneately, we've gotten way way too good at blasting apart found enemies with artillery and airstrikes.  throughout the 80s especially we made such advances in airpower and artillery that now there is no other military force on the planet (NATO allies included) who could stand up to the US army on the battle field.  We can find you with high tech recon, fix you with very fast deployed mechanized infantry, and flank you with a combination of the most powerful tanks in the world, airpower, or artillery (now most commonly in the form of cruise missles with smart warheads which beat the tar out of tube artillery in terms of maximizing badness to the enemy). a chess player who can't find anyone to play him because he's too good...we essentially eliminated 70% of our own military effectiveness.  We have the power to blast any enemy on the battlefield to the enemy simply stays off the battlefield.  Our super powerful flanking weapons (tanks, cruise missles, air strikes, etc.) lose alot of their value when the enemy target is surrounded by civilians.

So once again the infantry proves their flexibility.  Tanks and Airplanes are designed to be exceedingly good at very specific roles...roles which are no longer in that much demand.  It typically takes a decade or more to get new vehicles designed for new roles deployed to front line troops.  It takes much less time to train infantry to perform those roles the hardway.


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This makes...
NinJ go "Very interesting, Ralph..."*
SF go "Finding through fighting, absolutely"*
VB go "wow finding's HARD."*
ecb go "stratego? battleship?"*
NinJ go "Well, V., here's an idea:"*
Chris go "Tenjo"*
NinJ go "That's certainly similar to what I'm talking abnout, yeah."
PJB go "Steel Panthers, World At War"*
luke go "I'm pulling a Ben Lehman:"*
TB go "Steel panthers is okay"*
Val go "Finding is VERY hard"*
JonH go "Or Columbia block games..."*
TB go "The thing about PCs"*
SF go "Find, fix, & flank is...."*
BL go "The thing is..."*

*click in for more

11. On 2006-03-06, Jason Larke said:

What about the issue of awareness and interaction?

Only a human being existing in the combat zone can apply all the faculties of human perception directly to the situation. Someone sitting inside an armored vehicle or flying overhead has the advantage of fancy sensor systems, but those systems can create tunnel vision or an incorrect sense of total sensory mastery, which can be disastrous.

All this is ignoring counter-insurgency, in which person-to-person interactions may well be the deciding factor of the war.


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This makes...
JM go "4GW"*
SF go "Situational awareness, check"*
SF go "Human interactions, check"*
NinJ go "Yeah, the stuff about getting your (and neighboring) people on your side..."*
TB go "Awareness isn't just about defense"*

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12. On 2006-03-06, Joshua BishopRoby said:

Crap, am I going to have to get a blog?

Why the hell don't you have one already?  Sheesh.  Blogger takes like ten minutes to set up, and WordPress takes maybe an hour.

Also: Just because this sort of thing annoys the hell out of me, we're talking wargames, right, and not roleplaying games, here?  Cause nothing rankles like six PCs implementing 'war strategies' against a castle full of a thousand NPC guards.  The typical RPG group of characters are far more like special ops, spies, or bandits than soldiers.


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This makes...
NinJ go "For me, this is going into a pile of "stuff to make wargames about"..."*
BL go " Wordpress > Blogger"*
JBR go "Well yeah, Ben."*

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13. On 2006-03-07, kaare berg said:


I can see the three tactical choices:
hurt the other guy
protect yourself
move around
become valid choices in any RPG that contains conflict.
Lets say you basically got these here options:
Something else.
Choosing to move means you choose not to hurt the other guy. Maybe to position yourself better to fight next round, but right now you can't hurt the mofo.
If you fight, you may drop the other guy, but then again if you don't he may outmanouver you putting you at a disadvantage next round.
Doing something else leaves you open for both, but it may be nessecary depending on the situation or it may give you an advantage next round, if you make it so far.

This is the idea behind the current combat rules for Descent (wip).


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This makes...
JBR go "Tactics =!= Strategy"*
KSB go "Hurt =!= Kill"*
BL go "Indeed"
NinJ go "You guys need to read the Book of Five Rings."*
KSB go "I've always been . ."*
CR go "I'm not sure if this is the standard way of thinking of it, ..."*
NinJ go "Seriously. Read The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings..."*
KSB go "I've got the art of war"*
Chris go "Tactics/Strategy"*

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14. On 2006-03-07, Vincent said:

Valamir, in marginalia: Just build the Finding piece into your scenario set up rules.

Ding! Thanks!


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Val go "Cool"*

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15. On 2006-03-10, DannyK said:

This is a superb summary.  The main thing I'd like to add to this is to emphasize the importance of
1)Command & Control
2) Logistics
The "teeth" of combat units are supported by the "tail" of many specialized units.

That's why the Blitzkrieg at the beginning of WWII was so devastating: not because the marauding Panzers killed every Frenchman defending the border, but because they cut the lines between the front and the rear, and turned a huge well-equipped army into a mob.

These days, the high-tech weapons are very effective at finding the chokepoints in the enemies' system and devastating them.  When the general and half the colonels are dead, the army's not going to have a good day.

In the modern US military, the "tooth-to-tail" ratio is very low—the wonderful high tech weapons use up spare parts and fuel like you wouldn't believe.  The Iraqi roadside bombs are largely directed at this vital and difficult-to-defend tail of combat support.  Even if don't stop the flow, slowing it down and forcing it into defended convoys is a significant gain for the insurgents.


16. On 2006-03-12, Sydney Freedberg said:

By popular demand, aka because people keep frickin' asking:


Nathan Bedford Forrest was not a pleasant person, being one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. But war is not a pleasant business, and unlike a lot of prettier generals with Napoleonic pretensions (e.g. McClellan), Forrest had an unbroken string of victories he was willing to attribute, not to tactical brilliance, but to the most basic axiom of warfare: "Get there fastest with the most men." (Later commentators bumpkinized Forrest's actually perfectly good English to the punchy "get thar fustest with the mostest," which is the form you've probably heard). As important as combined arms are, no amount of skill will save you if the other guy outnumbers you enough.

But why am I talking about this principle under the heading of "logistics," which means supply, right?

Well, how do you "get there fastest with the mostest"? There are two limiting factors: One is the mental quickness of your commanders, which is my next post, but the other is physics—specifically, what NASA calls "fuel fraction."

Fuel fraction is the enduring problem of any military force. Having just read Jared Diamond's

, let me give you the pre-Columbian Maya. Mayans had no horses, no wheels, no boats (their rivers and coasts were in the wrong places relative to where they were trying to go, anyway), so a Mayan army consisted of lots of guys on foot, eating corn (maize) carried by... lots more guys on foot. Each guy on foot carrying corn is also eating some of the corn he's carrying—and when he runs low, he has to go back to the corn depot for more corn—but he has to go back before he runs out altogether, because he has to eat something on the way back! Immediate result: The "fuel fraction" of Mayan logistics was appalling; their supply chain (of people) tended to eat more corn than it delivered to the army. Midterm result: Mayan armies couldn't march more than a few days' beyond their home bases. Longterm result: Mayan kingdoms remained small, often so small you could see the temple-pyramid of one kingdom from atop the pyramid of another. Ultimate result: Mayan civilization never achieved the political unity that might have helped it manage its other problems (e.g. overpopulation relative to their water supply and arable land) and collapsed.

Stupid corn.

You can run this in reverse, too. Your fuel fraction gets a lot better if you have, say, carts with wheels drawn by oxen (horse-drawn carts not so much in the ancient world, when horses were rare, scarce, and reserved for riding). But you can overdo it, because an ox has to eat too. Ancient Greek city-states were militias of well-to-do citizens able to afford their own armor. This made for tremendous political cohesion, but all these proud citizen-soldiers didn't want to schlep their own stuff to war, nor to pay taxes for bureaucrats to organize supplies, so a Greek army went to war encumbered by a tremendous number of carts carrying everyone's armor, spare blankets, extra wine, etc. etc., plus more carts hired by local merchants selling food to the army in the absence of a formal supply system. This hurt their "fuel fraction," reducing range, and clogged up the narrow roads, slowing their march and reducing range further. Result (abetted by narrow mountain passes): Lots of independent little city-states.

Then came Phillip of Macedon, a barbarian autocrat whose soldier were subjects, not citizens, who borrowed all the best parts of Greek military science and got rid of all the hangers-on with their extra oxcarts. Immediate result: His armies had a better fuel fraction, increasing range, and marched faster, increasing range still further. Midterm result: The conquest of Greece. Longterm result: Alexander the Great. Ultimate result: Western civilization as we know it.

The Romans underwent the same transformation on their own steam, turning their citizen militia into a professional army where everyone humped his own gear (the great reformer Marius took away all the carts but the essential ones and gave troops a walking-stick instead, called, bitterly, "Marius's Mule").

Fast-forward a few hundred years—the Mongols: They moved so fast and appeared in so many places in short succession their victims thought they'd been hit by massive hordes. In fact, "horde" comes from the Mongol "ordo, "light, easily transportable tent used to camp in the field," and the Mongols were usually outnumbered. Their horses weren't even particularly fast. But the average Mongol rider had ten or twenty scrawny step ponies on a string, so he could change mounts as soon as one got tired and keep riding.

Fast forward—Napoleon: Before the French Revolution, European armies were made up of conscripts, convicts, and assorted scum, and no one trusted them out of their officers' sight, so they marched ponderlously, in large formations, from one supply depot to the next. Then the French got all excited about liberty, equality, fraternity, and global domination (like some superpowers we know), and discovered that they could send their newly patriotic troops out to steal chickens from every peasant in the vicinity and still see them in the ranks again that afternoon. Turned loose on other people's territory, the French could dispense with supply wagons, rely on "foraging" (i.e. theft), and advance with staggering speed—until they invaded Russia and discovered there's nothing to steal there in the winter, especially once the Russians burn their own villages.

A modern, high-tech, highly mechanized army lives out a dangerous paradox with its fuel fraction, because its fuel fraction is, literally, fuel: Instead of Mayan porters or Greek oxen hauling loads of food and eating some themselves, a modern army has trucks (and planes, and ships) hauling fuel and burning some itself. The fuel fraction of gas-burning vehicles is way better than that of food-eating long as you have gas. The minute you don't, you suddenly find yourself in a Napoleon-in-Russia situation: You may be in the best, most fertile land around, but if you ain't got gas, your army is effectively starving.

Historically, by the way, the best way around the whole fuel-fraction problem is ships. If they're wind-powered sailing ships, of course, they don't have any "fuel fraction" problem at all, because they don't have to carry their own energy source; but even coal-burning or gas-burning ships have a much better fuel-fraction ratio than any land vehicle, because they're moving through a medium with vastly less friction and can thus move more mass with less energy. This is a big part of why the Roman Empire ended up all around the Mediterranean but, in most places, not that far inland; why the British Empire ended up in India (but not Afghanistan) and Hong Kong (but not central China); and why the US military still stockpiles ready-to-go equipment in "prepositioning ships" near crisis zones.


direct link

This makes...
BL go "Hong Kong"*
KSB go "To the Modern army"*
SF go "Haliburton & outsourcing"*
SF go "Hong Kong"*
KSB go "The irony . ."*
BL go "Aren't the contracted truckers?"*
SF go "Potentially, they are, but..."*

*click in for more

17. On 2006-03-12, Sydney Freedberg said:

Now, to drive the blade home to the hilt. Remember how I said above that physical limits are only half of "get there fastest with the mostest," and the other half is 100% mental (as Yogi Berra would say)? This is where I get mental.


There's a very handy concept developed by the late Air Force Col. John Boyd—originally to analyze Korean War dogfights, but later applied to all forms of conflict—called the "OODA loop":


In this cycle, the first "O"—what you can observe—and the "A"—what you actually do—are to a large degree determined by physics: how much you can see (with your eyes or whatever sensors), how fast you can move. But the heart of the cycle—"Orient," to make sense of the situation, and "Decide," to figure out what to do about it—is all in your head.

In his original Korean War research, Boyd discovered that—in part because of bad cockpit design in Soviet-built MiGs that had pilots fighting with hard-to-move controls—enemy pilots went through their OODA cycle slightly slower than American ones. But even a 10% difference acquires compound interest very quickly:

0 seconds: The US pilot and the enemy pilot both Observe each other at the exact same time (because this is an idealized example, ok?)
1.0 seconds: The US pilot has successfully Oriented himself and Decided on something—he starts to Act. This, of course, changes the situation, so he needs to Observe the difference and start another cycle.
1.1 seconds: The enemy pilot finishes Orienting himself, makes a Decision, and starts to Act. But he's still Acting based on the situation before the American pilot made his Decision.
2.0 seconds: The US pilot completes his second OODA loop, having reoriented and made a new decision based on what he observed at 1.0 seconds, and alters his course of Action correspondingly.
2.2 seconds: The enemy pilot completes his second OODA loop—but he's still basing his Decision on what he Observed at 1.1 seconds, before the American changed his course of action.
And so on, and so on....

The slower combatant is making decisions based on a reality that the faster combatant has already changed. The more times you run the cycle, the more out of touch with reality the slower OODA loop gets. (The slower OODA loop also gets fewer "moves" than the faster one, but that's actually a less important effect). The result, no matter how smart you are otherwise, is increasingly self-defeating bad decisions.

And, like the Attack-Defend-Move triple tradeoff, the OODA loop race occurs on all levels of conflict:
- Individual: Someone stubbornly shooting at where the target is supposed to be, dammit ("Hey! Stand still!").
- Theater: The French High Command in 1940 finally giving de Gaulle's tank division permission to counter-attack against German panzer divisions that had already broken through too far to stop them.
- Civilization: "There's no conclusive evidence of global warming or rising sea lev....glub, glub, glub."


Strictly speaking, people are running through OODA loops all the time: I observe external reality, orient myself to it, decide what to do, and act every time I get the orange juice out of the refrigerator in the morning. And the rest of this isn't rocket science either. "Get there fastest with the mostest"? Combined arms equals scissor-paper-stone? C'mon! This is simple stuff.


"In war, everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult."

That's Carl von Clausewitz, 19th-century Prussian nationalist, officer in the wars against Napoleon, and author of a long book

that he never actually finished and which was edited into publishable shape by his wife Marie, who rarely gets any credit, of course. (Say "danke schon" to the nice Prussian lady, everyone). Clausewitz is the guy who made famous the term "fog of war"—which thousands of adolescents now know as the dark area on the battle map the computer won't let them see enemy units in—and, slightly less famous, "friction."

Think of it this way:

Whenever I try to go somewhere unfamiliar in the suburbs of my own city, I have a 50/50 chance of getting significantly lost. Whenever I try to go somewhere with my wife, we have a 50/50 chance of being significantly late. (No, it's not just her). Whenever I try to go somewhere with my toddler, I have a 50/50 chance of forgetting some significant item of equipment, like her bib, or snacks. Whenever I try to go somewhere with other people in other cars, I have a 50/50 chance of losing them at a key intersection and breaking the convoy.

Now, imagine that I am going somewhere unfamiliar far away from my home city, quite possibly in an alien country altogether, and that I am going there not with two other people (one of them portable), but several thousand other people, or possibly several hundred thousand. Imagine, further, while I am trying to organize this little expedition, look at the map, give directions, stay in convoy, etc. etc. etc., that thousands of people are trying to fucking kill me.

This impairs one's concentration.

Now consider the real story of how Private First Class (US Army) Jessica Lynch got captured. Her unit was a maintenance detachment moving as part of a larger but strung-out convoy. Their sleep-deprived commander, having been awake for 70 hours, took a wrong turn and, instead of going past guerrilla-occupied An Nasiriyah, went through it. They travelled all the way through town, came out the other side in full view of friendly troops from a different command (Marine Corps recon units scouting An Nasiriyah from the opposite direction), turned around and drove all the way back through An Nasiriyah on the same road—at which point the Saddam Fedayeen finally got it through their OODA loops that they might have a target here and attacked. The amazing thing is half the detachment, 16 of 33 soldiers, actually got away. The other amazing thing is that this didn't happen much, much more often.

Traditionally, armies control this kind of confusion by marching in formation where everybody can see each other, or at the very least having a clear "front line" between friendly and enemy, and—after the 19th century, when armies became simply too big for one guy on a hill to manage by horseback courier—by having elaborate pre-written plans everyone adhered to. When these things break down, people die: A US bomber force in Normandy in 1944 managed to kill hundreds of US troops on the ground by mistaking where the "front line" was. ("Friendly fire" casualties were routine at least as far back as the invention of the musket and its use by hundreds of nervous men standing six inches apart).

The US relied on both of these expedients—formation and planning—in the 1991 Gulf War: We had a massive detailed "Air Tasking Order" for each day's bombing, an elaborate plan for the ground attack, and hundreds of thousands of troops lined up neatly across the desert. When the Iraqis collapsed more quickly than the plan allowed, we couldn't change it fast enough and ended up letting key Republican Guard units escape (aggravated by the arbitrary decision to cut off the war at 100 hours), saving Saddam's regime.

In the 2003 invasion of Iraq (love it or hate it, like Nathan Bedford Forrest, that's not the issue now), by contrast, the US relied on neither strict formation nor strict planning. We broke our divisions into self-sufficient brigades and drove hard for Baghdad without forming a clear front line, let alone secure flanks or a safe rear area—hence Lynch getting ambushed. This worked in part because of Iraqi incompetence and unwillingness to fight (at conventional warfare, for Saddam; they're great guerrillas for sectarian goals, regrettably), in part because of old-fashioned overwhelming American firepower (anything that moved to cut off our isolated spearheads got bombed to bits), and in part because of new-fangled American information technology. We had JSTARS radar planes that spotted Iraqi tank formations trying to counter-attack, JDAMS bombs that could hit them through sandstorms, and, above all, something called "Blue Force Tracking" that shows you, on a little computerized map, where you are and where the GPS transponders for other friendly units are. The Global Positioning System is a true revolution in warfare: It lets attacking aircraft know exactly what coordinates a spotter on the ground wants them to hit, and it lets scattered ground units know exactly where they are and where their friends are. Jessica Lynch's unit, being a small detachment of a non-combat company, didn't have Blue Force Tracking.

It is still possible, of course, to get very badly lost even with GPS, and to miss enemy forces completely even with superior sensors, and to be killed very, very dead even with the latest technology on your side. Unlike air and naval warfare, land warfare occurs in an environment full of opaque, radar-reflective objects, and full of innocent people: That first "O"—Observation—in the OODA loop is stressed to the maximum just driving down a city street or trudging through a forest.

So armies still have to fall back on the old antidotes for disorder: planning and formation (and a formation, rehearsed on the drillground or in exercises, is really just a very specific kind of planning). But the stricter your planning, the slower you adapt to changes in circumstances. It's an OODA loop dilemma: The stricter your plan, the more unthinking your execution, the faster that "Decide" step of the OODA loop goes—but the more likely it is that your "Orient" step will skip past surprises that don't fit your pigeonholes.


18. On 2006-03-12, Sydney Freedberg said:


So military operations are baffled by the fog of war—because even if you can see your enemy, you can't be sure what he's going to do—and bedeviled by friction—because even if your planning and training are perfect, someone's going to screw something up. In very rough terms, there are two ways to deal with this reality:

The typically Western approach, exemplified by Clausewitz: Fog stinks, friction sucks, let's get them to a minimum so we can kill the other bastards more efficiently—although, y'know, if there were no fog and friction, we might just annihilate each other, so perhaps it's just as well. (Clausewitz coined the term "total war," too, and talked about the tendency of warfare to escalate in destructiveness to both sides long past any value the original war aims might have had).

The typically Eastern approach, exemplified by Sun Tzu: Hey, the other guy is dealing with all this fog and friction too, so in addition to trying to make it go away for us, let's maximize it for him, and hopefully he'll be so confused we won't have to fight him at all!

Of course, there are lots of Western commanders who practice "Eastern" warfare: The German blitzkriegs in 1939-1941, and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, were both based on the principle that if you hit the weak points hard enough and then keep moving faster than the enemy can react, most of the enemy army is irrelevant.

The fancy term here is "maneuver warfare," which tries to avoid the enemy's strongest forces in order to "dislocate" then—the idea being you don't have to go through the trouble of killing the bastards if you outmaneuver them so badly that they're in the wrong place with no way to get to the right place in time. When it comes to "get there fastest with the mostest," this school is willing to sacrifice "mostest" to be "fastest." Since it seeks victory through quickly exploiting fleeting opportunities, it favors flexible plans, initiative by low-level commanders, and what's called "recon-pull," where scouts find weak points and the main attack is directed at whichever weak point turns out to be weakest.

The opposing fancy term is "attrition warfare," which tries to engage the enemy's strongest forces in order to "kill the hell out of" them—the idea being that a force that's dislocated by fancy maneuvers today may get itself relocated in an awfully inconvenient place by tomorrow, but if they're dead, you're done. This school is willing to sacrifice "fastest" for "mostest." Since it seeks victory through a massive margin of error, this school favors detailed plans, tight control by senior commanders, and what's called "recon-push," where scouts are sent to reconoiter the areas that the planning staff has already decided to commit the main effort to.

In discussions of military theory, Sun-Tzu and the maneuver warfare school are generally portrayed as the good guys—so sophisticated their tactics! so bloodless their victories!—and the attrition school, including most U.S. generals from Grant onwards, are portrayed as knuckledragging butchers. And there's some truth in that: You can win by attrition by having enough people, enough equipment, and enough bloody-minded persistence; to win by maneuver, you have to be smarter than the other guy.

Here's the problem, though: To win by maneuver, you have to be smarter than the other guy. And the other guy has a great incentive to become smarter: You're killing his people—only, since this is maneuver warfare and winning-without-fighting (right? you're so humane!), you're not actually killing all of them, and boy do the survivors learn fast.

So in practice, in history, maneuver warfare finesse gets dulled by use, time after time:
- Hannibal outmaneuvered the Romans, until Fabius came up with delaying tactics.
- The German Blitzkrieg outmaneuvered the Russians, until the Russians mired it in mud and came up with fast-moving tank forces of their own (but using recon-push instead of recon-pull, and trusting in a few central commanders rather than low-level initiative).
- The American airstrike plus helicopter-borne infantry combination in the 1960s outmaneuvered the North Vietnamese, until they gave up on a quick tank attack down towards Saigon (yes, that was what they were doing before we stopped them) and turned to Viet Cong guerrillas to grind us down, year after year after year (and then, once we left, went back to the big tank formations rumbling down the road to Saigon in 1975).
- The American precision-warfare machine outmaneuvered the Iraqis in 1991 and 2003, until the Iraqis (liberated from Saddam's incompetent leadership) turned to guerrilla warfare and car bombs.

There is a limit to cleverness. To give the original, full quote from General Sherman everyone knows the short version of:

"War is all hell, and there is no refining it."


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