The Print Magazine Combat Decision Games The Email Newsletter Our staff Our Writers Contact Us Advertise With Us Armchair Links Letters to the Editor Want to Write For ACG? Order a Subscription
Tactics 101 Blogs Carlo D'Este Incorrect Art of War Trivia War College Books General Military History Movies Special Events Personal Stories
Forum Home Page About our forums ACG Magazine Forum Weider History Group Magazines Armchair History Armchair Intel Armchair Games Armchair Media Armchair Hosting Armchair Resources
Tactics 101 079 – Adaptation in WarBy Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland | Tactics101|War College | Published: December 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm
Adaptation in War
‚ÄúDo not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.‚ÄĚ
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‚ÄôS MOVE OUT!
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‚Äôs headed in the right direction.¬† If he‚Äôs not, it‚Äôs time for a change.¬† Lee missed this key point at Gettysburg.¬† Lee‚Äôs attacks were repulsed two days in a row, thus indicating the strength of Meade‚Äôs positions.¬† Rather than recognize failure, Lee tried again with Pickett‚Äôs charge on day three‚ÄĒa disaster.
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‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúIt is also greatly in the commander‚Äôs 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.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt 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:
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).
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:
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.
‚ÄúVictory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after they occur.‚ÄĚ
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‚Äôs deemed inappropriate to build combined arms units below the company level‚ÄĒthe platoon.¬† Some may think that green lieutenants are incapable of exploiting the dynamic mix of infantry and armor at platoon level ‚Äď we disagree.
Special Purpose Forces/GeneralPurpose Forces‚ÄĒExpertise and Numbers.¬† In the aftermath of the combat phases of OIF and OEF, the forces on the ground soon discovered that they couldn‚Äôt 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‚Äôt work in a counterinsurgency.
‚Äú. . . teammates share a common knowledge of the events taking
- 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôt originate from fielded artillery battalions; they came from two or three man teams firing a portable mortar.
What happens when your opponent adapts and you don‚Äôt?¬†¬† 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.
‚ÄúIn 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 ‚Äď war being but a concentrated form of the human struggle against environment.‚ÄĚ
Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart
Leave a Reply
What is Armchair General?
Armchair General is the INTERACTIVE history magazine where YOU COMMAND and decide the course of action!
Armchair General (ACG) and ACG online feature a unique, interactive editorial approach that invites the reader to decide the course of action in challenging historical scenarios, to step into the shoes of a battlefield commander. Leading historians and contributors lend integrity and credibility to this fresh presentation of historical and contemporary events.
What We Write About
Our Other Magazines