On Tactics and Strategy

Many people have heard the terms tactics and strategy but don’t know exactly what the difference is. In fact, there’s even a level in between that most people haven’t heard of, the “operational art”.

Several folks have asked me to explain why some of the armies of the past have fought on the ground they did and why and how they moved. To understand, we need to understand the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of thinking. We’ll also have later posts that explore geography and terrain from the grunts point of view and from the generals point of view.

Dictionary.com defines strategy as it pertains to war in part as:

1. In military usage, a distinction is made between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the utilization, during both peace and war, of all of a nation’s forces, through large-scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security or victory. Tactics deals with the use and deployment of troops in actual combat.

That’s a pretty good definition, but what does it mean in the real world? In the Global War on Terror, our strategy has been to attempt to change the political landscape of the Middle East to introduce democracy, removing the impetus for oppressed people to resort to terrorism. We’ve seen tools such as war, diplomacy, trade, intelligence sharing and information operations used to advance this goal. That’s the strategic arena that the Army is working in.

When the decision was made to invade Iraq, that was executed at the operational level of the art of warfare. Decisions about how to defeat the enemy included plans to form a giant pincer movement with a force to the south of Iraq driving north through the Tigris Euphrates River valley, and forces in the north attacking out of Turkey to trap the Iraqi forces and prevent them from fleeing. That’s the operational level at work. In the end, Turkey denied US forces the ability to attack from the north, meaning the attack had to proceed on a single main axis. Military operations at the operational level are influence by factors such as local political climate (see Turkey above), logistics ( you have to be able to supply your forces), and local terrain (the desert is wide open, but there are relatively few routes that are actually passable to vehicles.

The movement of formations to fulfill the operational objective are tactical. As a rule of thumb, anything done by a Corps or below, is tactical. In fact, when you get to the smaller units such as companies, platoons and squads, they tend to fall under the heading of “tactics, techniques and procedures”, or for a “canned” response to a situation that pops up, a “battle drill”.

A prime example of a tactic is the Holding Attack. If you can do a holding attack, you’ve mastered about 90% of tactics. And a holding attack is pretty simple. One unit pins the enemy in place (this is called the “base of fire”) while another moves to attack the enemy in the flank.

In Desert Storm, we saw a massive Holding Attack. The Marines and most of the Arab allied units attacked from Saudi Arabia straight north into Kuwait, pinning the Iraqi Army in place (it’s hard to run when people are shooting at you). While they were pinned in place, the VII Corps of the Army swung wide out to the west in what GEN Schwarzkopf called “The Hail Mary”. In fact, it was just a huge flank attack.

Here’s the elegant thing- much like a Russian matrushka doll, inside this giant holding attack, each unit was making it’s own holding attack. If you look in the south, the Arab allies pinned the frontline Iraqi forces in place while the Marines made a shallow flanking movement to the west to hit the first set of reserves. This “attack inside an attack” can go all the way down to the squad level.

And it doesn’t just work in the attack. A good defense would work the same way, with one element slowing the enemy in a position while a second attack from the flank. The Battle of the Bulge saw this when Patton’s Third Army came north and attacked the souther German flank.

Now you know the basic levels of military theory, and have a firm grasp of tactics. Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done, or we’d all be generals. I’m working on giving a lesson or two on terrain soon, just as soon as I can find a map.

What’s an EFP?

Update: Welcome, Conservative Grapevine readers. I hope you will look around. If you have a question, just ask. My goal here is to  help you understand how the Army works.

You’ve seen on the news how Iranian made EFPs are being used as roadside bombs to attack US vehicles in Iraq. But what is an EFP?

Early IEDs in the Iraq War were mostly artillery shells wired to explode. The first Humvees in Iraq had thin armor that would not protect very well against nearby explosions. As up-armored Humvees became available, these early IEDs lost some of their effectiveness. The insurgents reacted in two ways. First, they used bigger IEDs, wiring together several artillery shells at once. The larger blast was more effective, but took longer to emplace and were easier to spot. The second technique, using EFPs, is more difficult to counter.

EFP stands for Explosively Formed Penetrator. Using the concept behind a shaped charge, a disc of metal on one end of a charge can be blasted in the direction of the target. The charge is usually a steel pipe, 6-8″ in diameter. When detonated, the concave disc is deformed by the explosion, and reformed into a slug. The explosion pushes this slug at phenomenal speeds- up to Mach 6.

One of the biggest advantages of EFPs is standoff. The damage to the target isn’t caused by the explosion, but rather by the slug it fires. This means that the EFP doesn’t need to be right next to the roadside to be effective. This means that US soldiers have to scan a much larger area to detect IEDs.

An EFP can usually penetrate as much armor as the diameter of the charge. That is, a charge 6″ in diameter should be able to penetrate 6″ of armor, more than enough to defeat the armor of any Humvee, and indeed, all but the most heavily armored tanks.

Clearly, the threat posed by EFPs is one of the reasons that the US is putting so much pressure on Iran to stop equipping insurgents. Other countermeasures have included focusing on raiding bombmakers.

Update and Bump:

Because the EFP fires a single slug, timing the explosion is critical. Too soon, the slug goes in front of the vehicle. Too late and it misses behind. To get around this, the insurgents are using a cheap passive infrared sensor, sorta like an electric eye. When a Humvee passes in front of the sensor, off goes the EFP and destroys the vehicle. Ahh, but it didn’t take long for the US to come up with a countermeasure. You can see in the photo below a “Rino” device, designed to trigger the EFP before the Humvee reaches the kill-zone. Normally, it would be lowered so it is in front of the Humvee.

An unsuccessful EFP attack can be seen here.

Dragon Tales

One of the jobs I had when I was a young troop was Dragon Gunner. By the time I was a Dragon Gunner, they were pretty long in the tooth and not very highly thought of. But think about this: back before you could buy a pocket calculator, the Army had fielded a guided missile that could reach out and destroy a tank over half a mile away, and yet was small enough and light enough for one man to carry.

The Dragon, or M47 Medium Anti-Armor/Assualt Weapon, was first issued in 1975. It was a man portable guided missile that used wire guidance technology called SACLOS-Semi-Automatic Command Line of Sight. Basically, when the missile was launched, it trailed to very thin coppper wires behind it. It also had a flare in the rear of the missile. The sight unit tracked the flare and saw if the flare was in the crosshairs or not. If the missile was not in the cross hairs, the sight sent a signal by way of the wires for the missile to go up, down, left, or right. All you had to do to guide the missile was keep the crosshairs on the target. But that is easier said than done. Dragon gunners spent a lot of time practicing this skill. Since the missile cost about $10,000, they didn’t let us shoot all that many for practice. Usually, a device that fired a powerful blank cartridge was used. One of the other things that made it tough to aim was the launch itself. The missile used a small rocket to propel itself out of the launch tube.


That’s a missile being shot from a test stand. In real life, it looks pretty much the same and it takes practicee to avoid flinching. If you flinch, you tend to point the sights at the dirt. The missile quickly obeys and flies right into the dirt. That’s not what you want.

If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see a bunch of dimples on the side of the missile. These are the rocket motors that fly it to the target. Since the back end of the missile is taken up by the wire spool, the flare and the starter motor, the engineers had to put the sustainer motors somewhere else. Also, they had to figure out a way to control the missile in flight. They came up with an unusual method. There are 32 pairs of motors on the missile. While the Dragon is flying, it is spinning like a bullet. Pairs of motors will fire, sounding like a “pop” to boost it on its way. If the missile is not in the crosshairs, other pairs of motors will fire to push it back onto the right path.

Here’s a video that demonstrates the launch and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the pop-pop-pop.

While the Dragon was a pretty impressive weapon for its day, it had its problems. Its range was only 1000 meters. That’s right about the maximum range of the machine guns mounted on all the vehicles it was shooting at. Since it took 10 seconds  for the missile to fly that far, the bad guys had a fair chance of spotting you and shooting quite a few bullets at you while you tried to guide the missile. They didn’t even have to hit you. If they made you flinch, you’d miss the target. That was the other big problem. You had to keep the crosshairs on an often moving target. Even heavy breathing was enough to make this difficult. Getting shot at didn’t help. Still, it was better than no anti-tank weapon at all.

With these shortcomings in mind, the Army developed the replacement for the Dragon. The Javelin has twice the range, is faster, has a better warhead, and has a fire and forget capability. Once the Javelin gunner fires, he can duck for cover or start reloading while the missile guides itself to the target.


Why you should listen to me…

Sweet! Just got touted by the fine folks at Castle Argghhh! As you read my posts, you may be wondering, “what qualifications does our author have to comment and pontificate on matters of such import?”

Well, none, really. I served twelve years in the Army. My career was not by any  means a spectacular success. But it was varied and interesting. I bounced around from one position to another quite often and had a lot of peeks into many facets of the Army life.

Let me say right now, the sum total of my combat experience consists of riding in the back of a Bradley for four days. I have absolutely no awards for valor. The longest deployment I ever made was only 5 months. I have no special training in strategy, no security clearance to look at intel, few contacts giving me the inside scoop.

What I do have is a deep, abiding love for the US Army as an institution. I am certainly not blind to it’s faults, but looking at the history of the Army, with the attendant highs and lows, I am amazed by the number of truly impressive people that have given so much to the service. I mean that in two ways. The young citizen soldier who serves on the front lines, in times of peace, and now, in time of war. People worry about the future of our nation, always bemoaning “kids these days”. I don’t. If you go back and read the letters from the Revolutionary war, they said the same things. We’ve been going downhill for 233 years now-look where its gotten us!

The other folks that have been so impressive to me are the hidden heros. They made their impact not so much on the battlefield, but toiling in relative anonymity in unglamorous staff positions, deciding things like our doctrine (that is, how we fight), how to best organize the Army (you think your business goes through a lot of re-orgs, try tracking 200+ years of re-org charts!), how we equip our forces, and how we train folks. These folks don’t get a parade, and they do get a lot of grief-everyone hates a staff weenie. But without their efforts, we don’t win on the battlefield. I’m not going to put up a lot of posts about the post housing officer, but I do want to look at the roles of people like Gen. Marshall in the pre-WWII days, and the amazing, untold story of how the Army was rebuilt after Vietnam.

A lot of my point here is to make the institution of the Army  more accessible to folks without a military background. I’ve tried to strip away most of the jargon and acronyms so people can understand concepts. By all means, if you have questions, just ask. If I goon the answer, ask again. I’ll keep trying till I get it right.

Apache Pron and YouTube

Believe it or not, the Army didn’t spend millions upon millions of dollars developing the Apache just so you could watch clips of it smokin’ jihadis on YouTube. Mainly because YouTube didn’t exist when they came up with it.

After the end of the Vietnam war, the Army found itself with old, obselescent and poorly maintained forces facing a massive Soviet Army in Western Europe. The need to recapitalize and re-equip the forces was great, but the defense budget was tight. Military spending was unpopular and the mood in the country was fairly isolationist. The Army was one of the least trusted institutions in the country. The leadership was faced with a problem familiar to managers and leaders everywhere- a huge task and very little in the way of resources.

The development of the Apache took place in this arena of limited budgets, and was a product not only of the state of the art in aerospace engineering, but also of changing ideas of how best to fight a war. As the development began, The 1973 Yom Kipur war showed just how violent and intense an armored battle could be. It also showed just how effective Soviet weapons could be. We tend to treat them with scorn now, but they were very effective in the Sinai, and fit in very well with the Soviet view of how to fight. Partly as a result of the 73 war, and a very comprehensive study of history, the Army developed the doctrine of Active Defense, which would later evolve into the AirLand Battle Doctrine. AirLand Battle was the governing view of “how to fight” from roughly 1982 to the end of the Cold War. It’s effectiveness can be seen in Desert Storm. The equipment that the Army bought in the 1970s and 1980s was designed with this doctrine in mind as well as the constraints of budget and engineering.

Doctrine drove the development of equipment. The Army looked at how it wanted to fight, then decided what it needed to fight that way. Knowing that there was a very limited pool of money, the were ruthless in aiming for what the NEEDED versus what they WANTED. This eventually boiled down to what became known as “The Big Five”: The M-1 Abrams tank, the M-2/M-3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, The UH-60 Blackhawk transport helicopter, the Patriot air defense missile system, and of course, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.

The big problem facing US commanders on the ground in Western Europe was being outnumbered. A US division could expect to face up to nine Soviet divisions. The rule of thumb is that the attacker should bring three times the troops as the defender. The problem for the Soviets was that there wasn’t enough space to get all nine divisions into the fight at the same time. There just weren’t enough roads to move the divisions and supply them. Their answer was the “echelon attack”. The first echelon of three divisions would attack. If they broke through, fine. If not, they would pull back slightly while keeping pressure on the US forces. The second echelon would then pass through and make its attack. If that didn’t work, the third echelon would then take its turn. During each attack, they could expect to wear down the US division to the point that it collapsed. The question for the US was how to counter this. The answer was-timing. If the US could delay the follow up attacks by the second and third echelons, the US division would be in a position recover from the first attack, and even counter-attack to upset the Soviet efforts. The question became “how do we delay and disrupt the follow on echelons?” Artillery and rockets didn’t have enough range to reach that far behind the front. The Air Force would do its part by concentrating on targets like bridges, supply and fuel depots, and command posts. That left a middle ground from roughly 25-100 miles behind the front lines that the Army needed to be able to attack.

The solution was the attack helicopter and deep strike. Attack helicopters had been around almost as long as helicopters themselves. Previously, however, they had always been used in close support of the ground forces, like flying artillery, and tied to the units they were supporting.  Anyone who has seen Apocolypse Now remembers the choppers coming in over the beach and laying waste to the bad guys. The new concept was for the helicopter to act more like Cavalry, raiding deep behind enemy lines, popping up where least expected. Think JEB Stuart in the Civil War. Rather than one or two helicopters providing support to an infantry battalion, an entire battalion of helicopters (18 birds) would slip past the first echelon and attack the second and third before they could even get to the fight. They would sow confusion, concentrate on taking out commanders and headquarters, force the Soviets to react to us, rather than having us react to them. By carefully choosing when and where they attacked, they could influence not only when, but where the follow on echelons attacked. For instance, if the Soviets planned to attack by crossing a river, the helicopters could concentrate on attacking bridging vehicles, forcing the Soviets to choose another path.

The Army’s first attempt at a purpose built attack helicopter was the AH-56 Cheyenne. It was not a success. It was primarily designed to serve as an escort for transport helicopters, but the ability to fly fast for long distances also helped inspire the deep strike concept. After the failure of the Cheyenne, development of the Apache began in earnest. What was wanted was a long range helicopter that could survive considerable small arms fire, and packed a large punch, able to defeat any known enemy armor. The helicopter needed to be able to operate day  or night, or in bad weather. This lead to the development of the Apache’s TADS/PNVS (Target Aquisition and Designation System/Pilots Night Vision System). This used infrared sensors to allow the gunner to spot enemy vehicles and “paint” them with a laser designator. The pilots night vision system used was mounted above the TADS and moved separatley. This allowed both crewmembers to use night vision, even while looking in differnt directions. One of the “good ideas” incorporated was to allow the 30mm cannon to point where the pilot was looking. While the gunner was using the TADS to fire Hellfire missiles at enemy tanks, the pilot could engage any threats that got in close.

The Hellfire missile was developed in concert with the Apache. It has a range of about 5 miles so the Apache is outside the range of most anti-aircraft missiles and guns it would encounter. It’s warhead was large enough to defeat any known armor and since it was laser designated, it could be guided by the helicopter firing it, another helicopter, or a scout on the ground. The 30mm chain gun gave the Apache to engage soft targets like trucks without spending an expensive Hellfire missile. It also gave it good self-defense against troops and anti-aircraft guns. In addition, 2.75″ rockets could be used to attack soft targets and troops.

The best known use of the Apache performing a deep strike was on the opening night of Desert Storm. A force of eight Apaches, supported by four Air Force MH-53Js, attacked two Iraqi radar stations on the border to open up a corridor for Allied strike planes to slip through unobserved. Less well known were several deep strike missions performed by the Apaches of the VII Corps to attack Republican Guard brigades and “fix” them in place to be destroyed later by ground forces. They were so successful, by the time they were done, there was little left of the units to be destroyed.

Ironically, the Army has abondoned the deep strike mission for the Apaches. This is partly because there is little chance of US forces being so greatly outnumbered. Another major factor was the deep strike mission against the Medina Division on March 24, 2003. Thirty-three Apaches attacked the Medina Division near Karbala. Having learned their lesson in Operation Desert Storm, the Medina Division laid a clever “flak trap” that shot down one Apache, and damaged almost all the others. All the damaged Apaches were able to make it back home, but several were damaged beyond repair. The high cost of the mission wasn’t worth the results.

If you made it this far, many thanks. Here’s the payoff-


A personal favorite:


And one more: