The Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) flies at 20,000 feet and delivers a 2,000 mile radius of action. Image courtesy of Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles.
Two unrelated developments have fused to produce a true revolution in warfare. The first is highly accurate and extremely powerful weapons. The second is the discovery that modern conventional armies can be defeated by guerrilla methods.
Each development occurred independently, but their combined effect is almost certain to create a new type of combat by small units that operate in conjunction with one another, but function far more independently than existing military forces. There will be less distinction than in the past between orthodox military operations, guerrilla methods, and terrorist strikes. Motivations for each will differ, but they will function much the same.
The traditional battlefield will disappear, and combat will take on more the nature of sudden, surprise blows on unsuspecting targets, and equally surprise counterstrikes by defending forces. In this it will resemble present-day guerrilla and terrorist clashes. Distances at which forces operate will be great, because troops must be dispersed over wide tracts of territory, and—to prevent being destroyed by standoff missiles and bombs—they will remain hidden until prepared to strike.
The long-established structure of armies in a descending order of size from corps to divisions, regiments, and battalions will not persist much longer. Existing military organizations were designed for sustained operations on the linear battlefields or main lines of resistance (MLRs) of the twentieth century. As such battle lines are now obsolete, military structures designed to fight on these lines are also obsolete. At the same time, the capacity of modern computers, radios, and television to provide to all military elements simultaneously and in split seconds target data and precise details about one’s own forces and enemy forces makes the old structural or command divisions not only unnecessary but barriers to quick action.
With the disappearance of the heavily defended front line, troops can move at will in all directions, and everywhere will be the rear of the enemy. Clashes may occur at many different places, and make no clear distinctions between front or rear, or even, unfortunately, between soldier and civilian.
The reason customary battlefields will vanish is that soldiers no longer can survive on them. In the past quarter century, but especially in the past decade, nonnuclear weapons have become so accurate and so powerful that practically any target anywhere can be hit by standoff weapons.
Single tanks, cannons, and vehicles, and small bodies of troops now can be found, precisely located, and destroyed by weapons fired from helicopters, aircraft, gunships, cannons, missile launchers, or even individual soldiers manning handheld weapons.1 Missiles and “smart” bombs can be guided to specific targets by inerrant radar, laser, infrared, acoustic, or other homing devices. While “dumb” bombs that fall where they are dropped still exist, and sometimes miss their targets, as does fire aimed by soldiers, weapons are far more accurate and battlefields far more deadly today than they were in World War II or the Korean War.
All this was demonstrated by the collapse of the Taliban government in the second week of November 2001 after only a few weeks of targeted bombing and strikes by attack aircraft, AC-130 gunships, and other weapons.
Numerous programs are under way to locate enemy forces with even greater precision and to make combat even more lethal. The Pentagon is developing highly computerized command centers that can be located continents away from any war zone. These command centers will collect data from sensors and surveillance systems such as satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and use the information to strike enemy targets with bombs and rockets fired by aircraft, missile launchers, and artillery.
Devices to detect the presence of even tiny enemy elements are already extremely effective, and will become more foolproof in coming years. Among the most important advances are ground sensors and UAVs, or aerial drones. Ground sensors can be dropped from planes into enemy territory. Once on the ground, the sensors sprout antennae and send back to command centers pictures and infrared images showing the precise locations of enemy vehicles and soldiers. Aerial drones range in size and scope from the high altitude Global Hawk, which can fly virtually around the world, taking close-up pictures of enemy installations, to small tactical “hummingbird” drones only nine inches long, which can give troops in close-combat situations quick birds’-eye views of the enemy ahead.
The army is developing a small all-terrain vehicle that can serve as the personal robot of an individual soldier, following him wherever he goes, and carrying his weapons, ammunition, explosives, and food.
New strike weapons include the small “hornet” canister that can be dropped by soldiers or from trucks and can detect and classify enemy vehicles as they pass, then strike them with armor-piercing projectiles. The air force is developing a whole family of UAVs that can serve as attack platforms. In Afghanistan the Predator UAV’s video cameras not only located and passed on to other aircraft precise information about enemy forces, but also launched Hellfire missiles at targets itself. The next generation of UAV strike weapons includes the X-45, a thirty-foot-long unmanned combat aerial vehicle that will carry twelve bombs. At first the aircraft will ask human controllers for permission to bomb targets. By 2010 the Pentagon expects X-45s to attack independently anything within designated “kill boxes.”
Large concentrations of troops and weapons now are targets for destruction, not marks of power, and they no longer will exist. Dispersion will be the aim in future conflicts. Troops will operate in much smaller groupings because they offer much smaller and less lucrative targets. Weapons will be lethal, but lighter. Main battle tanks and huge cannons are becoming increasingly a liability. Mobility will be essential, and much movement will be by helicopter, which is faster than travel on land because it is not bound by roads.
PCAS has two components:
The first is PCAS-Air, which … involves the use of internal guidance systems, weapons and engagement management systems, and communications using either the Ethernet or aircraft networks for high-speed data transmission and reception. PCAS-Air processes the data received, and provides aircrews via aircraft displays or tablets with the best travel routes to the target, which weapons to use, and how best to use them.
The other half is PCAS-Ground, intended for improved mobility, situational awareness and communications for fire coordination. Soldiers on the ground can use an HUD eyepiece wired to a tablet that displays tactical imagery, maps, digital terrain elevation data, and other information [the image above is an artist’s impression of the Heads-Up Display]. This means they can receive tactical data from PCAS without having to keep looking at a computer screen.
PCAS-Ground has been deployed in Afghanistan since December 2012. The original plan, as the emphasis on ‘persistent’ implies, was to integrate the system with drones, but after the cancellation of the US Air Force’s MQ-X (‘Avenger’) program Raytheon announced that PCAS would be developed using a conventional A-10 Thunderbolt.
Military units, to survive, must not only be small, but highly mobile, self-contained, and autonomous. Accordingly, the lessons learned in guerrilla warfare, which largely operates with separate detachments of a few to a few hundred men, will have vast significance in determining a new type of regular military force and developing new types of strategy and tactics.
In 2000, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt wrote for the Rand Corporation a study, Swarming and the Future of Conflict, that encapsulates much of the advanced thinking about armies and how they must fight wars today. Arquilla and Ronfeldt postulated small “pods” or modest-sized teams that would “swarm” around an enemy target on all sides—either directly as attacking troops, or by fire delivered from artillery, missile, attack helicopter, or other aerial “pods” miles away.
In other words, infantry “pods” might assault an enemy position directly on two or three sides, in close coordination with an artillery or missile “pod” positioned five or six miles distant, or army Apache attack helicopter or air force AC-130 gunship “pods” overhead. Artillery gunners would strike targets pointed out by the infantry, while the aircraft might also hit such targets, or might go after targets they located themselves.
Several pods would be formed into a “cluster,” the main tactical unit. Clusters might function alone or with other clusters. In any event, pods or clusters, using instantaneous modern communication systems, would strike hard, quick blows, disperse quickly, then recombine for another strike as necessary. One cluster or as many as needed would be assigned to complete a mission. All would be tied together in an all-channel communications network, in which everyone was connected to everyone else. This would allow any unit to collaborate with any other unit, wherever located, and permit coordinated attacks or strikes that in existing military formations would be impossible.
Instant communications combined with great mobility and high flexibility are the keys to the success of swarming tactics. If carried out properly, small units in constant communication with one another could attack an enemy on all sides simultaneously. This has been a largely unattainable goal for orthodox armies, because of the difficulty in communicating rapidly with intermediate or lower headquarters, and getting them to make quick changes in mission or direction.
The problem has bedeviled armies for centuries. Just prior to the battle of Waterloo in June 1815, for example, Napoleon sent off Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy with a large corps to keep the Prussians from joining the British. But Grouchy merely followed on the tail of the Prussians, and Napoleon was unable to communicate with him in time to interpose Grouchy’s corps between the Prussians and the British. That is the principal reason Napoleon lost Waterloo.
The new warfare also will require officers to embrace change and new ideas, and cease holding on doggedly to preconceived theories and orthodox solutions. There no longer will be a place for the familiar “Colonel Blimp,” the rigid, by-the-book officer determined to do things as they have always been done. One example of the kind of thinking that must vanish occurred in the early stages of World War II. German commanders discovered their 88-mm antiaircraft gun, designed to shoot down high-flying enemy aircraft, was, in fact, the best weapon they possessed to penetrate armor. This gun became the great “tank-buster” in the German army. General Erwin Rommel used it extensively against the British in the desert war in Libya and Egypt. The British had a nearly identical antiaircraft gun, a 3.7-inch cannon that had as high a muzzle velocity as the 88. Their top command, however, refused to use it in an antitank role. It had been designed as an antiaircraft gun, and that was what it remained.
Changes in technology and tactics can be difficult for traditional officers to accept, but they open avenues to success for those who can think creatively. Since super-accurate weapons and high mobility will force military units to disperse widely, the officer who can accomplish missions without constant supervision and instruction will have high value. Another factor in the new warfare, instantaneous communications, will make it possible for numerous autonomous elements to work together efficiently, even when they are far apart. Thus commanders who can see their tasks as part of a larger goal or objective and who can cooperate with other detached elements will be successful. In other words, the new warfare will place far more emphasis on original thinking, independent action, and individual responsibility by officers down to the lowest level.
A good example of the new kind of thinking was the extremely effective work of small special forces units in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. These outfits, operating on the ground and relying on their own initiative, located Taliban and Al Qaeda targets with the help of friendly Afghan tribesmen, and directed accurate strikes by bombs and shellfire from American aircraft overhead.
The face of battle will be transformed. It will be spread over a much larger surface, will employ weapons that nearly always hit their targets, and will demand officers and soldiers who are more accountable and reliable than has ever been required in the past. But the element that makes for victory—essentially the application of superior force at a crucial point—will continue as before. The commander who can see how to bring this about under the altered conditions prevailing today will be successful.
Swarming advocates the dispersal of a wide number of small maneuver units over a battle space, along with the devolution of a great deal of command and control authority from senior officers to those small units. This implies, of course, highly responsible and skilled junior officers, and a profound shift away from the top-heavy headquarters structure of armies commanded by often-distant senior commanders that has existed for many years.
Perhaps the most extreme example of overcentralized control and micromanagement was President Lyndon B. Johnson, who sometimes personally directed local engagements by battalions and smaller units in the Vietnam War, while he sat half a world away in the White House.
The idea of pods and clusters may be more comprehensible if the pod is thought of as a platoon or team of thirty to fifty men and a cluster as a company of three or four platoons. Each team in a given cluster might have the same mission, or the teams might have different missions. Arquilla and Ronfeldt assume that clusters would keep the same teams. Thus clusters, and not individual teams, would be assembled for a given mission.
Several clusters might be detailed to destroy, say, a terrorist camp discovered in Somalia. Once the task was completed, the clusters would move to another mission. In other words, clusters could combine and recombine in as large or as small numbers as needed, and only as often and for as long as necessary.
There is no inherent reason why teams from one cluster could not be joined temporarily with teams in another cluster to accomplish a specific job. Thus clusters could be variable in size, especially as each pod would be self-sufficient, autonomous, and supplied directly. This is not done at present. Small units now have to get their food, ammunition, fuel, and other needs from a logistic system organized around much larger military organizations.