The [Modern] Revolution in Warfare II


Arquilla and Ronfeldt recognize that the concept they propose would require a novel, innovative system of logistics. “For swarming,” they write, “these goods and services will have to be delivered not to fixed locations, but to an ever-shifting set of small forces almost constantly on the move.”

The idea of pods and clusters resembles intellectually the Kampfgruppen, or mixed battle groups, of guns, armor, infantry, and sometimes engineers that the Germans developed in 1940. A battle group formed with forces and size needed to carry out a specific mission, and dissolved when it was completed. Kampfgruppen were flexible but effective, and dominated German tactical operations for the remainder of World War II.

The idea also resembles the battle teams that the Communist guerrillas used against the French and the Americans in Vietnam. Although the Communists often structured their forces in battalions, regiments, and divisions, or “field forces,” the soldiers usually fought as members of small platoon-sized teams, with several teams working together to attack an enemy base or position.

Under the proposed system, individual teams might have designated missions or jobs, such as infantry assault, defense against tanks or aircraft, long-range artillery or missile bombardment, or helicopter strikes. Others might combine missions, in the fashion of light infantry units today—having the primary task of attacking enemy positions with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and high explosives, but also armed with antitank and antiaircraft missiles, mortars, and mine detectors. But all, whether single-purpose or multipurpose, would be connected in a cluster so that any could be called upon in time of need to assist any other.

Arquilla and Ronfeldt propose that the teams would largely employ light fighting vehicles. The army has the fully tracked M-113 armored personnel carrier (APC) and Bradley fighting vehicle in a number of configurations. Both can deflect most small-arms fire and light shrapnel. The Bradley’s armaments include 25-mm cannons, machine guns, Stinger air-defense missiles, and TOW antitank missiles. The army also has fielded a wheeled “interim armored vehicle” (IAV), which can carry nine soldiers and a crew of two or a turreted 105-mm gun and its crew.

One school of thought believes primary tactical movement should be by helicopter, not on the ground. This school, led by army Major Anthony M. Coroalles, holds that the only way to restore mobility is by employing helicopters—that is, using air-assault infantry and light artillery as the maneuver force. Throughout history, faster armies have won because their elements could reach decisive points before the enemy or, by concentrating an overwhelming force, could evict smaller enemy forces from these places.

Using choppers to carry and protect them, air-delivered troops can move at ten times the speed of any land weapon. Helicopter refueling and maintenance can be provided well to the rear, thus choppers are logistically less vulnerable than fighting vehicles, which must have these elements brought up to them. Also, helicopters can fly over the enemy and overwhelm a force.

The mode of transportation will resolve itself into the best vehicle for the mission. In cases where American forces have to travel long distances over difficult terrain to strike, the choice will be helicopters or the new V-22 Osprey, a tilt-engine transport hybrid between a helicopter and a fixed-wing airplane.12 In cases where distances are small and roads plentiful, ground vehicles may be as good or better. And ground and helicopter forces will doubtless work in conjunction in many circumstances.

Swarming, or attacking on all sides, was probably the normal way of fighting by hunter-gatherer tribes in the Stone Age, since it is essentially an ambush. But it has been difficult to bring it about in conventional warfare—because of the rigid structure of military organizations and the inadequacy, until very recent times, of communications on the battlefield.

The model formula for orthodox war is called the convergent assault; this is normally a two-direction attack, whereas swarming is an omnidirectional attack. In the convergent assault, the commander divides his force into two or more segments. Ideally, one segment attacks the target from one direction, while another segment attacks the same target from a different direction. Sometimes a part of the force “fixes” the enemy in place or distracts him while the other part maneuvers to gain surprise and break up the defense.

The convergent assault is mentioned in the Bible (2 Samuel 5:22–25), and was used by Alexander the Great and Hannibal. It has been the canonical solution for a long time. In part this has been because it could be used by small detachments and large armies alike, and could succeed against familiar as well as unexpected obstacles.

For example, it finally broke the tactical impasse along the western front in World War I caused by the immense power of the machine gun, heavy field fortifications, and accurate, fast-firing artillery. These weapons virtually stopped movement in the first year of the war. In 1915, however, a German captain, Willy Martin Rohr, developed “infiltration” or “storm troop” tactics. One small group of soldiers held down an enemy trench position or strong point with heavy directed fire by automatic weapons, mortars, and sometimes cannons, while one or more well-trained teams of eight to twelve “storm troopers,” working in conjunction, infiltrated the trench line or sneaked up on the strong point, and “rolled it up” with grenades, small-arms fire, and sometimes flamethrowers. This fire-and-maneuver system overcame enemy guns and fortifications, returned movement to the battlefield, and became the fundamental method of tactical engagements for the rest of the century.

Swarming is a variation on fire-and-maneuver, but is an advance over it, made possible by flexible military units and instant communications. High speed and mobility, though assets, are not essential to the theory.

Swarming has profound implications for use against terrorist groups and training sites in countries harboring them, and against hostile formal military forces in those countries. Clusters could encircle and destroy a camp or a force discovered in remote or isolated areas, or close in on a compound within a city and eliminate it, with far more facility than conventional forces. Targets of these types are likely to be fleeting, and will require prompt and decisive action. In October 2001, for example, an unmanned aerial vehicle spotted a terrorist group, possibly including Osama bin Laden, traveling on a road in Afghanistan, but American forces did not have time to launch a strike before it vanished. Pods or teams could move much faster because they would not have to wait for higher command to design a full-fledged operation or go through several headquarters to get clearance. Clusters and pods, with command authority already delegated to them, could respond at once to opportunities as they appeared.

Swarming has less significance for actions against clandestine cells within democratic countries. These cells are far too small to have capability for defense, must strike by surprise, and possess little hope of surviving except by chance. Terrorist blows within democratic states will almost always be suicide missions, or underhanded sneak ventures like the anthrax-laden letters sent through the U.S. mails in autumn 2001. Since such strikes can rarely be predicted in advance, action against them must primarily be preventive. This means essentially detective work by police and intelligence services to root out the cells and the terrorists before they can strike.

Lessons from the Past

Some armies in the past worked out routines that incorporated swarming and could be performed without direct control or coordination by a commander. But this approach required highly trained soldiers who could be depended upon to follow prior instructions precisely.

Numerous tribes of the steppes of inner Eurasia developed such internal discipline and were highly successful. They were mounted archers and had in their horses the sort of speed and flexibility that Arquilla and Ronfeldt envision in mobile teams.

The horsemen surrounded an enemy force, not coming to grips with it, but firing arrows into the massed bodies of infantry or cavalry. The horsemen used the compound bow, consisting of a layer of sinew on the back and a layer of horn on the inner surface or belly, with a frame of wood in the middle. The bow could exert a pull of well over a hundred pounds, although it was short enough to be wielded easily by a man on horseback. Arrows could kill at 300 yards and, equipped with sharp metal points, could penetrate the thickest armor.

The horse archers could materialize before an enemy force, unleash a storm of arrows, attack to the front, sides, and rear, and disappear, without ever coming into collision with infantry swords or spears or even, in many cases, with cavalry armed with javelins or spears. A favorite technique was the feint. Combining the speed of the horse with a refined system of control and timing, horsemen rushed forward in a furious charge, then, pretending the onslaught had failed, withdrew, seemingly in panic and sometimes over the horizon. Only the most controlled troops could withstand the urge to rush after the supposedly fleeing horsemen, and, in the process, go beyond their supports, lose their tight battle order, and allow units or individuals to become separated. Then the horse archers suddenly regrouped, turned on the advancing enemy, and destroyed the disorganized soldiers one unit or soldier at a time.

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the British Royal Air Force used swarming tactics to defeat heavy German Luftwaffe bomber assaults against England. British radar, developed prior to the war, could track German bombers from the moment they took off from bases in western Europe. This allowed RAF fighters to mass in advance, and attack each bomber flight from all sides when it came within a target box or sector. It was this combination of radar and omnidirectional fighter strikes that caused staggering losses to the Luftwaffe and preserved Britain from invasion.

Chinese forces used another variant of swarming when they intervened in the Korean War in late 1950. The Chinese had no air power and were armed only with rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, and mortars. Against the much more heavily armed Americans, they adapted a technique they had used against the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war of 1946–1949. The Chinese generally attacked at night and tried to close in on a small troop position—generally a platoon—and then attacked it with local superiority in numbers. The usual method was to infiltrate small units, from a platoon of fifty men to a company of 200, split into separate detachments. While one team cut off the escape route of the Americans, others struck both the front and the flanks in concerted assaults. The attacks continued on all sides until the defenders were destroyed or forced to withdraw. The Chinese then crept forward to the open flank of the next platoon position, and repeated the tactics.

These examples demonstrate that the idea of swarming and a new, smaller unit structure for military forces embody techniques and principles that reach back to the earliest days of warfare.

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