Crossing 2000 Kilometres of Death
On May 8, 1864, Ulysses S Grant’s Union soldiers clashed with the Confederate troops of Robert E Lee at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse on the road to Richmond. For the next two weeks the two sides fought it out as Union soldiers braved the fire swept ground that separated the two armies to close with the Rebels. Thousands fell in the attempt. A few weeks later, the process repeated itself at the even bloodier Battle of Cold Harbor.
Today’s commanders face a challenge similar to that which their Civil War predecessors had to address: the ability of defensive firepower to impede manoeuvre and the closing with the enemy. The only difference now is the scale. Whereas Grant’s men had to cross at most several hundred meters of exposed ground, today’s military forces face theatre-size killing zones in all domains. For some operations, such as cyber, distance and time are becoming irrelevant, and as technology advances even the ranges of kinetic weapons may become global in reach. How to manoeuvre and bring force to bear against the enemy in this lethal and exposed environment is the critical tactical/operational question of our age. How we solve it, if we solve it, will determine which powers will prevail in the wars of the future.
Defining the Problem
During the US Civil War, a significant shift in the character of war began to take shape. The employment of firepower in that war’s final years demonstrated that the defender could create a highly lethal beaten zone of lead and steel in front of their position. Over the next 50 years, that trend accelerated as weapons of greater lethality and range appeared, including improved breech-loading rifles, machine guns and quick firing artillery, along with advances in transport, communications and manufacturing that kept armies well supplied with bullets and shells. With each innovation, the deadly zone in front of a defender’s position thickened and deepened. The apogee of this trend was reached in the trenches of the Western Front of the First World War where the firepower the combatants possessed killed and wounded soldiers in the tens of thousands.
From today’s perspective of rail guns, pilotless drones and artificial intelligence, the idea that the introduction of quick firing artillery or breech-loading rifles could transform the character of war may seem quaint. Yet, what is happening today is strikingly similar. Precision weapons combined with advanced sensors have given combatants the ability to create massive anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) zones in the approaches to their territory. Those states that wish to penetrate these zones may still be able to do so, but they will pay a heavy price. For today’s military leaders, the question they must solve is the same one that all military leaders have always faced--how do you force the enemy to accept your will? The challenge is in doing this in a technologically transformed world in which the defender appears to hold the advantage.
From a military adaptation point of view, the First World War represents an expensive learning curve, if a necessary one. By 1918, a new form of warfare had emerged—Combined Arms—that continues to underpin the conduct of operations to the present. The countering of the defender’s fire advantage lay in reconceptualising how armies thought about how to fight. The lesson of this innovation holds insight for those who must operate across the present 2000 kilometre killing zone. A few observations from the First World War hold particular relevance for contemporary thinkers:
- The critical innovation of the Great War was the British Army’s raising of the Counter Battery Staff Office (of which there was a French equivalent): a corps-level intelligence coordination centre. Its staff received data from a variety of sensors, plotted the enemy’s artillery positions and incorporated their suppression into a fire plan. At the commencement of an attack, British (and French) batteries silenced—simultaneously—the German guns, negating their potential defensive fire. The artillery was the war’s great killer and with it removed from the equation of battle, British and French infantry could advance across No Man’s Land in relative safety.
- The adaptation to a new way of war required combatants to change their philosophical approach to the defeat of the enemy. Up to the Battle of the Somme in mid-1916, the intent of the attacker was to destroy the enemy in a decisive battle. From the Somme to the end of the war, the goal changed to an easier task: neutralise the enemy at the time and place of one’s choosing. By focusing on neutralisation, the British—and their Allies—were able to utilise their weapons to negate the advantages of the defence and remove them from the equation of battle. In doing so, the offensive potential of their technology was restored, allowing manoeuvre again to take place.
- By the end of the First World War, the coordination of arms had moved from a sequential approach to a combined one. No one arm dominated battle and each had a part to play.
- By the end of the First World War, combatants perceived the conduct of operations in two phases: the break-in to the enemy’s position, and the break-through beyond the enemy’s defences into the rear area. The capability limits of the available technologies prevented the attainment of the break-through, at least until the improved technologies of the Second World War.
All of these observations will play a role in breaching the 2000 kilometre killing zone, some more so than others, with a degree of modification. Combined arms warfare has expanded to a joint approach, which in turn is expanding to include all domains. Neutralising the enemy’s defences at the time and place of the attacker’s choosing will still prove more achievable than striving for their destruction.
As the killing zone had grown from First World War perceptions, the final observation is the one most in need of adaptation to the requirements of manoeuvre in a theatre-size killing zone. Instead of planning in terms of the break-in and break-through, it will be necessary to conceptualise an offensive in terms of the close and the distant fight. Combatants will largely conduct the distant fight with long-range precision strike, both kinetic and non-kinetic, in order to neutralise the defender’s ability to interdict the battle space. It will be a phase that is conducted at range with few humans exposed to the defender’s response. Only when the defender’s A2AD barrier has been reduced will it be time for the close fight. It is in this phase that human and robotic soldiers will manoeuvre across the killing zone and advance into contact with the enemy to secure their objectives. Success in the distant fight is the more important of the two phases because negating the enemy’s defensive firepower is a pre-requisite for the close fight.
For today’s commanders, the prospect of negotiating a theatre-wide killing zone must be a daunting one. The United States Army is tackling the problem by developing a concept called Multi-Domain Operations (MDO). The Australian Army will not have the resources to copy MDO, and if a part of a coalition, its contribution would be reduced to a follow-on force due to integration barriers. However, Australia cannot afford to ignore the rise of the 2000 kilometre killing zone. As barriers to entry decline and as advanced weapons proliferate, Australia may have to tackle an A2AD barrier on its own. Each age throws up its own operational problem that a military must solve if it is to continue to offer utility to the state. For Australian soldiers, of all ranks, crossing today’s killing zone is our problem.
About the author: Dr Albert Palazzo is the Director of War Studies in the Australian Army Research Centre. He has published widely on military history and the contemporary character of war. His work epitomises the public service commitment to frank and fearless advice. When he is not thinking about Multi-Domain Battle his other current research interest is war and climate change.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.