Air/Sea/Land Battle
17 Apr 2013|

Armoured fighting vehicles of the Irish Guards as part of the British Army of the Rhine parked in a field during a summer exercise in Germany. Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum.

I spent September 1984 sleeping in German forests and barnyards. It was Exercise Lionheart and my regiment, the Royal Yeomanry, was providing rear area security for the British Army of the Rhine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the battle was going to plan. We defended a bridge from attack by parachutists, fought spetsnaz Special Forces, and had a wonderful mess dinner wearing chain-mail, scarlet twill and spurs. Yes, in the middle of a war.

Eventually, once the enemy’s Operational Manoeuvre Group had been halted in its tracks, we switched to the offensive. Because we were the only reconnaissance unit remaining intact, our mission was to probe through a weak point and strike at the enemy’s rear. But D Squadron (North Irish Horse) lost first one Troop, then another, charging off down a road. My vehicles were the last remaining reserve. Looking at a map, I realised that by cutting through the forest I could by-pass the enemy defensive position and swing around to take them from behind. We swung through the trees before manoeuvring back and overwhelming the blocking force. The path was open! We’d penetrated through the enemy’s rear echelon. Colonel Jonathon later told me that my troop had penetrated to the most easterly point of the entire British army, and we were all very proud.

It would all have been very different if there were a real war, of course. Nobody really believed the BAOR was anything other than a speed bump that would slow down the massive Soviet mechanised columns advance for a couple of days. But that was precisely the aim: to buy time and allow talks to salvage the situation and/or for the nuclear exchange to begin. There was no way our inadequate formations would be anything other than a trip-wire: a way of checking just how serious the Soviets were and letting them know that NATO wasn’t going to simply cave in.

That’s not the sort of thing a general can admit to his soldiers. That’s why we ‘won’. The Americans had, concurrently and independently, come up with their own way of convincing everyone that having land forces in Europe ‘made sense’. They called it ‘AirLand Battle’. The idea was that by extending the battlefield, precision weapons could attrite and destroy enemy formations before they overwhelmed the defences. We’d win! As Manual FM 100-5 stated: ‘the purpose of military operations cannot be simply to avert defeat – rather it must be to win’.

It all sounded very good, so no officer was going to point out the obvious flaws in the doctrine—to do so would be embracing professional oblivion. So everyone went along with the theory and nobody dared point out that the Emperor had no clothes. Eventually, the Soviet Union fell apart and everyone congratulated themselves in playing a part in its downfall. Fast forward to the present.

Today the undisguised focus of the US military is China. The professional military theorists have had to come up with a new theory justifying the requirement for their organisation. No, it’s not the counter-insurgency doctrine this time—an updated version of FM 100-5—which supposedly delivered us victory in Iraq and Afghanistan (Petraeus is so yesterday). Instead it’s a new version of AirLand battle, with an updated name (AirSea Battle) and new descriptions of how war will be fought and exactly how the US will be able to dominate the battle-space and achieve victory.

This is all very well. Such doctrine is necessary for the armed forces to prepare for war. But don’t dismiss the vital organisational imperative behind the theory.

Armed forces create doctrine (or operational ‘concepts’) to justify their role—any genuine analysis of the actual tactical conditions is inevitably forced into second place by equally real, perhaps even more immediate, institutional pressures. The primary driver is justification of organisational structures. Nobody’s going to get promoted by proclaiming the super-carrier obsolete. Australia is forced to deal with this theory (as Benjamin Schreer so brilliantly has) simply because it’s been articulated. But that doesn’t mean we have to believe it.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum.