View Full Version : Tactics, Anyone?

Histry Nerd
09-12-2006, 06:58 PM
I have seen a couple of threads, here and in the Fantasy/Sci-Fi Forum, that make me wonder if a single thread on the fundamentals of military tactics might be useful. I envision something of a clearing-house thread where folks could ask and answer questions on battlefield tactics, use and effects (and feasibility) of various weapons systems, and the like. I am no expert, but I would be willing to share my experience to start and contribute to such a thread.

As to my credentials for offering this: I spent twelve years as an Infantry officer with the U.S. Army, including a tour of duty in Iraq, and so have some first-hand knowledge of small-unit tactics in practice. My degrees have little to do with history (foreign area studies and business), but I have studied military history my entire adult life. Not to mention there are plenty of others on this board who can contribute to such a thread.

Would such a thread be useful? Let me know. My access to the boards will be limited for a few days (going to New York for a conference), but if there is interest, I can start as soon as I get back. Until then, start posting your questions!


09-13-2006, 04:43 PM
I have seen a couple of threads, here and in the Fantasy/Sci-Fi Forum, that make me wonder if a single thread on the fundamentals of military tactics might be useful. I envision something of a clearing-house thread where folks could ask and answer questions on battlefield tactics, use and effects (and feasibility) of various weapons systems, and the like. I am no expert, but I would be willing to share my experience to start and contribute to such a thread.

As to my credentials for offering this: I spent twelve years as an Infantry officer with the U.S. Army, including a tour of duty in Iraq, and so have some first-hand knowledge of small-unit tactics in practice. My degrees have little to do with history (foreign area studies and business), but I have studied military history my entire adult life. Not to mention there are plenty of others on this board who can contribute to such a thread.

Would such a thread be useful? Let me know. My access to the boards will be limited for a few days (going to New York for a conference), but if there is interest, I can start as soon as I get back. Until then, start posting your questions!


My only direct military experience is as a consultant with the US Navy and Marines on safety (radiation, drugs, chemical exposure, doctrine, training, command responsibilities) long ago.

So I'd like to know: how dangerous does training really need to be? What is the payoff of realistic training and how do you tailor training regimes in the field? Or do you? We never worried enough, I don't think, about what kind of training people do once they are deployed into a combat area. Though from some reports over the years, one advantage of being in a combat zone is that people are more careful about checking up on each other so that when you are "just training" you might let a pilot who has just taken a lot of cold medicine into a jet, but you might not even let him out of bed in a combat zone.

Histry Nerd
09-19-2006, 06:34 PM
My only direct military experience is as a consultant with the US Navy and Marines on safety (radiation, drugs, chemical exposure, doctrine, training, command responsibilities) long ago.

So I'd like to know: how dangerous does training really need to be? What is the payoff of realistic training and how do you tailor training regimes in the field? Or do you? We never worried enough, I don't think, about what kind of training people do once they are deployed into a combat area. Though from some reports over the years, one advantage of being in a combat zone is that people are more careful about checking up on each other so that when you are "just training" you might let a pilot who has just taken a lot of cold medicine into a jet, but you might not even let him out of bed in a combat zone.

Good to hear from you, Sokal.

Bear in mind, my comments come from an infantry perspective rather than from a flight perspective, so my experience differs from yours. We always planned training based not on how dangerous it was, but on how realistic--how close we could bring the training to actual combat conditions without putting soldiers' lives, limbs, eyesight, etc at risk. Of course, danger is inherent in any military operation; as many of us were fond of saying, we work with machines that are designed to kill people, and they don't care who they kill.

The trick, really, is to anticipate and mitigate the inherent risk as much as possible. If you're going into a live-fire exercise, for example, you want to evaluate your troops' abilities and condition: how familiar are they with the weapons systems they will be operating? How well-trained are they in their current jobs? How hard have they been training the last few days? How much rest have they had?

One way we mitigate the risks and make sure the guys are trained up in their tasks is to make the training progressive. If you want to put an infantry platoon through a platoon live-fire, for example, you might start by making sure every man is qualified on his assigned weapon, whether it is a rifle, grenade launcher, or machine gun. Next you would work buddy teams (2 men) on a straight lane with a single target, running through first with no ammo, then blanks, then live rounds. Then you move to Fire Team (4-5 guys) and do the same thing--dry, blanks, live. Then squad (two fire teams). Finally you can put the platoon (three or four squads) together and move them through the same kind of crawl, walk, run progression, culminating with an evaluated live-fire run that includes maneuver, pyrotechnics, and as many combat elements as you can provide without hurting someone. Bottom line is you want every soldier to be aware of the risk, and do as much as possible to minimize what risks there are.

As to how risk management translates from training to combat, my experience was we took more risks in combat, not fewer. We found information dissemination was one of the most important things--every soldier knew, for every convoy, where it was going, how many trucks were in it, and what the threat level was. Our guys would run 2-3 convoys a week, anywhere from 8 to 20 hours on the road (one way). We didn't have much choice; the supplies had to go north, which meant the convoys had to roll, which meant they had to have gun trucks for escort. So our guys would roll in in the morning, sleep a few hours, do maintenance on their trucks, and be back in the saddle that night. If a man was sick or too fatigued, we would find a replacement, but those guys were close enough that most of them would rather roll with their squads than make somebody else give up their rest. They had a job to do, and they knew their buddies would watch their backs, so they went. We lost one guy the entire year, in the dead of night to an IED nobody could have seen, so I guess we did something right.

I assume it was pretty much the same among the aviators. Did anybody else have a different experience?

I'll post more on tactics in a little while. I hope this has been helpful.

Histry Nerd
09-20-2006, 12:54 AM
The following are the basic principles of war as agreed upon by historians and tacticians. These principles accomplish a variety of tasks to aid us in our study of tactics:

1) They give us a framework for the study and execution of battlefield tactics, breaking a vast range of historical, and possible, tactical situations into nine more-or-less bite-sized components.
2) They provide a common language, a set of terms everyone understands by which we can describe an infinite variety of situations.
3) They simplify our study. By describing tactical situations in terms of the principles below, we can begin to analyze them more systematically than we could otherwise.

We can use the acronym MOSS MOUSE to help remember the nine principles:

MASS: Concentrate your forces so you have the advantage at the decisive point (the point on the battlefield where it makes the most difference). In the words of Confederate cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest, "Get there first with the most men."

OFFENSIVE: The offense is the decisive form of battle. Battles have been won by defense, but they are few compared to those won by offense--and even those few are usually decided by a counterattack after the attacker has exhausted himself, rather than the defender simply holding out until the attacker gives up. Consider the scenario of two armies facing each other across a field, out of range of each other's weapons systems. There is no battle until one of them moves. Advantage often lies with the antagonist who has, or can assume, the offensive.

SURPRISE: Go where your adversary thinks you aren't, do things he thinks you can't, and hit him where he is unprepared.

SECURITY: Know at all times what is going on around you through the use of scouts and the local population; keep part of your force alert at night or during periods of rest to warn of approaching enemy; in short, don't get surprised.

MANEUVER: Move your forces to gain an advantage over your adversary. Standing in one place and shooting at him imparts no advantage in most situations; you have to move your forces to exploit the terrain and/or weather, to simultaneously maximize his weaknesses and your strengths.

OBJECTIVE: Any military operation has to have a goal or objective, whether it is a piece of ground (take that hill or defend this line), a timetable (hold your position for x hours), part or all of the enemy force (destroy the command post, or more rarely destroy the entire enemy force). As many of your troops as possible should know what the objective is, so in the inevitable confusion of the fight they can continue to work toward it.

UNITY OF COMMAND: Somebody has to be in charge to enable the unit to act decisively. In the thick of the fight, two commanders arguing over the appropriate course of action can lead to hesitation and disaster.

SIMPLICITY: Make your plan as easy for your subordinates to understand as possible, with as few moving parts as you can manage. The simpler the plan, the more likely everyone will remember what he is supposed to do. I used to tell my lieutenants to make plans their most junior soldiers could understand at 3:00 AM when they hadn't slept in two days.

ECONOMY OF FORCE: Use the least force necessary to accomplish the desired effect. This leaves your other forces free either to exploit the success of your earlier move or to try something else if it fails. Note this does not mean not to apply overwhelming force at the decisive point; rather, it means if you can do so without committing everything you have, you should. If overwhelming force requires everything you have--and you have a reasonable expectation of victory by applying it--you throw everything in there.

Note that all these principles work together to, hopefully, achieve victory. None is more important than the others, indeed no one can know ahead of time which will be most important in any given situation. If we could, we could remove the guesswork from battle and develop a force that wins every time.

But we can't, for a few important reasons:

1) People and machines are fallible.
2) Luck always plays a part; even the smartest commander with the best staff cannot anticipate and mitigate every possible contingency.
3) The enemy is using the same principles to defeat you.

I hope this is helpful as you write your battle scenes. I'll be back with another lesson tomorrow.

Have a good one!

Histry Nerd
09-21-2006, 12:28 AM
Maneuver, as we discussed yesterday, is the movement of forces to gain an advantage over the enemy. There are five basic Forms of Maneuver. These forms describe movement in contact with or in close proximity to the enemy. As a rule, their purpose is to move forces into positions where they can either make contact with the enemy or threaten him directly.

You will note these forms are all offensive in nature; this is because, also as we discussed yesterday, the offensive is the decisive form of warfare. By definition, if you are maneuvering your forces, you are conducting offensive operations, not defensive.

The five forms are:

FRONTAL ATTACK: This is the basic form of attack as seen in movies like Braveheart, Gladiator, or The Return of the King, in which the attacking force attacks all along or at several points along the enemy's front simultaneously. I think the reason we see it so often in movies is because it is the easiest form to depict visually; one vast army surges toward the other, and the two lines clash in the middle with a great noise and everything degenerates into chaos. This form is useful if the defending force is much smaller or weaker than the attacker and may be overwhelmed quickly. When that is not the case, it is usually indecisive and costly, and is best used in conjunction with one of the other forms. In such cases, the frontal attack is generally to hold the enemy in place and distract him while another part of the attacking force conducts the other form of maneuver.
Advantages: the simplest form of maneuver, requiring the least amount of coordination between units. Gives the attacking commander the most direct control over his units. Useful if the attacking troops are numerous and training is poor or non-uniform.
Disadvantages: the least advantageous form of maneuver. A frontal attack hits the enemy where he is strongest, and leaves the attacker's own flanks open to envelopment unless anchored on difficult terrain like hills or water (more on anchoring when we discuss formations and disposition).

ENVELOPMENT: Rather than attack the enemy from the front, envelopment seeks to hit him in his less-protected sides (flanks) or his rear. This is the other form you see most often in the movies, the old standby: one of us draws his attention from the front while the other rides around to hit him in his flank or rear. This is the most common form to be used in conjunction with the frontal attack; one force attacks to hold the enemy's attention along his front and keep him from maneuvering against the main attack, which seeks to move unopposed to attack the flank or rear.
Advantages: directs the attacker's strength against the enemy's weakness. Forces the enemy to fight in two directions at once. Useful whether the attacking force is larger or smaller than the enemy.
Disadvantages: requires coordination and communication between units. Often requires physical separation between units, opening them to defeat in detail, in which the enemy defeats one force, then turns his full strength on the other. If the separate elements do not have a ready method of identifying each other, this could open them to fratricide, in which elements of the same side mistakenly identify each other as enemy and attack each other.

TURNING MOVEMENT: An indirect attack similar to an envelopment, but rather than seeking to attack the enemy's flank, a turning movement seeks to attack or threaten an objective of value to him behind his formation, forcing him to abandon his current position and maneuver against the attacker. Turning movements are more often conducted by large units, such as divisions or corps, than by small. Examples include bypassing a strong enemy to attack his supply trains or headquarters, or moving to seize a key river crossing or logistics base in his rear.
Advantages: may force an enemy in a strong position to abandon it in order to protect critical assets in his rear, making him vulnerable to attack. May isolate an enemy force in hostile (to him) territory or cut his lines of supply, forcing him to surrender without making direct contact. Useful for a smaller, more mobile force operating against a larger, less mobile one.
Disadvantages: exposes the attacker to defeat in detail, like the envelopment. Requires the attacker to move quickly to reach the objective before the enemy can get there to defend it, as he is generally closer to it than the attacker. Requires strong communications between separate units.

PENETRATION: A strong attack on a limited portion of the enemy's front, designed to puncture his line so follow-on attackers can get into the middle of his formation, or better, into his rear. The Nazi attack through the Ardennes Forest that began the Battle of the Bulge is an example of a penetration.
Advantages: breaks the cohesion of the enemy's lines, complicating communications between adjacent units and increasing confusion. Forces the enemy to divert resources to react to an unexpected threat in his rear. Can have a dramatic affect on enemy morale. A successful penetration can open an avenue for follow-on forces to defeat the enemy in detail.
Disadvantages: leaves the penetrating force's flanks open to envelopment. Against a well-trained enemy who can recover quickly, it exposes the attacker to encirclement and defeat in detail. The penetration is often very costly for the unit executing it, making a strong follow-on force imperative if the attacker is to exploit the successful penetration.

INFILTRATION: Similar to a penetration, except the attacker seeks to get into the enemy's rear by stealth rather than force and attack from within. Infiltration is usually accomplished by irregulars or special ops-type forces, who rally behind the enemy's formation and attack command posts or logistics assets.
Advantages: allows attackers to bypass the enemy's strongest points and hit more vulnerable targets, increasing confusion and fear among rear echelon troops. Extremely effective against an enemy with a highly centralized command structure, or who depends on extended logistics trains.
Disadvantages: infiltrating forces are highly vulnerable to counterattack. Infiltrators usually cannot carry heavy weapons because of the requirements for stealth and rapid movement. Requires detailed coordination and communication, first for the infiltrating forces to rally behind enemy lines, then to coordinate their attacks with those of the main force, then to avoid fratricide as the main force approaches friendly infiltrators as the battle progresses.

Of course, there are methods of movement not included in these five forms, but those methods are not strictly maneuver as they do not necessarily seek to make or threaten contact with the enemy. For example, troops moving by foot or wagon or rail or spaceship to get close to the enemy is not maneuver; not until they deploy into combat formations in anticipation of making contact can they be said to be maneuvering. Delaying or retrograde actions, even though the troops performing them may be in contact with the enemy, are not maneuver--they are designed to buy time and preserve forces, not gain advantage. Of course, the force moving to envelop the enemy force being delayed is maneuvering. Is anybody confused yet?

Please post your questions. I would love to know if these are helpful.

Have a good one!

Histry Nerd
09-21-2006, 07:58 PM
"L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!"
"Audacity, audacity, always audacity!"
--Frederick II (Frederick the Great), King of Prussia, 1712-1786

This simple quote from Frederick the Great captures the spirit of the offense in four words. Audacity, a simple plan executed boldly, can be more useful on the battlefield than technology or training.

The offense, as I have said in previous posts, is how battles and wars are decided. Defense does not win wars, although it can set conditions for later offensive operations. Only by offensive operations, by seeking and attacking the enemy's center of gravity (his army, a leader, his population, a source of resources, etc), can your characters hope to win wars.

The purpose of the offense, then, is simple: to defeat the enemy. The successful offense seizes and retains the initiative, acting decisively and forcefully to keep the enemy reacting instead of planning his next move. At the tactical level, the offense is aimed at killing the enemy, breaking his toys, and taking ground.

Note: In the case of more recent wars, we can occasionally replace killing with marginalizing, rendering his actions irrelevant to the result so maybe he'll give up and go home. In that sense, nonviolent, even nonmilitary, activities become offensive as we seek to convince populations that their lot will improve if they do what we want. These days, even infantrymen play a big part in such offensives. But those considerations are beyond the scope of this piece. If a man points a rifle or RPG at you, you don't marginalize him. You kill him.

Successful offense depends on good intelligence and situational awareness. You have to know where your enemy is in order to hit him. You have to know his numbers and capabilities in order to know how hard you have to hit him. You have to know the terrain, and the weather, and your own troops' condition, and more importantly you have to know how those factors affect you and the enemy. And you have to keep him from learning the same things about you.

Characteristics of the offense:

Surprise: Go where the enemy thinks you can't. Hit him when he is not ready. Attack him with methods and in manners for which he is not prepared. Do what he does not expect, and do it before he thinks you can.
With modern methods of surveillance, surprise is often difficult to achieve for modern forces; it should be even more so if your characters are operating in the future, unless their enemies have a significantly lower technological level. In such cases, surprise becomes a matter of masking intentions more than masking movements, making preparations for one thing look like preparations for something else.

Concentration: bring your forces together at the right time and place to achieve overwhelming effects where they will do the most damage to the enemy. Timing is critical to maximize the effects of your concentration; bring your forces together too early, and the entire force is exposed to unexpected actions by the enemy (in the case of modern forces, you're a really big target for long-range fires and/or aerial attack); too late, and you expose your forces to defeat in detail.

Tempo: act faster than the enemy can, and--the key component--don't let up. Force him to react to your moves rather than planning his own. You may have heard generals on TV talking about "getting inside the enemy's decision cycle." This is what they are talking about: keep him off balance by acting and reacting faster than he can.

Audacity: see the quote from Frederick the Great above. Audacity is nothing but developing a bold plan and executing boldly, throwing your enemy off balance for wondering what you will do next. Frederick was a master of audacity. He often fought outnumbered and threatened from more than one side, and so rather than wait for his enemies to concentrate their forces against him, he would move quickly, hitting one and then the other, elevating defeat in detail nearly to an art form.

Types of Offensive Operations:

There are four types of offensive operations: Movement to Contact, Attack, Exploitation, and Pursuit. These are usually, but not always, done sequentially: movement to contact leads to attack leads to exploitation leads to pursuit. But a successful attack followed by a limited exploitation may allow the enemy to escape, necessitating a movement to contact to regain contact with him. Or an enemy force may regroup during a pursuit, in which case your characters may have to attack to break them up again. In sequence or out, this is where tempo comes in. Maintain contact and keep pushing. Hit first, hit hard, and hit often.

Movement to Contact: the purpose of a movement to contact is just what it sounds like: to make contact with the enemy. You may not know his exact location or disposition, but you have a general idea where to find him, so you move in that direction. Security is paramount in a movement to contact; since you don't know exactly where he is, you need to disperse your forces so as to make contact with the smallest possible element. This gives you maximum flexibility to maneuver your other forces when you do make contact.
Movement to contact comes in three varieties:
1) Approach march. Usually used when you know where the enemy is, but are still some distance away. Movement during an approach march is faster than during an attack, both to allow you to close the distance quickly and to limit your vulnerability to observation and long-range fires.
2) Search and attack. Just what it sounds like. You don't know where the enemy is, but you have an idea, and you want to find and attack him.
3) Meeting engagement. Two forces on the move blunder into each other. This can get messy very quickly as both commanders maneuver their troops to develop the situation.

Attack: close with and defeat the enemy using one of the five forms of maneuver we discussed yesterday. Any time a force makes contact with the enemy on its own initiative, it could be called an attack at some level.
The forms of attack vary in purpose and level of preparation:
1) Hasty attack. A commander sees an opportunity and exploits it, attacking without the benefits of thorough preparation in order to maximize audacity and tempo. Not generally used against a prepared enemy position unless the attacker has a way to gain overwhelming superiority (although a hasty attack may be an excellent way to disrupt an enemy in the process of preparing his defense).
2) Deliberate attack. An attack conducted after detailed planning, preparation, and reconnaissance. Usually used against fortified enemy positions where mass and maneuver are more important than surprise.
3) Special Purpose attacks. There are several types of special purpose attack, each designed to achieve a specific goal:
a. Spoiling attack. Usually conducted from a defense. Designed to disrupt an enemy's preparations to attack, giving you more time to prepare your defense or transition to the offense.
b. Counterattack. Usually conducted from a defense. An attack intended to retake ground lost to an attacking enemy, or to seize the initiative from an enemy weakened by an unsuccessful attack, allowing your forces to transition to the offense.
c. Raid. Usually a small-scale attack on an objective within enemy territory or behind his lines. The purpose of a raid is not to seize ground; instead, it is to inflict casualties, capture key personnel or equipment, or destroy infrastructure. Unlike other attacks, the raiding force hits its target and gets out; it does not seek to hold ground.
d. Ambush. A surprise attack against a moving force. Maximizes the principle of surprise. Ambushes are generally focused on inflicting casualties on or destroying the enemy force, rather than seizing ground.
e. Feint. A limited attack designed to get the enemy's attention and divert resources to defeating it, setting the conditions for the main attack to succeed. Feints can also be used to gain information about enemy dispositions and capabilities. A feint that runs into very light resistance or has unexpected success may find itself redesignated the main attack, especially if the original main attack is progressing more slowly than expected.
f. Demonstration. Similar to a feint, and with the same basic purpose, except the demonstration does not seek to make direct contact with the enemy. Instead demonstrations are usually used for deception, to make the enemy think your forces are somewhere they are not.

Exploitation: usually follows a successful attack. An exploitation seeks to disrupt and disorganize enemy forces through the depth of their formations, keeping them from reorganizing and giving them no opportunity to reconstitute their defense. A successful exploitation gives the enemy three choices: surrender, flee, or die.

Pursuit: a successful exploitation will often turn into a pursuit as the surviving enemy forces try to flee the battle area. The purpose of a pursuit is to maintain pressure of the retreating enemy, capture or kill his troops, and keep him from reorganizing to form a defense. Tempo and audacity are important components to a pursuit.

I think that will about do it for today.

Have a good one!

09-21-2006, 08:41 PM
my other half is in the British Army. If anyone has any questions for him he'd answer them. (Infantry, tour in Iraq and northern ireland and australia)

Histry Nerd
09-23-2006, 12:16 AM
I have said over and over that the offense is the decisive form of war, that you cannot win a war from the defensive. I hope I have explained it well enough for you to accept it as true--just as in football, you can't win unless you are moving forward.

That said, there are times when the right course of action is for an army to defend rather than attack, to offer a target and give the enemy a chance to exhaust himself before assuming or resuming the offense. You may do this if you have just conducted a successful offensive, but fallen short of complete victory and need time to consolidate your gains and bring up fresh forces to continue the attack. You may have just seized a piece of key terrain and expect the enemy to counterattack to take it back. Or you may be trying to regain the initiative after a successful enemy offensive. Or you may be protecting your last refuge, or your home, or your capital city from an enemy attack. Etc, etc. You get the picture. The bottom line is that in most cases, defense is a temporary measure, a chance for the defender to get his feet back under him so he can start moving forward again.

Note: there are examples from history, especially from the middle ages and the early modern period (1500s-1600s), of attacking forces lifting their attacks without the defenders taking offensive action. In most cases, this is due to outside influences (disease or famine among the attackers' ranks, or attacks by third parties against the attackers or sites of importance to them) or to unilateral action on the attackers' part (impressed by the defenders' valor and bound by the code of ethics of the day, the attackers decide to let them live and go home). Do not mistake these for decisive victories on the part of the defenders--they cannot, strictly speaking, be said to have won the battle, only survived it. Any "victory" in which one side chooses to leave the field on his own initiative, other than under imminent threat of destruction or defeat, cannot be called decisive.

Do not be fooled into thinking the defense will give your characters a chance to rest, either. The defense is "restful" only in comparison with the offense, and only because your soldiers get to stay in one place for a little while. Preparing a successful defense is difficult; it requires hard labor, intricate planning and reconnaissance, and constant alertness. It will leave your characters exhausted, and apprehensive, especially if they are preparing their defense under direct or indirect enemy pressure. And when it comes to the fight, any competent defending commander will be biting his nails because he knows where he is weak and is praying the enemy does not find the seams in his defense. There is never enough time to do everything.

Nor is the defense a passive activity. You cannot just sit in your strong position and wait for your enemy to come to you; you must aggressively seek to disrupt his offense, with obstacles or spoiling attacks or long-range weapons, and you must take active measures to ensure he hits you where you want him to, rather than allowing him to pick the site of his attack. And as with the attack, intelligence is critical: not only must you know where he is and how he plans to come at you, you must stop him from learning your exact positions and dispositions.

Characteristics of the Defense:

Preparation: Preparation is constant and unrelenting. The defender is always improving his position, right up to the point he makes contact with the enemy or leaves the position. Even while one part of the defense is in contact with the enemy, another part can be continuing its preparations.
Preparation for the defense includes selecting and improving the ground you mean to fight on, using natural and pre-existing obstacles and supplementing them with earthworks, walls, barricades, tree trunks, barbed wire, mines, asteroids--whatever your characters have at their disposal based on their situation and technological level. It includes familiarizing yourself with every inch of the terrain you mean to fight on, determining how your enemy can approach you and what you can do to thwart him before he gets to you. And it includes making every defender familiar with your obstacles through terrain walks, rehearsals, and sighting in weapons systems if appropriate. If your defenders are using ranged weapons, they should know the distances to various points on the ground, either by using natural landmarks or manmade markers. If their defense will require resupply at some point, they must prepare and secure safe routes for the supply vehicles to come up from the rear.

Security: As we discussed above, intelligence is critical: know where your enemy is, what he has, and how he must come at you. Other security considerations include false positions or blocking positions to make the enemy think you mean to defend somewhere other than your actual position, and perhaps even feints or demonstrations to deceive him as to your strength and purpose.

Disruption: Part of defeating an enemy's attack is not allowing him to execute his plan. You can disrupt his attack with spoiling attacks, ambushes, obstacles, deceptive movements, long-range weapons, and any other measures that may occur to you. Defeating his reconnaissance--blinding him, so to speak, so he has to feel his way to your position--is an excellent way to disrupt his tempo.

Massing Effects: You want your enemy to go where it is easiest for you to kill him. Use the terrain and your obstacles to channel him into areas free of cover that you can reach with multiple weapons systems or hidden forces, in which he has no place to hide. Anywhere the terrain is constricted--a bridge, a canyon, a mountain pass--is ideal for this purpose. For pre-gunpowder armies, a castle wall is an excellent example: as attackers try to climb or breach the wall, defenders can attack them with arrows, spears, stones, hot liquids, and fire.

Flexibility: Even if you take every precaution, there is no guarantee the enemy will go where you want him to go or do what you want him to do. You must be able to adjust your plan to meet his attack as it develops, not as you think it will develop. After all, he has read yesterday's post and he knows to try to hit your weaknesses with his strengths. If your position is strong enough, he may even try to avoid it altogether.

Types of Defensive Operations:

Mobile Defense: A mobile defense maximizes the defender's flexibility and, if successful, can make the transition to the offense almost seamless. This is the defensive version of the frontal attack-envelopment combination we discussed two days ago; a small defending force occupies a strong position, with another (usually larger) counterattack force hidden nearby. When the enemy commits his attack against the defensive position, the counterattack force hits him on the flank or rear. Obviously, this form of defense requires a high degree of coordination between the two forces, as well as excellent mobility on the part of the counterattack force. The mobile defense is usually not feasible for small units, but for large formations it is potentially the most destructive form of defense--a strong counterattack can achieve a decisive victory for the defender.

Area Defense: This is what most people think of when they think of a defense. An area defense focuses most of the defenders' strength on holding a piece of ground; it is a trade of "bodies for land," as a commander of mine used to say. Again, this need not be a static defense in one place; maximize disruption and massing effects in order to foil the enemy's attack and inflict casualties before he reaches your defensive position, and remain flexible so you can counterattack at the opportune moment.

Retrograde: If area defense trades bodies for land, a retrograde trades land for bodies. The retrograde force is moving backward, away from the enemy, either in contact or out of contact. Its function is either to put space between itself (or another force) and the enemy, or to slow his advance so other forces can prepare their defenses. There are three types of retrograde operation:
1) Withdrawal. A withdrawing force attempts to disengage from contact with the enemy, either to allow another force to assume its mission or to occupy another position to its rear.
2) Delay. A delaying force moves away from the enemy, but maintains contact. As the name suggest, its mission is to slow the enemy, either to draw him into an area where other friendly forces can counterattack or to allow forces behind to prepare their defenses, or both.
3) Retirement. A retirement occurs when a force not in contact with the enemy leaves its position and moves to the rear, either to occupy another defensive position or to allow another unit to assume its mission.

A final note on the defense: gravity is your friend. Unless, of course, you are defending a planet and establish a ring of asteroids to use as obstacles, which your enemy then proceeds to dislodge from orbit and rain down on your planet. Then gravity is decidedly not your friend.

That should do it for today. I should be able to post more next week.


Doug Johnson
09-23-2006, 01:45 AM
I have said over and over that the offense is the decisive form of war, that you cannot win a war from the defensive.

What about "the long march?" Arguably, the NVA lost ever major offensive they ever launched. They still won the war.

Histry Nerd
09-23-2006, 02:24 AM
What about "the long march?" Arguably, the NVA lost ever major offensive they ever launched. They still won the war.

Excellent questions, Doug. I only have a few minutes to respond, so please come back if you need more.

The Long March was unquestionably a military defeat for Mao Tse-Tung (Zedong, I think it's often spelled these days). Not only was he forced to flee into the mountains, but he lost greater than 90% of his force doing it. But it gave him an opportunity to gain the support of the people in the areas through which he passed. He used the next decade or so to build on that support, then after World War II returned to the offensive much stronger--and just as importantly, the undisputed leader of the Chinese Communist Party (Unity of Command, anyone?). So his military defeat became a critical information and civil victory--elements every bit as important, especially today, as bullets and tanks and bombs. I will probably address these points in a future post.

As to the NVA (and the Viet Cong), not only did we kick the **** out of them in every offensive they undertook, but also pretty much every time they stood and fought in the defense as well. I don't think there is any way to claim the Vietnam War was a military victory for North Vietnam--but as you point out, we left Vietnam and conceded the victory to them. I think in that case it was, again, an information victory; it was the antiwar effort here at home, rather than Communist Vietnam's strength of arms, that ultimately sent our boys packing.

I hope this answers your question. Please let me know if it does not.

09-27-2006, 09:57 AM
In regard to the defense and victory.
The odds are stacked against the defense today but it was not always so.

Castles were built for a reason. There are seiges that failed and more that never really got going because the offense didn't have the supply train to keep a large army fed. Basically before Napoleon once an army stopped moving it started starving.

When defending a place and the enemy has to pack up and leave it is a decisive victory.

Histry Nerd
09-28-2006, 12:53 AM
In regard to the defense and victory.
The odds are stacked against the defense today but it was not always so.

Castles were built for a reason. There are seiges that failed and more that never really got going because the offense didn't have the supply train to keep a large army fed. Basically before Napoleon once an army stopped moving it started starving.

When defending a place and the enemy has to pack up and leave it is a decisive victory.

Welcome, Kentuk.

Excellent point, but I disagree on both counts.

With respect to the odds being stacked against the defender: actually, the defender has many significant advantages over the attacker. When I was in the Army, we tried to set conditions so that we would have a three-to-one numerical advantage before attacking. Basically, unless you have, or can create, an overwhelming advantage, attacking a prepared position ain't smart.

With respect to calling an abandoned siege a decisive victory: if your enemy chooses on his own initiative to leave the battlefield (absent what I would call "Checkmate" conditions, such as Lee faced before leaving the field at Gettysburg), you have not achieved decisive victory; you have merely avoided defeat.

Certainly the residents of the castle would call it victory, attributing it to God's wrath directed at their enemy, or mercy toward them, and take it as evidence He was on their side. But the fact is the adversary still has an army out there, and still has freedom of maneuver. And if the attacker's ranks have been thinned by disease and famine to the point he cannot continue his attack, chances are pretty good the defenders are in little better shape.

Even more importantly, the defenders have not crushed the attackers' will. A charismatic leader can chalk the debacle up to witchcraft, reconstitute his army, and return the next year or the year after. And this time, perhaps he'll hit them in the spring before they can lay aside provisions to withstand a siege. Now the crops they planted, if the siege lasts into the fall, become the attacker's assets.

The only exception I can think of is Napoleon's Russian campaign, in which the Russians clearly achieved a decisive strategic victory in spite of never defeating the Grande Armee decisively on the field of battle. The key, I think, is Napoleon was in a "Checkmate" situation--his choices were to withdraw or be annihilated. Even so, he was able to retreat and reform, holding on to power for another year and a half before being exiled to Elba.

Just as in chess, a draw is not checkmate. If one side withdraws when the opponent has no power to destroy it, the opponent has avoided defeat, not achieved decisive victory.

Sorry I've been lax in my posting this week. Lots going on--I'm busy at work, and an editor has requested a full so I'm scrambling to get that together. I'll be back with battlefield arms (infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc) in a few days.


Doug Johnson
09-28-2006, 01:22 AM
I'm an amamtuer strategists, so I'll defer to you on almost every point, except " I have said over and over that the offense is the decisive form of war, that you cannot win a war from the defensive."

The objective is to get your enemy to conceed, and as you admitted, that can be done without a successful offensive. I prefer to think, "As long as you're able and willing to retreat" you can't be defeated.

09-29-2006, 12:13 AM
There was a castle during the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign in England that was besieged for twenty years! Obviously not very successfully, as they managed to get enough supplies in to keep going for that long.

Histry Nerd
09-29-2006, 06:47 PM
Doug -

Your point is well made, and phrasing my earlier post as an absolute was something of a misstatement. There are no absolutes in war. To represent otherwise is to ignore reality, not to mention marginalize the efforts of millions of soldiers who, throughout history, have shown over and over that the impossible really isn't. So I grant you the point that wars can be, and have been, won without tactical victory.

That said, one of Murphy's Laws goes something like this: "The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet." The strategy you describe is called a strategy of exhaustion, and it's risky at the best of times--more a plan to avoid defeat than to achieve victory. Basically, you are gambling your cause on the enemy deciding he's sick and tired of fighting you, taking his toys and going home before you run out of a) men willing to fight, b) materiel and supplies, or c) room to maneuver. It worked for the NVA in 1972-75; it did not work for the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864-65, or for the German army in 1916-18.

As a general rule, exhaustion only works if your enemy perceives the stakes to be lower than you do. If he is committed enough to keep pouring men and materiel into the fight, as in the American Civil War, he will eventually overwhelm you with his greater resources. Or he will fight you to a standstill and exhaust you, as in World War I.

And it's bad for morale, certainly one of the most important components of victory. Soldiers who find themselves retreating from battle after battle, or perceive they are doing nothing but running every time the enemy gets close, will eventually grow tired of it, put down their weapons and leave. Some of them may even surrender to the enemy, especially if they are hungry. When your army begins to disintegrate around you, you have pretty much lost your war of exhaustion.

As I mentioned above, the strategy of exhaustion is one of avoiding defeat, rather than seeking victory. As such, you cannot point to a single battle or campaign afterwards and describe it as decisive. A decisive action, as the term suggests, determines the outcome of a battle, campaign, or war. A campaign of exhaustion is designed specifically to avoid decisive action, because the weaker combatant knows he cannot hope to win such a fight.

So yes, it is possible to win a war without tactical victory. No, you cannot term such a victory decisive because neither side has forced the other to capitulate. And I will try to avoid speaking in absolutes in the future.

Hope this is helpful.

Histry Nerd
09-29-2006, 06:53 PM
There was a castle during the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign in England that was besieged for twenty years! Obviously not very successfully, as they managed to get enough supplies in to keep going for that long.

Thanks, Evaine! That sounds like an interesting story. I would bet you have some interesting interpersonal dynamics develop in such a situation, such as friendships and probably even romantic relationships developing across the lines. I wonder what you would teach the children of such a union?

There must be a book in there somewhere. Note to self: look up twenty year siege....


Doug Johnson
09-29-2006, 07:12 PM
Very graceful retreat from your absolute statement.;)

Histry Nerd
09-29-2006, 08:09 PM
Well--I try not to pretend I have the monopoly on right answers.... I've known too many people who were more interested in winning the argument than in being right.

Besides, my retreat left me room to maneuver. Are you exhausted yet?


Doug Johnson
09-29-2006, 08:37 PM
Nope. Do you have any thoughts on technology or weapons?

Histry Nerd
09-29-2006, 11:18 PM
I'm planning to discuss technology and weapons in a future post. I don't have a spiel--er, essay--developed as yet. The long and short is that technology has expanded the battlefield, made it larger, more complex and more three-dimensional by making weapons more accurate and destructive. Other than that, the fundamentals I talked about last week are as valid for James T. Kirk as they were for Caesar.

Did you have some specific issues you wanted to address?


Doug Johnson
09-29-2006, 11:19 PM
Nope. I'm just enjoying talking with an expert.

Doug Johnson
09-29-2006, 11:26 PM
Actually, it might be interesting to discuss how you change your tactics and strategy to take advantage of superior weaponry and how do you defend against superior weaponry. (That darn Klingon cloaking device was always causing Kirk problems.)

Histry Nerd
09-30-2006, 02:15 AM
As a general rule, improvements in weapons technology give the weapons greater accuracy, range, and/or destructive power. Improvements in protective tech make armor or other countermeasures stronger and lighter. Improvements in surveillance and detection tech make it easier to see or otherwise detect your opponent. Improvements in communication make comms longer-range, more reliable, and more secure. Improvements in transportation allow you to move farther, faster, and in greater safety. Et cetera.

So the challenge for the technologically superior force is to take advantage of the strengths its new toys give it. Longer-range weapons give you what is called "standoff range," or the ability to hit your enemy before he can hit you. Thermal or microwave imaging takes away his hiding places, enabling you to see him in darkness, through smoke or fog, even through walls or other barriers. And stealth technology enables you to get close enough to hit him with your long-range precision weaponry before he even knows you're there. So your tactics evolve to put more emphasis on intelligence, on putting your eyes far enough out in front of you that your shooters know where to go to hit the enemy. The frontal attack becomes a platoon of Bradleys using their thermals and machine guns to keep the terrorist headquarters occupied while another platoon air-assaults nearby to envelop it.

The challenge for the lower-tech force, then, is to fight in such a way the enemy cannot use his high-tech strengths against you. If he can see in the dark, you learn how to camouflage yourself and your equipment so he can't tell what he's looking at. If he can shoot you from far away, you figure out how to get your short-range weapons closer to him.

In Iraq, the insurgents use IEDs to get around that issue. The arms race has gone something like this: at first, they wait by the roadside and ambush us as we go by. We start moving at night, when our night-vision capability gives us an advantage. They start hiding off the road and detonating IEDs as we roll by. We start recognizing the IEDs and hiding places and learn how to kill the guy who's supposed to set them off. They camouflage the IEDs so it's hard for thermals to see them, and start using radio transmitters to move the guy farther from the road. We start using jamming equipment to render the IEDs safe or detonate them before we get close. They start using old fashioned pressure plates and tripwires. We armor our vehicles so the shrapnel won't penetrate. They start using more sophisticated devices that can penetrate our armor. And so on.

[Sorry--I can't get much more specific than that on Iraq.]

A couple more historical examples:

--Faced with armored opponents riding horses, the Swiss invented the halberd, essentially a combination axe and spear and hook on a long pole--the spear gives an infantryman a reach advantage, while the hook can catch an armored man out of his saddle and render him momentarily helpless, and the axe gives him enough leverage (because of the long handle) to cut through the armor.

--Fighting with broadswords and outdated muskets against Redcoats with better muskets and bayonets, the Scots highlanders in the 1600s adopted a tactic of single volley followed up with a broadsword charge; they would fire a volley, wait for the English to return it, then drop their muskets and charge with their broadswords as the Redcoats were reloading. The English responded by firing by ranks (this was one of several conflicts that inspired that move, I think) and using their bayonets in an oblique manner: each man would use his bayonet to attack not the man directly opposite him, but the one to that man's left so the bayonet came up under the sword-arm from an unexpected direction.

--Japanese fighting British tanks in Southeast Asia in World War II used spider-holes and suicide troops. A man would dig a hole in the middle of a trail, climb into it with an artillery shell and a rock, and cover himself. When a tank crossed over him, he would use the rock to detonate the shell.

--Of course, there is the good old-fashioned "overwhelm him with numbers" method, in which a more numerous opponent might try to put his technologically-superior adversary in the unenviable position of having more bad guys than bullets. The Zulu used this tactic against the British at the turn of the twentieth century, as did the Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean War.

As to how to deal with a cloaked enemy who can come within weapons range undetected and fire on you before you know he's there? A few solutions occur to me:

--Develop your own cloaking device. The Federation outlawed this option, as I recall.

--Figure out how to detect a cloaked ship. Even if we accept the absurdity that they emit no form of radiation (they have to communicate with their buddies, after all), there is still the slight distortion of the background stars that tells the TV audience it's there. If you can detect it, you can shoot it--and they can't raise their shields while they are cloaked.

--If you can't detect a cloaked ship, figure out how to detect the signature of a ship decloaking. Then you can have the computer, depending on the level of hostility at the moment, adopt a "yellow" posture--raise shields automatically when it detects a decloaking ship--or a "red" posture--raise shields and fire all available weapons systems at the decloaking ship (absent a state of war, of course, the Federation might have a problem with the red thing. Of course, the Federation might have a problem with it even if a state of war exists).

This post came out a little longer than I expected it to. Time to stop now.


09-30-2006, 04:00 PM
I'm a nit-picking pedant, I know, but it was actually a Romulan cloaking device. The Romulans then made a treaty with the Klingons which enabled them to use it.

On to more important matters - has anyone here read The High Crusade by Poul Anderson? In it he pits a late medieval army against hi-tech alien technology - and they win! For instance, he has them using trebuchets to pitch captured nuclear warheads at the enemy - who cannot detect the trebuchet emplacement because they are made of wood. It's very much a fun read, and there is a real-life equivalent.
During the Second World War one of the big German battleships (possibly the Graf Spee?) was attacked by Swordfish biplanes. The ship was unable to shoot them down because their guns had an automatic tracking facility, with a minimum air speed of 100mph. Swordfish were so obsolete they couldn't go that fast, so all the shells missed.

Doug Johnson
09-30-2006, 04:09 PM
I believe it was the Bismarck.

Histry Nerd
10-02-2006, 05:17 PM
Those doggone Romulans are always causing trouble....

I haven't read the book you reference, Evaine, but it sounds interesting. That's a great example of using an enemy's supposed strengths against him. Of course, it'd have to be a pretty big trebuchet before I'd be willing to try to throw a nuke with it. And I would expect even if your enemy couldn't see the wooden emplacements directly, he could figure out where they were by the ballistics of the projectiles in flight. Though I guess a force that has gone entirely to directed-energy weapons (lasers etc.) might have lost some of the skills required for accurate ballistic tracking.

I hadn't heard the story about the Swordfish, but it does not surprise me. One of the problems of implementing new technology is it makes us inclined to forget the old technology is still a threat. However, it is useful to bear in mind that for every Bismarck-Swordfish story there are at least two or three where the lower-tech opponent got his tailfeathers plucked. I seem to remember a flight of obsolete American torpedo planes at the battle of Midway that got lost on its way to its target, got caught in the open and annihilated by Japanese Zeros before it ever saw an enemy ship.

I'll be back in a little while with Infantry.

10-02-2006, 06:03 PM
During the Second World War one of the big German battleships (possibly the Graf Spee?) was attacked by Swordfish biplanes. The ship was unable to shoot them down because their guns had an automatic tracking facility, with a minimum air speed of 100mph. Swordfish were so obsolete they couldn't go that fast, so all the shells missed.

I hadn't heard that about the dual-purpose gun director problem...but the Germans had lots of weird problems with their naval gear in WWII.

Actually, the Swordfish itself wasn't particularly obsolete and in 1940-1941, the plane was used to inflict horrific disasters on the Italians as well, either by sneaking in at night and sinking their battleships at anchor (as at Taranto) or by hitting ships and slowing them down (as at Cape Matapan). The real problem the Brits had with their carrier planes early in the war was that they had to operate off of rather cramped armoured carriers (except for Ark Royal, but even the unarmored carriers had to use the armoured carrier planes)...so the doctrine of relying on armour rather than fighter cover is what left them with somewhat underpowered aircraft.
On the other hand, the Swordfish performed exactly as expected and, plane-for-plane, was extremely deadly.

Histry Nerd
10-03-2006, 01:13 AM
I will devote the next few posts to describing the various arms or branches of soldiers you might find on battlefields in different historical periods: infantry, cavalry, artillery/fire support, and the like. Today we will discuss the branch I have the most personal experience with:


Most of the armies fielded throughout human history have been organized around a core of infantry. They are the simplest soldiers to equip: find a man with two arms and two legs, put a spear and shield in his hands, and you have a simple infantryman. And they are arguably the easiest to train, since the infantryman does not need to know how to make a horse (or tank, or helicopter, or boat) move, and his weapons are (usually) limited to what he can carry and affect only what he can see. His skill level ranges from wholly unskilled, as in the Persian conscript armies of Darius, to highly skilled, as in the professional infantrymen and special operations forces of today. And in almost every conflict, it is the infantrymen who bear the brunt of the fighting, spending the most time engaged and taking the greatest number of casualties.

Infantry is also the most versatile of the battlefield arms; men on foot can cross terrain impassable to wheels or horses, can climb steep slopes, ford rivers--all while carrying supplies for a few days' operations on their backs. Infantry is slow but mobile, capable of great staying power and mass as well as maneuver, and can take on a variety of roles largely depending on how it is equipped. These qualities make it ideal for the engaged core of an army's formation, the part most often referred to as the center. There it can engage the enemy directly, fixing him in place while other elements maneuver against his flanks and rear or hit him from above with supporting weapons. In fact, many modern infantrymen will tell you there are really only two branches to the Army: infantry and infantry support.

The types and employment of infantry vary in terms of how they are equipped and trained. They are divided into three general categories: heavy infantry, light infantry, and special purpose infantry.

Note that heavy and light infantry can, and often do, switch roles on a temporary basis: an airborne unit may form the center of a combat formation, or a mechanized unit may leave its vehicles to perform an air assault operation. But these are usually temporary arrangements. Also note that many sources will classify foot archers, slingers, and other missile-throwers among the infantry; however, since their role is generally to support the close fight and not to participate in it, I will discuss them in the post on artillery and fire support. Horse archers, by contrast, were generally used as a maneuver arm, so I will discuss them with the cavalry.

Heavy Infantry:

When most people think of infantry, they think of men standing in ranks on the battlefield, charging or being charged by the enemy's infantry; men armed with spears and shields, muskets and bayonets, or rifles and hand grenades. This image describes the mission of the heavy infantry--to stand face to face with the enemy and force a decision, or as the U.S. Army terms it, "To close with and destroy the enemy by means of fire and maneuver." Usually heavily armed and armored, heavy infantry trades mobility and versatility for protection and striking power. The hoplites of ancient Greece, the legions of Rome, the British Redcoats, and today's mechanized and motorized infantry all may be classified as heavy infantry: they fight in more-or-less tightly massed units, carry heavier weapons than their light counterparts, and often wear armor or some other form of personal protection that limits their mobility but makes them less vulnerable to attack. Especially with more modern forces, their formations may integrate some form of fire support designed to operate alongside the infantry such as light artillery pieces, mortars, vehicle-mounted anti-armor or missiles, and vehicle-mounted heavy machine guns.

These days, heavy infantry generally operates in close cooperation with armored forces, providing flank protection and close-fight support to the tanks, who in turn back up the infantry with their heavy guns and enhanced optics. Also with modern forces, heavy infantry will often travel to the battlefield in armored vehicles designed to carry them, which then become weapons platforms to support them in their mission. The U.S. Army's Bradley Fighting Vehicle and Stryker are two such vehicles; their Eastern-bloc counterparts are the BMP and BTR. A quick search for "infantry fighting vehicles" should net you more information on such vehicles than you can use in a novel.

Light Infantry:

Just as the name implies, the light infantry is, as a general rule, more lightly-equipped than its heavy counterpart. The intent is to make it more mobile; where the heavy infantry trades mobility for protection, packing heavier weapons and armor, the light trades protection for mobility. Light infantry generally moves faster than heavy, ranges farther, and operates with less immediate support. These are the guys who carry everything they need for a week's operations (or longer) on their backs. They operate in restrictive terrain such as mountains, heavy forest, or swamps. Their mission is often to operate on the enemy's flanks or in his rear, attacking key positions, conducting raids to keep him off balance, or seizing key terrain in preparation for a friendly offensive.

Today's light forces are often air-mobile, traveling by plane (Airborne) or by helicopter (Air Assault). Their support forces, because they operate in isolation to a greater or lesser degree, are often provided by air as well, from fire support to resupply to casualty evacuation. Other historical examples include: many of the (non-cavalry) Roman auxiliaries, the colonial militias of the American Revolution (although the state militias of the Civil War were more often heavy), the Zulu, and the Viet Minh/Viet Cong. In the age of smoothbore muskets, riflemen would also have been considered light infantry.

Special Purpose Infantry:

Today we call these Special Operations Forces (SOF). These are highly-trained forces who carry specialized weapons and equipment and usually perform a limited variety of functions, usually in greater isolation and secrecy than the light infantry. Their functions include, but should not be limited to, hostage rescue, insurgent/partisan training, demolitions, counterterrorism, elimination or capture of key enemy figures, information dissemination (Psych Operations) or pinpoint raids on key facilities. These guys are not Rambo (although I've known a few who were nearly that good), but usually highly intelligent, highly skilled operators to whom quick wits and reflexes are at least as important as high-tech equipment--the brain surgeons of the military community, if you will. These guys include the U.S. Army's Green Berets and Rangers, the U.S. Air Force's Pararescue forces, U.S. Navy SEALS, the British Special Air Service, and could probably be expanded to include organizations like the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). Historical examples include "Roger's Rangers" of the American Revolution and the Office of the Strategic Services (OSS) of World War II.

Next post will discuss types and employment of cavalry.

Have a good one!

Histry Nerd
10-18-2006, 10:23 PM
I'm back after a little hiatus. Here's my take on the cavalry:

Say "Cavalry," and listeners' minds conjure a variety of images: the knight in gleaming steel armor on his giant charger; U.S. Army Cavalry troopers in their blue uniforms fighting Apache and Comanche; Samurai forming for the charge; saber- or lance-wielding cuirassiers charging squares of infantry. Certainly a greater variety of images than occur to most people when one mentions infantry, or artillery. The pairing of man and horse has been the stuff of legends for thousands of years. There is a primordial sense of power associated with a man on horseback; not only is he half again as tall as almost anyone else he might encounter, but he is the obvious master of a beast three or four times his size.

Horses were probably first domesticated in the Ancient Near East (the region we now call the Middle East) early in the second millennium BC. The first cavalry forces probably predate even that: there are inscriptions from ancient Sumeria that depict war chariots pulled by onagers, a species of wild donkey, as early as 2500 BC. The first domestic horses were probably used as draft animals, pulling chariots rather than being ridden--early inscriptions mostly depict horses pulling chariots, and those that show mounted riders usually depict them riding on the haunch rather than the back, suggesting horses were not yet stout enough to bear the full weight of a man on their backs. But clearly cavalry, in one form or another, has been part of warfare for at least 4500 years.

A chariot usually had a crew of two, one of which drove while the other fought. A charioteer's armament usually consisted of ranged weapons such as a bow or javelins; handheld weapons would generally have been effective only against a disorganized or fleeing enemy, since the driver would have to drive his vulnerable and expensive horses right past the target in order for his partner to engage with a spear or sword. The "scythed chariots" of legend were probably much more effective psychologically than physically.

Early horse cavalry was generally used in a light cavalry or horse archer role, engaging the enemy from the flanks or attacking the rear of a retreating force, or scouting. It was not until the advent of the stirrup in the fourth or fifth century AD that heavy cavalry became practical as a battlefield arm. The reason for this is simple physics; a man without stirrups is much easier to unhorse than one with, so it makes little sense for him to charge directly into an enemy formation and expose himself to loss of his horse.

The primary advantage of cavalry is mobility. It is true that a man with a sword on the back of a horse has height and leverage over a man with a sword on the ground, and heavy cavalry takes advantage of this to create shock effect. But give the man on the ground a spear or a musket, and this advantage becomes significantly less. It is then that mobility becomes critical--men on horseback can often find the flank of an infantry force before the infantry can refuse it, forcing the infantry to fight in two directions at once and making them much more vulnerable.

Cavalry probably enjoyed its heyday in the middle ages, between the sixth or seventh and fourteenth centuries in Europe. During this time, cavalry was often the arm of decision in battle; though infantry still formed the most numerous part of most armies, a well-timed charge by heavy cavalry was enough to break through all but the stoutest infantry lines. This is not to say, of course, that cavalry became unimportant in the gunpowder age; in fact it was not until the advent of the internal combustion engine and the machine gun that horse cavalry vanished from the battlefield. Today, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and helicopters play the roles traditionally played by horse cavalry.

Cavalry, like infantry, has come in a variety of forms throughout history. I discuss several of these general forms below.

Heavy Cavalry:
When one thinks of armored knights on big horses charging into the teeth of the enemy, or of samurai on horseback charging with their swords, one is envisioning heavy cavalry. Its primary mission is similar to that of the infantry: it is to close with and destroy the enemy by means of maneuver and shock effect. Heavy cavalry, alone of the different styles, will go "toe to toe" with the enemy. Its primary tactic is a frontal attack, a charge (probably more often at the trot than the gallop) by heavily armored horsemen with spears or specialized lances with the purpose of breaking the enemy line and exposing it to defeat in detail. In the high middle ages, both knight and horse often wore armor.

As I mentioned above, heavy cavalry became practical only after the stirrup came into widespread use. A man who uses the momentum of his horse to stick a spear into another man is as likely to unhorse himself as he is to kill his target unless he has something to brace himself against. This simple consideration makes heavy cavalry impracticable without the stirrup. Stirrups probably came into widespread use in Europe in the fifth or sixth century AD; after that, cavalry armies of all types became more numerous as horses became easier to ride, and heavy cavalry became the decisive arm on many battlefields.

But if heavy cavalry came into vogue with the advent of the stirrup, it was professional armies equipped first with pole-arms and ranged weapons, and later with efficient firearms, that killed it. An armored force charging on horseback against disciplined infantry with pikes loses most of its advantage; the pikes are as dangerous to horses and riders as the lances are to the infantry. And a man on a horse is a really big target for an arrow or musket ball. It was not until repeating arms came into widespread use in the nineteenth century that it was practical for cavalry forces to fight with firearms from horseback, so the contest became a lopsided one, and where lance fought against musket from the front, musket almost always won. Many forces carried the name "heavy cavalry" after the fifteenth or sixteenth century, but they were heavy only inasmuch as they carried heavier armament than their light brethren; their missions became much more similar after the middle ages than they had been before. Only in the twentieth century, with the advent of the heavy tank, did heavy cavalry again become valuable for its shock effect.

Light Cavalry:
Where heavy cavalry is important for mobility and shock effect, light cavalry relies more on mobility and speed to attack less-mobile infantry formations in flanks or rear, or to harass or disperse a retreating enemy, or to provide eyes forward for a commander. As its name suggests, light cavalry is usually lightly armed and mounted on less massive horses than its heavy counterpart, and may wear armor, but usually will not. Roman cavalry could be considered light, as lacking stirrups, it was primarily used for the purposes mentioned above. Most irregular cavalry forces, such as the Cossacks of Russia, could also be considered light cavalry. Many historians would term the Plains Indians of North America, or the Mongol armies, light cavalry as well, but I have chosen to include them among horse archers.

Horse Archers:
Horse archers are a variety of cavalry largely foreign to Europe, but common in areas where vast flat areas are the norm: the steppes of central Asia, the plains of North America, or the arid regions of the Middle East. They combine the mobility of the horse with the range of the composite bow to create a highly lethal force. Their primary tactic is much like that of twentieth-century guerillas; they hit and run, shooting arrows from beyond their enemy's reach and retreating from his charges, not engaging decisively until the enemy is exhausted and demoralized, then mounting a devastating charge that may break the enemy line without even making contact. Another favorite tactic of horse archers was to employ archers in two masses: one loosed at a high angle to force the enemy to raise their shields above their heads, then the other loosed along a flat trajectory to hit below the raised shields.

In most cases, horse archers were the product of societies that depended largely on horses for their livelihoods, the herders and nomads of the Asian steppe. These peoples learned to ride even as they learned to walk, so controlling a horse was literally as easy for them as running. The bow, a fundamental part of the herdsman's life, was the natural choice as a weapon of war. And when every man brings his own horse as part of his service to his chief, it becomes easy to field a majority-cavalry army in which each unit can provide fire support, close combat, or scouting as necessary. It was this combination of mobility, skill, and versatility that made the Huns, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Tartars such fearsome opponents.

Dragoons/Mounted Riflemen:
The gunpowder age gave birth to some curious hybrids of cavalry and infantry. Before reliable breech-loading firearms became available, it was impractical for a horseman to fight with a long-barreled weapon from the saddle; loading and firing a muzzle-loader requires two hands, and a cavalryman needs at least one for the reins. So cavalrymen with fewer than three hands had limited choices: they could continue to fight with lance and sword, returning to light cavalry roles, or they could get off their horses and fight as infantry.

Dragoons and mounted riflemen were born of the second option. These forces could be compared to the mechanized, motorized, and airmobile infantry of today; they used their horses to convey them to the battlefield, then dismounted to fight. Dragoons were heavily armed, usually with carbines (cut-down muskets or rifles), pistols, and sabers, and sometimes armored as well, and fought as heavy infantry. Mounted riflemen were much less heavily armed and fought as light infantry, skirmishers, or scouts.

Modern Cavalry:
Today's cavalry forces perform much the same functions--scouting, mobile attacks, screening or masking the movements of the main force--as their horse-mounted forbears. The greatest differences deal with the scale on which they are employed, usually tens or even hundreds of miles as opposed to merely a few, and the fact that they now work in three dimensions: air power is as important to today's cavalry forces as is armor. The advent of fast heavy tanks capable of killing almost anything they can see has made the concept of heavy cavalry viable again (although the U.S. Army now calls it "Armor" instead).

Modern cavalry uses a variety of vehicles to accomplish its mission. Heavy tanks close with and destroy enemy forces, backed up by light tanks or cav fighting vehicles adapted from armored personnel carriers. Those, along with lightly armed wheeled vehicles, collect information on enemy activities. Attack helicopters are today's horse archers, collecting information and destroying targets at long range, providing fire support for the main body when required. Observation helicopters and other airborne platforms collect intelligence, providing decision-makers with information they cannot acquire from ground-based platforms.

I will try to post on fire support in the next couple of days.


Histry Nerd
12-21-2006, 02:36 AM
Been a while since my last post. This one came out long (even longer than the others), so I'm trying something new: I'm going to break it into parts. Hopefully, doing it this way will make it easier to read.

Here it is: Fire Support Part One.

Cannon arranged in neat rows behind advancing infantry. Shells exploding amid the ranks of the enemy, cutting down many and knocking down others. Far-off guns launching shells that fall with a high-pitched whistle and explode when they hit the ground. This is what we mean when we talk about fire support...right?

Partly. But Hollywood's ideas of fire support and artillery are far from complete, often far from accurate. I, for one, have never heard a shell whistle in--the sound is more like a loud hiss, somewhere between a jet engine and ripping cloth. And in the days of infantry marching in neat rows, cannon shells rarely exploded. Nor would a competent general array his artillery behind his infantry if he expected to use it. All convenient images for a movie screen, but the experience of it would have been somewhat different.

The purpose of artillery, whether ancient or modern, whether propelled by kinetic energy or chemical energy or gravity, is to kill. True, artillery has often been used to reduce fortifications or obstacles or to frighten an enemy into submission, but its real purpose is to inflict casualties--to reduce the enemy's numbers and make the jobs of the infantry and cavalry easier. Even today, supporting fires are collectively the biggest killer on the battlefield. But they are rarely the factor that decides the battle, hence the moniker "fire support". The biggest killer on the battlefield is still a weapon to enable the infantry to advance, drive off the enemy, and take the ground he stood on.

In order to envision how artillery is employed, we must first discuss the terms direct fire and indirect fire. The difference generally deals with the trajectory of the projectile, and with whether the launcher is aiming at a specific target or at an area on the ground. An archer or rifleman shooting in a relatively flat arc at a man is engaging with direct fire. A catapult, or howitzer, or archer launching at a high angle against a body of men is engaging with indirect fire. On a historical battlefield, up to about the mid-nineteenth century, most indirect fires would be directed against targets the gunners could see; since that time, the majority of indirect fires have been directed at targets the gunners could not see directly. Since the advent of reliable radio communications, observers have gone forward to communicate target location and necessary adjustments to the guns.

As to employment, artillery in history has generally been deployed between infantry formations, or even in front of them. Relatively mobile field guns and archers may set in front of the infantry, then move behind if the enemy moves close, or hold in place and let the infantry advance around them. Heavy guns and static engines like the Roman catapults would be set up between units and probably remain in one place throughout the battle. If the infantry advanced past them they would likely stop shooting. Launching projectiles over the heads of friendly infantry was not a common practice until long-range guns came into widespread use in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

A final consideration before we discuss specific weapons systems: artillery may be the biggest killer on the battlefield, but its lethality comes at the cost of mobility. Guns and other engines are big and heavy, and while they are extremely powerful they are vulnerable to flanking attacks. A battery of twelve-pounder cannon can rip an infantry regiment to shreds if the infantry advances from the front, but let the regiment get around the flank and the battery is helpless.

Histry Nerd
12-21-2006, 02:40 AM
Classical Artillery: Even two thousand years ago, artillery was a part of many battlefields. In addition to employing archers and slingers in supporting roles, the Romans used a pair of battlefield engines to kill and terrorize their enemies: the ballista and the catapult. These engines used tightly-wound coils of rope around the throwing arms to store large amounts of kinetic energy; when the arms were cranked back with the aid of a ratchet and then released, they could hurl a stone, spear, or other projectile father than any bow or sling. The ballista resembled a huge crossbow, and could hurl a spear with enough force to transfix two grown men or penetrate a shield and the man behind it. The catapult was a sling on the end of a long arm, and could throw a boulder over a fortress wall or into a mass of men. It is likely these weapons were more effective psychologically than physically; the loss of two men to a ballista's bolt is less important than the fright it imparts in the men around them, and a catapult could not batter down a wall of any significant size. But they allowed the legions what we now call standoff range against their enemies, sapping morale before the two bands of infantry ever came close to each other.

Trebuchets: The trebuchet was the medieval descendant of the catapult, a sling mounted on a long tapered arm that could throw huge rocks into and over castle walls. But where the catapult used ropes and torsion to launch its missile, the trebuchet used gravity; a counterweight pulled one end of the arm downward, raising the throwing arm and accelerating the missile out of the sling. This reduced the inertial limitations of the catapult, allowing the engine to throw a larger projectile with greater energy. Modern trebuchets, only slightly larger than their medieval ancestors, have been known to throw cars. The trebuchet was used most often as a siege weapon, hurling huge boulders or other items over fortress walls to terrorize populations--or directly into the walls to batter them down. The inherent inaccuracy of such a weapon and its high angle of fire made success at the latter endeavor dubious at best. Castle walls remained mostly impregnable until the sixteenth century, when cannon rendered them mostly obsolete.

Archers, Crossbowmen, Slingers: Soldiers with ranged weapons were the key component of fire support until the sixteenth century, when cannon became light enough and mobile enough to be fielded in large numbers on the battlefield. A cloud of arrows could kill men and sow terror in an enemy's ranks, and even if the arrows would not always penetrate knights' armor, they could maim and kill their horses and render them much more vulnerable to other forms of attack. A heavy crossbow is easier to use than a longbow, if harder to load, and at short ranges will punch through all but the best armor. And even the lowly rock, accelerated by two feet of twisted rope or leather, becomes a deadly projectile. Some ancient armies even fashioned bullets of clay or lead for their slingers.

A personal pet peeve: if your story has archers in it, please do not command them to fire their weapons. That command dates from the matchlock musketeers and arquebusiers of the seventeenth century, who would launch a volley at the command give fire, meaning to touch their matches to their priming pans. If an officer cried fire to his archers at, say, the battle of Crecy, they would look around to see what was burning. The proper command for archers is loose.

Flame: Perhaps one of the most effective weapons ever harnessed, it is also one of the most difficult to control. Fire is as inherently dangerous to the thrower as it is to the enemy. That said, many classical and medieval armies employed it to great effect. The Romans used fire extensively, especially against fortifications and enemy sanctuaries. Roman catapults could be loaded, as in the opening battle of the movie Gladiator, with pots of pitch that could be set alight and thrown. It is unlikely, however, they would have used such a weapon at the edge of a forest--chances of setting the forest alight would be high, and that would be as likely to drive enemies deeper into the forest, away from the flames, as out onto their prepared battlefield. But the flaming pitch would have been extremely effective against wooden fortifications or massed troops in the open. Fire arrows would have worked well at setting thatch-roofed houses and dry fields alight. And Greek Fire, a Byzantine naval flamethrower, was a terrifying weapon that allowed Constantinople to control the straits into the Black Sea for many years after the Byzantine Empire passed its zenith.

Histry Nerd
12-21-2006, 02:46 AM
Early types: Gunpowder first appeared on European battlefields around the mid-fourteenth century. The earliest weapons to use it bore little resemblance to the guns of today: the "hand cannon" was nothing more than a tube of iron closed at one end and mounted on a wooden stock resembling a spear shaft, the butt of which the gunner could rest on the ground. Many versions also had a hook welded to the barrel so the gunner could rest the gun against a tree or wall to lessen the recoil. Such weapons would have been extremely ineffective at any but the closest ranges, essentially useless against the powerful crossbow.

The hand cannon quickly evolved into larger weapons capable of inflicting greater harm on their targets. Among these were larger cannon, discussed below, and as many variations as the medieval mind could devise. Many of the designs they came up with have doubtless been lost to history; two of the strangest I know of were cannon designed to launch iron spears, ballista-like, either to kill enemy troops or to breach castle gates, and wooden guns called bombards which seem to have been used like trebuchets to launch stones or balls over or into castle walls.

Cannon: The first cannon were little more than converted bells--many were fabricated by bellmakers, in fact, and cast in the same foundries--and would have been extremely heavy and difficult to move. Their primary purpose, rather than to cut down troops in the open, was to breach walls. Here they had an advantage over their big brothers, the trebuchets: where a trebuchet launches its missile at a high angle that may cause it to bounce off a thick wall, a cannon fires its ball along a flat trajectory, imparting much more of its energy to the wall itself. Furthermore, a cannon is much more likely to strike the wall at or near its base, where it will produce the most useful breach. And it is inherently more accurate than a trebuchet, which means it can strike more or less the same spot again and again until the wall crumbles.

So cannon gave late-medieval armies a new way to reduce castles, leading in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to fundamental changes in the design of fortifications, to increased reliance on earth-and-wood fortifications over stone, and to low walls angled to cause cannonballs to ricochet off instead of shattering them. By the seventeenth century, European castles had largely ceased to be wartime refuges.

And cannon evolved at the same time. By the end of the Thirty Years' War in the early seventeenth century, advances in metallurgy and founding techniques, and standardization of loads, were allowing cannon an unprecedented degree of mobility. This allowed armies to use them on the battlefield in greater numbers than ever before, and more importantly to direct them primarily against troops rather than fortifications. And, of course, they continued to evolve over the next two and a half centuries until breech-loading rifled guns firing conical exploding shells came into widespread use in the 1860s and 70s.

A note on ammunition: the exploding shells you see in movies would rarely have been fired from cannon. Instead, cannon would have fired iron balls much like the lead balls fired from muskets. These would have rolled and bounced across hard ground, striking infantry and cavalry formations in much the same way a bowling balls strikes the pins. See the movie The Patriot for some semi-realistic portrayals of the effects of roundshot. When advancing infantry came near the guns, the gunners could load them with grapeshot, fist-sized projectiles that effectively turned the guns into giant shotguns. When exploding shells were used, they would have been round iron balls filled with powder (some types had grapeshot or musket balls inside to increase the shrapnel effect), with independent fuses attached to cause the shells to explode--no such thing as impact fuses until conical shells came into widespread use. There are other types, as well: chain shot, bar shot, hot shot, rocks, and a multitude of others for land-based and naval use. I may address some of these in a future post; if you need information on them, ask here or PM me and I'll try to answer your questions.

Mortars: These have been around almost as long as cannon, but early versions were heavy and even less mobile than the cannon they complemented. As a result, their use was long restricted to defensive or siege warfare; not until the twentieth century could mortars be made small and portable enough to be of use to mobile attacking forces. Where cannon fire along a flat trajectory, mortars fire their shells in a high arc, usually more than 45 degrees. Because of their high angle of fire, they are ideal for lobbing shells from behind fortifications or into walled spaces (like castles or cities) or trenches. And because ballistics does not require a long barrel or a high muzzle velocity to lob shells at such a high angle, mortars could be made huge, both in terms of gun size and projectile size--some of the largest guns ever fabricated have been mortars.

Of course, such a high angle of fire made firing solid shot from a mortar impractical. The strength of solid shot is that it travels across the ground and destroys anything in its path; falling from a high angle, it will certainly crush whatever it lands on, but its bounce will be limited. So mortars fired incendiary and/or explosive projectiles almost exclusively. Early explosive projectiles had independent fuses, which had to be lit before the mortar could be fired. Of course, this arrangement made for an awkward situation if the mortar failed to fire with a shell "cooking off" inside it. By the nineteenth century, new fuses had been developed that would ignite when the weapon was fired; a good gunner could trim the fuses for a particular range, causing the shells to burst over a trench line or formation and raining iron fragments down on enemy troops.

Howitzers: Something of a hybrid between cannon and mortars, howitzers have been around since at least the eighteenth century and may have been in use in Poland as early as the fifteenth century. Generally mounted on wheeled carriages like cannon rather than solid bases like mortars, howitzers were limited in size but mobile enough to accompany armies on the march and be of practical use on the battlefield. Howitzers generally fired explosive projectiles at an angle higher than that of cannon, but lower than that of mortars. They were less common on battlefields than cannon until the advent of conical shells in the nineteenth century; by World War I, the functions of cannon and howitzers were often combined in a single versatile artillery piece, the gun-howitzer.

Histry Nerd
12-21-2006, 02:54 AM
Modern technology provides an unprecedented range of fire support options to the infantryman on the ground. From conventional artillery to fixed-wing or helicopter air support, to mortars carried at the battalion or even company level, to machine guns and grenade launchers in each rifle squad, the modern infantryman has only to shout to receive some level of fire support. The level of lethality and destructiveness, of course, becomes greater as the source of the fire support becomes more distant from the point of enemy contact.

Artillery: Most heavy artillery today takes the form of the howitzer, or more specifically the gun-howitzer, capable of firing both high-angle and flat, direct fire trajectories. The days of static gun emplacements are gone; guns today are almost universally mobile, either mounted on their own lightly-armored platforms (self-propelled) or towed behind wheeled vehicles. Some are even mounted on aircraft like the AC-130 gunship. Ironically, howitzers and mortars have exchanged places in terms of placement forward on the battlefield; today, most mortars are employed at the battalion level or below, while howitzers are rarely employed at levels lower than brigade. Cannon are generally found in the turrets of tanks or infantry fighting vehicles, where they are used most often against enemy armored vehicles rather than troop formations.

Gone, too, are the days of gunners who can see their targets and adjust their own fire to hit them. On the modern battlefield, if a tank, or especially an aircraft, can see you, it's a good bet it can hit you, and artillery is highly vulnerable to direct-fire attack. So the guns remain well behind the lines, usually moving frequently to avoid being hit by enemy counter-fire, and let their forward observers or the troops on the ground tell them where to fire. It's a good bet that if your guns are exchanging direct fire with tanks, or even infantry, something has gone very, very wrong.

And of course, artillery is not just guns anymore. Mobile rocket systems launch miniature ballistic missiles capable (they say) of killing everything within a square kilometer. Cruise missiles can be launched from hundreds of miles away. Even the infantry now carries portable rocket launchers that can serve as artillery in a pinch.

And with advancements in gun technology come advancements in ammunition. Solid shot is a thing of the past, as is (largely) the conventional high explosive warhead. The standard anti-personnel round today delivers dozens of high explosive submunitions, each about the size of a grenade. Each of these is capable of punching through an inch of armor, or throwing shrapnel over a wide area. Other munitions can lay hasty minefields, and laser-guided precision shells can hit a specific target on the battlefield from twelve miles away or more.

Air Power: The cure-all for industrial-age warfare. Our air power makes us invincible, right? We don't need ground troops anymore because we have smart bombs, thermobaric cave-clearing munitions, bunker busters, and stealth bombers to carry them. Right?


Air power could take up an entire post in itself. Suffice it to say modern airpower has the capability to inflict enormous destruction with a few limitations.

First, aircraft move fast, and can't stay in one place for very long. The best of ground-support aircraft can only loiter around the battlefield for half an hour or so, so if the ground troops can't give them a target during that time--and give them a clear path to approach it--they will either expend their ordnance on the nearest thing that looks like an enemy target and then head for home, or just head for home without dropping a bomb.

Second, aircraft are expensive. The powers that be do not like to put them in high-risk situations. It takes an enormous amount of preparation and resources to clear an approach for fixed-wing aircraft, usually several artillery pieces blanketing likely air-defense emplacements along the route to keep any defenders from taking a shot at the planes. During this time, those artillery pieces are unavailable to the front line troops. The target you want the planes to hit had better be worth it.

And third, aircraft cannot take ground. Period. Even a helicopter cannot crawl into a cave or a house to ensure there are no enemies left in it, or stay on a piece of ground to keep them from coming back. Even with precision weapons, they are still blunt instruments incapable of a) ensuring the destruction of a specific target without causing great destruction to everything around it; b) ensuring that all examples of a particular target have been destroyed in a given area; or c) being sure they hit the right target to bring about the desired effect.

Attack helicopters mitigate these weaknesses somewhat, being more responsive to troops on the ground and capable of longer loiter times and somewhat more precise fires. But even helicopters cannot take ground, and they have one key vulnerability: the thing that keeps them in the air is attached at a relatively small point, and gravity wins.

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs): The bogeyman of modern times. Weapons capable of leveling a city in a single stroke, or annihilating an entire division of troops on the ground. Weapons that, in the wrong hands, could threaten a good portion of the world's population. And, regardless how you feel about the war in Iraq, it's a certainty they have already found their way into the wrong hands.

The big three in any discussion of WMDs are nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Nuclear: the guys who brought you Mutual Assured Destruction in the Cold War era did so by the threat of nuclear weapons. Nukes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are rated by their equivalent explosive release in terms of tons of TNT (high explosive similar to dynamite). They generally range in size from 2 kilotons (the Nagasaki bomb) to 100 megatons or so.

Nukes are highly destructive, to be sure; but it is one thing to have a nuke, and quite another to be able to deliver it to its target. Your delivery system must be able either to be destroyed with the bomb, or get out of the blast radius before it goes off. Missiles or suicide bombers accomplish the one, while timers or high-altitude or fast aircraft can accomplish the other. Please note that "suitcase bombs" are something of a fallacy; one human cannot carry a fissionable core (inherently a heavy material, no matter what flavor you choose) and its conventional-explosive initiation system in a suitcase. Three suitcases, maybe. A car, certainly. Not a suitcase. For illustration, consider the "backpack bombs" designed for special forces use in the seventies and eighties required three men, each carrying upwards of ninety pounds, to emplace (the current version may have reduced it to two). If your terrorists carry nukes in suitcases, you will have to explain the miniaturization somehow.

Biological: the subject of many end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it books and movies. Biological weapons have the potential to devastate the population of a region, or of the world; imagine the effect a large-scale release of, say, a virus similar to the 1918 flu bug might have. But releasing such a bug is not as easy as it sounds. Biological weapons have a couple of major limitations. First, it is difficult to weaponize pathogens; make them robust enough to survive until release, and they lose lethality or communicability. Make them highly lethal, and they will probably be hard to spread. Make them virulent, and they will not be as lethal. Of course, you could invent a "superbug" that is both highly lethal and highly communicable, but you would have to make it plausible.

The second weakness is that biological weapons are inherently unpredictable. A superbug could easily spread into a pandemic, destroying not only the people it was aimed at but those who released it as well. Even a targeted outbreak cannot guarantee death to specific targets.

Chemical: Nasty. We have all heard stories of chemical weapons used in World War I, or in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. These can be lethal, incapacitating, crippling, or disfiguring. They exist in great variety: some agents are inhaled, some ingested, some absorbed through the skin or eyes or ears, some injected. Some have a telltale appearance or smell; some cannot be detected (except by sampling equipment) until people start dropping dead. They are gases, liquids, or sticky jellies. Some begin to disperse in minutes while others will linger in an area for days.

You have a great deal of leeway in designing chemical weapons for your writing, but keep in mind they have limitations as well. Weapons in gas or liquid form will be susceptible to changes in wind speed and direction and water currents, and they can be just as lethal to those who fired them as to their targets. Their delivery systems are limited, as well. Delivering them with artillery or bombs is tricky; you want just enough explosive charge to break the shell and release the gas, not enough to destroy the gas when the shell explodes. And they are easier to defend against than either biological or nuclear weapons; protective equipment is heavy and hot and restricts your breathing, but it will keep your characters alive until they can be decontaminated.

12-24-2006, 12:49 AM
When reading about dirty bombs as a response to the last post, I came upon something more interesting - nuclear weapons intentionally "salted" to create large amounts of lasting radiation.

That's cool and scary.

Histry Nerd
12-26-2006, 03:01 AM
Matt -

Good point. I'm not sure I've ever heard of "salting" a weapon to increase the spread of radioactive material, but it makes sense. The more solid material in the area of the explosion, the more stuff there is for radioactive particles to stick to and the more fallout you get. A ground burst produces more fallout than an airburst for the same reason.

I'm not sure what material you would use, though--pretty much everything in the bomb would be vaporized. Did your source give you any ideas on what to salt the bomb with?

Happy Holidays

12-27-2006, 04:10 AM
Cobalt seems to be the most discussed way to intentionally create large amounts of radiation because it creates Co-60 isotopes that have a half-life of 5 years.


Also, unsophisticated nuclear weapons can create more fallout from inefficient design or less pure fissile core.

12-27-2006, 05:56 AM
I'm not sure what material you would use, though--pretty much everything in the bomb would be vaporized.

Certainly being heated to a million degrees would vaporize any substance known to man, breaking down any compound into its elements, but that doesn't change an element's atomic structure. Atoms that don't get hit by stray neutrons will stay the same elements they were. The ones that DO get hit (and there are a lot of fast-moving neutrons in an exploding nuclear weapon) often split into two nuclei, thus turning into lighter elements, some of them radioactive.

There's a Wikipedia article named Nuclear Weapon Design. The gun design appears the most feasible for (along the lines of "My First Sony") "My First Nuclear Weapon."

I found it interesting that the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan were of two quite different designs.

Histry Nerd
12-29-2006, 10:36 PM
I found it interesting that the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan were of two quite different designs.

I thought that was interesting when I learned it as well. I think it had to do with a couple of factors: rushing to end the war and using the first two production bombs we felt confident would work, and the desire to try a couple of different designs to see which worked better.

Even more interesting is that the plutonium design (Fat Man), although it produced a smaller yield than the uranium one (Little Boy), is the one we ended up basing many of our future weapons on.