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The British Way of War – Balancing Fire and Manoeuvre for Warfighting

To paraphrase a famous philosopher, “opinions about tactics are like arseholes… everyone has one.”  The range of recent writing bears this out and there is an on-going debate about the balance of fires over ground manoeuvre.  Left of arc, the ‘Strike’ concept is seen as one way ground manoeuvre enables a more aggressive deep battle.  Right of arc, many point to contemporary conflicts and the evolving future utility of the main battle tank as being decisive in modern warfare.  This article argues that the current British military mind-set lacks sufficient imagination to fuse the ideas together into a coherent tactical plan.  Commanders are increasingly unwilling to take risk with assertive ground manoeuvre, instead favouring an artillery duel and non-lethal effects in the deep.  Tactically, more imagination is required to better integrate effects and utilise the full capabilities of the assets available.  A more aggressive mind-set is required to ensure success in future ground operations.

Modern military planning has become a balancing act between the ‘risk’ of close combat and the need to impose effects on an opponent.  In this author’s view the balance is firmly weighted with joint fires over manoeuvre to achieve military effect. This means that ground attack options are routinely disregarded and considered to be too risky.  One recent commentary goes further and argues that modern planners do little more than synchronise fires.  Personal experience of divisional command post training reinforces this view.

Doctrinally, the role of a divisional headquarters is to fight the deep and resource the close. During one recent exercise, such was the focus on the fires battle that the staff predicted that the close battle would be ‘anti-climactic.’  In the event, it wasn’t, and the lack of resource for the close battle meant tactical defeat.  The planning had placed too great an emphasis on fires and did not enable an aggressive close battle; instead it had restricted and constrained ground manoeuvre.  Planners appear more concerned with the ‘balance’ of ground forces and maintaining a coherent front, over enabling aggressive manoeuvre to defeat an enemy.  This is the polar opposite to the ‘commandments’ of manoeuvre warfare, which call for fires to support manoeuvre with ground forces focussed at an opponent’s weakness.

In part, this is because the Army neither understands nor is prepared to accept risk.  Everything must be protected all of the time and ground forces kept in balance in order to do so.  To an opponent, this will often look like an equal advance across a standardised doctrinal frontage.  Looking to the future, the development of Strike Brigades should allow future divisional commanders to have ground effect in the deep battle.  In the meantime, the British Army cannot become fixed by the need to maintain balance, as this severely limits the tactical options available.  For example, focussing on protecting rear areas means forces often cannot mass at the decisive point.  A force could bypass a large enemy formations to target an opponent’s deep, leaving their own rear vulnerable to counter-attack from the bypassed force.  This would unbalance the attacker; yet it would present an opponent with a genuine dilemma in a way that only ground manoeuvre formations can.

Contemporary British staff officers have developed ‘decision point tactics’ as a framework with which to fight a battle.  The general idea is that a commander will never fully understand the enemy picture and must, therefore, not commit to a course of action until there is a clear understanding of the adversaries intent.  Advanced decision support matrixes form the basis of most military planning methods.  Decision point tactics loosely follow Napoleon’s dictum that he never made firm plans but exploited the principals of war.  Theoretically, this allows a commander to understand what they might do at what time in what place.  At divisional level it risks over whelming subordinate manoeuvre formations.  To be done well, it requires numerous contingency and branch plans attached to each decision that simply cannot be processed by either the formation HQ nor understood by subordinate battle groups.   This means that decisions often only commit the more agile elements of fighting power, such as attack aviation.   Given the British Army’s paucity of deep fires assets, this reduces the resource available for the close battle, diluting the impact of ground manoeuvre.

On the other hand, there are many merits to fighting a battle with aviation and fires and limiting ground manoeuvre.  The UK has one fighting division and it must be protected; if it is defeated we cannot re-cock and start again.  Statistically, fires are also likely to have the greatest kinetic effect if the kill count is considered an important measure of success.  Fires assets are increasingly seen as formations in their own right, reducing the need for manoeuvre forces to be committed to the close battle.  The Russian Army certainly believe a variation of this with their focus on deep and ‘close deep’ assets.  Yet it is not the case that modern war is dominated by fires.  If this argument is followed to its logical conclusion then future war will be little more than an increasingly competitive counter-fires battle that will, eventually, become dominated by drones.  For the near future, however, ground manoeuvre remains decisive in imposing our will on others and achieving strategic effect.

When considering these themes together, it is clear that we need to find a better balance between fire and manoeuvre at divisional level.  The British Army has become conceptually fixated with the deep battle at the expense of the close.  Ground manoeuvre, and its impact on the battlefield, should not be misjudged or disregarded as too risky when considering potential courses of action.  The boldest manoeuvres in military history have involved taking risk with balance to generate force at the decisive point.  The emphasis on fires means our mind-set is turning to attritional warfare over a manoeuverist approach.  None of this suggests that the deep battle is not important, however, it does highlight that we need to deepen our understanding of divisional tactics to greater exploit the options that ground manoeuvre forces can generate.  Ground manoeuvre is the key element for developing our understanding of how to fight land warfare in the future.

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to the wavellroom through the contact form

Steve B
British Army

Steve has 8 years leadership experience with an infantry unit; he has also served on the staff of an Armoured Infantry Brigade

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