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Land Long Read Military History Opinion

The Viability of Jungle Operations at Night

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Today there are many flash-points outside the NATO area where, if a conflict were to break out, jungle warfare may be the order of the day.  Western militaries try to operate mostly at night and the jungle poses unique challenges to this.  This article argues that night jungle operations are possible but due to shortfalls in UK doctrine remain difficult and not recommended. If the Army wishes to pursue night operations, then doctrine requires significant re-writing to enable a better focus on the co-ordination of small team and sub-unit activity into battlegroup plans.

The Jungle is a difficult environment to move and operate in and is challenging for both soldiers and commanders.  From low hanging vines and dense vegetation to sudden drops in terrain freedom of movement is severely degraded. This is intensified during darkness. However, history dictates that a commander must plan and train for night operations if they are to remain the superior force. As Field Marshall Slim noted:

“To our men the jungle was a strange fearsome place: moving and fighting in it was a nightmare.  We were too ready to classify the jungle as ‘impenetrable’.  To us it appeared only as an obstacle to movement; to the Japanese it was a welcome means of concealed manoeuvre and surprise.  The Japanese reaped the deserved reward… we paid the penalty”.

Field Marshall Slim, Defeat into Victory

Traditional thinking regarding jungle warfare is that it is the sole preserve of infantry supported by a few pack-artillery weapons.  Since WWII, however, every branch of service has learned to operate effectively within the jungle.  The idea that tanks could exert a decisive influence, formerly regarded as idiotic, has been proved.  Improved radio communications have enabled artillery and ground attack aircraft to develop new tactics.  Air-supply drops have permitted armies to maintain the momentum of an advance or operate in isolation for longer. Earth moving equipment has converted forest into tracks passable by motor transport.  Preventative medicine has reduced the risk from disease and pre-packaged rations have prolonged the soldier’s ability to remain operational for longer at extended range.  The advent of the helicopter has provided new air mobility and simplified casualty evacuation.  

Because of these advances some argue that the jungle has become neutral.1 Yet, lessons learned and applied in Burma during WW2 by Field Marshal Slim, must be reapplied and current doctrine must updated if jungle night operations are to be become viable.

What is the Jungle?

Jungle terrain varies greatly from forested mountains to swamp areas.  Tropical areas are categorised as primary jungle, secondary jungle, or deciduous forests.  They may contain single, double, or triple canopy overgrowth and usually contain dense undergrowth.  It can be said that there is no such thing as “typical jungle country”.  The features common to all such areas are a lack of roads and railways, limited cross-country movement for vehicles, and limited visibility for both air and ground forces.2

Daytime jungle operations, by their nature, already have much in common with night operations: an emphasis on the importance of command and control (C2), the need for limited objectives, the difficulty in keeping direction, the difficulty in using covering fire, the reliance upon the ear rather than the eyes, and the need to allow plenty of time for an operation are all critical planning considerations.  

US Field Manual 90-5 and the UK Close Country Tropical Environment (CCTE) Pamphlet both contain limited reference to night operations.  FM 90-5 states “since night operations, especially ambushes, are common in jungle fighting, units should emphasize night training”.  Yet, the manuals offers no planning or training considerations to assist commanders in their preparation nor do they address the types of night operations conducive to jungle fighting or the scale upon which they should be undertaken. The CCTE pamphlet only contains a single chapter on movement at night in the jungle.

Most importantly, both fail to provide any special techniques which may aid in the execution of jungle night operations.  The overriding assumption is that the risks associated with deliberate attacks at night against any enemy are far too high to justify the operation. This is a tension between how Western forces wish to operate and the doctrine available to them in the jungle.

C2 is Important

C2 is the most important factor in night fighting.  Its function is to synchronise fires and movement at the decisive point to achieve surprise while maintaining security, tempo, and purpose.  The end-state is to destroy the enemy without committing fratricide, or if not attacking the enemy, use the night within the jungle to exploit a time and space advantage.  To achieve this end-state, all soldiers must operate as efficiently at night as during the day.  

Within the same doctrinal vein, commanders must consider the enemy’s night-fighting capability before executing a jungle night operation.  The technology at hand must be applied in a manner consistent with the situation encountered.  For example, in a scenario where the enemy has a night-vision capability, a commander must choose the correct C2 procedures and equipment to counter the enemy’s night vision capabilities.  Only in a situation where the enemy has no night-vision capability is unrestrained use of the night vision spectrum possible.

Unfortunately, some of the most fervent advocates of night jungle operations lack jungle warfare experience and possess no conception of the complexities involved, this is reflected in current UK jungle doctrine.  Looking at historical evidence allows a different perspective on night operations in the jungle.

Japanese Experience: Owning the Night

During WW2, the Japanese operated at night whenever possible.  They were skilful in their use of disguises, silent movement by night, and movement along jungle paths when they wished to get between and behind enemy defences.3

Japanese essentials for the success of night operations were simplicity, maintenance of direction, control, and surprise.  These were maintained by assigning limited objectives and developing a simple plan.  Direction was maintained by compass, guides, choosing unmistakable natural and artificial features to march on, and sometimes by 5th columnists who would light bonfires to serve as points to march on.  Control was maintained by selecting objectives on well-defined terrain features such as hilltops.  Stealth, silent movement, and deception were used  to facilitate surprise.

The Japanese also devoted significant time to night manoeuvres during training.  They made a concerted effort to get every combat soldier out at least once a week on some sort of night problem with commanders emphasising individual, section, and platoon exercises.  Even during basic training, soldiers were tasked to conduct individual night movements through dense jungle in order to familiarise themselves with conditions of darkness.  For example, the Japanese troops designated for the attack on Hong Kong devoted more than one half of the six weeks of intensive preparatory training to night operations.

In contrast, Western armies appear to have adopted a different mindset. During WWII American jungle tactics were generally static: attacking in force during the day and then hunkered down at night.  To one observer “they shot at anything that moved after dark, including not only the enemy but buffalo and GIs outside the perimeter”.4 Although this is not an entirely accurate description, it aptly describes the defensive nature of American night jungle tactics during WWII.  These parameters changed with the invention of night vision devices.

The Role of Night Vision

It’s been a quarter century since night-vision devices, or NVDs, were declared the “single greatest mismatch” of the Gulf War. Since then the underlying technology has remained largely unchanged. This has left soldiers with bulky, analogue goggles that have largely missed out on the digital revolution. Powerful NVDs are now readily available to both state and non-state adversaries nullifying potential advantages in jungle operations.  The following points should be considered in the preparation and selection of night vision devices for use in the jungle:

Image Intensifying (II) are effective but require ambient light to work effectively. With thick jungle canopy or an over-cast moon they will perform very poorly.  IR torches and IR cyalumes also need to be balanced against the tactical picture.

Thermal Imaging (TI). This system uses a black and white scale to differentiate between hot and cold signatures.  However, these devices cannot see through dense undergrowth.

Head mounted goggles.  Head mounted devices can be extremely degrading to situational awareness and increase the risk of fatigue and heat injuries.  Additionally, head mounts are prone to getting caught up in jungle foliage and vines and especially so during contact fire and movement.

Investment is Required… but?

The West’s technological advantage at night is now gone.  ISIS fighters, particularly those who’ve been recruited from overseas, fully understand the power of night vision, and in some cases, they have obtained their own devices.  The US State Department has tried to clamp down on the spread of black market NVDs by controlling exports, but when the internet has dozens of different night-vision scopes and monocular in stock, there’s only so much any government can do.  The Pentagon’s own contractors have been known to stray;  New York-based ITT Corp, for instance, was fined $50 million after it was found to be selling sensitive technology to China, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

But the best way to reassert the monumental advantages in night vision isn’t to control exports, it is to develop new systems and tactics.  Amongst the most significant new breakthroughs is the development of goggles that combine image intensification and thermal imaging.  Another potential improvement is technology that connects a set of night-vision goggles with a weapon sight, allowing a soldier to point a weapon around a corner and acquire a target without exposing himself to enemy fire at night.  But questions remain whether this technology will survive the demands of the jungle.

Yet, considering that most adversaries will likely possess some form of night optics it would be a bold decision to try and conduct an attack at night in the jungle.  Especially against a fortified position; defended static positions will always have the advantage and the ability to identify and defend against identified movement.  This means a defender will likely always have an advantage in jungle night operations unless their optics can be blinded.

Modern British Experimentation

The British Army, through the Royal Gurkha Rifles, has conducted extensive jungle experimentation.  The key conclusion is that jungle operations at night up to battlegroup level are possible; but not recommended.  In order to make these operations more successful, bolder investment options should be considered.

Movement by night is an option but only with a small force.  Moving a Battalion, or Company through the jungle at night is not an act of war unless the climatic conditions combined with the moon state are favourable for NVDs.  Noise and ground sign provide the enemy with a marked advantage in detection and interdiction, the risk to force is also increased by injury and lost personnel.  This means that attacking forces will struggle to concentrate on the objective unless night vision devices are effective. If they are effective, then the enemy also has the advantage.

Conclusion

Operating at night is possible and offers opportunities to surprise the enemy and manoeuvre forces into a position of advantage at a time of our choosing.  But the jungle is a unique environment and there are constraints to what is possible and some activity, when balancing threats against opportunities, would not give a force a marked advantage. 

Jungle night operations are likely to remain the skill set of small specialist teams conducting operations on behalf of a larger force seeking a daytime advantage.  That’s not to say night operations at scale are impossible; history has shown they are. Rather, in almost every example the defenders advantages are unlikely to warrant the risk. Current doctrine and equipment doesn’t provide a Commander the principles to overcome these perceived constraints.

If the UK is to again excel at night within the jungle, then there must be investment in the most appropriate capabilities and equipment.  Doctrine must be changed to better enable the co-ordination of small and sub unit tactical actions into coherent battlegroup activity. There also needs to be a greater focus on executing night time patrolling over short distances as routine; ambush in defence, recce and protected movement and in offensive operations.  The Army has the experience to do this. The question is, does the Army have the will to do it?


Cover photo & photos embedded in the article are courtesy of Cpl Jonathan Adams / MOD Crown Copyright 2020. 

Andy Blackmore

Major Andrew Blackmore is the Chief of Staff of the Brigade of Gurkhas. He was previously Officer Commanding C (Tamandu) Company of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles based in Brunei. During his assignment in Command, Major Blackmore spent extensive periods of time deployed in the jungles of Borneo conducting sub unit activity and junior leadership cadres. During this time he conducted extensive night experimentation operations to understand and test the validity of jungle night operations.

Footnotes

  1. The Jungle is Neutral, F Spencer Chapman DSO. 2014.
  2. US War department. 1943.
  3. U.S. War department, Military Intelligence Division. “Notes on Japanese Warfare”. Info bulletin No.8. 1942.
  4. Bushmasters, Anthony Arthur. 1987.

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