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The rear area is commonly understood to be behind the forward line of troops on a battlefield; it is part of the ‘geographic framework’ that splits a battlefield into close, deep, and rear parts. It’s becoming increasingly popular to argue that the ‘Rear Area’ no longer exists. But this needs to be challenged and the ‘rear area’ is far from an outdated, industrial age, concept. Instead, more work is required to understand and develop doctrine in support of this vital aspect of the geographic framework. The rear area, and rear operations, are at the forefront of NATO’s approach to warfighting in the 21st Century and a key pillar within Allied Rapid Reaction Corps planning as NATO’s corps warfighting headquarters.
The geographic framework: not rigid dogma but doctrine
To begin with, it should be acknowledged that no model is perfect; the geographic framework is no different. The concept of a deep, close, and rear in the battlefield can be a useful categorisation of forces in time and space and is often used at Corps level to help allocation of resources and to give responsibilities to subordinate formations. It may be a less appropriate framework in counterinsurgency, stabilisation operations or a non-contiguous battlespace with unconnected areas of operation. The operational framework explains the purpose of tactical operations (defined as shaping, decisive and sustaining actions) while the functional framework describes how capabilities, such as intelligence, manoeuvre and fires are applied.All of these frameworks can be valid in different contexts. Sustainment, for example, is a function that does not occur only in the rear. To recognise flexibility in doctrine is a strength and not a weakness. Rather than reject the geographic framework we should seek to develop it.
One such aspect is the assumption that a rear area is fixed. The rear area is often contested and unlikely to be static. An army’s rear area is the focus of its enemy’s deep operations. Operation Market Garden in September 1944 transformed the German rear area to the Allied front line once airborne forces had landed. That Allied front line then quickly transitioned to become its own rear area around Eindhoven creating a rear area in which it failed to secure the supply line through Eindhoven to Nijmegen, known as Hell’s Highway, contributing to Allied defeat. In a similar vein, Operation Dragoon in August 1944 saw Allied amphibious landings in Southern France threaten and dramatically shift the German rear area, with German divisions originally facing north towards the danger from Normandy. The Allies rapidly advanced from the Mediterranean and liberated huge swathes of the country as the German rear area contracted. The rear area is defined in British doctrine as extending ‘from the rear boundary of the rearmost brigade to the corps rear boundary’.1 History shows, however, that these boundaries are rarely fixed.
Why the ‘Rear Area’ exists and matters
We must also be careful not to learn false lessons from recent developments in warfare. While it is true that the Future Operating Environment to 2035 has identified decentralisation and a blurring of threats across geography and domains, it is the wrong conclusion to judge that this repudiates the concept of the rear area. In fact, it serves to add greater emphasis to it. Where the traditional close may no longer be decisive increases the need for dedicated planning and resources to the rear area, which is more vulnerable than ever in the information age. Encouragingly, senior leaders and recent policy (such as The Integrated Review) show the British Army to be aware of limitations in its ability to counter subthreshold threats, be those physical limitations in terms of assets required to fight digital warfare or conceptual restrictions imposed by legal, ethical and moral boundaries. Mitigations to these challenges will be relevant across the deep-close-rear framework.
Replacing the term rear area with support area, or security area, is equally unhelpful. A broader vision is required.Support and security activity are just two aspects of responsibilities in a rear area. These also include sustainment. movements, offensive, defensive, and enabling activities, battlespace management, intelligence; communications, and protection.2 Rather than being industrial age concerns, these questions are at the very heart of NATO conceptual development. This is aptly illustrated by the recent stand-up of the Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC) within the European theatre. The rear has gained prominence due to increased distances to the NATO’s Eastern flank, reduced density of in-place force elements since the Cold War, and a focus on operations beyond European boundaries. The JSEC was formed in recognition that a gap in capability exists. Conceptualisation of a rear area is essential to enable rapid reinforcement, force protection of NATO armies and a sustainment network that functions at the speed of relevance. The US-led DEFENDER series of exercises feed into this concept by testing the movement of equipment at pace across international borders and the preposition of stocks at designated secure sites in the rear area. Far from being isolated in antiquated doctrine, the British Army and its NATO contribution is helping shape current thinking.
Thinking about 360-degree security
Adopting a geographic framework does not mean that an army expects a predictable enemy. While physical features, population centres and critical infrastructure remain key considerations in Corps warfighting, this does not mean that the irregular fight – in line with NATO’s 360-degree approach that recognises new technologies, domains, threats and actors – is ignored by plotting linear advances on the map. This is where developing a rear area concept, exercising, and truly testing it comes to the fore. The Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, for example, has included in planning exercises the possibility that the rear area is significantly compromised with Corps-level stockpiles destroyed in what could be an area the size of Birmingham. The impact of security failure in the rear area could be catastrophic for any force, but without such experimentation lessons will not be learned for future warfighting at scale. The German Army experience in Russia from 1941-1944, impacted by partisan’s targeting of the rear, is an example of damage that could be inflicted. Another is from Korea, in 1950, and the Inchon landings. General MacArthur said: “The history of war proves that nine out of ten times an army has been destroyed because its supply lines have been cut off…. We shall land at Inchon, and I shall crush them.”3 His amphibious landings during Operation Chromite had the necessary effect on North Korea and led to the recapture of Seoul.
What we must do now
A way ahead is proposed in defence of the concept of a rear area that is under attack:
- Retain and develop the ‘deep-close-rear’ geographic framework. There is proven value in designating a rear area during warfighting which is stimulated in planning by the geographic framework. Development of the framework must incorporate the non-linear nature of the battlefield and recognise that a rear area will rarely be fixed; instead, its characteristics can be expected to evolve.
- Acknowledge the significance of the rear area and explore its range of responsibilities. NATO and the US have committed to developing better practice of the rear area. The British Army must now do the same. In the European theatre, operating amongst a myriad of forces, agencies, and non-governmental actors means that coordination, cooperation, and collaboration become key tenets of rear operations. The Allied Rapid Reaction Corps seeks to cohere intent amongst these stakeholders by clearly identifying them within a rear area and then ‘Ask, not Task’ for mutual benefit. Success of the approach relies upon establishing trust and agreed responsibilities; where this can be exercised in advance it will be to our benefit.
- Pursue 360-degree security. The enemy, or red forces, add significant complexity to the rear area. Adversaries will be present in the virtual as well as physical domains, targeting minds as well as command posts and sustainment nodes. It may also become more contested than the close in future operating environments. Only by experimentation through challenging exercise scenarios played out in the rear area can shortcomings be addressed. Prioritisation of such exercises, linked to Divisional headquarters, will help NATO Corps to be at the forefront of future warfighting.
Although there are assertions that the British Army is leaving an open door to its enemies by a misconstrued application of the rear and geographic framework, this is far from the truth. Resourcing the rear (including security) is very much recognised as one of the key priorities in fighting a future war. For that to happen an important starting point is to recognise that the rear area as a concept does indeed exist. It is alive and kicking.
- Land Warfare Centre, Army Field Manual Warfighting Tactics, Part 2: Corps and Divisional Tactics, Ministry of Defence, May 2018, p 2-12.
- Land Warfare Centre, Army Field Manual Warfighting Tactics, Part 2: Corps and Divisional Tactics, Ministry of Defence, May 2018, p 2-13.
- Roy E. Appleman, United States Army in the Korean War: South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu (June-November 1950), (Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1992), Chapter XXV.