Strike corps offensive operations – Imperatives for success

Indian Defence Review | Jan 1, 1988

As is the won't in a peacetime army, planning for offensive operations in current discussions, war games and exercises is being increasingly based on acceptable stereotypes rather than on the intrinsic requirements of the allotted task(s), the terrain constraints, the enemy's pattern of defensive operations and the forces available. The choice of primary operational objectives also depends on the location of a suitable geographical area where a Strike Corps intends to give battle to the enemy's strategic reserves, such as the GHO reserves of Pakistan.

As is the won’t in a peacetime army, planning for offensive operations in current discussions, war games and exercises is being increasingly based on acceptable stereotypes rather than on the intrinsic requirements of the allotted task(s), the terrain constraints, the enemy’s pattern of defensive operations and the forces available. A junior captain, with nothing more than a JC course behind him, can confidently produce a stereotyped outline plan for a Strike Corps offensive In less than an hour—with a fair degree of certainty that he would be unlikely to violate any fundamental parameters of conventional wisdom.

Any subaltern in the Western Army, asked to name a suitable ‘H’ hour for a corps offensive in a DCB environment, will unhesitatingly conjure up the magical figure “2030”. Also, most discussions, and even more so most exercises, end with the establishment of bridgeheads and the mechanics of a breakout. The large chunk of real estate, where mechanized forces may be expected to be engaged in battle after the breakout, is a territory where even the angels fear to tread.

A Strike Corps, in our context at least, is a deadly engine of war which, when unleashed, can be rightfully expected to guarantee victory in both material and political terms. It is imperative that planning for such success be based on a realistic appraisal of the enemy’s deployment and ability to intercept or launch a riposte in an unacceptable or disruptive time frame and/or strength. Above all, a Strike Corps plan must be balanced in disposition and ‘synergetic’ in effect so that the sledgehammer weight of its momentum is at all times greater than that of the sum of its parts. This article seeks to examine the conventional wisdom of an imaginary Strike Corps offensive plan against the touchstone of tactical reality.

Choice of objectives and thrust lines

Any form of conventional positional defence can be effectively penetrated; in the plains and the desert terrain along India’s western border with Pakistan, it could well be completely overrun by a determined attacker. However, for the proponents of the “Manoeuvre theory”, offence and defence are not opposite to each other as they are in the “attrition beyond this is likely to force the defender to react at an operational level, possibly corps level or higher. “Operational depth” could also be the depth at which the leading advancing elements cross the enemy’s higher tactical boundaries, such as the rear boundary of a holding division. In the Soviet concept, it is the depth at which the “operational manoeuvre group” (OMG) passes through and cuts loose. In what NATO forces refer to as the classical threat scenario, this OMG would be the “third wave” of a Warsaw Pact offensive at theatre or front level.

The choice of primary or ultimate operational objectives for a Strike Corps offensive would vary considerably depending on whether the “apostles of mobility”, subscribing to the “manoeuvre theory”, or the “prophets of position”, drawing their sustenance from the “attrition theory”, are in the key decision-making appointments. However, due to various reasons, which need. not be gone into here, the “attrition theory” has been found to be acutely flawed to permit its application to mechanized offensive operations of the modern battlefield and is progressively losing converts. This has raised the status of the more glamorous “manoeuvre theory” to ‘numero uno’.

In the “manoeuvre theory”, disruption and dislocation of the enemy are considered the primary means for achieving operational aims. Fighting is regarded only as one of many means of applying military force to the attainment of a politico-economic aim.

True success lies in pre-emption, or in decision Dy initial surprise. Missions and objectives down through the levels are logically related to the strategic aim, and are concerned with enemy forces and resources. Ground seldom features as an objective except when it stands for a geographically fixed enemy resource—like a centre of government, naval base, airfield or bridge—or when a particular topographical feature provides access to, or control of, a key resource.

The “manoeuvre theory” attempts to unhinge the enemy’s defensive system by calculated risks, opportunistic exploitation of forced and unforced errors made by the enemy and by creating a psychological paralysis of command at all levels. The key operative tactics are to launch turning movements at the operational level, envelopments at the tactical level and eventually an all-embracing encirclement of a beleaguered enemy: formation. In keeping with the overall design, an armoured or a mechanized division must threaten “alternate objectives” at the operational level, to impale the enemy on the “horns of a dilemma”, much as Rommel threatened Benghazi and Mechili when he poised himself at Msus during the North African campaign.

The choice of primary operational objectives also depends on the location of a suitable geographical area where a Strike Corps intends to give battle to the enemy’s strategic reserves, such as the GHO reserves of Pakistan. It is important not to be stretched to the limit of logistics support when engaged in battle with the enemy’s strategic reserves. As a corollary, it would greatly help matters if the enemy is brought to battle along extended lines of communications. Hence, the most fundamental planning parameter is to first select primary operational objectives; everything else, including the grouping and thrust lines, then logically suggest themselves.

The primary operational objectives should be deep enough and important enough for their capture or destruction to exert a strategic effect. These could be the enemy’s military nerve centres such as Corps Headquarters, operational reserves, military airfields and, to a lesser degree, towns of politico-economic importance. At all but the lowest levels, objectives are not pieces of real estate but enemy “forces and resources”.

The next task is to look for intermediate operational objectives of the same kind on or near the most probable axes of advance to the primary one. The enemy s divisional headquarters, logistics support areas (LSAs), tactical reserves and long-range rocket artillery positions would be included among these. Finally, the choice of (initial) tactical objectives depends upon whether the enemy’s defences can be turned or whether a break-in is necessary.

Frontage and depth

It is axiomatic that the broader the frontage of operations the slower will be the rate of advance. Mechanized operations have seldom succeeded unless the flow was uninterrupted—the pace may, of course, vary but the progress of mobile spearheads must be continuous and inexorable. In other words, the “tempo” of operations must be maintained. This, then, is the key to trading-off between frontage and depth for a given force level.

Planning for a Strike Corps offensive usually hovers mainly between two distinct schools of thought. The first set of thinkers lay great emphasis on the simultaneity of operations all along a broad front (120 to 150 km) and the early development of maximum combat potential of the Strike Corps in the intended area of operations.

At first glance Plan A appears to bear a close resemblance to Liddell Hart’s concept of the “expanding torrent”, expounded as a manifestation of the “indirect approach”. But, the concept of the “expanding torrent” implied seeking out the enemy’s weak points and following fast through gaps in enemy defences, “just as a torrent of rushing water would flow through the weak spots in an earthen dam”. Also implicit was the attempt to carry the battle deep into the enemy’s rear, thereby causing dislocation and the paralysis of command. However, Plan A does not propose to do this at all. Its principal feature is the systematic destruction of the enemy, both mobile forces and Static fortifications such as strong points, so as to considerably degrade the enemy’s military potential. While a combination of infantry divisions and RAPIDs are employed to establish initial bridgeheads where necessary, reduce strong points and open axes of maintenance, the mechanized components of the Strike Corps are ostensibly left unhindered to develop operations in depth.

Shorn, of its misleading emphasis on manoeuvre, Plan A is shown up for what it patently is—an unalloyed example of the “attrition theory”. It is based on “worst-case assumptions” of the enemy’s capabilities and on an exaggerated emphasis on balance. Like Montgomery’s plan for the battle of Fl Alamein, Plan A forfeits the exploitation of the true combat potential of mechanized forces—the force of the “turning moment” (as in physics) caused by the “leverage” and “tempo” of the mobile force, “turning” the enemy, dislocating him or forcing him to pull back and, hence, reducing the physical fighting necessary to attain victory. Plan A also lacks sufficient uncommitted reserves and the enemy’s success in stabilizing one or more prongs or thrust lines would mean dissipation of the Strike Corps effort along two unconnected and mutually unsupporting channels—the holding out enemy acting as a wedge. The “breaking-in” force is unlikely to reach operational depth and thus provide a stable launch-pad for the mobile forces battle with the enemy’s strategic reserves within the time frame in which these reserves are capable of reacting.

The second school of ‘thought allows far greater latitude to the mobile forces by effecting the initial “break-in” along a much narrower front and thereby achieving the rapid development of operations in depth.

Here, too, the mobile forces are left free to manoeuvre to gain operational advantage but are in a far better position to cause disruption and dislocation because of the “leverage” provided by the “break-in” force and the faster “tempo” of operations. There are some striking similarities between Plan B and “Plan 1919” propounded by Maj. Gen. J.F.C. “Boney” Fuller, then a Colonel. “Plan 1919” outlined a concept of offensive operations in which the key to victory was the disorganization of the enemy’s command and control system Maj. C.R.M. Messenger writes:

Colonel Fuller envisaged the first phase of the attack being Medium D tanks, which would have a speed of 20 mph, two-and-a-half times faster than any existing tank, combining with aircraft to attack enemy headquarters at army level and destroying supply and road centres.

Then, with the enemy command thrown into confusion, the “Breaking Force” of heavy tanks, infantry and artillery would penetrate the enemy’s front, being followed by the “Pursuing Force” of light tanks, lorry-borne infantry and cavalry, which would carry out the traditional exploitation role. . . . Indeed, it is interesting to note that phase one of “Plan 1919” bears a remarkable resemblance in its object and conduct to the latest Soviet concept of the Operational Manoeuvre Groups.”
However, even Plan B has many inherent limitations.

The mobile forces consisting of an armoured division, a mechanized division and perhaps an independent armoured brigade, are essentially without “follow-on support” and it is quite likely that their essential vehicle columns (EVC) may be intercepted by the enemy’s tactical reserves, leaving the spearheads vulnerable to logistics difficulties. They would, therefore, be forced to detach protective elements to guarantee freedom of movement along their operational tracks/divisional centre lines (CL), with a consequent reduction in the overall tempo of operations and an unwarranted dissipation of forces. Also, in Plan B only one Corps CL is usually planned to be cleared.

It is surely unwise to make the progress of the deeper battle contingent upon the successful clearance and subsequent retention against enemy action of a single Corps CL. Another weak link is the inability of the infantry divisions or RAPIDs to relieve the leading combat commands from their containment, bridgehead and, occasionally, isolation or investment duties in the time frame which is best suited to the progress of further operations. This is because the infantry divisions or RAPIDs would need to re-group to consolidate their gains and to “lick their wounds —in other words, recuperate after a few days of intense combat. However, the problem is not insurmountable.

Here the intention has not been to denigrate the “attrition theory”; far from it. The “attrition theory” has numerous merits and no war can be won without an unacceptable degree of attrition being imposed on the enemy. In any case, once fighting starts, the “attrition theory” becomes complementary to the “manoeuvre theory”, in fact an element in it. Put another way, the “manoeuvre theory” literally and figuratively adds a new dimension to the “attrition theory”.

Role of the holding formation

Apart from providing some nominal assistance such as the fire of a few artillery pieces for the “break-in”, intelligence and survey information, the holding defensive formations (through which the offensive is launched) are called upon to play no major role in a Strike Corps Offensive. Occasionally, of course, a diversionary attack with possibly an infantry division and elements of an independent armoured brigade, is planned. Also, a few days after the offensive gets underway, holding formations may be asked to relieve infantry divisions or RAPIDs of the Strike Corps and to take over captured areas from them. There is a lot more that holding formations can do. In fact, they can act as “force multipliers”, with their actions having a “synergetic” effect on the offensive.

The holding formations must actively preoccupy the defender (enemy) and prevent his tactical reserves from counterattacking laterally onto the “stem” of the offensive. Their aim should be to hold the defender forward and, where possible, even draw him forward so that the battle can be carried deep into the enemy’s defensive zone by own offensive with less hindrance and interference. It is a well-known maxim that two forces in battle tend to be drawn together. The holding formations must launch short, sharp, limited-aim offensives all along the front of the main offensive and to its flanks to keep the enemy frontally embroiled in battle. This pinning down or “locking forward” of the enemy is fundamental to the successful operation of the mobile force beyond operational depth.

Supporting air operations

The time has come for the nomination and earmarking of “dedicated” fighter/ground-attack (F/GA) squadrons for providing intimate air support to a Strike Corps Offensive. Archaic procedures evolved by Rommel and Montgomery during the North African Campaign, are no longer good enough to ensure the arrival of F/GA missions in the quicksilver response times demanded by the battlefields of the 1990s. In fast-flowing mobile operations, particularly in areas where the spearheads of the Strike Corps may be operating, any interval more than 15 minutes between a request for immediate air support and its execution is likely to reduce the effectiveness of a mission or to let pass a fleeting opportunity which could have been exploited. Like artillery fire, there is now an inescapable need for immediate.air support to also be “on call” so that it can be delivered in real time. Even for pre-planned air support, it is unrealistic to ask the corps staff to plan 24 hours in advance. Pre-planned air support should be available to a commander in the field at two hours notice—the usual response time for reacting to emerging situations. This degree of real-time planning can only be achieved if dedicated air support squadrons are available and corps staff do not have to look over their shoulders every time a demand comes in over the air support request net. Admittedly, with the resources available at present, this is easier said than done. But, a Strike Corps Offensive is now a three-dimensional dynamic entity and no amount of valour or tactical brilliance On the ground will succeed without matching support from the air—on target, on time.

In what is generally regarded as his most valuable single contribution to military thinking, Maj. Gen. J.F.C. “Boney” Fuller has made an important distinction between “moral” and “material” Moral surprise, he avers, means that the enemy is unaware that you are coming and material surprise means that the enemy knows that you are coming but can do nothing to stop you. In Fuller’s opinion, only moral surprise can achieve an immediate decision. Helitroops, the newest “weapon” in a commander’s armoury, can achieve both moral and material surprise. Helitroops can establish an operational airhead as a base for further mobile actions, just as airborne troops Can establish a strategic one.

The “rotary wing revolution” has radically altered tactical thinking upto operational level. One of the major reasons for this is that helicopters can use ground tactically without depending on it for mobility. An air-mechanized brigade or an air assault brigade can move dispersed and fight concentrated. The brigade can harbour in dispersed waiting areas along a lateral, take off simultaneously, fly nap-of-the-earth along dispersed routes and converge radially on its objective, completing a 150 to 250 km move, including deployment, in three to four hours time. The air assault brigade would achieve both moral and material surprise against soft targets such as airfields, bridges, second-line troops, logistics bases and headquarters in the enemy’s rear. The brigade could wreak havoc in conjunction with the spearheads of the mechanized forces. However, the astronomical cost of an air assault brigade comprising approximately 120 first-line helicopters (a balanced mix of attack helicopters, heavy lift helicopters and utility helicopters), would dampen the enthusiasm of its most ardent advocate as both the capital outlay and maintenance cost would be roughly equal to that for a light armoured division.
Force multipliers are sometimes budget multipliers too.

Logistics bloomers

There are two aspects of logistics on which conventional wisdom fails when tested in the crucible of reality. The first relates to the introduction of tracked/half-track vehicles for all logistics support to the mechanized component of the Strike Corps. The “apostles of mobility” envisage an entire mechanized force, logistics backing included, rolling freely in tactical formation over the countryside, much like a blue water fleet. This wishful thinking is fundamentally flawed. Tracked vehicles moving cross-country are far slower, have a far greater deadweight-to-pay-load ratio than road-bound vehicles, use far more fuel per ton of load carried and are liable to sustain far greater wear and tear with corresponding maintenance problems. Matching mobility in logistics vehicles simply is not cost-effective and the Strike Corps will nave to live with 3-Tons and LPTs.

It is fashionable to talk of a logistic pause for mechanized forces for 24 to 36 hours after about 72 hours of combat. The luxury of such a pause can only be enjoyed at the cost of the total loss of momentum and a corresponding reduction in the overall tempo of operations. Though the mobile spearheads would still retain “potential” momentum, like potential energy, because of their ability to move off again, the offensive would lose much of its steam and cutting edge by being brought to a grinding halt enforced by enemy action. This, of course, completes a circle by leading one to think of tracked logistics support with matching mobility. One possible answer is to switch over to heli-lifting logistics requirements.

Offensive operations of the Strike Corps are governed by complex, multi-dimensional dynamic forces. A mere concentration of material superiority at the point of decision cannot be counted upon to win battles in the face of determined defenders. Ultimate victory will hinge as much on moral and psychological ascendancy as on physical fighting power. A substantial degradation of the enemy’s command and control system and the disruption of his logistics plans, are paramount considerations for success. The outcome will often depend on the “pictures in the opposing commanders’ minds”. The skilful exploitation of the manoeuvre potential of the mechanized spearheads will, in the ultimate analysis, turn the tide of battle, provided they are employed in consonance with other arms and the Air Force to create a synergetic effect of abiding paralysis on the enemy.