Too Little Tactical Technique

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

H.J. Poole suggests that our Marines use too little tactical technique:

Asian infantrymen secretly cross battlefields, need supporting arms only as a deception, and exfiltrate any encirclement. Did not 10 Chinese divisions reach the Chosin Reservoir undetected in 1950, and an NVA division exfiltrate the Hue City Citadel in 1968? That takes troops with both conventional- and unconventional-warfare skills. Through hit and run, they engage 10 times their number. Their training involves collective thinking and field experimentation. Their days are spent in battledrill competition and free play.

Meanwhile, U.S. infantrymen seek a 3 to 1 edge. Their “Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs)” are canned, what their organization has theoretically learned about short-range combat, and what the new lieutenant expects his platoon to already know.

U.S. shooting procedures are excellent. Only missing are ways to exercise discreet force at close range. American movement methods are less comprehensive. Those for walking point, stalking, tracking, and short-range infiltration are virtually nonexistent. Microterrain appreciation, night familiarity, and movement obscurity are not abilities to which high-tech, motorized “heavy infantry” aspire. Their backup communication means could usefully be silent and devoid of motion signature.

In the U.S. assault, all elements move forward on line firing their weapons at maximum sustained rate. For the squad and center fire team, the “guide” is toward the center. For the flank fire teams, the guide is toward the side closest to the center. Individual riflemen maintain some spacing, remain upright, and elevate their weapons. While none of these procedures seem worthy of rehearsal, several are. Infantrymen who do not regularly pick lanes while moving forward converge toward the center and commit fratricide. Those who do not practice in vegetation can’t guide toward center or flank.

The problem is how U.S. troops are trained. From the time they memorize their general orders, they “live and die” by the book. Whether the book is well written is not at issue. They (and their instructors) believe it to be their doctrinal edict. Most tactics manuals were never intended to be strictly followed. They contain guidelines to be situationally adapted. As control over enlisted training is centralized, this “live-by-the-book” syndrome is exacerbated. The cost is initiative.

To generate enough initiative to practice maneuver warfare, Eastern armies decentralize control. They have more “basics.” Our triad of “shoot,” “move,” and “communicate” is only sufficient for attrition warfare. Their list includes “sensory awareness,” “passive defense,” and “individual deception.” Their nonrates have procedures with which to better do the following: (1) see, hear, smell, taste, and feel; (2) take cover, hide, and escape; and (3) deceive an adversary. They enhance peripheral vision through defocusing on a finger. They crawl, dig spider holes, and double back on their own tracks. Some mimic a cat after disturbing a can.

To surprise a defender, Asians use “stormtrooper” technique. In 1918, the Germans blew their bangalore (during precision artillery) and assaulted (with bayonets and concussion grenades) when the artillery shifted. The NVA followed 82mm mortars with satchel charges, and 61mm mortars with thin-skinned “potato mashers.” If the nine-man NVA squad got through the wire undetected, it stayed in column with RPG man in the lead. He could shoot (and his companions drop fragmentation grenades into bunker apertures) without compromising the indirect-fire deception. If the squad was fired upon, its riflemen could shoot to the side and downward without endangering each other or sister squads. Where it met light resistance coming through the wire, the first of its three-man “cells” deployed on line inside the breach.8 When the whole squad assaulted on line, the light machinegunner carried his RPD by the handle, and AK-47 men fired in the semi-automatic mode. Everyone maintained yards of interval, trotted, and shot from the waist or “combat-glide” stance. Unlike the Marine assault, each composite technique had surprise as its goal.

For every category of enemy encounter, U.S. infantrymen can no longer reenact the single, outdated, and predictable procedure in their manuals. They must display initiative while running the most situationally consistent of several locally developed, updated, and practiced “tactical techniques.” For an American rifle company to hold its own at short range against an Eastern counterpart, its training of the squad and below must be experimentally driven from the bottom up instead of doctrinally driven from the top down. Each company’s NCOs must be allowed to collectively identify and fix their own deficiencies. Their techniques will improve as long as the simulated casualties and surprise indicators (speed, stealth, deception) are statistically tracked.

Marines are taught to instantly assault any ambush less than 50 yards away. Unless the threat is within feet, Eastern soldiers drop to the ground and crawl away.

An internet circle carried a piece about Fallujah. Purportedly written by a Sgt., Cpl., and two L.Cpls., it proposed: (1) breaking every serious contact to permit supporting arms, (2) frontally assaulting buildings from the bottom up to facilitate casualty removal, and (3) staying in a tight “stack.” The Marines’ accomplishments are noteworthy, and their lessons refreshing, but the state of the art in urban assault remains the “blooming lotus,” or inside-out approach. It was applied to cities in Hue and Saigon, and to a building in the Peruvian hostage rescue. It favors the traditional “top-down” assault in which dispersion is allowed and withdrawal discouraged.

To fully realize the significance of tactical technique, one must go back to his days as a hunter, Basic School student, or football player. What Marines lack is surprise-oriented individual and small-unit movement memory. Their “IA” drills unnecessarily expose them and telegraph intentions. So, instead of reacting instinctively, they must stop to confer and do the unrehearsed. The foe is now ready, and the Marines get their feet (and assignments) tangled up.

A better way to train enlisted Marines has been substantiated by several battalions. It requires each company’s NCOs to collectively arrive at three ways to handle each category of combat situation, and to all practice them. When the enemy appears, every squad element has three tactical options instead of the predictable standard. One must only have 20 or more NCOs, get three-fourths to agree, and test their solution against “three-second sight pictures.” Squad PT provides rehearsal. With rubber rifles, troops run Indian file until a “battledrill” is directed. As the terrain and drills vary, the squad becomes more accomplished.


  1. Borepatch says:

    Very interesting.

  2. X-Ray says:

    I cannot critique present practice but feel compelled to mention that back in the day, Marines not only practiced but performed in much the manner as Poole suggests. But for typing on a tablet I would take issue with Poole’s example of ambush techniques. There are good sound tactical reasons for Marine response to such.

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    I was never a Marine, so I can’t say, but the Marines record of winning engagements is pretty good. Poole is making kind of a “the operation was a failure, but the patient lived, and got better” argument. I have no doubt that there is plenty that we could learn from the Asian way of war, but results count as well.

  4. Mysterian says:

    “…and withdrawal discouraged.”

    Legacy of Grant.

  5. After reading Poole’s Phantom Soldier I took my son to a future event sponsored by Wired. The Army’s Natick labs had an exhibit about the connected battlefield. I asked what the point was and the guy running it said, well, we might have to reassign command. Centralization down to squad level.

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