Why the comparison of AirLand Battle with Blitzkrieg is flawed.

By Z.C. Vince @zcvince on Twitter

AirLand Battle was a doctrinal concept developed as part of the US army’s FM 100-5 Operations 1982in response to the Cold War and the challenges of the anticipated Central European clash between the large-scale mechanised conventional armies of the USA and her allies and the USSR and Warsaw Pact

The 1982 Field Manual was centred on Cold War operations

countries.  As such, this doctrine was relatively short lived, having replaced the post-Vietnam War ‘Active Defense’ policy in 1982 but being swiftly superseded in 1993 by a post-Cold War field manual aimed more specifically at non-conventional and low-intensity conflicts.  In contrast, Blitzkrieg was not doctrinal at least in any official sense, being a “German phenomenon based on the traditions and heritage of German military history”(Citino, 2004).  Although AirLand Battle shares common characteristics with Blitzkrieg, it must be stressed that the Blitzkrieg campaigns for example in Poland, France and the Soviet Union were essentially pre-emptive strikes against poorly prepared opponents.  In 1982 the US army was seeking an alternative to the positional and therefore highly attritional style of warfare they had prepared for in previous field manuals, a situation similar to that of the Red Army facing the Wehrmacht after the Battle of Stalingrad.  Because of this, AirLand Battle instead owes more, ironically, to the Soviet doctrinal concept of Deep Battle/Operations, with both focusing on the importance of manoeuvre, attacking in depth and immobilising the enemy.

The rapid outflanking manoeuvre style of warfare which has become

An example of Frederick the Great’s manoeuvring at Leuthen.

known as Blitzkrieg is rooted in Prusso-German military history, going as far back as Frederick the Great’s victories at Rossbach and Leuthen (Citino, 2005), through von Moltke the Elder’s demonstrations of the battle of encirclement or Kesselschlacht in 1866 and 1870, and on to von Schlieffen’s theories of strategic envelopment, culminating in the ‘Schlieffen Plan’, prior to the First World War.  Citino argues that while Blitzkrieg itself was not a formalised doctrine, it was based on three “classical doctrinal traditions”.  These were as follows: flexible doctrine of command, or Auftragstaktik (the ‘mission command’ of today); a focus on operational-level warfare, either campaigns of position or of movement; and an avoidance of Einseitigkeit or one-sidedness, resulting in a broader reliance on combined arms rather than the supremacy of one arm over the others.

AirLand Battle did share these characteristics with Blitzkrieg.  FM 100-5 Operations 1982 stated that, “electronic warfare, vulnerability of command and control facilities and mobile combat will demand initiative in subordinate commanders”.  This move away from a static, attritional style of warfare to a focus on manoeuvre and high tempo operations required a higher standard of training and leadership (Lock-Pullan, 2005) similar to von Moltke’s nineteenth century expansion of the Prussian General Staff in part to deal with independent convergent manoeuvres such as his use of concentric exterior lines before the battle of Sadowa.  In the case of AirLand Battle and modern communications technology, ‘mission-type’ orders required “unambiguous political aims to be outlined prior to engagement”, so that subordinate commanders could react with initiative whilst remaining in accordance with the standard ‘intent’ toward the enemy.  It is clear that lower-level resourcefulness was a key point to AirLand Battle, with the doctrine stating that “decentralization converts initiative into agility, allowing rapid reaction to capture fleeting opportunities”.

This more fluid style of command owed partly to the shift in focus to the operational level of war from the tactically-oriented attritional ‘Active Defense’ doctrine.  FM 100-5/1982shows great divergence from its 1976 counterpart in that instead of advocating frontal assaults aimed at the enemy’s leading formations, it favours operational manoeuvre and attacks on critical enemy units from “unexpected directions”.  The rejection of tactically focused doctrine is shown by the great emphasis on the simultaneous and rapid use of firepower and manoeuvre.  Finally, parallels with Blitzkrieg may be made with

Close air support with Stuka dive bombers was the key to Nazi combined operations.

regard to the use of combined arms.  Just as in the inter-war period Germany emphasised the role of armoured and mechanised forces to be used in conjunction with air power, AirLand Battle doctrine emphasises the role of ‘integrated battle’, comprising joint operations, combined arms and the potential usage of chemical and tactical nuclear weapons.  Acknowledging that in modern war elements of the armed forces can rarely act truly independently, AirLand Battle requires manoeuvre, synchronisation and firepower to all be integrated in pursuit of the ‘political’ aim.

The most widely known example of AirLand Battle doctrine in practice was Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  Although the Iraqis possessed conventional, mechanised forces, they were a fraction of the scale of the Soviet forces against which AirLand Battle doctrine was fundamentally aimed.  The annexation of Kuwait by Iraq presented a singular opportunity to “test […] how well the forces created and trained to fight the Third World War would have performed”.

The ‘Highway of Death’ is a popular depiction of US air superiority during Gulf War I

Badsey goes so far as to suggest that in the Gulf War, the US forces were “disregarding the small point that the enemy was actually Iraq [and not the USSR, for example]”, showing just how crucial victory was to an America ‘haunted’ by Vietnam.  The keys to victory in the Gulf War were combined and co-ordinated assaults in depth, operational manoeuvre and deception.  A large contributor to the coalition victory in the Gulf War was the air superiority enjoyed by America and her allies, Cordesman and Wagner give the ratio of 3.6:1 in aircraft in favour of the coalition.  This clear air superiority allowed a level of deception of the enemy that was invaluable to the overall campaign, as the coalition was able to move 255,000 soldiers plus vehicles up to 300 miles to the west, “one of the most complicated force deployments in history”.  What followed on ‘G-Day’ was the beginning of a double envelopment of Iraqi forces by VII and XVIII corps with close air support and attack helicopters, meeting sporadic and relatively easily overwhelmed opposition.  Air power played an important role in Desert Storm, with 1,997 air strikes carried out in direct support of the ground troops, reducing casualties and depriving any Iraqi attempts at counterattacking and representing the superiority of allied combined arms operations.

Desert Storm may be compared with Case White, the Nazi invasion of Poland, as an example of operational manoeuvre aimed at an inferior opponent.  The Wehrmacht deployed in two widely separate army groups advancing respectively from Pomerania and Silesia, and East Prussia and Slovakia, thus trapping most of the Polish army in a textbook Kesselschlacht or ‘cauldron’ battle.  Similarly to with Desert Storm, air power played a large role, the German ‘Close Battle Division’ of 160 Stuka dive-bombers facilitating the destruction of the Modlin fortification outside Warsaw and speeding up the ground advance.  The superior operational mobility of the Wehrmacht, coupled with lower-level initiative and swift, brief orders enabled the Germans to exploit advantages as well as wheeling 180 degrees “effortlessly” twice in one week and change direction as necessary.  In this direct comparison with an example of successfully applied Blitzkrieg ‘principles’, it is clear that there are similarities between Blitzkrieg and AirLand Battle, not least the use of combined arms, mission-style command systems, the supremacy of operational manoeuvre and use of technology.  In this sense, AirLand Battle was a ‘hi-tech’ version of Blitzkrieg.

Despite this, it must be remembered that AirLand Battle doctrine was created during the Cold War for the main purpose of directing the US army in large-scale conventional warfare against the Soviet Union.  Assessing whether Operation Desert Storm was an example of Blitzkrieg does not necessarily correspond to Blitzkrieg’s relationship to AirLand Battle as a doctrine.  FM 100-5/1982stated that “the US army will face an enemy who expects to sustain rapid movement during the offense and who will probably use every weapon at his disposal”.

The mighty Soviet Union was the US’ assumed opponent for AirLand Battle

Having outlined the characteristics of the Gulf War, it is clear that the Iraqi force did not fit this description, and this is why it is the US army’s attitude toward Soviet Russia that is of most importance when assessing AirLand Battle as a doctrine.

The Soviet field regulation of 1936 summarises ‘Deep Battle’ theory as follows: “tanks, artillery, aviation, and mechanized units in large scale use provide the option of simultaneously attacking the entire depth of the enemy battle formation with the objective isolating, encircling, and destroying the enemy”.  As a direct comparison, FM 100-5/1982 states that, “the AirLand Battle will be dominated by the force that retains the initiative and, with deep attack and decisive maneuver, destroys its opponent’s abilities to fight and to organize in depth”.  The similarities between the two are clearly evident, both focusing on the role of operational art, the use of combined, mechanised arms and perhaps most importantly the ‘deep’ attack.  The Soviet emphasis on the operational level of war emerged in response to the failures during the First World War and focused on the need for consecutive series of operations in order to prevent losing the initiative and provoking an enemy counterattack.  In addition, the realisation that echeloned attacks were required in order to exploit any breakthroughs in the enemy line resulted in the formation of operational-manoeuvre groups whose task was to carry out such exploitation and carry the attack throughout the operational depth of the opposition (Kagan, 1997).  Eventual Soviet application of these theories to operations on the Eastern Front in 1944-45 earned the USSR successes and a reputation for operational excellence which the Americans sought to emulate in the 1980s.

The four key tenets of AirLand Battle were Initiative, Depth, Agility and Synchronisation.  Depth, of course, is central to Deep Battle theory; agility and initiative too were pivotal to the fourth stage of Deep Battle: Exploitation.  Synchronisation, the use of combined arms and the planning of consecutive staggered operations, is characteristic of both the Red Army in 1944 and the coalition forces in the Gulf War.  One particular area in which AirLand Battle built upon its Soviet counterpart was in the area of mission-style command.  Although initiative was encouraged in the Red Army, it was made clear in PU-36 that superior officers had to be consulted before action.  In this respect at least, the Prusso-German tradition of Auftragstaktik triumphed over Soviet methodology.

To conclude, AirLand Battle was a product of its time, a direct response to the Soviet threat of conventional warfare on a hitherto unseen scale.  The doctrine which was developed in 1982 “owed a huge debt to the Soviets” and there are clear parallels to be seen with regard to the use of combined arms, operational manoeuvre, attacking in depth, and exploiting breakthroughs.  Blitzkrieg in contrast was an opportunistically applied operational method which saw success in Poland, France and the early stages of Barbarossa, but which ultimately failed to comprehensively destroy Germany’s opponents in depth, something which Deep Battle, and subsequently AirLand Battle, focused heavily on.

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