Monday, March 25, 2019

The Empty Battlefield

Yes, battlefields will get emptier as troops disperse to avoid and reduce the effects of massed precision artillery fire guided by persistent surveillance systems. But that doesn't mean there won't be a front line. But how do troops endure the isolation they will feel on the empty battlefield?

Robert Scales asks the Army to pay attention to the small unit forces and their tactics as the multi-domain operations theory gets rolling in Army circles:

The battlefield is a lonely place and will only become more emotionally terrifying as it continues to empty. Twitter and Facebook keep people connected virtually. Similarly, a post-adolescent soldier could be able to connect with his buddies, leaders and the outside world by carrying Twitter-like communication technologies on to the battlefield. Such a network would share information up as well as sideways. Commanders connected to the soldier network would be able to keep track of their physiological and emotional condition by monitoring such data as pulse, breathing patterns, galvanic skin response, and brain wave activity.

This is a natural progression in lower density on the battlefield as the range and accuracy of weapons available to small units (both organic direct fire and indirect fire from outside sources) has increased.

From my 2002 article in Military Review on the Future Combat System (pages 28-33), I addressed this issue:

A two-man crew is a goal.6 Crew maintenance and logistics should be minimized to avoid overwhelming the small crew with nonfighting duties. Even combat endurance will be difficult for a small crew. Automatic self defense is needed to protect a sleeping crew or one that is otherwise incapable of fighting.

I also covered the infantry:

A variant carrying three or four infantry soldiers is necessary. The infantry version should have an autocannon and allow the troops to fight mounted. The squad is small for dismounted fighting, but the Bradley already put U.S. infantry on the road to smaller squads. Compensating for reduced numbers, Land Warrior project-derived systems will digitize even walking infantry. Individual soldiers will be lethal, in constant  communication, and exploit realtime intelligence. Each soldier will have more survivability than current equipment allows. Infantry soldiers may even look forward to personal electronic shields that disarm incoming rounds by disabling their proximity fuses. Dismounts may fight with flying or crawling robots that will see and kill for the soldiers. Small numbers compensated by greater lethality at longer ranges will, however, make such hyperinfantry less appropriate for peace operations where restraint and face-to-face policing are necessary. Situational awareness and long-range personal firepower will be largely useless when soldiers patrol streets that allow civilians to approachwithin arm’s length. Low-tech knives can kill even hypersoldiers under such circumstances.

And I covered the ability to wield indirect fires from distant or close fires units, rotary and fixed wing aircraft, (or even ships, in theory):

Communications will allow the FCS to direct distant firepower if it does not use its own cannon. An FCS will identify a target, and the appropriate missile module, helicopter, aircraft, or artillery asset will destroy the target. The source of the warhead will not matter.

But the ability to wield such firepower will be matched by enemies, which will force our troops to disperse even more. That's a problem.

And then there is the problem of  carrying out COIN (or peace operations as I noted) which will contrast even more with conventional combat than it does now.

Will today's enlistment cohort with their reliance on nearly virtual friends who make physically gathering with friends less important be better able to cope with this physical isolation better than pre-smart phone soldiers?

Compared with their predecessors, teens today spend less time with their friends in person and more time communicating electronically, which study after study has found is associated with mental health issues.

This is a serious problem for our young people in the civilian world for mental health. But is it a factor that will help soldiers survive on an empty battlefield?

Once the herding instincts of people made lining up in actual or near contact the norm for sustaining morale and fighting effectively, whether in phalanxes, legions, or musket-armed 2- or 3-rank lines.

I tried to evoke that isolation and exposure by comparing it to the nightmare of leaving a trench in World War I to enter no-man's land swept by fire in an entry for an Army science fiction contest (I lost, but reproduce it here):

HOOAH noted Washington’s response, which correlated with positive morale in past actions. The judgment was supported by physical indicators of heart rate and oxygen consumption, among other vital signs monitored by the MESLAS Net-Medicine suite. ...

Washington heard the alert from the track commander as A-10 slowed to a halt: “I’m popping the rear door seals and initiating positive over-pressure.” Richmond always sounded like he was speaking from another world forward in the crew compartment. With his retro moustache and odd obsession with old board games like Catan, he was kind of alien-like, really! Funny what you thought about before going “over the top.” Sitting in the rear compartment within your MESLAS was an isolated place. Dismounting was worse. And it would remain that way until the mission was over and everyone was back at headquarters.

I asked our ground forces, in this USNI Blog post, to enable our small infantry units to fight with more skill because even if you discount all the long-range indirect fire small units can direct, the infantry weapons themselves are getting so much better that the weapons themselves will be accurate without extensive training--an edge we have counted on in recent decades.

The battlefield will be a lonely place. Our soldiers will need to survive and fight in that alien technology-rich lethal environment to win.

UPDATE: Oh, and I forgot the issue of the linear battlefield. I honestly don't think that the frontlines of conventional warfare will disappear with new technology. I read that occasionally. I don't get it.

As I started out, we are witnessing a natural progression of thinning out the battlefield. Yes, future frontlines will have fewer troops per mile but the gaps in troops will be filled with firepower making it no less a frontline than the past when you had to have continuous lines of troops in trenches. Then there were platoon strongpoints with gaps covered my longer range machine guns and mortars--and eventually accurate and timely indirect artillery.

So I feel confident in saying that a future empty battlefield will still have frontlines.