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September 06, 2010


Phil Ridderhof

I think that House’s book is good, but is really worthwhile if considered in tandem with Robert Leonhard’s “Principles of War for the Information Age” (1998), which provides a good theoretical construct for “combined arms” beyond the usual association with artillery, armor, infantry, etc. I’ll indulge myself of the opportunity to paste in an excerpt of a paper on combined arms that I wrote back in early 2004. I think that that the applicability of the concept encompasses both “conventional” and “COIN” operations. To strictly tie it to weapons and tactics developed in the 20th century is to needlessly restrict its utility. Having a greater appreciation of the concept allows it to be more broadly applied. In loking at COIN, the "combined arms" being joined are those line sof operation such as economic actions, security actions, and political actions, etc. The characteristics of the actions may differ, but a combined arms mentality towards integrating them remains constant.

(this paper was written for a US Marine audience)

“ Definitions and Framework. There is no joint definition for the term combined arms. MCDP 1 Warfighting defines it as “The full integration of combat arms in such a way that to counteract one, the enemy must become more vulnerable to another. We accomplish combined arms through the tactics and techniques we use at the lower levels and through task organization at higher levels.” Thus combined arms is both a function of both action (tactics) and organization. Combined arms success may come via physical destruction of the enemy, but more likely by causing his system to fail. If he is repeatedly subjected to multiple and diverse attacks that he cannot defend himself against, the moral and mental elements of his combat power will erode as fast, if not faster, than the physical components. While the doctrinal definitions are helpful in illuminating the concept of combined arms, they do not have the depth to truly examine what makes combined arms and why combined arms is an effective operating concept.

Two military writers provide much of the insight necessary to further understand combined arms. In his book, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (2001), Jonathan House explains that while the make up and application of combined arms has had different meanings and implications, there are three related elements in all references to the term. The first element is the combined arms concept: “…the basic idea that different arms and weapons systems must be used in concert to maximize survival and combat effectiveness of the others…Exactly which arms and weapons are included in this concept varies greatly between national armies and over time.” The second element is the combined arms organization: “…the command and communications structure that brings the different weapons together for combat. This may include both permanent, peacetime organizations and ad hoc or ‘task-organized’ combinations of the different elements in wartime.” The third element is combined arms tactics and techniques: “…the actual roles performed and techniques applied by these different arms and weapons in supporting one another in battle.” House’s construct provides a point of departure for looking at combined arms. A closer look at his elements reveals that the first, the combined arms concept, is actually built from the other two elements, combined arms organization and combined arms tactics and techniques.

The second writer with relevance to this discussion is Robert Leonhard. In both The Art of Maneuver (1991) and The Principles of War for the Information Age (1998), Leonhard introduces the terms the “paradox of lethality” and the “attack profile.” In essence, a weapons system does two things: it kills and it forces enemy reactions. The “Paradox of Lethality” is the phenomenon that, when viewed in isolation, as any system becomes more lethal, enemy reactions decrease its effectiveness; it does not produce more kills. That enemy reaction, however, can serve to increase the enemy’s exposure to other weapons systems, especially as the enemy’s reaction becomes more extreme. An “attack profile” is a broad description of how a weapon works on the battlefield and how effective it is. For example, a 120mm tank gun and a 120mm mortar have different attack profiles. The importance of the attack profile is that it largely drives the nature of the enemy’s reaction to that weapon. Leonhard argues that the real measure of any weapons system (or combined arms component) is not its individual attack profile, but the interrelationship of the reactions it causes with those of other weapons systems—its role in a combined arms system.

The physical building blocks of combined arms capability are the differing arms and/or weapons systems. The concept of combined arms seeks to use these components, not necessarily to achieve their individual maximum effectiveness, but rather to employ them in combinations to achieve the (situationally dependent) optimal individual effectiveness—for maximum effectiveness of the combined arms force as a whole. More specifically, the optimal individual performance of any component is primarily defined by how well it creates vulnerabilities in the enemy to other systems. For a combined arms force, the prime consideration for fielding a weapons system, or developing a capability must be how they interact with the other components of the force, not their individual characteristics.

Combined Arms and Relative Combat Power. An effective combined arms concept contributes to combat power. The combined arms organization provides the physical building blocks of multiple weapons systems with differing attack profiles. To a great degree, the attack profiles can objectively measured: ranges, physical effects, movement rates, and logistics requirements. Measurement of combined arms tactics and techniques on the other hand, is a very subjective exercise. Tactics and techniques have to do with the relationship of enemy reactions to the different attack profiles—not the simple sum total of their individual physical effects. For example, in an attack on an entrenched enemy position, understanding the movement rate, range, accuracy, and lethality of a mortar, a machine gun, and a maneuvering rifle squad does not provide the information necessary to predict the battlefield effects of those three elements being used in a competent combined arms attack. The mortar and the machine gun may have the greatest killing power, but if their role is to keep the enemy pinned down for the squad to close and engage in close combat, then the actual “kills” produced by the mortar and machine gun may be less than that of the squad’s rifles. To complicate matters, if one of these elements, such as the mortar, is placed in a different tactical situation, working with a different set of weapons systems, then its role and ultimate effect in the combined arms attack would be also be different. In calculating relative combat power, the subjective measure of combined arms tactics and techniques modifies the actual objective measures of contained in a combined arms organization.

In terms of relative combat power models or simulations, the physical components of combat power, numbers of tanks, aircraft, etc., can easily be added and compared to that of the enemy. However, if a combined arms concept is applied to the calculation, then the numbers and individual characteristics of the weapons systems matter less then the diversity of systems in the organization and combined arms tactics and techniques with which they are employed. A unit consisting of a tank platoon, an infantry platoon and a mortar section potentially has a higher average of real relative combat power over a broader range of tactical situations than a tank pure unit of three platoons. A simple comparison of firepower and mobility would not necessarily come up with this result. While there are situational exceptions, in general, because the combined arms organization has a greater capability of placing the enemy in some form of tactical dilemma gives it an advantage in combat power over a single arm organization with greater firepower and mobility.

Historical Trends in Combined Arms. The historical trend of military operations has been to create combined arms organizations at lower and lower tactical levels. The modern rifle squad, with its mix of light machine guns, rifles and grenade launchers, has a combined arms capability. Tanks and infantry are routinely combined into integrated company formations. A key characteristic of the combined arms organization of these units is that the different components are controlled under the aegis of a single commander. This control has not always meant that the commander commands all the components as part of his organic unit. Especially in the case of long-range and indirect fire weapons such as artillery or aviation, a tactical combined arms organization is created through the assignment of missions such as direct support or the allocation of sorties. Regardless of the command relationships, however, there is a single commander whose mission is the focal point for planning and conducting the situational application of the combined arms—focusing and defining the combined arms tactics and techniques.

Another, more recent, trend in military operations is the greater physical separation of the components of combined arms organizations. This dispersion is enabled by greater weapons ranges and communications capabilities. Dispersion is also required because of increasing weapons lethality. The balance within these organizations is moving away from massed ground formations with robust organic combined arms capability (artillery, tanks, etc.) to that of light, small ground forces, and highly lethal and responsive long-range precision fires. These organizations seek to accomplish the historical aim of combined arms, that of placing the enemy in a dilemma and dislocating his forces, in a more strategically responsive, operationally rapid and tactically effective manner. In its ideal form, dispersed and networked organizations offer the advantages of combined arms at the lowest level without the disadvantages of inflexible permanent organizations and the logistics burden of large ground forces. These new combined arms organizations are generating new combined arms tactics and techniques—thus they represent a new combined arms concept.

For this combined arms concept to succeed, however, it must ensure that the shift in emphasis does swing so heavily to a single category of attack profiles—precision long-range fires—at the expense of other components such as direct fire weapons, “shock” weapons (a historical strength of the tank), or survivable close combat capable infantry formations. To slip too far down this path would be, in effect, to move from a combined arms concept to a single arm concept: highly dependent on the actual killing power of the weapons systems and unable to take advantage of the enemy’s (increasingly effective) reaction to the fires.

The other danger of this trend is that even if the ground elements retain a robust organic combined arms capability, the advances of long-range precision weaponry, and its placement at higher levels of command (such as the JFACC) creates a propensity at the higher levels, for fighting multiple single-arm battles rather than a combined arms battle. In On Artillery (1993) Bruce Gudmundsson calls this phenomenon the “great divorce.” Leonhard, in his article “Classical Fire Support vs. Parallel Fires” (Army April 2001) identifies it in the competition between priority of fires to a supported maneuver unit and high payoff target lists in current U.S. artillery doctrine.

Unless tied by strong elements of cooperation—common understanding of the mission and established working relationships—operators of any one component will strive for the absolute maximum effectiveness of their own system. This may result in added destructive effect, but it is contrary to combined arms approach that seeks to optimize (not maximize) effectiveness in relationship to other weapons systems."


Phil, that's a really interesting analysis. I have read Leonhard's book, but it has been a very long time and I need a refresher. If you can, could you send me an email with your paper attached? Would love to read it in full. My email address is on the "About" page.

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