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Distributed Maneuver Beats Hybrid Enemies

In our ongoing discussions of hybrid war and how to counter a hybrid enemy, we’ve examined some of the evolving doctrinal concepts, such as the Marine Corps “distributed operations” concept. It envisions large numbers of small units using cover, either urban or complex terrain, to infiltrate the enemy’s defenses and then call in precision fire to destroy the enemy’s strongpoints.

An interesting paper, “Distributed Maneuver: 21st Century Offensive Tactics,” by Australian military thinkers, Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan, questions whether the Marine’s tactics would work against an opponent as robust as Hezbollah, the hybrid enemy archetype. They agree with the distributed operations idea that says forces must operate in smaller units, as the lethal combination of far-seeing sensors with precision weapons means that survival demands forces operate in groups sized below the “detection threshold.”

This evolution in lethality is not necessarily new, the authors say. What is new, and what Hezbollah demonstrated in 2006, is that the increased lethality of "portable weapons" available to these small groups enables them to generate a striking power as potent as that of massed forces in an earlier age.

The strength of well equipped small groups defending prepared terrain was amply demonstrated by Hezbollah: “In the thirty-four days of the July War, Hezbollah, with probably less than 3,000 fighters directly engaged, was able to avoid the consequences of six years of intensive scrutiny by Israeli intelligence, absorb the impact of over 9,000 sorties by Israeli attack aircraft, and exploit low-density urban terrain to substantially defeat an assault by three Israeli divisions,” the authors write.

The challenge is to restore offensive striking power in the face of Hezbollah like “distributed defenses.” One of the biggest obstacles is first locating small groups of hidden defenders in complex and urban terrain, the concealed defender invariably shoots first. “A thoughtful defender will not be postured to be destroyed by long-range fires and will need to be rooted-out, hunted-down and destroyed.”

One alternative is what they call the “M-1 suck it and see” approach: basically driving a heavy tank along and hoping the thick steel armor survives the enemy’s first shot. The advantage to such an approach is its fast. The downside is that the lethality of today’s portable anti-armor weapons means the tank probably won’t survive that first shot.

The “Distributed Maneuver” approach favored by the paper’s authors would recreate the skirmishers of old, small teams that act as sensing probes. Their job is to “unmask” the enemy’s defenses by prompting the defender to fire, thus creating a “signature” that can be targeted by sensors and precision fire. The swarm of skirmishers allows the attacker to pursue a “limited liability” approach without becoming decisively engaged.

The main combat power is held in the second echelon, still organized in small units, but much stronger than the skirmishers. This is the main point where they differ with the emerging Marince concept. Leveraging the power of the network and the ability to call in precision fire, the small units in the second echelon pounce on the unmasked defenders. The concept places a primacy on a very rapid decision cycle and the ready availability of indirect fire; a “reservoir of fire assets” must be made available on which the small teams can draw when needed.

“Once initial contact is made, high combat activity—distributed across many empowered small teams, with continuous pressure from higher command echelons and rapid decision-making—promise to transfer the cognitive burden to the defender, thereby progressively crippling the ability of the defense for timely adaptation. This creates a form of maneuver better suited to complex terrain; less prone to a single fatal error as it steps into the unknown; and more broadly applicable to a range of missions, from stabilization through to combat against a technologically dominant nation-state."
Distributed Maneuver seeks to “initiate and fight close combat on our own terms,” against a Hezbollah like opponent, even if defending from prepared terrain, the authors write. “Against a technological peer, Distributed Maneuver is the only type of maneuver that is possible; against an irregular enemy, it is the only type of maneuver that will work.”

It sounds promising. Of course feel free to sound off in the comments with your own take.

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