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Combined Arms Warfare As the Key to Success On the Contemporary Battlefield?

Abstract: Combined Arms Warfare (CAW) is the extensive cooperation between different weapons systems and arms on land, supported by assets operating from the seas and in the sky. Modern CAW has its origins in the First World War. Since then, armed conflicts and wars have shown how difficult it is for elements of the land force systems to work together on the battlefield. We can see this today in Ukraine, where the Russian Armed Forces have failed to implement CAW. At the same time, the last century has shown that a properly applied CAW often leads to success on the battlefield. Therefore, this text emphasises the importance of CAW within any officer’s training program, not only in the field of military history but also applied to leadership and critical thinking.


Problem statement: Why does CAW remain a key concept in warfare, and what does this mean for the professional training of (future) officers?


Bottom-line-up-front: Every future officer must know what CAW is, how the First and Second World Wars have shaped the concept and why it remains crucial, as the conflict in Ukraine in 2022 illustrates. Moreover, leaders of tomorrow must understand that this kind of warfare requires particular skills from junior and senior officers.


So what?: CAW is crucial for success on the battlefield. It must be part of the DNA of the armed forces. That DNA is being shaped early on by teaching the importance of CAW during the academic training of officer cadets. These cadets must also understand that their tactical leadership style will need to find a good balance between centralisation and decentralisation to be able to apply mission command, which is an essential enabler for effective CAW.


Combined Arms Warfare As the Key to Success On the Contemporary Battlefield
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Combined Arms Team
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A Poor Performance in Combined Arms Warfare


The poor performance of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine shows once again that high-intensity land operations are incredibly complex undertakings. In the first weeks of the war, social media were awash with spectacular footage of exploding Russian tanks and armoured vehicles, often after being hit by anti-tank missiles such as the Javelin or NLAW. Instead of seeing this as the final bankruptcy of tanks[1], this text argues that a partial solution to the Russian tactical problems can be found in the proper implementation of CAW, being “the synchronised and simultaneous application of arms to achieve an effect greater than if each element was used separately or sequentially”.[2] CAW has proved crucial in many wars and conflicts, both in classic operations—such as in Ukraine—and special operations, counter-insurgency, asymmetric warfare or low-intensity conflicts.[3] Electronic Warfare and synchronisation with the Combat Service Support—manning, arming, fixing, fueling, moving, and sustaining—are integral to it.[4] CAW is often a joint event—joint being an “Adjective used to describe activities, operations and organisations in which elements of at least two services participate.”[5] because it involves, more often than not, elements of air and/or navy forces who then generate effects to support the land forces.[6]


CAW is the synchronised and simultaneous application of arms to achieve an effect greater than if each element was used separately or sequentially.

The importance of CAW for today’s armies cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, in Ukraine (2022), especially in the campaign's first phase, Russian Land Forces failed to synchronise their weapon systems on the battlefield. Analysts have come up with some provisional explanations for this failure, even if the conflict is still very recent and thus hard to evaluate: political decisions about the timing and battle plan of the invasion, lack of warning and preparation, logistical problems and a shortage of manpower.[7] Even in the second phase of the invasion, in the Donbas region, the Russian interpretation of CAW has been relatively straightforward: “Russia’s approach to CAW was generally to hammer Ukrainian positions with artillery and other stand-off weapons and then to send armoured vehicles forward on a manoeuvre termed “reconnaissance to contact”, designed to overwhelm what remained of Ukrainian defensive lines”.[8]

History as a Source of Inspiration[9]


CAW has a long and fascinating history.[10] Although it’s a part of warfare since warfare exists, most military historians see the First World War as a turning point and a major change that laid the foundations for contemporary CAW, as Jonathan Bailey confirms with his definition of what he calls modern warfare: “the advent of three-dimensional conflict through artillery indirect fire as the foundation of planning at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war”.[11] Throughout the 20th century, armies constantly had to adapt to the harsh realities of the battlefield, a highly competitive environment in which attack and defence continuously tried to outdo each other with new weapons and tactics. During the First World War, the armies on the Western Front developed a basic concept for CAW for four years, as Jonathan Bailey points out. This process was complicated, but by 1918 all sides on the Western Front could break through enemy positions thanks to a CAW built around the infantry on foot.[12] The infantry had experienced real empowerment since 1914 with the generalisation of portable automatic firearms, hand and rifle grenades, light mortars, and even infantry cannons and flamethrowers. The infantry's mastery of tactical processes such as fire-and-movement or infiltration tactics allowed for a high level of performance. The artillery, now equipped with sufficient light and heavy guns, howitzers and mortars, with its effective rolling barrages, forced enemy soldiers to take cover as its own troops approached the enemy’s positions, the engineers who cleared obstacles such as barbed wire and helped consolidate captured positions, the tanks, a wartime innovation of 1916, that attracted enemy fire and confronted enemy positions head-on, and the close air support planes, all assisted the infantry.[13] The infantry dictated the pace of operations, and the supporting arms adapted accordingly. CAW enabled the Allies on the Western Front to systematically break through the German lines in late 1918 using a bite and hold tactic: a breakthrough (bite) of 5 to 20 km in depth was always followed by a period of consolidation (hold). A few days or weeks later, a new bite would follow.[14]


Throughout the 20th century, armies constantly had to adapt to the harsh realities of the battlefield, a highly competitive environment in which attack and defence continuously tried to outdo each other with new weapons and tactics.

Breaking through the enemy lines and immediately exploiting the gap by sending mobile forces tens of kilometres deep into enemy lines, taking advantage of the confusion and disarray, disrupting lines of communication, and attacking headquarters and logistical infrastructure, which turned out to be impossible in 1918. One of the main reasons for this was the poor technical performance of many tanks, which too often experienced breakdowns.


Another important reason was the lack of motorised logistical transport that could follow the pace of the attacking infantry forces on foot. These shortcomings were largely eliminated during the Interwar period. In May 1940, the Germans stunned the world (and to a certain extent themselves) with a spectacular campaign against the Western powers through the Ardennes based on a new version of CAW. This time the Germans built their spearheads around the tank (instead of the infantry), which were brought together in groups of two to five armoured divisions. Dive-bombers gave fire support as flying artillery. Infantry, engineer, and artillery support was provided to these armoured spearheads, but soon after crossing the Meuse River on 13 May, they fell behind because they could not keep up with the Panzers' fast pace. In nine days, the Germans covered nearly 400 kilometres from the Western German borders to the Somme Estuary at Abbeville against a multinational force of French, British, Belgian, and Dutch units. However, the Germans also realised that their exploit in May 1940 was partly the result of a good dose of luck: the spectacular German success could have easily been turned into a tremendous failure if the Allied forces had quicker understood the German battle plan and had bombed the massive traffic congestions in the Ardennes; if French or British counterattacking orders hadn’t been delayed for several hours due to slow transmission chains and a very centralised command; if the German field commanders hadn’t disobeyed some earlier orders to halt their advance and instead kept pushing to the Meuse river; or if some bridging elements at Sedan had broken down (there were no spares available).[15]

Thus, German CAW became more balanced after that first year of the war, emphasising the critical role of infantry and artillery and the ubiquitous tanks instead of privileging only the tank. This was later reinforced by the emergence of increasingly better and more numerous anti-tank weapons (cannons, tank destroyers, and anti-tank rocket launchers such as the Bazooka or the Panzerfaust), making tanks more vulnerable.[16]


This more balanced CAW, looking for a flexible and balanced use of infantry, tanks and artillery, was never fundamentally challenged after 1945, despite the appearance of new weapon systems such as armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, helicopters, anti-tank missiles, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, precision-guided munitions or drones. In South Vietnam, a war primarily associated with infantry patrols and helicopters, CAW gave the best chance for success, at least for the Australian units serving in the country. A study of the use of these units in engagements with prepared Vietcong defensive (bunker) positions found that Australian ripostes carried out by infantry, supported by tanks and artillery and with possible air support, were by far the most successful and limited their losses, despite the jungle environment and the often very short distances over which the fighting took place. The researchers were clear: The combination of infantry, armour (particularly heavy armour), air strike and artillery was a potent and flexible instrument. Moreover, it was an instrument that rarely failed to seize its objectives with a success rate of 95 per cent”.[17] The Israelis also demonstrated how vital CAW is for military success in the various wars and conflicts in which they were involved. However, they failed a few times in CAW and were punished each time. After the stunning Israeli victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, for example, the Israelis neglected their CAW doctrine, convinced that a combination of tanks alone (without supporting infantry, engineers or artillery) supported by planes would do the next job, as they had shown with their spectacular successes during this Six-Day War in the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.[18] Six years later, however, during the Yom Kippur War, Israeli tanks, unprotected by artillery or infantry, initially fared poorly against Soviet-made Egyptian anti-tank missiles and RPGs.[19] Yet, the Israelis adapted and recovered, and in doing so, dealt the Egyptians and Syrians a heavy blow. Of course, the Israelis were aided by the Egyptian decision to continue attacking beyond their initial objectives. However, we must acknowledge that the Israelis had seen the error of their ways and adapted their CAW approach accordingly; Barno and Bensahel note that “Less than a week into the war, Israeli commanders decided to restore their combined-arms doctrine, and began to quickly reorganise their armoured units into such formations. Mechanised infantry, engineers, and self-propelled artillery were integrated into formerly all-tank formations before the next series of IDF offensive operations began”.[20]


The combination of infantry, armour (particularly heavy armour), air strike and artillery was a potent and flexible instrument. Moreover, it was an instrument that rarely failed to seize its objectives with a success rate of 95 per cent”.

We can also ask ourselves whether Western armies today are not falling into the same trap by fixating on air power and special forces as the ready-made solution to every military challenge. The battles in Afghanistan after 9/11 were a first reality check in that respect: “As a result, advanced armies are busy revalidating the art of combined arms warfare”.[21]

The Russians rediscovered the importance of CAW during the conflict in Chechnya. In the First Chechen War (1994-1996), the Chechens successfully assembled teams of three or four fighters, consisting of an RPG gunner, a machine gunner, and a sniper, who circled the Russian formations in the capital Grozny like wolf packs. They inflicted 800 losses on the Russian Maykop Brigade on 1 January 1995, taking out 102 of 120 BMPs and 20 of 26 tanks.[22] The Russians adapted, however, and in the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), they used “troika fire teams” with a sniper, a machine gunner and a grenade launcher, supported by two supply men, to protect their armoured vehicles.[23] After the First Chechen War, the Russians had learned their lesson: “Despite some problems, the Russian armed forces [in the Second Chechen War] showed proficiency in combined arms operations.[24] A Russian infantry company commander would often be given an artillery or mortar battery under his direct command.[25] This is also a trend since the Second World War: combined arms units are increasingly found at the lower echelon. During the Second World War, an American platoon of tank destroyers consisted not only of tank destroyers but also of an infantry section for close protection and an anti-aircraft section, quite a challenge for a platoon commander.[26] The Russian BTGs are also a good illustration of that, just like the current Franco-Belgian land forces collaboration (CaMo – Capacité Motorisé) with the development of the company-level modular unit, SGTIA-S (sous-groupement tactique interarmes – scorpion), composed of all necessary weapons systems necessary to fulfil its mission from different arms (branches) and even services/forces (e.g., air assets).[27] CAW is, therefore, increasingly a matter of junior leaders.


The Russians rediscovered the importance of CAW during the conflict in Chechnya. In the First Chechen War (1994-1996), the Chechens successfully assembled teams of three or four fighters, consisting of an RPG gunner, a machine gunner, and a sniper, who circled the Russian formations in the capital Grozny like wolf packs.

Finally, the US also rediscovered the value of CAW teams in urban combat with, for example, the so-called “Thunder Runs” during Iraqi Freedom in 2003: tanks turned out to be worth their weight in gold in urban environments (Najaf, Baghdad), provided that they were used judiciously in combination with light infantry, and provided that the tanks were able to withstand some damage (“survivability”).[28]

The Key Elements of CAW


To successfully engage in CAW, some elements are essential. First, an army must have the necessary weapons systems with personnel, ammunition, and spare parts. A commander simply cannot have tanks and infantry working together under the protective umbrella of artillery projectiles and protected from air threats thanks to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles if his armed forces don’t dispose of these weapons systems. This is the case for Belgian Land Forces in 2022: the Belgian Army got rid of its Leopard 1 A5 tanks (2014) and has no longer Air Defense system operational.


A commander simply cannot have tanks and infantry working together under the protective umbrella of artillery projectiles and protected from air threats thanks to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles if his armed forces don’t dispose of these weapons systems.

These weapons systems must be suitable (in quality) and available in sufficient numbers (quantity). In the case of the Russian operations in Ukraine, the ordinary mortal might too quickly conclude that the Russian losses were mainly due to old weapon systems. However, the Iraqis also used many (not all) of these same types of vehicles in the Gulf War (Desert Storm, 1991), albeit often downgraded and less well-equipped than the original Soviet versions. In the Battle of 73 Easting, Iraqi forces indeed suffered a crushing defeat: 9 American M1 Abrams and 12 M3 Bradleys destroyed no less than 37 Iraqi T72s and 32 armoured vehicles in just 40 minutes, with no significant losses of their own. Later computer simulations, however, in which the Iraqis did apply modern combat tactics (CAW), seem to indicate that the US dominance, in that case, would have been less significant. The US forces still came out on top, but notionally the Iraqis took out 50 American vehicles.[29] This suggests again that CAW is a force multiplier: an army with proper CAW that is poorly equipped or equipped with less modern weapon systems, can be more capable on the battlefield despite a material disadvantage.


Furthermore, an armed force must develop the doctrines and field manuals necessary to put the weapons systems to work. The Russian tactical prescriptions read rather modern, building, among others, on the Soviet tradition of the deep battle, with penetrations deep into enemy lines. The Russian Armed Forces today strive to manoeuvre with tactical prescriptions that look pretty Western.[30] Since the August 2008 Five-Day War in Georgia, the Russians had realised that their CAW was still ineffective and started major reforms, apparently without much success.[31]


CAW also stands or falls with how an army builds and structures its units. The Russian BTGs (Batallion Tactical Group), high-readiness units with a strength of 800 to 900 soldiers, composed of tanks, infantry, artillery, drones, air defence, electronic warfare, logistics and other units, are on paper excellent combined arms units that a priori will perform a specific task for a higher echelon (brigade), such as vanguard or flank guard.[32] The US Army simultaneously developed the concept of BCTs (Brigade Combat Team), combined arms units of some 3,000 men built around infantry, tanks or Strykers, although the last few years[33], accelerated by recent events in Ukraine in 2022, have seen a switch, turning divisional and corps level into the “Army’s wartime formation of choice”.[34] In 2014, the performance of the BTGs in the Donbas impressed Western observers.[35] However, BTGs are intended for executing one specific mission for the upper echelon, whereas in Ukraine (2022), they were mainly used as independent elements without an upper echelon. Moreover, many troops were missing at roll call, especially mounted infantry.[36] The BTGs didn’t apply their tactical prescriptions that theoretically should have implied manoeuvre warfare, breakthrough and exploitation, deep battle and fixing-and-flanking.


In 2014, the performance of the BTGs in the Donbas impressed Western observers. However, BTGs are intended for executing one specific mission for the upper echelon, whereas in Ukraine, they were mainly used as independent elements without an upper echelon. Moreover, many troops were missing at roll call, especially mounted infantry.

The latter can then instead be explained by the other elements of the classical DOTMLPF (Doctrine, Organisation, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, and Facilities): good morale and motivated soldiers, leadership from corporals and sergeants to generals, a corporate culture based on mission command, high-performance transmission assets, adequate logistical support and good training centres and facilities. This is where the shoe pinches for the Russian units fighting in Ukraine. CAW, for instance, requires intensive and continuous training.


To underscore how crucial realistic training is, the British Army recently organised an urban training in which an infantry platoon physically combed a building while virtually a drone, a sniper, a mortar unit, and an Apache helicopter secured the area. An infantry platoon commander had to lead his soldiers into the building and, in doing so, received input from his virtual assets. To add verisimilitude, actors were also placed in the building. So, for example, when the (virtual) sniper shot an enemy in the building, an actor playing the virtual sniper’s victim physically went down in the building. When the Apache flew over to provide close air support, the sound of its engines blared through loudspeakers in the building. The debriefing afterwards allowed all stakeholders to discuss what had gone right or wrong immediately.[37]

In addition to training, mission command is essential for putting CAW into practice on a tactical level. For the Belgian Armed Forces, mission command is the “fundamental command philosophy throughout Belgian Defence; commanders at different levels give direction by stating what is to be achieved and why. Within this framework, subordinates are then given the freedom to execute the task as they think best. This philosophy leaves room for disciplined initiative at all levels”.[38] However, a study showed that there is still work to be done in the Belgian Armed Forces to integrate the concept into the tactical manuals and training methods.[39] This is even more urgent, given that analysts suggest that next-generation warfare on land will look much more like war at sea or in the skies because they will be fought at increasingly greater distances in dispersed formations.[40] A study in 2012 suggests that mission command remains relevant, even on the “modern, information-heavy battlefield”.[41]

Easier Said Than Done


History shows, on the one hand, how vital CAW is, but on the other hand, it also teaches us that it is not easy to put into practice.


First, CAW becomes more complex with each new capability that needs to be integrated. Since World War II, the standard arsenal of a fighting force has been expanded to include anti-tank missiles, helicopters, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, infantry fighting vehicles, electronic warfare, drones and countermeasures against drones or precision-guided munitions. The more weapon systems that have to be synchronised, the more complex the planning process becomes and the faster things can go wrong. What doesn't help is the fact that armies are traditionally conservative bulwarks[42], with generals who select successors who think and work in the same way as they do (sometimes referred to as “ducks pick ducks”)[43] and in which groupthink, social conformism, institutional immobility and resistance to change are often dominant.[44] Armed forces are made not to change: “the absence of innovation is the rule, the natural state”.[45] Thinking out-of-the-box to embrace innovations and integrate them into CAW is thus not an easy task, as history has repeatedly made clear. So too often, the military learns the hard way: only after an initial series of failures do they slowly (and sometimes reluctantly) adapt to the new reality.[46] This appreciation also applies to CAW.


The more weapon systems that have to be synchronised, the more complex the planning process becomes and the faster things can go wrong. What doesn't help is the fact that armies are traditionally conservative bulwarks, with generals who select successors who think and work in the same way as they do and in which groupthink, social conformism, institutional immobility and resistance to change are often dominant.

In addition, CAW is an expensive investment in peacetime. It is easier to organise and station units per weapon type. Each branch (infantry, armoured, engineers…) has its own specific needs in terms of logistical and training facilities. Although from a financial point of view, it is rational to centralise units of the same type on one platform as much as possible (e.g., creating a base where all armoured units are stationed and another base where all infantry units are grouped, etc.), from a military point of view this is detrimental to CAW training. Sometimes the opposite also happens, with potentially the same disastrous consequences on CAW: battalions belonging to the same brigade are spread out over the entire country, physically separating them from one another. Sometimes army branches claim to be so specific or technical that their units are better organised as independent units rather than integrated into the larger unit to which they belong. Engineering or signals capabilities are sometimes kept apart for these reasons. From a CAW perspective, this is, again, a bad idea.


Moreover, the purchase of weapons systems is subject to political restrictions. One or more political parties can veto the acquisition of weapons systems. Recently the Belgian government refused to arm its three newest drones. According to declarations in the media, armed drones were reportedly unacceptable for at least two political parties in the Belgian government who associated these weapons with the targeted killings (and collateral damage) of the US armed forces throughout the world.[47]


CAW is also a tough challenge for personnel training. A commander with tanks, infantry, drones, anti-aircraft guns and engineering troops at his disposal may better have had training on their use, means and tactics. Training with different weapon systems and different units is expensive because of the large number of troops involved and because it often requires moving to training zones abroad. Moreover, the training takes up an entire unit for a longer period of time, which means that other activities of this unit have to be suspended.

Furthermore, the span of control within a military hierarchy is limited: as a commander, one can only manage a limited number of sub-units without losing the overview. Usually, we assume two to five direct subordinates, with a maximum of seven.[48]


CAW is also a tough challenge for personnel training. A commander with tanks, infantry, drones, anti-aircraft guns and engineering troops at his disposal may better have had training on their use, means and tactics.

Successful implementation of CAW must therefore overcome these obstacles. This means that we have to insist evermore on the importance of the concept by integrating it into doctrinal documents, applying it as early as possible in professional military education or training, and teaching the historical relevance of the concept as soon as possible to future officers. Nevertheless, explaining and demonstrating the importance of the concept is not enough. Training is perhaps even more crucial. It must take place at all levels. If not, CAW expertise will be quickly lost: “While having high technology weaponry and sound tactical doctrine are certainly important, unless armies conduct large scale combined arms training on a regular basis they will quickly lose proficiency in how to plan and synchronise tactical operations”.[49]


Increasing urbanisation further poses a challenge. By 2030, up to 60% of the world's population will live in cities.[50] Militaries of the future must not shun urban struggle but embrace it and seek solutions. Part of the solution to this urban warfare lies once again with CAW.[51] Indeed, the Modern War Institute notes from the case study of Stalingrad (1942-1943) that: “The importance of combined arms in urban operations was clearly one of the most important lessons demonstrated” and that “Combined arms teams—armour, infantry, engineers, and fires from artillery and mortars—must be trained together to achieve the high level of cooperation, teamwork, and tactical capability required by high-intensity combat in dense urban terrain”.[52]


Militaries of the future must not shun urban struggle but embrace it and seek solutions. Part of the solution to this urban warfare lies once again with CAW.

Finally, deterrence is not just a nuclear story. Credible conventional forces are also part of the measures that must deter a potential enemy from attacking us. Air power and special operations forces alone will not suffice: the (threat of the) use of conventional land forces will always be needed.[53] The credibility of an army therefore stands or falls with the CAW capabilities of its units. The importance of CAW is not just a lesson from the past, but it is also the way forward for the future: “Success in modern conventional warfare is determined by a combination of effort, environment and – to an extent – luck. However, the most important determinants of victory are the actions of combined arms units. Only these units, in cooperation with other branches of arms and other military services, can perform the full spectrum of defensive and offensive tasks”.[54]

CAW in Basic Military Officers’ Training


It is evident that the basic training of future officers is mainly about learning the ABC of basic military skills, such as camouflage and individual tactics. Yet the concept of CAW is so crucial that candidate officers should be introduced to it as early as possible. This can be done in a course on military history, but also in courses on land operations, and even during military training. It is vital to show why CAW is important, using case studies, and at the same time to remain aware of why armed forces have failed to apply CAW in the past.


In addition, as already noted earlier, mission command is a crucial component in executing CAW on the battlefield. Mission command can be defined as a “Prusso-German command philosophy that emphasises decentralisation, commander’s intent, and low-level initiative”.[55] A lower officer can take the initiative if he respects the commander's intent. That’s why many handbooks use the wording “disciplined initiative” to describe mission command.[56] This command style is thus different from what officers traditionally learn (or learned) to do in many armed forces: executing a detailed order without much thought, often with a chief who micromanages and keeps a close eye on his subordinates. The latter, a highly centralised command and control, is often the result of a lack of trust in their subordinates, the fact that they have difficulty dealing with the uncertainty of decentralisation, and that they are risk-averse.[57] At the same time, mission command offers an answer to the chaos of the battlefield: junior officers and NCOs who get more control over more assets and can develop their manoeuvre will better understand the story they are playing in and will more quickly recognise and exploit opportunities and eventually will become more effective and efficient.


Mission command offers an answer to the chaos of the battlefield: junior officers and NCOs who get more control over more assets and can develop their manoeuvre will better understand the story they are playing in and will more quickly recognise and exploit opportunities and eventually will become more effective and efficient.

Yet decentralisation is not a magic formula either: for some complex operations (such as a river crossing), a centralised manoeuvre is often the best approach because there are so many assets to coordinate. Some, therefore, argue for alternating and flexible switching during operations between mission command on the one hand (with decentralisation of decision-making power and much freedom for the lower executive echelons) and more centralised command and control on the other.[58] Young officers must therefore understand that leadership means that their tactical superiors (battalion commanders, brigade commanders) will sometimes give them orders in which they themselves have little freedom to fill.


In contrast, a day later, they will be given great freedom to fill in their assignment in the same exercise or operation. This mindset is best inculcated as soon as possible, and this can be done during the training of platoon commanders, which in Belgium is already partly done at the Royal Military Academy. During their academic semesters (for instance, the organisation of socio-cultural activities) and military training camps (tactical training up to platoon commander), Belgian cadets are given an assignment without being told how to fulfil it, but always in a clearly formulated commander’s intent. It’s then up to the cadets to determine how they will achieve the objective. After each mission, a debriefing occurs where all decisions taken (or not taken) by the cadets are evaluated and openly discussed.


One final aspect of the training of future officers is the importance of critical thinking in the academic curriculum. Unlike the traditional or rather old-school view on commanding (i.e., you get an order and execute it without consideration), critical thinking is complementary to a military organisation based on formal command structures.[59] Certainly, officer cadets must understand when (and even more importantly, when not) to challenge the ideas of their superiors. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to question stubborn traditions and habits to break down conservatism and stimulate an open innovation culture within the organisation. Young officers must also be sufficiently trained during their academic and professional training to process information quickly. Critical thinking will help them to analyse and evaluate arguments used by others and to compose their own thoughts in a structured argument. They also must learn to make decisions based on solid arguments and not just on a gut feeling. They must be willing and prepared to show the intellectual courage to challenge old ideas (“we have always done things like this”) and to think out of the box to come up with creative and adaptive solutions to old and new problems. Apart from intellectual courage, future officers should dispose of many other traits of a disciplined mind, such as intellectual autonomy, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance or intellectual empathy.[60] For no matter how well a country prepares the next war and how excellent it trains its future officers for CAW, adaptation in wartime will always be necessary. As David Barno and Nora Bensahel convincingly demonstrated, “Strong and adaptive leaders can overcome problems with doctrine and technology, but weak and inflexible leaders can undermine even the best examples of each. For this reason, developing adaptive leaders in peacetime, who are ready to adjust to the always unpredictable demands of war, may be one of the most important objectives of any military.”[61]



 

Maj Dr Tom Simoens is an Associate Professor in History at the Royal Military Academy (Brussels), where he’s also the Head of the Chair of History. He is a specialist in military history and military justice in the First World War. The evolution of Combined Arms Warfare in the 20th century is the main thread in one of the courses he teaches at the Academy. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of Belgian Defence.

 

[1] Rob Lee, “The tank is not obsolete, and other observations about the future of combat,” War on the rocks, Texas National Security Review, published on September 06, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/09/the-tank-is-not-obsolete-and-other-observations-about-the-future-of-combat/.

[2] ADP 3-0. Operations, Washington, Department of the Army, July 31, 2019, 3-9.

[3] See, for instance, the analysis by David Rodman, Combined Arms Warfare in Israeli Military History. From the War of Independence to Operation Protective Edge (Brighton: Sussex University Press, 2019).

[4] James W. Reed. “Combined Arms Warfare in the 21st Century: Maximizing the capability of U.S. Army Future Combat System Equipped Brigade Combat Teams to Conduct Combined Arms Operations” (Master Thesis, Fort Leavenworth, 2008), 12-17.

[5] AAP-06. NATO Glossary of terms and definitions (English and French), NATO NSA, 2013.

[6] ADP 3-0. Operations, Washington, Department of the Army, July 31, 2019, v and 1-5.

[7] Rob Lee, “The tank is not obsolete, and other observations about the future of combat,” War on the rocks, Texas National Security Review, published on September 06, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/09/the-tank-is-not-obsolete-and-other-observations-about-the-future-of-combat/.

[8] Seth G. Jones, “Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine: Lessons in Modern Warfare,” csis.org (June 1, 2022) https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-ill-fated-invasion-ukraine-lessons-modern-warfare.

[9] On the use and abuse of military history by military professionals, please read Michael Howard, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” Parameters (11, no. 1, 1981), 9-14.

[10] Jonathan House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century (Kansas: Kansas University Press, 2001).

[11] Jonathan Bailey, “The First World War and the Birth of modern Warfare,” MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, The dynamics of military revolution 1300-2050 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002), 132.

[12] This statement is based on the observation that (1) the Germans broke through the frontlines in Spring 1918 (but failed to exploit) and (2) all Allied forces, even the Belgians, did the same in the Hundred Days Offensive (from August-September 1918 on).

[13] James W. Reed, “Combined Arms Warfare in the 21st Century: Maximizing the capability of U.S. Army Future Combat System Equipped Brigade Combat Teams to Conduct Combined Arms Operations” (Master Thesis, Fort Leavenworth, 2008), 39.

[14] Franky Bostyn, Luc De Vos and Tom Simoens, “From a war of men to a war of machines,” Henri Dupuis, Krzysztof Pomian and Isabelle Van Den Broeke (eds.): 14-18, it’s our history! (s.n., s.l., 2014), 25-40.

[15] Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend. The 1940 Campaign in the West (Naval Institute Press, 2013).

[16] James W. Reed, “Combined Arms Warfare in the 21st Century: Maximizing the capability of U.S. Army Future Combat System Equipped Brigade Combat Teams to Conduct Combined Arms Operations” (Master Thesis, Fort Leavenworth, 2008), 51-63.

[17] Robert Hall and Andrew Ross, “Lessons from Vietnam. Combined Arms Assault against Prepared Defenses,” Michael Evans and Alan Ryan, From Breitenfeld to Baghdad. Perspectives on Combined Arms Warfare (Land Warfare Studies Centre, Working paper n° 122, 2003), 42.

[18] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, Adaptation under Fire. How militaries change in wartime (New York, Oxford University Press, 2020).

[19] David Rodman, Combined Arms Warfare in Israeli Military History. From the War of Independence to Operation Protective Edge (Brighton, Sussex University Press, 2019).

[20] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, Adaptation under Fire. How militaries change in wartime (New York, Oxford University Press, 2020).

[21] Michael Evans, “General Monash’s Orchestra. Reaffirming Combined Arms Warfare,” Michael Evans and Alan Ryan, From Breitenfeld to Baghdad. Perspectives on Combined Arms Warfare (Land Warfare Studies Centre, Working paper n° 122, 2003), 21-22. One might argue that at least in the first years of the military intervention in Afghanistan (2001-2005), operations were much more like peacekeeping operations than counter-insurgency or large-scale combat operations. However, this highlights one of the main topics of this paper, namely that CAW is not only a concept that applies to heavy mechanized forces in large-scale combat operations, but even peacekeeping operations require expertise in CAW at certain moments.

[22] Martin Andrew, “The Russian experience of Urban combat. Some lessons from Central Asia,” Australian Army Journal (Volume 1, Nr 2), 164-165. See also: James A. Copp, The Russian Way of War: Post Soviet Adaptations in the Russian Military and Why The Russian Military Failed in Chechnya. Putin, Grozny, Chechen and Georgian War, South Ossetia, Abkhazia (Progressive Management, Smashwords Edition, 2014).

[23] Martin Andrew, “The Russian experience of Urban combat. Some lessons from Central Asia,” Australian Army Journal (December 2003), 165.

[24] Olga Oliker, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000. Lessons from Urban Combat (Arlington: RAND, 2001), 84.

[25] Timothy L. Thomas, “Grozny 2000: Urban Combat Lessons Learned,” Military Review (July-August 2000).

[26] Jonathan House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century. Kansas, Kansas University Press, 2001. See also: “Tank destroyer battalion (United States),” Wikipedia, last modified on June 08, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tank_destroyer_battalion_(United_States).

[27] Manuel provisoire d’emploi du sous-groupement tactique interarmes Scorpion (Ministère des Armées, 1st edition, PFT 3.2.01/5, 2021), 15 notes: “Le SGTIA-S est constitué avec tous les moyens interarmes, voire interarmées […], nécessaires à l’accomplissement de ses missions”. Scorpion stands for “Synergie du COntact Renforcée par la Polyvalence et l’InfovalorisatiON.”

[28] Alan Ryan, “Combined Arms Cooperation in the Assault. Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” Michael Evans and Alan Ryan, From Breitenfeld to Baghdad. Perspectives on Combined Arms Warfare (Land Warfare Studies Centre, Working paper n° 122, 2003), 53-63.

[29] Stephen Biddle, Military Power. Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 134.

[30] Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, The Russian Way of War. Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (Kansas: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2017).

[31] Lionel Beehner, Liam Collins, Steve Ferenzi et.al., Analyzing the Russian Way of War. Evidence from the 2008 Conflict with Georgia (West Point: Modern War Institute, 2018).

[32] Seth G. Jones, “Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine: Lessons in Modern Warfare,” csis.org, published on June 1st, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-ill-fated-invasion-ukraine-lessons-modern-warfare and Lester W. Grau and Charles K. Bartles, “Getting to Know the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” published on April 14, 2022, https://www.rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/getting-know-russian-battalion-tactical-group.

[33] Michael D. Lundy, “Meeting the Challenge of Large-Scale Combat Operations Today and Tomorrow”, Military Review Special Edition (September-October 2018), 111-118.

[34] Adam Davis, The Brigade Combat Team (BCT): A Revolution in Organizational Structure (Muskie School of Public Service Capstone Paper, 2020). However, as noted in the text, the US Army does not neglect the divisional and corps level. The general feeling after nearly two decades of mainly COIN operations was that these divisional and corps levels had to be revalued. That’s why (among other decisions) professional military training for US Army officers has now shifted its focus back on divisional and corps level. However, this didn’t have a large impact on the BCT’s yet, which are still regarded as more flexible than complete divisions (e.g., lower logistical footprint). For the quote: Caitlin M. Kenney, “Divisions, Corps to Replace Brigades As Army’s Wartime Formation of Choice”, in: Defense One (October 10, 2022) https://www.defenseone.com/policy/2022/10/divisions-corps-replace-brigades-armys-wartime-formation-choice/378234/.

[35] Amos C. Fox and Andrew J. Rossow, Making Sense of Russian Hybrid Warfare: A Brief Assessment of the Russo-Ukrainian War (Arlington: The Institute of Land Warfare, The Land Warfare Papers, 112, 2017).

[36] Michael Kofman and Rob Lee, “Not built for purpose: the Russian Military’s Ill-fated force design,” War on the rocks, Texas National Security Review, published on June 02, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/06/not-built-for-purpose-the-russian-militarys-ill-fated-force-design/.

[37] John Spencer and Rob Taylor, “A New Way of Combined Arms Urban Warfare Training” (podcast by Urban Warfare Project, May 27, 2022).

[38] Belgian Defence Doctrine. Fundamental Principles to Approach Belgian Defence Operations, Brussels, 2022 (TBC: this new doctrine was still to be published at the time of writing this essay), 76-77.

[39] Jean-Charles Defawes, “Mission Command à la Composante Terre: “Lip-Service”?” (Research paper, Royal Military Academy/Defence College, 2019).

[40] Steven Yeadon, “A New Combined-Arms Approach for the Armored Brigade Combat Team” (s.n., s.l., 2020), retrieved from: https://www.benning.army.mil/armor/eARMOR/content/issues/2020/Summer/3Yeadon20.pdf and Jeroen Verhaeghe, “Het slagveld van de toekomst,” Belgisch Militair Tijdschrift (June 2022), 90.

[41] Michael J. Gunther, “Auftragstaktik: the Basis for Modern Military Command?” (Kansas: Fort Leavenworth, 2012), 52-54.

[42] Idem.

[43] Adam Davis, The Brigade Combat Team (BCT): A Revolution in Organizational Structure (Muskie School of Public Service, Capstone Paper, 2020), 19 and 64-65.

[44] Danic Parenteau, “Teaching Professional Use of Critical Thinking to Officer-Cadets. Reflection on the Intellectual Training of Young Officers at Military Academies,” Journal of Military Learning (April 2021), 47-56.

[45] Paul E. Snyder, “Revolution or Evolution? Combined Arms Warfare in the Twenty-First Century” (Master Thesis, Fort Leavenworth, 1999), 7-8.

[46] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, Adaptation under Fire. How Militaries Change in Wartime (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[47] Jens Franssen, “Worden er bommen gehangen aan nieuwe drones van Belgische leger of niet? Kwestie leidt tot politieke discussie,” published on April 27, 2022, https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2022/04/26/n-va-wil-belgische-nieuwe-drones-bewapenen-regering-is-tegen/.

[48] Adam Davis, The Brigade Combat Team (BCT): A Revolution in Organizational Structure (Muskie School of Public Service, Capstone Paper, 2020), 61-62.

[49] James W. Reed, “Combined Arms Warfare in the 21st Century: Maximizing the capability of U.S. Army Future Combat System Equipped Brigade Combat Teams to Conduct Combined Arms Operations” (Master Thesis, Fort Leavenworth, 2008), 75.

[50] David Rodman, Combined Arms Warfare in Israeli Military History. From the War