Good times exists so we can prepare for the bad times. It is wise to use times of peace to build ones defences and unwise to cut back on defences. Nothing lasts forever, not even peace. A disaster is only a disaster if we have failed to prepare for it. This is something that Sweden is struggling to learn. However, Sweden is making some progress with the latest defence proposal, although only a small step it is still a step forward.
The latest government defence proposal suggest the formation of territorial units. We also seen the formation of Military Regions, which, as they command battalions, can be seen as effectively brigade like structure [MR]. According to the Swedish Armed Forces’ (SAF) Military Strategic Document 2016 (MSD16), the SAF are supposed to be using manoeuver warfare. As a result, I thought it would be interesting to look at the concept of territorial units from a manoeuvre warfare perspective.
Strength vs Weakness
Manoeuvre warfare can be summarised as a psychological endeavour where you attempt to get inside the enemy’s mind space, as Col. John Boyd said:
“… maneuver [warfare] makes quantitative factors less important by striking at the enemy’s mind”. – Col John Boyd, USAF [New Conception of War].
“”Positions are seldom lost because they have been destroyed, but almost invariably because the leader has decided in his own mind that the position cannot be held.” —A. A. Vandegrift” [Warfighting]
That can be best understood from analysing Boyd’s OODA loop.
As part of trying to get into the enemy’s mind space, we have the idea of using strength against weakness.
“Miller stated that history’s great commanders regularly won battles while outnumbered and in hostile territory by using maneuver to exploit their adversaries’ weaknesses.” – [New Conception of War].
A commander, therefore, wants to avoid a situation of strength vs strength such as infantry vs infantry or tanks vs tanks. A commander wants to get it to a position where the strengths of their own unit can be pitted against the weakness of the enemy. Having local knowledge of terrain can then be seen as a strength, so a local command would want to use that advantage against the enemy’s poor knowledge of the local terrain, which would be a weakness. As such, this can be seen as a plus for the concept of territorial battalions and military regions.
However, I wonder how much of an advantage is bounding military units to a territory? Modern armies have access to satellite images of terrain and the use of UAVs for local reconacessense [Global Security]. A military such as Russia would also, most likely, have operativers with local knowledge of the terrain as well [Radio Sweden]. Much of Russia consists of terrain similar to Sweden; taiga forest, mountains, marshland, etc. All this would undermine any advantage a local, territorial, unit would have.
Flexibility and Adaptability
Another concept that is important when we talk about manoeuver warfare is the concept of flexibility and adaptability. Flexibility and adaptability is what makes a unit unpredictable. A commander doesn’t want to be predictable.
“Remember, I keep using those words. Those are two key words, be adaptable and unpredictable. And then you’ll gain leverage. Because the moment you start becoming rigid or non-adaptable and predictable, you know the game’s over.” – Col John Boyd, USAF [New Conception of War].
This is a concern for the concept of territorial units and military regions; as they are tied down to a given territory they lose some of their flexibility and adaptability. As a result, they become more predictable, they become rigid.
“But, defenders don’t have momentum. They are generally forced to react to whatever their attackers do, instead of having the opportunity to initiate decisive actions of their own. They are often ”ripe for the picking” by well-trained attackers. In fact, a steady diet of defense tends to weaken one’s focus and attitude — and ultimately his survivability. Forced to defend too often, even brave men become hesitant to venture into ”the unknown,” and at that point become easy to surprise:
‘An army that thinks only in defensive terms is doomed. It yields initiative and advantage in
time and space to the enemy — even an enemy inferior in numbers. It loses the sense of the hunter, the opportunist. — Gen. Sir David Fraser’” [100yrds]
It can be even argued that although terrain is useful (as a means to an end), ultimately it is not so important.
“… Boyd considered things like terrain and technology almost irrelevant when compared with the mental- moral focus on the adversary cannot be overemphasized; indeed, he hit that point at the very beginning of his presentation and repeated it throughout: “Terrain does not fight wars. Machines don’t fight wars. People do it and they use their minds. So you better understand the people, because if you don’t understand them, you ain’t gonna make it, period.” Concerning war’s physical elements, Boyd added that “terrain is just the means through which you operate. The machines are just tools that you use.” The only objective that mattered was the enemy’s mind.” – [New Conception of War].
In 1066 a Norwegian army invade in England and defeated the English in the north of England. At this time, the English army was divided into two parts; the housecarls and fyrd. The housecarls were the professional warrior class, many of whom were mercenaries. The fyrd was the bulk of the army composed of the ordinary people. It was divided in two; the greater and the select fyrd. The select fyrd was like a militia. Those who served in the select fyrd were equipet by their local parish but could serve wherever needed. The great fyrd was everyone else. They equipet themselves with whatever they had and they were territorial; they could only serve in the county they lived in. However, with the defeat of the army in the North, the English King, King Harold, had to march north. As he did so he gather troops from the counties he passed through. This highlights one problem with a territorial defence; you cannot be certain that you wont need them in other parts of the country. If fact, this illustrates a common problem that occurs again and again throughout military history; the fact that military units can have a clear mission but end up doing something else. Examples of that include the British ASW fleet of the 1970s, the V-Bombers, and the British army between the two world wars. The Swedish invasion defence of the Cold War could also be added to the list as it never got to do what it was set up to do. In other words, this serves to underline the need for flexibility. That you can’t tie down a front line fighting military unit to one mission. You need flexibility.
“Since war is a fluid phenomenon, its conduct requires flexibility of thought. Success depends in large part on the ability to adapt—to proactively shape changing events to our advantage as well as to react quickly to constantly changing conditions.” [Warfighting]
So, from this perspective, having terrain focused military units is not fitting in with the concept of manoeuver warfare. It is interesting to note that the UK once had a territorial army but that has been replaced with a more flexible army reserve.
As a counterpoint, there is some, or potentially some, flexibility in the system. If we take as an example the Swedish Home Guard. They can be classified as territorial units but they can operate anywhere in Sweden and are not just tied down to one area or country. Some companies were sent to Gotland as part of Aurora 17, operating outside their territorial area.
From a manoeuvrer warfare perspective, territorial units and military regions have the advantage of local terrain knowledge. However, with the advance of new technology and the utilisation of local resources, knowledge of the local terrain is not such an advantage that it once was.
Adaptability and flexibility is probably far more important than local terrain knowledge in a modern battlefield. Tying down a unit to a local terrain would mean loss of flexibility and adaptability.
There is, however, some flexibility as demonstrated by Home Guard units operating outside their area.
Territorial units’ terrain advantage is not such an important advantage as it might first appear.
Territorial units will need the ability to be flexible and adaptable and this is more important than local terrain knowledge. As part of that, territorial units will still need to operate over the whole country.
Some units, such as Home Guard companies, do have the flexibility to operate outside their areas. This needs to be extended to battalions and military regions for them to be able to have a flexible and adaptive attribute. Therefore, military regions need to operate as (light) infantry brigades which can operate anywhere in Sweden even if the do have a focus on a specific part of Sweden.
The author is BEng(hons) PhD EurIng
[New Conception of War] “New Conception of War. John Boyd, the US Marines and Maneuver Warfare.” Ian T. Brown. 2018.
[Radio Sweden] https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=6653088
[Global Security] https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/aircraft-uav.htm
[100yrds] “The Last 100 yards. The NCO’s Contribution to Warfare”. H. J. Poole. Posterity Press. 2002.
[Warfighting] “MCDP 1. Warfighting”. U.S. Marine Corps. 1997
“Maneuver Warfare Handbook”. William S. Lind. 1985.