"We have gotten into the fashion of talking of cavalry tactics, artillery tactics, and infantry tactics. This distinction is but a mere abstraction. There is but one art, and that is the tactics of combined arms."
– Major Gerald Gilbert, British Army, 1907
My role as a Forward Observer (FO) with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) sits within a large, interconnected network that centres on supporting a commander’s planning and execution of missions. Linking into the combat teams, I provide advice on and coordinate joint fires, employing surface to surface, Close Air Support (CAS), or Naval Gun Support (NGS). Though I believe the foundation of the FO to link and support combat teams will remain consistent, the extensiveness of the role’s connections will see many new skills built upon this foundation. This is particularly true within the Combined Arms space and as the FO role changes to meet the demands, needs, and expectations of the teams that work around it.
What is Combined Arms? What is its history?
The use of Combined Arms – the coordinated and united efforts of different roles during a mission – has a long history. The Ancient Egyptians often combined infantry and naval defensive techniques when the Nubians tried to push north along the Nile, the Viking invasions of England included coastal skirmishes and smaller overland forces, and biological warfare and siege techniques were used by the Mongol armies on top of their strong cavalry. Arguably though, the first large-scale Combined Arms attacks were employed during WWI with the introduction of tanks, machine guns, and aircrafts into the battlespace. These new technologies forced commanders to rethink their tactics.
Towards the end of WWI, in the north of France, the Battle of Hamel was fought and Combined Arms was central to the Allied victory here. The 6th and 11th Brigades of Australian infantry were supported by the largely inexperienced 131st and 132nd American infantry regiments. This combined infantry, which marked the first time in history that American soldiers fought under foreign command, was additionally supported by the British Army’s 5th Tank Brigade and the 101 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, and artillery. British artillery began bombardment of the German line, quickly followed by air support dropping hundreds of bombs throughout the day. With armoured support, the infantry was able to creep towards the German trenches, moving within a few hundred yards of falling friendly shells. Although a comparatively smaller battle in the war, Hamel would come to be one of the first successful uses of Combined Arms.
As with the future of the FO’s role though, Combined Arms was constantly evolving. During WWII, blitzkrieg (lighting war) tactics were used to great effect by the German army. Not only were the German forces combining their infantry, their air force, and their navy, but with the help of radio communication they were focused on increasing the speed, mobility, and concentration of their combined force. This is clear when the German forces employed kesselschlacht (cauldron battle), where armoured units encircle the enemy. This is an efficient tactic to capture large amounts of territory and equipment, which saves time and men. This advancement in Combined Arms saw technological advancements not simply used for sheer firepower but harnessed for more effective communication and coordination.
Over the last three decades, the campaigns in the Middle East have used Combined Arms in many ways with varying results. Much like with the German kesselschlacht, the emphasis on Combined Arms during these missions was on intelligence gathering and communication flow. Combined Arms during the invasion of Iraq saw a heavy reliance on laying effects with long range fires from NGS utilising missiles and CAS to engage and destroy anti-air threats. This new style of Combined Arms, mixed with the paralysing effects of blitzkrieg tactics, demonstrated how combine units and tactics could effectively destabilise an enemy’s centre of gravity.
TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGES & THE FO’S FUTURE
"To achieve combined arms, commanders merge elements of different branches – armour, infantry, artillery, civil affairs, combat engineering, and many others – into highly integrated tactical organizations. The strengths of each branch complement and reinforce those of the others, making combined arms teams stronger than the sum of their elements."
– US Headquarters Department of the Army, 2005
How to employ these changes
The layering of more traditional Combined Arms tactics with advances in manoeuvrability, electronic warfare (EW), and target acquisition developments (such as drones) is critical to the ADF’s success in this space. This is particularly true as information gathering and denial is at the forefront of most Western defence for agendas. We have seen the effects of what some are describing as the ‘humanities’ gradual influence into 5th generation warfare. Knowing how to evolve in step with, and even be ahead of the curve, within this space will be critical to Combined Arms. As a result, this is also key to the FO.
“Due to the increased threat of enemy supporting arms on the battlefield, the way in which fire support systems themselves are employed must change as well, especially in the artillery community.”
– Marine Corps Gazette, April 2017
I believe the biggest challenge facing the evolution of the FO will be the adoption of lightweight, highly mobile platforms for FOs to operate and live out of. The introduction of long-range fires and self-propelled artillery has pushed the ADF’s capability to engage targets at greater range, and the mobility of the main Offensive Support has also increased. Yet, to keep up or ahead of the forward line of troops, the ADF will need to tackle the challenges of how to make the FO more manoeuvrable while maintaining the accuracy of target acquisition. This is critical to the future of successful Combined Arms in the ADF and I consider a few of the paths available below.
The ADF’s drone fleet is not only growing but becoming increasingly sophisticated. In recent years we have seen the incorporation of drones into Combined Arms, with tests conducted utilising drones to coordinate surface to surface fires. This capability offers the next evolutionary step for FOs. Beyond visual line of sight fires, drones offer the FO an ability to prosecute targets with multiple assets at a distance previously impossible, lessening the risks and the manpower needed to manoeuvre men closer to target.
Another consideration is that drones are not only becoming more powerful in terms of the distances they can travel, but also in terms of their range finding capabilities. Such larger drones will be increasingly tasked with high level information and surveillance reconnaissance. While important to the Combined Arms space, I believe that it will actually be the smaller drones, the Wasp and Hornet, that will impact the future of the FOs role. The smaller drones give us the ability to conduct target acquisition on a smaller level without risking soldiers; characteristics that are already critical to the FO and would only enhance our work. The FO can utilise this equipment to coordinate effects more rapidly for combat team level command.
During the global ‘War on Terror’, EW was benched as a priority. However, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine we have seen a sharp increase in its use. The ability to protect assets on the electromagnetic spectrum is vital to enabling forces to continually operate and ‘jamming’ or denying the enemy the ability to employ their own systems is a tactic that needs to be incorporated into the ADF’s Combined Arms agenda. As this relates to the FOs role is hard to distinguish and could take a variety of routes.
With the advancement in technology, EW has become more portable. The opportunity to employ EW on the combat team level becomes a possibility. The ability to disrupt an enemy’s means of communication – and therefore their means of organisation – is also an available path forward, which would become even more deadly when mixed with layered fires by Combined Arms.
FOs in 2045
To successfully contribute to the future of Combined Arms, the FOs of 2045 will have to be well-educated and trained, and not simply on the delivery systems of munitions. The FO’s role will evolve in line with technology and the incorporation of new technologies into combat teams. Drones and EW provide entry points for considering how FOs can enhance their capabilities today so that the FOs of 2045 continue to be at the forefront of learning and contributing to the future of Combined Arms.