Contemporary Operating Environment
Minimum-mass tactics in Mali: A way forward for the Australian Army?By Zavier Radecker May 14, 2021
In 2014 Michael Shurkin published a research report which focused on lessons for the US military regarding the deployment of expeditionary armies. There are many lessons from the conduct and doctrine of the French forces that can be applied to the Australian Army when it comes to force structure and training. The lessons were gauged from the French operations in the Serval, particularly Mali, where the French were conducting counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. The Australian Army is already undergoing a period of structural change, with the mechanisation of the force through the acquisition of new infantry-fighting vehicles as well as a new zeitgeist bringing change to the culture of the ADF. This period of change provides enormous opportunity for the Australian Army. It is now more important than ever to study recent conflicts and discuss the lessons learned so that we can adapt our own forces for the challenges of the future.
One of the signature characteristics of French operations in Mali was the Sous-Groupement Tactique Interarmes (SGTIA) (translated to mean a combined arms tactical subgroup) which was a basic but scalable unit which endowed O3s (CAPT (E)) with a great deal of autonomy and the ability to use initiative. The SGTIA allowed the French to operate in largely autonomous combined arms forces at the battalion level and below, and brigades would act as force providers and not direct force elements. The SGTIA is typically made up of the following: a mixed command and logistics platoon, three infantry platoons, one armoured platoon, one engineering platoon as well as various support detachments as needed for the mission, this usually included artillery and joint fires liaison capability.
The beauty of the SGTIA is that its structure can change based on the mission and unit availability; it is created to be as flexible as possible. It is raised, trained and sustained as a combined arms force, and with the additional integration of fire support and fire support coordination capabilities, it is able to operate with a far greater level of autonomy than any corps-specific company which needs to undergo a great deal of shifting to be able to operate smoothly as a combined arms force. Rather than focusing on joint integration at the operational level, the French focused on integrating arms at the SGTIA (company size) or even at the platoon level, or sometimes even lower. This may sound difficult, particularly given that the Australian Army only formed combined arms brigades in recent years, but France task organises as a matter of doctrine, practice and habit. They train as SGTIAs and deploy and fight as such. French units rotate through their training centres as SGTIAs and commanding SGTIAs is formally taught during officer training.
For the French, this means that integration between arms is not an issue, it is simply business as usual and so enforcing it through doctrine and on deployment comes naturally to the personnel. Not to mention that having combined arms of this nature at the company level and even below means that the French are able to exploit the small mass of the force and is able to quickly form and reform around changing objectives which is a requisite for survival in the age of accelerated warfare.
The Australian Army also trains combined arms and considers it business as usual. At the Royal Military College, staff cadets are now introduced to and trained with consideration to combined arms. However, the French SGTIA varies from Australian doctrine in that it provides commanders with far more autonomy than the doctrinal semi-autonomous command of the Australian corps-specific platoon. The French allow commanders to use more initiative which requires more trust and a higher tolerance of risk, something that the Australian Army could take into account.
The SGTIA is not an infallible structure, and the doctrine surrounding combined arms still encounters friction; particularly with SGTIAs which are formed ad hoc, which means members do not have the advantage of training together, as well as follow-through issues with communication and coordination. With the ability to train extensively prior to deployment, however, the issue of communication and coordination can be rectified so that the potential of the SGTIA can be realised.
Technologically, the SGTIA is supported with two main aspects. First, France mechanised nearly all of its units, using armoured vehicles that can be transported on their airframes as well as having the capability to drive long distances over poor-quality roads and cross-country. And secondly, a focus on innovation and technological overmatch at every level in order to enhance situational awareness, command and control capabilities and fires coordination abilities. This allowed the French to network each element within the SGTIA into the larger brigade-size network, enabling the French units to act as a networked element despite their smaller mass and area of dispersion across the operating space. This enabled the French to fight a fast-paced war with relatively less mass than would be assumed of an expeditionary army.
In the context of the Australian Army, we group combined arms at the sub-brigade level and conduct training exercises to familiarise units with combined arms operations; however, when looking at the success of French combined arms at the tactical level, it may be worth considering how our combined arms capability can be improved. In 2006 then Colonel (now MAJGEN) Michael Krause wrote an essay in the Australian Army Journal advocating for minimum-mass tactics and a reorganisation of the Army’s structure to cater for a new age of warfare. In this article, MAJGEN Krause argued that:
Organisational redesign to meet the needs of future conflict is an imprecise art, but it is clear that the Army needs to develop an adaptable and agile structure over the next two decades. Such a structure would be capable of taking maximum advantage of emerging technologies while remaining true to the human character of war. The longer the Army delays change to its base organisation, the more obsolescent the organisation will gradually become.
MAJGEN Krause defined minimum-mass tactics as:
“… the use of multiple small teams in the battlespace, each capable of producing military effect both alone and in combination. Such tactical teams are characterised by a low electronic signature yet continue to possess an exponential combined arms capability for battlespace effectiveness. Teams executing minimum-mass tactics require access to disengaged joint fires both from within and outside the battlespace.”
Minimum-mass tactics, like the SGTIA, calls for a restructuring of combined arms at the lowest level, with enough autonomy to act individually as well as a combined group. Both emphasise the importance of networking to ensure effective cohesion and communication and MAJGEN Krause also notes that networks are fallible and that such units must be able to survive the degradation or collapse of an electronic network. As cyber and other disruptive technologies continue to advance and extend their influence on operations, the ability to survive without a network is important. A unit such as the SGTIA increases survivability as well as capability due to the integration of various arms, allowing an increased level of preparedness and adaptability to situations. This differentiates from attaching personnel to a platoon or battle-grouping on exercises or operations, the ability to raise, train and sustain a combined-arms company level force means that a capable, ready force is ready for deployment. It also allows the force to team during training which would develop a greater level of cohesion and trust with the different corps involved.
This low-level combined arms works off a precedent of exploiting the physics of the modern battlefield with decentralised mass whilst maintaining competitive overmatch. Combined arms, technological advantage and integration, and effective C3 are not new concepts for an effective force, but we must combine these elements more effectively in order to enable the Australian Army to avoid becoming obsolete in the future. The ability to concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time is an essential aspect of successful warfighting, and with the ability to concentrate capability with smaller mass than what was previously attainable we can now consider what this means for future force structuring.
For the Australian Army, an SGTIA-like structure could be possible with the future integration of infantry-fighting vehicles and the Boxer. Integrating infantry, armour, engineering, logistics and command into minimum-mass units could allow our smaller force (in comparison with allies and regional neighbours) to exploit our intellectual edge and technological overmatch and enable us to cover more land with less physical mass, whilst embracing the initiative and combined arms at the lowest levels. Implementing something similar to the SGTIA and in-line with MAJGEN Krause’s minimum-mass tactics would require a great deal of effort, and whether it would be an effective course of action should be disputed in the contest of ideas. But it important that we as an Army re-evaluate the structure of our force constantly. If we allow ourselves to become complacent, the ever-evolving character of war will not wait for us to catch up, and our adversaries certainly won’t either.
I would like to acknowledge the work of Michael Shurkin and MAJGEN Michael Krause.
 Shurkin, Michael, France's War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html. P27
 Shurkin, Michael, France's War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html. P28
 Shurkin, Michael, France's War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html. P29
 Les principes de la formation du ‘capitaine interarmes’ à l’école d’infanterie,” Doctrine Tactique, no. 21, March 2011. P25-27
 Shurkin, Michael, France's War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html. P30
 Shurkin, Michael, France's War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html. P31
 Krause, Michael, “The Case for Minimum-Mass Tactics in the Australian Army” Australian Army Journal volume 2 issue 2, 2006
 Krause, Michael, “The Case for Minimum-Mass Tactics in the Australian Army” Australian Army Journal volume 2 issue 2, 2006. P70
 Krause, Michael, “The Case for Minimum-Mass Tactics in the Australian Army” Australian Army Journal volume 2 issue 2, 2006. P73
Shurkin, Michael, France's War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR770.html.
Krause, Michael, “The Case for Minimum-Mass Tactics in the Australian Army” Australian Army Journal volume 2 issue 2, 2006.
Les principes de la formation du ‘capitaine interarmes’ à l’école d’infanterie,” Doctrine Tactique, no. 21, March 2011.