Operational Offence, Tactical Defence: A short historical overview from Ancient Greece to RamadiBy Ben Hussell June 30, 2019
“There is nothing new under the sun”
This oft quoted phrase certainly applies to the study of military history. Although there has been a huge change in the technology of war, and in tactical aspects of its conduct, at its core there are still identifiable trends and strands that weave throughout its rich history. At the heart of warfare is human nature and the human psyche, and how these respond to stimuli. In this way we are less different from our ancient forebears than we might like to admit!
While it is tempting, and in many ways quite natural, to be cautious in applying historical precedents to new situations, there are nevertheless interesting parallels that can be found, and considered by the commander and soldier in their warfighting.
Definition of terms
We will use four main terms in this article which, for commonality of understanding, are defined below:
- Grand Strategy - Encompasses military and political spheres
- Strategy - The overall strategy for the conduct of a conflict
- Operational Strategy - The Operational conduct of units in the field before and after an engagement
- Tactics - The overall movements and techniques involved in an engagement, from unit to individual level.
We shall be focusing on the Operational and Tactical elements, although restricting ourselves tactically to broad plans, as the differing ages and technologies make direct comparison of unit and individual tactics invalid.
Thebes vs Sparta, Epaminondas and the establishment of Megalopolis
The war between Rome and Carthage: The Italian Campaigns of Hannibal Barca, and African Campaign of Scipio Africanus
Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1805 Campaign
Australian involvement in Phouc Tuy Province, specifically the Battle of Balmoral
- Show Australian solidarity with America, partly in hope of strengthening the ANZUS relationship should future threats eventuate in the pacific following the departure of the British.
- Defeat the NVA and VC in Phouc Tuy. "Winning hearts and minds" became an essential part of this, by cutting off ground level support for the enemy.
- Disrupt enemy supply lines and troop movement within South Vietnam
- Securing the province to allow "Vietnamisation" of its defence, i.e. to allow ARVN units to take over the defence of the province
Informed by the experiences of Australians and Brits in Malaya, this strategy of nation building and security helped inform the development of COIN strategies and, arguably, also the Seize, Clear, Hold and build strategy later utilised by the Allies in Iraq. Coral / Balmoral Coming down to the Operational level, Operation Toan Thang 1 was a counter- offensive carried out by Australian, ARVN and American forces following the NVA's Tet Offensive in 1968. In this operation, the Australians were operating outside of Phouc Tuy province, as part of a larger allied task force offensive. This offensive against the NVA saw the Australians deploy three battalions, who were deployed around three fire support bases (FSB), Coral, Balmoral, and Coogee. Coral and then Balmoral were assaulted by the NVA.
Fire Support Base Coral
FSB Coral was established via helicopter, under the watchful eye of the NVA. The lack of defensive preparation of the FSB and scant defensive forces at the FSB resulted in a hard fought and almost disastrous battle for the Australians, where some guns were over run and Artillery were firing over open sights at the NVA as the NVA launched several battalion size assaults on the Australians.
FSB Balmoral, which was subsequently established, was also attacked. However, Balmoral was far better prepared, with pre planned firing lanes, registered artillery, and the carefully hidden reinforcement of Australian Centurion main battle tanks. The NVA again attacked in force (2 battalions), the brunt of the assault falling on D Company 3 RAR. The NVA were met with withering machine gun, artillery, tank and Air support fire, resulting in very high casualties in their assaulting forces. There are several correlations in this example with the previous, but with a difference at the tactical level due to the changes in technology. Operationally and tactically, FSB Coral inadvertently became the subject of an ambush. The drop in via helicopter, designed to take the enemy by surprise, effectively resulted in the Australian FSB being established in the middle of the hornets’ nest. While similar to the previous campaigns, in that it put the Australians in a position encouraging/forcing the enemy to assault them on ground of their choosing, the assault was not expected at the FSB itself. This was reflected by the dispersed nature of the Australian infantry, who were up to 1 km away from the FSB in the AO. Crucially, the NVA were being attacked on a ground of their choosing. Secondly, the slowness of the FSB to establish a strong defensive position opened up the opportunity for an NVA counter-assault. This is where the tactical differences between the ages become apparent. In this instance, the Allied force had complete air superiority, and massive fire-power to draw on. This allowed them to significantly disrupt and destroy enemy formations and reserves, particularly as the Australian Artillery barrages were brought as close as 25m to the Australian lines. Australian casualties vs NVA casualties do not reflect the direness of the situation. Balmoral saw the difference between a prepared position, expecting to be assaulted, and an unprepared one. Balmoral FSB was not penetrated by the enemy. The assault by two NVA battalions fell primarily on one company on the perimeter, who were able to inflict massive casualties on the NVA for minimal losses.