Part 1 of this article explored Army’s tactical adaption during the Pacific war as a model for Manoeuvre Warfare adapted to overcome the challenges of our regional geography and a superior adversary. Part 2 of this article draws the necessary conclusions regarding how we can use this history to adapt our tactics and technology to prepare our ourselves to return to this region for the present. This will be discussed along two broad themes, manoeuvre and fires. Manoeuvre in this usage refers to the movement of forces on the battlefield in combination with fire to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the enemy. Fires is used with reference to the integrated application of joint air-to-surface and surface-to-surface naval fires, alongside Army artillery systems.
‘in the jungle, it was always close, very close. It was face to face sometimes. Lord, sometimes men fought with bayonets’
– Clifford Fox
Manoeuvre warfare for our region: mobility before manoeuvre. The incorporation of the south west pacific area into the defence of Australia alters the utility of land forces and thus changes the purpose of land manoeuvre. The dispersion and natural austerity of pacific islands serves to perpetually isolate armies. In the south west pacific, the permissive terrain over which Sea Series exercises are routinely rehearsed gives way to coastal swamp, razor sharp kunai patch, highland ridges, jungle and urban sprawl. Vehicle movement, aerial ISR, and battlefield control above company level become severely inhibited.
Frontages thin as natural obstacles diffuse the quantity of forces that can be maintained in contact with enemy beyond the coastal fringe. The battlefield is pervaded by a peculiar 360-degree closeness so obstructive that it renders wide enveloping moves fantastically unrealistic. Attempting to control entire zones as if in a continental theatre will not only prove counter-productive but will often yield negative value due to the manpower, construction equipment, weapons, munitions, fuel, food, and medical supplies required to lodge forces at vast expense in time, ships and logistic complexity. Rampant malaria and other tropical diseases will mean that even deploying troops into remote island areas guarantees their rapid degradation.
As land forces become almost entirely dependent on naval and air power to support them, the purpose of land manoeuvre becomes the rapid seizure of natural harbours and airfields from which joint naval and air power can dominate the surrounding archipelagic regions. As the purpose of land manoeuvre changes to that of enabling the mobility of the joint force, manoeuvre warfare becomes a joint force endeavour, not just a land force philosophy.
‘Music is the space between the notes’
– Claude Debussy
Of the inherent firepower, mobility and protection available to the land force, when deployed in an oceanic environment like the Pacific it will be mobility which assumes paramount position in the triad. In an environment where land manoeuvre is severely inhibited, multi-domain mobility becomes the key to dislocating increasingly sophisticated enemy defensive arrays. As summarised by General Blamey during the Pacific war: ‘Each forward move of airbases meant an increase in the range of our fighter planes and consequently an increase in the area in which transport planes supplying our troops could be operated… To get airfields further and further forward was thus the dominant aim of both land and air forces’.
Today, as before, land forces require the mobility to insert where there is no infrastructure, penetrate a coastline behind enemy lines where assault is not ordinarily expected, commence operations immediately where large support bases are infeasible, and move inland through complex terrain on frontages as small as 50 metres. Then as now, simultaneous seizure of distributed land objectives, attacking where the enemy isn’t, is the key to outpacing adversary advantages in integrated air defence and precision fires. After the war, General Tojo told MacArthur that this tactic of attacking the ‘empty spaces’ was one of the key reasons why Japan lost the war. In order to achieve this outmanoeuvring effect, land forces must prioritise land, air and water mobility, transportability and sustainability before achieving a subordinate but effective balance of firepower and protection. Mobility will not only be a feat of superior tactics, but superior logistics.
‘This present war is termed a war of supply. Shipping is the secret to victory or defeat in this war of countries thousands of miles across the sea. To have regular shipping lanes, air superiority is essential. Ah, if only we had air superiority … if only we had planes.’
– First Lieutenant Uchimura, 41st Division
Unlike the Japanese, the Allies were able to ensure their tactical mobility was never compromised by inadequate resources. One of the most overlooked success stories of the Pacific war is that of the US naval construction battalions (Seabees) and the US Army engineer battalions. Employing over 325,000 tractor drivers, carpenters, masons, dynamiters, electricians, shopfitters and machinists; the engineers would execute the transference of US combat power 5,000 miles across the Pacific.
For the first time in modern warfare, logistic elements would be task organised to arrive with or immediately behind the assaulting echelons. Bulldozers would follow assault columns and within forty minutes commence airstrip construction and defence as infantry advanced inland, blurring the lines between logistic and combat elements. As Colonel Dr. Thomas Griffith Jr noted during the audacious seizure of Tsile Tsile airstrip prior to the air assault on Wewak, ‘the 700 men and 220 pieces of heavy equipment [bulldozers, graders and trucks] in one American aviation engineer battalion could accomplish in 24 hours the same amount as 50,000 men with hand tools.’ The Seabees alone would construct 111 airfields and housing for 1.5 million men throughout the war.
This advantage could not be matched by Japan, whose initial success in the Pacific war was predicated on a short war of surprise, speed, and light logistic support. For a country that only manufactured eight bulldozers between 1943 and 1944, Japan’s obsession with the production of glamorous weapons of attack paid scant regard to the more boring aspects of war. As a consequence the best airfields in Japan’s empire remained those constructed by the United States (Clark Field in the Philippines) and Australia (Rabaul). As many as 2 out of every 3 Japanese soldiers would eventually die of starvation or disease. Defensively, allied mobility allowed them to sustain sieges against superior enemy forces indefinitely because they could sustain logistical support indefinitely. Offensively, superior mobility allowed the allies to surge sufficient sea and air power forward as the vanguard for isolating their next land objective.
‘Tanks won’t be useful in a major conflict in the Asia–Pacific, which will likely be fought mainly by air and naval assets.’
– Declan Sullivan
Land manoeuvre and the ‘overweight’ fallacy. In an era where large arrays of stand-off sensors can conceivably que massive precision firepower onto opposing forces, is Army’s core competency in multi-domain combined arms manoeuvre still relevant? Whilst battles of the Pacific war often occurred within the context of momentous air and naval campaigns, it is easy to forget that so often the central point was the land battle. The victor’s ultimate possession of the manoeuvre objective, be it Dobodura, Milne Bay, or Henderson airfields in 1942, for example, would ultimately determine who controlled the Pacific Ocean surrounding those land objectives. There is yet no viable substitute to land forces as the central means of seizing the airfields and ports necessary to extend and sustain the firepower envelope employed by air and naval forces.
Still, uncertainty over the utility of land power in the Pacific lives on in the recent controversy over Army’s investment in heavy armour. This controversy is assuaged by recollection of the combined arms tactics employed by Army during the Pacific war. During the war the Australian Land Headquarters Tactical School focused the training of regimental officers in a six week syllabus in ‘combined arms and air support, obstacle crossing and the peculiarities of operations in built-up areas, mountains and jungle’. One of the principle armoured fighting vehicles of the Australian combined arms team was the Matilda II tank, which first saw action in the Pacific during the 1943 Huon Peninsula campaign. Nearly 400 were acquired by Australia for their importance in close support to infantry in jungle fighting. Weighing 25-30 tonnes, the tanks were heavy, slow and bogged regularly, but with engineer support their presence proved a distinct advantage.
In a typical example, during the 9th Division’s assault on Sattelberg on 16 Nov 43, the 2/48 Battalion’s attack on entrenched Japanese positions became canalised into a narrow frontage by bamboo jungle and steep razor-back ridges. With wide turning movements impossible, the leading elements arranged their forces into columns consisting of an Infantry company, tank troop and engineer platoon. This was summarised by E.G Keogh:
‘…a single tank formed the point of this tactical group, covered by second tank 15 yards to the rear, followed by an Infantry platoon, the company commander and a tank officer… The third tank would be 40 yards further back, followed by the company main body, with Sects deployed on the [jungle] flanks… The tanks had no room for manoeuvre and much engineer assistance was required to help them move forward…’
Despite regular delays imposed by the tank’s weight, the firepower and protection it afforded to the infantry justified its continued use until the war’s end. Sattelberg was successfully captured after 9 days and tanks would subsequently be deployed throughout the following assaults at Wewak, Bougainville, Tarakan and Balikapapan. Though tanks could not be employed as ‘high-speed’ platforms per se, wherever possible they proved ideal in roles such as route clearance, methodical assault on complex battle positions, and defence against enemy counterattack. Whilst the optimal design of armoured vehicles warrants continual exploration, combined arms teams benefit from a variety of armour options, provided they are employed using tactical surprise and balanced with the equipment to support their mobility.
‘Thank God it’s keeping dry… If it rains it’ll stop the tanks.’
– 2/48 Bn Digger
‘After the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, it could be argued that superiority of US air power had become the most important factor in winning every battle in the Pacific war, whether over land or sea’
– Dr Francis Pike
Advancing the strike line. The key to the allied strategy in the Pacific, coined then as ‘advancing the bomber line’, was to project joint fires at the maximum possible operating radius from successive base nodes along the axis of advance. General MacArthur summarises this integration of strike with manoeuvre: ‘seizure of successive hostile aerodromes. [Then] by destructive air attack soften up and gain air superiority over each objective. Neutralise with appropriate aviation [any] hostile supporting air bases and destroy hostile naval forces and shipping within range’.
In this way, the Allies used joint fires to pursue two strategic objectives. Firstly, bypassing costly assaults on fortified Japanese strongpoints, effectively cutting off the lines of supply to the Japanese empire – the submarine force sunk half of Japan’s merchant fleet and two thirds of its tankers by 1944. Secondly, to get within invasion range of the main Japanese islands – by 1944 US strategic air force had incinerated 60% of Japan’s 60 largest cities. Where previously the Army only played a supporting role to long range strike, this changes with the future trifecta of long range precision fires, land based maritime strike, and medium range ground based air defence. Not only will Army be able to contribute to a defensive A2AD deterrence, but perform an offensive role in ‘advancing our joint strike line’. As a consequence, fires are likely to assume a role equal in priority to manoeuvre, and at certain moments may assume an even higher priority, for the greater strategic good of the campaign.
'The age of the gunner beckons as the long-range missile becomes war’s decisive weapon'
– Dr Albert Palazzo
The ‘age of the gunner’ fallacy. Today a dark shadow looms over any attempts to discuss the future of Army due to our potential competitors’ possession of larger numbers of more precise missile artillery. However, this is not the first time we have had to confront existential range and precision overmatch. Dr Palazzo’s ‘2,000 kilometre killing zone’ is not wholly new when one notes that signals intelligence, aerial ISR and coast watching OPs regularly acted as sensors for allied air or naval strikes to occur at ranges beyond 1000 km during the Pacific war. As General Kenny, Commander Allied Air Forces in the South West Pacific put it, ‘the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was not something that just happened. It was planned and rehearsed. We prepared. We even picked the spot for the engagement.’
Limited in its pre-war tonnage by the Washington Naval Treaty, the Imperial Japanese Navy adopted the mantra of ‘Range Extension’, or ‘Yogeki Sakusen’ (Interceptive Operations). They intended to degrade US Naval power at greater range in order to shape an ultimate and decisive battle for control of the Pacific. In all categories of battleships, submarines, fleet carriers and torpedos Japan possessed range overmatch. Most decisively, Japan possessed superior range in airpower, the cutting edge fires capability that challenged every pre-war allied strategic calculation in the same way that missile technology threatens to do today. The allies never eliminated the threat of Japanese air attack, which averaged a 400km strike radius, but they overcame it through more skilful use of their own airpower, along three broad lines:
- Defence: Airdromes were not soft targets. They consisted of a distributed series of separated airstrips, dummy airstrips, dispersal areas and revetments, camouflaged and sighted to be as far outside of enemy airpower range as possible. Layered ‘warning services’ consisting of coast watchers, air and naval patrols, and radar sites were designed to alert air defence batteries and defensive counter air sorties to intercept sea and air attacks. The delivery of NASAMS and the $747 million package to support the basing of some of the ‘US' most high end and classified warfighting capabilities’ in the NT marks the initial creation of a similar network of hardened joint fires bases for our region.
- Attrition: From first defeat at the Battle of Coral Sea, initial losses to Japan’s starting strength of only 600 exquisitely trained naval aviators would never be recovered until the war’s end. Conversely, the United States had made the decision to radically overhaul its pilot training three years before the start of the war. From 1943 onwards, the US could deploy greater numbers of rested pilots with better training and superior aircraft such as the F6F Hellcat, F4U Corsair and P-38 Lighting. With missile power now integral to land, air and naval power, Australia’s ‘Loyal Wingman’ project and ‘Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Enterprise’ are a pre-condition to our ability to compete along these attritional lines.
- Manoeuvre: As already discussed, the Allies were able to manoeuvre their airpower with greater agility due to their rapid construction of a vast network of intermediate airbases in places the enemy did not expect. Air freight forwarding Units were created to reduce plane unload times from 40 minutes to 2.5 minutes, allowing for the dispersal and concentration of air and land power at great speed. The allied network of bases, for example, allowed General MacArthur’s 5th Air Force, based in Port Moresby, to mount air attacks on the Japanese super fortress of Rabaul in order to disrupt the bombing Henderson Airfield at the Battle of Guadalcanal, occurring over 900 miles distant. We are likely to see a return to this form of decentralised basing, consisting of a scaled layering of temporary ‘drop-in’ bases only open for mere hours, to austere jungle forward area refuelling points, and traditional ‘stay-and-fight’ installations; as is currently being spearheaded throughout the Pacific by the USAF’s ‘Agile Combat Employment’ doctrine. Recent testing of a RAAF C-17 to conduct ‘rapid air mobility’ raiding using HIMARs is a nascent representation of our future in rapid joint fires manoeuvre.
It is empowering to remember that the dilemma of range overmatch is not suddenly made new by the addition of missile artillery. This time Australia is now faced with the challenge of making superior use of all-weather and high endurance missile and sensor technology, as it did for airpower during the Pacific war. However, our precision strike artillery will be more evolutionary than revolutionary. It will assume a fraction more of the role of anti-air and anti-ship defence and offensive strike, with its true benefit being the freeing up of more air and naval systems to prosecute targets deeper into the enemy rear. In this way General Kenney’s ‘6-Step-process’ for Operation CARTWHEEL, discussed in Part 1 of this article, may be applied at the extended ranges necessary to degrade enemy missile artillery systems traditionally out of our reach. Employed in this manner, Army’s missile artillery will undoubtedly see our service play a far greater joint fires role; however, this role is best understood as integrated contribution to the entire multi-domain strike capability, rather than being a decisive revolution to warfare in itself.
‘Battles, conventional or irregular, turn on the basics of gaining fire superiority and manoeuvring against the enemy… block and tackle - decide battle’
– Jim Mattis
The intervening years between the Pacific war and the present have seen a resurgence of a great power competition, the multi-polar rise of powerful middle powers, and increasingly developed and capable oceanic allies. More still, the rate of military modernisation promises to diminish our traditional capability edges in ways that make our return to expeditionary operations too chaotic for many to contemplate. With helpful experts proposing a myriad of creative solutions; from counter-fire and hardening, to adaptive basing, to deception, speed and blinding, and many more; it can be helpful to structure the divergent suggestions into the simple frame of ‘fire’ or ‘manoeuvre’.
When faced with this situation during the Pacific war, our application of manoeuvre and fires had to adapt to remain relevant. For manoeuvre, the tactics, logistic requirements, and its very purpose changed with a focus on exploiting the superior mobility necessary to execute rapid manoeuvre warfare as a joint force. Despite the pervasive fascination with long range precision artillery, Army’s core competency in combined arms manoeuvre will remain the most reliable means of sustaining and continually extending the killing range of the joint force. In the realm of fires, Army’s investment in future capabilities will unlock the artillery’s ability to play a critical role not only in our defence, but in ‘advancing our joint strike line’. Still, the full utility of Army’s future fires systems remains dependent on the joint force. Air power and agile basing are likely to again play the leading role in achieving the dispersion, survivability and agility necessary to disrupt equally capable enemy fires systems.
As government races to deliver more agile and self-reliant capabilities to the ADF, our task as tactical leaders in Army remains envisaging how these operations will unfold on the ground to pre-empt the adaptations necessary for their rapid execution.
‘to have a new vision of the future it has always first been necessary to have a new vision of the past’
– Theodore Zeldin
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