The Abbreviated Evolution of Combined Arms

By James Heap June 21, 2019

Sophisticated enemy combined arms formations converge massed tactical fires; mobile, protected, lethal maneuver units; manned and unmanned reconnaissance and strike aircraft; tactical air defense; electronic warfare; chemical weapons; and C2 to overmatch friendly ground forces operating without tactical air superiority in the Close Area.

 The United States Army Capabilities Integration Centre


Understanding the evolution of combined arms as a concept is essential for the military professional to develop and improve military capability for future operating environments. There should be less analysis into the clinical determination of what occurred throughout the history of combined arms and more emphasis on concluding how military leaders in the past developed their plans. The necessity to change tactics and the availability of resources shape how armies are employed. However, it is still the commander's ingenuity that develops ideas for effective implementation. This post will briefly begin by analysing the development of ancient warfare tactics through Macedonian formations in their time of crisis, in conjunction with the large scale military reforms completed by the Romans. It will then examine how the development of technology and the changing enemy environment in the Middle Ages further charged commanders to adapt their critical thinking to suit their world’s immediate conflicts. Analysis of Napoleon’s use of smaller armies grouped as combined arms teams will follow and show how the matching of different troops types was having an effect at the strategic level. Finally, this post will conclude by demonstrating how General Sir John Monash created the first modern example of combined arms at the Battle of Amiens and why this topic is important for 21st century military commanders. To first understand this subject, however, we must first consider ancient warfare and how adaptions to their formations and manoeuvres were made during their time.

Ancient Warfare (753 BC – 475 AD)

Ancient warfare set the precedence for how commanders adapted their methods with limited technology in order to maximise their effectiveness on the battlefield. Ancient warfare lacked the combat multipliers of modern technology and therefore relied on attrition and ingenuity without access to pieces of equipment that could change the tide of a battle. To be a great ancient military commander there is great emphasis on adaptation and surprise: bringing capabilities and tactics to the battlefield the enemy isn’t prepared for. Setting the conditions for the ancient battle often decided the eventual outcome. Therefore, military ingenuity without real time practice in combat was a common occurrence for the greatest commanders of the time. In 359 BC, Macedonia lost a battle to the Illyrians resulting in 4,000 troop casualties and created military necessity for a military development. If the Macedonians failed to adapt to their adversaries' threats they were likely to face annihilation. Illyrian cavalry had dominant range through their lances which enabled them to achieve their shock effect before the Macedonian infantry could defend themselves. Phillip II administered a restructure of Macedonian forces with longer spears and a formation called the phalanx. The employment of the phalanx enabled the infantry to hold their positions against a strong cavalry charge whilst Macedonian cavalry could manoeuvre and impact their opposing forces. However, the spear alone could not defeat the Illyrians, and a combined effort of both cavalry and the phalanx formations was required in order to continue winning subsequent battles. Whilst Philip II administered a tactical change, the Romans later reformed their armies to be more flexible and representative of a combined arms organisation.

Military tactics developed by the Romans through the Marian reform resulted in a revolutionary restructuring that significantly improved the force capability of the Romans. Prior to the Marian reform the Romans had specialised troops allocated to specific parts of the formation; inexperienced soldiers were sent to the front (Hastatii), the more experienced soldiers to the centre (Principes), and the wealthier and battle hardened (Triarii) were placed depending on the environment and enemy picture. These formations were class based and the individual equipment was often dependent on the wealth of the individual solider. As conflicts continued, the line between these three types of units became more blurred through financial hardships. As a result, the Romans lost their variable strengths and weaknesses resulting in lesser flexibility on the battlefield. The Marian reform resulted in mixing all three units in a state based heavy infantry formation (Proletarii) and allowed for better funding and a classless system of enlistment. This adaptation meant the Romans were more structured in their dismounted role, allowing for the supplementation of archers and cavalry to better support their line troops. The Romans demonstrated through the Marian reform early examples of how a collection of troops with differing strengths and abilities is a significant force multiplier on the ancient battlefield. As wars continued and further technological advancements were made, the coming of the Middle Ages saw more developed examples of a combined arms effects.

Middle ages (476 AD – 1492)

The middle ages saw a transition of better protected and heavily armed forces that allowed commanders to employ more specialised troops that could be used to protect the weakness of others. William the Conqueror used a combination of forces to structure his army in order to achieve the greatest effectiveness on the battlefield. Archers were employed in a disrupt role, the infantry in a pin role, whilst cavalry would then find weaknesses in their enemies defences in order to break through structured formations. Archers did not have the protection of the infantry and the infantry lacked the ability to disrupt due to their strict formations that were required for their protection. Whilst cavalry were highly valued for their shock effect during a charge, and could disrupt an enemy formation, their capability was drastically reduced post contact where the lesser valued infantry were more sustainable and expendable. The Infantry were now heavier and more susceptible to cavalry and archers, and if the infantry were not appropriately protected by archer fire or cavalry manoeuvre through flank protection they would sustain significant losses. Regardless, William used his tactic with great success throughout his invasion of England, and as a result, he began to demonstrate some form what is considered to now be a combat team by modern doctrine.

The Battle of Hastings (1066) showed how William employed a decentralised command that was required to coordinate combined arms effects. Harold Godwinson, the English defender and commander during the battle, employed a strict defensive formation on favourable terrain and placed himself with his troops in the immediate battle in order to improve English morale. William, correctly, placed himself out of the immediate battle, and directed his forces from a stronger command position in order to synchronise his effects and undermine the limited variety of troops that Harold had brought to the battlefield. After William failed in his initial attack using these tactics, William adapted in contact and executed a series of feints, where he systematically ordered specific units to withdraw and allow English units to pursue. As explained by historian Max Brooks in Strategy Strikes Back, “Identifying and exploiting asymmetries is the essence of strategy – war is the continuation of policy not by the enemy’s chosen means but by the means most likely to damage the enemy.” The pursuing forces would follow Williams’s troops into the open to the rear of Williams’s formations and be destroyed by his cavalry in the process; William had identified weakness, exploited its potential, and through his armies increased flexibility had dominated Harold. As a result of William’s tactics, William defeated Harold and continued his march across England. William’s forces and their ability to change tactics during the battle itself demonstrated how having a variety of troop capabilities had increased the flexibility of his forces.

16th to 19th century

Throughout the 16th to 19th century the evolvement of firepower through the implementation of gunpowder created a greater reliance on the range and lethality of projectile weapons. The Battle of Nagashino (1575) saw the arquebisers of Oda Nobunaga use zig-zag walls to offer protection to the firers. Despite the aquebisers being limited to 50m in lethal range, the arquebiser soldiers stood their ground and repelled numerous cavalry charges from Takeda Kasuyori’s army. When the aquebisers failed to rout a charge, spearmen would assume their place behind the wall and fend off the surviving cavalry. Notably, Nobunaga placed his troops outside of the protective walls of his castle, which was against traditional use of fortifications that normally sees the defender stoically defend within their walls until the defences are physically penetrated. The use of Nobunaga’s forward positions enabled him greater freedom to employ his forces both defensively with the aquebisers, and offensively with the spearmen. Nobunaga demonstrated through this tactic how combined effects and a reliance on manoeuvre were important to achieve a decisive victory. In later years, Napoleon was seen to further develop ranged units which he implemented into his specifically structured armies.

Napoleon and his Grande Armee’s organisation is another example of how cannon fire and musketry added another capability to what is slowly evolving into traditional combined arms. Napoleon had his forces specifically organised into smaller armies of infantry, cavalry, cannons and muskets in order allow each group to fight and sustain itself independently. Napoleon’s balance of troops meant he had unrivalled flexibility in both strategy and battlefield effects. His enemies regularly employing a limited variety of troops that were less effectively organised, this meant the Grande Armee could fire, manoeuvre and sustain itself for longer. Napoelon demonstrated one of the first and most significant uses of a combined arms organisation on a strategic scale and it set the conditions for his continued success throughout the war.

Modern combined arms

General Monash is considered by many to be the father of combined arms after his efforts during WWI (1914-1918) on the Western Front. WWI saw the rise of revolutionary technology such as the machine gun, tank, and aircraft. Military weapons were increasingly more lethal while humans remained just as vulnerable. The result: a war of attrition on a scale the world had never been exposed to. The role of infantry was no longer to expend themselves through heroic physical effort, or extreme skill in close combat, as most would not arrive in the close quarters battle unless they had firepower and cover to move. The events of the Western Front during WWI set the conditions for Monash employ his forces in an all arms concept at the Battle of Amiens (1918), where a walking barrage would screen the advancing Allied soldiers so that they were only exposed once on top of the trenches. Similar to the Battle of Nagashino, the protection of the infantry was critical as they were the only force capable of holding ground and enabling further victories . The cover of firepower also gave the junior officers time to assess and decide on how they would secure their pieces of land without fear of being mowed down by machine guns. The requirement to keep your commanders out of extreme contact during the Battle of Hastings was now being put forward as an integral part of combined arms due to the fluidity that warfare was developing into. In the 21st century, today’s commander must use these lessons in the combined arms environment to establish the next level of military proficiency.

Cyber, space and electronic warfare capabilities must be harnessed in the modern age to assume equivalency of the great innovations of commanders in the past. The increased interconnectivity of militaries, and the requirement to communicate and operate faster through these three domains, presents an opportunity for commanders to excel in future wars. All modern armies are linked to cyber space networks and allow for the collation and dissemination of intelligence and information that are vital for military kinetic activities. In 2008, Russia executed a military operation in South Ossetia in combination with a cyber attack on government websites in order to screen Russian manoeuvres through the denial of information. The cyber-attack was far cheaper and less politically culpable than a smoke screen from an artillery battery; however, it still achieved the same effect. Satellite imagery from space further enables militaries to have near unobstructed birds eye views of the environments that a combined arms teams is intending to clear . High definition footage from satellites is discrete and can support a commander’s manoeuvre plan up to days in advance by scanning and identifying routes and battle positions to aid in their mission. The introduction of the battle management system into the Australian Defence Force is a step towards revolutionising the use of space as a battlefield multiplier. However, systems such as the 9LAND BMS have faster connectivity and a greater variety of tools to net commanders. Commanders on the 9LAND BMS are able to issue orders and execute tasks without using the radio and becoming vulnerable to attacks on communication systems. Due to the effectiveness of electronic warfare, systems that are less vulnerable to electronic attack are pertinent to securing modern equipment. Russian electronic warfare units demonstrated the decisive potential for electronic warfare attack if defending units are unprepared. This example from Storr is indicative:

“On the 11th of July 2014, a Russian battalion tactical group conducted a pre-emptive strike in Zelenopillya on Ukrainian units postured in assembly areas preparing to conduct offensive action against Russian and partisan forces. The strike resulted in dozens dead and wounded and the destruction of more than two battalions of combat vehicles. The strike was preceded by heavy drone activity and cyber-attacks that crippled Ukrainian communications” 

Lieutenant General Rick Burr confirmed in his Futures Statement upon assuming command of the Australian Army, ”Our people must be leaders and integrators who contribute to multi-disciplinary teams, enabling us to thrive in uncertainty, adapt to change and generate solutions”. General Burr’s statement, is synonymous with emerging military opportunities and threats that continue to affect the use of combined arms and future warfare. Therefore, cyber, space and electronic warfare are the next layer to revolutionising combined arms in the 21st century and future commanders will excel if they apply these new domains in a combined arms role.


To break the barrier for the evolvement of combined arms, military professionals should use lessons of ingenuity from the past to support creative thinking that fosters a more effective use of combined arms teams in the future. Whilst General Monash is considered to be the father of combined arms, it would be incorrect for him to be considered the earliest example of combined effects on a battlefield. From tactical developments during the ancient age, the heavier armaments for militaries during the middle ages, and the use of gunpowder munitions until the 19th century, there have been many examples of military change imitating combined arms. Military professionals must continue to adapt and critique human and environmental threats so that militaries are not left wanting on the battlefield. Operating environments will not stay the same; technology will not stay the same: however, the way in which commanders think and use their resources will remain constant throughout time. Therefore it is important that combined arms analysis is not limited by historical labelling and especially not being limited to the role of combined arms in the 20th century. If we are to follow in Monash’s footsteps in the 21st century, we need to harness cyber, space and electronic warfare in a multi domain role. Therefore, as the future continues to unfold, we need to understand that we are still on the same timeline for the evolvement of combined arms as the Macedonians, William the Conqueror and General Monash; we need to remember where it began so that militaries can be better prepared for the future.


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James Heap

James Heap is an officer in the Royal Australian Ordnance Corps with an interest in military history and future technology.

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