Lessons lost?

My research in old and new military manuals and literature revealed (German, U.S., and a few others) several distinct differences, and shortcomings.

Most of these topics played a much bigger role in the old manuals (and at times none in new ones at all):

Elimination of an encircled opponent

Not all enemies give up fighting once encircled, and encircled enemies don't wither away as if they were beamed away from earth. The elimination of encircled units is a serious job, and should be done well.
Classic encirclements are probably impossible for a lack of force density in modern conflict. We need a new doctrine for this exploitation of battle success; yet I don't find that doctrine in manuals. I found a rather obsolete and incomplete chapter on these issues in FM-3-90 App.D, though.

A fire strike is the massed, synchronized, and nearly simultaneous delivery of precision-guided munitions. It is the preferred method for destroying an encircled enemy force.
(FM 3-90 App. D-19, original emphasis)

Let's just say that I "disagree".

Breaking out of an encirclement (pocket)

Essential, expensively paid-for lessons - lost?.
This extremely important activity is certainly not well-documented in modern manuals although it should be in combat battalion manuals, for example.

This reminds me of the optimism of the German army in the 30's. Retrograde movements (withdrawal, delay and such) made up a tiny part of leader training at that time - a deficiency that had to be corrected ASAP after the Winter of 1941/42.
A proper military leader training & education should also include all relevant knowledge for rather pessimistic scenarios. An encirclement can happen even to previously very successful formations - as for example during a deep penetration.


There are lots of management tasks for leaders in our manuals, but the emphasis on good leadership (the influence on the morale of the troops) has apparently been softened up even in German manuals.

Protection against air power

In our fighters we trust ... apparently. Even if I would buy this; what about precautions against enemy drones?
I wrote repeatedly that F-22s and Eurofighters will most likely not engage drones that are lighter and cheaper than a Sidewinder missile.

Initial handling of prisoners of war

This is quite easy for formations with many boots on the ground, but usually not for armoured brigades. German armoured divisions often took no prisoners, but merely took away their weapons and sent them to a POW rallying point in 1940-1942. There was simply not enough infantry at hand to detach infantrymen or other personnel to guard all prisoners.
The utter neglect of this (as if defeated enemies somehow vanished from earth) is bad, really bad.

March & break organisation

This is an extremely important topic for motorized and mechanized formations, down to battalion level.
The ability to move into resting positions and out (in any direction) as well as to break contact and march to another place is a hugely important variable for a formation's agility.
It's irrelevant whether your vehicles can move at 70 km/h if a battalion of bicycle troops is still a faster responder to needs in a 30 km radius than your mech battalion (this was more an result of empirical studies than a guess!).
Modern large-scale military exercises are often heavily based on simulations instead of on actual maneuvers.
Finally, breaks are most important. A formation that doesn't take breaks will drop in mission readiness for biological and mechanical (especially in units with tracked vehicles) reasons real quick.
My perception that marches and breaks don't get the well-deserved attention irritates me a lot.

Formation deployment

To deploy an army on the battlefield was pretty much 90% of an army leader's art till the early 20th century. Maybe I've read the wrong manuals, for this art seems to be almost lost (in our manuals). HDv 221/100 (German manual for armoured battalions) provides one page with the basics of basics of basics.
OK I'm an optimist. I must have missed the real stuff.

- - - - -

One topic is strangely absent in modern manuals:

Electronic warfare
(in combat arms formation manuals)

The interaction between infantry-tanks, infantry-artillery, tank-artillery is well-covered in many modern manuals of combat formations (infantry battalion, for example). The influence and potential of electronic warfare was almost entirely absent. The different degrees of and the need for radio silence were at mentioned in some manuals. That's state of the art in 1930's. Seriously, I expect modern manuals to pay much more attention to EW.
This weak presentation of EW irritates me because I rate EW as the fourth pillar of combined arms warfare (infantry / non-LOS support fires / armour / EW). It's usually non-lethal and probably not obvious enough in its effects (which is actually an argument FOR it being well-covered in training/education).

Sven Ortmann


  1. Hi Sven,

    Took a look, and also very cursorily re-checked some stuff, but yeah, generally I have to agree.

    I would add, however (though you of course have mentioned this yourself before), that without very recent experience of an intense and sustained, major, conventional war, we really don't have much to go on, and are left jumbling together doctrine from a mish-mash of new concepts and a few new experiences with extrapolations from the increasingly distant past. Not to mention that even the experience gained from a future general war would be necessarily conditional in its application to succeeding wars.

    But it may well take such a war to get the manuals comprehensively re-written. We may be able to make some educated guesses, but until we have plenty of really solid experience there likely isn't enough useful knowledge to put into present-day doctrine without running the risk of making some critical errors, especially in certain specifics. Perhaps it would be best to keep it simple and relatively general for now - not that that's ideal, but practically speaking, it may be the least bad option for now. And at all times, never mistake doctrine for a cookbook - or a substitute for a thinking brain.

    One way or the other, when the next big one comes, it will be the mentally agile (but well-versed in the lessons of the past) who'll figure out what, and how, needs to be done.

  2. "...there likely isn't enough useful knowledge to put into present-day doctrine without running the risk of making some critical errors..."

    Running on an autopilot programmed 65 years ago looks like a guarantee, not just a risk of making critical errors.

    All new concepts need to be taken with a grain of salt, but it's nevertheless in my opinion appropriate to
    (1) not forget old lessons and whole parts of the job
    (2) add enough new concepts (they could be marked as lacking a baptism of fire)

  3. Sven,

    I know this isn't completely on topic, but Norfolk brought up a good point about the importance of critical thinking and mental agility. Perhaps you could do an article on how various militaries encourage/discourage critical thinking, and how a desire for order and doctrinal orthodoxy can get in the way.

  4. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 9/4/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  5. That's an institutional problem. Bureaucracies have such tendencies, and it's up to individuals to be better than the institution wants them to be.

    Bureaucracies can at best restrain themselves from expelling such leaders.

    Don Vandergriff is the leading expert on this kind of stuff in the U.S. - I've linked to his blog almost since it went online.