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Six Easy Ways to Lose a War at the Tactical Level

"It takes a long time to train a good hunting dog, but a few minutes handled by an idiot will make the dog gun shy." (Appalachian Proverb)

The American public has given its Army a "bye" on this war - so far. The public has not turned against our Army as it did a generation ago. The Army’s mission is to fight and win the Nation’s wars, regardless of circumstances. Counterinsurgency (COIN) may not be the fight we want, but it is the fight we have. Thus far, we have not lost the war, but we have not won either; in many eyes, that equates to losing.

It is always easier to fix blame than to fix a problem; it is easy to blame politicians and strategists because strategy wins wars. Strategy has its primacy, but at the tactical level, we play a pivotal role in victory or defeat.

Has the Army conducted a thorough "mid-rotation like" after-action review at the tactical level? Many will immediately point out all the great work the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) and countless other organizations are doing to collect, analyze, and disseminate data points from the front. No doubt, there are many great soldiers and civilians who are working overtime to "spread the word" on various data points.

After-action reviews (AAR) are not just data points, however; they are designed to positively influence the collective missions and organizational effectiveness within the unit. More often than not, they are successful. At the conclusion of a good AAR, we immediately begin focusing organizational energy on the items listed in the "improve" category.

Below is an attempt to begin the AAR process; there are many "sustains", but this article focuses on six major "improves". Therefore, these six easy ways to lose a war at the tactical level are historically significant; however, they remain relevant in the contemporary operating environment (COE).

Failure to Maintain Contact

As young leaders, we were taught that once the enemy makes contact, we maintain that contact until decision. Today (after receiving small-arms fire or an improvised explosive device strike), do we universally maintain contact or do we quickly exit the engagement area and continue movement? Our enemies enjoy being illusive, taking their best shots, and then blending into the population. It is a difficult tactical proposition, but we cannot afford to break contact with the enemy. In a COIN COE, the enemy often chooses the time, place, and circumstances to initiate contact. He primarily uses visual, direct, indirect, and obstacles as preferred forms of contact. In terms of force ratios, unless we are traveling with a very small party, we have the ability to (as a minimum) maintain contain contact until relief arrives. If we fail to maintain contact, we embolden and encourage the enemy, creating a vicious cycle of allowing the enemy to have the initiative.

Historically, this is the most difficult tactical principle to follow. The enemy is smart, has studied us extensively, and knows our tactics for both entering and exiting an engagement area. Although it is often stated that there are no wrong tactics, moving miles out of the area or attempting to ignore an improvised explosive device (IED) strike in hopes the enemy will not do it again falls squarely into the wrong-tactics category.

Gaining and maintaining contact with the enemy involves maneuver skills (achieving positional advantage) vice movement (point A to point B) skills. Leaders who can transition from movement to maneuver quickly and efficiently win battles in both conventional and COIN environments. Although battle drills play a large part in this process, maneuver is much more than simply executing a series of battle drills. Gaining positional advantage over an enemy in a city of six-million people is a difficult (but certainly not impossible) task, requiring judgment and multiple training repetitions in a setting that is as realistic as possible.

If we are going to execute in an urban environment, we must train in an urban environment. Sending soldiers to train or maneuver on pristine ranges and open areas in designated "training areas" does not train them for the task of maneuvering in large urban areas. Arguably, the toughest task a unit encounters in combat is making a mounted 90-degree turn (in traffic and under fire) in an urban environment. Traditionally, there is a clean line between the "training area" and the "cantonment area". Until we can build large urban training centers, we must consider training in cantonment areas. We do an excellent job of touting the slogan "train like you fight", but are we living it?

To surrender contact is to surrender the tactical initiative, which, contrary to popular debate, does not contravene current COIN theory. This does not imply a "weapons free" situation, but rather an immediate, deliberate, and measured response, regardless of the type of contact, specifically for IED incidents. Deliberate does not imply slow. The local population will understand our measured response and, at a minimum, know we will respond. There is (and always will be) the risk of being drawn into a near ambush; tacticians take risk because risk involves rewards. Although many great units are executing this tactic, it does not appear universal in application.

Become Risk Averse

Everyone grieves the los of a soldier, but if that grief negatively influences our tactical decision cycle, then we become ineffective tactical leaders. The natural order of combat is: mission, soldiers, and self. Risk-averse leaders lead to avoid risk, which in a COIN COE, plays directly into the enemy’s game plan.

Not becoming risk averse during a year-long leader Army training and evaluation program (ARTEP) is extremely though. This article barely touches on the difficulty of such a task. Leaders bond with soldiers, and the more tactical drama they share, the closer they become. This is nothing new, and history is replete with examples of both risk-avers and blood-thirsty leaders.

All too often, however, success is defined by "bringing all my soldiers home". While this is laudable and speaks well of leaders, it does not answer the fundamental question of whether or not we accomplished the mission. Gifted tactical leaders work hard to accomplish both. We all want our casualties treated when the enemy initiates contact, but if the casualties become our singular focus, then we have (once again) played into the hands of the enemy. Our warrior ethos is non-negotiable, regardless of the circumstances at hand.

Failure to Patrol

We were taught young to see the terrain, the enemy, and ourselves. The terrain is neutral, and although it may be an urban jungle of six-million people, it remains as relevant today as it did at Gettysburg in July 1863. The key terrain at Gettysburg was not determined through a map reconnaissance but by mounted patrols. Arguably, the battle is decided by the side with the most battlefield knowledge, and that knowledge is determined by patrols.

When General Ridgway took command of the beaten 8th U.S. Army in Korea, he immediately ordered a major increase in patrols, not just to increase battlefield knowledge, but to increase his soldiers’ sense of purpose. Ridgway’s aggressive technique turned the 8th Army into a highly effective fighting force and should serve as a lesson for the ages.

If we fail to patrol, the enemy will emplace IEDs along our prospective lines of operation (if the enemy does intelligence preparation of the battlefield), and when we use those lines again, we will have contact. Contact will come at a time and place of the enemy’s choosing and will meet his tactical purpose.

We have claimed for years to "own the night". Do we actually; does the enemy? Purposeful tactical movement through and around the battlespace has positive second- and third-order effects, especially at night.

Every patrol must have a definitive tactical task and associated purpose. Presence patrolling to "show our presence" is a leader’s sin. It is analogous to the order "move out and draw fire …and when they start shooting at you…" Orders of this nature do not instill confidence in one’s chain of command. Acceptable tactical tasks include clear, control, disrupt, and defeat. Although it would be easy to simply take Nike’s approach and "just do it", leaders must ensure we have clear tactical tasks and nested purposes during all patrols. One thing is certain, failure to patrol our battlespace leads to an emboldened enemy.

Logistics Bloat

Logistics are critical and central to all combat operations, but you have to know when you have enough. There is a point where logistics occurs in direct support of nothing but logistics. Vietnam is a classic example. At one point, the base at Long Binh, Vietnam, occupied more than 25 square miles, had almost all known amenities, and employed 20 000 Vietnamese. General Bruce Palmer commented on several occasions about the amount of combat power required to support and defend these large logistics-bloated areas, claiming this was even more troublesome than one-year tours to our efforts in Vietnam. According to some estimates, in 1968, only 15 percent of the total force was available at any one time for sustained combat operations.

Tooth-to-tail is a historical albatross, but nonetheless must be wrestled with and conquered. The raging debate is one of how well we treat our soldiers. We all want our soldiers to have the very best, but at what cost? Many great soldiers believe that reenlistments are directly proportional to soldier comforts; others will tell us "it has a dramatic negative impact on the mission". Meanwhile, the debate continues.

Comfort aside, our Army, in its long and distinguished history, has not won a war fighting from garrison. The more organizational energy we place into making our forward operating bases a garrison (supporting and defending that garrison) is organizational energy we are not devoting directly to our primary mission. The "super FOBs" hold many great and disciplined soldiers, but the enemy also knows the value (in terms of panic) of a well-placed mortar round.

Current COIN theory encourages us to live among or as close to the population as possible. Building and maintaining super FOBs (with requisite security requirements) is an extremely expensive proposition in terms of soldiers. The "if we build it, they will come" mentality is good for contractors and logisticians who enjoy centralized planning, execution, and total and complete control over their inventories, but it may not be the best long-term solution. The security brought by being surrounded by friends only makes us "feel" secure; it does not accomplish the mission.

Failure to Train and Educate the Rules of Engagement

The myths, war stories, and tall tales associated with the rules of engagement (ROE) are legendary and are increasing faster than gasoline prices. Soldiers use ROE to justify shooting, not shooting, thinking about shooting, and a myriad of other circumstances.

Training is reflexive in nature and provides specific response to given stimuli. Education questions why we execute the drill to compensate for stimuli; however, both are required with respect to ROE. Soldiers in our current formations are the brightest and best educated our Army has ever known. They soak up knowledge and ask for more, which is why education is the most critical training we execute in preparation for deployment. Our soldiers will certainly be trained to execute the training effect we desire, but in the enemy-induced ambiguous world of COIN, the enemy wants to create as much confusion as possible and will readily use our ROE.

Training the ROE in a complex environment is not enough; we must also plan and prepare soldiers by training them on the second- and third-order effects of the decision to shoot or not shoot. Going kinetic in combat is a life’s worth of training and experience applied by a decision that will be made in milliseconds. We cannot afford to be undereducated in this protracted and ambiguous war.

Leaders must also thoroughly study, intuitively understand, and educate to the same level of variations in response, which are based on the enemy’s forms of contact with us and our forms of contact with him. For example, if the enemy initiates contact with an IED, we cannot respond with unguided direct fires in all directions as we attempt to break contact, even if the ROE allow it. As frustrating as it may be, a measured response commensurate to both forms of contact is the correct tactical step on the path to victory.


Centralization, whether physical in terms of collocation of units with shared or widely distributed battlespace or conceptual in terms of echeloned command and control and information requirements for day-to-day operations, is at best counterproductive, and more likely disruptive, to successfully executing tactical operations. Centralization occurs to some extent because leaders are attempting to take care of their soldiers by providing them with a safe and comfortable FOB.

From the physical perspective, centralization drives units toward super POBs, which provide a very high level of soldier comfort, as well as the ability to distribute security requirements across a larger pool of available soldiers. It is also arguably a much simpler process to supply the consolidated tactical units garrisoned at these bases. What is lost, however, is the significant ability to tactically prosecute the war.

The location of a large FOB results in isolation from the local population that we are meant to secure and influence, and conducting patrol operations becomes difficult because of distances involved. Any operation outside the base requires a distinct movement phase (during which we are very vulnerable to whatever form of contact the enemy chooses to bring to bear) before executing specific tactical tasks. We give the enemy ample opportunity to observe our movement, target our movement, or prepare for the subsequent operation. In short, we compromise the ability to effectively and continuously patrol within a zone because we do not live in that zone. We also increase the actual logistics burden because we make targeting our supply trains exceptionally easy. Logistics packages are not headed to new locations on differing routes; instead, they are generally limited to the handful of trafficable routes in and out of the FOB, which the enemy can readily target at leisure.

At the conceptual level, centralization is perhaps more dangerous. Trust of subordinates is lost not by intent, but physical proximity. Leaders may intend to trust subordinates, but they may not actually trust them in practice. Leaders have the authority to check any operation at any given time. A task force commander can readily accompany a company team when he chooses because his task force is generally not conducting task force-level operations. He is not required to truly trust that company commander because the circumstances do not demand actual trust. If a leader is uncertain about the accuracy of a report, he can simply go to that company’s command post and check. Leaders are on hand to receive information, and due to the management adage of old, can immediately and directly act on information they receive. The requirement to trust subordinates to do the right thing does not physically exist within consolidated units that are garrisoned out of a FOB, especially given garrison like information requirements.

Our Army and our Nation cannot afford even a stalemate in Iraq. At the tactical level, leaders can directly influence the outcome of this war by playing to win, versus merely playing not to lose. Playing to win is a challenging proposition, though. It requires leaders at all levels to take risks, and within those risks, we will likely lose lives. Soldiers, however, will be working toward a deliberate decisive endstate for particular operations.

Playing to win also requires taking risks with combat service support operations by placing a distribution burden on logisticians as they supply smaller bases throughout the unit’s battlespace. Soldier comfort will suffer in the short term, but we will be working toward a clear conflict resolution. Leaders and soldiers in all units will need to execute frequent, decentralized operations, and will need to be exceptionally disciplined, educated, and trusted in the execution of those operations to avoid tactical blunders that create strategic losses.

Authors: Colonel Jeffrey R. Sanderson is currently serving as commander, 4th Cavalry Brigade, First Army Division East, Fort Knox, KY. He received a B.S. from Western Carolina University, an M.S. from Western Kentucky University, and an M.M.A.S. from the School of Advanced Military Studies. His military education includes Armor Officer Basic Course, Armor Officer Advanced Course, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and School of Advanced Military Studies. He has served in various command and staff positions, including chief, Stryker Brigade Combat Team Transformation Team, TRADOC Systems Manager-Stryker, U.S. Army Infantry Center, Fort Benning, GA; commander, 2d Battalion, 69th Armor, 3d Brigade, 3d Infantry Division (ID), Operation Iraqi Freedom; S3, 1st Brigade, 1st ID (M), Fort Riley, KS; S3, 2d Battalion, 34th Armor, 1st Brigade, 1st ID, Fort Riley; small group instructor, Armor Officer Advanced Course, Fort Knox, KY; commander, C Company, 3d Battalion, 7th Infantry, 1st Brigade, 24th ID (M), Operation Desert Storm; and commander, D Company, 3d Battalion, 69th Armor, 1st Brigade, 24 th ID (M), Fort Riley.

Major Jay Miseli is currently an assistant professor, Department of Mathematical Sciences, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY. He received a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.S. from the Georgia Institute of Technology. His military education includes Armor Officer Basic Course, Airborne School, M1A2 Tank Commander Certification Course, Field Artillery Advanced Course, and Combined Arms and Services Staff School. He has served in various command and staff positions, to include aide-de-camp to the superintendent, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY; commander, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Task Force 2d Battalion, 69th (2-69) Armor, 3d Infantry Division (3ID), Fort Benning, GA and Iraq; commander, C Company, 2-69 Armor, 3ID, Fort Benning; battalion maintenance officer, 3d Squadron, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, TX; and tank platoon leader, 3d Battalion, 73d Armor (Airborne), 82d Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, NC.

This article was published in: ARMOR, July-August 2007

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