AirLand Battle was the overall conceptual framework that formed the basis of the US Army's European warfighting doctrine from 1982 into the late 1990s. AirLand Battle emphasized close coordination between land forces acting as an aggressively maneuvering defense, and air forces attacking rear-echelon forces feeding those front line enemy forces. AirLand Battle replaced 1976's "Active Defense" doctrine, and was itself replaced by the modern "Full Spectrum Operations".
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The basic concept of the Blitzkrieg and similar doctrines was for the attacker to secretly concentrate his forces across a limited frontage to gain a local superiority over the defenders, culminating in an attack with at least tactical surprise leading to a breakthrough, which is then rapidly exploited to threaten the rear areas and destabilize the entire defensive position.
As the war in Vietnam wound down, the US Army started studying their organization and structure, looking for ways to better align it with real-world conflicts. In 1973 they formed the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), under the direction of General William E. DePuy, to study these issues and produce better doctrine for their forces.
TRADOC concluded that there were two main possibilities for future conflicts, a major armored conflict in Europe, or a primarily infantry fight in other locations around the world. The latter possibility led to the ill-fated Rapid Reaction Force. The former was more problematic given the Warsaw Pact's massive numerical superiority, especially given the ending of Selective Service.
When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, it demonstrated a new lethality of conventional weapons, especially the anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). The new vulnerability of tanks, combined with the improved defensive power of the infantry, led to a revolution of thought within the US Army—that a war in Europe was winnable with conventional weapons. Impressed by the new weapons, DePuy started the process of re-arming the heavy divisions with weapons that would dramatically improve their firepower.
In DePuy's view, firepower had increased so much that war would be won or lost almost immediately, in the first few massive battles. As Field Manual 100–5 noted, "The US Army must above all else, prepare to win the first battle of the next war."
Since forces from the rear could not move forward quickly enough to take place in the titanic battles being envisioned, everyone had to be placed as close to the front lines as possible. The result was a new battlefield organization that moved the vast majority of US and allied forces much closer to the border between East and West Germany, in what became known as "forward defense". As reinforcements from the US could play only a minor role, the war was a "come as you are" affair. Air power was key; as the battle increased in tempo and the Soviet forces attempted to break through the defenders, channels would naturally form that would be attacked by air.
One problem that was noted soon after the introduction of the 1976 Operations was the problem of how to deal with the enemy's reserve forces in the rear. There was the possibility that the US could win the first battle, only to meet a second unattrited reserve force soon after. A solution to this problem was not immediately forthcoming.
In 1976 Colonel John Boyd presented Patterns of Conflict, a study outlining a number of historical matchups in which the victor was able to disrupt the "observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle or loop" of their enemy. This, he stated, made them "appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder". His primary example of such action was the Blitzkrieg, where highly mobile forces were quickly concentrated at small points and then used to force a number of simultaneous thrusts through the front. Blitzkrieg aimed at forcing the enemy into a continuous battle of maneuver instead of an outright fight, bypassing any strongly defended areas and extending into their rear. In order to guarantee supply movement and avoid being encircled, the enemy is forced to retreat in an attempt to reform continuous defensive lines.
The traditional method of dealing with an armored breakthrough was to pick away at its sides, forcing it to maneuver away in order to find less-defended areas of advance. If these spoiling attacks can be set up on both sides of the route of attack, the armored spearhead is forced into an ever-decreasing frontage, eventually being pinched off and losing the ability to maneuver. The classic example of a successful anti-Blitzkrieg was during the Battle of the Bulge, where US units repeatedly forced the German spearhead inward, eventually pinching it off just short of the Meuse River. However, this approach required the forces to be deployed in depth, and the massive numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact was the reverse of the numbers during the Bulge. Additionally, the concentration of low-mobility forces that formed the channelizing groups would invite nuclear strikes.
Instead of meeting the Blitzkrieg head-on, Boyd suggested what he called the "counter-blitz", where small groups of equally mobile forces would pick away at the lines of thrust and then move on to the next in a series of hit-and-run attacks. There was no necessity to retain any sort of front line, and the attacks deliberately moved from point to point in order to avoid being bogged down or getting trapped. The idea was not to force the blitz to lose its ability to maneuver, but instead upset its ability to understand where it should be maneuvering to—the attacker would have no idea which of these counteroffensives represented a real threat, and would have to respond to all of them. The key idea was to "Smash blitz offensive by inconspicuously using fast-tempo/fluidity-of-action and cohesion of counter-blitz combat teams as basis for shifting of forces and quick focus of air and ground effort to throttle momentum, shatter cohesion, and envelop blitz in order to destroy adversary's capacity to resist." The battle was less about the weapons than it was about the ability to command them; it was believed that the U.S.' devolved command structure would be able to react to changes on the battlefield more quickly than their Soviet counterparts, overwhelming the Soviets ability to maintain cohesion as their higher-echelon commanders became overwhelmed with reports from so many small actions.
Whereas Active Defense envisioned the Army units moving from one blocking position to another in a series of largely static defenses, in the counter-blitz they would be far more mobile, conducting a series of limited offensives instead. Another difference was the role of the reserves; under Active Defense their role was very limited and even battlefield reserves were expected to be placed directly in the front, but under Patterns the reserves could be introduced where and when they became available, and be just as effective as the troops that had been there from the start. Boyd felt that the continual pattern of harassment and shifting positions could continue throughout a conflict, as opposed to attempting to win the entire war at the front in a single battle.
When Boyd introduced the concept, the Pentagon was being led by power groups that new inductees considered hidebound and moribund. As illustrated in The Pentagon Wars, Boyd and like-minded up-and-comers formed the "Reform Movement" and sought to overturn existing chains of command and introduce new weapons and tactics across the entire armed forces.
The major driving force in the evolution of AirLand Battle was General Donn A. Starry, who had taken over TRADOC from DePuy in 1977 and had been the primary force in implementing Active Defense. Since its introduction Starry had been attempting to find solutions to the problems of the enemy's reserves, and had been developing the concept of the "extended battlefield".
The extended battlefield noted that different commanders had different views of the battlefield in geographical terms. The brigade commander had to consider actions beyond the immediate front lines, up to 15 km into the enemy's rear where his artillery was operating. The division commander considered the battlefield as far as 70 km out, while the corps commander had a field of view out to 150 km. Starry introduced the idea that there was not only a geographical dimension to the battlefield organization, but a time dimension as well; the brigade had perhaps 12 hours to respond to actions, while the division had 24 and the corps 72. It was this coordination both in space and time that defined the extended battlefield.
The reason that the time dimension was important was the result of studies in nuclear weapon employment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in December 1979. These studies demonstrated that interdiction in the enemy's rear could seriously delay the movements of the rear echelon forces and create "time windows" during which the US would have the tactical advantage. By ensuring that the command structure was aware of the time dimension of the battlefield, they would be better prepared to take advantage of these windows when they occurred.
Prior to the 1970s the air forces had been seen primarily as for strategic bombing, delivery of tactical nuclear weapons, or for attacks on enemy air forces. Their counterpart to FM 100-5 listed only eight missions, only one of which required direct interaction with the Army forces in the field.
During the Vietnam War much of the US air power had been directed against supply buildup and movement points; roads, bridges, supply depots and the like. Attacking these targets with conventional weapons was an expensive process, requiring considerable amounts of ordnance to be expended to guarantee a "hit". In the late 1960s and early 1970s the introduction of smart weapons allowed conventional forces to directly attack point targets like bridges and roads, dramatically improving the ability to interdict the enemy, while at the same time allowing the aircraft to operate from safer, higher altitudes. These had little real impact during Vietnam when they were still very new, but their potential was obvious.
Starting in the early 1970s the Air Force took its first steps at looking at a conventional war in Europe. In late 1975, RAND Corporation completed a study that examined the merits of additional manned aircraft, remotely piloted vehicles, and stand-off munitions for improving air-ground capability in NATO. A follow-up two-day workshop at RAND studied what vulnerabilities the Warsaw Pact might have to NATO airpower, which was followed by a series of additional studies that clearly demonstrated their reliance on the continued movement of supplies. Air planners were beginning to look for ways to best employ these new weapons at the same time Starry was working on the extended battlefield concepts.
Starry emphasized the close coordination between the Army and Air Force to produce an integrated attack plan that would use the land forces in a counter-blitz while air power, artillery and special operation forces stopped the movement of the reserves toward the front line. The result would stretch out the Warsaw Pact's advance in time, allowing the smaller NATO forces to continually attrit the enemy all along the battlefield while the reinforcements arrived piecemeal. The result was a single AirLand Battle.
Although the focus of AirLand Battle was on conventional warfare, it did not ignore the threat of nuclear or chemical warfare. It suggested planning for nuclear strikes or chemical weapons use from the beginning of combat, using them as a threat from the start that would force the enemy to disperse his forces or run the risk of a nuclear strike as they concentrated. The plans did, however, suggest they only be used if first attacked in kind.
The overall message conveyed by the AirLand Battle concept of 1981 was that the Army must leave behind the restricted notion of winning the fight only in the traditional "main battle area."
When Active Defense had been introduced in 1976 it faced a wave of criticism, both from within the Army, and from highly influential civilian advisers outside. Having witnessed this first-hand, Starry took measures to ensure this would not happen a second time. Foremost in these efforts was the early dissemination of the concept through briefings and wide circulation of Fort Leavenworth's draft of the new FM 100-5 in 1981. These were well received, especially its newly offensive orientation, which it summed up neatly with this statement:
"... once political authorities commit military forces in pursuit of political aims, military forces must win something—else there will be no basis from which political authorities can bargain to win politically. Therefore, the purpose of military operations can not be simply to avert defeat—but rather it must be to win."
AirLand Battle became the primary battleplan of US NATO forces in 1984. Its roll-out required upgrades to the C3I equipment of all branches of the military, along with similar changes in the command and control structures to take advantage of the massive amounts of information the new C3I assets would be generating.
"AirLand Battle" stands as part of the title of the sequel to Wargame: European Escalation, Wargame: AirLand Battle. The game is set in the Cold War when AirLand Battle was a major strategy of NATO, and pits the player playing as either a NATO commander or Warsaw Pact general leading military engagements against the other alliance. More literally, it introduces fixed-wing aircraft units to the game that was previously limited to land units and helicopters.
b. The concept emphasizes the all too frequently ignored or misunderstood lesson of history—that once political authorities commit military forces in pursuit of political aims, military forces must win something—else there will be no basis from which political authorities can bargain to win politically. Therefore, the purpose of military operations cannot be simply to avert defeat—but rather it must be to win.