Combined Arms Properly Understood

by Capt M.C. Chisum

The guru of maneuver warfare for the Marine Corps, Bill Lind, has used the GAZETTE as a sounding board to disseminate his ideas. Undoubtedly, maneuver warfare is a concept whose lime has come. Lind, however, has used the opportunity to deny the need for Marine aviation on the modern battlefield. Addressing the problems we face on the battlefield of tomorrow, he speaks of mission tactics and combined arms, bul he seems repulsed by the idea of any departure from what are referred to as the traditional roles of air and ground. In one article he even questioned teamwork, the logic of the Marine on the ground supporting the Marine in the air:

The focus on destroying enemy air defenses in effect reverses the traditional roles of air and ground. Now in the heat of their own battle, the ground forces are to divert effort to support the air-indeed, they are to make such action their first priority. . . . If the aircraft wing must be supported by the ground forces instead of providing them with support, is it time to raise some questions about the viability of close air support?[dagger]

In future conflicts when a MAGTF is assigned a mission, I believe both components of the air-ground team should be tasked with its accomplishment. The MAGTF commander could then employ the principles of maneuver warfare in three-dimensions on the battlefield. Uncomfortable with today’s sophisticated weaponry and with the Marine’s unique air-ground team and its awesome combat power, Lind quotes battles fought with bow and lance. But let us move forward in time a few centuries and examine a confrontation that took place less than 10 years ago, the Yom Kippur War. This 1973 conflict demonstrates the inseparability of air and ground warfare.

War in the Middle East was considered very unlikely after the 1967 conflict because of Israel’s strategic deterrent-its air force. During the 1967 war, the Arab air force had been virtually destroyed on the ground by IAF preemptive air strikes. The Arabs lost 250 of their 370 fighters and 55 or 70 bombers. By 1973, however, the Israeli strategic deterrent had been offset by an Arab counterdeterrent-Soviet made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Because of the 1967 war, Egyptian planners chose to rely on a strong air defense system in the 1973 conflict. Their SA-6, SA-7, and ZSU-23/4 had no equivalents in the Israeli Defense Force and could not be negated by Israeli electronic countermeasures (ECM) and air-to-surface missiles (ASMs).

The Yom Kippur War is categorized as a struggle between the Arab SAM and ZSU-23/4 defenses versus the Israeli F-4 Phantom and ECMASM offense, for control of the battlefield.

On 6 October around 1400 hours the Egyptians and the Syrians launched a 340-piane preemptive strike against Israeli airfields. Twenty minutes later the Israeli Air Force launched seeking retribution, only to fly into the deadly Arab air defense barrier (ADB). On the Sinai front they lost 10 planes in 30 minutes. In less than 2 hours over the Golan Heights, Israel had lost 25 A-4s and 5 F-4s. Stunned by the effectiveness of the ADB, Israeli pilots tried several different tactics. They came in high; they came in low. These experimental tactics cost them 70 aircraft that first day. Pilots flying over the Sinai were ordered to stay 15 kilometers (km) east of the Suez Canal and Egypt’s ADB, Egypt had gained air superiority.

The repercussions need only be listed. Israel’s ground forces lost their close air support. Egyptian forces, out of Israeli artillery ranged, moved freely over the battlefield. Yet, Egyptian aircraft could drop their ordnance on Jewish positions without reprisal.

Israel did not give up, and air operations continued. Between the 6th and the 13th, Israeli pilots flew over 2,500 sorties against Egypt: 70 percent against ground forces, 6 percent against airfields, 15 percent against SAM positions, and 9 percent against Port Said. However, aircraft losses continued at catastrophic rates. Some days these losses surpassed the fixed-wing air assets in the 1st Marine Brigade.

A large tank battle along the Suez began on 14 October. It proved to be a turning point in the war. The ensuing action forced the Egyptians to leave their air defense barrier, and the Israeli Air Force began to work. Smart bombs, ASMs, accounted for over 50 Egyptian tank kills. Israeli artillery cut gaps in the Arab’s ADB giving the IAF more room to work.

On 16 October, Gen Sharon’s Israeli Task Force crossed the Suez to attack artillery and SAM launch positions near Deversoir. By the 19th the Israeli air-ground team was at work. Sharon’s men had destroyed 10 SAM launch sites, and with a gap created in the Egyptian lines, the IAF stepped up its efforts. With some breathing room and tactics derived at great cost, their pilots shut down 26 more SAM sites. As this penetration into the ADB widened, Egypt’s 3rd Army was forced to fight without its air defense umbrella. Faced with Israeli smart bombs, the 3rd Army was required to widen the distance between its vehicles from 50 to 300 yards thus diluting Egyptian ground combat power and aided Sharon’s maneuver on the ground. Working together, the Israeli air-ground team achieved the mission: the 3rd Army was soon encircled.

Over a 7-day period, 2,500 Egyptian sorties were flown near the Deversoir breach in an attempt to close the gap. But Egypt did not use FACs. This caused the Arab pilots to drop their ordnance on the obvious targets on the open ground rather than on more lucrative, camouflaged targets. The MIG-21’s bomb load was relatively small. This decreased accuracy and firepower of the Egyptian Air Force was further reduced by the threat from Israeli fighter aircraft. Israel had gained air superiority.

If we examine the definition of air superiority according to JCS Pub-1, the key phrases are, “. . . conduct of operations . . . at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.”

Prohibitive interference is a nice term for enemy actions that would result in the failure of our mission. Let’s try to imagine ourselves in the Israeli Army near the Suez on 6 October. We make a call for close air support on a small enemy mechanized force heading towards our position. Our mission is to thwart the attack and drive them off the east bank. Expecting F-4s on the scene any moment, boom! We are bombed by two SU-7s and they are setting up for multiple strafing runs. We call for fighter aircraft but are told instead that Egypt’s surface-to-air defenses won’t allow them to operate over our position. Can we afford this prohibitive interference in the future?

“At a given time and place” means just that. This qualifier gives us the focus necessary to understand how Marine fighter and attack aircraft can be employed with the concept of maneuver warfare. Offensive air support can strike swiftly at targets deep in the enemy’s rear. This could disrupt the POL resupply to enemy aircraft and forward-deployed mechanized forces, as well as destroy his command and control facilities. Our ground forces use the concepts of maneuver warfare to keep constant pressure on the enemy’s mechanized forces causing them to exhaust the supplies and POL they do receive. We simply use our attack aircraft to support and exploit the success of our ground forces. This would allow us to concentrate fighter cover over cur main effort, a concentration of combat power “at a given time and place.”

On both sides, during the first 10 days of the Yom Kippur War, the strategy can be characterized as Clausewitzian in its conduct. Daily, hundreds of tanks squared-off against hundreds of tanks. Israeli aircraft continued to attack antiaircraft defenses. Someone once likened that phenomena to an elephant charging an elephant gun. This direct confrontation, both on the ground and in the air, can only be classified as attrition warfare. With the few assets we have in the Marine Corps, both in armor and aircraft, we can ill afford to become engaged in this type of combat.

Students of maneuver warfare can see what Liddell Hart termed the “indirect approach” in Israel’s strategy at Deversoir. Sharon’s penetration to the west bank of the Suez and the creation of a gap in Egypt’s ADB permitted the Israelis to mass their combat power at a given time and place. Can we not consider the ground force’s attacks on the SAMs teamed with the subsequent employment of air against Egyptian armor as mission lactics. Through mutual support, they combined their efforts to accomplish the overall mission.

The Marine on the ground is concerned with the mechanized threat. The Marine in the air is threatened by the enemy’s air defenses. What is a surface to one team member is a gap to the other, and vice versa. Either enemy armor or air, alone and unchecked, could result in mission failure. However, when the strengths of aviation and ground forces are integrated, the MAGTF’s offensive power is maximized. It becomes a true combined arms force, each part supporting the other to achieve the MAGTF’s mission. Our tactics would only be limited by our own innovation. Their execution would depend on the mutual understanding of each air-ground team member’s capabilities.

To consider the modern Marine Corps as just an infantry corps with a collateral aviation capability creates a strategic gap. For the MAGTF to be employed in this manner is a dilution of its combat power.


See A Critique of ECP 9-5, 1981 Edition in the Dec81 GAZETTE