Fight Like a Marine: Defeating the Enemy as a System – Squad Battles Modern War

I am enjoying reading “The Marine Corps Way of War”, by Anthony Piscitelli. Although the book focuses on the implementation of maneuver warfare within the US Marine Corps, if you dig enough in their doctrine you will start finding points of connection with other principles they use. In the end everything ends up as being related to everything and the result is one wholesome kick-ass combat philosophy.

Disclaimer: I’m not a Marine and I am writing these articles just out of plain admiration. No pretense of professional-level analysis is meant.

I always try to put what I read into my wargaming and off course there are limitations to that. The real worlds of doctrine-making and warfighting are totally different to sitting down on an armchair and pretend that you are commanding a fighting force. In “The Marine Corps Way of War”, the first vignettes of how the US Marines have used the maneuver warfare philosophy are relatively simple, for example the reaction to an ambush by a platoon, with everybody knowing what to do and where to shoot almost without the need for directions. In wargaming, we move troops at leisure and achieve levels of coordination that only highly trained men do.

Caveats understood, I want to explore something of “MCDP-1 Warfighting ” (the central and all encompassing warfighting document of the USMC): “each belligerent is a complex system consisting of numerous individual parts […] Each element is part of a larger whole and must cooperate with other elements for the accomplishment of the common goal.” Later on, the document states that the goal is to “attack the enemy ‘system’ to incapacitate the enemy systemically.”

The recognition of the enemy as a complex system is in itself a level of scholarship that is very uncommon in a military organization. There is an obvious influence of John Boyd’s theories in this and that will be evident if you read his “Patterns of Conflict” slides. Down the history line, the works of Andrew Ilachinski come to mind.

Before I go directly into wargaming this concept, I want to put clear the two more obvious challenges that one faces with an enemy system:

  • Systems tend to be robust. You knock down one element and another takes over the one that is gone. The mythical Clausewitzian “center of gravity” is an evasive one, to the point that it may not even exist below the level of the whole system.
  • Complex systems are non-linear. Complex non-linear systems are not intrinsically predictable. With non-linear systems this comes as a huge reward or a huge punishment. Either you push a tiny bit there and the enemy collapses entirely, or you commit your precious reserves at a point where they get painfully attrited over time.

I am going to be using John Tiller’s Modern Warfare for this vignette. This extremely underrated wargame is spot on when showing infantry fighting at the fire-team/squad level. I really like how the infantry is so difficult to kill with just direct fire, the need to execute close assaults in order to achieve results (fire without maneuver is useless, as the aphorism goes), and the command structure system.

The scenario I chose is called “Onwards and forwards” and the briefing goes:

March 24, 2003
On the road to the Tigris river
Side: US Marines or PBEM
Night scenario

56 hours after crossing the border, the Wolfpack (USMC 3rd LAR) was already leading the attack north. After passing through Task Force Tarawa and crossing the Euphrates river, they now found themselves spearheading the USMC forces and heading towards the Tigris river.

While advancing hundreds of kilometres in front of the main body of forces, the battalion was confronted with a night ambush, and quickly entered what would become the first and only battalion level engagement of the war.

The bad news is that we have a recce force in light armored vehicles, facing an ambush from positions in a built up area. The good news is that we have a recce force in light armored vehicles, facing an ambush from position in a built up area. This is neither witticism nor blind optimism. This is what happens when you start to think about the enemy as a system. Be prepared to see victory where it looks impossible but also to sit and run at the same time. Welcome to war …

The area of operations. The USMC forces will cross the canal and secure objectives in a loosely built up area. The 1st Platoon, A Company (4 LAV-25 vehicles) can be seen as brown icons.

Given that the objectives are on the roads, the enemy has the ability to fight from mutually supporting positions located in the nearby buildings. Driving through those roads would end up with my Marines caught in crossfire with very limited options to flank the enemy without being caught prematurely into just another firefight. In a way, ambushes are about that denial of maneuver that compels you into staying put without mutual support and forcing attrition onto you.

My plan to break into this hellish situation is to create a meaningful system of interior lines that allows me to reinforce successes and withdraw from failures, and also a way to provide mutual support between my forces. Company A will arrive first and take the objectives located east (darker blue arrows in the map above). Their objective is to gain a foothold from which to continue advancing (light blue arrows) to support Company B in their push through the north-western objectives (light blue wide arrow). The beauty of this is that Company B will have mostly a free east flank due to the support of A Company.

Let’s analyze some pictures from the battle itself.

For a better view, you can open this image in a new tab. 1st Plt A Company(northmost USMC brown counters), thanks to their quick action, have secured two objectives already. Note the enemy (orange counters), mostly irregulars so far. The 2nd and 3rd Platoon of A Company are seen to the south.
For a better view, you can open this image in a new tab. A Company is mostly done with the objectives on the east road. Some fanatic enemy units stubbornly resist and cause casualties among our Marines. I’m starting to get very concerned about the inability to move some fireteams out of harm’s way. Staff Sergeants commute back and forth making sure to break the disruption. Note the 1st Plt., B Company, which just arrived and is maneuvering to their starting position.
Enemy armor shows up! They fire at some of my vehicles with little success. But they are closing fast. Some of my AT LAVs are re-routed in all haste. There will be losses in our vehicle inventory.
My AT vehicles engage the enemy tanks with AT missiles. The enemy armor seems unstoppable, but their targeting is so poor that sometimes zoom by my LAV-25s. The gunners of the LAV-25s succeed at knocking out two old T-55 tanks with AP rounds fired at their rear and at a close range. B Company (counters in the south), anxiously waits for the armor to be gone.
The complete destruction of the enemy armor is a big morale boost for me, but my virtual Marines have a long way to go. The number of LAVs lost is worrying. In the north and northwest, A Company’s push for the other road meets a lot of resistance from recently arrived irregulars. There is a general increase in casualties. This is not a pretty fight.
In the west of the area of operations, B Company is maneuvering and it has just made contact with enemy irregulars. Some elements of B Company have already pivoted northeast and are making modest progress into the enemy’s positions. A Company is entangled in a maze of firefights, with the northmost elements (1st Platoon) stalled due to enemy resistance.
B Company (west and center), is steadily working its way northeast. The enemy resistance is heavy and the casualties are not light, but the efforts of A Company clearing the east flank is paying off. The north elements of A Company made a desperate effort to break the stalemate and have started to rapidly maneuver with their LAVs. Much to my chagrin, more vehicle losses for us.
In the end, B Company (west flank of my forces) shovel the enemy aside of the fields and envelop from the north an irregular force holding the objective. The mobility of the LAVs comes in handy, but the security offered by their dismounted elements is sorely missed. More vehicles are lost
Endgame. This is the final shot of the battle. The plan worked more or less fine except for the unanticipated presence of enemy armor and the stubborn enemy resistance. As it will be seen in the next screenshot, it was a bitter victory.
The final score is a Major Victory for the US. 40 Marines and 13 vehicles lost is not a small toll, but I guess we will take it.

The next time, I’m going to try a simpler example with Combat Mission Shock Force 2.