by Keith Morrison
©2011 Keith Morrison
In this column, to continue the trend started in the last one, Id like to touch on what would generally fall under the category of Hollywood Tactics. Put bluntly, its showing presumably professional (or at least experienced) military personnel using tactics that would get them beaten by a pickup team of ten-year-old paintballers. This isnt intended to be a primer on realistic combat; goodness knows there are enough real (and fictional) sources out there which can satisfy your combat needs. Instead, Id like to highlight some of the common pitfalls I see which can erode the verisimilitude of your fiction to the point that people who do know something will sadly shake their heads at your characters utter (if unintentional) stupidity.
If you intend on having some kind of military action in your story, and you want them to appear somewhat reasonable in what they do, you have to take into account two major things: The technology available to the civilization your soldiers are from, and the environment you expect your soldiers to fight in.
First, the technologyand by this I dont just mean the actual hardware, but also how its implemented. Wars are a particularly effective way of weeding out things that work from things that dont. People who insist on using things that dont work tend to get beaten by those who do the things that do work, unless they are fortunate enough to be facing opponents who make the same mistakes.
As an aside, this does not necessarily mean the highest tech inevitably wins; for a science-fictional example, Arthur C. Clarkes story Superiority is an amusing tale of how the higher tech solutions went awry for one side. And for those of you who prefer real-world citations, World War Two provides the canonical example in which the country with arguably the higher tech in some areas (such as tanks, submarines, and aircraft) ended up with foreign troops marching through its capital, in large part because the winners recognized it wasnt just the tech that was important, but how it was used. Having the best tank in the world means nothing, if you can only produce a handful of these precision-engineered pieces of industrial art while the other guys produce and field thousands of slightly inferior tanks. As one military historian put it, the transmission on a German tank produced in 1944 was a marvel of precision engineering, something made with such finesse and attention to detail that it would work reliably for years and certainly put the equivalents on the Sherman and T-34 to shame. But when you consider that it was deployed in a tank whose operational lifespan was measured in weeks to months (if it was lucky), all that effort was a complete waste of time. The material and effort involved would have been better spent in simpler designs that may have been cruder and a bit less reliable, but could have been produced faster, in larger quantities, by less-skilled workers. As what happened with the Sherman and T-34.
So higher tech isn't a guaranteed win. But in that case, how does technology affect war?
Consider probably the best example: The evolution of the firearm on the battlefield. The first firearms were slow to load, unwieldy, and inaccurate. By any measure they were less effective in terms of range, rate of fire, and accuracy than bows. In fact, it wasnt until the 19th Centuryalmost 400 years after guns were inventedbefore your average infantry firearm surpassed the overall capabilities of the bow. The limits of the technology affected the tactics in which that technology could be used effectively.
Initially, the only way firearms could be used was as a support element, basically as man-portable artillery. It needed to be supported by infantry with non-firearms who could protect them from the enemy who, in the time it took gunners to reload their weapon (and who probably hadnt been hit by anything anyway due to the inaccuracy), could easily overrun a unit armed only with firearms. So in many ways, the tactics used with early firearms were really just a slight adaptation of the tactics that had evolved for effective use of already-existing projectile weapons. A military that had been using archers for some time could swap over to gunpowder weapons relatively easily, because their deployment would be fairly similar.
Once you got to weapons like the musket and the bayonet, things changed. You didnt need those pikemen protecting your gunpowder users any more, because the bayonet allowed you the best of both worlds: Everyone can carry projectile weapons and be armed with long pointy things if things got really close. That said, fighting in formation was still the only way you could really fight a large battle in open terrain; the relative inaccuracy of the muskets meant they were best deployed when fired at once, essentially becoming a big shotgun. The low rate of fire and inaccuracy meant you had to stay together because if it did come down to the steel, a unit acting together has better survival odds than a bunch of single soldiers acting individually. And since communications were still by line-of-sight, sound, and messenger, a commander had a better ability to control the battle because it was easier to control his troops because he could see where they were.
And then three developments changed everything: The breech-loading rifle, the machine gun, and really effective explosive artillery shells.
The breech-loader gave the rifleman some huge advantages over a musketeer. For one thing, loading a musket is difficult unless you can do it while standing, and almost impossible to do lying downbut a rifleman can load and fire while in the dirt and behind cover, presenting a much smaller target to the enemy. In addition, the riflemans better accuracy means he can use aimed fire over a much longer range, as compared to the unrifled musket, and he can fire faster with a cartridge.
To illustrate the practical benefits of these advantages, lets say a line of enemy troops comes into view 500 meters away from a unit of firearms-equipped defenders. Riflemen can be fatal over that entire range; musketeers at only 250 meters, half as far. On an open field, a unit of troops should be easily capable of moving that 250 meters in 2 minutes if they put the move on. At three rounds a minute, musket-weilding defenders might get off six volleys before theyve closed to bayonet range. Now advance against riflemen. Even with single-shot rifles (you have to load each round individually), a modestly skilled rifleman should be able to get off 6 rounds a minute, or twice the rate of fire. That enemy unit, now with twice the distance to cover, will be facing four times the number of bullets coming at them before they can close the distanceand, whats worse, at the ranges where a musket ball might start being dangerous, the riflemen will be able to make precise shots at individual targets (instead of just shooting that-a-way and hoping to hit something), which massively increases the effect of each round.
The culmination of this was with the British Armys Mad Minute in the 20th century. Prior to World War One, with a bolt-action rifle with ten-round magazine, the standard the infantryman had to meet was placing 15 rounds in a man-sized target at 300 yards, in one minute. This meant reloading at least once since the stripper clips used to reload were only 5 rounds, even longer if you didnt hit with every shot.
Now imagine that kind of unit facing our previously-imagined enemy unit. Lets say theyve managed to sneak up to the 250-meter mark before being seen, but then advance in line formation against a unit of British troops from 1912. They still need the two minutes to cross that ground but in the first minute, before theyve even gone halfway, each British soldier has theoretically hit (not just fired at, but hit) fifteen enemy troops. It would be a complete slaughter, and the enemy still has to go another minute into the teeth of that storm. The ability of the British Army to put out rifle fire at such a volume initially led the Germans to believe they were facing machine guns.
And that neatly segues into the number two technology that changed everything. The machine gun, from Gatling on up, meant that a small team of troops could now pour out fire equivalent to a regiment by themselves. The problems of walking into that situation become obvious. And speaking of walking: Tech three, the exploding artillery shell.
The combination of the three technologies meant that walking in tightly packed formations, as was the standard for muskets, and before them most weapons and armies going back into antiquity, was complete and total suicide. Troops began to be spread out, but then again you run into the communications problem. Military commanders on the Western Front in World War One were not, as popularly believed, complete morons. Most knew that trying to advance in tight formations against artillery, machine guns, and rifles, was, at best, sub-optimal, but they didnt have an effective way of dispersing troops and still maintaining control.
Enter: Tech four, the radio.
Theres an assumption that battlefields in World War Two were much more fluid because of the tank, but you could argue that the principle difference was the advent of small, portable radios that could be carried in a vehicle or on a persons back. Commanders now could coordinate smaller units spread over a larger area, maneuvering them as required in the ebb and flow of battle, moving reinforcements where actually needed, exploiting breakthroughs as they happened, dealing with breaches in the line as they occurred. They were no longer tied to what they personally could see, or what someone stuck at the end of a telegraph or telephone line could see.
These changes in technology also changed the way generals had to lead. From the Roman times to muskets, generals had to be able to see the field and their units; this meant they had to be close enough that an enemy breakthrough (or a lucky long-range cannonball, arrow, or musket ball) could threaten their personal safety. It also meant that their view of the overall strategic situation was rather limited, as the battle that was going so well now might mean nothing because the enemy has, unknown to you, sent someone around behind the hills to sack your supply base.
Telegraphs and telephones gave generals the ability to look at the larger strategic picture and to coordinate subordinates over a wider area. Still, they still had to be relatively near the front lines to get a feel for what was happening.
The radio finally pulled generals back from the front lines because their presence there, except for the odd morale-boosting PR trip, really was counterproductive. They couldnt effectively command right there anyway, because their troops would be too spread out to see. A generals best bet was to stay back where they could get an overview of the battle from their HQ, with access to the communications flowing in from the front, their staffs to provide information to make decisions, and so on.
So now, what does all this mean for the writer?
Consider a Roman Empire-level civilization that was exactly the same as Earth but with radios. Or telepaths, or palantirs, or whatever; the important thing is, this device lets them do long-range real-time communications. What is their army going to be like? On the level of actual tactics, no real change from our own history. They have the same weapons technology, and so it will have to be deployed pretty much the same way. A formation of legionnaires will still have to stand shoulder to shoulder, operating as a single organism. From the generals point of view, things are a bit different; he can now manage a more spread-out battlefield, effectively coordinate different units, so he has a toolbox with higher-level tactics and strategic options available to him. He can send a unit out on a flanking maneuver, out of sight, and ensure they hit the enemy exactly where and when he needs them to, while scouting units (or even individual scouts) give him real-time information on whats happening around him so hes forewarned if an enemy tries to come around his flank.
The better commanders in this case would like a war of maneuver. Thats where you move your troops to take advantage of whatever situation may arise, attacking when and where the enemy isnt prepared (because you know where they are, and can send units to take advantage of this), pulling back when theyre ready to fight but you dont think its worth it or you know youre going to be outnumbered, and ideally, running the enemy into the ground without having to fight set-piece battle at all. Your troops will be doing a lot of marching.
Now consider a Roman legion with rifles (or magic death-ray wands, or whatever), but no radios or other tech. Assuming the enemy isnt similarly equipped, the most effective way to use these weapons on the offensive would be like classic European musket warfare: Massed units being maneuvered together, because thats the only way the general can keep a grasp of whats happening and communicate orders effectively. They arent using the weapons as effectively as they potentially could, because if they spread out theyd cover a much wider front, but communication limits cant handle that.
On the other hand, in a defensive situation, they could be used much more effectively because, there, where the only order is hold your ground and kill as many of them as possible, you can spread them out to cover more ground, keep them down and out of sight, assign small units to watch certain approaches, and so on.
The better commanders would tend to favour the strategic offense/tactical defense approach to warfare, i.e. make the enemy attack you on the battlefield of your choosing, and simply blow them away until theyre no longer capable of attacking. The commanders were talking about would be big on field fortifications and defensive lines, advancing cautiously into enemy territory and then digging in. Your troops might not be doing a lot of marching, but theyll be digging a lot.
All this then leads into the environment you have to fight in. In the Roman With Radios example, set-piece battles still have to be fought the old-fashioned way, so what you want is the classic nice open-terrain battlefield. It can be broken, and perhaps ideally, by obstructions in the line of sight such as hills and trees, because you can still communicate and coordinate with the units operating out of sight and can maneuver them into position, unseen. Since battle is at sword length, a situation where you can have your troops emerging from the trees a very short quick march from the enemys flank would be brilliant, as you can choose the exact right moment for them to break cover.
What you dont want is for places where the enemy has a defensive position they can withdraw to, since your communications wont help you in that case. Everyone will know where they are, but still have to go steel-to-steel to dig them out, which is, as history will attest, Not Good.
In the Romans With Rifles example, quite the opposite: You want a nice, defensive position you have no real need to stroll out of, where you can clearly see the enemy maneuvering (or where they have limited options to move into the battlefield). The enemy can have all the open terrain they want, but it has to be open; to get the most out of your weapons, you need your riflemen to engage at the longest effective range they can, as early as they can.
If either is fighting out of their ideal situations, compromises will be made and risks run. Thats nothing newarmies have always had to do itbut it will influence where armies will tend to go and what strategies and tactics they will prefer.
A prime example of How Not To Do It is the Star Wars prequel trilogy, especially the second movie, with the large-scale battle between the Clone troopers and the droids. The Republic Army has long-range personal weapons, artillery, air support, communications, and armour. Advancing en masse, even with superhuman Jedi helping them on the front lines, is the last thing any semi-realistic army would have done. What should have happened is that they should have been more spread out, fighting a battle of annihilation (well assume the droids are still tactically stupid) by surrounding large masses of advancing droids in turn and pouring fire into them. The Jedi, aside from those standing back to command, would have been more effectively used as the equivalent of commandos or special forces; small, highly mobile units sent to wreak havoc behind the enemys front line.
(Ironically, this means the bit where Anakin, Obi-Wan and some troopers go chasing after Dooku actually would make sense: They were going on a deep strike to try and decapitate the enemy command.)
A better fictional example is The General series by Drake and Stirling. Raj Whitehall, thanks to his link with a highly advanced AI from the past, has a far greater sense of the strategic situation and possibilities, thanks to learning what worked and what didnt in human history. But when it comes down to it, he still has to deal with fighting the actual battle pretty much the traditional way.
I guess the final answer is, like much of what Ive suggested in the past, to sit down and think of some of the implications. One exercise that might work is to think of your fictional universe like a video game. With this analogy, technological improvements are, practically speaking, cheat codes. If you could use a cheat code, how would that change the way youd play the game?