Monday, January 09, 2006

Reading :: Swarming on the Battlefield

Originally posted: Mon, 09 Jan 2006 21:00:24

Swarming on the Battlefield: Past, Present, and Future

by Sean J. A. Edwards

Recently I've been reading a lot of these RAND reports and other texts on the swarming doctrine ? a way of attacking enemies that is fundamentally different from the massed formations that have typically characterized mechanized warfare. But most of the swarming literature has been frustratingly short on specifics, and consequently there's a lot of slippage in what swarming actually means. People familiar with military strategy have told me that swarming does not seem to be the fundamental shift in doctrine that it purports to be ? "we've been doing this forever," they have said, referring to decentralized decisionmaking and other characteristics. Part of the problem, I think, is that "swarming" has been overused and stretched to mean too many things; it needs a treatment to nail down the concept, explain the characteristics, provide a variety of case studies, and explain its weaknesses as well as its strengths.

Sean Edwards' study goes most of the way in accomplishing that. Edwards, who worked under Arquila and Ronfeldt at RAND, undertakes a quasi-experimental comparison of several historical cases of swarming: Scythians v. Macedonians, Parthians v. Romans, Seljuk Turks v. Byzantines, Turks v. Crusaders, Mongols v. Eastern Europeans, Woodland Indians v. U.S. Army, Napoleonic Corps v. Austrians, Boers v. British, German U-Boats v. British convoys, and Somalis v. U.S. commandos. For each, he carefully examines the case and catalogues both advantages and disadvantages. Then he summarizes some general conclusions with the appropriate caveats:

The cases have highlighted some successful countermeasures to swarm tactics, such as
  • pinning a swarm force using either a part of one's own force or a geographic obstacle (Alexander, Crusades)
  • eliminating the swarm force's standoff-fire advantage (Byzantines)
  • eliminating the swarm force's mobility or elusiveness advantage (U-boats)
  • securing the countryside by building a linked network of fortifications (Macedonians)
  • separating the swarmer from his logistics base (Macedonians)

Edwards also make the important point that the threat of WMDs leads armies to consider far more dispersed formations, making swarming more attractive than it might be otherwise.

In all, if you're genuinely interested in swarming as military doctrine, Edwards' study is a really important one to read. But the application appears to be quite strictly military. Edwards does a good job nailing down the term, and in the process, squeezes out the more metaphoric applications (such as Hugh Hewitt's application of the term to blogging). In my book, that's not a bad thing. >

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