Leonidas’ Legacy: A Matter of Missiles vs Manoeuvre

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‘Our archers are so numerous, said the envoy, that the flight of their arrows darkens the Sun. So much the better, replied King Leonidas, for we shall fight them in the shade.’

In future conflict where precision long-range strike missiles (PLRS-M) proliferate, the indifference of King Leonidas to arrows (a.k.a. missiles) at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC is acutely instructive. A small cohesive force with resolute fighting spirit, combined with effective use of terrain and the synchronised use of shields, brutalised a massive Persian invasion force. So the Spartan King’s legacy deeply resonates in terms of seminal questions regarding missiles posed by Smith and Palazzo in their short paper and submission to the Chief of Army’s Contest of Ideas.

‘Smith & Palazzo’s principle argument is that PLRS-M may profoundly alter the way ground combat and logistic forces conduct operations and the balance will be tipped in favour of defenders who are augmented by enormous missile engagement areas.’

Missile Distractions 

When contemplating PLRS-M through a lens of near future force structures, Smith and Palazzo’s argument is somewhat compelling. But ground combat forces have been subject to ‘missile’ threats throughout the history of war and missiles alone have not always been the decisive ingredient. Lethality and range of missiles has iteratively evolved from rocks to intercontinental ballistic missiles, but so too have tactics and technologies to counter them. Consequently, the Australian Army is now challenged with the next missile iteration and associated capability navigation choices in the context of Accelerated Warfare.

‘As each volley of arrows rained down the Spartans rapidly transitioned to defensive posture using individual shields to collectively protect the entire force. Pausing only long enough to shelter from ‘missile clouds’ before resuming their relentless slaughter.’

While the Spartans were defeated by overwhelming force, their tactics meant that enemy missiles were an inconsequential distraction from the main effort. Thus, in context of sophisticated missile threats, perhaps the obvious riposte is to develop a Mobile Missile Shield (MMS)? This system would require layered effects with hard-kill effectors, cyberspace and soft-kill options integrated into joint airspace denial architectures. This is why the Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) program with AIR 6500 and LAND 19 Phase 7B is a major step in mitigating future missile threats and could be the basis of a broader MMS approach.

‘MMS is akin to Active Protection Systems physically interfaced on Main Battle Tanks but scaled up to protect entire Battlegroups or Combat Brigades during land combat.’

Missile & Drone Cooperation

Intelligent defence systems will be vital for land force casualty reduction in the next war, analogous to Ground Based Air Defence in past conflicts. Effective defence systems such as U.S. Patriot or Israeli Iron Dome solution-classes illustrate this point. Therefore, historical paucity of air defence assets within Australian land forces is no longer a viable force structure setting given rising airspace perils. Hence, future land combat vehicle systems should consider air and drone defence armoured vehicle variants to reinforce the IAMD inner tier. As without adequate investment in this vital facet of force modernisation, Smith and Palazzo’s proposition appears more plausible.

‘While precision missiles are a risk to ground forces, another emerging threat is from armed autonomous drones enabled with onboard artificial intelligence and targeting.’

PLRS-M threats should not be considered in isolation. MMS could be configured to operate in conjunction with smart drones serving as a means of targeting, including as kinetic or electronic attack vectors. I have written previously about growing risks from autonomous combat drones and suggested drone defeat mechanisms at the tactical level, however protection from enemy drones will also require operational and strategic defence-in-depth. Therefore, the synchronised use of mobile shields via MMS systems with layered drone defence out to strategic distances could be the modern equivalent of individual Spartan shields providing group protection.

Targeting Cycle Disruption

‘Retreat to complex terrain is one strategy to survive hostile smart drones collaborating with precision missiles, but as Smith & Palazzo presciently point out, how do ground forces preserve combat power when in the open between urban centres?’

Their paper eludes to advanced sensors detecting targets for precision strike. With this aspect there also exists threads of risk moderation, given advanced threat sensors are critical vulnerabilities to be targeted. Disrupting threat sensors compromises automated targeting cycles, further reducing risk to land forces exposed in open terrain – can’t be seen, can’t be hit. Thus, drone screens with counter-ISR drones combined with MMS coverage may be a line of scrutiny for modernisation planners. Moreover, the concept of robotic systems shaping or contributing to deep counter-reconnaissance battle should probably be considered as a priority. 

Arrows from Space

Counter-space systems to blind or deceive space-based threat sensors may also be necessary to survive astonishingly fast ‘arrows’ vectoring from the edge of space.’

Influencing the space domain is pressing in relation to hypersonic missile threats, against which counter-hypersonic technology is immature. Hypersonic missiles may still need to rely on the targeting cycle and associated sensors to be fully effective. But physically reaching into Earth orbit to achieve a military effect has thus far been beyond the gaze of strategic planners. Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider counter-space options as proposed by Stephen Kuper?

‘As hypersonic weapon systems mature, winning the fight for airspace superiority may have never been so critical to land force mission success.’

However missile and drone defensive options must be approached holistically. Signature management and diversion tactics, together with offensive cyber action will compliment kinetic responses. My published thoughts on signature suppressioncyber operationsresponsive space, autonomous logistics and deception provide concepts that ground forces might employ to manoeuvre successfully across open terrain in a missile-rich paradigm.

Tactical Judgement

‘Akin to creating a diversion and smoke screen as infantry cross a contested street in urban combat, the same concept may be achieved for battlegroups breaking from cover and crossing open terrain, albeit it would become a unit mission-essential task in itself.’

In addition to new technology augmentation, electromagnetic spectrum manipulation and deception, dispersion in open terrain will remain an astute predisposition for advancing or withdrawing forces. Moreover, a proclivity to manoeuvre by night or during inclement weather could contribute to comprehensive detection avoidance efforts. Concentrating forces only when it is tactically prudent to do so or at decisive points in an operation.

‘In the offence, a penchant for danger-close fire missions and extensive use of multi-spectral smoke screens could also enhance survivability against precision missiles.’

Defence operations will also adjust to varying threat situations – battle positions in urban or close terrain and on reverse slopes will be vital force protection postures. But aren’t all of these just sound tactical judgement? Adaption to threat profiles? Arguably not profound alterations in modus operandi. Moreover, if the tactical balance is now tipped more in favour of a defending force with precision missiles, the attacking force still retains the combat initiative.

Fighting in the Shade

Ferociously led by King Leonidas, the determined band of Spartan warriors fought valiantly to the end, but it was a breach of operational security that fatally compromised them and not volleys of Persian arrows. So, in deference to Leonidas’ Legacy which has echoed through the centuries – I contest that manoeuvre beats missiles. Likewise, fighting in the shade of precision missile and smart drone attacks appear set to become persistent features of an Army in Motion.

About the Author: Greg Rowlands served over 27 years in the Australian Regular Army and has published extensively on future space operations, including emerging technology trends and shocks affecting military affairs. He is a former Project Director in Project LAND 400 Land Combat Vehicle System. You can find him on Twitter @glrowlands1.

2 thoughts on “Leonidas’ Legacy: A Matter of Missiles vs Manoeuvre

  1. There were about 1000 Thespians at Thermopylae with the 300 Spartans. The Spartan state limited the reinforcement to that battlefield to the King and his bodyguard due to a major festival. So much for ancient history details.

    The readers should reflect on the fact that most nations now have precision guided missile/projectile capability and that some have sufficient targeting capability to target land vehicles and troop concentrations at battlefield interdiction ranges. Couple these capabilities to complex target capability deactivation techniques (ala JWAC) and multi-warhead weapons (ala Assault Breaker Terminally Guided Submunitions) and we have the theoretical ability to neutralize ground formations very efficiently with maneuver forces utilized principally to create indirect fires killing grounds and for exploitation.

    The author’s point is that active defense systems for vehicles and limited areas (shields) can largely neutralize precision indirect fire effectiveness by greatly degrading the precision and by direct neutralization of the weapons themselves. A force whose logistics were based on precision targeting of PGM’s will find itself exhausted in such combat. The good news is that this will become a standard CM-CCM competition by the late 2020’s that can exploit appropriate investment in sensors and IT. We must also note that maneuver forces will still be vulnerable to mass scatterable mines, loss of its own fire support, and interdiction of its logistics.

  2. Long range precision guided missiles have certainly become the sine qua non of modern warfighting, in the air, on the ground and on the surface of the seas.

    But at the same, time, any missile can be defeated, either strategically (fighting in areas of complex terrain, as the author posits) or tactically (using kinetic, electronic, or passive defenses). Given that long range precision strike missiles are by their nature expensive, as well as large and heavy, surviving the first salvo or group of salvos ultimately defeats the missiles, because magazines of these large and expensive weapons are quickly depleted.

    The economics of missile attacks also come into play. Even a well heeled attacker, say a first rate military power like China or the United States, cannot simply blanket the enemy’s territory or military forces with barrages of cruise missiles. Concentration of power and of attack is necessary. Mounting a large salvo of cruise missiles at roughly a million dollars a missile at a carrier strike group makes economic sense. Even 1,000 million dollar missiles is still far cheaper than the dollar value, not to mention the strategic value, of a 15 billion dollar CSG. Given that the US or China could deploy at most two or three such CSGs in theater, targeting each with 1,000 ASCMs makes economic sense and is physically achievable.

    But against land forces, a 1,000 missile barrage might at most take out the better part of one armored combat brigade or division .. when large military ground campaigns typically employ dozens of divisions. So the numbers really don’t work there when concentration of enemy forces does not lend itself well. And the more concentrated the force – as is the case with carrier strike groups – the more robust the missile defenses employed.

    Technologically, all cruise missiles are completely vulnerable to a wide variety of defensive countermeasures .. ranging from relatively expensive anti-missile missiles, of the type that are used to protect CSGs and other high value targets .. to relatively inexpensive electronic countermeaasures (i.e., radar jamming or laser dazzling). Developing technologies like railguns, microwave beams, and ever larger lasers are certainly within the near term horizon as kinetic missile defenses that have the potential to completely nullify the value of cruise missiles as a warfighting weapon.

    Then what? Will war become laser vs. laser? Who can say. But there is a very very good probability that all the talk of ubiquitous long range cruise missiles will seem as outdated as anti-aircraft guns within just a few years.

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