Thursday, July 15, 2010


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The American Army, so in love with high-cost high-tech gadgetry (but still unable to come up with a decent infantry boot, I might add) proudly points to their latest, greatest toys and proclaims, “We rule the night!” In theory, anyway. In our day that meant slapping an AN/PVS-4 on the carrying handle of an M16 (not even attempting to zero it in any way, shape, or form, of course) and sticking a few tracers in the magazine.
In practice, in Vietnam Charlie owned the night. When the Soviets fought in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen ruled the darkness. Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan still use the night. Even in this day and age of high-tech, Western forces, with very few exceptions, treat the night as they did in WWII. Hunker down in a defensive position or at best a stationary ambush and wait to let the enemy do his thing.

Despite the fact that Charlie owned the night, in all the official studies, documents, and lessons learned publications from the Vietnam War next to nothing was written about night operations. Like improving marksmanship, some minor lip service was paid to taking back the night, but in practice everything was still pretty much the standard defense-oriented dig-and-hide in a fixed defense. In fact, there was hardly anything in the otherwise excellent USMC Professional Knowledge Gained From Operation Experience in Vietnam series. This little blurb comes from the MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] Counterinsurgency Lessons Learned.

Night Operations.

The VC are well trained, organized and equipped for night operations. They employ the tactics of a guerrilla because it suits their means. They move mostly at night and prefer to fight under cover of darkness. To counter the effectiveness of the VC’s night operations, the night must be taken away from the guerrilla.
1. Night airmobile assaults, ambushes, and movement must be routine. Recently, a friendly command post occupied the same position for over a week. The enemy probed the position for four nights. On the fifth night when rain had reduced visibility, the enemy initiated a well coordinated attack from within 20 meters of friendly positions. The latter had been occupied before by other units, and the enemy appeared to know the location of each position. The friendly troops were either killed or forced to withdraw. The first enemy grenade hit the communications bunker knocking out all but one PRC-25 radio. The loss of communications precluded calling for reinforcements, artillery, or air support. In only ten minutes the position was overrun; the company commander, the executive officer and one artillery FO [Forward Observer] were killed. Within 30 minutes, the attackers had looted friendly bodies and captured ten M-16 rifles, one radio, and a sniper weapon with telescopic sight. The enemy conducted an orderly withdrawal. The enemy was master of the night. From this incident the following lessons were learned:
a. Command posts should be displaced at least every 48 hours, preferably at night.
b. Units must formulate a night time emergency reinforcement plan entailing several alternate means.
c. Maximum use must be made of trip flares, early warning devices, outposts and listening posts.
d. When a unit is surprised and under hand grenade assault by a superior force, each man must fire his weapon initially in his designated sector until he gains fire superiority.
e. Radios should be dispersed throughout the area.

Night has always been the friend of irregular forces and still will be for the foreseeable future. Likewise, more regular forces who are at the mercy of overwhelming enemy firepower and complete and total air supremacy have of necessity become skilled in night operations. Case in point was the Imperial Japanese Army during the latter half of WWII. A well done summary of their tactics by Army Intelligence on the subject appears below.


Japanese military leaders consider night attacks one of their specialties. In these they were very successful in the Russo-Japanese war, the Manchuria "Incident," the China "Incident," and during the present war in Malaya, Borneo, and the Philippines. They have experimented extensively with various night tactics, over a period of many years, and have adopted certain specific techniques--with which this section is primarily concerned.
As a rule, the Japanese have only limited objectives at night and do not attack very deeply. Once these objectives have been accomplished, the Japs usually effect a slight withdrawal, and reorganize for rest during the next day (except for reconnaissance or infiltration activities).
Although the Japanese admit that night operations result in more confusion and less control, they feel these disadvantages are more than offset by the advantages of greater mobility, secrecy of movement, and therefore greater surprise.
A Dutch officer who escaped from Japanese confinement in Borneo attributed the following statement to a Japanese officer:
"You Europeans march all day, prepare all night, and at dawn launch an attack with tired troops. We Japanese allow our troops to rest all day while we reconnoiter your positions exactly. Then that night we attack with fresh troops."
The information which follows in this section is based on Japanese manuals captured in the South Pacific theater:
a. Objectives
The objectives of Japanese night attacks usually are to locate and attack the front lines of the opposition with only limited or shallow objectives. "However, there will be times when it is necessary to attack the enemy's position in considerable depth," their manual explains.
Before the attack each subordinate unit is given a clearly defined terrain objective. Objectives can be clearly defined only by thorough daytime reconnaissance, or by drawing hostile fire. Villages are avoided because they are difficult to attack at night.
b. Reconnaissance
Japanese regulations emphasize the importance of thoroughly reconnoitering terrain over which night operations are to take place, and of obtaining detailed information as to the location of opposing centers of resistance, machine-gun positions, obstacles, and searchlights. The reconnaissances are made in daytime. Japanese patrols, frequently moving for long distances on their stomachs at a snail-like pace, get as close as possible to opposition positions without being observed. If they are unable to locate these positions exactly, they sometimes deliberately expose men to draw fire from the opposing forces so the latter will give their locations away.
The patrols also select the points where the opposition's wires will be cut.
Sometimes the Japanese make a second reconnaissance just before dark to satisfy themselves as to opposition positions, or to determine whether new positions have been occupied.
c. Formation of Plans
Japanese military leaders go into great detail in mapping plans for attack. This is doubly true for night operations. Particularly emphasized are march directions, methods of identifying friendly troops, liaison with adjacent units, the necessity for silence in order to achieve surprise, and flank protection.
Obstacles which would interfere with the attacks are removed by destruction squads--usually engineers--about an hour beforehand. This phase includes the cutting of lanes through barbed wire.
d. Approach Movements
In approaching, the Japanese select routes over which the troops will make the least noise. They generally move by column rather than in a line in order to maintain as much control as possible up to the point of assault.
To maintain direction, the Japanese may use any or all of the following: Compass, flares, rear lights--which give direction by alignments; searchlights or disappearing lanterns; markers, white stakes, strips of paper; lines of chalk, flour, or tape; and artillery shells fired for direction.
e. The Assault
Japanese techniques in the assault are quoted from their own manual, as follows:
"(1) With limited objectives.--When the attacking unit gets close to the enemy's position (the assault position), the commander orders a front-line group to assault. The remainder of the troops will quickly observe the general situation. For instance, if it is necessary to strengthen the front line with reserves, these should either attack the flank of the enemy, or enemy counterattacking troops. The commander watches for these opportunities, and leads the battle with firm determination. Placing reserves in the front lines thoughtlessly and unnecessarily will bring about confusion. This, must be avoided.1
"At the start of combat, the commander of the reserves will send out liaison men to inform him regarding the movements of our assault echelons and the enemy situation, to connect the reserves with the front-line unit, and to secure our flanks, rear, and front.
"When the assault has captured the enemy position, quickly organize your attacking forces. For example, the machine-gun and infantry-gun units take up their firing positions, security measures are taken, order is quickly restored, and preparations are made to repel any enemy attack to recover the position just lost. The reserve commander will send out patrols as quickly as possible to the rear, flank, and front to determine the condition of the enemy, and he will be prepared for action with the remainder of his troops.
"The machine gun takes part in the night attack by occupying a secure position. Thus, it ordinarily cooperates with reserve troops in action, and may at times participate in the direct night attack, according to the opportunities for firing.
"When attacking by sheer strength, the machine gun is used to cut off enemy communication with other adjacent areas. Furthermore, it opposes the counterattack from other areas, concentrating its fire at the proper time. For this reason, the machine-gun plan must consider the cooperating fire plan of the artillery. The use of fire arms will expose our plans, and it may bring hostile fire on our troops. There is also the danger of hitting friendly troops. Therefore, make thorough arrangements beforehand.
"(2) Attack in depth.--When attacking deeply in depth with two assault echelons, the front-line unit will capture the predetermined hostile position and take security and reconnaissance measures, restore order, and make arrangements for the enemy's return attack. It must quickly prepare to be leap-frogged by the second echelon of attack and must always make local conditions clear to this unit. If the first-line unit receives a counterattack by the enemy, do not fire, because it would endanger the leap-frogging unit.
"The second attack echelon takes up the attack formation at the beginning, as a security measure. Before leap-frogging it will put out security reconnaissance. Maintenance of direction will be considered after leap-frogging. In order not to get intermingled with the first-echelon unit at the time of leap-frogging, the distance and intervals before and during the attack are controlled accordingly.
"The second assault unit of attack must definitely keep in contact with the first-line unit, and keep itself informed of the enemy situation and the progress of the first echelon. It will be prepared to advance by leap-frogging as soon as the order arrives. At this point, do not come too close to the first-line unit because of the danger of getting into the lines of fire.
"The commander will determine the time when the second echelon must first advance to the attack from the place of departure. The time of advance will depend upon when the first echelon, leading out, has passed the second-line unit.
"When the second assault unit captures the designated hostile position, the commander must quickly get control of the unit and then have the first assault unit advance to secure completely the occupied position. The remainder (the reserve) prepare for action."
f. Pursuit
The Japanese nearly always seek to capitalize to the fullest on pursuit. Even before combat begins, they have detailed plans for maintaining close contact with retiring forces. The following data on pursuit is quoted from their manual:
"The enemy will take advantage of darkness to conceal his retreat. It is important to gain early knowledge of this retreat by keeping a close contact with him. The battalion commander must make close reconnaissance, observe various signs, and always be careful not to lose the enemy. In order to clear up the possibility of an enemy retreat, do not hesitate to make a night attack with any necessary part of your strength.
"If the enemy's retreat is found out, the battalion commander quickly sends out a part of his strength for quick pursuit--the main force follows soon thereafter."
Very few people realize just how close the North Koreans initially came to sweeping South Korean and American forces right off of the peninsula and totally defeating them. Of course, most American school children, including college graduates, when quizzed about the Korean War, responded, “What’s a peninsula?” But that’s beside the point. Some of us have actually heard of it. And night attacks were a favorite tactic of both the North Korean People’s Army as well as the Chinese Communist forces, even before American planes drove their own aircraft out of the skies.

North Korean tactics for small unit night attacks:
Statements by North Korean Prisoners of War have consistently disclosed the following tactics to be employed in night attacks:

1. Soldiers to participate in the night attack are selected by the officers assigned the mission of launching the attack. Particular emphasis is placed on strength, health and character in the selection of the men.

2. During the day the soldiers are told of the attack scheduled for that night and are given an opportunity to rest and sleep. Two hours prior to departure time the men are awakened.

3. The men are orientated on the route and method of approach to enemy positions, and the special pass-word and signals to be used during the attack. After thorough study of the area, the assembly point for use after the attack is selected.

4. The approach to the attack area is through defiles, valleys, and along little-used trails with the troops in a single file formation—10 yards between men. When a point is reached some 100-200 yards from the UN positions, the attacking force deploys. After each man is positioned, the attackers crawl to within 50 yards of enemy lines. The first shot, fired by the leader, is the signal for all men to charge and open fire on the UN forces. Each man is equipped with the PPSh submachine gun. Heavy and light machine guns are employed to assist the withdrawal in the event the attack fails.

5. The attack will usually take place at approximately 0400 hours and seldom on moonlight night.

6. Reports have been received that North Korean troops carry wooden clappers for deception purposes to simulate gun fire and at the same time conserve ammunition.

7. Local civilians are employed to spy on the enemy and obtain information concerning the terrain over which the attack will take place.

What I found most interesting about the last two examples was that the preparation was quite good and that the soldiers were allowed to sleep before the mission.

Despite the endless reams of studies showing the detrimental effects of fatigue and lack of sleep on the human body (24 hours without sleep is the equivalent of drinking a case and a half of Canadian beer and viewing the world through goggles equipped with a strobe light), the American military somehow always seems to make sure their soldiers in combat operations have to operate with minimal or no sleep in this foggy state.

A soldier might be expected to get, at best, four hours of sleep one night, fight all day, then go on an all-night patrol, fight all the next day, and then get by with another four hours’ sleep (or less) the next night. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I also found out that after 36 hours without sleep, you can actually fall asleep in a blizzard while driving a Bradley with the hatch open over an Autobahn overpass. It’s rather disconcerting to wake up with your track chewing on the guardrail and seeing those cars passing by so far below.
S.L.A. Marshall was trying to point out the perils of this kind of fatigue way back during Korea.

"Take one example. After a wearing approach march and entrenching, two rifle companies went into perimeter on adjoining ridges. They were the same strength; the positions were about equal. Both units were dog tired. One commander ordered a 100 percent alert. The other put his men in the sacks and with a few of his NCOs kept watch. Thirty minutes later the Chinese attacked. The first company was routed and driven from its hill immediately. The second bounded from its sleeping bags, fought like tigers and held the position until finally ordered by battalion to withdraw.
Worn out men cannot fight or think. It is folly to press them beyond endurance when just a little rest will work a miracle of recovery…[When hit by bitter cold and the Red Chinese and fatigue at the same point]…”Returning patrols showed every symptom of men in intense shock. Pulse rates were abnormally low. The individuals gibbered, grimaced vaguely and could not articulate.
The puzzled doctors treated the empirically with a heavy shot of grog and bed rest. Eight hours later, they were normal.”

While a complete lack of needed rest can come from necessity with enemy contact, most of the time it is self-inflicted. Totally unrealistic micro-management by a well-fed and rested senior commander half a world away in an air conditioned operations center or, as in Vietnam, hovering overhead in a helicopter with no clue of what the troops are facing at ground level, screaming at junior leaders to perform impossible feats, is probably the main contributor. Unrealistic safety-conscious eco-friendly training doesn’t help much either, nor does garrison spit-and-polish bullshit. Then there’s just plain good old-fashioned incompetence on the part of folks promoted for brownie points and brown nosing rather than for performance and leadership.

So, I still have to wonder. Who really does rule the night? The well-rested and lightly-equipped guerrilla fighter long familiar with the night who knows his home turf like the back of his hand? Or the high-tech electronic warrior carrying an extra hundred pounds around all day who’s been reduced to such a glazed-eye slack-jawed zombie by fatigue that he has trouble operating the on-off switch on his NVD’s?


Anonymous said...

Rule the night...until the batteries die in your NVGs.

Chronic fatigue is a real problem in the flying game, too. Perpetually screwed up circadian rhythms, 18 hr work day, then extra, non-flying duties (protocol crap at one deployed location)early the next day.

Peninsula - an ink writing implement with extra insulation to keep your finger warm while writing.

Bawb said...

Peninsula. Must be Air Force issue. The Marines get crayons.

Reminds me of the old joke.

The American Astronaut is bragging to the Russian Cosmonaut about his space pen, which cost millions of dollars to develop, and can write in zero gravity or a vacuum.

The Russian shrugs and holds up his writing instrument. "We use pencils."

Ben said...

In the name of battlefield readiness I sleep 12-14 hours every day, so don't mess with me!