Armchair generals. Maybe you know one or two, or maybe you are recliner ranger yourself. These folks often talk about military tactics when the topic of warfare is broached. Ever watched a war movie with someone like this? It can be interesting if they know what they are talking about, or grueling if they are just pulling words out of the military vernacular and regurgitating a lot of common misconceptions.
These couch commandos are especially animated when they talk about a battle or war where the American outcome was less than optimum and they weaponize hindsight. What many don’t realize is that when they use terms like “divide and conquer” and “hearts and minds,” they are actually referring to strategies and not necessarily military tactics.
Military tactics and military strategies are sometimes used interchangeably and mostly incorrectly. And while there are many military strategies and just as many military tactics, we will only focus on four broad categories of military tactics in this post; defensive, offensive, deceptive and small unit.
Defensive military tactics include the use of defensive obstacles like trenches, minefields, and booby traps for example. Some of the more popular defensive military tactics, including the ones just mentioned are barbed wire, berms, use of high ground, man-made barriers (like HESCO barriers), foxholes or defensive fighting positions, sangars, and other defensive tools.
However, defensive military tactics also include troop formations including the antiquated phalanx formation, the all-around or perimeter defensive postures, and the echelon formation. And believe it or not, counter attacks and rapid reaction forces (also known as QRFs) are actually defensive military tactics and not offensive military tactics. A counter attack happens when a force repels and defends itself and a rapid reaction force is used to defend an attacked unit.
Offensive military tactics includes actions like ambushes, cavalry charges and rapid dominance actions like swarming, shock, and saturation bombing. Planned attacks are also a large part of the offensive military tactics menu.
Indirect fire, fire support, and formations like the wedge and actions like the pincer movement or flanking maneuver are all examples of offensive military tactics. It’s easy to recognize them as offensive military tactics because they are used to take real estate from the opposing force. Also included as offensive military tactics is the use of airborne and air mobile operations, mechanized, armored and amphibious operations, and disruptive operations like radio and radar jamming. Controlling a main supply route is considered an offensive military tactic as well, believe it or not.
Deceptive military tactics have been used for centuries by militaries around the world. The United States has used deceptive military tactics many times throughout its military history including Operation Bodyguard in World War II and in Operation Desert Storm where forces were used deceptively as other units maneuvered around Iraqi forces in a left hook action that enabled them to cut off Iraq’s frontlines. But even as far back as the Revolutionary War, the U.S. military was using deceptive military tactics.
Electronic countermeasures and stealth weapons are examples of deceptive military tactics since they trick or fool the enemy into thinking that conditions on the battlefield are different than what they really are. For example, it might seem like there are no aircraft in the airspace above a battlefield, when suddenly bombs begin to rain down. Or an enemy might believe that there are numerous aircraft overhead when in fact there is only one transmitting electronic warfare signals to confuse enemy air defense weaponry.
Softer deceptive military tactics also includes disinformation. The United States has utilized this military tactic to learn about the defensive posture of its enemies. For example, in 2004’s Operation Phantom Fury, the U.S. military announced it had started its operations when in fact, it had not. It was a false start designed to get insurgent forces in Fallujah to move and reveal where they were and what they planned to do to repel offensive coalition forces.
Finally, small unit military tactics have been a mainstay in the war on terror as highly-skilled special forces units are able to inflict considerable damage to enemy forces quickly utilizing tools within their teams, but small unit military tactics also include regular infantry squads and other combat arms units that are the smallest units engaging the enemy.
When discussing small unit military tactics, terms like shoot and scoot, infiltration, fire and movement, and suppressive fire will be common terms used. Here again, like in other military tactics, troop formations are also considered a military tactic and formations like the overwatch or bounding overwatch can be used.
The various types of patrols that offensive military units use, like ambushes, recon patrols and standing patrols like observation and listening posts, to name a few, are also included in this list of military tactics.
Still not clear on what is a tactic versus a strategy, then remember the famous words of the legendary and timeless military expert Carl von Clausewitz who said that “Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war.”