Thursday, 3 April 2008

Flank attack: Hit the enemy where it least expects you to

Desert Storm

A classic flank attack: Operation Desert Storm 1991

Flank attack - going around the side of the enemy instead of taking him head on is one of the most basic of manoeuvres. The ultimate goal is encirclement - sealing off and destroying the enemy.

In the modern theatre of battle where casualties run in hand in hand with the political will and stamina to continue combat, flank attack is ideal since it allows the commander to appear where the enemy least expect you to. The idea is not to hit the enemy head on but hit him in the side where he might be weak. If a formation comes from the front towards 100 men, all 100 can shoot at it, but if it comes from the side and if the defence line is only 3 deep, then only 3 can shoot at the incoming formation. Hence it can literally roll down the flank and crush the defender 3 at a time.

One of the classic flanking manoeuvres to take place was operation Desert Storm in 1991 where the allied coalition were pitted against Saddam's forces in Kuwait.

Norman Schwarzkopf - the supreme commander of the allied forces - at first prepares a head on assault from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait to drive the Iraqis out. But his battle planners urged him to reconsider pointing out the open flank to the west to exploit it. Intelligence also suggested that Saddam had a massive well equipped army dug into defensive positions all along the Kuwaiti border. Further to add such a head on assault with the 4th largest army of the world at the time was just the amount of casualties Schwarzkopf wanted to avoid with the Vietnam war syndrome firmly at the back of his mind.

To avoid hitting the well entrenched Iraqis head on, he and his battle planners decided that the main thrust would be toward Saddam's western flank 150 miles deep inside Iraq. With this in mind he begins his force build up in such a way that the build up would lead the Iraqis to believe the main thrust would be from South of the Kuwaiti border. Reports were deliberately leaked to the media to deceive the Iraqis that Schwarzkopf's Rules of Engagement (ROE) limited him to fight only within Kuwait and not in Iraq itself. Further as part of the concealment ops in November 1990 "Exercise Imminent Thunder" - a major amphibious assault landing exercise - by the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) is conducted South of the border. Naval units bombard the Kuwaiti coast and mine sweeping takes place. As further concealment, a base/FARP just 25 miles South of the Kuwaiti border is built. An ammo dump at Gravel Plains adjacent to the Kuwaiti border is also stationed. This made it easier to hide the main heavy attack units - the US 7th core and British armoured 1st division - in the desert West of the perceived main thrust. Like the fake radio messages to convince the Germans that an army existed in Kent in England before the D-day landings deception experts flood the air waves with with radio to convince Saddam that key units are still in original start positions along the Kuwaiti border. Furthermore trucks are driven to start positions in the East as a decoy while the real logistics for the main thrust move at night camouflaging themselves at day covering their tracks in the open desert.

During the final approach to D-day Schwarzkopf began his air campaign. Under this air cover Schwarzkopf moved his 7th core 150 miles west and 18th airborne core west to the 7th core. Then he launches his ground attack. First the southern assault backed by a faint amphibious assault on the Kuwaiti border. Meanwhile the 18th swept across Saddam's flank in the far west and cut off Iraqi supply lines. Then the tanks of 7th core and the British penetrated the Iraqi defences west of the Kuwaiti border conducting the "Hail Mary Pass" to trap Iraqis in Kuwait in one giant pincer movement.

While initiating a frontal assault from Kuwait pinning Iraqi forces in Kuwait and luring in more reinforcement into Kuwait, his flank attack will prevent reinforcement (after Iraqi reinforcements are in Kuwait), seal off escape routes, encircle them and destroy Saddam's army once and for all. Timing on giving the green light for the flank attack was crucial. As turned out, his frontal attack which was part of the concealment, was too successful and drove Iraqis out of Kuwait too quickly that his flank attack did not have enough time to completely seal off their escape. The success of the flanking manoeuvre meant that Saddam who earlier promised the "mother of all battles" was forced to perform the "mother of all retreats" as then Secretary of Defence Dick Cheyney elegantly put in.

The Sri Lankan example:

Vakarai copy

Coming onto the Sri Lankan theatre a classic flank attack was the liberation of VAKARAI (Viharaya) and subsequently the entire four-six sector comprising VAKARAI, KATHIRAVELI and VERUGAL.

After the successful completion of the SAMPOOR campaign, the Tamil Tigers were pushed South of the Verugal river.

Unlike Schwarzkopf who enjoyed a free open Western flank through the Iraqi desert the 23 Division commanders did NOT have a clear flank to exploit. The tiger defences were up to 3 lines deep South of the PANICHCHANKERNI bridge. Hence the initial battle plan was to create a flank involving the thin neck of land protruding East of the four-six sector mainland - that is the narrow stretch of land running up to CHALLITIVU bordering the Upparu lagoon.

On 16th of January 2007 (D-day) troops broke out from KADJUWATTA and by 18th January succeeded in breaking the second line of defence and by the same day evening the 3rd line of defence as South of PANICHCHANKERNI falls to the troops. With these rapid gains in hand 23 division builds up troops, artillery and armour South of the PANICHCHANKERNI bridge hinting that an imminent thrust was about to take place across the bridge. This was further strengthened by heavy volumes of artillery/MBRL fire towards the North bank defences of the Tamil Tigers and engineering units' persistent attempts to diffuse the explosives set along the bridge under the cover of artillery fire.

With this heavy build up of a superior force on the Southern bank, what the Tamil Tigers failed to realise was the fact that 23 division had created a flank East of their defences with the capture of the 3 defence lines they held a few days ago at PANICHCHANKERNI. The flanking attack spear headed by the Special forces commence across the narrow UPPARU lagoon backed by Special infantry and captured the VAKARAI town and hospital by 19th January 2007 (D+3). This caught the Tamil Tigers who were awaiting the main thrust from South unawares. The main thrust was so successful that the Tamil Tigers had no time to muster any counter attack and were in full retreat towards the TRICONAMDU jungles West of VAKARAI and THOPPIGALA. The rapid retreat of the Tamil Tigers who had fortified positions caught the battle planners by surprise, that troops (7GW, 6VIR) converging in to close the gap at TRICONAMADU failed to do so in time. Had the guerillas offered resistance and then retreated along the same jungle terrain, this may have given troops ample time to position themselves to intercept the fleeing guerilla cadres.

This VAKARAI battle also highlights the success of the transition of attritional guerilla warfare to a full blown conventional one. For nearly three months since October 2006, 23 division backed by Special forces conducted a series of raiding operations laying the groundwork for the final assault. The timing of the transition was crucial in this instance. The importance of the timing of the transition from guerilla warfare to a conventional one was amply demonstrated on 6th October 2006 when troops broke out from KADJUWATTA with the same four-six sector as their objective. The conventional tactics of the operation failed giving the Tamil Tiger media bread and butter that lasted for weeks.

As long as modern warfare presents with a well entrenched enemy, a battle planner will always consider to build up his force, conceal the main thrust, attack from the flank and finally encircle his enemy minimising his own casualties for public opinion will not allow for a nation's troops be thrown head on against a well entrenched enemy.


CASC said...

Long Ranger,

Thank you for another insightful article.

Calvin said...

Long Ranger,
Thanx for a detailed article. Great one.
Keep it up bro.

Bloot said...

Good description of the rationale for the ground attack. However this was not an assault it was an all arms campaign preceeded by huge intervention by missile, airstrike and interdiction. I think that the size of the ground attack meant that it had to be simplified enormously - this is why a frontal assault on softened up enemy was proposed. In hindsight (actually foresight in GenSK's case a frontal assault would have worked because there turned out to be virtually no resistance.

Long-Ranger said...


Welcome to my portal. Indeed it was a campaign involving all the weaponry at SLA's disposal. That's asymmetry. Asymmetry can defeat the guerilla as done in this VAKARAI case by forcing the guerrillas to fight on unfavourable terms - that is asymmetrically. But what is important is as I said above how this campaign's timing on the transition from guerilla warfare (Special forces seek and destroy, FO missions) to a full frontal assault (Mass troop build up on Southern bank).

SK's case I agree. Saddam's forces were ready to surrender once they made the first move. Which was the reason why full encirclement could not be achieved. Iraqi forces were in retreat faster than the encirclement as stated in my brief.

Hope this helps :-)

Long-Ranger said...

Casc and Calvin,

You are welcome.

The reason why I posted this brief on flanking your enemy is, this is exactly what is happening right now in the Wanni.

Eg - the siege of Adampan as seen is a double envelopment. This one big flank attack is well supplemented and supported by small scale flank attacks, for example to put pressure on PALLIKULI, ILANTHIVAN located East was captured. Refer to my map.

Take Care.

Ranil said...

I've watched the iraqi battle on discovery channel's war at 8 program.
Great article LR :)
And it's great to see our forces using different tactics depending on the ground situ...

Bloot said...

I sense a difference between conventional and guerilla operations which predicates against seeing one as an extension of the other. The aim of insurgency is create a reaction by the governments military which affects the populace and thus gains support to the insurgent cause. This limits what the military can do as was seen in Northern Ireland where the military had to constrain. No such sentiment needed when throwing out an invader I would have thought. Try Bunch of Five by Frank Kitson.

Reliance on Assymetry is a false premise. It is not a principle of war as taught in West Point , Sandhurst or the others and so should not form the basis of strategy.

sldf said...

LongRanger, Thax for the post. Yet another great analysis and you have explain the flanking concept very well here. Talking about the wanni theater, I don't see how Army's strategy/target of killing atleast 10 LTTE cadres a day going to work in the long run. LTTE is going to if not already have adapted to this strategy by hiding and pulling back to it's secondary lines when SLA offensive formations move in and at times counter our troops with indirect fire, traps and sniper fire. They have already adapted to this strategy and saving their cadre strength to fight for rainy days. How do you see army strategy of of killing 10 per day going to work in the long run?

Hope to see more posts from you :)

Side Effect said...

Excellent work LR. Keep it up.

Long-Ranger said...


For any beliggerant who is engaged in guerilla hit and run tactics, at some point needs to revert to conventional battle if it is to take an area say a town, a city or any other strong point. The North Vietnamese fought a guerilla war, but once the Americans left the North Vietnamese army rolled their tanks and armour to take over the South conventional style. What brought them victory was their combination of the two doctrines - guerilla and conventional tactics unlike General Westmooreland who relied solely on conventional attrition.

At the start of Operation Jayasikurui the Tamil Tigers performed a guerilla war/hot and run attacks in response to the conventional might of the Sri Lankan government. They timed their transition to perfection and performed Operation Ceaseless waves, which was pretty much a conventional mass movement of cadres/troops.

Relianace of asymmetry is indeed a false premise. Former SLA commanders relied on it a lot without much success, which is why both unorthodox and orthodox tactics are employed in the present Sri Lankan theatre of battle.


In the long run it is going to deplete its trained cadres and is sure to dent their fighting will. Even if one is recruited giving him proper sand model training to coordinate mass assaults on FDLs is quite difficult with SLAF reconnaisance running a 24/7 service over Wanni.
But the advantage being an outlawed unit means it can recruit against an individual's will. Hence whatever kill ratio SLA achieves the total number of cadres within the Tamil Tiger organisation may NOT deplete. Which is why it is equally important to encourage civilians to cross over to Government controlled areas. Or else they end up as canon fodder for Tamil Tigers.

By filtering out the civilians from the guerillas, it can be isolated. Isolation is the worst enemy of the guerrilla. This is one of the strategic objectives achieved with the liberation of control of the Jaffna peninsula/ East. It has distanced the Tamil Tigers from a large section of his polity and thus from resources for its military cadre.

Hope this helps :-)

Bloot said...

The Vietcong did indeed engage in what you describe as geurilla warfare but for them it was perfectly conventional. If the Americans had left then that was the point when the Vietcong had won - not when the NVA sent tanks in - althoug I think the sequence you describe may be more blurred. I still do not think that non-conventional warfare evolves to conventional. It did not with Cuba, Zimbabwe, China - evfen to take a town. I thin that the distinction is just in the equipment used!!

Westmorland did use unconventional - guerilla warfare of the classic kind. The phrase hearts and minds echoes through history and really, that is what the special forces were all about.

Ogre said...

Pintzer movement has been the main stay since WW I trench warfare (which is what is LTTE trying to impose on SLDF in Vanni)

LTTE actually outflanked SLA troops in Vanni Jayasikuru operations which made the life for troops very difficult.

wait and watch .. there is lot to come guys...we cant tell you here... and it is good what the LTTE is going to get can only be stopped by traitors !

Ogre said...

the Vietnam conflict was a such a big mess...

US had to engage VC in jungles and south vietnam

could only BOMB cetain cherry picked locations by the US president

all ports/power plans/infrastructure/air fields/oil tanks were out of bounds..
US forces fought a fight with thier hands tied back unable to stop the large logistical backing the soviets gave to Vietnam.

unlike Korea were the peace deal stoped attacks against US forces.

In vietnam Ho chi min had the strong belief his country should not be divided .

mazeB said...

great post long ranger its really great keep it up.

mazeB said...

can you give a detailed post about operation jayasikuru and why it failed with details?
it will really intresting to compare it with ongoing operations.

commando said...

long ranger,
Thanks for your intersting article.
It is always intersting to read them.

Long-Ranger said...


That requires one lengthy answer, but in a nutshell here goes:

For starters, the strategy and the objective was flawed from the very start. The obhective was to capture the A9 and use it as a MSR, which they did succeed up to MANKULAM. Even if we did succeed in securing the entire stretch, given the fact that we really did not create a dent in the Tamil Tigers' fighting capability, it is wishful thinking that the A9 would be a secure MSR at all. Even a layman could see the flaw of protecting the road from two flanks by just two divisions and at some points by Naval/SLAF/police personnel alone.
Further was the fact that the then administration's reservations on investing and expanding the capabilities of SLAF. During this lengthy campaign SLAF hardly made an impact. Tamil Tiger indirect fire was highly active with impunity and caused the highest number of JAYASIKURUI casualties. Moreover Tamil Tiger arms shipments continued.

At this very moment the Target area: WANNI is basically put under a siege with SLN cutting off supplies with SLAF carrying out tactical air strikes and providing CAS whereever possible. SLAF and SLN have very well supplemented the new unorthodox strategy of SLA divisions. before full scale war broke out the emphasis was to negate the sea tiger threat and thereby their smuggling activites and wear their supplies out by confronting them and eliminating their ammo dumps.

This is how the East was secured. First the coastal belts were secured before making the final move on the hinterland. Hope you get my drift :-)

To all,

Images from the Wanni front have been added to:

sldf said...


Nice pics. Are these special Infantry troops or SF troops. They are heavily armed for regular SI troops. I guess it is safe to say we are in Madu now :)

Longranger, to a recent visiting media delegation taken to the Muhamalai front line Major General G. A. Chandrasiri have hinted 55, 53 Divisions are ready for the southward push from the National front. He has also hinted unlike troops engaged in operations on the Mannar and Weli Oya fronts, the 55 and 53 Divisions would engage in large scale ground action. And that the Mechanised Infantry, would spearhead the assault (Very well hinting to LTTE as well)

It says "the final outcome of the battle for Vanni would largely depend on the army’s ability to move rapidly towards Elephant Pass. Brigadier Kamal Gunaratne of the Gajaba Regiment said troops under his command would push forward once they received the green light from the Army Chief."

Do you agree with that comment?

I would say yes. But time is not right. And you have clearly explained in your last post why. I don't see this push happening anytime in this year with the NE monsoon rains also on the horizon in 5-6 months.

Do you think Sarath Fonseka will retire end of this year? I hope not :)

onceinawhile said...

Long ranger,

What is the probability of this type of flank attack succeeding in capturing viduvalthiv (dont know of whether the spelling is correct).