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Command Push vs. Recon Pull

There are two ways of doing things, in general: you can plan them out, or you can make them up as you go along. In planning attacks, these are generally referred to as "command push" or "recon pull" attacks. These each have their advantages and disadvantages.

The idea behind each of these is to overwhelm the enemy at the point of attack, by being stronger than the enemy. In command push, we accomplish this by hitting the enemy with a powerful, coordinated, assault, concentrating our power. In recon pull, we accomplish this by feeling our way into enemy weaknesses. Ideally, we would hit the enemy weaknesses with our concentrated strength, but that is very difficult.

Command Push
In command push, we plan the attack in detail. All of our assets are devoted to making the attack succeed, directly or indirectly. Everybody has a role, and everybody knows what his role is. The result is that our forces work together, and can generate maximum combat power when and where desired. (This sort of warfare does not exclude deception and feints: the Soviets in World War II used detailed planning that included deceptive maneuvers, and usually managed to hit the Germans unexpectedly in 1944.) Since all this takes time, we can try to figure out enemy dispositions to the rear, and plan many of the actions of our exploiting forces.

One problem with this is that it takes time to make up a good plan and disseminate it, and between the time we start the process and the time we attack, much may change. We may have identified a weak spot initially that is reinforced. Even if nothing has changed, if we have made mistakes in the planning, we will find that the operation has a great deal of momentum and cannot be easily dropped. The Soviet offensive opposite Moscow in the 1942-1943 winter cost the Soviets half a million casualties before it was called off, and tied down forces that could better be used in the more successful Stalingrad offensive.

The counter to a command-push attack is to dig in and use the time allotted us. The defender usually cannot use nearly as much planning time as the attacker, but can use a lot more digging-in time. By the time the Germans actually attacked the Kursk salient in July 1943, the Soviets were very well prepared for the assault, and denied the Germans a clear breakthrough in the South (and any sort of breakthrough in the North). Alternately, if we can figure out what the plan is, either by guesswork or more solid intelligence, we can prepare countermeasures. The Kursk battle opened, more or less, with a massive Soviet preemptive attack on German airfields.

Recon Pull In recon pull, we start the attack going without waiting to plan. Our recon forces find weak spots in the enemy lines, and filter through. Sun-Tzu compared this sort of attack to flowing water, bypassing resistance rather than confronting it. In this way, we make sure we attack the enemy where he is weak, rather than where he is strong.

The recon troops can certainly advance where they find weaknesses, but they need to communicate this to the rest of our forces if this attack is going to work. They need to talk to the artillery and aircraft and the rest of the support troops. They need to talk to other, potentially heavier forces, that will follow their success. In the meantime, we need to decide which of these many probing fingers we are going to throw our weight behind. Obviously, recon pull requires good communications, a lot of recon troops, great initiative, and commanders with high tolerance for not knowing what's going on. It is not an easy form of warfare to master.

If communications are not good, then the recon forces will have to be able to carry out the mission themselves. The German Stosstruppen of World War I used this principle to conduct "infiltration attacks", in which the soldiers would feel their way to the Allied rear areas, and carried enough firepower to disrupt them. In this case, we see that the attack is borne mostly by the recon troops, which can be very hard on them, and the part of the army that simply doesn't measure up to their standards is largely irrelevant.

One great advantage of recon pull is that it can be done without preparation, in its pure form. We form up at the line of departure, and start probing and following up. This means that the defender may have no time to prepare for an attack, and we may catch the defender at a time of considerable weakness. It can be extremely effective, therefore, if practiced correctly. One excellent example is the Stosstruppen mentioned above. They had no particular technological advantage over their opponents, but by applying recon pull they disrupted strong defense lines.

The defender has two reasonable responses to recon pull tactics. First, if the defender can avoid leaving weak spots in his line, the attack may be foiled before it can get started. (This sort of idea was not notably helpful to the French and British in 1918, though.) Second, note that the ideal recon pull attack flows through the defensive position, bypassing resistance and continuing deeper. If we rewrite this from the defender's point of view, we have an excellent description of defense in depth. If the attacker can be prevented from doing serious damage, the defender can presumably re-seal his front and mop up the attacking troops. This was the basis of Roman imperial defense c. 200AD and later. Barbarians would swarm over the border, and would bypass fortified towns (the barbarians never acquired siege ability, and had no choice); the Romans would contain the damage, more or less, and use their reserves to defeat the barbarians.

All contents of these pages Copyright 1998 by David H. Thornley.