Austin Long

Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
The Sweet-Spot in Combat Mobility

"Mobility is critical to warfare at all ends of the spectrum, whether you're talking about the mobility of an intercontinental ballistic missile that can travel across the world in 30 minutes and deliver enormous firepower to the steps that have to be taken to enable folks to maneuver at the lowest level."

Interview transcript: Austin Long

Mobility is critical to warfare at all ends of the spectrum, whether you're talking about the mobility of an intercontinental ballistic missile that can travel across the world in 30 minutes and deliver enormous firepower to the steps that have to be taken to enable folks to maneuver at the lowest level. Everything ties into mobility. So, why do you have machine guns? You have machine guns primarily to create suppressive fire so that people can then maneuver. Why do you have body armor? It's so people can, without risking themselves too much, get out and maneuver. Yet, machine guns and body armor are heavy, so there's a trade-off. You bring these assets to improve your mobility, but they also cut into your mobility. The story of warfare is basically the story of fire and mobility.

Ground mobility is especially important in counterinsurgency because you can bypass people on the ground in a conventional war, and in some ways that's better -- you want to get around and behind them and cut-off their lines of supply and communication and get to their headquarters. But if you do that in counterinsurgency, you just leave a pocket that you're going to have to deal with eventually if you're trying to establish political stability.


The combat unit is the connecting tissue between the strategy and the individuals. The US military has tried to move to more modular, and therefore, mobile units of action. For a long time, the Army thought in terms of divisions. Now it thinks much more in terms of brigades and these modular abilities to put together task forces on the fly. The ability to more readily customize particular sets of forces and deploy them has been a major change in military organization. Rather than having to pick up this massive chunk of combat power of 10,000+ guys, you can now take a few thousand here, plug this guy in here, and so forth. The same thing is true with special operations forces and conventional forces. For a long time, those operated around each other but not with each other and there have been big changes every ten years in how those two forces have really started to work hand-in-glove to the point where you have conventional units assigned to special operations task forces to provide additional manpower. This has been another unit shift that's enabled flexibility -- if not mobility -- in a way that wouldn't have been possible before.


In the Second World War, the great thing about the Soviet T-34 was its cross-country mobility. You would create a breakthrough in the enemy line, and then you'd race to exploit it and what you wanted was something that was fast and reliable. The T-34 had an advantage in that it also combined pretty robust armor and firepower. The US Sherman, in contrast, was a pretty good mobility tank. It was designed by people who has this "through mobility we conquer," mindset, but was maybe a little under-gunned, at least initially. The sweet spot for tank design is agile but also packs a punch. You don't want a tank that is indestructible, but can only move on certain roads at 5 mph, of which the Germans built a few. The current US tank, the M1, uses a turbine engine -- basically a jet engine for a tank. It combines that agility and mobility with really robust firepower. Now, one problem with that is that it's still a tract vehicle that weighs 70 tons. There are limits on what you can do with that -- you have to have a very big airplane to put it on, for example.

If you look at the 1990s with the experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, the US Army realized it had a strategic mobility problem in terms of getting mobile forces across long distances. They had tanks that were great with all of these capacities but were hard to move from, say, Germany to Kosovo. Then you had light forces, like paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne or the 101st Airborne in helicopters, that you can get places easily, but they lack some of the necessary firepower. So, the US Army started to try and think of a medium sized vehicle that might lack the punch and the armor of a tank, but would be much more capable than the light force package. So, what we ended up with is a vehicle called the Stryker. And the Stryker is a wheeled vehicle that is quite fast compared to a tank. It has a reasonable amount of armor, but not nearly as much as a tank and a lot of sophisticated electronic systems to give it situational awareness. So, we have several brigades of those now, and they're an attempt to find that sweet spot, not just between tactical level trade-offs of firepower and armor on the one hand and mobility, but also the ability to have strategic mobility. So, you can take the Stryker and put it on a fairly small plane, at least in theory, and take it somewhere and land it pretty quickly. That ability to get a capable force somewhere very quickly is not just tactical mobility, but it's strategic mobility.


I don't think the issue of excess is endemic to military operations. In almost all cases where your life is on the line, you want as much spare capacity as possible. I may not need 30,000 rounds of ammunition but by God, I might. And if I can get my hands on that, I'd like to. So, I think there's a certain natural tendency toward over-engineering, as it were. The US military has tried to get a little more lean on that in terms of trying not to bring an iron mountain of supplies everywhere it goes. Relatively speaking, war is a rare phenomenon in the world, so the military, in general, is an insurance policy for outlier events, and I think the capacities that they build are built for events that, in an ideal sense, will never happen. So, if you look at strategic air command back in the 50s and 60s, the carriers of the US nuclear arsenal that was set to potentially destroy most of the world east of the Ural Mountains, their slogan was "Peace is our profession," because they had built a capacity that was intentionally designed to be so excessive to insure that it would never be used. The bottom line of nuclear deterrence, of course, is to build a capacity that is so excessive that neither side would think about using it.