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A View On Counterattacks In The Defensive Scheme Of Maneuver
AUTHOR Major David C. Chamley, Australian Army
CSC 1990
SUBJECT AREA Strategic Issues
Thesis Statement.  If a defense is to be successful, we
must place a higher priority on applying the
considerations for conducting a counterattack; because it
is the key to an effective defensive scheme of maneuver.
Central Theme.  When planning defense, there is a tendency
to either overlook or understate the importance of the
counterattack, and this could become a critical weakness.
Summary of Main Points.  The attacker has a number of
advantages, particularly against a positional defense.  The
The most important of these are initiative and freedom of
of action. The counterattack is an effective method of
putting him off-balance .  Furthermore, although a
prepared defense can inflict damage on an attacker, only
a counterattack has the potential to destroy him and
facilitate a resumption of offensive operations. History
has also demonstrated however, that counterattacks are not
always successful.  Therefore, the counterattack must take
cognizance of its inherent limitations; as well as the
considerations of maneuver, command and control, timing of
the counterattack, task organization and a range of other
Conclusion.  The counterattack is the most effective means
of applying maneuver warfare in the defensive battle, and
and it also provides us with the best opportunity to
destroy the enemy, and transition to the offense.
Recommendation.   The counterattack should be emphasized
as the primary focus of the defensive scheme of maneuver.
Thesis Statement.  If a defense is to be successful, we
must place a higher priority on applying the
considerations for conducting a counterattack, because it
is the key to an effective defensive scheme of maneuver.
I.     Historical Perspective
       A.   Early Warfare
       B.   Impact of Technology
II.    The Counterattack Today
       A.   The Threat
       B.   Relevance to Defense
III.   Defining the Counterattack
       A.   Definitions
       B.   Gaining the Initiative
IV.    Coordinating Counterpenetration and Counterattack
       A.   Functions
       B.   Levels of Command
V.     The Reserve as a Counterattack Force
       A.   Employment Problems
       B.   Alternatives
VI.    Where to Strike the Attacker
       A.   Frontal Counterattack
       B.   Flank, Rear Counterattack
       C.   Advantages, Disadvantages and Risks
VII.   General Consideratios
       A.   Flexibility
       B.   Command and Control
       C.   Employment of Assets
       D.   Timing the Counterattack
VIII.  Integration of the Counterattack into Defense
IX.    The Way Ahead
     "Invincibility lies in the defense; the possibility of victory
     in the attack. One defends when his strength is inadequate;
     he attacks when it is abundant."
					    -Sun Tzu
Historical Perspective
     In early warfare, tactics tended to concentrate on
positional defense and the attack.  There was little
emphasis on defensive maneuver or counterattack because
limited mobility and weapon effectiveness restricted a
defenders ability to quickly react to an enemy penetration
or flanking movement.
     As technology and tactics developed there were
resultant changes in the relative balance between the
defense and attack.  World War I  saw weapons
technology make the defense stronger than the attack, and
counterattacks only enjoyed relatively limited success.
However, by World War II, developments in armor, aircraft,
mobility and firepower had shifted the balance in favor of
the attacker.  Consequently, defensive maneuver and
counterattacks assumed a new importance and, when
correctly employed, they were far more effective.
The Counterattack Today
     Technology has facilitated developments in operations
and tactics whereby an attacker is now able to observe,
maneuver, concentrate and mass fires; with unprecedented
speed, reach, lethality and flexibility.  This poses new
challenges to the defense, which must rely on the
counterattack more than ever before in order to redress
the attackers advantages.  Without doubt, the counter-
attack has now become "the decisive element of defensive
action." (23.8-17)
     Unfortunately, although we acknowledge the importance
of the counterattack(CA), we often fail to apply the
principles of 'maneuver warfare' to it.  Furthermore,
there is a tendency to ignore the lessons of history,
although many CAs have failed for this reason.
     If a defense is to be successful, we must place a
higher priority on applying the considerations for
conducting a counterattack, because it is the key to a
successful defensive scheme of maneuver.
Defining the Counterattack
     Definitions.  JCS Publication 1 defines a counter-
attack as an "attack by part or all of a force against
an enemy attacking force, for such specific purposes as
regaining ground lost, or cutting off or destroying enemy
advance units, and with the general objective of denying
to the enemy the attainment of his purpose in attacking.
In sustained defensive operations, it is undertaken to
restore the battle position and is directed at limited
objectives."(5.93)  It could be argued that the inclusion
of 'limited objectives' is too restrictive and implies a
lack of intent to exploit potential success.
Counterpenetration (CP) and counteroffensive are not
defined in the available publications, but for the
purposes of this paper they are assumed to be as shown
     Counterpenetration (CP)- Action taken to limit enemy
     penetration into, or between defensive positions,
     short of evicting him to re-establish the defense.
     Counteroffensive - A counterattack at the operational
     level, usually resulting from a successful defensive
     battle, with the intention of forcing the enemy onto
     the defensive.
     Gaining the Initiative.  The attacker will normally
hold the initiative over the defender; particularly when
terrain limits a defenders freedom of action and increases
an attackers.   The adoption of a mobile defense, spoiling
attack etc. helps to limit an attackers initiative.  But
the best method of destroying an attacker, putting him off
balance,and taking the initiative from him; is through the
combination of firepower and maneuver exemplified by the
counterattack.  Rommel was one of the greatest proponents
of the counterattack (almost regardless of the odds) such
was his faith in its potential advantages.  The counter-
attack can exploit an attackers vulnerabilities when he is
most disorganized, confused or exposed; and has had his
combat power reduced by our defensive fires.
Coordinating the Counterpenetration and Counterattack
     It is generally accepted that a successful CA depends
upon, among other things, effectively stopping the
attackers penetration and momentum.  The relationship
between the CA and CP in a positional defense is depicted
diagramatically in Figure 1.
Click here to view image
     In general terms, an echelon of command is usually
only capable of CP one level down, and CA two levels down.
Figure 1 demonstrates this as described below.
     Platoon CPs in squad area, but is limited to CA in
     fire team area with the reserve squad.
     Company CPs in platoon area, but is limited to CA in
     squad area with the reserve platoon.
     Battalion CPs in company area, but is limited to CA
     in platoon area with the reserve company.
     This situation continues with each level of command.
Although there are variations and exceptions, the ratios
generally hold true because they are based on the amount
of combat power the enemy would have had present in the
objective area to capture or penetrate it in the first
place; and a generally accepted ratio for an attacker is
about 3:1 to have a reasonable chance of success (for the
CA in this case).
     This consideration becomes important in the
positional defense because it influences a commanders
decision on when he will commit his reserves.  If he
commits it too early there may be other more important
penetrations.  If he commits it too late he may only have
the capacity to CP, in which case ,the CA may have to come
from a higher command, and this can have an adverse
accumulative effect.
     This is one of the critical weaknesses in any
defensive scheme that doesn't establish adequate CA and CP
arrangements at each level of command.  The problem is
that the number of penetrations will overwhelm a defenders
ability to react.
The Reserve as the Counterattack Force
     The reserve is usually designated as the CP and CA
force, but this has many inherent risks.  In maneuver
warfare, a major objective of an attacker is to avoid a
defenders strengths such as main battle positions.
Instead, he will attempt to bypass, envelop, or conduct a
flank attack in order to locate, fix and destroy our
reserves.  Unless the defender has secure flanks, this
means that the reserve may not be available to perform its
primary functions of CP and CA.
     The main point is not to be too dependent on
reserves.  All units within the defensive area must be
prepared to conduct CP and CA in support of other units,
even from within the forward areas.
     An alternative, originally adopted by the Germans in
World War I, was to maintain thinly-held forward positions,
and keep very strong reserves well back from the main
defensive area where they were unlikely to be effected by
attacking artillery or the assault.  They would allow
penetration, then CA with a concentrated, powerful and
intact reserve.  This tactic was used frequently and with
great success. (16.350)  The Germans and Soviets employed
similar tactics in World War II, particularly at the
operational level, and often with effective results.
Where to Strike the Attacker
     The actual method of employing the CA and CP in any
given scenario is largely determined by considerations
such as terrain, the enemy and whether the defense is
area, positional or mobile.  In general terms, the CA can
be conducted to the front, flanks or rear of the attacker.
     The frontal CA is usually associated with a
positional defense where the defender has limited room to
maneuver his CA force.  It is this approach that has
failed most often because it usually involves attacking an
enemy at his strongest point.  At Dien Bien Phu, most of
the French local CA were frontal and, although
occasionally successful, they invariably resulted in heavy
casualties.  Conversely, World War II Allied experience in
the jungle was that it was often the only option because
of terrain.
     However,frontal CA were effective when a defender had
very strong reserves and was able to force the attacker
to turn flank on to other CA forces.  This tactic was
employed by the Soviets with devastating results at Kursk.
     The frontal CA has the advantages of speed, ease of
control and fire support from flanking units.  However, it
minimizes the concentration of relative combat power,
resulting in generally less impact on the enemy.
     The CA should attempt to strike the attacker in the
flanks or rear whenever possible, and historically this
has been the most successful.  It has the advantages of
maximizing our relative combat power by striking the enemy
where he is weakest, and reduces his freedom of action and
ability to react.  It is less dependent on penetration
being stopped, and allows the reserve to attack from a
more secure position.  However, it is usually more
difficult to control and risks exposing flanks to follow
on echelons. (7.9)
     One of the best examples of an effective flank CA in
is the CA by Patton's Third Army into the southern flank
of Fifth Panzer Army during the German Ardennes offensive.
This resulted in the Germans being routed, losing all
initiative, and ultimately being forced onto the defensive:
thereby achieving the ultimate aim of a CA.
Interestingly, the Germans used the same tactics against
the Soviets and, according to Balck, often with similar
results. (4.16)
     However, there is a risk in continually using the same
CA tactics because a smart enemy will learn from his
mistakes very quickly, and develop an effective counter.
Balck reinforces the point that "there must be no fixed
schemes." (4.42)  Armstrong reiterates this point,
contending that the Soviets soon learnt to employ strong,
mobile flank guards to destroy the German CAs. (1.69)  The
Japanese also became stereotyped with the predictable
'Banzai' attacks which had little effect, except massive
casualties to themselves.
General Considerations
     CA and CP are very difficult operations that carry a
high degree of inherent risk.  Establishing a CA plan will
not guarantee a successful defense.  However, in addition
to enemy and terrain, consideration of some of the
following points will enhance the chance of success.
     Flexibility is a critical factor because the attacker
has the initiative initially, and we cannot predict his
actions with certainty.  Therefore, the CA plan must allow
for rapid changes to command and control, task
organization and designated CA forces.
     Effective command and control is essential, but very
difficult in the confusion of a CA.  The problems can be
eased by coordinating CA plans laterally between units and
vertically between various levels of command.
Furthermore, the presence of commanders well forward, and
the issue of mission orders allows for rapid command
responses to changing situations; as was demonstrated by
Guderian, Rommel and Manstein.
     Every opportunity should be taken to seize the
initiative from the enemy.  This can be achieved by
developing CA plans based on exploiting surprise and shock
action to cause the enemy to react to us, and to assist in
reducing the risks involved in conducting the CA; almost
regardless of the enemies relative strength. (21.244)
     Heloborne forces provide an ideal means of
establishing CP blocking positions.  However, caution
should be exercised before employing them in a CA role
because in many situations, they may lack the ability to
close with the enemy effectively.
     Given a limited availability of assets that is
insufficient to meet the competing priorities of manning
the defensive position and establishing a CA force, it will
usually be preferable to give priority to the CA force.  When
terrain has not favored the defense, most successful
defenses have been centered on strong CA forces supporting
lightly defended positions.
     The CP and CA plan should ensure the coordinated
employment of all the available means of combat power.
Air has had limited effectiveness in the CP role when used
in isolation;  but the potential to seal penetrations
using it in conjunction with FASCAM, support CAs etc. is
     Infiltration by an enemy is very difficult to
counter, as demonstrated by the Japanese in the Pacific.
Local CA should be employed to limit penetration, the main
CA forces being held back, ready to strike the enemy when
he attempts to reform.
     A consideration that stands out in all the researched
works is the critical importance of timing the CA.  There
is no formula for getting it right, but failure to do so
usually results in failure and defeat.  Timing the CA must
correlate enemy rates of advance, penetration, and
momentum; mobility of CA forces; communication and chain
of command timelags; and a myriad of other variables; all
designed to ensure that the CA arrives at the decisive
point and time.  Arguably, timing of the CA is the key
command decision of the defensive battle. In Italy, the
German decision to CA Anzio was too late, and hence Lucas
ultimately had time to extend his tenuous beachhead.
The Integration of the Counterattack into Defense
     It would be difficult to argue that the counterattack
is not a critical element in the defense.  This is even
more true today because of the additional advantages
gained by the attacker through technological developments.
History is replete with examples of defensive battles, and
ultimately defeat or victory, being decided by the success
or otherwise of a counterattack.
     The counterattack is a means by which we can apply
maneuver warfare in the defensive battle.  It also allows
transition from the defense to the offense.  Sun Tzu's
words seem to have been written with the counterattack in
mind, for it embodies everything that they say.
The Way Ahead
     To conduct a successful defense, we must develop an
understanding of the counterattack, and should emphasize
it as the primary focus of the defensive scheme of
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