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  • Clausewitz, On War, Book V: Clausewitz on Combined Arms

    Posted by Nathaniel T. Lauterbach on February 22nd, 2009 (All posts by )

    Chapter Four of Book V of On War is titled “Relationship between the Branches of the Service.” This chapter, however, doesn’t really seek to explain the relationship between the branches (infantry, artillery, and cavalry). Instead, it seeks to explain the relative strengths and weaknesses of the three branches. The specific relationships between the branches are left for us to intuit.

    Clausewitz explains the strengths right off:

    “The engagement consists of two essentially different components: the destructive power of firearms, and hand-to-hand, or individual, combat. The latter in turn can be used for either attack or defense (words here employed in an absolute sense, for we are speaking in the broadest of terms). Artillery is effective only through the destructive power of fire; cavalry only by way of individual combat; infantry by both these means.

    In hand-to-hand fighting, the essence of defense is to stand fast, as it were, rooted to the ground; whereas movement is the essence of attack. Cavalry is totally incapable of the former, but preeminent in the latter, so is suited only to attack. Infantry is best at standing fast, but does not lack some capacity to move.” (p.285)

    Clausewitz then enumerates his thoughts on the combat arms:

    “1. Infantry is the most independent of the arms.
    2. Artillery has no independence.
    3. When one or more arms are combined, infantry is the most important of them.
    4. Cavalry is the most easily dispensable arm.
    5. A combination of all three confers the greatest strength.” (p.286)

    And so Clausewitz starts beating around the Combined Arms bush.

    But what is Combined Arms?

    Combined Arms is an approach to warfare which seeks to combine military arms to create complementary effects.

    So Clausewitz recognizes that the combination of various combat arms can increase the effectiveness of the army (per #5 above.) But what does he say of the specific combination of arms? Is there a magic number of howitzers per 10,000 infantry? Apart from point #3 above, Clausewitz claims there might be a perfect proportion between the arms, but also claims that such a proportion is only theoretical:

    “In theory, then, there is an optimum proportion between the arms, which in practice remains an unknown X, a mere figment of the imagination.” (p.287)

    Clausewitz then goes on to explain the virtues and vices of artillery and cavalry, from which we can induce that Clausewitz views these arms as mere auxiliaries to the infantry, since he doesn’t discuss the virtues and vices of excessive amounts of infantry (i.e. Clausewitz views infantry is the core combat arm.)

    Clausewitz also tackles the question of what happens to the nature of a given conflict when there is a preponderance of a given arm. In short, an excess of guns imposes a rather static battlefield and attritionist tactics. A shortage of artillery restores movement to the battlefield.

    A prevalence of cavalry allows for sweeping attacks on flanks and the rear, while conferring the ability to keep the enemy at a distance. A lack of cavalry forces the armies to fight in closer contact.

    As the combat arms affect the nature of the war, so the nature of the war affects the combat arms. He allows that in People’s War (what we would call irregular war, rebellion, or insurgency) the main arm is the infantry to an extent even larger than conventional warfare. (p.288.)

    Clausewitz completes his chapter with a summary of his conclusions:

    “1. Infantry is the main branch of service; the other two are supplementary.
    2. A high degree of skill and vigor in the conduct of war can to some extent make up for a lack of the supplementary branches—assuming great numerical superiority in infantry. The higher the quality of the infantry, the easier this will be.
    3. It is harder to do without artillery than without cavalry: artillery is the principal agent of destruction, and its use in action is more closely coordinated with the infantry’s.
    4. In general, artillery being the strongest agent of destruction and the cavalry the weakest, one is always confronted with the question of how much artillery one can have without it being a disadvantage, and with how little cavalry one can manage.” (p.291)

    Let us now evaluate Clausewitz’s conception of combined arms.

    Clausewitz has fairly modern view of combined arms. While recognizing the supremacy of infantry in almost all ground combat operations, he allows for strengthening the army using auxiliary forces of other arms. He recognized that various situations might call for different proportions of arms. He didn’t jump on any bandwagon which advocated the supremacy of the howitzer or the saber. For this he should be commended.


    He espouses an awareness of the different strengths of the three branches, yet fails to delve into the relationships between the branches. For example, he makes no mention of who is responsible for furnishing support to whom.

    Nor does Clausewitz speak of the types of support that are advantageous for a given situation. For example, is artillery support advisable in an infantry or cavalry attack? What sorts of support? Should enemy positions be “softened” by preparatory fires? Or might those preparatory fires only telegraph intentions? If cavalry is so superior in the attack, what might we do to such an attack if we only have infantry and artillery to oppose such an attack? When is cavalry better utilizes for reconnaissance, and when it is best used for the attack? These are crucial tactical questions that Clausewitz failed to answer.

    Clausewitz also fails to identify any sort of combined arms relationships between units below the brigade level. In all seriousness, Clausewitz cannot really be blamed for this. He was a man of his time, when homogeneous regiments of a given arm were raised and subordinated to the corps, division or brigade. Combined-arms battalions, companies, platoons, and detachments were unknown. In fact, platoons didn’t even exist as tactical units until much after Clausewitz’s time. Yet there is nothing which would have prevented specialized combined-arms task forces from being employed in Clausewitz’s time, and his failure to define such a proposition can be viewed as a deficiency.

    That said, it is worth noting that modern combined-arms doctrine has reached practical apogee. Combined arms doctrine now permeates virtually all military doctrine and forces. In the United States, combined arms doctrine exists from the fireteam level, where hand grenades complement rifles, through all levels of combat to the nuclear-strategic level, where the triad of nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, and bomber aircraft complement one another in furnishing the nuclear deterrent. Yet this combined-arms thinking is not only found in modern conventional and nuclear forces. In Israel’s 2006 war against Hizbollah, Hizbollah managed to fight the Israeli Defense Forces to a standstill using a combined-arms potion of anti-tank guided missiles, irregular partisans, and propaganda distributed by the Internet and media.

    It must be stated that Clausewitz is very generous to the artillery when describing their destructive power. 18th century cannon, as well as 21st century howitzers and mortars, are formidable weapons, but their destructive capability is greatly overstated. Their worth lies in their suppressive capabilities—they keep the enemy from firing, maneuvering, or otherwise undertaking whatever tasks he wishes. This is crucial to recognize, as any time you are using artillery fires to destroy something, odds are that it is a misapplication of fires. Any additional fires beyond what is required to suppress the enemy are probably wasted. This also implies that there is probably an upper limit to the amount of artillery in a given force for a given situation, and that limit is not defined by material circumstances, wealth, or numbers of men. It is instead defined by the point of diminishing returns.

    How does the Clausewitzian concept of Combined Arms translate to warfare today?

    First, it should be noted that the three branches of service that Clausewitz names are utterly archaic today. Modern infantry exists in myriad forms. The standard, basic infantry is actually quite rare in modern armies. In most conventional armies, infantries are found in various forms: mechanized, motorized, heliborne, airborne, Marine, mountain, Ranger, and Special Forces. The modern infantries are instead given various degrees of enhanced speed, maneuverability, armor protection. Modern infantry has more mobility than cavalry, and often employs more firepower than artillery.

    Cavalry, despite Corb Lund’s singing, is unreservedly dead as a modern combat arm. Though some units may claim lineage to the cavalry of older times, these units are almost always actually mechanized or aviation units. One modern type of cavalry is the Armored Cavalry Regiment, which contain mechanized infantry, tanks, artillery, and aviation all under the command of a colonel. Yet the ACR is capable of both attack and defense, and can deliver much more firepower than even artillery units of yore.

    Artillery, preeminent in firepower, is no longer as dependent on infantry for protection, nor is it as immobile as it used to be. Modern artillery ranges from the mortars that are organic to infantry companies and battalion, through modern towed howitzers, to selfpropelled artillery. Modern artillery is mobile, is capable of high rates of fire, and is capable of delivering a whole range of effects from delivering smoke obscurants and mines to specialized laser-guided cluster-bomblet rounds. Some modern self-propelled artillery pieces resemble tanks in their mobility, and some mortars can be carried by a single man, and are well-employed by handful of men.

    The branches Clausewitz worked with have therefore been blurred together when considering their capabilities. But this is not to say that the branches have merged. Modern artillery might be highly mobile, but it still excels at providing only suppressive fires. Infantry has extreme mobility, but is now charged with destroying the enemy. And the modern equivalents of cavalry (tanks, light-armored vehicles, and aviation) still require coordination with the infantry to provide protection (in the case of tanks), and to coordinate fires (in the case of aviation). The branches have blurred in terms of capability, but they are still very separate in their functions. Combined Arms fighting is as crucial today as ever.

    Something needs to be stated on the moral aspect of combined arms. Moral strength can be derived from the orchestration of the arms, and that moral strength can be translated into success. I last fought in Iraq in 2006, and during that time I traveled by way of convoy at a time when the roadside bomb and the ambush were the main source of Coalition casualties. Therefore we arranged a section of AH-1W Cobras to provide aerial escort to the convoy. Those two aircraft and the four Marines manning them never did have to fire their weapons, almost certainly because their very presence deterred any action against my ground convoy. We were able to essentially drive on enemy-infested roads without fear, and that lack of fear reinforces moral strength.

    Yet the moral strength of combined arms can also work against the stronger side when fighting in an asymmetric war. This is particularly true in cases where the weaker makes use of an aggressive media strategy. The Israelis learned this lesson the hard way, in the so-called Jenin Massacre, and in the 2006 Lebanon War. Bottom line, to a neutral bystander, the sight of combined arms fighting is terrifying, and the side that uses combined arms in plain sight of the media only welcomes losing support in the court of opinion.

    In conclusion, Clausewitz was generally correct when it comes to combined arms, but his precepts were designed for the 19th century. Some of his thoughts can be transported to the 21st century with modification, but only with caution. The ubiquity of media and the prevalence of irregular conflict in modern times are factors that Clausewitz did not take accounting for. Consequently, the onus is on us to bring inject creativity into our military operations, so that victory may be attained with low human and material costs.


    13 Responses to “Clausewitz, On War, Book V: Clausewitz on Combined Arms”

    1. Barbra Lauterbach Says:

      Read it!

    2. seydlitz89 Says:

      Actually I liked it. Very tactically oriented as I would have expected, it being essentially tactics handled in this Book.

      I have always thought artillery was “the greatest killer on the battlefield” . . .

    3. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:


      I never said I didn’t like this chapter, only that it ought to be read with caution.

      Arty the greatest killer? Only if the word “Repeat” is sent incessantly over the Conduct of Fire radio net. Perhaps Arty is a decent killer a point-blank range on a direct lay, like at Dien Bien Phu. Apart from that, I would use it only as a weapon to assist my maneuver and prevent the enemy’s maneuver. Anything beyond that, and you’re wasting munitions.

    4. Lexington Green Says:

      “Yet there is nothing which would have prevented specialized combined-arms task forces from being employed in Clausewitz’s time, and his failure to define such a proposition can be viewed as a deficiency.”

      I agree that Clausewitz did not have an elaborated notion of combined arms, where they various arms are more than the sum of their separate capabilities by being used together.

      It may be that he considered questions like the use of cannister or round shot prior to sending the infantry forward, or the use of squares to meet cavalry charges, to be tactics not strategy. Hence questions of the interaction of the three types of arms may not have fallen within the scope of his analysis. Also, the fact that the doctrine for employing these types of units was pretty uniform across armies in his day, which he mentions, meant there was not much use in talking about it.

      Also, of course, the weapons of his day were simply much simpler and fewer in number than we have today. There were not as many complications in the various kinds of combinations that were possible.

      The first significant use of combined arms teams at the squad and platoon level occurred during World War I. At the beginning of that war, companies of infantry were all riflemen. I think you started having field artillery at the battalion level.

      So, I think it is a fair observation that Clausewitz simply did not foresee anything like the highly refined combined arms approach that developed starting in the early twentieth century. Perhaps he should have seen more than he did. However, I think it is a fair statement that he did not really try to guess about technological developments, though he expressly said there would be such developments.

      On the question of artillery as a suppressive arm v. a killing arm, I think that in Clausewitz’s day, where the guns fired mostly solid shot and the shells were not terribly powerful, the muzzle loading cannon was much more of a “super-musket” and much less the sort of suppressive instrument that we now have.

      I am reading a biography of Douglas Haig. The British artillery of World War I still had to learn that its main aim was suppression rather than destruction over a year into the war. By that time modern metallurgy and chemistry had provided breach loading cannon with very great range and very powerful shells already for decades.

      We need to be careful not to project back too much, using the same word “artillery” to describe weapons whose capabilities have changed immensely. A smoothbore, flintlock musket was of course greatly outclassed by, say, a Lee Enfield rifle of 1916. But a brass muzzle-loading cannon was a toy compared, say, to the 4.5″ howitzers the British used in 1916. Taking it down to our day, we have entered a world of weaponry, above the man-portable weaponry, which was beyond the dreams of anyone in 1918, let alone 1830.

      The question I would raise is this: If Clausewitz had possessed a crystal ball, would an awareness of the direction that weaponry, and the use of combined arms, have changed any of the basic principles he presented in On War, particularly in Book I?

    5. seydlitz89 Says:


      I was responding to Barbara’s comment and was referring to your post. As to Arty being the greatest killer, it’s an old saying as you know and very popular among arty types which makes me tainted in a way since my original MOS was 0811. Serving and firing an M-101A1 howitzer as an 18-year-old volunteer was quite an experience. Thanks for your post.

      Lexington Green-

      “The question I would raise is this: If Clausewitz had possessed a crystal ball, would an awareness of the direction that weaponry, and the use of combined arms, have changed any of the basic principles he presented in On War, particularly in Book I?”

      No,imo since in Book I we are dealing with the general theory, that is what links all wars. Each epoch would have in turn its own “art of war” and the current one would be very much into the interaction between tactics and technology, but how exactly would that effect operations and even more strategy? Following Rupert Smith we only operate weapon systems at the tactical level effectively (that is in pursuit of our military aim supporting the political purpose). Due to the nature of the asymmetric wars we currently conduct, attempting to maneuver and engage at the operational level leads to self-defeating effects on/reactions from the locals. Weapons become ever more lethal, but that does not lead to an increase in operational let alone strategic effectiveness, since the (at times obscure) political purpose is often not attainable by military means. In so much of what passes for “strategic thought” today, 4GW for instance, the focus is exclusively on tactics and stratagem while the connection between military aim/political purpose is lost in the smoke created by all those expensive explosions.

    6. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

      Lexington Green-

      I definitely considered what you said about Arty’s role as a destructive weapon given the technology of the day. I suppose a good example of what I’m trying to say is Picket’s Charge. Confederate artillery had spent considerable time attempting to soften the Union lines at Gettysburg prior to the charge. The Confederates could have spent a thousand years doing so…and it would have made no difference, for once the bombardment commenced, the Union troops hunkered down. When the shelling ceased, they returned to their defensive positions. Pickett then charged a mile of open field, and his Corps was destroyed by the real killing arm, the Union infantry.

      I submit that had the Union been under continual bombardment while Pickett’s Corps was on the attack, that the tactical history of Gettysburg would have been much different.

      Props to you for correctly diagnosing one of the tactical deficiencies of pretty much everybody involved in WWI: using arty as a killing weapon. Seydlitz mentioned expensive 4GW explosions…they aren’t expensive 4GW explosions. There were expensive 2GW explosions, too.

    7. Lexington Green Says:

      I am not an expert on Gettysburg. Could the Confederates have pushed their guns forward with the advancing infantry? Or was it possible to fire over the heads of the advancing infantry?

      As to WWI, it took everybody a long time to figure out suppression by artillery fire. Even then, of course, not having radios was a problem. You have the infantry advancing behind a creeping barrage by timetable. If the infantry get halted, by even a single machine gun team that survived in a shell crater, then the barrage “walks away” from them.

      Artillery was fantastically expensive in World War I. Whole economies were dislocated to increase shell production. Shells were, for their day, high technology. The cost of 2GW shells was cash. The cost of “4GW” shells is that they make dead women and children who then go on TV — mindbombs to suppress and destroy political will.

    8. phwest Says:

      lex – the short answer is no. The longer range of CW-era rifled muskets eliminated the Napoleanic tactic of pushing cannon up offensively in support of infantry attacks. Thus artillery was primarily a defensive fire-support weapon, and another reason why the tactical defensive was so much more powerful in the CW-Era than earlier.

    9. seydlitz89 Says:

      “Seydlitz mentioned expensive 4GW explosions…they aren’t expensive 4GW explosions. There were expensive 2GW explosions, too.”

      Actually I didn’t mention any “4GW explosions” but rather was referring to the current confusion of military aim/political purpose which our current capabilities-based view leads us, the expensive explosions providing simply the background “music”.

      This has happened before, as Svechin writes:

      “The French operation in Champagne in 1915 and their summer operation at the Somme were prepared completely openly and were known to the Germans many weeks before they began. Operational art was completely eliminated, while tactics grew to gigantic proportions and revealed its inability to achieve major results by tactical means alone.”

      Strategy, p 273.

      If we are talking about the current dilemma, the question should be imo how to regain operational level effectiveness.

    10. Lexington Green Says:

      OK. So, assume I live to see the end of Book VIII and this roundtable. Assume further that I have time to read another book before I have a massive heart attack while screaming at one of my teenage children.

      Which of the other great ones of strategy should I read first?



      I think I am going to take a long break from theory when I am done with Clausewitz. Let it digest for a while … . Focus on readint history and other stuff for a while … .

    11. Shane Says:


      Great critique, particularly your dissection of Carl von in terms of “Combined Arms”. As deep as Clausewitz dove into the minutae, one would expect him to have delved more deeply into the circumstances when various types of arms (and combinations thereof) would be superior.

      As for Lex’s query on Gettysburg above, I agree with you: the terrain from Seminary Ridge to Cemetary Ridge (low to high with a narrow cusp atop the latter) made any ballistic direct-fire weapons untenable. Pickett was doomed from the moment Longstreet misinterpreted Lee’s order to flank (vice simply turn) the Union left. (Actually, he was doomed the moment Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire near Culpeper at Chancellorsville, but that’s another story…. :-)

      sf/ shane

    12. Lexington Green Says:

      So artillery used as suppressive fire was not an option at Gettysburg, and artillery pushed forward with the infantry as a direct fire weapon was also not an option. With no ability to suppress the defenders, and no way to “shoot the infantry in” to the Union position, the attack made no sense at all.

      As Clausewitz tells us, even the best commanders can make fatal mistakes. Lee was certainly very good. And yet he made this mistake. And those who fall short of being the best … . You had better hope you don’t serve in their army.

    13. zenpundit Says:

      Excellent post Nate. I wonder how Clausewitz would have viewed the creation of Soviet Artillery armies in WWII?

      There was, if I recall correctly, a few volunteer combined arms units during the Civil War that operated under the glorified classification of “Legion”. These were not common but they demonstrate that such units, though occurring a generation later, could have been employed in Clausewitz’s day. That they were not was likely due to the centralized state militaries prevalent in Europe vs. the hybrid state-local/conscript-volunteer forces raised by the Union and the Confederacy. There was more room for bottom-up innovation in the Civil War than in European conflicts of the period.

      Regading cannons, there’s quite a bit of detail on the technological shift from bronze to steel artillery in Manchester’s book on Krupp