The Swarming Attack

7 April 2010


A sufficient number of tanks massed in attack can transform the efficacy of mobile fire into a swarm.

Yesterday when I wrote about the Iranian acquisition of the high-performance speedboat Bradstone Challenger (in Speedboat Diplomacy) I also had occasion to review a post from last August, The Power of Mobile Fire, and in retrospect I now see, despite my satisfaction with the argument in the latter piece, its inadequacies. But even as I wrote it I knew that I would need to revisit the topic, for I merely mentioned the contribution of mobile fire to swarming attacks, but did not develop it there because I had only begun to think of it at that point.

The Apache helicopter gunship is one of the preeminent weapons of mobile fire of our time.

In yesterday’s piece I quoted the Financial Times article to the effect that armed patrol boats based upon the design of the Bradstone Challenger, might be used for, “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats.” This led me to reflect on what I had previously implied about swarming attacks and mobile fire.

The Lockheed AC-130 gunship is a fixed wing platform for mobile fire.

In The Power of Mobile Fire I wrote:

The most advanced weapons systems of our time are those of mobile fire: the helicopter gunship and the aircraft carrier. Precisely because these are the most advanced weapons systems of our time, technological marvels of unrivaled sophistication, they are subject to severe constraints …one of the distinctive features of effective mobile fire has been its mass deployment. This hasn’t been discussed in the above simply because I am not sure of how to formulate it, but mobile fire is like a swarm that engulfs an enemy…

It would be worthwhile to think a little more clearly and more systematically about mobile fire. It would not be difficult to calculate, for various weapons systems, what we might call a mobility quotient, which would take into account the weight (and therefore the inertia), top speed, acceleration and deceleration, time to execute a 180 degree turn (inversely proportional), number of crew required to operate (inversely proportional), and the number of dimensions in which the weapons system in question can operate. This wouldn’t take much research, but at the present moment it takes more time that I am going to invest today. But we can calculate a very rough mobility quotient for some obvious weapons systems by taking top speed multiplied by the number of dimensions in which a weapons system operates. This is limited and imperfect, but it will make a point.




in knots


of operation



M1 Abrams tank 36.50 2 73
Apache helicopter 148.00 3 444
Nimitz class carrier 30.00 2 60
armored Humvee 56.48 2 113
AC-130 gunship 260.00 3 780

Even a rough calculation of the mobility quotient of a weapons system reveals the differences that should be obvious even without any explicit analysis: an Apache helicopter gunship is far more mobile than a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. The above rough method has obvious problems: the Apache can reverse its facing far more quickly than the AC-130, but the AC-130 has a higher top speed. That is why I said in the above the a more thorough calculation would take in additional factors like the ability to turn and acceleration. Also, a warship or a tank can bring its gun turrets to bear on a target without having to turn to face the target. But I’m sure you get the idea.

In The Power of Mobile Fire I identified aircraft carriers as mobile fire, and certainly to an extent carriers and warships are mobile on the seas, but there is a more important sense in which an aircraft carrier is a platform for mobile fire. True mobility on the water would be something like the craft that the US Bureau of Industry and Security warned that the Iranians would make by adapting the design of the Bradstone Challenger: armed with “torpedoes, rocket launchers and anti-ship missiles” with the aim of “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats”. By the above rough calculation, the Bradstone Challenger has a mobility quotient of 130, better than twice that of the carrier. We know that a small patrol boat would be crewed by just a few men, reducing response time to commands, and that it would turn far quicker than any carrier or warship. Thus a more sophisticated mobility quotient calculation would only show a greater disparity between the large ships and the small boats.

The next step is to go from mobile fire to a swarm of mobile fire, and this could also be rendered in a rough calculation such that mobility quotient multiplied by mass (in the sense used in military doctrine, not inertial mass) equals a swarm. That is to say, the mobile fire unit multiplied by a mass deployment equals a swarm of mobile fire. This is where a platform for mobile fire becomes important: an aircraft carrier is sufficiently large to carry sufficient numbers of mobile fire units to induce a mobile fire swarm. On land, an airbase would be a platform for mobile fire. Or, for ground-based swarm attacks, a staging point, perhaps a military base with infrastructure such as fueling and repair, would be a platform for mobile fire swarm attacks.

In Speedboat Diplomacy I quoted the Financial Times quoting Craig Hooper to the effect that, “A small, fast boat navy is nothing more than a surprise strike and harassment force. Every time small, fast boats run into helicopters, the helicopters win.” This seems to call into question the possibility of the efficacy of a swarming attack by patrol boats. I consulted Craig Hooper’s website, Next Navy: Future Maritime Security, where he makes the point again, writing, “Once a fast boat swarm is identified as “hostile,” those small boats tend to have relatively short, exciting lives.” Hooper, however, ultimately leaves the question open: “The trick, of course, is avoiding any losses as a ‘swarm’ transforms from ‘traffic’ to a swarming ‘attacker’ …And that might be a tad difficult. Or… maybe not.”

The “maybe not” deserves our attention. Helicopters have the advantage of operating in three dimensions and of speed, but a patrol boat is potentially less sensitive to the direction it is facing, if it has a deck-mounted heavy machine gun with a 360 degree range of motion. Are there patrol boats that have been armed equivalently to the AH-64 Apache? I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out. It would also be interesting to run a war game with patrol boats armed as heavily as an Apache, and with boats and helicopters present in equal numbers. Lessons might be learned that could teach the boats a few things about anti-helicopter tactics. Certainly, somewhere in the world, someone is conducting such exercises, in so far as it is within their capability, and learning the lessons. Presumably this would be those most heavily invested in the idea of swarming patrol boat attacks.

It is interesting that this discussion of swarm attacks should emerge at the same time as the BBC has reported swarming tactics by Somalian pirates. In Navies struggle with ‘swarming’ pirates, Rear Adm. Peter Hudson is quoted as saying, “What we’ve seen in the last month in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, the Somali basin, is almost swarm tactics by some of the pirates who try to flood the area with action groups.” While the small pirate boats are mostly taking on unarmed and defenseless commercial shipping, it is also to be noted that the pirate’s boats are far from being anything like the Bradstone Challenger. If the pirates had to take on armed vessels they probably wouldn’t have a chance, but if the pirates, with their experience of small boat mobility and boarding on the high seas, were given a squadron of Bladerunner 51s and more sophisticated weaponry, they might well prove an adversary to a naval ship. Experience is key. It has been reported that the remarkable marksmanship exhibited by the Taliban with weapons such as shoulder-launched missiles is a result of the protracted civil war in Afghanistan and the resultant extensive experience accrued thereby.

In a swarm attack one can expect that there is a “tipping point.” This is what a philosopher would call a “sorites paradox” also known as the paradox of the heap: if you progressively add more and more grains of sand together, at some point they stop being a few grains of sand and become a heap. There is no definitive answer to when this transition occurs. That is why it is a paradox. For the same reason, there will be no definitive answer for inducing a military swarm attack: reaching the tipping point from massed deployment to the “lived experience” of a swarm (to borrow a phrase of phenomenology) will always depend upon variable factors like weather, terrain, morale, and cultural factors.

In a swarm attack, the forces attacked are ideally not merely demoralized and panicked, they are overpowered, overwhelmed, and utterly bewildered. In other words, the point of a swarm attack is to induce the enemy to experience the sublime. This may sound a little odd, so I will try to explain.

While in ordinary language “sublime” is used almost interchangeably with “beautiful,” in the technical jargon of aesthetics it means a distinctive aesthetic experience different from the beautiful. I have written about the sublime several times in this forum, for example, in Algorithms of Ecstasy, The Intellectual Sublime, and Salto Mortale. In the latter piece I elaborated on the Kantian conception of the sublime. Kant, primarily remembered as an abstruse metaphysician, devoted the third of his three critiques to the sublime. He makes a fundamental distinction between the mathematical sublime and the dynamic sublime. While almost all of his examples of the dynamic sublime are instances of natural beauty that overwhelm us, the idea of the dynamical sublime could be equally well applied to war, or perhaps better applied to war.

Immanuel Kant wrote extensively on the sublime.

Even Kant, in his genteel eighteenth century way, can glimpse the sublimity of war, although for Kant war was the sort of relatively well-behaved exercise between small professional armies to be found in the Europe of his day:

“Even war has something of the sublime about it if it is carried on in an orderly way and with respect for the sanctity of citizen’s rights. At the same time it makes the way of thinking of a people that carries it on in this way all the more sublime in proportion to the number of dangers in the face of which it courageously stood its ground. A prolonged peace, on the other hand, tends to make prevalent a merely commercial spirit, and along with it base selfishness, cowardice, and softness, and to debase the way of thinking of that people.”

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Sec. 28

To say that war is sublime is not to say that it is good, or that it is inevitable, or that it is anything else flattering or unflattering. The point is that war, and especially the experience of battle, can overwhelm a man, or a group of men, and leave them disoriented and bewildered. One can imagine (I must attempt to imagine for I have never been a soldier and never been in battle), that if one is on the side that is winning, confidence grows and one feels an increasing sense of power and control over the situation. On the losing side, the opposite happens: confidence collapses and one feels a dwindling sense of power and control over the situation. Past a certain tipping point, this lack of control passes over into an experience of the sublime when one is utterly at the mercy of circumstances.

I am not suggesting that there is anything essentially new about swarming tactics. On the contrary, in The Power of Mobile Fire I recounted the history of swarming mobile fire in the form of Hittite chariot archers and Mongol mounted bowmen. Moreover, since the emergence of Blitzkrieg, almost all battlefield tactics are implicitly aimed at swarming around and over enemy positions, leaving strong points to be “mopped up” later. What I am suggesting here is that a swarming attack by mobile fire is an effective way to think about such battlefield tactics, and that we can further conceptualize the situation in terms of inducing an experience of the sublime among the enemy. Since the sublime will be culturally relative to a certain degree, military doctrine might profit from studying the culture of the enemy in order to better understand how an experience of the sublime can be induced through military action.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Salto mortale

27 February 2010


The Greeks believed that men could in heroic moments live as gods, with the sole exception being that they must some day die: immortality is the one thing denied them. Heroes are god-like in their moment of triumph, and gods can be as foolish as men in their weaknesses, but the gods are the immortals, and this exempts them from a particular human experience of finitude: mortality. (I previously discussed this in Reason in Moderation.)

We might similarly characterize the Greek attitude to reason: in his lucid intervals the mind of man is like unto the gods, embodying a heroism of the intellect. But man cannot sustain his reason beyond its proper span, any more than life can be preserved past mortal limits. Thus the life appropriate to man is that of the cultivation of proper limits and a prudent respect for the boundaries that he ought not to pass into the unlimited. Moderation is the watchword here: “All things in moderation” and “Nothing in excess” were famous proverbs in the ancient world that are still with us today. Human virtue, then, is a function of finitude, and folly the lure of the apeiron, that is to say, the undetermined, the formless, the unstructured, the arbitrary, and the unbounded.

How shall one set the limits for oneself proper to human finitude? The above extrapolation of ancient Greek heroism to the realm of the mind has a perfect exemplification in a surviving fragment from one of the many shadowy presocratic philosophers, Epicharmus of Syracuse: A mortal should think mortal thoughts, not immortal thoughts. (Fragment 19 in the Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers by Kathleen Freeman) Does this represent an aspiration to achievement, i.e., to achieve that which a human being can achieve in actuality, or an admonition to humility, i.e., to avoid the hubris of that which is denied to human achievement? Is there a difference between the two, or is it a matter of the glass being half-empty or half-full?

The idea contained in Ephicharmus’ aphorism may have had a certain currency in classical antiquity. The injunction, “O mortal man, think mortal thoughts” has been attributed to Euripides, though it is not to be found in his plays or fragments. However, in The Bacchae Euripides wrote, “…not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” This clearly implies a parallel line of thought. For a man to think immortal thoughts, that is to say, thoughts appropriate to the gods, he is courting doom and disaster, and, of course, Greek tragedy is filled with doom and disaster. The Furies visit doom and disaster upon men who exhibit hubris.

Ever since the Greeks, to whom we owe our mathematics and philosophy, the actual infinite has been rejected. The famous Pythagorean table of opposites, which was headed by apeiron and peras, associated the apeiron with the ugly, the crooked, and the bad. Thus the infinite was not only theoretically rejected, but also made the object of moral disapproval. Thinking the infinite represents the hubris of the intellect. Descartes said that we shouldn’t call things infinite, but rather indefinite. Fear of the infinite is almost a theme in Pascal’s Pensées. Gauss in a letter to Schumacher explicitly rejected infinite totalities. Kant’s antinomies not only questioned metaphysical ideas, but in showing the unsolvability of the finitude or infinitude of space and time also casts doubt on the concepts of the infinite employed in the demonstration.

This much of Kant is well known. Less known is the analysis of the infinite in the Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft), § 26, in the consideration of the mathematical sublime (“sublime” is the English term for Kant’s “Erhabene”). Kant makes a distinction between apprehensio and comprehensio, and holds that the former can go on ad infinitum, but the latter becomes more difficult and is eventually overwhelmed. It is the sublime which overwhelms comprehensio, and it is the sublime which is great beyond all comparison. If the infinite has overwhelmed philosophers one suspects it must be the terrifying sublime (in § 1 of Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, Kant distinguishes between the terrifying sublime, the noble sublime, and the splendid sublime), which suggests the ancient horror infinitum.

Like the Greek hero Prometheus who stole fire from the gods, there was one man who was not humbled by the horror infinitum, and that was Georg Cantor. The power of Cantor’s ideas are precisely his rejection of this tradition, sanctioned by history, and the introduction of a method to compare the sizes of infinite sets. The infinite in Cantor does not overwhelm and it is not incomparable. Indeed, Cantor’s great technical innovations — one-to-one correspondence and diagonalization — allow us to take the measure of the infinite and soberly assess its significance.

We have not only learned to think immortal thoughts, but we have learned to think them systematically and rigorously. The intuitive breakthrough of Cantor to set theory and transfinite numbers was a salto mortale, a death-defying leap of the intellect. In this, it is like Darwin’s intuitive breakthrough to natural selection or Einstein’s intuitive breakthrough to relativity. Such moments in the history of science are difficult to reconcile with sober theorizing. They represent the mind’s singular function, and it is only through such singular accomplishments that scientific progress is possible.

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Georg Cantor was one of the great intellectual revolutionaries of all time.

Georg Cantor was one of the great intellectual revolutionaries of all time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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