Skip to main content

Meeting the Challenge of Protracted Battle

An Australian Army rifleman from Alpha Company of 8th/9th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, fires an F88 Austeyr rifle into an "enemy" window during Exercise Ram Horn at Wide Bay Training Area, Queensland.


Tomorrow’s protracted battles will occur in complex terrain where casualties are maximised and engagements drawn out for as long as possible. This Land Power Forum Post describes the concept of protracted battle in the context of supporting military theory and its effects on land power. It will demonstrate why battles are becoming longer and larger fights occur in complex terrain. These protracted battles are the domain of semi-national forces who behave with a mix of characteristics, predominately in the urban littoral terrain. In response, the Australian land force must continue its efforts to enhance Army’s ability to achieve decisive battle outcomes against a semi-irregular opponent.

The Enduring and Emerging Features of Battle

Over the last two decades, there has been a trend among many security analysts to assert that the dominance of irregular warfare has diminished the importance of battles. Sir Rupert Smith reflected this position in 2005 when he noted: “…the guerrilla knows this, which is why he picks small fights on his terms. But these small fights, even if they occur daily and rapidly, do not themselves aggregate into a battle; they are not in themselves decisive.”[1] To support his position, he identified six trends of modern conflict, all of which rejected a framework of state-based conflict.[2] The events of the 21st Century have validated some, but not all of these observations.  

More recently, an alternative view is beginning to emerge that conflict will continue to be determined by battles.  Mick Ryan has identified five sources of military advantage: geography, mass, time, technology and intellectual advantage.[3] Further, Cathal Nolan contextualised the concept of contemporary battle when he observed that, “[b]attles appear to better justify war by containing it to a limited theatre and time, with a clear beginning, middle and end.”[4] In support of his position, Nolan distinguished between the decisiveness of quick battles and the grinding attrition of campaigns.[5]

While the analytical concept of ‘battle’ remains applicable to contemporary warfare, its characteristics have undoubtedly changed.  Future battles will take on the attributes of siege warfare; they will not be quickly concluded and they will inevitably entail heavy casualties. In describing the Battle of Mosul, Amos Fox noted that, “when viewed as a data point across contemporary war, (it) suggests that positional battles of attrition among stalwart antagonists will continue to decide the course of campaigns, wars and policy for the foreseeable future.”[6] The description of a layered defence in brutally complex terrain is useful: “Its purpose was to bring a degree of parity to the battle by functionally and positionally dislocat[ing an opponent]…The siege is the intrinsic, reciprocal response to the layered, positional defence.”[7]

In the future, forces seeking the objectives of nation-states will use complex terrain to extend hostilities for as long as possible. This situation contrasts with the strategies of guerrilla forces, described by Smith in the early 2000s, who used complex terrain to avoid battle. Instead, the more recent military confrontations that have taken place in Mosul, Marawi and Mariupol have clearly demonstrated the advantages of a defensive approach that compels a modern form of siege warfare and that denies any side the ability to properly resolve conflict quickly.

The Emerging Character of Protracted Battle

In his 2018 analysis of The Future of War, Freedman questioned the proposition that the post-Cold War trend towards irregular warfare was either novel or especially vicious.  He conceded, however, that the conduct of war has become less formalised.[8]  More particularly, the character of armed conflict in complex terrain is changing because of parallel changes that are occurring within military organisations and within civil society. These changes have contributed to the degradation of military training and the deterioration of military organisations that have increasingly come to exist on the margins, or outside, of the nation-state’s institutions. As a consequence, the protracted battles of the future will be conducted by semi-national military forces. While it can be expected that these semi-national military forces will remain loyal to a national cause, they will not possess the formality, nor discipline, of more traditional state-based military forces.

The key aims of these semi-irregular forces will be to use the terrain to draw-out battles, and to mitigate known deficiencies in their intellectual edge and mass by imposing casualties on their opponents.  Ryan’s five sources of military advantage provide a useful conceptual framework within which to consider these changes.

  • Intellectual edge. The size of all national armies has decreased since the end of the Cold War.[9] This constrains expansion for irregular and semi-irregular armies, for example, much of ISIS’ key leadership was constituted by ex-Baath loyalists.[10] Rapid mobilisation will generally only occur outside of the formal military structures of nation-states. Consequently, semi-national armies will suffer reduced professional capability.[11]
  • Mass.  The information spectrum provides access to mass as new force elements can be motivated and mobilised quickly, and drawn from broad sources of support.[12]
  • Technology. Technology has two novel characteristics. The first is the increasing availability of useful and relatively cheap equipment on the civilian market with military uses. GPS, night vision, encrypted communications, UAVs and sophisticated electro-optics are readily available and significant capability enhancements. Conversely, dedicated military platforms are becoming rarer and more expensive.[13] This inhibits their use by forces other than national militaries.
  • Geography and Time. The urban-littoral terrain will be the key battlespace for the protracted battles of the future. While concepts such as ‘feral cities’ are useful,[14] protracted battle is an extension of the confluence of urban and irregular warfare. The novel conflict characteristics of the urban littoral have been summarised by Kilcullen as population growth, urbanisation, littoralisation and connectedness.[15] This terrain provides an environment in which semi-national military forces will be able to mitigate their weaknesses. For example, direct fire weapons do not need to be employed to their maximum range, diminishing the need for marksmanship. Conversely, many of the advantages of Western militaries are negated, especially ISR.[16]

Three Things Land Power Can Do About Protracted Battle

There are a number of transformations underway within Army that have clear potential to help better prepare the future land force to undertake protracted battle. They can assist Army to address the key challenges posed by protracted battles. Specifically, protracted battles need to be avoided, they need to be understood and they need to be shielded.

  • Avoidance.  Protracted battles can be avoided by placing as much space between friendly forces and the threat. This can be achieved using indirect fire. In this regard, artillery has played a significant and continuing role in recent conflict. Precision is useful and effectiveness will be enhanced by improved ISR, which is a necessary legal and ethical condition to its employment in the urban environment.[17] These considerations are of renewed importance in the context of artillery’s denuded role in recent Australian operations and the startlingly important role it has played in more recent conflicts.[18] The Australian Army is currently raising a Fires Brigade, which will incorporate the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System under LAND 8113. This capability will ensure that offensive support can expand from the combined arms application of fire support, to the application of effects of its own volition at the operational level. As observed recently by Palazzo, “[t]he ability to strike at great range means that the artillery will commence the battle far before the other arms can join in.”[19]
  • Understanding. Australian land power must improve its situational awareness. Protracted battles will constitute sustained actions that require sophisticated battle management systems (BMS) to be integrated into their planning and operations processes. The speed of command decision-making has diminished. Recognising this, Jim Storr has been scathing of the role of digital systems in overloading command posts with too much information.[20] According to his analysis, “[w]hat is needed is for a set of staff processes which are fast, effective and efficient. The CP should monitor the outside world continually, respond to changes swiftly and produce direction that is concise, effective and correct in its critical details.”[21] Integrated BMS, used sparingly, has the potential to resolve much of the ambiguity that exists within warfighting conducted in complex terrain. Australian land power will remain a scarce asset.  Decisions regarding its use must therefore be made with the best levels of situational awareness. Army recognises the need for military systems to achieve this, but their current utility is limited, particularly for dismounted forces.[22] Further, BMS and associated systems such as the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System, Link 16 and the future Joint Project 2096 need to be habitually integrated.
  • Shielding. Australian land power needs to account for (and embrace) force protection principles, especially passive defence. The ready access to useful technology by opponents will imperil Australian forces across all domains, as they will encounter indirect fire, surveillance and precision strike while exposed to protracted battle. Routine employment of deception, hardening, movement[23] and passive air defence[24] will help mitigate these threats. The threats requiring force protection are expanding in scope.

Finally, each of these transformations needs to be undertaken fully cognisant of the evolving nature of contemporary threats that Army faces.  Today’s semi-national threats have access to indirect fire themselves, can harden their own positions and have the ability to generate a sophisticated understanding the battlespace. Army need the means to counter our adversaries’ sources of military advantage.


Semi-national armies will seek to prolong hostilities by dragging them out and imposing maximum casualties in the urban littoral terrain. The current trends in military transformation give rise to larger, less formalised military forces seeking to achieve some or all of the aims of national powers. Their best recourse is to conduct these hostilities in complex terrain and to protract them. If it is to retain the upper hand, Army’s future land force therefore needs to embrace capabilities such as indirect fire, BMS and force protection.

This article is an entry in the 2022 AARC Short Writing Competition, 'Transforming Land Power'.

[1] Sir Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, (London, Penguin Books, 2006), 290.

[2] Sir Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, 269: These trends are, inter alia: The ends for which we fight are changing from the hard objectives that decide a political outcome; we fight amongst the people; our conflicts tend to be timeless; we fight so as to preserve the force; on each occasion new uses are found for old weapons and organisations which are the products of industrial war; and the sides are mostly not state.

[3] Mick Ryan, War Transformed, (Naval Warfare Press, Annapolis, 2022), 98-99.

[4] Cathal Nolan, The Allure of Battle, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016), 7.

[5] Nolan, The Allure of Battle, 9.

[6] Amos Fox, The Mosul Study Group and the Lessons of the Battle of Mosul, (Land Warfare Paper 130, Association of the United States Army, 2020), 4.

[7] Amos Fox, The Mosul Study Group, 4.

[8] Sir Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War, (Penguin Books, London, 2018), 143 – 145.

[9] Mick Ryan, War Transformed, 60

[10] David Kilcullen, Blood Year, (Black Inc., Melbourne, 2016), 74.

[11] Sir Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, 292 – 297.

[12] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming of the Urban Guerrilla, (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2013), 170.

[13] Jeremy Black, Military Strategy – A Global History, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020), 245

[14] Richard Norton, ‘Feral Cities’, Naval War College Review: Vol. 56(4), 2003.

[15] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains, 28.

[16] John Spencer, ‘The Eight Rules of Urban Warfare and Why We Must Work to Change Them’, Modern Warfare Institute, 1 December 2021, < The Eight Rules of Urban Warfare and Why We Must Work to Change Them - Modern War Institute (>

[17] John Gordon IV, Igor Mikolic-Torreira, D. Sean Barnett, Katharina Ley best, Scott Boston, Dan Madden, Danielle C. Tarraff and Jordan Wilcox, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, (RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, 2019), 77.

[18] Gordon et al, Army Fires Capabilities for 2025 and Beyond, 1-4; David E. Johnson and David D. Halverson, Massed Fires, Not Organic Formations: The Case for Returning Field Artillery Battalions to the DivArty, (Land Warfare Paper 130, Association of the United States Army, 2020), 5.

[19] Albert Palazzo, Deterrence and Firepower: Land 8813 and the Australian Army’s Future (Part 2, Cultural Effect), Land Power Forum, 21 August 2020 < Deterrence and Firepower: Land 8113 and the Australian Army’s Future (Part 2, Cultural Effect) | Australian Army Research Centre (AARC)>.

[20] Jim Storr, The Human Face of War, (Continuum, London, 2009), 140.

[21] Ibid, 145.

[22] Ben McLennan, BMS-D: The Missing Link, The Cove, 22 November 2018.

[23] Gordon IV et al, Army Fires Capabilites for 2025 and Beyond, 74 – 75.

[24] Brandon Morgan, The Primacy Of Passive Air Defense, Modern Warfare Institute, 6 September 2021: <The Primacy of Passive Air Defense - Modern War Institute (>

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Using the Contribute page you can either submit an article in response to this or register/login to make comments.