A guest editorial from Anonymou5 on assault in 40K!
Stop telling me Assault is Unrealistic. A journey into Army Doctrine
6th Edition seems to have focused the community into camps, arguing the various merits of assault, shooting, and balanced forces in the game. This has lead to measures such as the Frontline Gaming Crew adapting a more terrain oriented approach to their tournaments. I personally prefer heavy terrain, as I think it makes the game more fun and tactical. However, I think Reece has become the patron saint for the “pro terrain” movement, and I’m not here to discuss that.
I’m here to discuss Assault as a concept, and why it belongs in 40k. I constantly see the argument against Assault framed as “Assault isn’t realistic, it doesn’t belong in my scifi game.” I’m not even going to address the base ridiculousness of that argument, as 40k left realism at the door at its very inception, and instead judge it on its merits. Is Assault realistic?
These arguments generally come down to separate points.
1) It’s impossible to get that close to an enemy. All these powerful weapon systems would kill you miles away. Real world armies fight at extreme range.
2) Why would you stab someone with a chain sword when you could just shoot them?
Point 2 is irrelevant in my opinion. In the context of the setting, a superhuman soldier can punch a man hard enough to kill him in one blow, extra dimensional beings can devour your soul, and swarms of bio engineered beasts can tear through any material. If that doesn’t work, you can just roll it into the general abstraction that is 40k, just because a Fire Warrior is in Assault doesn’t mean his lucky kill of a Tervigon wasn’t a pulse rifle shot through the eye.
No, I’m focused on point 1. Because if close range fighting is realistic, however you visualize the actual Assault Phase is pointless; so long as you believe it’s possible for forces to close on one another in the face of overwhelming firepower.
To make this short, yes, it’s possible. It’s realistic. Now, that’s out of the way, feel free to read the rest of the article to see why (or close it and go on with your life). But first, I warn you; there’s some ranting in here. I also warn you, there’s a paragraph that may seem like I’m gloating. I promise I am not, but presenting my “bonafides” gives my conclusions some weight. Finally, I ask you for your opinion. Let me know if this kind of argument has merit, do readers want to see 40k compared to actual Military Doctrine? If so, it’s a format I can revisit. Consider this an experiment.
Caveats finished, now it’s time to dig into this. To many in the community, the argument is simple. Real Armies shoot each from far away, 40k weapons are roughly analogous to real world weapons, thus the Assault Phase is stupid. Well, many in the community are wrong. Many in the community watch some history channel, saw Restrepo, and consider themselves experts on warfare. There is no other area of life besides warfare where the average person decides they are experts. I don’t know how many civilians have told me “I thought about joining the Army,” and followed it with a diatribe about what the Army should do in situation x. Or, my favorite, the time a friend of mine told me “If I was in the military I’d be Special Forces,” as he struggled to breathe after the physical exertion of walking to a table at a restaurant.
Well, 99% of you aren’t experts. Even if your PHD is in military history, you are still not an expert. Your PHD makes you an expert on the actual Historical events, not the tactical level decisions and reasoning. I am not an expert either, but I am a Professional. I was a Rifle Platoon Leader in Kandahar Province during the Surge and took the fight to the Taliban. I trained up and partnered with an Afghan National Army Heavy Weapons Company, focusing heavily on small unit tactics. In Kunar Province I advised multiple Afghan Local Police and Afghan National Police Districts on paramiltary operations and rule of law. I am a graduate of a plethora of advanced Military Schooling, and am at least, in theory, a master of Company Level Maneuver Warfare, as well as a ton of ancillary related skills ranging from Airborne Operations to Family Readiness. I am by no means the be all, end all, of the Military, but I know a thing or two about a thing or two.
Chest puffing aside, let’s figure out some ground rules. First, what does Warhammer 40k simulate? There is some grey area here, but it is roughly Platoon Plus through Company level Combined Arms Maneuver, with the player simulating the Ground Force Commander. I’ll dig into what that means shortly, but we need that compare that to a real world frame of reference: The United States Army (other forces could obviously be used, but it needs to be a ground force, for reasons I will get into).
So, what does the Army do? What is its job? This is a more difficult question than I imagine a lot of readers would expect. Most people might answer something to the effect of “it fights wars.” That is true, but it is not the Army’s sole function. The average Soldier would also answer this wrong, and would say “To close with and destroy the enemy.” Which again, is partially correct, but does not paint the whole picture. Although, if that were the answer, this article would be much shorter. To really get into the Army, and to frame it to 40k, I’m going to start “big picture” and narrow it down until we get to where I want.
The Army is actually part of a larger system; effectively the entire United States acting in concert. This includes Government Agencies (think State Department, other Military Services, etc) and Non Government Agencies (everything from the Red Cross to Major Corporations) implementing policy. This is known as “Unified Action.” The Army’s piece of the puzzle, the Army’s actual “job” is to conduct Unified Land Operations.
Unified Land Operations, according to ADRP 3-0 (see, real doctrine) are offensive, defensive, and stability operations, and defensive of civil services. In short, attacking, defending, rebuilding, and helping inside the US. The Army accomplishes these tasks through its core competencies, which are effectively the Army’s two skills (and what matter here): Combined Arms Maneuver and Wide Area Security. These tasks are guided by the principles of Mission Command (which is the role you assume when you take over a 40k game)
Combined Arms Maneuver is what matters in 40k, because that is what the 40k Commander executes through his tools of Mission Command (which are rolling dice, moving figures, etc). Doctrinally Combined Arms Maneuver is “the application of the elements of combat power in unified action to defeat enemy ground forces; to seize, occupy, and defend land areas; and to achieve physical, temporal, and psychological advantages over the enemy to seize and exploit the initiative” (ADRP 3-0 again). Great, what does that mean? Basically when something needs to happen on the ground, all the elements of the fight come together at one point and work together to achieve the option.
Generally, we frame this as “Fires, Maneuver and Effects.” Or, often, just Fire and Maneuever. Really, all combat comes down to Fire and Maneuver. Fire, is well, shooting stuff. Everything from an M4 or Bolter, to A-10 or Vulture gunruns, all the way up Naval Gunfire or a Riptide Ion Accelerator. Maneuver is a tactical movement intended to gain a relative advantage to the enemy. This could be moving a machine gun squad to the high ground, or sliding your tactical marines into area terrain. Fire makes Maneuver happen, Maneuver makes Fire happen. Effects is everything else. Military Intelligence, Engineer Support, Psykers, Tau Commanders, etc.
A brief aside, this is why only a ground force service would really apply to 40k, in a combined arms force, the Ground Force Commander is always the boss. When I was an Army Lieutenant I bossed around plenty of Air Force pilots who outranked me. 40k simulates Army or Marine combat forces supported by other services.
So now we understand Combined Arms Maneuver, and why that applies to Warhammer 40k, but how does that relate Assault? How are close in fights realistic, when I just explained how Ground Force Commanders have the entire arsenal of the military at their disposal?
To demonstrate, I’m going to dial the scale back and explain the most basic tactical task in the Army. A Squad Attack. This used to be known as Battle Drill 1, and some of the old timers reading this are very familiar with it. Now, according to FM 3-21.8 (the Infantry Platoon and Squad) it is now only known as a hasty attack. But the Drill hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed in thousands of years. It is the basic tactic to ground force combat, and you can find it in every war, at every scale. The supporting pieces will change based on the size of the element involved, but the essential concept remains the same. If you have a combat formation, and you master this drill, you will be able to fight and win in nearly any scenario.
Here’s how it works. I’m going to show it, rather than just copy the entire Battle Drill in.
This is an Air Assault Infantry Squad attacking an enemy Observation Post. The Squad is broken up into two Teams. The lead Team is in a Support By Fire Position. That means they are shooting at the enemy with the intent of fixing them in place in support of a maneuver element. The OP is shooting back. They are Air Assault because the 101st Airborne is the best, obviously.
The second Team begins to maneuver, preferably out of sight, towards the enemy location. They do this so that…
They can seize the enemy position. They do this through, what I kid you not, is known as an “assault.” Obviously real Soldiers don’t hit each other with chainswords, but a proper execution of the core Battle Drill in all of Maneuver Warfare will often end up with combat fought in what is commonly referred to as “hand grenade range.” And will end up looking like this at the end…
Notice the Squad is standing where the enemy was standing. Note, again, this isn’t some obscure piece of military doctrine, the cornerstone of Maneuver Warfare results in Soldiers standing on top of a piece of ground that was once owned by their opponents. Firefights happen at close range all the time, and if real Soldiers wore Power Armor, or were made of genetically engineered shells, or shifted in and out of reality, I bet they would be clawing each other too.
In short, the argument that “assault is stupid because no one can get that close with modern weapons” is a flawed one. Soldiers get close all the time, and they do it because there is more to a firefight than long range precision weapons.
In my basic example of Battle Drill 1, the assaulting squad can close the distance because of supporting fire. This is the very basis of Fire and Maneuver. There are other ways too; utilizing obscuration from smoke grenades and indirect fire, using indirect fire to fix the enemy in place, taking advantage of rapid deployment options such as Air Assault and Airborne Operations, maximizing cover and concealment on the approach, conducting maneuver when the enemy is unprepared at sundown and sunset, approaching at night, working in concert with air force assets, and etc and etc.
40k is an abstraction of the pivotal moment of a larger conflict, any or all of these options could be at play in the Assault Phase in a given game. It is not unrealistic, and in fact, properly represents the Decisive Point of many real life conflicts.
This whole “debate” reminds me of a quote that is very commonly thrown about in the Army. By changing a one key word, it applies to 40k as well…
“You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life-but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for the Emperor, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.”
-T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War