Own the Night

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A Dark History of Nocturnal Combat

Operation_Just_CauseThe December 1989 American invasion of Panama ushered in a new set of war fighting guidelines brought about by the prolific use of night operations systems and doctrine. About 26,000 U.S. soldiers, Marines, and airmen simultaneously seized some twenty objectives while overhead, more than 100 U.S. aircraft sortied in and out of a tight, twenty-mile-radius area of operations. The whole complex undertaking was staged in the dead of night without lights. Operation Just Cause flagged a historic tactical turning point. From that time on, Western military forces were just as likely to attack by night as by day.

Deemed Too Risky

Throughout history, night attacks of any kind have been rare. The Bible records Gideon successfully leading a force of Israelites against the Midianite army in the twelfth century B.C. There are other Middle Eastern examples, and references to the utility of night attacks in ancient Asia, but few similar Western accounts. Homer pointed out that action in the dark commonly ended in chaos and disorder. Of the Peloponnesian wars, Thucy­dides said that “in a night engagement . . . who could be certain of anything?” Besides being risky, he wrote, night attacks were considered dishonorable.

Frederick the great

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great stated: “I am determined never to attack by night, on account of the confusion that darkness necessarily occasions.” The duke of Wellington wrote, “I have come to the determination, when in my power, never to suffer an attack to be made at night upon an enemy who is prepared and strongly posted, and whose posts have not been reconnoitered by day­ light.” And that most celebrated interpreter of war, Carl von Clausewitz, noted, “Many schemes for night attacks [have been] put forward by those who have neither to lead them nor accept responsibility for them. In practice, they are rare.”

The Best Time to Storm The Redoubts

For the most part, night operations in the West were specialized tasks connected with sieges, happenstance, or occasional acts of desperation by relatively weak forces. Roman legions were famous for their ability to set up a barricaded camp by sunset, indicating that their barbarian enemies used nighttime assaults to offset inferiority in armament, discipline, or both. A force besieging a fortress would commonly establish a “night cordon”, a tighter perimeter around its target to prevent messengers, spies, or would-be attackers from eluding surveillance. In daylight, such closer positions would risk projectile

Production Still 1

Redcoats defend against a Continental Army night attack on redoubt number 10 at the Battle of Yorktown

attacks from fortress walls. That is why the culmination of many sieges featured a night assault on the walls. As the October 1781 American and French seizure of Yorktown’s outlying redoubts proves, forces besieging an entrenchment could avoid a defender’s superior, close-in firepower by moving siege lines forward at night. A successful advance would allow attackers to bring up their own guns. Elsewhere, a nighttime approach might precede the usual dawn attack, but that march or the odd daytime attack that continued into darkness could not be called a proper night attack. What little Western respect night attacks might have earned was surely dashed in the era known as the “dawn of modem warfare”-a singularly apt term in these circumstances.

Perhaps the best nineteenth-century exception to the general rule about night attacks occurred during the American Civil War, thanks to two of the North’s most innovative generals, Major General James H. Wilson and Brigadier General Emory Upton. Wilson’s


General Emory Upton

Cavalry Corps, including Upton’s 4th Cavalry Division, moved on Georgia from Alabama in April 1865, heading for the arsenal at Columbus. (The war had just ended in Virginia, but here the Confederates were not ready to surrender.) About 3,000 Confederate troops and twenty-seven guns defended a bridge leading into the town. Wilson and Upton decided to try a night attack on April 16. Well after dark, at 1630, 400 dismounted Union troopers crept toward the forward defenses. The Confederates heard them and fired; the troopers ran forward and captured these first positions. Two companies of Upton’s cavalrymen then rode through and, mistaken in the dark for retreating friendlies, were allowed to pass the main defensive line. They overpowered the bridge guards and took fifty prisoners. The Rebels quickly mounted an assault on the bridge, forcing the blue coats into a hasty retreat.

Undeterred, Wilson and Upton pressed a new regiment forward. Despite vicious fire, it broke open another path, and then a third regiment, this one dismounted, attacked the bridge. So determined were the onrushing Federals that the thoroughly shaken defenders were forced to give way once again and were soon engulfed. Unable to tell friend from foe, Rebels near the bridge could not assist the fleeing defenders. The tide of Union attack carried not only the bridge, but the town of Columbus itself. At dawn, Upton rounded up 1,200 prisoners, sixty ­ three artillery pieces, the six-gun Confederate ship Jackson, fifteen locomotives, tons of ammunition, and 250 pieces of rail stock. There were 300 confederates killed and wounded; Upton’s losses were only 5 killed and 28 wounded. His night attack was virtually the last big land action of the American civil war.

Turn On The Lights

L22ZeppelinaDuring World War I, Western armed forces increasingly used darkness. In 1915, the Kaiser’s Zeppelins staged nighttime bombing sorties over England; ground forces used the cover of darkness to conduct trench raids, taking prisoners and discovering enemy defenses. And round-the-clock German U-boat attacks took a growing toll of Allied shipping. Actions sparked reactions: the use of powerful searchlights to target Zeppelins and spot submarines; the development of star shells and parachute flares to provide illumination without revealing the firer’s position; and the creation of World-War-1--620x330underwater hydrophones, facilitating day and night attacks on submarines. But large-scale infantry night attacks had an indifferent record. For example, at Fes­tubert, France, in May 1915, German searchlights and star shells illuminated British troops as they crossed no-man’s­ land, and machine guns stopped them.

While Western sailors and airmen planned to expand their use of darkness after the war, their ground compatriots were cautious. When the U.S. Army Infantry School conducted a study of World War I tactical combat operations in the 1930s, it devoted only 6 percent of its coverage to night attacks. The authors said the tactic offered a means to cross an area otherwise denied by enemy fire in daylight. But they warned about the extraordinary difficulties of control and the need for special training and discipline. They concluded that night attacks had to be of short range, carefully planned, conducted by fresh, well-trained troops, and aimed at easily defined objectives.

Sun Tzu Says . . .


Japanese soldiers press forward a night attack at Guadalcanal

In the East, the approach to night ground attacks was more enthusiastic, even before World War I. By the late 1920s, Japanese army leaders decided to emphasize them. They figured their relative inferiority in mechanized forces and artillery and their presumed superiority in close-in fighting would make night offensives a winning tactic. Most of their initial World War II offensives were carried out at night and most succeeded, but when the Japanese ran into determined American resistance on Guadalcanal and New Guinea, their nighttime elan proved no match for U.S. firepower. But even at the end of the war the Japanese were still resorting to the tactic.


Pathfinders of the American XVIII Airborne Army prepare to jump into Normandy France

While Allied air and naval services increased their nighttime offensive prowess during World War II, ground commanders held back. The Battle of EI AIamein, which featured repeated night attacks, was a notable exception. Only a few selected U.S. ground units, such as the 1st and 104th U.S. infantry divisions in Europe and some of General Douglas A. MacArthur’s units in the latter phases of the Philippines campaign were noted for this capability. Perhaps the best American night attackers were the airborne, Ranger, and Office of Strategic Services (OSS) combat units. These specialized units, often thrust into enemy territory, were accustomed to being initially out manned and outgunned. They balanced such temporary disadvantages by attacking at night and defending during daylight. There are few more celebrated examples than the D-Day night drop of the Allied XVIII Airborne Corps parachutists

I Think I Can See You

VC night attack

An NVA night attack is illuminated by star shell bursts

These programs were of minor import during the Vietnam War. Searching for an elusive enemy in dense jungle was hard enough in daylight and nearly impossible at night. So daylight attacks remained the staple for U.S. ground forces. But the Vietcong and North Vietnamese insisted on night attacks and the Americans were quite willing to accommodate them. The usual result was a stack of attackers’ bodies on the defender’s barbed wire at sunrise. Meanwhile, the U.S. improved night-vision equipment and intensified night training.A radically improved night-attack proficiency for U.S. ground forces was gradually developed after the Korean War. In Korea, Chinese and North Korean infiltration, logistical movement, and tactical


NVA soldiers advance during a night attack on US forces in Vietnam

attacks were habitually conducted in the dark. Frustrated by the apparent loss of initiative at night, the U.S. Army began remedial programs under two former World War II airborne commanders, Generals Matthew B. Ridgeway and Max­well D. Taylor. Both of these army chiefs of staff had commanded troops in Korea. Regular combat-arms officers were encouraged to volunteer for Ranger training, a sixty-day course featuring almost forty-five consecutive nights of patrolling in varied terrain. The graduates stressed night-attack training in the units they commanded afterward. At the same time, the army spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing night-vision devices: infrared sights, thermal imaging equipment, and passive night-vision goggles.

By the late 1970s, all these programs bore fruit. A large percentage of regular infantry, artillery, and armor officers were graduates of the Ranger course; units were spending increasing training time at night; and thoroughly tested, reliable, and relatively lightweight night vision equipment began entering the inventory. When the XVIII Airborne Corps was called on to oust General Manuel Noriega from power in Panama, the U.S. Army had as much skill in night attacks as the U.S. Air Force. This skill gives a Western military force an automatic advantage over a less sophisticated adversary-as would again be proven during the present conflicts in southwest Asia.

Detection Technology Revolution

Iraqi Freedom

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jack Marr, commander of 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, checks his night vision on Combat Outpost Carver, Iraq, prior to a night air assault mission.

Since the mid-1970’s, the ability to see in the dark without radiating a signal to adversaries has dramatically increased the DoD’s investment in electro-optic (EO) systems. In the last decade, the increased affordability of these rapidly evolving technologies has re-shaped numerous acquisition programs and spawned entirely new ones as well (see figure one). Covering a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, infrared (IR), thermal imaging (TI), solid-state lasers, and sophisticated optics with charge coupled devices (CCD’s) have brought dramatic new capabilities to the war fighter from sub-surface to near-earth orbit. The resolution clarity of surveillance imagery has increased to a level not previously thought possible, and has begun to influence tactical war fighting doctrine. At the same time, a remarkable decrease in the size, weight, cooling engine and power consumption requirements of these systems has made them more ubiquitous than ever as they permeate across the joint and coalition battle space in an array of networked sensor suites. As the performance and interoperability of these sensors increases, the military is increasing their integration with semi-autonomous and autonomous air vehicles, weapon systems and command and control (C2) infrastructure.

Next Generation Night Vision

Iraqi Freedom

A US Army UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter of the 1st Infantry Division sits ready for a night mission in Iraq.

As night operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hot spots have become commonplace, the military is responding to the need to equip as many soldiers as possible with the means to “see” in the dark through the efforts of the US Army’s Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD). The night vision goggle (NVG) has emerged as mission critical kit for ground based troops that require either monocular or binocular capability.The heart of any night vision apparatus is the combination of optics and the image intensification tube (II). These devices are being fielded as stand-alone NVG’s, hand-held devices or accessories to weapons sights. To give a sense of the initial scale of deployment, the US military purchased more than 150,000 AN/PVS-7 series (third generation) NVG. The leading producers of NVG include Excelis (formerly ITT Night Vision of Roanoke, VA) and Northrop Grumman (following an acquisition of Rolling Meadows IL based Litton Industries Optical Systems). Driven by demand to improve clarity through an increase in signal-to-noise ratio, industry took on an ambitious next generation solution through a teaming effort with Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. This effort has resulted in the fielding of revolutionary digital fusion units that deliver images that can be combined, stabilized, projected and transmitted. These third generation NVG also use a photocathode that is coated with sensitive gallium arsenide, allowing for a more efficient conversion of light to electrical energy at extremely low light levels.

As the pace of night vision technology accelerates, the war fighters’ fundamental ability to achieve the prime element of tactical surprise will help save lives while enabling the military to further “own the night”.

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1 Response to Own the Night

  1. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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