Book Review: Fighting Columns in Small Wars: An OMFTS Model


Does an unbiased account of Operation Modular, the SA Defence Force’s (SADF) last venture in Angola exist? Fred Bridgland and Helmut Heitman both wrote accounts of the Mavinga-Cuito Cuanavale campaign, but both works can be discounted for solely presenting a SADF view.

The two authors were also “insiders”. Fighting Columns in Small Wars: An OMFTS Model, is perhaps the first researched paper on the subject written by an “outsider”, in this case written by US Marine Major Michael F Morris for the USMC Command & Staff College in 2000. Morris used the operation to show that a “‘colonial war’ flying column” provided a model for battalion and brigade group operational manoeuvre from the sea (OMFTS)/ship to objective manoeuvre (STOM) operations.

For him modular was of interest for two reasons: “First, it provides an excellent example of the political utility of carefully modulated military power. In short, South Africa achieved its policy goals by employing a small but potent strike force. Second, the force selected was a modern version of the colonial war era ‘flying column’, a mobile all-arms battle group tailored to operate effectively at the end of a long supply line.”

The book comes in two parts, the first dealing with Modular and its antecedents and the second dealing with battalion and brigade sized OMFTS/STOM. This second part will be of value to SA Army and Navy planners striving to implement the SA Army’s Vision 2020 as OMFTS and STOM are variations of expeditionary warfare, long a US Marine speciality. Yet it is the first part that concerns us – as it deals with the operations of 20 SA Brigade. Morris does this in four chapters: the first providing a somewhat biased (towards South Africa) strategic context the second dealing with Modular itself while the fourth deal with Modular’s antecedents. The value of the chapter lies in its examination of fighting column theory, feasibility and potential – in both conventional and “small war” or intervention, counterinsurgency or peace support operations. Again, this chapter will be of use to expeditionary warfare planners. But it is chapter three of the first part that contains the “mother lode”. It is, to the author’s knowledge, the first proper evaluation of Modular’s planning and conduct, as measured against what Americans call the “six warfighting functions”:

Command and Control,




Force Protection


Although Morris does not put it in those words, Modular was the quintessential example of ad hocery run rampant. As the current Chief of the Army, LTG Solly Shoke put it: “With my appointment as Chief of the Army in July 2004 it became clear that the SA Army had no overarching futuristic frame of reference in place to guide short and medium-term decisions and actions… This state of affairs resulted in ‘ad hocery’, inconsistency and non-alignment in our endeavours to achieve objectives which in themselves were incongruent and haphazard.” An Army cannot be run ad hoc and a campaign can only be fought that way under the most fortuitous of circumstances. These, it appears, the South Africans enjoyed…

What is especially valuable in this chapter is not the praise, but the criticism, which as Winston Churchill put it, hurts, but shows what must be corrected:

Command and control
“Many participants felt that the campaign suffered from excessive micromanagement from both senior military and political officials… The close supervision the combatants so resented was instead a function of the type of conflict it was. The length and ferocity of the twenty-three year border war produced high domestic sensitivity to excessive casualties and encouraged greater interest in the tactical details of the operations. Because it involved conflict with Cuba and the Soviet Union, the conflict also demanded a high degree of involvement by senior South African military and political leaders… Finally, South Africa’s partnership with UNITA forced it to employ senior officers in the forward areas because Savimbi was reluctant to deal with anyone else; often it took the Chief of the SADF himself to get the desired decisions or cooperation from UNITA’s leader.
“The 20 Brigade laboured under close political scrutiny from on high, but it had no one to blame but itself for its convoluted method of task organization. Seldom did units from the same parent headquarters work together in a battle group. In the initial grouping, for example, (20 Brigade commander) Colonel (Deon) Ferreira mixed an infantry company of 61 Mechanized Battalion with a rifle company of 32 Battalion in Combat Group Alpha. Combat Group Bravo featured a motorized company of 32 Battalion infantry with two rifle companies of 101 Battalion. Group Charlie was 61 Mechanized Battalion pure. Meanwhile, the protective force for the artillery contained elements of two more 32 Battalion rifle companies. The 20 Brigade demonstrated exceptional flexibility in task organization, but it would have been more effective to keep 61 Mech and 32 Battalion units together in their own battle groups. The 101 Battalion could then have formed the protection element for the artillery. Flexible task organization can be a strength, but cohesion of combat units is enhanced by keeping established teams together whenever possible.
“The staffs that directed the elements of the force were also ad hoc in nature. The 20 Brigade was not a standing formation; its staff was gathered from other units. Nor was its artillery regiment a stand-alone organization. Its officers came from a variety of sources while its firing batteries came from 32 Battalion, 61 Mechanized Battalion, and 4 SAI. The fact that members of the staffs were not accustomed to working together could not have facilitated their efficiency. Similarly, the October decision to create a new mini-division level command structure with 20 Brigade and 32 Battalion reporting separately to Brigadier General ‘Fido’ Smit was questionable. This shift in C2 architecture occurred just prior to commencing the counteroffensive and served no useful purpose.”

“Accurate knowledge of the enemy is a prerequisite for effective plans, and 20 Brigade struggled to garner the information necessary to defeat FAPLA. Three elements contributed to the challenge: close terrain, limited collection assets, and the nature of the SADF’s relationship with UNITA.
“The 20 Brigade profited immensely from its electronic intercept capability. Mobile electronic warfare (EW) Casspirs monitored FAPLA’s tactical communications along the front. This capacity revealed accurate casualty statistics, indications of morale, and movement plans. Often signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts even enabled 20 Brigade gunners to adjust their artillery fire on target by listening to FAPLA shell reports to their higher headquarters. Across the border in Namibia, the SADF manned more powerful electronic eavesdropping equipment and was able to collect operational level message traffic between Luanda and the front. FAPLA rarely bothered to encrypt its traffic, nor did it ever seem to realize the extent to which its signals were being exploited.
“Despite the notable successes of its recon teams, RPVs, and ELINT units, 20 Brigade often lacked accurate information on the location and intentions of its enemy. Much of its intelligence, as much as eighty percent of the total available, came from UNITA sources. This was because UNITA possessed excellent human intelligence (HUMINT) sources throughout the region and because its guerrillas literally controlled all the ground except that physically occupied by FAPLA. The problem was that much of the information provided to 20 Brigade did not tally with intelligence derived from independent sources and did not prove to be correct when validated by SADF assets. Part of the dichotomy could be written off to unreliable or outdated sources, but some of the problem flowed from more invidious causes. UNITA sometimes manipulated the SADF, particularly if its information might lead to military actions resulting in high casualties among 20 Brigade. Ever sensitive to the realities of the South African domestic scene, Savimbi knew that high losses would inevitably lead to the SADF’s withdrawal from Angola. While this interpretation made sense at the strategic level, the deceit often confused and debilitated 20 Brigade’s actions at the tactical level.”

“Tempo in campaigns of rapid movement is often dictated by logistic support; Modular reflected this verity. In both the transition to pursuit and the subsequent shift to set piece attacks on the Chambinga high ground, 20 Brigade was forced to pause while bringing up additional forces, resupplying the columns, and repairing equipment. Sustaining high tempo in fighting column operations clearly calls for both sound logistic support and enough combat power to provide an effective rest plan for the combatants.”

“Most of the damage done to FAPLA during Modular was due to effective fire support. The SADF artillery, in particular, was the star of the campaign… The 20 Brigade employed nonlethal fires to great effect during Modular. Several times SADF electronic warfare (EW) technicians jammed FAPLA’s command circuits to prevent their tank companies from coordinating their assaults. Aggressive use of psychological operations (PSYOP) also characterized the campaign.”

Force Protection
“After more than twenty years of war Angola was littered with a huge quantity of unmarked mines. Recognizing the scope of the threat, the small South African expeditionary force employed one of the most sophisticated mine resistant vehicle fleets in the world. All of 20 Brigade’s tactical transport, including Ratels, Casspirs, and Buffels, incorporated this life saving technology.
“The 20 Brigade was less fortunate in its air defence capability… The 20 Brigade relied primarily on concealment to avoid air attack; recce commandos outside Menongue airfield and electronic intercepts provided some early warning of imminent MiG attacks.
“Deception was an important element of South African tactical doctrine and frequently practiced in Modular. Much of the tactical deception was designed to protect the force by misdirecting FAPLA fires. A favourite deception target was the Angolan Air Force.”

“Two principal factors limited 20 Brigade’s combat capability versus FAPLA. The first was the size of the force South Africa’s political leaders were willing to commit to the fight; a force significantly larger than the small brigade committed would have required additional activation of the reserve component and proven unpopular with the citizenry. Closely linked with the political costs of a larger force was the logistical price associated with supporting it. The 20 Brigade operated at the end of a long and tenuous supply line. Moving fuel, ammunition, food, parts, and casualties from SADF bases in Namibia to the fighting zone proved a significant challenge.
“Perhaps the most serious logistic constraint was ammunition. Because the artillery fought both during periods of maneuver force contact and during periods of relative quiet along the front, its demand for ammunition was much higher than anticipated. During the twenty days in November when the G-6 self-propelled troop fought, it fired ninety rounds per gun per day.
“Wear and tear on the cannon proved especially difficult to repair. The long-range howitzers fired high powder charges that quickly damaged the bores of the guns. Two G-5s were deadlined by 21 October. By 13 November three more were down as well as forty percent of one battery’s trucks. By the end of the campaign, ten of the sixteen G-5s were damaged; six of the guns required barrel replacements. This repair occurred at the brigade administrative area near Mavinga.”

In this chapter Morris succeeds in his objective, namely to “assess the experiences of a small mobile brigade conducting conventional operations against a well-equipped, numerically superior enemy encountered at the end of a tenuous supply line.” This research paper should be on the desk of every African military planner.

Fighting Columns in Small Wars: An OMFTS Model

Major Michael F Morris, USMC

USMC Command & Staff College

Available online from the USMC Small Wars Center of Excellence at