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TL;DR: What tactics can a professionally trained army use against a horde of untrained conscripts using human wave attacks?

(This scenario takes place in the very-near future.)

Background information:

The two forces of SEDA and GAU have been at war for the past decade, SEDA defending against the constant onslaught of GAU conscripts.

Brainwashed and forced into service with minimal training and faulty equipment, the armies of GAU are nothing more than hordes of conscripts rushing blindly at the enemy (in a similar method to the Banzai Charges of WW2.)

In modern history, human wave attacks have often failed and have only served to waste entire battalions by having them be cut down by machine-gun fire.

However, the size of the GAU forces have the sheer excess of numbers to make this a viable strategy. They are vastly more numerous than their opponents, overwhelming their enemies with sheer numbers.

The forces of SEDA are professionally trained and equipped soldiers, defending against the hordes of conscripts. While in normal scenarios this alone would be enough to counter such an unorganized attack, the sheer numbers of their enemy calls for a more specialized counter-strategy.

What Tactics and Strategies can SEDA use to defend against this human wave attack style? Are there any formations or positioning that could help them gain an advantage?

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  • $\begingroup$ In a "reality check" scenario on many of the answers, keep in mind they've been doing this for 10 years. Where is all the ammo coming from? $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble May 21 '18 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ How brainwashed are the GAU? More, very, or totally immune to morale shock and suppressing fire? And for how long? The Japanese were apparently almost unshakeable at the start of WWII - but that started to wear off in the face of large losses. $\endgroup$ – Grimm The Opiner May 21 '18 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ A few questions... what are the SEDA defending? Something fixed like territory/a fort? Is this pure land, or land+sea? On whose territory is the battle happening? i.e. is scorched earth a viable approach? $\endgroup$ – Phylyp May 21 '18 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ Attention VTCers! It helps if you leave a justification of your vote, especially when claiming "off-topic: does not appear to be about worldbuilding as defined in the help center." Your opinion of what's off-topic must stand up to the actual list of what makes a qustion off-topic This one is on-topic and is, at worst, "too broad" (but I'm not even convinced of that). See Catalog of question types for more insight. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 22 '18 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings I believe this question is on topic about worldbuilding, as it is about how one side of a conflict adapts to another side's strategy, which falls into the category of worldbuilding. Like for example, questions about how organisms adapt to environments. There are many questions like this on the site and I see no problem with those, so why is this one being targeted? $\endgroup$ – Sydney Sleeper May 22 '18 at 0:30

11 Answers 11

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Machine guns have made human wave attacks ineffective.

Where human waves prevailed against modern firepower, it was always that defendants were unprepared for it, due to lack of properly dug-in position, lack of ammunition, gun overheating etc. Thus, if defendants would anticipate such attacks and prepare accordingly, those attacks would almost never succeed.

Of course, even machine guns have their limits. On an open field, if attackers outnumber defendants 100 to 1, they can definitely succeed. On different kind of terrain, where attackers can approach under some cover, a much smaller numerical advantage would be needed. Unless SEDA is exclusively defensive, can build an equivalent of Maginot Line and never has to fight the enemy on enemy's terms, SEDA will have to invent some offensive tactic as well. An offense implies the eventual need to defend positions which are not meant to be defended.

Other answers had suggested a number of useful defensive tactics, like air support and minefields. I would like to add flamethrowers to the list. It is one thing to march against a hail of bullets, which may, or may not hit their target. It is another to march through a wall of fire which will burn anyone who passes through.

See also Tower defense games

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for flamethowers. I'd like to point out that GAU can't use this strategy a lot. They might have more man power, but using this will cause them to take on extremely heavy losses and they wouldn't be able to replenish their meat wall over time. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee May 21 '18 at 2:30
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    $\begingroup$ This is basically World War One tactics. Defenders can also use artillery and mortars in addition to machine-guns. Also, poison gas would work too. $\endgroup$ – a4android May 21 '18 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ I think it should be stressed that even WW1-era technology is so good at dealing with human wave attackers that the number of attackers starts being counterproductive (blocking one another, friendly fire) long before it becomes capable of overwhelming a concerted defense. Throw in tactical air support, thermobarics, and tac-nukes, and GAU is going to need tactics other than conscript waves to make any headway. Sheer numbers aren't enough. $\endgroup$ – Catgut May 21 '18 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ By way of example, the French dependence upon the 'elan vital' at the start of WW1 led to a heavy use of human wave tactics, with near-universally disastrous consequences, eventually culminating in the mutinies of 1917. Even the Chinese tactics used during the Korean War, commonly labeled human wave attacks, were really a sophisticated form of small-scale infiltration/shock tactics. Actual overwhelm-with-numbers human wave attacks straight up haven't worked, regardless of manpower, for over a hundred years. $\endgroup$ – Catgut May 21 '18 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec, artillery can suppress defensive firepower to the point that the attackers can succeed, and routinely did so. What made most of WWI so bloody was the search for a "decisive breakthrough" -- once the attackers outran their protective artillery barrage, the defenders could easily cut them down. The late-war shift to limited-objective bite-and-hold battles that never left the artillery screen is what made attacking viable again. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 21 '18 at 21:40
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Other answers deal with how to deal with it on front itself, but if attacker still can outnumber defender enough to succeed (defender spends his ammunition, wear out guns, suffer enough losses, attacker gets close enough to break through).

Therefore something else is needed if the numerical disparity is really absurd.

Logistics.

Huge badly equipped force will be much harder to supply, than smaller force. And every day they are present and not die, they need at least 2l (and depending on conditions even more) of water (and food, and ammo, and fuel to transport that).

Therefore choose position behind some form of bottleneck (hills, woods/swamps with few roads, ... depend's on preferred transportation method of enemy). Choose another defensive position much deeper in your territory, that will be your real line.

Let enemy form for attack and then start attacking his supply line/logistic infrastructure. Now you have desperate enemy, so best thing is to retreat to another line. Enemy will follow, but will suffer large losses by starvation/dehydration and attack weakened.

When attacking supply lines, attack what enemy can replace least, or not cannot replace fast enough.

Instead of second line, you can try to block enemy when stretched along roads and chop them to small pieces and destroy them one by one (see winter wars (Finland vs soviet Russia)).

When attacking, again, attack logistics and then force them to use more supply than they have.

PS: if enemy is cannibalistic, this works much less, because enemy can use part of force as food and drink (instead of loosing everyone).

PSS: OR use Nukes, Chemical weapons or KEW from orbit (dinosaur killer will stop any army of conscripts) (you didn't specify tech level)

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    $\begingroup$ this one is the obvious reason of why big human waves don't work in real life. I would like to push your point about infrastructure : destroy roads and bridges. Preventing them to move is way to easy for an effective force. $\endgroup$ – GlorfSf May 21 '18 at 13:48
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If someone is really dead-set on using human wave attacks to overcome a dug-in and professional army, it's going to be bloody. Possible ideas to repel the attack, at various levels of Geneva-Convention violation:

  • Carpet Bombing, both air and artillery based - such a disorganised force is unlikely to have the AA and counter-artillery to properly defend against such an attack.
  • Multiple, dug in defensive lines - think Kursk - layer upon layer of trenches, machine gun emplacements and artillery
  • Automation! Simple robotic agents set to open up machine gun fire on anything without an IFF tag. Probably pretty cheap, and you can use them without risking your soldier's lives.
  • Minefields - cheap, quick and effective. One soldier can plant many mines which can prevent a serious obstacle to lightly armoured foes.
  • Chemical/Biological warfare. Release some kind of chemical/infectious agent to cut down the enemy troops before they even reach your lines
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    $\begingroup$ Remember to set the kill limit of your robots correctly. $\endgroup$ – user25818 May 21 '18 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ The first important metric for winning an all out war: how much of the Geneva Convention are you willing to violate $\endgroup$ – SGR May 22 '18 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ A Geneva-acceptable version of automation is the drone-machine gunner. A human is responsible for firing it, from a safe position (anywhere from two meters under it to back in the base, possibly controlling several at the same time). $\endgroup$ – Davidmh May 22 '18 at 15:20
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Flexible or "elastic" defences are necessary if there is a large disparity of numbers. The defender needs to be able to break up and disorganize the attack, fall back if necessary to lure the enemy into pre designated "Kill Zones" (in the cold war era, the equivalent Soviet term was "Fire Sack") and then counterattack to drive the defenders from the contested terrain.

These tactics are applicable across the ages, and indeed we see many examples of battles using several of these tactics, ranging from Hannibal destroying the Roman Legions at the Battle of Cannae, Henry V destroying the French army at Agincourt, German elastic defence in both WWI and WWII, and even in the actions of the IDF in many of the Arab Israeli wars. So it doesn't matter so much if you forces use muscle power or tanks, the principles are going to be the same.

Phase one: Breaking up the attack. The defender needs to have enough forward outposts or surveillance to identify the location and size of the attack (ideally before the attack is launched). Depending on the type of force you have and the amount of time you have to prepare, obstacles to slow the attack and channelize it should be prepared. Your forces should also be deployed in ways which mask their true strength and position, and indeed "invite" the enemy to attack along one or more axis. The obstacles are ideally covered by fire (anything from arrow storms to artillery and CAS) to impose casualties on the oncoming forces. reducing their strength and organization.

Phase 2: Planned withdrawal. The enemy continues to advance, while you trade time for space. If done correctly, the enemy is lured into a "Killing Zone" (Hannibal did this at Cannae by allowing the centre of his line to yield, drawing the legions into a pocket and then surrounding them), and mercilessly attacked from all sides.

Phase 3: Counter Attack. The enemy has been heavily attrited, and should now be expelled from the position. The counter attack ideally should not just stabilize the line, but can also be punched into enemy territory to further disorganize the enemy, capture or destroy supplies in their logistics zone and destroy or disrupt transportation arteries as well, complicating their tasks and preventing follow up attacks.

This needs to be carefully coordinated, since overextending your attack could result in the enemy turning the tables on you and defeating the counter attack force in detail.

Given the conditions you describe, it seems unlikely that the enemy can sustain such attacks for long without some sort of outside help. If this is an actual third party, then either military action against the enemy alliance or diplomatic initiatives to break the alliance will be needed. In other cases, such as the Korean War or the Iran-Iraq war, where ideology or religion was used to whip the soldiers into fighting frenzy and drive them forward into virtual meat grinders, then a very deep and comprehensive PSYOPS campaign should also be launched in order to drain the fervour from the enemy, and make their conscripts less willing to obey orders and carry out human wave attacks. Targeting political officers, guards or other elements used to prevent the attackers from retreating should also be considered, since in the chaos of combat, human desire for self preservation will likely override all but the most conditioned or disciplined soldiers.

The other factor which seems to be missing from this is what is available to follow up the human wave attack? If it were to succeed and gain lodgement, how will the enemy exploit this? I would suggest that the other thing the defenders need is long range artillery or air power in order to attack follow up forces in depth before they can reinforce or exploit the effects of the human wave attack.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't killing the enemy's political officers worsen your own situation, by improving enemy morale? $\endgroup$ – Sean May 23 '18 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ The use of special officers, trench police or other external forces to drive the human wave into the enemy is the target: without the external force the human factor is likely to the over and the enemy flee from a certain massacre rather than continuing to advance. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides May 23 '18 at 5:24
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You can use terrain to your advantage. A gorge with a width opening on the enemy side narrowing down to a small opening will help to make the waves manageable.

If its a flat plain, a fall back, ranged strategy might work if the plain is big enough. Couple this with area attack weapons such as mortar, bombs, mines etc.

Air support (not sure what your tech level is) would also be good as they can soften up and even wipe out waves without having the ground troops go into it. Mortar, artillery etc. basically keep your distance.

If your tech level permits it, then automated weapons towers could work even better and they can fire off pulses of electricity, streams of fire, or plasma etc.

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    $\begingroup$ There were plenty of examples of such use of terrain in real life. Not far from where I live, near the end of WW2, when the Germans were retreating, a few dozen stayed behind with some small caliber cannons and machine guns in a very narrow mountain pass, and killed several thousand advancing Soviet and Romanian troops, before running out of ammunition and having to follow the retreat. The terrain allowed them to point the guns where the attackers would emerge from, so they didn't even have to aim. $\endgroup$ – vsz May 22 '18 at 13:37
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You need to break up and channel the human wave.

As Arkhaine said terrain will decide the strategy.

A choke point is good and bad as it keeps SEDA from being flanked which is the biggest threat, but it doesn't allow many ways to break up the charge. You'll want to blunt the enemy force as much as possible early on before they get close up.

Artillery and airstrikes will be king. Both must be used to hit the enemy as far away as possible so that the survivors come up in smaller groups. Just beyond that will be a very thick mine field. You'll have mines stretched all along almost to the first line of trenches, but you'll want them thickest just beyond the artillery kill zone and in front of the trenches. The first will be to try to wipe out their morale early on, and the second is to be one last line of defense.

You'll need several lines of trenches just in case, and be ready to blow the trenches as they're abandoned.

You have to hit them hard and keep hitting them until they break.

In open terrain things are more flexible and more dangerous.

Breaking the horde up into more manageable pieces is essential. To break the horde up you need to have time.

Sending out some light forces to lead them off track for a few hours, forcing them to slow down as their scouts are killed, damaging bridges and roads are critical. An airforce would go in and take out vehicles to block roads, try to bomb the supply line so they are on short rations, and finally attack the middle of the convoy trying to break the horde into smaller less United pieces.

With the extra time, the main forces will be laying down minefields. These are to break the wave up into separate channels, so that not every part of the line is hit at once. If the attackers are very poorly supplied you may even consider throwing down caltrops to lame anyone with poor or nonexistent boots.

Barbed and razor wire will be very important in channeling the enemy into the proper lanes and blocking off other parts of the battlefield. Like in WW1, you'll want it in large amounts, thick enough all along to handle dozens of soldiers trying to clip it apart and uproot it.

The clear lanes where you want the enemy charging down will be prepared for artillery and mortar fire, carpet bombing if they have the tech, and heavy weapons.

And after that, entrenched lines with multiple fall back positionsmust be built. If they take a trench it doesn't matter because they have to climb out of it now, and there are five to ten more behind it for the defenders. Also mine the trenches so they can be blown after they're taken. This is especially important when fighting in open terrain.

Flame throwers could be useful for the defence, especially to buy time if forced to retreat. Grenades should be handed out like candy. Heavy machine guns and mortars will give the defenders the best bang for the buck.

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    $\begingroup$ "A choke point is good and bad as it keeps SEDA from being flanked which is the biggest threat, but it doesn't allow many ways to break up the charge." Not necessarily a problem - it forces the entire enemy force to attack head-on, which both makes their path completely certain in advance and means that only a few enemy soldiers can engage at once. Take Thermopylae - until the allied forces were betrayed, they were slaughtering the attacking Persians in the narrow pass. And that was without machine guns, artillery, or airstrikes. $\endgroup$ – Sean May 23 '18 at 3:47
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How about using canister shots?

Really surprised no one mentioned this one yet.

You describe your defenders as "professionally trained and equipped soldiers". If so, then they should know about weapons that first appeared in 1400s, with the idea being even older. Based on a cannon shell called "grapeshot", designed specifically for this type of defense and widely used even on ships, well since 1700s.

So, how does it work? Very effectively. In simple terms - first, imagine a regular cannon shell. Now, instead of it being solid inside or filled with just explosives, it actually contains many small ball bearings. Now imagine it going off, with all those little balls flying in every direction.

Anyone unlucky to be close enough is dead instantly, with the balls punching right through them, only to hit others behind. You just turned that human wave into a mess of blood and body parts from the dead and dying.

For even better effect, roll out barbed wire just above ground to slow the enemies down and you won't need much effort to literally stop them dead in their tracks.

For more info on actual usage, search for defense of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal during WW2. It was almost identical situation to what you describe. Japanese used Banzai charges against dug in american positions around the airfield. It was a total disaster for the Japanese.

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    $\begingroup$ Flechette rounds are nasty. Biggest use I can think of was vs infantry and cover in Vietnam - the 152mm gun-launcher on the Sheridan was very effective for this. When enemy emplacement was encountered, a shot from this in the general direction would strip all the vegetation hiding it, allowing for an accurate kill-shot from a penetrating weapon. Artillery rounds using this are known as "behives" due to the sound made. $\endgroup$ – Baldrickk May 21 '18 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ Canister shot is simply artillery-sized shotgun rounds. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel May 22 '18 at 5:05
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If we take the "human wave" tactics of the Chinese in the Korean war which weren't really human wave attacks but more a focused assault on a specific position using infiltration and night assault that were repeated until victory or exhaustion, then you have a more realistic situation.

Things that come to mind would be night vision equipment and near constant recon to detect an enemy advance before they strike. Then the ability to call in fire support for all levels of command (from the private upwards). You would need to establish a line of fortified fire bases to rain shells and rockets down on any attack. Finally you would need a motorised, mechanised or air mobile reserve to reinforce areas under attack or to plug breaches in the line.

The other option would be to have strong sections of the line and weaker sections that you allow the enemy to breach then push them back in an armoured counter thrust once they break into open country where they are easy targets.

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    $\begingroup$ Pretty much the same caveat goes for the Iranian "human wave" tactics during the Iran-Iraq war, so this is definitely A Thing. I kind of like the idea in the last paragraph of setting up human-wave honeypots. $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. May 21 '18 at 23:04
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Under these circumstances, assuming you don't have the means to simply mow them down endlessly ( say for example, you're carrying bolt-action rifles rather than automatic weapons ) then your best option is to use terrain and mobility.

The human-wave requires space to move, command and control to guide, infrastructure and supply-lines to keep fed. Strike at these and your foe will fail.

If you cannot put up an impenetrable wall of bullets to put the horde down, then you should use your mobility. Reach hilltops and chokepoints such as mountain-passes, strike them when they try to climb after you. Maintain clear exit-routes by any means necessary and immediately displace to a new position of terrain superiority whenever things are getting hairy.
Fight smart, be ready with the next step in your battle plan at every stage. Ideally have multiple options that you can swiftly implement, with a foe this big you'll be prone to getting outflanked and surrounded; something you cannot afford to allow.

You should watch for their leadership, Commissar-type officers guiding the masses, anyone issuing orders or rallying the horde. Kill those and the horde will falter and scatter. Issue your longest ranged and most accurate weapons to your best marksmen and give them this task.

Play on your foe's fears. You're facing a mob, once you've killed its leadership it will react accordingly and the human animal is far easier to spook than we like to think.
To encourage panic, you can use Fire and Explosives, even the most fanatical zealot will instinctively shy away from such things

If preparing the ground is possible, make use of traps, a deep punji-trap continues to be a threat long after a minefield has expended itself and much like fire, Pointy Things make people fear every bit as much as any random death by landmine. Use these to force the horde into your gunsights and along particularly treacherous routes.

Most critically, you should isolate the horde itself from its supply lines.
Avoid the bulk of the horde and circle around to strike their supply-chain, take what you need yourself and burn the rest. Without food and shelter, the horde will quickly become a substantially weaker threat.
Continue to do this, particularly targeting any fresh reinforcements before they can join the main group.

At all times your goal is to break the horde into manageable pieces you can destroy in isolation.

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Sonic weapons use sound to injure, incapacitate, or kill an opponent. They can be used to stop incoming waves of enemies, or to limit the battlefield to certain areas.

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Artillery.

The BIG killer in the first and second world wars: artillery. Use regular artillery, use howitzers, use mortars, use a big monster like the Big Bertha's. Indirect fire is king and queen on the battlefield. More so if the enemy is a conscripted mess of a human wave.

No need for heroics. Just math & Newtons laws. Mind you, the first and second world wars are long gone. We have auto loading, precision firing mobile artillery now. Artillery is very scary.

Then finish them off with machine gun fire. Or drones. Or tanks. Or APC's. Or remote controlled vehicles with / or turrets. That is just fidly bits with a modern well trained army. You never have to see the enemy with your own eyes.


If you are in France by change, visiting or something, go and see how effective artillery can be.

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    $\begingroup$ If you have rocket artillery, that might be even better; the sound of thousands of rockets screaming into the enemy's lines is, apparently, pants-shittingly terrifying. And that's before you take into account the other advantages, such as the much greater ease of launching massive barrages with rocket artillery than with gun artillery. $\endgroup$ – Sean May 23 '18 at 3:52

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