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Historical examples of military swarming

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Swarming is a military paradigm that refers to a continuous series of coordinated attacks, each of relatively short duration, which tend to exhaust and overwhelm the opponent's command and control capabilities. The term derives from a mistaken perception of "attacks" of hive insects such as bees, wasps, and ants, whose swarms are actually reproductive in nature. Overly enthusiastic proponents of swarming sometimes apply it to situations that have superficial similarities, but really do not qualify as swarms. While swarms do converge on a target, not every military action, where multiple units attacked from all sides of a target, constitute swarming. Other conflicts, especially historical ones, fit a military swarming paradigm, but the commanders involved did not use the concept. Nevertheless, historical examples help illustrate what modern analysts do and do not consider swarming.

Some historical examples with at least some aspect of swarming are given below.[1] In examining this list, one must be careful to distinguish those that truly had a hit-and-run, "pulsing" quality, rather than simply having multiple forces converge on an enemy.

Ancient Swarm and Counter-Swarm

At the Siege of Samarkand, Spitamenes used Scythian horse archers in effective swarming attacks against a relief column sent by Alexander the Great. Scythian horse archers surrounded various Macedonian phalanxes, staying out of range of their melee weapons, and fired arrows until they had no more. The archers would then withdraw to a supply point, but another swarm of horse archers would sometimes replace them, and sometimes attack elsewhere. The Scythians eventually cause the phalanx to break formation, and destroyed it.

Alexander recognized his forces could not directly combat horse archers, but that the horse archers needed resupply of provisions, horses, and arrows. Alexander split his forces into five columns and began building fortifications in the areas where the Scythians had resupplied. Eventually, his anti-swarm tactics worked: cut off from resupply, the Scythians had to meet the Macedonian phalanx, which were vastly superior in melee.

Alexander used a US Army motto: "find, fix, and finish" guerrillas or other light mobile forces. Spitamenes was effective as long as his force were mobile, and he had adequate communications with mounted couriers. Once he was forced into direct battle with heavy forces, he literally lost his head.

What is not Swarming

Merely because multiple units converge on a target, they are not necessarily swarming. Siege operations do not involve swarming, because there is no maneuver; there is convergence but on the besieged fortification. To return briefly to the civilian model of incident command, the IC may send task forces to deal with secondary fires or other events within the incident area, but separate from the main incident.

Guerrilla ambushes do not constitute swarms, because they are "hit-and-run". Even though the ambush may have several points of attack on the enemy, the guerrillas withdraw when they either have inflicted adequate damage, or when they are endangered.

Swarms may seem similar to double envelopments such as the Battle of Cannae, but there are key differences. In a double envelopment, the center immobilizes the enemy force, while the enveloping forces move against its flanks. Rather than having the Carthaginians in constant contact with the Roman flanks, grinding them to death, for the battle to involve swarming, the Carthaginians on the flank would have stayed mobile, using missile weapons as much as possible. Carthaginian cavalry might have made occasional shock attacks on the Romans, but for the battle to be swarming, they would need to pull back after each shock.

A marginally swarming situation is where the flow of battle isolates enemy units, and friendly units surround it. To make this a swarming situation, there has to be communication and synchronization, and a deliberate doctrine to maneuver in a swarming style. Like the guerrillas, swarming units are relatively light, avoid close combat, and hit and run. Unlike the guerrillas, the swarming units may withdraw and hit again and again, from new directions. In Edwards' term, swarming has to involve pulsing of multiple attacks. Swarming is attritional, but not in the grinding sense of the Battle of the Wilderness or the trenches of the First World War or human wave attacks in the Korean War.

Was the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest swarming?

Opinions differ on whether the defeat of the Roman legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus used swarmings, or merely was a series of unsynchronized but near-continuous attacks by the Germanic forces under Arminius.

Mongol Swarming

Mongols under Genghis Khan did practice an equivalent of swarming, partially because their non-electronic communications were still advanced for the time, within the limitations of communications by flags, horns, and couriers. Also one of the standard tactics of Mongol military was the commonly practiced feigned retreat to break enemy formations and to lure small enemy groups away from larger group and defended position for ambush and counterattack.

Genghis Khan used the Mongol Yam system, which established a rear line of points for supplies and for remounts of fast-moving couriers. The remount system allowed horsemen to move much faster than the couriers of opponents without them. These couriers kept the Mongol senior and subordinate commanders informed, such that they could make fast decisions based on current information. In modern terms, the courier system provided the means of getting inside the opponent's OODA loop. With fast communications, the Mongols could make decisions not just on what they could see locally, but with that information oriented within the overall situation. They could then decide and act while the enemy were still waiting for information. Outnumbered Mongols could beat larger forces by faster communications, which allowed units to withdraw and regroup while other groups continually stung the enemy, withdrew in turn, while the earlier group again hit the enemy.


  1. Edwards, Sean J.A. (January 2003). Military History of Swarming (ppt). Complexity Digest, May 2005.