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Archive for the ‘Military History’ Category

Tanks have been the king of the battlefield for much of the 20th Century, and, to badly paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of its demise have thus far been grossly exaggerated. The emergence of precision-guided anti-tank weapons in the early 1970s led to quite a few expectations of the impending demise of the tank, especially after the initial shocks of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Israeli tank forces were shown to be vulnerable to Egyptian anti-tank guided weapons. That being said, a return to simple combined arms operations soon rectified that problem for the IDF.

Now comes this BBC report, which re-examines the role of tank forces, especially in terms of the tank-on-tank battles that were witnessed in Kursk in World War Two and in the Sinai in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

A pertinent observation made in this BBC report is that in a sense, an armoured knight on horseback, charging in a dense pack towards a another dense pack of heavy infantry, is the historical precursor to today’s armoured forces. It is no accident that some armies refer to their tank forces as cavalry.

My own take: warfare will always exhibit a pendulum swing between offensive and defensive capabilities. World War One witnessed the dominance of defensive capabilities, but once the ‘principles’ of cavalry were adapted into tanks, offensive capabilities regained their lustre. I don’t see any reason why this pendulum swing should ever end.

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an interesting read from Tom Ricks’ blog, The Best Defense.

By A. A. Cohen

Best Defense intellectual pugilistics correspondent

Warrior-profs Gian Gentile and John Nagl, the two best-known heavyweight contenders in the national security debate surrounding irregular warfare, squared off a few weeks ago at Grinnell College in the wilds of Iowa on the merits of counterinsurgency and the future of Afghanistan.

The moderated 60-minute debate was kicked off with a three-word question: “Is COIN dead?”

In this corner, Gentile, who has for years passionately opposed the very notion that counterinsurgency worked in Iraq (the “Surge,” along with Petraeusism, seem to be his two pet peeves), let alone in Afghanistan, fired at his rival from the position: “The idea that nation-building can be achieved at a reasonable cost of blood and treasure is dead.” Translation: COIN is not feasible for America — ergo, COIN is dead.

Gentile propped up his argument by attacking what he describes as the “COIN narrative” of the past decade, about which many “gripping tales” have been written, but without any of these amounting to true, objective, “good history.” Gentile charged that there was no significant change in generalship or strategy between George Casey and David Petraeus in Iraq, and that the level of violence there was bound to drop when it did, regardless of the change of command and of the deployment of some 30,000 additional troops. Nagl parried by citing RAND and other research that concludes the contrary. Recall as well that General Casey was intent on drawing down U.S. forces, not surging them as Petraeus sought to do in order to establish a semblance of order and security prior to withdrawing from Iraq.

Nagl’s first response to the moderator’s question was an expected zinger: Counter-insurgency cannot be dead for as long as insurgency is alive and well. Obvious perhaps, but this full-body slam was a good reminder that shedding the capability would not make future needs for it disappear. Alas, what I wish he had mentioned, too, was that in this debate again, military doctrine was being deliberately confounded with matters of foreign policy. The United States has not conducted a nuclear (atomic) strike since Nagasaki, and the intention to strike again in such a fashion is absent, but the United States continues to maintain a nuclear capability and doctrine.

Gentile scored his few real points, I believe, on the issue that counterinsurgency operations on their own do not yield lasting strategic results. True, but those operations constitute an important piece of the puzzle. It is the role of statecraft to bring about stabilizing watersheds. And what Gentile may wish to acknowledge is that counterinsurgency operations, costly as they may be, will often be required to afford the time, the space, and the conditions that are needed to enable statecraft to run its course.

While Gentile and Nagl disagreed on many points of evidence, ultimately, their conclusions did not appear to be altogether different. Both contenders agreed that the invasion of Iraq was a strategic error, and that the price of a fully resourced counterinsurgency campaign will rarely (Gentile: will never) justify the unsatisfying prize. Nagl takes the match on style and substance… and of course, because he cited Galula.

Gentile’s obsession with naysaying is certainly understandable; we can all relate to his fear that should the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq go down in history as a victory, it will be tempting for our elected leaders and their advisors to wish to repeat similar adventures again. But the point is moot; history indicates that engaging in counterinsurgency warfare is seldom a predetermined choice.

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A fascinating story, courtesy of the BBC, about Operation Chastise, the famous dambusters raid by the RAF during World War Two, against a series of hyrdoelectricity dams in the Ruhr industrial heartland of Germany.

The hypothesis underpinning Operation Chastise had been that by destroying the key hydroelectricity dams, this could have knocked out German’s military-industrial capacity. By shutting down Germany’s military-industrial capacity, this would have a direct impact on Germany’s continued ability to wage war thereafter. At least, that was the hypothesis.

As the article points out, there has been quite some disagreement between historians as to the extent to which this operation was successful. The official historians, Charles Webster and Noble Frankland “believed that it was oversold, its achievements exaggerated and other Bomber Command raids unfairly ignored.” Such historians point to “the speed at which the dams were repaired, and production of energy, steel and other armaments resumed.” Not only did the historians disagree, even Arthur “Bomber” Harris had thought the operation a “harebrained” scheme, noting that “‘I have seen nothing… to show that the effort was worthwhile except as a spectacular operation.'”Indeed, as the BBC article notes, “British planners had known that the success of the raid largely depended on the German ability to rebuild the dams in time to store up the autumn rains.”

Other perspectives, however, suggest that the operation had strategically very important follow-on effects. It may be true that the dams were repaired and re-supplying electricity to the Ruhr industrial heartland in a matter of months, and that the absence of these hydroelectrical resources did not have a severe impact on Germany’s military industrial output. Nevertheless, by redeploying German slave labour towards the repairs of these damns, the article suggests that this had a follow-on effect on German’s plan to construct a series of coastal defences against the expected Allied counter-offensive.

My personal sense is that I do tend towards agreeing that the operation may not have achieved that much at lower levels of analysis, but at the higher levels of analysis, there is something to be said for the operation. That being said, I think it possibly spurious to assume a direct causal relationship between Operation Chastise and the German capacity to mount a coherent defence of the Normandy beaches a year later. If anything, I wonder if this effect was really a result of the law of unintended consequences.

Food for thought for current senior commanders, I wonder?

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From the BBC (available here), comes an interesting piece on the apparent elusiveness of victory in contemporary wars and conflicts. This was (ahem!) the focus of a Journal of Strategic Studies article I published some time back (“Decisive Battle, Victory, and the Revolution in Military Affairs”, Journal of Strategic Studies, April 2009, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp.189-211).

In this BBC piece, the correspondent Jonathan Marcus suggests that the era of decisive victories – Gettysburg, for instance, turned the tide of the American Civil War and ensured that the Confederacy would not be able to attain its strategic objectives – is over; if you follow the logic to its conclusion, then maybe policy-makers ought to be more circumspect before authorising the use of military force.

However, as reported, Anthony Cordesman also makes the point that “There was never a time when governments or the public understood the implications of war even when they were fighting them. If they could have predicted the outcomes they either would have avoided the wars or certainly have changed the strategic objectives… One of the dangers here is in talking about the uses of force, it’s a little like talking about the uses of economic aid. You can’t control the outcome in many cases, you can’t predict it.” Part of the problem may also lie in the unrealistic expectations of policy-makers as to the efficacy of the use of force. As Cordesman notes, “When you look at the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq there were certainly military difficulties, choices that probably should not have been made from the military campaign side, but the primary failures in these two cases came from the civilian side, from the assumption that you could change governments, that you could develop an economy quickly and easily, that you could teach governance or alter the basic values of ethnic and sectarian groups or ignore their differences.”

It was interesting also that a US Marine Corps general, Lieutenant General Richard Mills, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, noted that “In past wars – the historical wars we have all studied – it was government against government. Their aims were clear and the ability to defeat them was also clear. But with the instigation of war against non-state actors, where their intentions are less clear, where their centre of gravity is difficult to find and where the endgame is a little less clear-cut – that becomes very difficult for the military men.”

My own sense, and it was something that I suggested in my Journal of Strategic Studies article, maybe the very idea of decisive victory was in the first place something of a historical oddity. The history of strategic thought is basically an attempt to develop predictable outcomes from the use of military force, but if Carl von Clausewitz is correct, then fog, friction, uncertainty and unpredictability is EVER-PRESENT throughout any war, irrespective of time, geographic and cultural contexts.

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An interesting post from Naval War College Professor James Holmes on who was the greatest strategist – Sun Zi or Clausewitz (available here).

As James points out, citing the late JC Wyllie, “the domain where we operate makes a difference…. Airmen tend to see things one way, as do seamen, soldiers, diplomats, or anyone else.” In a sense, therefore there may be no such thing as a “greatest of them all”.

That being said, James points out that Clausewitz unlike the other candidates was as much an advocate of particular methods of warfare as he was an analyst of war: “Clausewitz resonates with me more than the others simply because his insights are more fundamental. He respects his enemies, as befits someone who fought Napoleon and often lost. Sun Tzu insists that those who read his book win every time. Mao conveys a sense of Marxist-Leninist inevitability. Clausewitz refuses to sound such a cheery note. For him, strategy isn’t about our acting on some inert mass, an adversary with little capacity to adapt or innovate. Strategy is about interacting with living, breathing adversaries who have as many brain cells as we do and as much resolve to prevail. If we haven’t overthrown the enemy, we are bound to fear he will overthrow us.

Giving opponents their due means taking them seriously. That’s the proper attitude to take into international competition—and a useful starting point for strategic wisdom.”

War, in other words, is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced into a series of sterile maxims. Its very dynamic nature recalls the words of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: No operations plan survives contact with the enemy. You start out thinking your opponent will behave in a particular manner, adopt a particular set of strategic choices; and you will plan your own strategic actions thereafter. Your opponent will almost certainly confound your expectations of him, unfortunately, and you will be forced to adjust your initial plans and strategic choices thereafter.

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It is probably already axiomatic that about the most difficult type of military operations that can be attempted will be those conducted in urban areas. We instinctively already know this.

Now coming soon will be a detailed case study of the Battle of Stalingrad. Old Soviet documents were recently given access to military historians, and the first glimpses suggest an even more horrifying spectacle.

A report courtesy of The Independent (available here) provides a tantalising glimpse of what these declassified documents will tell us. For concerned scholars, military history buffs, this is something worth looking forward to.

As the Independent report indicates, “The first-hand accounts also bring to life the terrifying ordeals suffered by both sides in the gruelling house-to-house street fighting which dominated much of the battle. In some cases the Red Army would find itself occupying one floor of a building while the Germans held another. ‘In this street fighting, hand grenades, machine guns, bayonets, knives and spades are used,’ recalls Lieutenant General Chuikov. ‘They face each other and flail at each other. The Germans can’t take it.'”

Given that globally urban centres are growing in numbers and scale, does Staingrad then presage the kinds of horror we are likely to face in times of war between states?

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The Vietnam analogy is something that, at least it seems to me, all military historians or defence analysts tend to be somewhat uncertain about. I am myself guilty of it. Once, shortly after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when I was asked about the likelihood of another Vietnam for the United States, my answer was shamefully non-committal.

Some time earlier this week, an interesting piece that came via the BBC (available here) about Afghanistan and the parallels with Vietnam. Afghanistan has already been widely considered as the former Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Now, the NATO-led coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan are again being compared to the US experience in the Vietnam war.

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