Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

Land warfare


A maritime blockade, strategic bombing or guerilla warfare are coercive techniques to achieve a particular objective. By bring about economic ruin, large scale destruction, or a campaign or terror, aggressors seek to induce their opponent to give them their objective. Land warfare, by contrast, obtains objectives by seizing them directly; it is brute force.

The First World War

The First World War was the first war to be fought since the industrial revolution. This brought huge changes in the size and firepower of armies. For example in 1812 Napoleon’s Grande Armee numbered 600 000, and each soldier had time to fire two musket bullets before an approaching unit closed to bayonet range. By 1912 the French army had 1.6 Million troops, yet was only the third largest in Europe. Each soldier could fire two hundred bullets before the attacker closed to bayonet range. Bayonet charges became suicidal and tactics had to be altered dramatically.

The Boer War (1899-1902) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) had provided early experience of this new type of war, and two decisive tactics emerged almost immediately; the use of cover and concealment to reduce attackers exposure while advancing, and suppressive fire to keep the defenders heads down while the attackers were exposed.

These two tactics were difficult to execute. The first required the massed line attacks to be replaced by small groups making short dashes between areas of cover. This put more distance between leaders and led which made it hard for officers to keep their troops moving. The second required good infantry (advancing) / artillery (providing the covering fire) co-ordination. If the covering artillery barrage fell short or continued too long it would hit their own troops; if it fell long or stopped too early it wouldn’t be effective.

These problems prevented decisive victories in the early days of the First World War, and the troops rapidly became bogged down in trench warfare. Artillery could destroy trench defenses outright, and it became the dominant arm of the army. Massive preparatory artillery barrages would destroy the opposing trenches, and the infantry would simply move in, mop up the dazed survivors, and take over.

The scale of artillery bombardment was unprecedented. For example, the ten-day Allied bombardment around Messines in July 1917 dropped 1200 tons of explosives on every mile of German defenses. These attacks were successful and ground was taken, but proved much harder to hold. The week long preparatory barrages alerted the opposition as to where the attack would take place. They would mass reserves and artillery just behind the front line, and attack their own front positions as soon as they had been taken, forcing the enemy to retreat. It proved impossible to advance beyond the reach of artillery. This was called ‘war on a tether’.

Over the course of the long trench stalemate both sides eventually overcame the technical and tactical problems of a combined arms approach. They limited artillery barrages in time so as not to alert the enemy, and replaced the massed infantry charge with several small well trained units armed with portable light machine guns and grenades. The Germans developed these tactics first, using them at Caporetto on the Italian front in November 1917.

The Second World War

The inter-war period brought mechanization – tanks, trucks, aircraft and radio communications. These had all featured in the First World War, but not in any significant role. Out of 414 tanks starting at Cambrai on 8th August 1918, only 145 were running on the second day. The physical hardship and unreliable technology meant that after a day of fighting neither men nor machines were much use. Aircraft were too light to carry a payload and were mostly reserved for reconnaissance or counter-reconnaissance. Wireless sets had been too bulky and low powered.

Most Allied strategists saw the tank as key to future wars, and envisaged them as the navy of the land, operating independently. The Germans by contrast were the most conservative. They developed the Panzer division, a combined arms formation of tightly co-ordinated tanks, infantry, artillery and engineers. They combined movement, use of cover, and suppressive fire to overcome defenses in an all-arms assault.

The civil-military tension in France produced a short service unskilled conscript army unable to master the combined arms tactics developed in the last stage of the First World War. England’s class-conscious officer corps ostracized the skilled technicians they needed for in an effective mechanized army, and many of them moved on to civilian jobs. In the Soviet Union ruthless political purges stripped the army of its competent officers.

The hard lessons of 1917-18 has taught defenders to thin their troops, extend their defenses into great depth, and keep much of their force in reserve. Although this yielded ground initially it forced attackers to fight the decisive battle deep within enemy territory after an advance of thousands of yards which would of frayed their combined arms co-ordination. It also gave defenders more time to prepare for the battle. Yet at the start of the 1939 hostilities French and Russian defenses were shallow and forward focused; this made them easier for an inexperienced officer corps to command, but also easier for the German Panzer divisions to punch through.

As a result the opening period of the Second World War was marked by a series of German ‘blitzkrieg’ victories. By 1941 the Allies re-learnt the importance of deep elastic defenses, integrated fire and movement, and combined arms, and slowly started re-gaining ground.

After the initial success of the Panzer divisions, tanks did not prove decisive. Operating alone they are loud, hard to hide, and have great difficulty seeing concealed targets. Dug-in anti-tank guns or infantry with short-range portable anti-tank weapons can wait for a tank to pass and attack its vulnerable flank and rear. Infantry were needed to act as their eyes and ears and artillery to provide high volume suppressive fire during extended operations. Tanks proved most successful in open country once defenses were breached, or for close situations were artillery fire had too high a risk of hitting friendly forces.

The 1973 Arab-Israeli war

In the 1956 and 1967 conflicts against Arab opponents, Israel’s limited mechanized forces had produced results disproportionate to their strength. This convinced senior Israeli leaders to focus almost exclusively on mechanized units, neglecting infantry and artillery. As they were to discover however, their previous successes, particularly 1967, had been mostly due to the poor performance of Egyptian troops. In the 1967-73 years Egypt taught its infantry to defend against tank charges by concealing their positions, standing fast, and hit their targets.

In October 1973 the Egyptians caught Israel off-guard, crossed the Suez canal, overwhelmed the unprepared garrison of the ‘Bar Lev Line’, advanced four kilometers into the Sinai and dug in. Israel quickly counter-attacked, impaling a series of unsupported tank charges on the Egyptian defense and losing almost three full brigades.

Faced with a failure of their pre-war tactics and almost no infantry, the Israelis improvised a combined arms style. A few tanks would move forward cautiously to draw fire from the Egyptian infantry’s portable wire-guided missiles, while other tanks in over-watch positions would look for the puff of smoke signalling the missile launch and fire on that position. Meanwhile the forward tank sought cover and maneuvered evasively. These new techniques eventually allowed the Israelis to break through Egyptian defenses, were the war was rapidly won.

The 1991 Gulf War

Between the 17th January and 28th February 1991, a US led coalition destroyed a defending Iraqi army of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, thousands of armored vehicles and tens of thousands of artillery pieces, for the loss of only 240 attackers. This represented less than one fatality in 3000 soldiers, an incredibly low coalition casualty rate.

In August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. Over the next five months a US-led coalition gathered forces in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Persian Gulf. On the 17th January they launched a six week air campaign, rapidly gaining control of the air and destroying the air defense and large parts of Iraq’s command and control network. This gave them uncontested air supremacy for almost a month of bombing attacks. On the 24th February two divisions of US marines attacking from the center and left, and two corps on the extreme right flank, rapidly defeated the Iraqi ground forces. The war was halted on 28th February, just 42 days after it started, and only four days after the start of the ground offensive.

This unprecedented success is attributable to a combination of superior coalition technology and flawed Iraqi tactics. New information gathering, precision guidance and air defense suppression technologies were all used by the coalition for the first time or in a newly mature form, and not used by the opposition. The Iraqis tactical flaws were the usual combination of poor combined arms co-ordination, inability to integrate manoeuvre and suppressive fire, and poor exploitation of cover and concealment.

The Iraqi conscript infantry was neither skilled nor motivated and even the Republican Guard were remarkably unskilled. Fighting positions for tanks and troops were haphazardly prepared. For example many Republican Guard armored vehicles were left perched on the desert surface behind loose sand berms which offered neither concealment (they were the only prominent feature on the flat desert landscape) nor cover (piled sand cannot stop 120mm depleted uranium shells). US tanks crews, by constrast, dug fighting positions as ramps which conceal the entire vehicle below ground until the weapon is to be fired. This way they cannot be seen by thermal sights and are not vulnerable to enemy fire (even 120mm DU).

Further Iraqi tactical mistakes include counterattacks launched by armoured vehicles advancing in the open without accompanying fire support; poor marksmanship; and little regard to equipment maintenance. The were not the first to make such mistakes. The technical demands of modern war are exacting, but as technology becomes more sophisticated the consequences of such errors become greater.

The coalition attackers had all-weather, day/night thermal tank sights, stabilized 120mm guns effective on the first shot at 3 kilometres, attack helicopters with 5 kilometre range missiles, and aircraft armed with precision guided missiles and complete command of the sky. Against such weapons tactical slip-ups became very lethal very quickly to a very large number of defenders.

Since 1900 there has been a continuous, rapid growth in the reach, lethality, speed and information-gathering potential of armies. Military strategy has developed and repeatedly proved a key set of tactics: combined arms, tight integration of movement and suppressive fire, aggressive use of cover and concealment, and defensive depth and reserves. Technology punishes tactical mistakes with increasing severity. Technological change in land warfare can thus be thought of as a wedge, driving apart the real military capability of armies that can, from those that cannot, implement the complex canon of orthodox modern tactics and doctrine.