The Godfather’s Scalpel

Panzergrenadiere der SS-Panzer-Division "Hitlerjudend"

The uniformed services have an incorrigible affinity for acronyms. In light of the coming photo-op showcasing the power of precision guided munitions, perhaps a short essay is in order on what is perhaps the Pentagon’s favorite acronym: RMA, which stands for Revolution in Military Affairs. The balance of power rests, to a considerable extent, on the state of military technology. This precarious balance may be rapidly disrupted by an uneven diffusion of military innovations. Perhaps the most important reason for US primacy is the boss’ substantial lead in advanced weapons systems.

A truly comprehensive history of RMAs is beyond the scope of this essay. Also, almost every major advance spills into the military realm. For instance, the English Financial Revolution (1694-1756) endowed the Crown with a decisive military advantage since it could borrow more money than the rest of Europe’s sovereigns combined. Working with such a broad definition, there is no hope for coherence. Instead, we shall restrict our attention to the battlefield. Furthermore, we shall concentrate on the modern battlefield.

In the period 1400-1650, European warfare was dominated by plate armor. This was a game of aristocrats, knights who could afford castles and armor, both of which were very expensive. Firearms were generally ineffective against thick steel armor that protected both the knight and his steed. Flemish and German armorers did a brisk international business in tailor-made armor for the patrons who were ready to shell out a fortune for what was effectively a necessity for knighthood.

The development of muskets that were effective against heavy armor in the seventeenth century increasingly undermined the dominance of plate armor and with it the old aristocratic order. The defining weapon of the next era was the bayonet which combined the pike – the infantryman’s weapon against mounted warriors – with the flintlock musket. Unlike previous weapons, the bayonet required neither considerable skill nor extensive training. Kings could now raise massive armies, limited only by the financial resources they could muster. The classical era (1690-1890) was dominated by mass-conscripted armies of bayonet-wielding infantrymen that paradoxically created both the conditions for the rise of absolute monarchism, and its downfall with the rise of nationalism and democratic ideals in the late-eighteenth century.

In the classical period, battles would begin with soldiers firing one or two volleys and then engaging in closed combat. There were hardly any casualties from gunshot wounds due to the inaccuracy and ineffectiveness of firearms. Most combat deaths came from the blade: bayonets or old-fashioned steel swords. Since cavalry was vulnerable to bayonet-wielding infantrymen, it was deployed to attack the flanks, conduct strategic penetrations behind enemy lines, and for mowing down infantry formations once they were in disarray. Battles took place in a literal ‘fog of war’ which was the result of thick smoke emanating from firearms.

During the nineteenth century, accelerating as the century progressed, a marked improved took place in the range and accuracy of firearms. The key weapon was the magazine rifle. Along with advances in the rapidity of fire, and the introduction of smokeless power, this resulted in a total transformation of the battlefield. Smokeless power rendered it impossible to judge the position and forces of an enemy by smoke, and freed the marksman from the clouds of smoke that formerly were an obstacle to aiming.

Jean D. Bloch predicted that the rifle used in the next great war – what we now call the First World War – will be forty times are effective as the chassepot that was used in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He was writing in 1902 when the six millimeter rifle was introduced in the United States, and anticipated the introduction of rifles of even smaller calibre.  Sure enough, the weapon of choice for the British forces in the Great War was the Enfield 303 which the present author has had the pleasure of using both at the firing range and for game. A skilled marksmen equipped with a modern rifle can kill an elephant located a mile away.

The lightness of the rifle cartridges meant that many more of them could be carried into battle, 575 in 1914 as opposed to 84 in 1877. Just as the magazine dramatically improved the rapidity of fire, the smaller calibre and the attendant larger stock of ammunition meant that fire could be sustained for considerably longer than hitherto. Machine guns, once they became accurate and lethal, made fortified positions impregnable to infantry assaults. Counter-intuitively, firepower is essentially defensive: one can defend a position as long as one can sustain fire, that is, as long as one’s ammunition cache is non-empty. And conversely,  as we will see later, armor is an offensive weapon. 

Consequently, these developments sharply increased the role of artillery since only artillery could dislodge the adversary from a well-defended positions. Improvements in artillery were equally impressive. In 1894, it was reported that cannon at a distance of two thousand yards had placed shot in the same hole four times in succession. The German artillery commander, Prince Hohenlohe, declared that “a battery placed against a road fifteen paces wide will annihilate a whole mass of infantry for a distance of 7700 yards, so that no would even think of standing there.” No wonder: one round of shrapnel is effective over a space double the length of that covered by a thousand rifle bullets.

Powerful, quick-firing, large-calibre field guns introduced at the turn of the century followed on the heels of three developments. The introduction of steel projectiles with considerably more lethal shrapnel, the increased potency of powder, and most importantly, the development of range-finders and other improvements in targeting. Artillery quickly gained supremacy, as was demonstrated in the first great power war of the new century, the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05.

The most important consequence of these developments in firearms was the separation of the adversaries on the battlefield. Even though European infantry divisions were still doing bayonet drills in the lead-up to the Great War, bayonet charges would prove to be suicidal since no one could survive standing for a moment in the ‘zone of fire.’ Bloch predicted that “there will be a belt 1100 yards wide, for both sides equally inaccessible, limited by human bodies over which will fly thousands of bullets and shells, a belt over which no living being will be able to pass to decide battle with the bayonet.” He foresaw the trench deadlock on the Western front that would witness the slaughter of an entire generation of young men from Britain, France, and Germany.

The deadlock of modern combat, the toll taken by a war of attrition, and in general, the impact of total war, meant that conventional deterrence would be extremely effective. Great power war could not be contemplated sans a reasonable chance of achieving a decisive victory. This is precisely what happened with the advent of the tank.

The tank was introduced during the First World War, and every major power had a large number of them in the inter-war period. However, in the French and British militaries they were integrated into infantry units and served a supporting role. It was the German General Staff that sized the opportunity opened up by highly-mobile heavy armor. The Panzer corps was the only division in the world that consisted almost solely of tanks. After the declaration of war by the Allies, conventional deterrence held for months in what was immediately called a ‘phony war.’ Since everyone expected a repeat of the First World War, no one wanted to be the attacker in a war of attrition, certainly not the Allies. Indeed, it is arguable that deterrence would have held indefinitely, with the phoney war evolving into an armed peace, had German decision-makers not decided on a blitzkrieg.

The blitzkrieg is not a battlefield tactic, it is a war strategy. The goal is to punch a hole through the enemy’s defenses, avoid battle with major units and make your way straight to the enemy’s center of power in a bid to destroy the command and control structure to cause a rapid collapse of the war effort. That is, the goal is to carry out a strategic penetration. In a war of attrition on the other hand, the goal is to push back the enemy’s forces across a broad front. One needs to engage the strongest units of the enemy one by one and defeat them with the application of superior firepower.

Mearsheimer notes four distinct successful deployments of the blitzkrieg strategy: the Fall of France in 1940, the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria in 1945, the Six Day War of 1967, and the Indian invasion of East Pakistan in 1971. Mearsheimer’s main argument is that conventional deterrence is unlikely to hold against a potential attacker when it can deploy a blitzkrieg strategy. Conversely, deterrence is likely to obtain when a potential attacker has no choice but to launch a war of attrition.

The era of armored warfare (1940-90) was simultaneously the era of air power. Contrary to popular misperception, strategic bombing has been of little use against strong adversaries. There isn’t a single case of a great power succumbing to a terror bombing campaign. This is not to say that air power is of little use. Indeed, it has played a major role as flying artillery, essentially replacing ground-based artillery, at least for the attacker. The role of the air campaign is much more limited in a blitzkrieg. The goal is merely to achieve local air superiority to support the advancing armored columns. In a war of attrition on the other hand, the campaign in the air matches that on the ground. What is sought is overall advantage, moreover one that can be sustained through the war years until the enemy is exhausted.

Although Mearsheimer devoted an entire chapter to precision guided munitions, he stopped short of predicting the transformation of the battlefield. To be fair, he was writing in 1987, long before the full impact of these munitions was realized. I was ten years old when Saddam invaded Kuwait. I remember watching the First Gulf War with my father and his friend, who was a colonel in the Indian army. The long discussions centered around the effects of advanced weaponry, especially precision guided munitions, on the modern battlefield.

This was the first war that was telecast live worldwide. The Americans were showcasing their most advanced weapons both to deter adversaries and to advertise their wares to potential buyers. During that war precision guided munitions were in their infancy. What was lacking wasn’t missile technology or guidance systems, although both would radically improve over time. Despite appearances to the contrary, these weapons were not all that reliable or effective.

Already by the 1980s, shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons, improvements in anti-aircraft guns, and the development of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) had undermined the supremacy of mobile armor and flying artillery on the battlefield. Infantrymen could now fight back effectively against armored divisions as well airplanes. The United States faced the possibility of even medium-sized powers developing the capacity to deter the projection of American power.

It was this problem that was solved by advances in long-range precision guided munitions. Before they could become effective however two significant developments had to take place. The first was in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). The problem of striking targets that could be located had been solved early on, especially against fixed targets. But precisely destroying misidentified targets does not a military advantage make. Sensors in satellites, aircrafts, and drones have enabled a much more comprehensive, accurate, and real-time acquisition of tactical information. The second was in information processing. Advanced command, control, communication, and computing systems (C4) gather, process, and display the data onscreen, or better yet, feed it directly to the munitions.

JSTARS, a ground-surveillance system in the sky enables a single screen to display, in any weather, the position and type of every vehicle within an area of 200 square kilometers. The Global Hawk, a high-altitude surveillance drone, can loiter in the sky for days and has a range of 8,900 miles.  The US operates dozens of satellites that not only provide significant ISR capabilities, they are the backbone of the Global Positioning System (GPS) that is key to highly-accurate guided munitions.

The most advanced Tomahawk cruise missile, the Block IV, can circle for hours, shift course instantly on command and beam a picture of its target to controllers halfway across around the world. Cruise missiles are one of many precision guided munitions (PGMs). The Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) converts dumb bombs into smart munitions, allowing the targeting of dozens of tanks or whatever within a 15 mile radius,  in a single strike. The oldest and most wide-spread PGMs are laser guided bombs (LGBs) that debuted in the Vietnam war and provided a hundred-fold increase in accuracy and effectiveness. GPS-guided munitions are radically more accurate than LGBs.

Before the advent of PGMs, militaries compensated for the lack of accuracy of industrial-era weapons with mass. It was realized that unguided bombs would land at a point that was normally distributed around the target in both distance and azimuthal angle. The appropriate tactic was therefore to fly enough sorties and bomb a target enough times to obtain a high enough probability of destroying it. The high point of this industrial-era tactic was the Vietnam war. The US dropped 8 million tons of ordnance over Indochina between 1962-73. [Yes, JFK was the one who first send US troops to Vietnam.] This was more than the combined total of the Second World War. Thankfully, this will never happen again.

PGMs – and the attendant revolution in ISR and battlefield networks – have enormously expanded the battlefield. The long-range cruise missiles in the arsenal of the advanced military-industrial powers can carry out surgical strikes from a thousand miles away without putting any assets or forces in harms way. When I say advanced military industrial powers, I mean that in a very precise sense. There are only four states in the international system which enjoy these capabilities at any appreciable scale: the United States, France, Israel, and the United Kingdom. Only the US possesses a global strike capability: the ability to destroy any target anywhere in the world in near real-time (1 hour).

It has been claimed that formidable as these capabilities are, they do not represent a ‘revolution in military affairs.’ This claim is patently false for the simple reason that industrial-era weapons – tanks, artillery, fighters, and anti-aircraft guns – are just not competitive with advanced weapons systems built around PGMs. Indeed, they are sitting ducks. An Iraqi gunner remarked that during the war with Iran, he slept in his tank where he felt safe, but during the American invasion, he felt much safer sleeping as far away from military hardware as possible. This highlights the essence of an RMA. The old weapons are just not good enough anymore. 

The United States has opened up an astonishing lead in advanced weapons systems over all potential adversaries. Moreover, one that is still growing. Why haven’t other powers tried to catch up? The short answer is cost and access. The costs associated with advanced weapons systems – especially the space component – are astronomical and beyond the reach of other states, including China. The British and the French enjoy these capabilities because they are plugged into the American networks, as are the Israelis. Moreover, the United States provides billions of dollars a year to shore up Israel’s financial capacity to afford advanced weaponry. Two other states in the system are technologically and financially capable of acquiring these capabilities: Germany and Japan. Both are unlikely to leave the US orbit any time soon.

The United States also regulates access to the technology by leveraging its market power: the Pentagon is half the world market for advanced weapons systems. The economies of network and scale have entrenched a small oligopoly of prime contractors that are containers for these technologies, and who remain enthralled by US market power and have to submit to US regulations. The US uses access to advanced weaponry as a highly-effective alliance management tool. Potential adversaries have very little chance of gaining access to these technologies. Russia, China, and India have a lot of technological catch-up to do. Meanwhile, the capabilities of the US keep on growing.

Anyway, so that’s what I was thinking about since the wimpiest president in history delayed the fireworks to seek congressional approval. What the hell was that?

One thought on “The Godfather’s Scalpel

  1. “What the hell was that?”

    Obeying the U.S. constitution and following U.S. public opinion which is majority against war maybe?

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