Thursday, July 05, 2007

What I've been thinking about lately, II

So, I don't go around writing epic posts about 14th- and 15th-century warfare for nothing. What interests me about the end of the knight as the central battle unit in European warfare is what followed it: It was cheaper to train longbow archers and pikemen (and following them, early musketeers) so armies got larger and larger, leading (almost) inevitably to the great continent-spanning wars of Napoleon. That is, a process where war had gotten more and more expensive (the knight paradigm) was eventually upended by a military paradigm where big wars got easier and easier: as war got larger, states became more "modern" in the sense that we would recognize them today. Because knights had such huge needs in terms of land, and other political powers besides, it became cheaper and easier to simply tax the nobles (many of them knights, of course) and send the rabble to fight with bows and pointy sticks instead. (The power of the pointy stick cannot be over-estimated. Ask the Swiss.) This drives both the impulse towards a modern tax-collecting state, and in the case of England, modern liberal democracy.

Armies -- built around infantry, cannon, and cavalry -- stay affordable (though never "cheap") well in to the 20th century, long after the tank and truck supplant and finally eliminate cavalry as a useful military unit. But sometime after World War II, the cost of equipping armed forces starts spiralling upwards. As Gwynne Dyer writes in his excellent book, War, the best fighter of 1939 (the British Spitfire) was something like 50 times cheaper than the best fighter of 1989 (the American F-15), even after adjusting for inflation. And this is only one example you can pick: tanks, ships -- hell, guns, with the exception of the half-century old AK-47, have gotten more expensive. Even infantry, that old standby, is going through major inflation as the US tries to build the new "networked" soldier. This is a problem for national governments, because nobody is 50 times richer than they were at the beginning of World War II. So armies by definition get smaller.

(There's the other obvious point that in many ways, the weapons of WWII "cost" less because England and the US in fact adopted many of the command-economy methods of the Soviet Union, albeit with a more pleasant face and none of the fratricidal butchery of Stalin's reign.)

So "expensive" war has replaced "cheap" war once again. The knights are back, except this time they ride in tanks and APCs. Moreover, they have defined what a "respectable" military looks like for the 60 years since WWII ended. Remember -- Edward III would have loved to have knights in Normandy. Any respectable King would have. Maybe there are good and substantial reasons for this -- tanks are extremely impressive, as are aircraft carriers and the F-22 fighter. But clearly, these are also weapons systems that other powers pursue for the prestige of owning them, as well as the military utility they confer. As it turned out for the knight on horseback, he was obsolete -- this might not be the case with modern warfare, but I think there's decent reason to believe that it is.

Remember, the French nobility reacted to the introduction of the Welsh Longbow rationally. They improved the armor of the knight himself, and added armor to their horses -- up-armoring, in contemporary language. It did not do them any good against the Longbow, because the very problem with the knight is that he has to close with his enemy to destroy him. By the time a knight closes with an archer, a 100-gram arrow flying from a 6-foot longbow carries enough kinetic energy to knock the knight off his horse, kill his horse beneath him, or if his armor is poorly made, punch straight through. And, even if the archers hadn't ended the reign of the knight, the earliest muskets were already being introduced to the European battlefield by the end of the 100 Years War. Within a few generations of improvement, the musket made personal armour useless, and in fact counter-productive.

So the knight on horseback disappears, though cavalry stick around for another half-millenium, and battles in Europe increasingly take the form of massed infantry charges, supported by cannon and cavalry. At first pikes defend archers, and then the bayonet-musket combination makes an unbeatable combination. And the infantry formation, which dates back to Sumeria, is eventually destroyed once and for all by the machine gun. Having dozens of men in a close march is just an inviting target by the time we get to the trenches of France and Belgium, though it takes everyone a few years to realize it. By the time the war ends, infantry have dispersed and tanks have been introduced as a way to overrun machine gun fire.

I want to stress that part: having a bunch of guys in close proximity went from being the fundamental aspect of war to being suicidal, because of a simple change in weapons technology. These kinds of things happen, a lot.

So, relevance for today: I read, with sadness, yesterday that 6 more Canadians had died in Afghanistan. I read, with interest, that they were in a RG-31 Nyala armored vehicle, specifically designed to resist land mines and other explosives. It doesn't actually matter what vehicle they were riding in, only to say that it could have been almost anything: there is very little in our arsenal that cannot be destroyed with enough ingenuity. And there's no reason to believe this is going to change. There are any number of reasons why we simply will not be able to add enough armour to the vehicles we fight in to make them resistant to the weapons we face: every pound of armour you add requires you to either sacrifice mobility, or build a better engine and better steering, for any vehicle you can think of. Plus, there are additional concerns: the US Army needs its vehicles to be light enough to be transported by aircraft such as the C-17 or C-5. This poses an absolute weight limit on a vehicle, unless we want to start re-engineering the entire logistical train of the modern military -- agh!

So the vehicles we're able to build, can't be armored enough for them to be "safe" from enemy attack. As just the most recent example, the highly-touted "MRAP" vehicle the US Army is being told by Congress to be desperate for cannot stop an explosively formed projectile, the likes of which we've heard so much recently of in Iraq. The Stryker has met serious problems -- though this is highly controversial -- when faced with IEDs, and there's even reports of Abrams tanks (presumed to be as close to invulnerable as human science can make) having been disabled in 2003 by Russian made Kornet anti-tank missiles. Rumours or no, the Kornet was confirmed to have been used against Israel by Hezbollah in their recent war, and the Merkava tank is no slouch when it comes to armour. By the way, the Merkava's fire control system is named "Knight".

So if we do up-armor our tanks, our APCs, our MRAPs, etc, there's no reason to believe that, in short order, any halfway motivated adversary won't be able to make or buy a countermeasure to punch through it. There's no mystery here: we've been watching this basic dance between armour and warhead since the introduction of the bazooka, and the single most important fact about the 1973 Arab-Israeli war has to be, in any objective evaluation, that the Arab armies stopped Israeli armour and air support for days with shoulder-mounted missiles that are, what, two or three generations behind what is currently available to Hezbollah? (I've heard it said that, at the apex of the Egyptian offensive, Israeli army soldiers begged the Air Force to stop sending air support -- they couldn't bear to watch more planes be shot down.) Imagine what the Egyptians and Syrians could have done if they'd actually been any good, or had leaders who were worth the name. And shoulder-mounted missiles are only one of the many weapons that armor now has to contend with -- IEDs, EFPs, not to mention professionally made weapons.

My point is this: the answer, in all probablility, does not lie in trying to build bigger and more heavily armored vehicles. The Israelis counter-attacked in the Sinai with infantry, not tanks, and surprised the hell out of the Egyptians in doing so. Similarly, it's occurred to some officers in Iraq that the proper response to IEDs is simply to get their soldiers the fuck out of those armored deathtraps. (Which was supposed to be what they were doing for the sake of counter-insurgency anyway, but that's another story...) Just as the answer to the longbow wasn't for the knight to get heavier and slower, the answer to the spectrum of anti-tank weapons (all of which will get more effective, not less) may, and here I stress may, be to abandon APCs with a dozen men and tanks with 3 men apiece, and disperse infantry forces once more, just as they did after the machine gun made the formation march lethally obsolete.

I asked, in my previous post, why the French nobility kept sending knights in to be slaughtered by rabble with bows and arrows. What was the learning disability? What's ours? We watched and were alleged to have learned from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, we watched last summer as Hezbollah held off the Israeli army with prepared fortifications and shoulder-mounted missiles (all the while pelting northern Israel with rockets and impunity) and yet the US Army was, until it's budget got eaten by Iraq, planning for the Future Combat System (FCS), a multi-hundred-billion dollar reinvention of the Army, building shiny new tanks, artillery, and mortars for the next generation. The Mounted Combat System (the tank component of the FCS) is supposed to have a firing range of 8 kilometers... or about the same maximum range of the Israeli-made anti-tank Spike missile. Even assuming the Mounted Combat System ever makes it in to production, who thinks the Israelis are the only ones capable of building a missile like that? Who wants to bet against the next generation missile having longer range and a bigger warhead? (Oh, and it gets better: to improve mobility, the MCS was supposed to be "lightly armored", allowing it to fit inside a C-130, but offering less protection, one can only imagine.)

Whatever the US and its allies (including Canada) spends in Iraq and Afghanistan, the procurement budget for their adversaries is, as Ian Welsh has put it, a rounding error in comparison. But this isn't limited to issues of fighting wars of occupation -- the example of 1973 shows, in a modern conventional war, how effective anti-tank weapons were 34 years ago. It's possible we'll look back on the war in Lebanon last summer with the same opinions, I can't say yet. What we're looking at is not only the mistake America made by fighting a war of occupation, and thus surrounding itself in enemy territory. This is something more fundamental. If the tank is obsolete as I suspect it is, it's because they're expensive and slow to build but cheap and fast to destroy: the weapon it takes to destroy a tank isn't nearly as expensive as the tank is, and can be made faster and in larger numbers. The same weapons that make tanks so vulnerable to infantry also give infantry far more power on the battlefield than they used to, meaning that it's not like post-tank wars will be less violent or destructive. But, infantry can disperse in a way that makes those weapons less effective against them (once more, remember the machine gun) but still remain effective in combat -- much more so, with modern electronic communications.

And this is why this issue scares me so: if Big War becomes cheaper and easier, it becomes more seductive for someone to try. I don't worry about terrorism, mainly because I live in North America and my odds of dying of cancer, a car accident, or lightning strike are higher. And, I guess it's worth pointing out, it's not like I'm really likely to die in a major-power war, either. But major-power war scares me, all the same: in the last years of World War II, as the Soviets marched West against Nazis fighting like cornered rats, a million people died per month, on average. There is nothing else humans do to each other that has the kind of lethal potential of war. Which is why it terrifies me, absolutely chills me to the core, that some Americans will never see China as anything but a threat to be destroyed, or at the very least disarmed. China will be a major power, as will other countries, and the task for the 21st century is to make room for them, not try and prolong the "unipolar moment". Because as bad as Iraq is, as bad as Afghanistan is, a war with another major industrial power -- with the kinds of weapons available to us and them today, even forgetting the horrifying possibility of nuclear war -- would be absolutely... well, I'd really prefer to never have to describe it as an actually-occurring event. Let you imagination handle the rest.

1 comment:

Cyrus said...

I wish I had something more substantive to say, but all this reminds me of is science fiction, or even less-serious comic books or whatever, about super soldiers and stuff. Glenn Reynolds territory, but there it is. An armored vehicle is apparently a sitting duck almost by nature, so send in a cyborg — perfecting the process will/would be expensive, but once you've got one, making more would be easier and cheaper. That assumes, of course, that you can keep your enemies from accessing the same technology... but either way, it's more entertaining than diplomacy, and isn't that what counts?