Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Is the Blitzkreig Dead?

You would think that the modern tank warfare which has been with us since the Germans overran Europe in World War 2 might be at an end, from a single sentence by Defense Secretary Gates:

"We can expect that asymmetric warfare will remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time."

Gates was speaking recently at the Association of the United States Army. I mentioned that the dawn of the blitzkrieg occurred in Second World, but its genesis can be found in the First, with its introduction into combat by the British during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, the first mass use at Cambrai in November 1917, and at the tide turning Battle of Amiens in August 1918.

The Germans merely perfected the British and French lessons from that conflict, meanwhile taking advantage of the passivity and traditionalism of the Western Armies in the early stages of WW 2. By combining fairly swift and somewhat technically sound armored vehicles with ground attack planes, these were coordinated into a battle winning strategy that swept aside the preindustrial mindset of unprepared antagonists.

The blitzkrieg was merely an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution. As the new commercial machines gave greater mobility to the civilian population, so it was natural for the same innovations to be taken up by the military. Infantry had likewise dominated warfare starting in the late Middle Ages, just as individual rights were becoming widespread in the West, sweeping aside the nobility dominated horse cavalry. So is it that warfare almost always mimics society.

Where then does the Industrial Age tank stand in todays' more chaotic Information Age? First, such an expensive and logistics intensive weapon needs a secure industrial base to support it. In this Internet Age when companies rise and fall almost overnight, can such a dependable base be relied on? The tank is also the supreme symbol of the nation state, but in this era, war is more often than not fought by Coalitions and Alliances, at great distances from their homeland, as seen in almost every war America has fought since 1950.

Amazingly, for the first time in its 80 year history, not a single completely new-build tank in under development by any of the world major powers. Some, like the Indian Arjun, has been under development for decades, Russia continues to modify Cold War era vehicles, and the US Future Combat System is still mainly on paper. Even the new South Korean K-2 Tank is based on Soviet era T-80 and T-72s. The vogue now is to update reserve Cold War stocks, or buy used tanks, as Canada is currently doing with unwanted Leopard II vehicles from Holland.

In recent decades, America and Israel has restored the reputation of the blitzkrieg in warfare in various Middle Eastern Wars. The Yom Kippur War between the Jews and Egypt in 1973 was the template for the US Air/Land strategy of the late Cold War, that gave us astonishing and morale boosting successes over Iraqi forces, while proving the invincibility of the Abrams Battle Tank. But doesn't this say more about the inadequacies of our adversaries than to the success of the tank? We owe as much to the decline of the Soviet Union to our armored successes on the desert battlefield, as we do to our technology.

The Information Revolution as typified by the cell phone and the internet has empowered the infantryman like nothing seen since the 19th Century, when massed firepower doomed his reign. Information gives agility to the foot soldier, allowing him to outmaneuver and take the offensive against the slow moving tank and supply heavy armies of the last century, especially in an urban environment. Wheeled vehicles such as Strykers, MRAPs and up-armored Humvees are coming into their own for the very same reason. America has invested a fortune in reequipping its forces with mine resistant vehicles, with some 20,000 already on order for the Army and Marines.

So far, the new technology has fueled the rise of insurgent terrorism, or the "asymmetric warfare" mentioned by Secretary Gates, as seen by Al Qaeda directing its massive attacks on America in 2001 from the backwater that is Afghanistan. It has also empowered the terrorist motivated Iraqi insurgent with a greater than normal opportunity to withstand the world's last superpower on almost equal terms. By using their tactics against them however, strategists such as General David Petraeus has managed to take back the initiative from our enemies, at least for now.

Secretary Gates seems to have hit on the solution to the new warfare which so concerned military pundits since the 9/11 attacks on our homeland. Though we might now handle the guerrilla tactics as favored by the terrorists, a greater effort will be needed to convince a recalcitrant bureaucracy at the Pentagon of the need for more "boots on the ground". Meanwhile, the tank will not go away soon, no more than the battleship disappeared immediately after Pearl Harbor. Yet, the increased expense of such vehicles due to the decline of manufacturing in Western nations, plus new technology of the Information Age has combined to sound the death knell of the armored cavalry.