How technology has affected the art of war

“Technology has advanced with giant strides since the World War and it will force tactics to follow it”.

                                           Heinz Guderian,  in Bewegliche Truppenkörper, 1927

Using eight examples, this essay will argue their importance in developing  the conduct of war since the mid-nineteenth century.  Due to this being such a vast topic, the author has chosen to omit  technological advances made prior to this the due to constraints of size and the comparatively leisurely pace that these took place.  The introduction of mechanised transport has enhanced the mobilisation of armies, whilst evolving into weapons of war in its own right.  Aircraft evolving into a potent tools of war, and tracked farm vehicles evolving into no-man’s land crossing land ships are two such examples; both being enabled by the development of the internal combustion engine.  

As Guderian wrote, “The engine of the Panzer is its weapon just as much as the cannon”.

Electronic technologies have forever changed the conduct of war, providing not only a step improvement in command, control, communications and intelligence, or C3I as they are termed in strategic studies, but also electronic devices are now used to locate enemy targets,  and as a navigational aid.  To defeat this, Electronic Counter Measures, (ECM) and Electronic Warfare, (EW) have become equally as important, enabling a ‘stealthy’ penetration of the enemy’s territory.  The technology of weapons used in the actual war fighting have themselves driven the development of the conduct of war, as accurate rapid fire rifles and machine guns determined the end of masse close order formations, and has led to armies digging trenches as their only defence against this firepower. The onset of war in the air has created a three-dimensional battlefield, with the ability to project itself beyond the ground conflict to the civilians ‘back home’, with a  natural evolution of the Gotha bombers of 1915, being the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, (UAVs) of today, delivering missions hitherto carried out by air crew.  Finally the emergence of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological (NBC) weapons have led to new levels of horror on the battlefield, and in the case of nuclear weapons, ensured that wars are limited;  as total war would see the end of life on Earth.  This essay seeks to analyse eight technologies that have developed the conduct of war; thereby changing the tactics employed.

The  introduction of the railway coincided with the turbulent period of the mid-nineteenth century, and its usefulness wasn`t lost on the military.  Railways developed into crucial arteries of warfare, so much so that in 1832 it was stated by General  Lamarque to the French Chamber of Deputies that, ‘the strategic use of railways would lead to a revolution in military science as great as that which had been brought about by the invention of gun powder’.  Lamarque was correct in his prediction, with Prussian General Moltke  writing to the War Ministry in 1859 asking for more double tracks to be built in the west, that would allow trains to run in both directions simultaneously.  Ironically for Lamarque , these would head towards France.  Moltke saw that due to the size of modern armies, only railways would allow their full deployment and enable faster mobilisation. 

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, similar events were taking place.  Despite there being six railway gauges in the USA in 1861, which must have caused both sides considerable logistical problems,  the railways  were utilised by both sides during the American Civil War. In an example of how they had affected the conduct of war, in September 1863, the Union army reinforced the Army of the Potomac, calculating that 23,000 men, guns and ammunition could be moved  a distance of 1,200 miles in just seven days, rather than taking three months before the advent of the railway. It wasn`t long before the vulnerability of railways became apparent, in turn leading to the development of armoured, (and well armed) trains being used in the American Civil War, the Boer War, and even as recently as the Second World War. Four such trains were fitted out to defend Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. By the end of the nineteenth century, bringing ‘million-strong’ armies to battle using railways had become the apotheosis of war planning.

The utility of railways in war is highlighted by the lengths to which armies go to too ensure that they are denied to the enemy. For example,  prior to the Normandy invasion, (1944) ‘some 80 railway centres in occupied territory’, along with locomotives were targeted for destruction.

By coincidence, the telegraph appeared at roughly the same time as the railway, also quickly establishing  itself as an essential component of  military operations.  For the first time in the history of warfare, field commanders could direct real-time battlefield operations across large distances. The telegraph was first experimented with by the British during the Crimean War, although only the Prussian army had a military telegraph as a permanent part of their army prior to the American Civil War.  Telegraph communications quickly provided a revolution in command, and C3I.  During the Austro-Prussian and the Franco-Prussian wars,  the field telegraph enabled General Moltke to exercise command over his distant armies.  It was used by both sides during the American Civil War, with 15,000 miles of line being erected, and some 6.5 million messages being sent by the North during the war. In part due to the vulnerability of the lines, telegraph was eventually superseded by radio communications as technology evolved. 

Perfected in 1901 when Guglielmo Marconi transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean, radio sets not only enabled commanders to communicate over distances, as with the telegraph, but due to the wireless nature of the device, radio eventually allowed for mobile devices  that could be fitted to military vehicles, aircraft and ships; with the navies of both Britain and Germany being enthusiastic about this new technology, which became well known if cumbersome by the First World War.  These cumbersome field radios were not well suited to trench warfare so the telephone and telegraph were still employed as the prime communications method in the trenches.  During the 1920s the development of long distance short-wave radios that were small enough to be fitted into tanks and aircraft, enabled  a further evolution in C3I. Having previously worked with the Signal Corps, Heinz Guderian, German tank expert was intently aware of the potential use of radios in tank warfare. He reasoned that a force of tanks would be far more effective if fitted with radios, with the commanders using special command vehicles equipped with long range radios.  

To this effect, it is interesting to note that, during the Battle of France, the German army had twelve times as many radio operators as the French army. Guderian’s commanders were able to communicate with other units and ground support aircraft, whereas by contrast, the headquarters of French General Gamelin, in the Château de Vincennes near Paris did not have a single radio.  An aide complained that they did not even have carrier pigeons; with Gamelin later admitting that it generally took 48 hours before an order reached the executing unit at the front. Today, even individual soldiers carry radios, allowing them to communicate in real time throughout operations.  No modern commander would contemplate an engagement without the use of radio, such is the effect that this technology has had on the conduct of war.

Neither today would any commander enter conflict without another electronic technology that has had an immeasurable effect on the conduct of war since its introduction in the 1930s, most significantly in aerial and maritime operations.  That is Radio Detection and Ranging equipment, or RADAR.  RADAR played a significant part in Britain winning the Battle of Britain, and proved to be an essential tool for hunting U-Boats and for warning of enemy aircraft during maritime operations. Throughout the Second World War airborne RADAR  developed, enabling night fighters to locate targets in the darkness, and navigators to locate their ground targets even when they were obscured by cloud.  Today, Airborne Early Warning  And Control (AWACS) aircraft provide  RADAR and C3I functions across whole theatres of operations. 

So important has the use of RADAR become, that denying it to the enemy has become a prime objective during the early stages of any conflict, either in a traditional manner or by using Electronic Counter Measures, (ECM) and Electronic Warfare (EW) technologies.  During the Normandy Campaign (1944), Operations Taxable and Glimmer saw Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers using EW to create spoof invasion fleets, whist other aircraft jammed German Freya radar, thereby assisting the bomber fleets. As former RAF Air Electronics Operator, Dr Alfred Price wrote, ‘Even when electronic jamming is not fully effective in concealing signals, it causes an enemy to distrust the system being jammed.’ Summing up the significance that EW and ECM technologies have had on the conduct of war, Air Marshal Sir Frederick Sowrey wrote, ‘the employment of EW may well be the only means of making penetration of enemy airspace possible without sustaining prohibitive losses.’

Air Power has forever changed the conduct of war, making the battlefield three dimensional, rather than the linear affair of previous times. The significance of this was recognised as being so important, that in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles ‘removed aircraft from the German inventory of weapons for the next fourteen years;’ and following the air raids on Britain during the First World War, in 1923, the Hague (Draft) Rules of Air Warfare attempted to prohibit ‘aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorising the civilian population.’

Since the initial use of balloons used for artillery observation to aircraft being capable of projecting military might across the globe, the ever evolving technology surrounding the use of Air Power is comparable to the introduction of gunpowder in its importance to the conduct of war.  The rapid expansion of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during the First World War is testament to this, rising from a strength of just 2,559 officers and men in January 1915 to 144,078 in March 1918. That the use of Air Power is both decisive and proven can be made when paralleling the decimation by RAF aircraft of the retreating Turkish army  on the narrow Wadi al-Far’a road in Palestine, (1918) to the devastation caused on the ‘Basra Road’ during the First Gulf War (1990-91). An extract from the book ‘PER ARDUA; The rise of British Air Power 1911-1939′  about the Wadi al-Far’a attackcould describe both events, describing  how, ‘by nightfall two divisions had ceased to exist’. 

With its ability to bring destruction to the doorsteps of non-combatants,  Air Power has changed the very character of war, with the city of  Dresden often being cited as an example its  destructive ability and  the moral questions that this brings. That the technology of Air Power has changed the conduct of war can also be seen in maritime operations.  Gone are the days of naval battles being fought by battleships  firing huge shells at each other.  Today’s maritime battles would more likely be similar to the ‘Battle of Midway’, with aircraft attacking fleets hundreds of miles from their own bases. The sinking of  H.M.S Sheffield, Ardent, Antelope and Coventry by Argentinean aircraft during the Falklands War would confirm this theory.  However, it is not just the lethality of Air Power that has changed the conduct of war.

The ability of Air Power to transport troops to any part of the globe, such as during ‘Operation Market Garden’, should not be overlooked. Indeed the loss of ten helicopters on the Atlantic Conveyor transformed the advance to Port Stanley, during the Falklands War, to one of the pre-Air Power age; with troops having to march across the island.  That Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, (UAVs) are beginning to take over several Air Power roles is but an evolution of what has come before; having its own technical, legal and moral challenges. 

Regarding a soldier’s personal weapon, it took less than a century for this to evolve from a muzzle-loading smoothbore musket  to a machine gun capable of firing hundreds of rounds a minute; technology massively increasing one soldier’s lethality.   In Europe, the Prussian army adopted the Dreyse breech loading, rifled needle-gun in 1841, at a date when every other European infantry soldier was using a smooth bored muzzle loading musket; as they had done for three centuries. According to a study of German documents carried out prior to the American Civil War by the theorist Dennis Hart Mahan, ‘troops with rifles were over three and a half times more effective at approximately 170 yards than with smoothbores.’ The increased accuracy, and thus range of rifles ensured their steady adoption and the subsequent  development of assault tactics, as had been foreseen by Mahan in his article for the publication Outpost, published in 1847. With the introduction of the breech loading rifle, to this was added an increased rate of fire.

Scholars have suggested that U.S authorities did not consider the tactical implications of these new weapons during the early part of the American Civil War, and continued to use  older tactics involving  close order formations now advancing under accurate fire for a longer period compared to previous wars,  thus being decimated just as Moltke predicted in ‘The Art of War’. This greater lethality eventually led to tactical changes, with the use of close order, massed formations decreasing over time. By the mid-nineteenth century, rapid firing accurate rifles had forced the end of these close order formations that were previously needed to ensure a reasonable volume of hits using smoothbore muskets,  and brought about  entrenched positions  favouring the defender. This can be demonstrated by the defeat of the Union army at the Battle of Fredericksburg, when the superiority of soldiers in entrenched positions armed with rifles was proven against the frontal assault, leading to the waning of enthusiasm for the offensive on both sides.

Technology was forcing the development of the conduct of war, with the natural evolution of the rapid firing rifle being the introduction of the machine-gun. The most famous of the early hand-cranked machine guns, the Gatling gun and the French Mitrailleuse saw limited action during the American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War respectively, although a single Mitrailleuse used at the Battle of Rezonville during the Franco-Prussian War was credited as having caused more than fifty percent casualties on the troops opposing it. This technological progression led to the mass slaughter and trench warfare associated with the First World War, as rapid firing weapons had evolved, changing the very character of war. Now one soldier could wield more firepower than a whole platoon of a century before, with the defensive squares of Waterloo having given way to the trenches of the Somme. 

A technology, the threat of which has forever changed the conduct of war, is that of Nuclear, Biological, (BW) and Chemical (CW), (NBC) weapons; or Weapons of Mass Destruction, (WMD) as the media like to call them. The danger of these being used has ensured that western militaries now train to be effective just in case they are deployed.  The arms race after the 1960s saw both the United States and the Soviet Union developing these weapons so that they would have a strategic edge, while avoiding a nuclear confrontation. Although both BWs and CWs are often considered as being closely related, after the 1950s, nuclear weapons are thought of as being in a class by themselves, given their capacity to destroy the planet.One of the most striking images  of the effects of CW is that of the gas victims during the First World War, when poison gas was credited with causing a million casualties, and 91,000 deaths between 1915 and 1918.

Although not deployed strategically during the Second World War, as it had been used in the previous war, the threat was very real.  This was also so during the Gulf Wars, as Iraq had previously used CW during its war with Iran,  forcing coalition troops to assume a worst case scenario of having to fight on a toxic battlefield. Regarding nuclear weapons, although having only been deployed twice, they forced the world into the ‘Nuclear Age’,  thus making future wars become limited due to the ‘Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy that assures  the end of all life on earth.  As nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer is quoted as saying, when he witnessed the first nuclear explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, “I am (sic) become death, destroyer of worlds.”

So, in conclusion, this essay has used eight technologies developed since the mid-nineteenth century to assess their importance to the development of the conduct of war.  Due to size constraints, many notable examples have been omitted. The essay discussed how the railways enabled million-man armies to mobilise efficiently, quoting that, ‘the strategic use of railways would lead to a revolution in military science as great as that which had been brought about by the invention of gun powder’.

The step improvements of communications using first the telegraph, and then radio were discussed, both technologies enabling advances to be made in C3I.  The essay discussed how RADAR has become a key component in the conduct of war; and to counter both RADAR and radio communications, the use of ECM and EW has developed, Air Marshal Sir Frederick Sowrey, being quoted as writing that, ‘the employment of EW may well be the only means of making penetration of enemy airspace possible without sustaining prohibitive losses.’ The importance of  Air Power in the development of the conduct of war was discussed, with examples given both of its destructive power, and of its ability to deploy troops rapidly beyond the frontline.  This essay discussed developments in a soldier’s personal weaponry, its improvement in both accuracy and rate of fire leading to the demise of close order formations, and the use of trenches as the only method of defence. 

Finally, the way in which Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the threat of them being used has changed the conduct of war were discussed; with nuclear weapons being credited with ensuring that, due to the ‘Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy, all wars in the future will  be limited wars, due to the possibility of ending life on earth if they are deployed . So, returning Guderian’s, quote at the beginning of this essay; “Technology has advanced with giant strides since the World War and it will force tactics to follow it”.

How right he was.

A.Pitman, MA Military History