A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “What War Might Be Like”

Guest posting a week ago at The Power and the Money, Martin Skold predicted that war in the future–non-nuclear war, at least–would proceed through four stages: rapid attrition, stalemate, mobilization, and insurgency in successfully occupied territories). The first stage would be critical.

In the past two World Wars, it was actually the norm for the combatants to fail to knock each other out of the fight initially. The great exception appears to be France, which suffered what can only be described as a total knockout in the first round of World War 2. In all other cases, although one side or the other might make some gains, it usually failed to completely destroy its opponent. One could point to the Battle of Britain, operations on the Russian Front in 1941, initial Japanese gains in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, the stalemate on the Marne in September 1914, the inability of Germany to eliminate Russia after its victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes at about the same time, and so on.

There are reasons for this. In many cases, the wrong set of assumptions was in play: Germany, for example, did not begin serious industrial mobilization in World War 2 until after Stalingrad (arguably, after it had already lost), trusting in the ability of the blitzkrieg to deliver quick and decisive battlefield victories. In other cases, it simply took time for resources to become available: Britain, which had always focused as much of its defense budget as possible on its navy, entered World War 1 with a professional army (the crack units in the British Expeditionary Force, who, according to legend, fired their rifles so rapidly as to appear to be using machine-guns), only to enroll large numbers of after hostilities commenced (the so-called “Kitchener Battalions” that were slaughtered on the Somme two years later). In all such cases, however, the great powers were close enough to evenly matched to be able to survive the initial shock and awe.

This scenario would probably prevail in the world of the 2020s. (Right now, the United States has a good chance of achieving a rapid knockout blow in a conventional conflict.) The trend towards professionalization (absence of conscription in most big states) and reliance on high technology (the inflation-adjusted costs of major weapons systems being significantly higher than in past wars), combined with the likelihood that at least one side would not have a long warning time prior to the onset of hostilities suggests that replacing lost equipment and personnel would require more mobilization and preparation than either side would likely have at the start of conflict.

In other words, unless one side or the other prevails decisively in the first weeks of the war, the initial forces of both sides are likely to be destroyed. Let’s first consider personnel. Most modern militaries invest large sums of money and large quantities of time in training their personnel. That makes lost personnel difficult to replace, particularly in the absence of conscription, which few states (and no great powers except Russia) employ. For that matter, mass conscription by definition implies sacrificing quality for quantity: professional armies throughout history have invested more training resources in each individual soldier, sailor, or airman than militaries based on mass conscription. The IDF and South Korea are partial exceptions, but those are armies geared for territorial defense (and in Israel, occupation of hostile territory) not expeditionary warfare.

The size of modern armies is small for this reason: in terms of military participation rates, the modern great powers are closer to medieval kingdoms than to pre-World War 1 states. (Modern great powers have less than 1% of their populations in the military, including reserves, compared to 5% of European populations on the muster rolls in 1914.) Although some of this reflects a choice (conscious or unconscious) some of it is a function of technology and the time it takes to learn to use it. It is quite debatable whether a modern state could replace combat pilots, for example, at the same rate as Britain and Germany did in 1940 — even allowing for the fact that both countries tolerated a much lower standard of proficiency than the prewar norm.

The discussion in the comments is interesting, with some (like Will Baird) suggesting that technological units like drones–inexpensive and usable from the start–could be game-changers for this scenario.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Posted in History, Politics

Tagged with , , , ,

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