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Warfare in the 20th century II


By Sakhal

First part of this article: Warfare in the 20th century I

The great innovations

The infantryman started the 20th century having as weapon a repeating rifle and a bayonet. In the Second World War he already used semiautomatic rifles and automatic personal weapons such as sub machine guns. In the late period of that war the Germans developed the MP-44, the first of the modern assault rifles, able to perform automatic or semiautomatic fire as desired. Weapons like the American M-16, Soviet AK-47, German G3, Belgian FN FAL and Spanish CETME were, in varying degrees, derivatives from the MP-44. The improvement of the armament was clearly notorius also in this regard. The caliber of these weapons started to be reduced. Until circa 1970, the caliber of the rifles had been oscillating between 6.5 millimeters (Italy) and 11.43 millimeters (United States). In the 1980s, the most part of the western countries had already adopted the 5.56 millimeters, while the Soviet Union adopted the 5.45 millimeters and United Kingdom tested models of only 4.85 millimeters. The new ammunition was not only more economic, but it reached a higher muzzle speed, allowing for higher range and precision. But from the infantryman it was required more than firing a rifle. In the Second World War they already used small anti-tank grenade launchers. Later they would use missiles as well, and not only against tanks, but also against aircraft. These systems often required two operators, but the NATO soon developed anti-tank missile launchers that could be transported and operated by a single soldier. And not less important, a large number of soldiers had to be able to drive a wheeled or tracked vehicle.

Artillery evolved parallely. To the museum were passed the large artillery pieces of the First World War and the exceptional calibers used mainly by the Germans during the Second World War; the newer cannons and howitzers of a caliber not much higher than 100 millimeters would allow for a rate of fire that surpass ten shots per minute and self-propelled artillery would grant to artillery pieces the fast mobility that demands in the modern battlefield the existence of radars that indicate the trajectory of the projectiles, allowing the adversary to know the exact position of the firing emplacements. Another innovation were the rockets, which allowed large ranges and spine-chilling fire concentrations. The tank did not exist in 1900; its apparition in 1916 and, above all, the tactics that British experts and German generals imagined and carried to practice in the 1930s, revolutionized the methods of ground war. More than 150000 tanks were produced during the Second World War by the diverse contenders (49000 were American M4 Sherman) and the usage of this war machine continues in full validity, thanks to the constant techical innovations introduced in its design.

Warfare in the 20th century II

The Tiger I was the first German answer to the challenge posed in Russia by the T-34. With a weight of 56 tonnes and a long (56 calibers) 88-millimeter cannon, the Tiger I allowed the Germans to face the heavy Soviet tanks, while in the Western Front it constituted the nightmare of the American and British models, of markedly inferior characteristics.

In the sea, the century started with the predominance of the battleships, which remained during the First World War. The battle of Jutland in 1916 was, however, the last of the greater combats between surface ships. The Second World War would grant the supremacy to the aircraft carrier. The great naval battles of the 1940s were, with exceptions like the Battle of the River Plate, aeronaval battles, in which often the ships did not see each other. In the postwar, the development of nuclear propulsion displaced the supremacy again, this time in favor of the submarine. Even the ones of conventional propulsion - in the most advanced models - could remain in continued immersion during several days and travel during that time thousands of kilometers. They are the true submarines - not the submergibles used during the Second World War -, designed to have higher speed in immersion than in surface, and able to descend to depths of several hundreds of meters.

And finally, the air was the conquest of the century. The very Wright brothers designed the first aircraft thinking in the utility that it would represent for the Army. Albeit their official trials had not success, less than ten years after their first flight - carried out in December 1903 -, the Spanish Army had already used some aircraft to observe from the air the positions of the rebels in the Moroccan Rif. Very soon, the First World War would render the aviation as adult. The Spad, Fokker, Sopwith, Hawker, Savoia, Tupolev, Junkers, Supermarine, Republic, Dornier, Boeing, Ilyushin, Bristol, Douglas, Heinkel, Lavochkin, Messerschmitt, Potez, Vickers, Focke Wulf, Mitsubishi, Curtiss, Kawasaki, Fiat, Nakajima... and many more, are the names of manufacturers that are part of the History, some of which are still in the game. All the development of these machines is of great interest, from the first ones from 1914 to the ones used in Korea, such as the Sabre, through the ones from the Second World War, such as the Stukas, Liberators, Spitfires, Zeros and Dakotas.

Warfare in the 20th century II

The apparition of the British battleship Dreadnought was a revolution in naval warfare, rendering obsolete every battleship built until then. Her ten 305-millimeter cannons put on the table a firepower that no other contemporary ship could match. But this situation would not last for long, of course.

The Vietnam War

When France failed in its attempt to keep Indochina after the Second World War, United States started a process of massive military and economic aid to South Vietnam to prevent the entire region falling into Communist control. From there started one of the bloodiest chapters in warlike history. United States had up to 549500 soldiers destined in Vietnam and a tenth part of them resulted casualties. Countless were the sufferings of the Vietnamese people because of the war and the incredible histories of death and heroism that took place in that war could fill many thrilling pages. From a military standpoint, the Vietnam War suppossed a gigantic amalgam of primitive warlike means with sophisticated weapons that were then used for the first time; melee fights, poisoned darts, booby traps, strategic bombers, helicopters and the utilization of massive terrorism are some examples of the great efforts made by both sides to achieve victory. That war, which was close to cause a generalized conflict, would not extinguish its embers easily. In the 1980s the Vietnamese forces would continue engaging in skirmishes against the guerrillas of the Red Khmers in Cambodia, in an attempt to obtain the results that they did not achieve during their offensive in 1979. And, which was even more serious, the hundreds of provocations in the Chinese border caused a direct confrontation with the large neighbor on the north, when China carried a punishment operation against Vietnam. The study of the Vietnam War, during the phase in which United States was more deeply involved, supplied a large volume of data about the actual effectiveness of diverse experimental or newly introduced systems. Such was the case of the sensors camouflaged as bushes, the silent observation aircraft, the transport aircraft reconverted in gunship aircraft, the chemical agents to defoliate the jungle, the utilization of the aircraft F-111 Aardvark or the light tank M551 Sheridan. In the late 1982 it was allowed at last the late commemoration of those days of shrapnel and mud, of ambush and jungle. In Washington were reunited the veterans that were dispersed accross the "Great Union", wearing their uniforms and their medals, and the boots, berets and hats that they had used during the war in the torrid country of the monsoon. Many of them would remember, without a doubt, the text of a sign hanging in the billboard on the command post at Khe Sanh: "For those who fight for it, life has a flavour the sheltered never know".

Warfare in the 20th century II

The surface-to-air missile SA-2 was widely used during the Vietnam War, constituting a nightmare for the American aviation. The most developed version SA-6 would later represent the same threat for the Israeli aviation in their wars against their neighbors in Middle East.

The powder keg of the Middle East

Along with Vietnam, the wars in the Middle East have been the most important conflicts since the beginning of the Cold War. In 1973, the SA-6 missiles were the main obstacle that prevented the Israeli to attack the Suez Canal. That missile destroyed dozens of Israeli fighter aircraft (and also dozens of Egyptian aircraft, due to the difficulties of the ground operators to identify the aircraft). In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, Syria opposed the same missile to the Israeli aviation. But this time the Israeli, who had already learned the lesson and changed their tactics, suffered not even a single casualty, but instead they systematically attacked and destroyed the Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries.

Airborne operations

The 10th May 1940, Germany simultaneously attacked Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, which suppossed the start of the definitive extension of the Second World War. In the following weeks, the world was amazed by the success and the fastness of the offensive, which in the end of May had cornered the British in Dunkerque and the 14th June allowed the Germans to parade in Paris. For that result being possible, the German Army had to perform in the first hours of its offensive a series of extremely difficult operations that were entrusted to new military units that were practically being premiered in the battlefield: the paratroopers. In the early morning of the 10th May, small groups of paratroopers carried out an essential mission: the control of the bridges over the Meuse river and the Albert Canal, and the neutralization of the powerful fortification Eben Emael, next to Liege, in the border between Belgium, Holland and Germany. By means of gliders, which allowed them to arrive in silence to their targets, benefiting so from the surprise factor, the German paratroopers occupied those strategic points without barely having casualties and resisted in them until the bulk of the German Army arrived. It was an impressive entry on the war scene from these men that would be so significant during the rest of the conflict, not only regarding Germany, but the Allied forces as well.

The intervention of paratroopers was not always fortunate. There were very serious disasters, such as the Allied airborne assault into Holland in September 1944, known as Operation Market-Garden. Even the triumphant occupation of Crete by German paratroopers in 1941 had costed a very high number of casualties to these. But along with these failures, episodes like Monte Cassino, in which the German paratroopers resisted during four months the advance of the Allied forces, and the massive utilization of American and British paratroopers in the assault into Normandy, highlighted the importance of these forces that became part of all the main armies in the world. The leadership of the paratroopers in more recent conflicts and their intervention in operations of great difficulty and risk, enshrines them not only like soldiers able to throw themselves out of an airplane, but as elite troops to whom the hardest missions can be entrusted. Such was the role of paratroop forces in the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Middle East, in operations such as the French siege of Dien Bien Fu in 1954 during the war in Indochina, the Suez Crisis in 1956, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1968 or the rescue of the Israeli hostages in the Entebbe International Airport in 1978. For such, airborne troops became a key element in the armies of the entire world.

Naval warfare

The first large naval battle of the 20th century took place the 27th May 1905. In the afternoon of that day, Togo, chief Admiral of the Japanese squadron, "crossed the T" twice to the Russian squadron led by Admiral Rojdestvensky, in the Tsushima Strait. Those were hours that decided the war for the dominance of the Far East and had important consequences for both nations. A new example - and not the last one - of up to which point the dominance of the sea determines victory or defeat. The perception of that importance was what led the maritime power par excellence, Great Britain, to keep during the four years that lasted the First World War a severe blockade of the German coastline, preventing the free commerce to the Second Reich. The great attempt of the Kaiser's fleet to force the blockade took place the 31st May 1916, in which was known as the Battle of Jutland, a balanced battle in which the German Fleet managed to inflict more damage to the British Fleet than the received one, but which did not triumph in the attempt to break the naval blockade. This one would be the last of the large battles of surface ships. In the Second World War, the supremacy of the battleship would pass to the aircraft carrier. Such was a new reality and it is understandable that the Japanese could think that they would obtain the supremacy in the Pacific after neutralizing, with the attack to Pearl Harbor, the largest part of the American battleships. It was a casual circumstance that that 7th December 1941 there were no aircraft carriers anchored in Pearl Harbor, which allowed United States to keep intact its important aeronaval force and defeat in a very brief time - not without the valuable help of a great luck - the Japanese Fleet in the Battle of Midway, in July 1942. In the Pacific would be carried the main naval battles of that time, such as the Battle of Leyte in Philippines in 1944, but in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean there were so important episodes as the brief raid of the Bismarck, the massive submarine war carried by Germany and the attack from British torpedo planes to the Italian Fleet anchored in Tarento in November 1940. The postwar, with the perfectioning of the aviation and the development of the missiles, did not diminish at all the importance of the dominance of the sea, vehicle of the largest part of the worldwide trade. Since the 1950s the Soviet Union, despite being a continental power, understood - by insistence of Admiral Gorshov - that for being able to effectively exercise the role of one of the two superpowers, it was required a large fleet. In the mid 1980s, the Soviet Fleet became so numerous, with 1377 important ships enlisted, that it surpassed the United States Navy in some aspects, such as the submarines.

Warfare in the 20th century II

The USS Nimitz is a representative of the large aircraft carriers operated by the United States since the 1950s. The air wing carried by one of these is more powerful and sophisticated than the air force of many countries.

The NATO and the Warsaw Pact

In the 1980s, in the center of Europe, and specially in the border between the two Germanies, more than a million of soldiers, with a number of tanks that exceeded ten thousands and a number of combat aircraft that exceeded five thousands, constituted the highest military density in the planet, as the final remnant of the result of the Second World War. It was not only a matter on quantity, but also of the quality of the weapons used. Both Soviets and Americans had in Germany the best of their units. Apart from the two great powers and the armies of the two Germanies, important effectives from United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Belgium and Canada were equally deployed in West Germany in front of the borders of the Warsaw Pact. From there emerged the interest of quantifying and evaluating the forces employed by the Warsaw Pact and the OTAN, the warning systems, the communication networks, the defense plans, the accounts of estimated losses in the event of a conflict and the areas on which either side had superiority. The maintaining of the European balance had been one of the political constants in the old continent along the last centuries. In those years, the world was in different circumstances of balance, with two superpowers as never had existed in the History, clearly confronted by the intercontinental predominance, and with so powerful arsenals in numbers and destructive power that they could annihilate every trail of life upon the Earth. Europe, nevertheless, continued being the center of the balance. Despite the indisputable importance of other vital areas, such as China, India, the Persian Gulf, South and Middle America or Indochina, the politic, economic and military scene that extends from the Urals to the Atlantic, continued being the main focus of geostrategic interest. The policy of blocks that was being configured since the Second World War, crystallized in two formidable military alliances, the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the Warsaw Pact, which grouped, respectively, the western democracies and the Soviet Union and its satellite states, many of them forced allies. During the second half of the century the bipolarization allowed, nevertheless, the preservation of global peace in the planet, and even counting with the tens of local conflicts that have tainted our world, it was achieved to keep a situation without any direct armed confrontation between the two blocks. Many analysts even considered that the local conflicts acted as safety valves, when the tension threatened with surpassing the limit of the tolerable. However, the technological advances allowed in a short time other nations outside the Warsaw Pact and the OTAN to have access to the means to start a generalized conflict.

Warfare in the 20th century II

Strategic ballistic missiles fitted with nuclear warheads (ICBM) became the most feared threat during the Cold War and this situation remains today. One of the ways to deal with such threat was the creation of anti-ballistic missiles. The ABM-1B "Galosh" was the first ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) system operative in the world, being installed in the surroundings of Moscow. The illustration shows the system as it was presented to the world in the military parade at Moscow, towed by the MAZ-543 8 x 8 tractor, lying in the towing stored in a container which would be used as launcher after being placed in a silo.

Looking towards the future

One of the most interesting aspects of the military arsenals of the modern powers is precisely the weapons that still have not entered service, those that are in phase of experimentation or design. Many of the projects remain in the most rigurous secret and are a material jealously guarded by each country. But of some future weapon systems are known their characteristics or at least their existence, despite the zeal with which the great powers hide their technological advances from the eyes of their adversaries and even their allies. The persistence of factors that keep the international situation in a high degree of tension, cause a constant investigation in armament, creating a constant change in the arsenal of the powers. The use of the laser, the destruction of armored forces with weapons of curved trajectory and the perfectioning of missiles are barely an example of what the future can bring. Technical progress is of such vital importance that a significant discovery could substantially modify the balance in which the world has been kept during decades, being a serious temptation for the side that had obtained the hypothetical advantage. For example, the nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles (SSBN) became of very difficult localization in the oceans, constituting so a threat for the hypothetical agressor, who can expect from those submarines a contundent response to his attack. Thus, if one of the powers achieved a decisive advance in anti-submarine war (ASW) and were in position to locate and destroy the adversary SSBN, the capability of reprisal of the other side would be substantially reduced. Likewise could have happened with "stealth" technology, project started in United States during the last years of the Cold War to achieve the "invisible" aircraft. The intention was to create a prototype that would be undetectable by radars or other types of sensors, such as infrared or even sonic ones. It could have been a chance to, for example, reduce to futility the formidable effort made by the Soviet Union to deploy a powerful anti-aircraft barrier on its territory. But the advances happened as well in the field of detection systems, softening so the great impact that undetectable submarines and strategic bombers would otherwise have in the warfare of the 21th century.

The secret war

But in war, it is not all about deploying weapons in the battlefield. The labor carried by spies in the secret war has been fundamental in the effort to surpass the adversary. The information services, such as the American CIA, the Soviet KGB or the British MI5, are almost as important as the development of superior weapons systems than the ones used by the enemy, since such advances often require the information provided by information services. The technical advances of the last decades also technified spionage tasks extraordinarily. A satellite can be much more important than a hundred of agents. Albeit the direct obtaining of information remained a fundamental element, often it is the evaluation of large quantities of scattered information which results decisive in any case. The structure and organization charts of that secret war and its influence in all the military areas - land, air and sea - are necessary for the understanding of the military balance of the last decades.

Categories: Events - 20th Century - [General] - [General] - [General]

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-01-13


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