WAR TO THE EXTREME
DECISIVE ELEMENTS OF DESERT WARFARE
Twentieth-century desert warfare is not simply mechanized combat moved to a flat, dry environment. As shown by military history since 1940, the desert is a most unforgiving place for an army or its commander, where the open sheltering sky exposes all shortcomings and mistakes for the exploitation by the prepared and the bold.
Defeat in the desert comes easily. Victory is much more demanding, requiring an understanding of the environment, a commitment to the essential principles of war, and an ability and willingness to keep and maintain the initiative. Actors win in the desert, those who let the battle come to them do not.
THE DEFINITION OF THE DESERT
There is an underlying and obvious question of desert warfare: What constitutes a desert?
First and foremost, a desert is a dry and arid environment. It lacks consistent and abundant rainfall, though storms and flashfloods significant dangers, and groundwater that is widely and easily accessible. Because of these traits, it is generally lacking in substantial vegetation except perhaps around oases and watering holes. There might be plants in the desert, but except for the initiated they are not a resource, nor do they have much effect on sight lines.
definitive desert is equally lacking in people. This is not a pleasant place
to spend one's days. Therefore there are few settlements, mainly villages or
small towns with the odd city near a water source or the sea. In the
The desert is also a plain for the most part. It has open vistas and offers the opportunity to use flat-trajectory weapons to near their maximum range. Where there are rises in the terrain, they can take on an importance beyond their nominal height, because they still happen to be higher than everything else around them.
There are some environments that superficially resemble desert, but need to be considered separately. Dry, bare and hot mountains can rise from a desert plain. Despite having what may be an even more hostile climate, they call for a different set of tactical and strategic considerations. For example, the mountains of Yemen and Dhofar province in Oman, both sites of British actions against Arab rebels in the sixties and seventies, demand light infantry and airmobility rather than the mechanization more typical of desert armies.
On the opposite end of
the spectrum, in some areas deserts can border on wetlands, and fighting
there is usually not akin to that on the dry, hard plain. The best example is
the front in the Iran-Iraq War around
Similarly, there are some
theaters in which the levels of vegetation and human habitation exclude them
from desert as well. The
Finally, any examination
of military force in the desert has to exclude some areas that would, by any
other criteria, certainly qualify. These are the places where the environment
is simply too harsh for protracted military action. Salt marsh, though wet,
is nearly devoid of recognizable life, and it is nearly impossible for
vehicles and soldiers to operate amidst its treacherous footing and hidden
quicksands. Thus the
Anywhere, logistics are the fundamental underpinning of military operations. In the desert, if anything they take on even greater importance.
The customary supply triangle of food, fuel and ammunition-----"beans, bullets and benzine"-----takes on a fourth component, water. It is the most important ingredient to life, and its lack in part defines the desert. An army without a reliable source of adequate, potable water will be rendered unable to function in a very short time. Equally damaging, morale will decline before the men start to die of thirst, making it extremely vulnerable to offensive action. Therefore it is imperative that the army have both sufficient supplies of water and the means of getting it to the soldiers.
Like water, everything
needed to maintain military efficiency must be procured somewhere else and
delivered to the troops in the field. The desert aggravates this task due to
its lack of manmade infrastructure. For the most part, roads are few and far
between and, as with the Via Balbia in World War II
Railroads offer much less
assistance too than they do in a heavily populated area, such as
The need to operate along the axis of one or at best a few routes makes an army highly vulnerable to interdiction. An enemy who knows how to look at a map can determine where the supplies will be traveling and direct his airpower accordingly. And in the desert, there are few places to hide. Special forces and guerrillas too can operate along the lines of communication with great efficiency, as shown by T.E. Lawrence's Arabs against the Hejaz Railway.
Air transport can help. But it requires command of the air, and secure airfields on both ends of the air route. Fields in the desert can be exceedingly insecure from special operations attacks, demonstrated by the toll taken on Axis planes by the British Long-Range Desert Group [LRDG] and Special Air Service [SAS] in World War II. Only when a side has been air superiority and the means of rendering his bases secure can he rely on this method. Even so, it will be less efficient than ground transport, and with a lower carrying capacity.
Moving large amounts of supplies down a long and constricted desert axis, even without the problem of interdiction, is as demanding as it sounds. It becomes still more difficult when it has to be done consistently to maintain high-intensity operations.
As a result, it is generally necessary to stockpile supplies ahead of time just behind the combat units. This can dictate the pace of action, as supplies are expended and then restocked, or need to be moved forward on precious motor transport. Additionally, enemy reconnaissance might predict one's one actions by discerning the location and quantities of stockpiles.
Success in the desert depends largely too on mobility. The more mobile side has the distinct edge of the initiative, the ability to dictate the pace and place of combat. Because of the open terrain of the desert, there might be a few cities, mountains or natural defiles where relatively immobile forces can be counted on to repulse assaults by speedier units; the epic German defense of Halfaya Pass in 1941 is one good example. However, with such chokepoints fairly rare, the advantage otherwise always rests with the side with the greater mobility.
There is one recurring
feature of desert warfare that plays right to the best features of mobility:
The dangling flank, allowing one side rather easy access to the enemy rear.
Often, one flank of a desert army is anchored on the sea. In
Gazala and Desert Storm
are far more typical. In both cases, the defending army had one flank secured
on the sea, with the other one extended straight into the desert. In each too
the attacking side, the Axis in 1942 and the American-led Coalition in 1991,
took the initiative by turning the flank and getting around the fixed
defensive line. Despite some critical moments in which the Battle of Gazala
could have gone
Fielding an army that cannot maintain the pace of its opponents is a sure recipe for disaster. In Desert Storm, the Iraqis were deprived of much of their ability to move by overwhelming amounts of Coalition airpower, then compounded their own problems by digging in many of their armored units. Normally, tanks rely on mobility as much as firepower to wage war, and so conceding that attribute is doubly in error.
An earlier example is the
Italian army that marched into
The essential army for the desert is a mechanized one. Units need the mobility of motorized transport, and the ideal force is one that has faster transport than its opponent does.
For all the merits of mechanization, airmobility is somewhat more problematic. With the open sight lines and long visibility in the desert, air defenses have a wider ability to acquire targets than those in broken, forested terrain, and a greater chance to fire up to the limits of their range.
Therefore a commander wishing to employ airmobile troops in the desert has two choices. One is to operate away from enemy units and hot landing zones, tapping operational rather than tactical mobility. The other is to completely suppress enemy air defenses in the area of operation.
One of the hallmarks of
Rommel's way of war was adherence to the principle of concentration for his
armored spearheads. As a rule, both of his panzer divisions, along with the
Italian Ariete armored and
By contrast, for too long the British resorted to smaller, combined arms "jock columns." On their face, they were a good idea. Acting like light cavalry, mobile units could operate throughout the front and behind the enemy, using boldness and initiative. In the beginning, against weaker, less mobile Italian opposition, the concept of the jock column gained validity.
Against Germans led by one of the greatest generals of his time, matters were far different. As the British diffused their strength, Rommel concentrated his. Against first-class mechanized forces led with aplomb by the Desert Fox, the Western Desert Force's approach to desert warfare collapsed from his first offensive.
Later battles had the British operating in larger, brigade-sized forces. But still, the basic unit of maneuver was smaller than that of concentrated Afrika Korps, and thus the disadvantage remained. In consequence Rommel kept on winning battles through Gazala in May and June 1942.
Sometimes the sort of tight, multi-divisional concentration epitomized by Panzerarmee Afrika is not strictly necessary. In these cases, the attacking side is so superior in skill, firepower or mobility (or better yet all three) that smaller forces can rout larger ones with relative ease. Then emulation of Rommel's technique is wasteful, localizing overkill and denying broader opportunities.
Desert Storm is an excellent example. The Coalition forces operated in corps-level forces that were coordinated more than concentrated. The tactical and operational superiority of the United States and its allies was so pronounced that small groups, such as the armored cavalry that fought at 73 Easting, could demolish much larger Iraqi forces with surprising consistency and low cost in men and machines.
However, Desert Storm is
an anomaly of history. Very few forces from the time of Kadesh to today have
enjoyed such overwhelming advantages in equipment, airpower, artillery and
rocket fire support and, especially in the case of the
It is imperative that a desert army operates with effective command. It has to have unity of command, and not be a multi-headed monster. Furthermore, the commanders must be able to see battlefield conditions and adapt to them as they change. Failure to abide to these principles is usually hazardous on any battlefield, but takes on a special danger in the desert.
Afrika was superior to the British Western Desert Force and Eighth Army for
most of the campaign in
In addition, he insisted that his subordinates lead in the same manner. There would be no World War I-type chateau generals under his command. As a result Rommel lost a lot of officers, but won a lot of battles too.
By contrast, his British
The worst example was
Gazala. Neil Ritchie was officially the commander of the Eighth Army. But
much of the real authority was exercised by Sir Claude Auchinleck, back in
At all times, the commander needs to be able to see to it that his decisions are transformed into action. Leading from the front a general has the opportunity to intervene directly and bypass the chain of command and formal communications system for quick, unequivocal action. Historically, there have been major problems inherent in such an approach; the feud between Thomas J. Jackson and A.P. Hill in the Civil War was founded on Stonewall's assumption of Hill's prerogatives during combat. However, if the command system provides for such intervention from the beginning, the army can avoid the worst of these disputes.
Coordinating units' actions is even more important than adhering to the principle of concentration. If several units are ordered to attack the same enemy force, then they should do it together, or in a mutually-supporting manner. At Gazala, Rommel's units were able to do this for the most part, though intelligence errors, miscalculations and general friction led the Afrika Korps into peril in the Cauldron. Coordinating the operations of the pocketed spearhead with forces on the other side of the British minefields, and the passage of supplies into the Cauldron, personally orchestrated by Rommel, saved his army.
By contrast, the British army proved incapable of mounting the concentric, coordinated counterattacks necessary to wipe out the enemies trapped in the Cauldron. British armor did attack, sometimes with great vigor, throughout the battle, but piecemeal and not in concert.
Furthermore, the means of
communications must be maintained, as even such an energetic commander cannot
be at all points of decision at once. In Desert Storm the Iraqi side
definitely did not have a desert superstar leader, let along an Arab Erwin
Rommel or Israel Tal. Instead,
The handicap increased as
Coalition bombing took out communications facilities, and progressively cut
off the field armies from the command center in
Blitzkrieg-type warfare, of which mechanized desert operations are a part, is founded not just on armor and aircraft, per the popular image. Effective, rapid communications are also a critical component.
The desert is a wide-open place, with relatively few places to hide. Yet attention to intelligence, and its limitations, is as important there as it is any place else. Information is still a prime operational requirement, and it remains easy to make mistakes based on a lack of reliable intelligence.
This problem extends to
the very best of desert armies. Rommel's errors prior to Gazala nearly led to
disaster, with the issue saved by his genius and energy, and the errors of
his opponents. But at
Together they were a huge shock to Israelis as they made their initial counterattacks in the Sinai. Flushed with overconfidence from the poor Arab performance in 1967, they struck back with largely pure armor forces, forgetting the lessons of combined arms warfare. Without accompanying infantry and supporting artillery to take on the Egyptian infantry, Israeli tank formations were decimated.
There was another,
equally disturbing surprise on both the Sinai and Golan fronts. The Arabs now
knew how to fight. They used their new weapons to great effect. Further, they
showed a new and frightening determination. Syrian tankers threw themselves
at Israeli defenses, suffering heavy losses but inflicting them as well, and
nearly opening the road to
The underlying reasons
were in the realm of intelligence. The Arabs attacked without warning, and
with greatly improved skill, determination and armaments. That
Strategic intelligence has been proven a truly decisive factor. In World War II, Ultra intercepts enabled the Allies to interdict Axis supplies before they got near the desert, by sinking convoys at sea. Signals intelligence all varieties is also useful for ascertaining the enemy order of battle and deployment, and divining his intentions. However, there is the caveat that signals also constitute an avenue for enemy disinformation.
Aerial reconnaissance is the key means of gaining more detailed tactical intelligence, and therefore the side with command of the air has a key advantage. It can fly reconnaissance flights at will, while denying this to the enemy, in effect putting his eyes out. That side can try to use groundbound means, but with enemy aircraft ranging at will over the open desert, their survival is problematic.
Desert Storm showed how
air superiority equates to intelligence superiority. In 1991,
In consequence, the American VII and XVIII Corps were able to make a wide and powerful run around the Iraqi right flank, without noteworthy unpleasant surprises. By contrast, in 1942 Rommel made his move around the Gazala line without clear air superiority, and with inferiority in armored cars. In consequence, he was surprised by the extent of the enemy defenses, and by the presence of the Free French fortification at Bir Hacheim.
The ultimate aerial reconnaissance platform, satellites, played a major role in Desert Storm as well. The future of warfare promises that spy satellites will play an ever-increasing role. This will serve to increase the probability that the wealthiest and most technologically advanced military powers will dominate the battlefield, and reign over the desert.
The pace of warfare in the desert is fast. There are lulls and periods of quiet, as there were between World War II battles and prior to the launch of Operation Desert Storm. But these are due to the need to accumulate supplies, equipment and men. Once the fighting begins, it tends to be rapid in pace, violent and extraordinarily destructive.
It rewards those who combine the seemingly incompatible attributes of deliberation in preparation, and boldness in action. Staffwork is critical to preparing for a desert battle, as officers need to amass supplies, assign transport, and acquire and analyze intelligence on enemy means, positions and intentions. In addition, leaders and staffs must see to the acclimatization of the troops and equipment. A unit fresh from the arctic or a temperate locale will not function well until it becomes used to the unique heat and sun of the desert.
It is also vitally important that plans be worked out in advance. An attacking army cannot be content with orders to "head south, make a left and improvise the rest," and defenders cannot count on simply throwing back frontal assaults. Both must have a set of realistic options, prepared ahead of time and ready to implement.
At the same time,
mechanized warfare in the desert calls for improvisation. Rommel's initiative
in relieving the Cauldron, soon after he considered surrendering, is a case
in point. But recklessness is fatal. Time and time again in
Decisions can come quickly in a desert environment. Sometimes the issue is never in doubt, as in the "Hundred Hour" ground war of Desert Storm. Other times there is a period of stasis in which it appears that nothing will happen in a hurry. At Gazala, this occurred from the time that the Afrika Korps and Ariete entered the Cauldron, and when Rommel broke out. In the Sinai in 1973, the Egyptians dug in to their east bank bridgehead to await the Israeli counterattack. At the same time, the Israelis prepared their forces and plans for Operation Strong Heart.
In these instances, the stasis amounts to a relative lull before a decision that comes rapidly. Once Rommel reestablished his logistical lines and mobility, he took Tobruk and nearly destroyed the Eighth Army in a matter of three weeks.
Ultimately, the desert is a place of decisive results, rapidly concluded upon the commencement of battle. Whether it ends in victory or defeat depends on how well an army and its commander understand the conditions of the desert, and adapt to them.