OnLine of Departure

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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




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Originally Published September 8, 1999

By Jim Werbaneth

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.


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.

Furthermore, the 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 Middle East and Africa particularly, what inhabitants happen to be there may be nomads, such as the Bedouin or the Tauregs. Thus mostly battle can be waged with little or no interaction with major civilian populations. When this does occur, such as when the Iraqis battled for Abadan and Khoramshahr in 1979, the fight moves from a desert surrounding to a decided urban one.

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 Basra and the Fao Peninsula, where marshes, streams and canals were among the primary military obstacles. Logically, any environment that includes so much water has to be classified differently than as standard desert.

Similarly, there are some theaters in which the levels of vegetation and human habitation exclude them from desert as well. The West Bank of the Jordan, and much of the land around the Suez Canal, might be hot and have fairly low precipitation, but they have more people, farms and trees.

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 Qattara Depression functioned as more of a barrier to the military-defined desert during the Battle of El Alamein than as desert itself. Likewise, the loose sands and dunes of the Sahara or the interior of the Arabian Peninsula make such poor surfaces for vehicles that mechanized warfare is entirely precluded. This might be mitigated by roads or railroads, but empty quarters lack as well much of communications infrastructure.


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 Libya, operations are dictated by the presence of just a single artery. In addition, there are often few if any lateral routes; in North Africa, the only ones branching from the coastal highway were tracks, not roads.

Railroads offer much less assistance too than they do in a heavily populated area, such as Western Europe, Russia or China. As with the roads, they too tend to run in one direction.

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 North Africa and the Sinai, it was the Mediterranean, and in Desert Storm the Persian Gulf. However, it is most infrequent for the other flank to be similarly secure. El Alamein is a distinct example of the exception, where the north flank was bounded by the Mediterranean, and the southern one anchored on the Qattara Depression.

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 Britain's way (Desert Storm had no such suspense), both times the side that better exhibited mobility won.

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 Egypt in 1940. It was not a primarily mechanized force, but one built around standard leg infantry. The composition of the army was the first fundamental Italian mistake. The second, arguably a necessary consequence of the first, was stopping the advance and digging in defensively near Sidi Barani. At that point, Italy gave up all semblance of the initiative and stood in place, waiting for the mobile and aggressive but smaller Western Desert Force to make a wreck of it.

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 Trento motorized divisions, operated together. As a result, he had a consistent advantage in combat power where it mattered most.

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 United States and Britain, combat skill. It was a unique confluence of power, facing what turned out to be a contemptibly weak opponent. Fighting on a logistical shoestring with a small army far distant from the main German effort in Russia, Rommel never could imagine a Desert Storm-caliber mismatch.


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.

Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika was superior to the British Western Desert Force and Eighth Army for most of the campaign in North Africa. Though Rommel did not always have undisputed authority over some of the Italian divisions in his command, there was no doubt who was in charge of the German contingent and the mechanized spearhead. Furthermore, in France in 1940 he established a pattern of leading from the front, where he was in the best position to see the decisive portion of the battle, first-hand, then intervene personally. This served him well offensively at the crossing of the Meuse at Dinant, and at Arras, where he directed the defense of his 7th Panzer Division against a dangerous but fragmented British counterattack.

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 opponents in Africa tended to break both rules. The command authority was not quite as clear-cut, as subordinates sometimes thought of orders as suggestions or a nice basis for discussion. In addition, at Gazala, the British command structure was so ambiguous that it was unclear just who was in charge.

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 Cairo, to whom Ritchie deferred excessively.

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, Iraq's war effort was directed by Saddam Hussein, a political thug without the talent or brains to be an effective war leader. Thus the country was already at a distinct disadvantage.

The handicap increased as Coalition bombing took out communications facilities, and progressively cut off the field armies from the command center in Baghdad. The term "decapitation" was part of the Coalition doctrine, and could have been coined expressly for what occurred in 1991.

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 El Alamein, Panzerarmee Afrika was thoroughly mislead by British deception efforts, which foreshadowed the Operation Fortitude preparations for Overlord, and Soviet maskirovka. This time the Axis's intelligence failures were fatal.

In 1973, Israel's vaunted intelligence let the country down, with results that came close to pure catastrophe. First, the Syrians and Egyptians achieved strategic surprise with the timing of their attack over the Yom Kippur high holy day. Second, they fielded military technology that was wholly unexpected, using high-pressure water hoses to pierce the berms on the Israeli side of the Suez Canal. Their technological advances further included Soviet Sagger anti-tank guided missiles and RPG-7 rocket launchers for close-range anti-tank defense.

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 Haifa. In the Sinai too the Egyptians could suffer defeat, but they never ran. The sort of bugout, hellbent for the rear panic that some Egyptian units exhibited in 1967 never happened six years later.

Ultimately, Israel was able to stave off the defeat and go on the offensive, advancing to within artillery range of Damascus, and crossing to the African side of the Suez Canal. The Israelis could claim victory in the end (as the Arabs also did, with a little credibility), but it was too much of a near-run thing.

The underlying reasons were in the realm of intelligence. The Arabs attacked without warning, and with greatly improved skill, determination and armaments. That Israel failed to anticipate any of it amounts to its worst moment in military intelligence.

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, Iraq had absolutely no chance of competing with the Coalition in the sky, and thus was denied the possibility of mounting an effective aerial reconnaissance effort. On the other side of the hill, the Coalition had the most extensive and sophisticated aerial reconnaissance in military history, including the first use of the extraordinary J-STARS surveillance aircraft.

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 North Africa, British tankers charged after fleeing panzers, only to be lured into the muzzles of anti-tank guns positioned on reverse slopes. This is the kind of initiative that an army can do without.

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.