WARGAMING'S PROBLEMATIC ERA
history, the turning point or passage of an era is often missed by those
who live close to it. When the last Western Roman emperor meekly passed,
it is doubtful that anyone proclaimed the start of the Dark Ages.
Similarly, one wonders how many people who witnessed Henry Ford's first
handmade car puttering down a
So it is with military history and wargaming, and how they perceive the modern era of warfare. In the beginning there was a clear perception that it encompassed all conflict that began after 1945. But on further review, taking advantage of hindsight over decades, the dividing line is far less sharp.
The long-held convention among wargamers is that modern gaming is everything after the Second World War. All one has to do is look at the categories for the Charles S. Roberts Awards and the old games rating charts in Strategy & Tactics in the SPI era, and see that every war from 1946 onward has been grouped together. In computer games, Steel Panthers II and Steel Panthers III (both SSI) both define modern as 1950 to 1999.
One apparent reason is that modern wargames were born in the early 1970's, with SPI's publication of Red Star/White Star, a tactical title that has the further distinction of being the first simulation of a hypothetical conflict, World War III. Modern gaming moved further to an operational-level treatment of a real with Sinai, again by SPI. This game was so contemporary that it was actually designed during the Yom Kippur War, using ongoing news reports as history.
When these games saw print, World War II was not a fading memory fought by declining numbers of now-aged warriors. It was less than thirty years in the past, and some of its veterans remained in active military service, while most of the rest were still of working and not retirement age. By contrast, today the Second World War is over five decades in the past. More than simply time, this is an expression of massive technological, tactical, political and societal change, even revolution.
Furthermore, the wars regarded as recent during the birth of modern wargaming are themselves receding into history. More time separates us from the 1967 Arab-Israeli War than separated the first Sinai players from World War II.
passage of time makes it clear that military history and its simulations
cannot treat all situations following the surrender of
A BLURRED DISTINCTION
Second World War embraced the greatest total advance in military
technology in history. In the beginning, riflemen of every nation
marched into battle carrying a weapon that might as well have been used
in the Boer War. At the end submachineguns were abundant, and the
Germans used the first assault rifle. Armor saw an even more accelerated
development. A 37mm or 40mm tank (or anti-tank) gun was considered
sufficiently powerful when
beginning the battleship was the measure of a navy's power. In the end
the aircraft carrier had far superceded it. Most strikingly, on
Understandably, this awesome development of military technology largely ended with the war, as economies retooled and societies turned their thoughts toward peace and recovery. However, momentum continued to carry it in key areas, especially aircraft and rocket design. Captured German research, and captured German scientists, sustained its growth through the 1950's and beyond. Some of the results were easy to see fairly soon after the war, such as swept-wing jets such as the North American F-86 Sabre and MiG-15. Others took longer to yielded even more impressive but bitter fruit, in the form of the intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBM's] that held Damocles' atomic sword over civilization.
Korean War is a marked example of a mixed conflict, in which there was
both seminal technology and a great many holdovers from the previous
war. Again, air combat stands out for its modernity. The
Below, the groundpounder of 1953 was armed and supported nearly identically as he had been in World War II. In some cases not as well, due to ammunition shortages that would have been unheard of in that conflict's United States Army. The American and South Korean infantryman was armed with the same semiautomatic M1 Garand rifle as previous. The other major combatants continued to use the antique bolt action rifles that used essentially nineteenth-century design. Likewise, field artillery saw no major advances between 1945 and 1953. Armor did advance a generation, to the American M46 Patton and early model British Centurion tanks, but in the beginning the chief medium tanks were the trusty but long- outdated M4 Sherman, and the Pershing for the Americans, and T-34 for the North Koreans.
The Arab-Israeli Wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 show real advances in military technology, though still with World War II remnants right to the very end. Here too the most modern weapons were aircraft. In the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, the air forces exclusively employed Second World War models, or variants thereof. Then modern jets made their way to the region for the later conflicts.
warfare followed a similar continuum. The Israelis especially started
off less than auspiciously, with an assortment of locally-contrived
amored vehicles and a few smuggled European castoffs. In 1956 too they
still relied on the French AMX-13 light tank, an immediately post-World
War II vehicle, and the redoubtable
third and fourth wars, the tanks were much more advanced, and those of
the Arabs were the best that their Soviet allies could provide. The
Israelis too had better tanks, though theirs seldom represented the
leading edge of the West. The Centurion, this time in a later model and
substantially improved and upgunned in
once again, the weapons of World War II refused to yield the field. The
T-34 remained in Arab service. On the Israeli side the
Arabs were far more advanced in this regard. Whereas Israeli infantry
and paratroopers rode to battle in halftracks that might have fought in
more than over
Actually, much of this modernity was counterproductive. North Vietnamese fighter opposition was erratic and, despite American-North Vietnamese kill ratios that concerned American commanders, more of a nuisance than a serious obstacle. Thus supersonic speed was of little use for air superiority purposes. When engaging ground targets on the tactical level, the high speed of the new generation of jets cut down loiter time and therefore accuracy.
World War II and established in
The technology of ground weaponry also reached new levels. Infantrymen now carried assault rifles or at least semi-automatic weapons as a rule, and for the first time both sides moved beyond turn of the century arms. At the same time, the machinegun took its central place as a squad weapon, emulating a practice basically unique to the Wehrmacht in World War II. Third, squads increasingly had shaped charge weapons, such as the Chinese B-40 rocket launcher used by the Communists and the American LAW rocket. Once more the Germans had pioneered the deployment of large numbers of panzerfaust rockets in World War II, but it took a later era for others to follow their example.
as in terms of weaponry, new approaches to tactics and operations
SEEING AND HEARING
Progress in war is not measured just in terms of lethality, accuracy, and mobility. Intelligence and command and control, the concerns of seeing and being heard and understood, are at least equally important.
In World War II, the most important sensor was the Mark I eyeball. Guns were sighted with it, artillery shots corrected, and reconnaissance photos taken and interpreted. However, just as the war combined biplanes and jets, so it also introduced electronics and electronic intelligence as major factors. For the first time, radio was a primary means of communication. On the down side, it also made those who relied on it, and were complacent about it, more vulnerable; the Allied success at penetrating German communications through Ultra is the most telling example.
Along with the technology of communication, World War II ushered in a new era in its organization and dissemination. The system of "Chain Home" and "Chain Low" radar stations and sector station command centers developed by the Royal Air Force in the 1930's comprised an integrated command and control system that gave the RAF the means to win the Battle of Britain. Advanced Hurricane and Spitfire interceptors, a quantum leap over the biplane Gladiators they replaced, were necessary too, but not sufficient in themselves.
Radar cannot be overestimated as a decisive innovation of the Second World War. For the first ten thousand years of war, a combatant could only fight what he could see with his eyes. Bad weather, smoke, and the dark of night made it difficult or impossible to fight. Radar freed armies, navies and air forces from the tyranny of their own eyes, and made it possible to fight what could not be seen by means other than electronic.
Similarly, sonar penetrated the oceans to give surface ships a real chance against submarines, themselves established as major weapons systems in the First World War. Between the two of them, radar and sonar deprived enemies of the ability to hide, shining an electronic or sonic lamp in the darkness.
The postwar years were ones of rapid and dramatic increases in sensors and communications. Electronics improved geometrically, and the introduction of computers greatly enhanced command and control and cryptology. Radar and sonar got better as well, themselves helped by computers to better identify targets and filter out extraneous noise.
systems also became extremely critical. The Sound Surveillance System [SOSUS]
system, listening devices planted on the floor of the
On land, night vision devices gave soldiers and tanks an ability to see in the dark that was inconceivable in World War II. Systems equipped with thermal imaging sights and active measures, namely rangefinding lasers, the two coordinated by computers, gave American and British armor a decisive advantage in Desert Storm.
Corresponding advances in communications enabled operations and tactics to be controlled from thousands of miles away. Of course this could also lead politicians and senior military leaders to interfere in matters best left to subordinates on the scene, as the ability to do something does not necessarily come with the wisdom and self-restraint to do it well.
The synthesis of ever-improving sensors, computers, and communications builds on the example of RAF Fighter Command. The American Airborne Warning and Control System [AWACS] is akin to a sector station, made airborne and mobile and magnified several magnitudes. Like its predecessor of 1940, it is a force multiplier without a lethality of its own.
Another example of modern technological synthesis is in precision guided munitions, combining advanced sensors with electronic guidance systems. These too have a Second World War genesis, in the German Fritz X and other guided weapons. However, they did not really come into their own until American "smart bombs" were introduced in the last years of the Vietnam War, reaffirmed by their success in Operation Desert Storm.
PGM's are more than precise. They further foster an ability to attack from increasing distances, allowing attackers to put the enemy in harm's way while staying out of it themselves.
Then there is stealth technology. Just as radar and other new sensors pierced the darkness, stealth technology put aircraft right back into it. This is an essentially passive technology, devised in the seventies, developed in the eighties, and proven in anger in the nineties.
There is a parallel between the growth of post-World War II electronics and radio communications during the war. Just as German reliance on signals made their traffic vulnerable to Allied codebreaking, so active electronic sensors make their employers vulnerable to active countermeasures. Radar and infrared sensors can be negated by electronic countermeasures, as well as by passive means, such as stealth and World War II holdovers, chaff and flares.
Their active nature further opens them to destruction. A family of radar-seeking missiles, most notably the American HARM [High-Speed Antiradiation Missile] zero in on antennae. Therefore the owner has a choice; emit signals and risk a lethal enemy counter, or turn the electronics off, and go back to the days of the Mark I Eyeball.
THE NAVAL DIMENSION
Naval warfare underwent as profound an evolution as that on ground and in the air. World War II saw the eclipse of the battleship as the foundation of naval power by the aircraft carrier. Naval aviation was more flexible than gunfire and, more important, capable of both sighting and striking targets from hundreds of miles instead of a couple dozen. In addition, submarines lived up to the potential they had shown in World War I as sea denial weapons and means of destroying maritime economies.
The further development of the submarine was the first element that separates modern naval warfare from that in the World Wars. Those submarines were more accurately submersibles, vessels that performed best on the surface, and stayed there as a matter of course. They could submerge, but their home was not underwater.
In the postwar years, more refined hull design led to improved underwater performance. More crucially, nuclear power came to supplant, in most cases, the old diesel-electric propulsion. In consequence, submersibles became real submarines, with the ability to perform better underwater than above, and to stay under for weeks or even months at a time. Whereas the older boats spent the majority of their time at sea on the surface, postwar atomic submarines progressed to the point that they spent relatively little time there. Once that was established, the main thread of submarine development has been in making boats quieter, in order to hide from likewise increasingly sophisticated sonar.
Though not proven in large-scale war, the nuclear submarine has evolved the ability to challenge the aircraft carrier and land-based naval aviation for dominance of the seas.
Naval airpower has continued to develop in new directions itself, starting with jet propulsion. In addition, the aerial torpedo fell from view after World War II, replaced over time by the missile and PGM. As over land, this made the naval attack plane both more lethal and capable of attacking from a safer distance. Furthermore, the same electronic command and control assets that multiplied airpower over land did the same at sea.
addition, by the early seventies the gun died as a primary naval weapon,
going the way of the battleship that had been the epitome of platforms.
As with the aerial torpedo, it was doomed by the missile. Later both
would undergo a short renaissance with the reactivation of the New
Jersey-class battleships, but even that was rationalized in part to
provide the US Navy with a platform for cruise missiles. Then when they
went into combat in the
The missile came not just to replace the gun, but the anti-ship torpedo as well. Torpedoes became acoustically-targeted PGM's, directed now against submarines, or by them. In this task they, in turn, displaced the depth charge. Furthermore, anti-submarine aircraft, and helicopters, were endowed with increasingly sophisticated sonar and magnetic anomaly detection [MAD] sensors. Thus airplanes and helicopters became at least as important as World War II destroyers and escorts for hunting submarines, with the added advantage of not being torpedoed themselves.
Time and technology gave the submarine one more new enemy: Submarines. In World War II, very few were sunk by enemy boats, to the point that if that happened, it could be regarded as a fluke. But since then, submarines' increasing ability to hide through masking their sounds, better sensors, and more precisely-guided torpedoes, have made them potent adversaries for less capable, or less capably crewed, boats.
Warfare is a constantly-evolving enterprise. It is becoming more so with the passage of time. For example, the British infantry who fought in the Crimean War carried a Brown Bess musket identical to the one used against Napoleon, in the American Revolution, and all the way over a hundred and fifty years, the musket carried by the troops under the Duke of Marlborough. Cannon too remained fairly constant. True, horse artillery appeared in the Seven Years War, and mobility across the board increased. However, this was due more to more refined carriages and growing professionalism in the artillery arm.
evolution continued to occur, if not in military technology, then in
other areas. Tactics and formations changed. Dense formations became
looser, and light infantry made continuing inroads on the standard line,
in which troops were arranged shoulder to shoulder, in rigid ranks. By
the time of the Civil War, what Napoleonic officers would have termed a
skirmish line was now the battleline. Then too,
From then onward military technology progressed at a stupendous rate. Besides the rifled musket, the Civil War saw a vast increase in command and control through the telegraph, and the railroad made its first decisive appearance. Immediately afterward, the first bolt action rifles and machineguns saw meaningful service, in turn followed by breech-loading artillery and steel warship. Then in World War I came the submarine, airplane, armored fighting vehicle and radio.
Advances in military technology and methodology always come quicker in
wartime than during peace. Yet in the decades after the "War to End All
Wars," there were still important advances. These included the first
radar, all-metal monoplane and aircraft carrier. So too did tactics and
doctrine progress; Fighter Command's system for the defense of the
the headiest technological progress of military history in World War II,
matters slowed but hardly stopped. The years from 1945 to the early
eighties were ones of great improvement in some areas, particularly
airpower, naval design, tanks and electronics. To the foot soldier on
the ground, the Korean War could have been a replay of World War II. But
to the men fighting in
Currently, the military world appears to be in a state of slower
Tank design has remain fairly stable since the late seventies as well, when the M1 Abrams and German Leopard 2. There have been improvements in fire control and armor, and in the American vehicle the original 105mm gun has been replaced with the Leopard's 110mm weapon. Yet compare this with the rapid upgrade of the German Pzkw III in World War II. In that tank, a 37mm gun gave way to a short 50mm, and then long 50mm main armament, with corresponding improvements in protection, in a scant three years.
Today, military technology appears to be on the verge of another period of rapid advance. The integration of second-generation stealth with higher-performance airframes, as in the case of the F-22 Lightning II, promise dramatic leaps in aerial capabilities. Additionally, smart weapons are about to give way to brilliant ones, incorporating newer microprocessors and advances in artificial intelligence. However, one caveat has to be kept in mind: Decision-makers need the determination to invest money and resources into these new systems. Without the willpower and resources, military technology will instead enter into a new period of even greater relative stagnation.
For the wargamer or military analyst, the dynamics of technology and doctrine deeply undercuts the categorization of all post-Second World War conflict as "modern" war. The so-called modern period is one of great fluxes in terms of weapons, sensors, command and control systems, and methods. Sometimes change comes slower, sometimes it is accelerated, especially during times of national or organizational stress. But change comes nonetheless, and is both constant and unavoidable. Occasionally warfare appears to devolve backwards, as in when the Iran-Iraq War took on some of the worst characteristics of World War I. Nonetheless, for the most part war, mankind's science of destruction, advances.
As World War II recedes deeper into history, the gulf between the war-fighting technologies and methods of our time and then increases. In that gulf, one can see a wide variety of conflicts, their weapons, and their strategies and tactics. One quickly sees the futility of categorizing it all under the single inadequate rubric of the word "modern." To begin with, much of it is not really modern at all, by current standards. Then too, what we consider current today may not be modern in ten years.