OnLine of Departure

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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



Originally Published July 26, 1999

By Jim Werbaneth

In 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 Michigan road had any idea that automobiles would be mass-produced, and then would alter American society as no other invention.

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.

The passage of time makes it clear that military history and its simulations cannot treat all situations following the surrender of Japan as one all-encompassing period. In addition, the "modern" era did not begin with this as an unequivocal birthday. Rather, the warfare of World War II morphed into a form that we might recognize as modern, and then continued to change and develop.


The 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 Germany invaded Poland. By 1945 the Soviet Union fielded tanks with guns at 85mm or larger, the German panzerwaffe relied on a very high-velocity 75mm weapon in its Panther, and the first American 90mm-armed tank, the M26 Pershing, was just entering combat.

In the beginning the battleship was the measure of a navy's power. In the end the aircraft carrier had far superceded it. Most strikingly, on 1 September 1939 every major power except the United States and Japan had biplanes in front-line service. By the end of the European war, Britain and Germany both had jet fighters in combat. This was a sky in which the first successful cruise missile-----the V1-----also flew, and the first ballistic missile-----the V2-----saw action.

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.

The 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 United States used piston-engined aircraft to great effect for ground support, but jets were, from first to last, the arbiters of air superiority. In addition helicopters, which had a nearly negligible role in World War II, saw their first really important service over Korea, though not as combatants yet.

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.

Armored 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 Sherman.

In the 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 Israel, was the Jewish state's armored mainstay. In supporting roles were the American M48 and M60 Pattons, successors to the tanks introduced in the Korean War.

But 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 Sherman fought yet more wars, upgraded to the point that it could make a credible showing. Further, just as the Sherman and the Centurion could fight side by side, Israel used both the old M3 halftrack and the newer, fully-enclosed M113 armored personnel carrier (nicknamed "Zelda" by the Israelis).

The Arabs were far more advanced in this regard. Whereas Israeli infantry and paratroopers rode to battle in halftracks that might have fought in the Battle of the Bulge, in 1973 some Arab infantry were transported by the BMP armored fighting vehicle, a well-armed, fully enclosed and tracked transport that revolutionized its niche on the battlefield.

Vietnam represents a truly determined attempt by American warmakers to modernize beyond the World War II paradigm. Obviously, a counterinsurgency in the jungles, hills, swamps and hamlets of Southeast Asia presents a massively different environment than that of Northwest Europe, where the mechanized US Army reached adulthood. Some might argue that it really required a nonmechanized approach to conflict, combining light infantry, special forces and political and psychological warfare. In fact, from the American perspective it was a very mechanized war, though not in a form that George Patton might have recognized.

Even more than over Korea, the sky was dominated by the United States, with air superiority attained by jets. Again too, ground strikes and tactical support was carried out by jets, and for the first time so was strategic bombing. Additionally, this was the first war in which many of those jets had the capability of supersonic flight.

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.

Born in World War II and established in Korea, in Vietnam the helicopter became the definitive weapon. Gunships and aerial rocket artillery took over part of the close support duties performed by fixed wing fighter bombers and dive bombers in earlier wars. Transport helos also gave embarked infantry and artillery unprecedented mobility. Ultimately, the assumption of a central role by the helicopter in Vietnam proved as pivotal to military history as a whole as the introduction of the tank in 1916.

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 much as in terms of weaponry, new approaches to tactics and operations separated Vietnam from earlier wars. Airmobility was a key element from the earliest deployment of US Army ground troops to the country in 1965. This was a doctrine formulated for the nuclear battlefields of European but suited just as well to counterinsurgency in Indochina. For the most part, Vietnamese terrain and inadequate road net were not conducive to sweeping mechanized maneuver. However, helicopter transports hurtling over the trees could restore mobility to the foot soldier. It was mechanized warfare, literally raised to a new level.


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.

Passive systems also became extremely critical. The Sound Surveillance System [SOSUS] system, listening devices planted on the floor of the North Atlantic by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, gave NATO the ability to listen for passing Soviet submarines. In the air, the old technology of aerial photoreconnaissance grew to the point that it became a crucial arm of national strategy, followed by the spy satellite.

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.


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.

In 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 Persian Gulf, the sixteen-inch main batteries bombarded shore targets, not warships.

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.

Yet 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, Union and Confederate infantrymen benefited from the first real advance in the technology of their branch in a century in a half, with the introduction of the percussion fired, rifled musket.

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 United Kingdom was largely in place by the outbreak of World War II. Likewise, the German blitzkrieg was founded on earlier theories, and even before the Spanish Civil War gave the Stuka its baptism in combat, the US Marine Corps was pioneering close air support and divebombing in Central America.

After 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 Vietnam, the technological, doctrinal, and psychological distance from World War II was massive, even disorienting. Then by Desert Storm, state of the art armies such as the American and British could exploit levels of lethality, information and organization beyond the imaginations of their fathers and grandfathers.

Currently, the military world appears to be in a state of slower development. The United States, for example, relies on F-14, F-15 and F-16 fighters, the design of which dates back nearly thirty years. By the standards of World War II aircraft design, thirty years encompassed many generations, starting the Rumpler Taube and ending with the Me 262. Aircraft do improve, especially in terms of avionics and engine power, but except for the introduction of stealth, the basic designs since the seventies are startlingly static.

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.