The Power of Mobile Fire

7 August 2009

Friday


Mobile fire in one of its earliest forms: The archers of Rameses III at Medinet Habû.

Mobile fire in one of its earliest forms: The archers of Rameses III at Medinet Habû.

The power of mobile fire is one of the constants of military history from the earliest times to the present day. There is a lesson to be learned here.

Military historians distinguish between shock weapons and missile weapons. A shock weapon physically connects with its target while still being manipulated by its user. A knife, a sword, a mace, a pike, and a lance are shock weapons: you continue to hold them and maintain control of them throughout the attack. A missile weapon is released by its user and flies to its target. A slingshot, an arrow, a thrown spear, shuriken, guns, rockets, and ICBMs are all missile weapons. When missile weapons are deployed from a highly mobile platform they have repeatedly, throughout human history, proved to be a devastatingly effective weapon.

Medieval combat with shock weapons

Medieval combat with shock weapons

The same region from which western civilization ultimately springs saw simultaneously with the emergence of civilization in West Asia the emergence of one of the most effective weapons systems of antiquity: the chariot archer. We usually think of the scenes from Ben Hur when we think of chariots, with a team of four horses pulling a fairly large chariot. This was not the game-changing weapons system of antiquity. The ancient chariot was very light, less than one hundred pounds, and could be picked up by one or two men. It was precisely balanced and was pulled by one horse. One soldier controlled the horse while another stood behind him with a bow and arrow (there were other configurations as well).

Hittite chariot archer

Hittite chariot archer

Mobility and fire were crucial at Agincourt, when the English defeated the flower of French chivalry. The French knights came in heavy armor, but heavy rain before the battle turned the ground into mud. The French knights could make no progress in the mud, and could barely see what they were doing. The essentially unarmored English had long bows. The long bow can easily put an arrow through a suit of armor at a distance of 100 yards or more. The French knights had to close to engage with their shock weapons; the English longbowmen did not need to close, and gave the French the worst of it from a distance. The lightly armed and armored English took large numbers of confused the disoriented French knights captive, and, when the battle looked like it might turn against them and they worried about the captured French behind their lines, they slit the throats of their prisoners. Many if not most of the French who died at Agincourt were killed not on the battlefield, but as captives.

French prisoners taken at the battle of Agincourt, soon to have their throats cut.

French prisoners taken at the battle of Agincourt, soon to have their throats cut.

Among the most elegant and effective systems of mobile fire ever to be employed in warfare was that formulated by the Mongols. Essentially a poor, pastoral people of the Asian steppe, one would not think of them as world conquerors, but the life of the people was integral with the weapons system that they devised, and this is part of what gave the system its unusual efficacy. both archery and horsemanship were central to the way of the life of the Mongolian people. Children began both early in their lives, and continued so long as they were physically able to ride and to shoot.

A Mongol archer on horseback

A Mongol archer on horseback

Once a militarily effective weapons system emerged from the life of the people, the Mongols employed imaginative exercises to refine their skills. For example, once per year all the tribes under the Khan would form an enormous circle in the nearly vacant steppes of central Asia, and over a period of several days they would close the circle more tightly. They rounded up all wildlife that happened to be caught in their dragnet, and considerable personal stigma was attached to letting an animal escape. Finally, when they had closed the circle to a small area packed with captured wildlife, in a social ritual of some noble magnanimity, an older man would plead with the Khan for the lives of the remaining animals to be spared, which the Khan then did.

Mongolian conquests at their greatest extent.

Mongolian conquests at their greatest extent.

It was with this disciplined fighting force that the Mongols ran over China, Russia, and parts of eastern and central Europe. After some experience fighting the Mongols, the Hungarians eventually hit upon effective cavalry tactics that could counter Mongolian tactics, but it was essentially an internal crisis within Mongol society that caused the Mongols to withdraw from Europe. A nomadic people can conquer an empire, but they do not possess the social technology to administer an empire. It is when an administratively competent empire employs warlike peoples from the periphery (as the Tsar used the Kazakhs and the British used the Gurkhas) that the gains from such conquests can be secured for a longer term.

The breakthrough to Blitzkrieg marked the re-emergence of mobile fire in industrialized warfare. The emergence of industrialized warfare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century initially led to the strengthening of the defense, so that the First World War was dominated by stalemate. Early machine guns were heavy and mounted in fixed emplacements, while barbed wire hampered movement. But the perennial efficacy of mobile fire virtually dictated that this disproportionate strength of the defense could not last. (Also, it is a central principle of war that only offense action achieves decisive results.)

German Panzer IV tanks lined up for inspection in France during the Second World War.

German Panzer IV tanks lined up for inspection in France during the Second World War.

There are scholarly controversies over the theoretical and historical emergence of Blitzkrieg, but that a new form of warfare had emerged, utterly distinct from the industrialized carnage of the First World War, was clear. As formulated by one of the preeminent British inter-war strategists, J. F. C. Fuller, the aim of Blitzkrieg is:

…after breaking through the enemy’s front lines, to employ mobility as a psychological weapon: not to kill but to move;not to move to kill but to move to terrify, to bewilder, to perplex, to cause consternation, doubt, and confusion in the rear of the enemy, which rumor would magnify until panic became monstrous. In short, its aim was to paralyze not only the enemy’s command but also his government, and paralyzation would be in direct proportion to velocity.

J. F. C. Fuller, The Conduct of War 1789-1961, XIII …

The efficacy of mobile fire was again proved during the guerrilla wars that became common in the twentieth century and which continue to the present day. It is a common tactic of asymmetrical warfare for guerrillas to attack regular military forces by ambush, after which they destroy all the heavy supplies of which they cannot make immediate use, taking only the light weapons that they can carry, arming themselves while remaining mobile. The guerrilla fight is nothing if not mobile. Mao famously said that “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” The emphasis on this quote is usually given to the indistinguishability of the guerrilla fighter from the people amongst which he hides, but just as important is the implied mobility of a fish in the sea.

In the unlikely event that Pentagon planners come knocking at my door to ask my advice, I would say simply focus on mobile fire. And then I would elaborate:

The most advanced weapons systems of our time are those of mobile fire: the helicopter gunship and the aircraft carrier. Precisely because these are the most advanced weapons systems of our time, technological marvels of unrivaled sophistication, they are subject to severe constraints. Such weapons systems are extremely expensive, and because they are expensive few are built. Indeed, many advanced weapons systems have entered what is sometimes called a “death spiral” in which the price continues to climb and fewer units of each weapons system are built. If the trend continues, more money will be spent on fewer and fewer units, until only a handful of units can be built, and this cannot be the basis of the world’s largest military force.

Italian made Augusta A-129 Mongoose helicopter gunship.

Italian made Augusta A-129 Mongoose helicopter gunship.

Yet one of the distinctive features of effective mobile fire has been its mass deployment. This hasn’t been discussed in the above simply because I am not sure of how to formulate it, but mobile fire is like a swarm that engulfs an enemy, and his engulfment in fire promotes the kind of psychological response that J. F. C. Fuller credited to velocity: consternation, doubt, and confusion. The initial deployment of tanks in World War One, while inspiring fear and bewilderment in the enemy ranks, was ultimately a disappointment due both to the insufficient number of tanks fielded and their mechanical unreliability. In World War Two, tanks would become the preeminent weapon of mobile fire, employed in numbers that would be decisive.

J. F. C. Fuller, a controversial man and a widely quoted military strategist.

J. F. C. Fuller, a controversial man and a widely quoted military strategist.

The spirit of mobile fire should be a military doctrine that expresses itself not only in technological marvels like a helicopter gunship, but at the simplest and most basic level of combat operations. Mobile fire should proliferate, as the proliferation of the Kalashnikov in the hands of third world guerrilla fighters has made mobile fire a deadly reality and has transformed otherwise powerless people into a force to be reckoned with.

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Guerrilla recuits in Aceh training with AK-47s.

Guerrilla recruits in Aceh training with AK-47s.

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