Wednesday, April 20, 2005

And the correct answer is . . .

Who knows - that's what makes military history interesting: Everybody approaches it with a different viewpoint.

A lot of support for Kursk and the Normandy breakout as the pivotal moments in the European theater. That was pretty much where most of the people I was talking this over came down as well (although at least one felt like D-Day was the important battle on the Western Front - his take was that the Normandy breakout was a given once the beachheads were secure.) But I was talking to a bunch of ground-pounders, of course.

I felt like a class traitor for thinking this way, but I took the position that the key campaign in the European theater was the Battle of the Atlantic, and that the inflection point in the war was Donitz's May 43 withdrawl of subs from the Northern Atlantic. Even though we still took some shipping and escort losses after that, the security of the supply lines from North America to England (and to the Soviets via Archangel and Murmansk) was never in doubt after that point.

Once our logistical pipeline was assured, Germany was caught between Russian manpower reserves and the industrial base of the United States. Even if Hitler hadn't interfered with the German Army's conduct of the war, I don't think there was anything that they could have done (short of developing atomic weapons before we did) to have won the thing. (By the way, Big D, I'm going to have to read Black May - thanks for letting me know about it.)

I've always agreed with the conventional wisdom about Midway, by the way - if you make the reasonable assumption that taking Midway would have led to the fall of Hawaii (or,at least made it untenable as a base for the Pacific fleet), it would have allowed the Japanese to cut our supply lines to SE Asia and Australia, and, worse, would have gone a long way towards securing their supply lines (how much less effective would our submarine campaign against Japanese merchant shipping have been if the submarines had to base out of San Diego or San Francisco?) That, in turn, could have allowed them - in addition to the immense strategic advantage Hawaii would give them - to, if not keep pace with US ship-building, at least do a much better job of matching our numbers. As it was, Midway closed out the Japanese offensive on the short side of Yamamoto's prediction.

I did think that Code Wizard's and MKL's suggestion that the Allied codebreaking effort represented the tipping point was a good one. I finished a book recently (Codebreakers' Victory: How the Allied Cryptographers Won World War II, by Hervie Haufler) that makes a very good case for that point of view.

I also thought that Major Mike's point about Tarawa was interesting. It's interesting to speculate how our tactics and strategy might have changed if it had turned out to be a disaster.

Thanks everybody, for the fascinating discussion.

But then, I always tend to think that logistics trumps pretty much everything else, at least in the long run. That's the rationale behind the Stryker brigades today - trading some top end combat capability for quickness of deployment and depth of logistical support. I see Stryker as an intermediate force between quick reaction forces (like the Marines or Army Airborne) and heavy combat follow-on echelons. The lesson of Gulf War I was pretty clear - it took too long to get a credible combat force on the ground after we deployed the 82nd. There was a period of several months where we were sitting there with our butt's flapping in the breeze - had the Republican Guard come screaming towards Riyadh, we would have been in a world of hurt. (We might have one anyway - even though it would have been light infantry vs. heavy armor, I imagine that the Marines and 82nd would have given a good account (the morale is to the material as . . .) and our airpower might have turned the tide. No doubt, though, that it would have been extremely bloody.

So, given that we're no longer sure where the bad guys will attack (see Fulda Gap) and we can't depend on prepositioned heavy forces, Stryker is a good idea. The thing that concerns me is, as a computer / systems geek who's heard this kind of talk about transformation before, that I don't believe some of the hype about Stryker being able to go up against heavy conventional forces because of sensor integration, network-centric warfare, technology advantage, and the like. If we ever have to fight a determined nation-state with a significant industrial base (say, China, just for instance) we neglect our ability to project heavy armored forces at our peril. That's the core of my concern about Stryker - if it comes to be seen as a substitute for armor, instead of a intermediate force positioned between light and heavy.


Blogger GoldFalcon said...

Here I am, a day late and a dollar short. The Battle of the Atlantic is an interesting choice, because this is probably where the American industrial superiority was first displayed. While we suffered heavy losses to German subs at the start of our involvement, by the end of '42 we were producing ships at a faster rate than anyone else could even approach.

At 3 a day we were producing them even faster than they could be sunk. By the time Donitz withdraws back to the North Atlantic it is clear that Britain will continue to get war supplies and that Donitz won't be able to stop it.

I have to agree that at the moment that Donitz withdraws, victory is a foredrawn conclusion. By that time the US industrial base is kicking into high gear, we are cooperating with Britain and Canada on an unprecedented scale. At that point it became only a question of time and losses.

Had D-Day at Normandy failed our superiority in materiel would have allowed us to lick our wounds, resupply, regroup, and go at it again with another D-Day, there or someone else. While our losses were heavy, they were not catastrophic. We could have sustained several such attempts. The Germans could not have successfuly defended that coast in 1944 due largely to supply and manpower shortages. They also lacked air-superiority.

All of our advantages were a result of a low risk Atlantic that allowed us freedom of movement and a perfect staging base that was near the target and easily resupplied. It had allowed us to project our air power out over the continent and begin to decimate the German ability to wage war.

All of that said, it is hard for me to construe a scenario in which the Allies do not win once the US enters the war. The only thing that could have lost it for us is lack of public support. If the Brits hadn't been willing to endure, if Rosie the Riveter hadn't went to work, if there had been no rubber drives, rationing, victory gardens or war bonds THEN we would have been up the proverbial excrement creek.

On your other point, I too worry that Armor is seen as a dead branch. I think some consider a heavy tank as useful as a B-1 bomber, both designed for battles and styles of warfare that are unlikley.

I tend to think that they are not THAT unlikely and even at that, you don't have to have a Fulda Gap engagement [OT: Interesting that the center at Bragg where they teach schmucks like me to call for fire was still using the Fulda Gap in the simulator in 2001] to need heavy Armor. When they pulled the Sheridans out of the 82nd and replaced them with Javelins I began to wonder about the new light force. (Not that the Javelin isn't a really cool toy)

6:09 PM  
Blogger armynurseboy said...

Until they develop force fields that we can use to protect light vehicles, the only way they are going to survive against heavy armor is to not engage them in a head on fight (which is not always an option) but to hit as hard as you can and run like hell.

Incidentily, for those who see heavy armor as an anachromism in a war against guerillas have never seen Hajis surrender or flee at the first sign of an M-1 rolling down the street.

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Harvey said...

A coupla points:

What concerns me about relying on "infocentric" based forces, is that when it all plays, you can take advantage of being in the right place at the right time and a smaller force can work inside the OOD loop faster than the bad guys - BUT - if that information loop breaks, is broken/severed, than your smaller nimble force can be in for a world of "hurt".

Likewise a superior airplane may be worth 2 of the enemy's, but it can only be in one place at a time, and you loose twice as much combat power when you lose one. If we abandon our new design F22 and F35's because we think we cannot afford them now, and there is no current threat in front of us, all well and good, - - -until we suddenly confront a major technological threat and don't have the time to start over on designs abandonded and never built.

Last, the part about Midway that is too often overlooked is that even more than the destruction of the 4 Japanese carriers (of the 6 that hit Pearl Harbor) but more critically the loss of highly skilled pilots and supporting ground crews. Japanese naval pilot training was SO selective that they only graduated less than 100 per year just prior to the war. Once at war, their first line pilots were kept in action until shot down and never rotated back to pass on "lessons learned" to new pilots. They thus set up a diminishing pool of increasingly unprepared pilots culminating in what is known now as "The Great Mariannas Turkey Shoot".

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Kristy said...

I know that it would be good to eventually follow up on one of your posts with something on topic, but it would feel inappropriate to offer an uninformed opinion after all the great entries from military history buffs.

I just read an article in The Weekly Standard on all of the progress that’s been made in Afghanistan and how grateful the people there are for peace. It’s so heartening to see things like that. Your war stories are great fun to read and the humorous accounts of all the stuff that went wrong makes me laugh, but I hope that you also feel good about your contributions to something really significant.

If and when the urge ever strikes, I’d love to know more about your training. What kind of things you learned to do (no need to go into detail on the goat-killing thing, I’m all squared away and properly respectful on that) and what Robin Sage was like. Since I assume you like to get some reader feedback, one of the things that I like that you’ve done in previous posts is to provide a pronunciation guide to some of the military terms. That’s really helpful, since the vocabulary is so different from...well, I was going to say real life, but that might not be tactful. :-)

Also, could one of the military folks who read this site help me out with a definition? I’d like to know what "watch your six" means.



11:33 PM  
Blogger Special Forces Alpha Geek said...

Watch your six comes from flying combat - pilots use an imaginary watch (think the old analog style with actual hands) to easily communicate relative position to other flyers. 12 o'clock is dead ahead (so 12 o'clock high would be dead ahead and above you) 3 o'clock is directly off your starboard side, 9 o'clock is directly to your port, and so on. 6 o'clock is directly behind you.

Pilots learn to constantly watch their six, or "check six" to make sure an enemy doesn't get in behind them. Ground-pounders do too, and now watch your six, or check six now generally means "watch your back."

11:58 PM  
Blogger remoteman said...

From what I've read, the heavy armor has aquitted itself extremely well in Iraq, especially in urban combat. The article stated that conops regarding armor in urban ops is being turned on its head because because of this success. This should keep heavy armor alive and well for the forseeable future.

In October '03 I saw a very impressive light/medium tank made by United Defense at the AUSA show. It had an electric drive, had room for 4 or 6 troops (troop carrier role ala the Bradley) and sported a 120mm smoothbore gun. It was a bad ass piece of kit and looked to be about half the size of an Abrams. Something like that may be the future.

11:59 PM  
Anonymous JPS said...

This is a bit off-topic, but the arguments made by SFalphageek and by Goldfalcon for the Battle of the Atlantic as the turning point remind me of a story that I hope some of you will enjoy as much as I do. It's lengthy and I apologize.

David Fisher, in a lively book on Arctic exploration past and present ("Across the Top of the World"), tells the story of a scientific conference he attended, in which one of the speakers was Albert Szent-Gyoergi, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of Vitamin C.

Szent-Gyoergi's talk addressed the ethical responsibilities of scientists when asked by their governments to do war work, and the difficulty of turning down the largesse that governments can offer. "I am proud to say," he boasted, "that I have never given in to this temptation. None of my research has ever been geared toward warfare, nor can any of my discoveries be twisted to that purpose."

In the informal discussion afterward, a German participant in the conference introduced himself to Szent-Gyoergi, and mentioned casually that he'd served in U-boats during WWII. "I was not a Nazi," he said apologetically, "but I thought I had a duty to fight for my country.

"And incidentally, we almost won the war, you know. It was a very close thing, in 1942, whether we would cut the Atlantic pipeline to England. Had we succeeded, there would have been no invasion of Western Europe in 1944, and with the western sections of the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe freed up, we might just have defeated Russia. [My Russian friends stoutly dispute this--JPS]

"Do you know what allowed us to send our U-boats to sea, and keep them on station for weeks at a time, and thus nearly win our war? We had little white pills of Vitamin C. There was no room on board for fresh meat or fruits, and scurvy would have killed us all if it hadn't been for your characterization of Vitamin C, and our ability then to synthesize it.

"Yes," he smiled, "you very nearly won the war for Germany."

1:07 AM  
Blogger Uncle Jimbo said...

Good Gravy,

This is an awful lot of fairly high level analysis for a bunch of folks not getting paid to do it. I am intrigued.

You all are stepping into my parlor somewhat as I do executive search for one of the top 5 defense contractors. I regularly talk to the folks who conceive and build the amazing machines that we use to conduct war. I understand AG's concern that we would be ill-prepared to fight an actual attrition style fight against a major armored force, I agree.

But we don't have to fight them with tanks. We have many options including:

Air Power- We have plenty of tank killing weapons deliverable by air and the Chinese are unlikely to be able to overcome the range of our sensors and weapons. We can launch before ever coming in range of their countermeasures.

UAVs- This is a wow thought as I sat with as former Commander of TOPGUN who has a vested interest in fighter piloting and he said the last fighter pilot has already been born. Next comes my son playing video games from Cheyenne Mountain.

Smart Munitions- We have a number of rounds a tank, arty piece or whatever can launch and it will wander around looking down for an outline that matches a Chinese tank, then plummet down on it's most vulnerable spot.

It is a valid concern, and I think the Stryker is a reasonable platform for another mission. but you are absolutely right it would be helpless against armor without our other fancy toys.


Uncle J

2:50 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Harvey, excellent point with the pilots. The reason the Axis powers (the Germans especially) had aces with much higher numbers of kills (Hartmann's 352 to Bong's 40), yet the Allies still won the war, because we imparted our knowledge from our aces to the young rookees by forcing pilots to rotate stateside instead of remaining in combat indefinitely.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Tim Thumb said...

If we were to fight China, it could be interesting to see how we would mobilize for war. Manufacturing in the U.S. is a fraction of what it used to be. We do not have the ability to rapidly mobilize our factories the way we did for WWI/WWII because those factories no longer exist. Yet another example of how the Republicans and their free trade/outsource jobs abroad programs to maximize corporate profits does not serve the nation's interest, just their own.

Also the lesson of Kosovo is that air power and smart munitions do not work unless sufficient ground forces exist to force the enemy to mass his combat power and create targets for air power. Otherwise they disperse and we drop bombs with little tactical effect. Tanks will not mass in the face of Stryker, you can bet that much.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Kristy said...


That's a great, informative answer. Thanks very much.


3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yet another example of how the Republicans and their free trade/outsource jobs abroad programs to maximize corporate profits does not serve the nation's interest, just their own." -Tim Thumb

No offense Tim Thumb, but this is a pretty ignorant statement. It is pretty well established that the procectionist policies of the late 20's early 30's lead to the collapse of the world-wide economy that later laid the groundwork for the following world war. The reason every generation sees more and more people lifted out of poverty is because of free trade. America is not entitled to be the best country in the world, we earned it, and we can't hold onto it with laws and regulations, but by continuing to earn it. If a poor person in another country offers to do a job for less, by not allowing him, you are hurting all your fellow countrymen by forcing them to pay more for those same services, and you continue to keep that person down. This is some form of corporate favoritism to you? Let the market decide who they want to do that job. To me, it seems like the right thing to do, nay, the American thing to do.

Tom M

6:04 PM  

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