Avoiding a Relapse to Attrition Warfare

By Hawkins, William R. | Army, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Avoiding a Relapse to Attrition Warfare


Hawkins, William R., Army


A recent report on a video presentation at the 23rd Army Science Conference demonstrated how the future combat system (FCS) vehicles might perform in combat. In the simulation, robotic sensors spot three enemy vehicles and immediately send the information via satellite to a naval vessel that launches missiles which destroy two of the targets. The remaining enemy vehicle was then knocked out by an Air Force fighter-bomber. With this enemy threat eliminated, the FCS cells (of three vehicles each) were free to move forward to look for other enemy positions that could be attacked by distant weapons platforms.

There is a major conceptual flaw in this depiction of future war common to much of the romance associated with precision strike technology. What is presented is an ultimate form of attrition warfare. Every enemy unit encountered is apparently to be destroyed by some exotic means before American units are to venture forth to carry out any type of maneuver. Indeed, there seems to be little envisioned need to maneuver on the battlefield, only hide until the smoke clears and then advance across the craters left by the bombs and missiles. With a weight limit of only 18 tons, there are real questions about the firepower and survivability of the FCS which might make such skulking tactics a necessity. The issue here, however, is whether this vision of war is a step backward to a slower, more grinding process that will not meet the operational and strategic needs of future conflicts.

Much of the evolution in weapons and doctrine in the 20th century has been devoted to overcoming the stalemate of the trenches in World War I. The western front in France from 1915-1917 was the ultimate example of attrition warfare as each side sought ways to smash through the defensive works built in depth from Switzerland to the North Sea. The attempt to destroy every enemy gun position, command post, communications network and bunker so that the infantry could advance led to massive applications of firepower limited only by the ability of factories to turn out shells. When high explosives proved inadequate, chemical weapons were used on a massive scale.

In preparation for the first assault on the French fortifications around Verdun in February 1916, the Germans stockpiled 2,500,000 artillery shells. The initial bombardment by 1,400 guns on an eight mile front lasted 12 hours, with periodic halts to determine what signs of life still remained in the French lines so that the guns could be redirected on these remnants of possible resistance. Yet no breakthrough was achieved. The two armies slugged it out for the next 11 months, firing between them some 40 million artillery rounds. Losses were heavy, the French suffered 543,000 casualties and the Germans 434,000, but neither army could be broken by bombardment.

When the British launched their attack at the Somme in July 1916, their artillery preparation lasted seven days, with 1,500 guns firing over 1,600,000 shells. Yet when the barrage lifted, the Germans crawled out of their deep bunkers and shot the advancing infantry to pieces.

Clearly, methods needed to be found that could get around defenses that could not be blown away. Airpower enthusiasts thought they had the answer: fly over the battlefield and strike directly at the society which the enemy army was defending. Attacks on the enemy homeland would allegedly win the war by destroying the will or means to resist. Aerial bombardment was supposed to wreck morale, especially if the enemy had no means to retaliate in kind or inflict visible losses on attacking bombers. History shows, however, that societies are far tougher than the air theorists thought. Robert Pape, in his 1996 book Bombing to Win, concludes, "In more than 30 major strategic air campaigns that have thus far been waged, air power has never driven the masses into the streets to demand anything." Air campaigns against the means of resistance, the enemy's economy or at least critical components of its defense industry or infrastructure, have also turned out to be more difficult than foreseen. …

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