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Wonder-weapons - a means to an end?

Vasily Andreev on how far war (and the fear of it) has fuelled innovation this country.

Armaments will only put an end to war when they become so destructive that they can destroy not just military targets but also the civilian population. [Alfred Nobel of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Peace Prize]

Humanity entered the twentieth century armed to the teeth. In Berlin, Paris and St Petersburg, generals and politicians made belligerent speeches. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and millions more in the reserves, devoured their words: all they needed was the order to `march off to glory'. Armament plants issued new rifles, machine guns and artillery pieces, and super-modern dreadnoughts were released from the slips into the sea. War was in the air.

In each European country the general staff totted up the available bayonets and sabres, canons and machine-guns, the numbers of reservists and the stocks of shells and concluded that they could not conceivably lose the coming war. Each had accumulated so many weapons and supplies and trained up so many reservists that victory was assured. At the beginning of the century, only a very few of the most advanced military thinkers understood that the art of waging war had entered a completely blind culde-sac.

The main types of contemporary armament had already effectively reached their limit. Rifles and artillery could not be further improved. `It seems pointless to ... give new tasks to the inventors', commented General von Schlieffen in 1909. `Everything conceivable has already been attained'. Indeed, since the Franco-Prussian War constructors had made so many improvements to both these basic weapons that further effort would yield no significant advantage.

The main task of any military commander is to secure victory in the battlefield. Striving to achieve that goal at any cost and unable to resolve the technical problems involved in the modernisation of their armaments, the generals were forced to change their battle tactics. The early twentieth century was the end of the closed formation. Rapid-firing rifles and long-distance, quickly-reloaded artillery pieces, followed by the machine gun, had a devastating effect in thinning the ranks of the attacker.

During the Franco-Prussian War individual units, attacking in closed formation, lost up to 68 per cent of their soldiers during a single attack. The dense formation literally fell apart under enemy fire and the extended file of riflemen was born. Yet this also proved incapable of solving all the problems that had arisen. The file could not avoid losses if the attackers came under concerted fire. In South Africa, or instance, a single well-trained Boer sniper easily disabled fourteen attacking British riflemen.

The first part of the first World War graphically demonstrated the inability of military men of the time to find an appropriate solution. After several months of mobile war in the West and in the East, battles from enriched positions began. Any attempt at mass attack became slaughter that led to vast losses, primarily for the attacking side. The examples are well known: we may recall Verdun or the woefully famous `Nivelles massacre'. The fronts in the Great War were distinguished by an unprecedented stability. There had been nothing like it before, nor would anything of the kind happen again. In the end, the Russian front collapsed because revolution broke out. In the West, where no revolution disturbances occurred until the war was over, the front lines underwent very little change from 1914 to 1918.

During the First World War new forms of armament and military equipment were first introduced and then deployed en masse. In this sense, also, the war was unique. Never before or since have so many innovations been made in such a small space of time.

The very first battles in 1914 showed that it had become much easier to defend than to attack. The defenders dug minefields and fences of barbed wire. The attacker proved incapable of breaking through such well-prepared positions. Even after the most heavy artillery bombardment, there always survived a handful of soldiers who with accurate fire-power could halt, and sometimes completely annihilate, the lines of attackers. Yet victory can only be won on the battlefield by taking active measures, i.e. by attacking the opponent.

It soon became clear that the attackers had no reliable means for achieving this end. All the existing forms of weapon were more suitable for defence purposes. Even the machine gun, the main invention of the late nineteen century, did not justify the hopes it had aroused. Machine-gunners could not drive an opponent out of a deeply entrenced position. On the other hand, they were quite capable of halting the most stubborn attack. The same was basically of artillery. So the second half of the war became a period of active searching for new purely offensive weapon systems.

All our contemporary types of troop and armament were tried and tested then: first of all, tanks, and then motorised infantry, aviation and submarines. The First World War was an important watershed in the history of warfare. Before 1914 the art of waging war had developed extensively, so to speak, mainly through increasingly numbers of soldiers and armaments, with the latter lagging somewhat behind. By the time we are referring to, the possibilities for extensive evolution had almost all been exhausted. This applied particularly to the numbers of men under arms. The mass army and the introduction of universal military conscription in the most countries meant that almost the entire male population in a given country was ready to be called up and the arms industry was able to provide them with enough weapons and ammunition. It was almost impossible to increase the numbers of soldiers. Therefore attention shifted towards the improvement of technology.

Henceforth, progress in military equipment advanced in step with technical as a whole. On the one hand, many inventors now dedicated themselves to creating new models of military equipment while, on the other, a great many inventions initially intended for civilian use, found themselves adapted for military purposes. In this way, the arms race was born. Devouring vast amounts of human energy, labour and finance, the arms race has turned into a self-sufficient and self-contained system that brings no benefit to human society but merely holds back its development. The explanation for this is to be found in the nature of war itself. As Clausewitz says, war is an act of violence aimed at forcing an opponent, the opponent's armed forces must be destroyed, his territory occupied and his will crushed. In turn this presupposes possession of the means necessary to achieve these aims. By the twentieth century this meant having weapons powerful enough to break the resistance of the enemy in a short period of time.

Yet the opponent has just the opposite aims: he does not intend to submit to an alien will but, on the contrary, to subject it to his own desires. He therefore must also have weaponry that is as powerful, if not more so. An un-ending and ultimately fruitless competition ensues during which both sides devote titanic efforts to ensure their supremacy. This was the principle underlying the rivalry between France and Germany at the beginning of the century and that of the Soviet and Western military blocs in the more recent past.

This characteristic feature of the arms race has been noted by many observers. As far back as 1899, Rosa Luxemburg commented, `... for society as a whole ... militarism represents a squandering of enormous productive forces that is quite senseless in economic terms'. He revolutionary ally, Karl Liebknecht, was still more emotional on the subject:

Militarism is an evil spirit that is deadly

for our civilisation; it gives birth to barbarism

in a civilised society and sucks

the life-blood out of the nation,

devouring all the wealth that could

ensure constant progress.

Interestingly enough, the chief German `militarist' of the time, General von Schlieffen, whom we have already cited, was fully in agreement with the German Social Democrats - his ideological opponents - on this issue:

Military equipment is today enjoying a

brilliant triumph. But it has never provided

what France, Germany and all

the order powers are now striving to

achieve: easy victories, and supremacy

over the opponent. It is not hard to say

how one might subject and annihilate

one's opponent, using such effective

weaponry. Less easy is it to solve the

problem of avoiding such ruin oneself.

Military theoreticians in various countries began to place ever greater hopes on some Wunderwaffe or `wonder-weapon' which the enemy did not possess and could not acquire in the near future. This, they hoped, would finally ensure a major advantage for their own armed forces. Such hopes were further strengthened because improvements in battle tactics lagged noticeably behind technological progress. On March 21st, 1943, the Germans attacked the Soviet troops much as they had attacked the Anglo-French positions on the Western Front that same day in 1918: the tanks crawled ahead and behind them followed the infantry. No major changes in the order of battle had occurred in the intervening twenty-five years, but the German tanks were now quite different.

Talk of wonder weapons, incidentally, hardly ever referred to a novel invention by a solitary genius. The miracle always involved the most conventional forms of weapon and meant merely that neither one side, nor the other had yet become accustomed to their existence. In the First World War this applied to the tank, until hundreds of tanks had been burnt out on the battlefield; it applied to aviation until the soldiers learnt to shoot down those primitive aeroplanes with their rifles; and it applied to long-distance artillery pieces until the other side realised it could hide from their blows under layers of concrete and seize them with ordinary foot soldiers.

During the Second World War the first rocket-propelled shells and missiles, the Soviet Katyusha and then the German FAU rockets, were considered such wonder-weapons. Soviet military specialists proved the more far-sighted. Not relying in 1941 on the unexpected appearance of some weapon that could drastically change the course of the war, they carried out additional mobilisation and drew in further reserves. It was this that enabled them, at the cost of unbelievable effort and sacrifice, to alte the balance in favour of the Red Army.

By 1944-45 the Germans had nothing but such Wunderwaffe to hope for. Their human resources were almost exhausted and their armaments factories were gradually being destroyed by Western Allied bombardment. Hitler had always had a tendency to believe in miracles. `It is quite amazing how the Fuhrer ... constantly and unshakeably relies on his lucky star ... Buth then he has so often descended from the clouds like a Deus ex-machina', wrote Josef Goebbels in his diary on March 28th, 1945. A belief in Wunderwaffe was only one reflection of this characteristic habit.

Hitler was constantly concerned about technical improvement. As early as 1942 he would say:

The military-political leadership of

1914-18 made a cardinal error when it

rejected any improvement in military

equipment in favour of increasing the

number of men under arms. Yet war is

always won by he who has the `better'

weapon': that is the decisive factor.

Hitler's concern for the technical equipment of the Wehrmacht, however, took a rather strange form and was always distinguished by a belief in the miraculous powers of some new weapon. In 1943, for instance, he forbade any testing of technical innovations unless they showed a positive benefits within six months. It is noteworthy that this was equally true of his attitude towards the German nuclear programme later on. As a result, the army fighting in the field did not receive the weapons it demanded and the troops themselves had to put together much of what they needed. The German was industry, for example, could not supply enough self-propelled artillery pieces and tanks for reconnaissance, anti-aircraft and mine-sweeping. The German army was therefore forced to use the already-outdated T-1 tanks in its possession for the purpose of reconnaissance.

Almost the only major projects for new equipment that the Germans completed were those for the Messerschmidt 262 jet fighter and the V-1 fighters in 1944 and they performed well in battle. At first they made British and American bomber pilots very nervous. Soon, however, the 262 ceased to be a miracle and both sides grew used to them. The German leadership did not rely on them to alter the course of the war. The V-1 and V-2 rockets were a different matter.

They were first used on the night of June 12th-13th, 1944. Despite their enormous destructive effect, the rockets also proved ineffective. When they were falling on Britain, the Allies had already invaded occupied France. Had the Germans employed them a few months earlier, against the troops then concentrated in southern England things would have been different. The D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6th, it is commonly agreed, would have been much more difficult if not impossible.

We may therefore conclude that no weapon, no matter how powerful, was able in itself to significantly alter the course of the fighting in either the First or Second World Wars. (The use of the atom bomb against the Japanese in August 1945 falls into a different category because by then the `Land of the Rising Sun' was already on the verge of capitulation. The two American atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki only slightly hastened the decisive defeat of the Japanese.)

Furthermore, the general trend in the development of armaments has refuted all the arguments of the military theoreticians. At the beginning of the century they supposed that the appearance of new types of weapon would inevitably result in a decrease in the size of armies and a reduction in the duration of hostilities. This calculation was based on a very simple argument: the new improved weapon would permit one of the two sides to attain its goals much more quickly, using fewer men.

There is some justification for such views. For example, one twentieth-century machine-gunner would be capable of opposing several thousand sixteenth-century pikemen, a battalion of seventeenth-century musketeers, a company of Frederick the Great's soldiers, of Napoleonic `grogneurs', or a platoon of Crimean-War infantrymen. Such calculations led military theoreticians to conclude that armies would decrease in proportion to the growing firepower of their weapons.

Yet the very first wars of the `Imperialist Age', the Hispano-American, Anglo-Boer and Russo-Japanese conflicts, proved much longer and led to the involvement of far more soldiers than, for example, the Franco-Prussian War. Having entered the arms race, all the industrially developed countries were able to reach approximately the same high level of military production, and hereby rapidly adopt each other' achievements. One side invented the sword: almost immediately the other side invented the shield and, at the same time, an improved sword: and there was no end in sight to the race they had begun. To maintain and operate the new equipment which was constantly reaching the armed forces, a large number of people were required, both to man the army at any given moment and with military training in general.

Apart from its purely technical characteristics, any contemporary weapon has two other important functions: psychological and military-political. The first is, apparently, self-evident. I shall offer only one example. `The manoeuvrability of our tanks was extremely low', wrote General Oscar Muntzel about the First World War:

The light armour-plating only ensured

protection from rifle and machine-gun

fire and they frequently broke down

due to their technical imperfections.

Soon artillery pieces became dangerous

enemies, moving forward and aiming

directly at them. Nevertheless, even

tanks of this type were sufficient to

draw the infantry out of the trenches

and led them onto the offensive.

This brief formulates with the maximum economy what the psychological effect of a weapon on the individual is: it heartens and gives him self-confidence. This applies equally to the now primitive Maxim gun and the latest self-guided missiles. People of the older generation well remember how everyone in the USSR heaved a sigh of relief after the successful testing of the Soviet atom bomb was announced. A reliable means of defending the country had been acquired; the American supremacy had disappeared.

When we refer to the military-political qualities of a weapon, we mean its capacity to `make the opponent obey our will' simply by exercising political or psychological pressure on him. This is achieved pressure on him. This is achieved without a military victory at the front or even without any fight at all.

Such attempts have been made for a long while. In the First World War the Germans brought Big Bertha, which had a range of 120 kms, into France and began to shell Paris. The initial effect was as desired: the French took fright. Then, realising that Big Bertha could not do any serious damage to the city, the French lost their fear and the Germans, their psychological advantage.

In the Second World War, a similar role was assigned to the German V-weapons. When Hitler began using them to shell London in 1944 he was hoping, as four years earlier, to persuade the British to stop fighting. The Fuhrer very much counted on the rapid appearance of V-3, a rocket that he hoped would reach the American coast, thereby encouraging the Americans also to sue for peace.

The creation and development of nuclear weapons, from the very start, had a deterrent purpose. This particular quality was noted by the most far-sighted politicians as early as the late 1930s. Churchill, for instance, in one of his numerous memoranda for 1939, wrote:

To judge by certain data, one might

suppose that if international tension

worsens then rumours will be deliberately

spread about the application of

this process [fission of uranium] for the

creation of some new and terrible

secret explosive substance, capable of

wiping London off the face of the

Earth. Without doubt, the Fifth Columnists

will try using such a threat to convince

us to capitulate once again.

In 1941 the young Soviet nuclear physicist, Flyorov, expressed his ideas more frankly in a letter to Stain referring to the atom bomb project:

... we must remember all the time that

the first state to make a nuclear bomb

will be able to dictate its conditions to

the world. And the way we can redeem

our mistake, our six months of inactivity,

is to renew research and set it on a

yet wider footing, than was the case

before the war.

The same aim, of dictating their conditions to the world, was pursued by the Americans, the British and the rest. However, no one was able to achieve this goal. As with previous weapons, the atom bomb quickly ceased to be the monopoly of a single country and by the 1960s nuclear parity had been established between the USA and the USSR.

Thereafter neither Super Power was able to gain a significantly advantage over the other. The unrestrained multiplication of nuclear arsenals followed. One reason why the nuclear arms race went on for forty years (and has not yet ended), was that neither the USSR nor the West had any clear conception of the consequences of such a war. Plans were drawn up on both sides for nuclear strikes against the other and Soviet and American generals each hoped they would be able to inflict mass destruction and mega-death while, in some inexplicable way, avoiding the same fate themselves.

In the early 1980s the American scientist, Carl Sagan, and the Soviet academician, Nikita Moiseev, independently, and almost simultaneously, calculated what the consequences of a nuclear war would be for humanity. The conclusions fill more than one hefty volume but the main verdict may be expressed in four words. `The death of civilisation'. After the politicians and military leaders had learned of the scientists' conclusions, they realised that they must begin to disarm, and started a mutual reduction in nuclear and conventional weapons. This continues to the present day.

Now we are in the 1990s and the epoch of world-wide confrontation between military blocs has ended. Does this mean that the arms race has also come to an end and that mankind is now going to demilitarise totally? Alas, no. In place of the confrontation between the Warsaw Pact and Nato there are ever-growing tensions between the `traditional' nuclear powers (Russia, America, Britain, France and China) and those countries which have recently acquired, or are today attempting to acquire, nuclear weapons of their own (North Korea, Iran, India and certain other). The old nuclear powers are trying to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the risk of their use by countries in the second group.

And once again a new `wonder-weapon' is being proposed, this time as a means of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons across the world. Mobile international nuclear forces under the control of the UN, would suggest scientists from various countries, who would act as policemen with super-accurate nuclear missiles that could quickly take out the firing pads of the potential nuclear aggressor. At present an international nuclear police force of this kind is considered to be the most reliable potential means for preventing a global conflict.

At the beginning of the century wonder-weapons were designed and developed in order to establish the dominion of particular countries over the world. Today greatly improved wonder-weapons are regarded as the best method for establishing world-wide peace. In two sentences that is how our thinking about the changing art of warfare and nature of armaments has developed in the twentieth century.

Vasily Andreev studied at the Moscow State University, and actively co-operates with several leading periodicals. He is an expert in First World War Military History. Translated by John Crowfoot [c] Rodina
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Title Annotation:What Has Made the Year 2000 - Science, Technology, Communications
Author:Andreev, Vasily
Publication:History Today
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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