In what ways did land warfare develop in the years after 1945? Include: tanks, missiles and tactics.

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The evolution of land warfare post-World War II needs to be examined from two main perspectives, that of the United States Army, and that of the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union.  The reason for the importance of focusing on two perspectives is because both of the Cold War-era “superpowers” fielded very large land forces, but with different missions that reflected perceptions of what the other side was believed to be doing.

The end of World War I represented the end of the trench warfare that characterized that brutal conflict.  Already in that war, the introduction of new means of maneuver and delivering ordnance to the target were being seen.  The development of the tank presaged the evolution of land warfare in terms of the importance that would be placed on large, massed armored formations, and the importance of artillery – what Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin called “the god of war” – was increased with technological improvements in the rates and accuracy of fire that could brought to bear against enemy concentrations and troop movements.  Additionally, the introduction of the airplane as a weapon of war fundamentally transformed the conduct of land warfare, as troop concentrations and convoys now had to wary of assault from above, thereby necessitating the dispersal of forces, which impedes the ability to force large military units through breaches in the enemy lines.  In short, technological innovations radically altered the way military commanders viewed the conduct of land warfare.

The development of armored warfare (i.e., the tank and armored personnel carrier and supporting artillery units) was envisioned by pre-World War II military commanders like General Erwin Rommel and Soviet Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky were actively developing strategies and tactics to best exploit the capabilities these technological innovations offered.  The German Army, of course, conceptualized and successfully executed the strategy known as “blitzkrieg,” or “lightning war,” while Tukhachevsky was actively developing the strategy of “deep operations,” which was similar to Germany’s “blitzkrieg.”  Both of these nations’ armies had ample opportunity to experiment in actual warfare with their respective strategies, especially the Germans with the invasions of Poland, France and Russia. 

So, this brings us to the post-World War II era, the strategies for land warfare of which were heavily influenced by the lessons of that enormous conflict.  Europe, of course, was divided by what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called an “iron curtain” (“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”)  The evolution of land warfare would, henceforth, reflect the disparate perceptions of European security held primarily by Soviet and U.S. military commanders.  While Marshall Tukhachevsky had been a victim of Stalin’s bloody purges -- he had been executed on June 12, 1937 following a show trial – the evolution of Soviet Army strategy, operational art, and tactics were heavily influenced by the now-disgraced and deceased army officer.  Consequently, the Soviet Army was rebuilt to reflect Tukhachevsky’s principles regarding land warfare, especially his emphasis on developing the ability to strike deeply into the enemy’s territory or formations in order to seriously impede that enemy’s ability to mass forces for a counterattack and to degrade the adversary’s ability to marshal forces for a defense of its territory.  Over time, especially during the 1980s, the Soviet Army developed what it called “operational maneuver groups” (OMGs), massed formations of armor-heavy units that would apply what is called “combined arms operations” to strike deep into the enemy’s terrain and bring about rapid victory.  “Combined arm operations” referred to the application of all forms of military assault in coordinated, simultaneous fashion.  In other words, tank-heavy units would be supported by massive application of artillery fire with air support to both protect friendly formations and to strike deeply at enemy formations and political and industrial assets. 

On the U.S. side, most thought regarding land warfare focused on the need to develop the strategy and the means to defeat Soviet strategy – a daunting burden given that the Soviet Union placed the preponderance of its economic activity on executing the mission of military preparedness, fielding over 50,000 tanks, not including tens of thousands of other types of armored vehicles like armored personnel carriers and armored infantry fighting vehicles, and not including the armored forces of its closest military ally, East Germany, while the United States and its NATO allies fielded only half-as-many tanks in response (this vast disparity in the respective sizes of armored formations facing each other forced NATO to prepare for the use of tactical nuclear weapons to compensate for its inferiority, another topic for discussion entirely, as it is beyond the purview of this essay).  NATO military planners spent a great deal of time thinking of ways to defeat or blunt a Warsaw Pact attack across the “iron curtain” without having to resort to the use of nuclear weapons, and the result, formulated during the mid-to-late 1980s was called “Follow-On Forces Attack” (FOFA), the U.S. Army component of which was called “Air-Land Battle,” and called for the ability to strike deeply against massed Soviet Army formations and OMG while using special operations forces to sabotage the routes through which those Soviet formations were expected to traverse, such as mountain passes and bridges. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army had been preoccupied by wars in Korea and Vietnam, both of which were expensive in blood and treasure, but the latter of which caused considerably mental distress for Army strategists.  The guerrilla and “counterinsurgency” components of the Vietnam War fell well-outside the intellectual comfort levels of most American military planners.  The logical emphasis on blunting a Warsaw Pact attack across Europe left the U.S. Army ill-prepared for the demands of a conflict like that in Southeast Asia, with a large communist insurgency supported from North Vietnam, which also fielded a sizable land army equipped with tanks, armored personnel carriers, and anti-aircraft missiles and artillery.  In addition, political constraints on the army’s freedom of action in Vietnam, namely restrictions on the types of targets the Air Force could strike in the north during certain periods of the conflict and on the American military’s ability to strike across borders into Cambodia and Laos through which the North Vietnamese resupplied the Viet Cong guerrillas in the South (via the “Ho Chi Minh trail”) caused a great deal of consternation among American military planners and fighters. [as with the issue of nuclear weapons, the covert wars in Laos and Cambodia are beyond the purview of this essay]

It was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, that allowed the U.S. Army to demonstrate the kind of land warfare with which it was most comfortable, and the brief if inconclusive execution of Operation Desert Storm validated, to many, the concepts the Army had developed during the now-disappearing Cold War.  The use of massed armored formations with integrated air support allowed for a rapid defeat of the Iraqi Army.

Today, the armies of the United States, Russia and China continue to refine their concepts of land warfare, all of which reflects the technological innovations of the current era, especially the integration of computer and other elements of information warfare into their plans.  All modern militaries are heavily reliant on satellite communications for what is called “command-control-and-communications” (C3), to coordinate military operations on land, at sea and in the air, and the imperative of interfering with the adversary’s access to satellite communications is a high priority.

The conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom -- the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- was viewed as a huge success for the U.S. Army.  The "shock and awe" character of the invasion produced remarkable short-term results.  Longer term results, however, are evident in the continued fighting that plagues that country.  The land warfare component of that military operations was successful in vanquishing the Iraqi Army; it was unsuccessful in quelling the insurgency and terrorism that followed -- a reminder of the problems encountered decades earlier in Vietnam.

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