[Not a Top 10] Persisting challenges

Some persisting challenges in warfare appear to be as old as warfare, and this text is dedicated to them.

(1) Individual soldier's load
The individual warrior's load may have been small for poor Germanic warriors who only owned lance, club, wooden shield and knife - but maybe even they were burdened to the max. They had little or no horses and Germanic armies are not exactly remembered for an organised train of oxcarts. Someone surely carried food and something to protect against the weather and cold nights. Their Roman legionary opponents were loaded to the maximum, for sure. They are remembered as "Marius' mules".
There's no doubt that medieval soldiers were heavily clad, but even the European 18th century soldiers were officially burdened by almost 30 kg individually. I suppose we all know that this official load was rather the minimum. And these soldiers were not chosen for a strong physique nor well-nourished as were the earlier knights: They were amongst the poorest of their societies, and likely below average size and strength even in their own time.

Today's soldier's loads are obviously too large for Westerners (even the mere rifles have been laden with accessories so much that the G36 rifle has also been called 'Tower of Babel' at times). Meanwhile, less well-funded military forces and most paramilitary forces tend to still go relatively light; with all the associated drawbacks, of course.

It's still a challenge to muster the self-discipline and rigor to use an optimal load instead of the maximum load.
And we tend to fail in this.

(2) Prediction of wartime usefulness

It's still difficult if not impossible to predict wartime usefulness of soldiers and especially leaders during peacetime. A part of this problem is about a bureaucratic bias: The incentives and disincentives of a military bureaucracy are different in wartime and peacetime. So even if we knew how to tell, the bureaucracy would rather not be motivated to do it and act on it. Another problem is the inability to simulate the psychological stress of war during peacetime. And even if we could do it, it would likely not be a good idea to expose generations of peacetime troops to it.

We're still unable to really predict who's going to be useful after the shooting started, and this inability is warping our idea of personnel over time. Most of us look at tables of organisation and see a captain as the leader of a company, someone else as machine gunner et cetera. In wartime, a high percentage of these people are duds and largely useless, if not even troublemakers. Junior officers get sorted out by fire or by superiors real quick. Useless company leaders disappear into offices. Useless machinegunners turn into machinegun belt porters. The nominal tables of organisation would not be very relevant even if peacetime vacancies and casualties would not come into play. And who exactly can predict which female soldier is not going to get pregnant real soon once a shooting war begins?

(3) Supply flow during mobile warfare

Campaigns of European professional armies had been limited by the useful radius of action of horse-drawn supply carts. You better didn't move far from a magazine or controlled city. This changed when Napoleonic armies proved less interested in preserving their manpower and more willing to forage supplies from the surrounding region. This concept of supply austerity didn't work during either World Wars, of course. You cannot forage artillery shells from farmers, nor much gasoline fuel from a largely not yet motorised society. The fuel supply issue might have improved a lot over time, but the ammunition supply issue hasn't and no, 3D printers won't change this.
Mobile warfare consumes much fuel and little ammunition, but even 'little' still needs to be resupplied. A self-propelled howitzer can be expected to churn through 200+ shells a day; a large truckload. Organic carry capacities of artillery units are limited, so you really need resupply every second or third day.
And that's what troops in mobile campaigns can expect; resupply every 2nd or 3rd day. It's the bare minimum, and there's little doubt (in my mind) that firepower could be increased much better by improving this supply situation than by adding more nominal firepower (guns, launchers) to the forces.

Still, the solution to the supply challenge in mobile warfare is elusive. Maybe we will see armies with combat-capable supply column battalions after the next 'big one', capable to push through obstacles and minor opposition by themselves and delivering on a daily schedule no matter what?

(4) Combat worthiness of non-combat units and personnel
Historical armies of times long gone spent the nights in large, concentrated camps with or without field fortifications. They moved out of these camps to either march on or to face another army on a field only one to three hours of march away. The non-combat personnel either followed them into battle (supplying arrows, spears, spare shields, water, playing music or simply carrying away the wounded) or stayed in camp. The camp had to be guarded, though - and this was not always done by some combat personnel that was meant to be preserved (such as the Triarii at Cannae). Quite often the non-combat personnel was expected to defend themselves in the camp.
Military history is rich in episodes about how non-combat personnel was incapable of self-defence, and poor in anecdotes about when they did well.

"Alarmeinheiten" (alarm units) - scraped-together rear area troops and lightly wounded combat troops of the German armed forces sent into a battle crisis in WW2 - didn't fare well either. Rear-area troops and air force troops turned infantry were a perpetual disappointment of already low expectations as well. The U.S.Army had this phenomenon as well when it reassigned air defence personnel to infantry.

A real self-defence combat-worthiness of non-combat troops has rarely, if ever, been achieved. This challenge may be one of training and personnel systems, of course. We would probably not have this kind of problem if almost all troops began their career as infantry and moved to supply, electronic stuff, staffs et cetera only later. It seems to be too late for such an approach, as the share of combat troops has fallen to a low point. 

The (lacking) combat-worthiness of non-combat units and personnel is still a problem. And it's a pressing one, as they need to provide their own 360° 24/7 security in a mobile warfare context.

(6) Discipline
Western military bureaucracies with their roots in the musket drill of the 18th century think of themselves as highly disciplined, but they aren't (judged by my expectations).
They excel in overt discipline, as was to be expected with such a background. They are just as bad as any other military force in self-discipline, though.
Sleep discipline, discipline in ammunition expenditure, self-discipline in face of "we need to do something" situations and, more recently, even uniform discipline are well below the expectations of many of us.

(7) Stupid budgeting
Let's boil this down to two distinct stupidities: Size and structure.

First, size.
Let's say a country has an economic output of 100 billion. Or it has one of 150 billion. Should the defence spending differ? In ancient times rich countries were more attractive for raiding, but that's no factor any more. So why would there be a relationship between a country's economy and its defence needs?
There's none, but the idea of linking economic output (GDP) to military spending through a per cent figure is a powerful, and apparently very intuitive one. And it keeps costing gazillions for no gain of security.
Imagine the country which moved from 100 billion GDP to 150 billion GDP was stupid enough to spend 4% GDP on "defense", and raised its government consumption for "defense" by 2 billion accordingly. After ten years of such spending no real security gain could be documented, but the spending was probably the equivalent of developing a drug that grows boobs naturally to D cup size. 
What would you prefer? Them sticking to a pointless percentage or bigger boobs?*

Second, structure.
The "hollow force" issue is a fine representative here. A "hollow force" is a military which still has plenty shiny platforms, but lacks the spares, training and consumables to be much good with them. I suppose this is rarely the outcome of incompetence and more often the outcome of poor incentives, including the top brass' attempt to blackmail politicians into providing bigger budgets while maintaining officer slots.
Getting the "mix" right is a more wide problem, though. The armies of the 1930's were much criticised for not investing enough in tanks and other modern hardware - in hindsight. How far they were off the optimum wasn't so easily visible at the time. Young officers knew that old artillery officers talking about horse-drawn guns were too old-fashioned, but few if any thought of what we now know as self-propelled guns; essentially tracked and lightly armoured vehicles with a rotating turret housing a gun-howitzer capable of high elevation. Yet this was understood to be the optimum by '44 already. The hasty experiments till then led to many dead ends.

Hardware aside, it's damn hard to allocate the resources well. People are stupid, and their budgets are stupid. Our intellect doesn't exactly combine to work out a budget. It's a perpetual struggle, and the outcomes are highly unsatisfactory considering the incredible amount of resources we could save if we knew better.

(8) Strategy
Don't let them fool you: There's almost no strategy in use that's worthy of the concept. Air warfare campaigns, for example. They're either entirely haphazard (such as South Ossetia 2006), reacting to developing events or they're strings of elaborate procedures which as a whole fall short of making much sense.
All too-often air warfare campaigns destroy a list of targets, don't register the desired effect, pile up more resources on the effort, rinse and repeat.**
The COIN crowd wasn't able to integrate all real-world restrictions into a fine answer to a strategic problem either; commanders rather piled up more resources to somehow drown the problem until they gave up.

Many people write and talk about strategy, all leaders pretend to have one - but there's hardly ever a good one used in war. They got plans, but hardly strategy. Strategy is what leads to success; by that measure we have at most one strategy, and a very dominant one: "If you fail at first, throw more resources on the pile!"
Our strategists are on par with Haig.

(9) Lessons and their retention
Mankind developed writing and alphabets, but it still fails to retain lessons. It takes units about three years to forget the lessons of warfare and merely a generation to forget the lesson of war. This, too, could be considered a challenge of self-discipline, but it's more. The young ones have the élan, the drive - but not the knowledge. The old ones have the knowledge, but their mind has settled and become dull, capable of heeding the pet lessons learned, but incapable of finding new answers to different problems.

The only way out may be to learn more, and sooner.

(10) Proper simulation of warfare
A German author-general (Uhle-Wettler) once recounted his experience with computer simulations; they showed that man-portable anti-tank weapons were close to useless. It turned out that the programmers had assumed that a RPG user would expose himself very much and be easily detected. A single wrong variable did ruin the entire tactical numerical model. The fools basically attempted to get a computer game's game mechanics right without the slightest bit of balancing.
It wasn't possible to determine the validity of this means of anti-tank defences through simulation because a correct simulation required that you knew the answer in form of the inputs beforehand.

Even as of today we simply fail on exercises to take indirect fires into account properly. We can simulate small arms fire with laser bursts and with smart phone-level hardware we should be able to fully integrate grenade effects in exercises, but we don't. Not properly. The result is a bad underappreciation of the dangerousness and influence of indirect fires.*** This applies particularly to the psychological effects.

A hundred years ago wargames were about map, pen and paper. Now we have gigahertz computer networks, but we still depend on input that's largely guesswork. Nothing really changed; we can simulate most things well that aren't about contacts with the enemy, and nothing well that's about contacts. We can calculate the movements of a supply convoy - but we don't know so well which and how many supplies we will need when and where, for example.

(11) To be continued...

...when I remember what else I wanted to mention here.

* I'm trying out some new rhetorical devices, obviously. What? You expected a link to a research project in the footnotes?
**: Going to write more about that later.
***: The indirect fires crowd gets some things wrong as well, but that's another story.

1 comment:

  1. IS success and numbers quite humiliate the US effort in the same region. Inefficiency of problem solutions and resource allocation for viable solutions will be a major issue. We are not really used to combat a smart enemy with a decent supply. In case of conflict, assassin's mace approaches might result in surprisingly cost-effective wins.