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Cavalry to Computer: The Pattern of Military Revolutions

September 1, 1994 Topic: Security Tags: MuslimYugoslavia

Cavalry to Computer: The Pattern of Military Revolutions

Mini Teaser: The lessons of earlier revolutions seem to contradict much of the conventional wisdom with respect to the United States' prospective competitive military position. In a revolutionary epoch, long-term U.S. military dominance is not preordained

by Author(s): Andrew F. Krepinevich

The sixteenth century witnessed the onset of the Fortress Revolution, which involved the construction of a new style of defensive fortification employing lower, thicker walls featuring bastions, crownworks, ravelins, and hornworks, all of which were part of a defensive fortification system known as the trace italienne. As Geoffrey Parker observes, "normally the capture of a stronghold defended by the trace italienne required months, if not years." Static defenses thus effected a kind of "comeback" against the Artillery Revolution. However, as with artillery, the new fortification system was terribly expensive, a fact that limited its application and left considerable opportunity for operations in the field. This, in turn, shifted the focus back to infantry, where revolutionary developments permitted a new use of firepower; infantry moving beyond archers to the combination of artillery and musket fire on the battlefield in what might be termed the Gunpowder Revolution.

Muskets capable of piercing plate armor at a range of one hundred meters were introduced in the 1550s. The English abandoned longbows in the 1560s in favor of firearms. Finally, in the 1590s the Dutch "solved" the problem of muskets' slow rate of fire through a tactical innovation that saw them abandon the tight squares of pikemen in favor of drawing up their forces in a series of long lines. These linear tactics allowed for a nearly continuous stream of fire as one rank fired while the others retired to reload. Muskets were also attractive because they required little training in comparison to the years necessary to develop a competent archer (although linear tactics did require considerable drill). The large, tight squares of pikemen, which had proved so effective against cavalry, now became attractive targets for musket and artillery fire.

This revolution reached full flower in the campaigns of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years' War, which saw the melding of technology, military systems, operational concept, and new military organizations: a combination of pike, musketeers, cavalry and a large rapid-firing artillery component utilizing linear tactics--what has been described as the Swedish military system--yielded stunning success at Brietenfeld, Lutzen, Wittstock, Brietenfeld II, and Jankov.

Linear tactics were perfected under the Prussian military system of Frederick the Great, who achieved significant improvements in the rate of fire, as well as major improvements in supply. But this refined system would be overturned by the Napoleonic Revolution.

The French were the first to exploit the potential for a military revolution that had been building for several decades prior to Napoleon's rise to prominence. During this period, thanks to the emerging Industrial Revolution, the French standardized their artillery calibers, carriages and equipment, and fabricated interchangeable parts. Other improvements in industrial processes allowed the French to reduce the weight of their cannon by 50 percent, thereby increasing their mobility while decreasing transport and manpower requirements dramatically.

The introduction of the levée en masse following the French Revolution helped to bring about another quantum leap in the size of field armies. Men proved much more willing to defend and fight for the nation than the crown. Consequently, France's revolutionary armies could endure privations, and attack almost regardless of the cost in men (since they could call upon the total resources of the nation). In battle, the individual could be relied upon; skirmishers and individually aimed fire could be integrated to great effect into the rolling volleys of artillery and musketry. Furthermore, armies became so large that they could now surround and isolate fortresses while retaining sufficient manpower to continue their advance and conduct field operations, thus largely negating the effects of the trace italienne and the Fortress Revolution.

The latter part of the eighteenth century also witnessed the creation of a new self-sufficient military organization--the division--and saw the growing importance of skirmishers in the form of light infantry, and cavalry as a reconnaissance, screening, and raiding force. A growing network of roads in Europe meant it was possible for an army to march in independent columns and yet concentrate quickly. Coordination was also improved through the availability of much more advanced cartographic surveys.

Napoleon's genius was to integrate the advances in technology, military systems, and military organizations (including his staff system) to realize a dramatic leap in military effectiveness over the military formations that existed only a short time before. Indeed, it took the other major military organizations of Europe at least a decade before they were able to compete effectively with the Grande Armée that Napoleon had fashioned to execute what one author has termed the "Napoleonic blitzkrieg."

Between the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War, the introduction of railroads and telegraphs, and the widespread rifling of muskets and artillery again dramatically transformed the character of warfare--the way in which military forces are organized, equipped, and employed to achieve maximum military effectiveness. The result was the Land Warfare Revolution. In the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederate forces used their rail nets to enhance greatly their strategic mobility and their ability to sustain large armies in the field for what, in the war's final year, was continuous campaigning. Their exploitation of the telegraph facilitated the rapid transmission of information between the political and military leadership and their commanders in the field, as well as among the field commanders themselves. The telegraph also dramatically enhanced the ability of military leaders to mass their forces quickly at the point of decision and to coordinate widely dispersed operations far more effectively than had been possible during the Napoleonic era.

The effects of rifling, which improved the range and accuracy of musketry and artillery, were not as quickly appreciated by the American military. Union and Confederate generals who clung to the tactics of the Napoleonic era exposed their men to fearful slaughter, as at Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Gettysburg. The introduction of repeating rifles in significant numbers late in the conflict enabled the individual soldier to increase substantially the volume, range and accuracy of his fires over what had been possible only a generation or two earlier. One Confederate general is said to have observed that "had the Federal infantry been armed from the first with even the breechloaders available in 1861, the war would have been terminated within a year." Still, both sides did adapt eventually.

The campaigns of 1864 and 1865 were marked by the proliferation of entrenchments and field fortifications. Indeed, by the time Sherman's men were marching from Atlanta to the sea in 1864, they lightened their packs by throwing away their bayonets--but they kept their shovels. Shelby Foote notes that the Confederate forces opposing Sherman had a saying that "Sherman's men march with a rifle in one hand and a spade in the other," while Union troops felt that "the rebs must carry their breastworks with them." Arguably, many of the major battles toward the war's end bore a greater resemblance to operations on the Western Front in the middle of World War I than they did to early Civil War battles like Shiloh or First Manassas.

Over the next fifty years this new military regime matured. The increases in the volume, range, and accuracy of fires were further enhanced by improvements in artillery design and manufacturing, and by the development of the machine gun. Again, military leaders who ignored, or who failed to see clearly, the changes in warfare brought about by technological advances and who failed to adapt risked their men and their cause. This myopia was induced partly by the fact that no large-scale fighting occurred among the great powers of Europe between 1871 and 1914. World War I provides numerous examples of this phenomenon, as the military regime that began with the mid-nineteenth century revolution in land warfare reached full maturity. One recalls here the mutiny of the French army after the futile and bloody Nivelle Offensive, the appalling casualties suffered by the British at the Somme and Passchendaele, and by the French and Germans at Verdun.

Just trailing this revolution in land warfare was the Naval Revolution. The Revolution of Sail and Shot had long since matured. The wooden ships that were powered by the wind and armed with short-range cannon that had dominated war at sea had not changed appreciably since the sixteenth century. But over the course of a few decades of rapid change from the mid-1800s to the first years of the twentieth century, these vessels gave way to metal-hulled ships powered by turbine engines and armed with long-range rifled artillery, dramatically transforming the character of war at sea. As persistent challengers to British naval mastery, the French consistently led the way early in the Naval Revolution. In 1846 they pioneered the adoption of steam propulsion and screw propellers on auxiliary ships. In 1851 they launched the Napoleon, the first high-speed, steam-powered ship of the line. And in the late 1850s, France began constructing the first seagoing ironclad fleet. The British, however, quickly responded to these French innovations, taking the lead in applying these technologies. The mature phase of this revolutionary period found Britain attempting to sustain its position against a new challenger, Imperial Germany, by launching the first all-big-gun battleship, H.M.S. Dreadnought, in 1906. This period also saw the introduction of the submarine and the development of the torpedo. Indeed, the development of these two instruments of war led to the introduction in World War I of entirely new military operations--the submarine strategic blockade and commerce raiding, and anti-submarine warfare.

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