Warfare has always been a business of fits and starts. A technical development here or a doctrinal revision there have given fleeting, ephemeral advantages to one side, which have often been enough to shape history.
Ephemeral advantage can come in a number of forms. Napoleonic French armies, animated by the principles of revolution and a meritocracy that took Bernadotte from private soldier to the throne of Sweden, were unified by a moral purpose that overwhelmed the anciens régimes of Europe. The Great German General staff created by Moltke the Elder brought unprecedented rigour to the intellectual analysis of war and in its Second (Operations) Directorate represented a cognitive advantage that could be decisive in its own right. And, of course, technical innovation can give you the drop on any enemy, as the English longbow at Crécy, Swedish artillery at Brietenfeld or the American atomic weapon at Hiroshima illustrate.
On rare occasions ephemeral advantage can come from a serial combination of factors. Napoleon’s organisational system created corps that were a balanced mix of all combat elements and a predatory logistical doctrine that lived off the land it advanced through. The constituent corps of La Grande Armée were capable of independent manoeuvre, concentrating only to create overwhelming force at the decisive point: the cardinal principle of all Napoleonic warfare.
Based on this operational design, the French covered the distance from the Channel coast to Bohemia between September and December of 1805, swatting aside an Austrian army at Ulm and occupying Vienna on the way. With the final corps arriving to complete the concentration of force the night before battle, the French then held the Russo-Austrian assault, before counter-attacking with the fabled élan of the revolution in arms to deliver Bonaparte’s masterpiece at Austerlitz.
Later in the 19th century, technology conspired to transform warfare. The development of a continental railway system meant that large armies could be mobilised and concentrated, over considerable distance, at a fraction of the time and logistic cost that had previously been possible. Telegraph meant that the orders of the operational headquarters (the level at which campaigns are designed) could be delivered to the tactical commander (the level at which battles are fought) almost instantaneously. This created a dexterity in the system of command that led to far greater agility on the battlefield and empowered those with the imagination to grasp its opportunities. Finally, at the business end of battle, rapid firing, breech loading (which meant the crew could be protected) and rifled artillery increased the available firepower by orders of magnitude.
When these ingredients were mixed and lightly seasoned with the genius of Helmuth von Moltke, the formidable power of the Prusso-German school of strategic thought was born, characterised by mass, speed of manoeuvre and delegated command.
So much for fits and starts. But these quick spurts have been fundamentally impermanent, as the opposition either caught up or developed countermeasures in the fluid environment of strategic competition. A much more intractable challenge in the nature of warfare has been an occasional condition of hiatus. By this I mean a combination of factors that, rather than conferring an opportunity to grasp and exploit, imposes an intellectual and material stasis on the battlefield that, in turn, implies strategic gridlock.
A cautionary example is the First World War, up to 1917. The evidence of the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian and Russo-Japanese Wars was balefully clear: to oppose the exponentially increasing volumes of accurate firepower with infantry assault was profligacy on a criminal scale. Yet, as Barbara Tuchman’s timeless classic The Guns of August attests, the spirit of the bayonet dominated what passed for military imagination in the meeting engagements in the first month of the war and 67,000 French casualties on a single day (22nd August, of whom 27,000 died) was the result. The British epiphany occurred later, at the Somme where, eventually, even the notoriously intransigent Erich von Ludendorff conceded that the battle marked “the muddy grave of the German army”.
If anything marks an hiatus in warfare, it is the hundreds of thousands of casualties exchanged for negligible territorial gains during the period 1914 -17. Even at the time, the causes were well understood. Firepower dominated the battlefield where tactical command was still exercised by voice communication. Field telephone cables were laid by signallers accompanying the assault waves, but they were invariably cut by shellfire and so sub-unit manoeuvre could never be coordinated, artillery fire was not adjusted on to target and local advantage was impossible to exploit. In the age of Machine War, command was exercised using medieval techniques.
When Captain Billy Nevill of the East Surreys kicked a football in the direction of the German lines at the Somme on the 1st of July 1916, he hoped to display the sort of cool nonchalance that characterised his generation of officers. In fact, as he was completely unable to influence the battle in any way beyond personal example, he showed as much tactical imagination as was evident anywhere on that first day of the battle. And, more poignantly, the futility of trying to go against the grain of the hiatus that had descended on the battlefield.
By late 1917 tactical and logistical procedures were vastly improved, as were communications techniques, and, crucially, a limited form of protected mobility emerged, in the form of the tank, which counterposed high velocity projectiles with armour rather than the human body. The hiatus was finally broken in 1918 when the German assault on the 21st of March restored manoeuvre to the battlefield, before Allied mastery of the newly mobile warfare led to victory in November. German survivors of these titanic battles would later invert the hiatus of the early years of the war with the combination of tanks, infantry, artillery and intimate air support, all facilitated by radio communication, that became the Blitzkrieg of 1940.
Some observers have claimed to see echoes of World War I in the current Ukraine conflict (see ‘Echoes of the Great War in Ukraine’) and the chance of hiatus being added to the body of evidence looks increasingly possible. The reconnaissance elements of the present Ukrainian counter-offensive are currently probing Russian defences across the width of the contact zone in order to detect weakness. The Ukrainian main mass of manoeuvre is being held in dispersed depth positions and will concentrate to provide overwhelming force at the decisive point only when critical Russian vulnerability has been identified.
So far, so Napoleonic – but Bonaparte did not have to contend with a transparent battlefield. Sensor coverage and fidelity in the digital age means that anything that moves or emits heat or any seismic or electronic signature will be immediately detected. If a lucrative enough target, it will then be engaged within minutes, with a good probability of a first-round hit. Anything resembling the concentration of a formation-sized force (brigade or above and the minimum required to breach a main Russian defensive position) will be addressed by the entire inventory of Russian tube and missile artillery, conventional air and sea launched weapons, drones and longer-range cruise missiles.
And it cuts both ways. If the Ukrainians were able to achieve a breakthrough, the immediate Russian response would be to deploy an uncommitted reserve held in sufficient depth to be out of range of Ukrainian battlefield systems. This force would then have to negotiate the equivalent space, air and ground-based sensor network that would spot it deep and cue the weapons that would engage, disrupt and quite possibly neutralise it before it could close to the combat zone. In fact, for the Russians, it gets worse. In what has been described as the civilianisation of the digital battlefield, the Ukrainians have developed a range of techniques that allows civilians in Russian-occupied territory to upload tactical information from smartphone applications, providing yet another layer to the sensor array.
In sum, tactical immobility has been restored to the battlefield. Indeed, it may be that the “meat-grinding” tactics of the battle for Bakhmut are less an example of military recidivism than recourse to the only form of fighting that actually works, at least for now. Every battlefield hiatus comes to an end. Dependence on a sensor picture gives extraordinary opportunities for deception – deceive the picture on which the enemy has become habitually reliant and you dislocate both his internal processes and cognitive predisposition. Perhaps there is a role for AI in moving ahead of human perception or breaching the sensor/shooter link. Whatever form it takes, the step that breaks the hiatus will come, because it always does.
But in the meantime, both combatants and the onlooking world must negotiate the concomitant strategic gridlock. For as long as it lasts, this must favour the status quo advantage held by Russia in occupying tracts of Ukrainian territory. Equally, tactical hiatus will heap pressure on President Zelensky to concede strategically as the world grows restless for a fix. In a striking parallel with 1918, the imperative requirement now is to find the game-breaking solution. That’s what will be preoccupying the best minds in Kyiv and the Western military/academic complex right now.
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