The news this summer is, broadly speaking, terrible. There are some bright spots, to be sure, but the only thing that keeps me from wanting to skip directly to 2017 is that we’ll have to deal with all the ripple effects of 2016. And that will be no fun.
A day by the riverfront, 100 years ago
On the other hand, we are not battering each other with million-man armies over our competing interests. This was the case one hundred years ago today at the river Somme, as a British-led offensive stretched into four months of bloody toil against entrenched Germans.
How did we get here? How did we get from a time when you couldn’t make a difference in the field with less than 100,000 soldiers to a point where a mere 2,000 Marines floating around in an Amphibious Ready Group can have a major regional impact?
Welcome to the Age of Dispersion.
Clausewitz wrote “On War” in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, where to use a couple examples, about 75,000 French troops defeated 85,000 Russian, Austrian and allied troops at Austerlitz, and in which Napoleon invaded Russia with 680,000 soldiers. So he had some personal acquaintance with the notion of massing force at the decisive point, and he saw some very, very large forces get massed in his time. The principle continues to apply in everything, really – whatever it is you need to do during your day, you’d better do it with the right tools at the right time and place to get the desired effect. Whatever technological changes may have occurred in the last 200 years, Clausewitz is still correct on this basic point.
But the nature of the force has changed.
In the Great War of 1914-1918, just as in the Napoleonic Wars, the power of infantry was in great numbers. Each individual soldier carried a long gun with bayonet (a musket or rifle, 100 years apart) and maybe some grenades. When they fired their weapons, chances were they would hit precisely nothing of value. Individually, they couldn’t accomplish very much, but in big groups they could overwhelm a similarly-situated enemy.
And big groups were not terrifically hard to form. Relatively speaking, infantry were not difficult to train and equip, and, for authoritarian states like France and Russia, they were fairly easy to obtain. Thus, it was both logical and achievable for neighboring powers to one-up one another in building increasingly bigger and bigger armies to vie for domination of Europe. Similar dynamics were seen in the American Civil War (100,000 Union soldiers fought about 75,000 Confederates at Gettysburg).
But technology changed. Mechanization and mobility took away the advantages that infantry had enjoyed in the Nineteenth Century. New techniques with air power and wireless communications meant even a single grunt could achieve far more on the battlefield than his peer of a few decades before, despite being intrinsically the same old guy with a gun. Meanwhile, weapons were becoming both far more destructive and precise, culminating in nuclear weaponry and guided “smart” weapons – two very different concepts that revolutionized the battlefield in one key way: massed forces are now simply targets.
Forces like those seen at the Somme a century ago would today simply invite death from the sky. That could be in the form of rocket artillery like HIMARS or air-dropped bombs (nukes that kill everything or smart bombs that find you) – but either way, their presence in such concentration would mark them for instant death. The only solution: disperse!
Dispersion enables survival on the battlefield by not being seen – and, if you are seen, at least it won’t give away the location of your comrades. Large groups are likely to be seen; small groups are not. As a result, small but highly-trained and well-outfitted units dominate today’s modern militaries.
The same is true at sea – a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group on deployment almost never has all its ships in the same area. An aircraft carrier will almost always have another ship in sight for safety reasons, but other ships in company are often over the horizon. And in neither case are they the dozens of ships that would sail together in World War II.
Societally, this also means that governments feel less need to have large manpower-intensive forces at the ready; the draft is far rarer around the world today than it was 100 years ago. An army may still need a lot of people to maintain the aircraft and other equipment, but those are professional positions that cannot be filled by draftees off the street. Hastily filling a 100,000-man field army with the dregs of society is operationally dubious at best.
So we find ourselves in a virtuous circle where smaller and smaller forces are all that is necessary to reach a decision in war. Logically this should conclude with single combat, but I’m doubtful we’ll ever get that far (and I can’t envision any of our presidential candidates winning a duel with Vladimir Putin, or even Justin Trudeau, and no, WWE doesn’t count).
Of course, there’s a dark flip side. We are not the only ones to apply dispersion to military science. Every single terrorist organization or ideology, ever, applies this doctrine with everything they do. The enemy that cannot be found cannot be stopped or deterred. Thus, ISIL does all it can to motivate people it has never even met to act on their own with ISIL’s blessing. ISIL essentially disperses its force, a force of will, via religious-ideological means. Once their operatives show themselves, their survival rate approaches zero percent. But the damage is done by then.
What goes up must come down – but sometimes it must go up again. The drawback to technology is that it requires an industrial base to design, build and maintain. When the Big One comes (and I don’t mean the next San Francisco earthquake), all players will find that their exquisite modern weapons are exhausted in fairly short order because, as described here, their numbers are really quite small, but take a long time to produce. War remains violent, and a lot of the gear on all sides will be broken and lost, and its operators injured and killed. The bench is not deep and there will not be one-for-one replacements. Are we all just going to stop fighting because the VTC went down? If the objective is worthwhile enough to have been fighting over in the first place, then almost certainly not. Wartime exigencies will demand some sort of quick action – and a very real option is to try overwhelming the enemy with vast numbers of draftees. When the bulk of the tech has already been destroyed, dispersion will be less valuable and massed forces more effective.
So when SecState complains that Russia is behaving as if it’s the Nineteenth Century – well, maybe Russia is just ahead of its time.
Sorry, did you expect something uplifting?