Chapter 5 - The Emergence of Modern War
Post-World War II
The debut of nuclear weapons makes it necessary in modern times to clearly distinguish between nuclear and conventional weapons. Only 8 years after Hiroshima, nuclear artillery shells were invented, and 3 years later these shells were small enough to be fired from a 155 millimeter howitzer. By 1970, U.S. and Soviet navies had deployed nuclear torpedoes capable of sinking the largest aircraft carriers with a single shot. Nuclear bombs that in the 1950s, weighed many tons became smaller so that they could be placed under the wings of fighter aircraft. In the 1950s, nuclear reactors were used for the first time to power a strike carrier. Within 10 years nuclear powered missile frigates and cruisers appeared. Nuclear missiles mounted on nuclear powered submarines capable of staying submerged for months were developed and deployed by the 1960s. These missiles grew in range until it was possible to place several Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) -- (warheads) -- on a single missile. By 1985 the Trident II submarine carried 24 missiles each mounting 10 separate warheads of almost half a megaton each. Firing submerged, the Trident's missiles have a range of over 8,000 miles. Land-based strategic missiles are capable of destroying cities from 10,000 miles away in a single blow.
There is a sense, as Napoleon is supposed to have remarked, that quantity conveys a quality all its own. The increase in destructive capacities of conventional weapons have also been enormous, so much so that in any other age these quantitative changes in destructive power would have been regarded as qualitative revolutions in the nature of war. In the modern age, nuclear weapons provide the baseline from which weapons effects are measured. Thus, it does not seem so horrendous, for example, that whole battalions can be exterminated by a single barrage from new artillery weapons when it is possible to exterminate whole cities in the time it takes a flash bulb to burn out. Like most things in modern life, even the destructive effects of war have become relative.
In 1980 the U.S. Army estimated that modern non-nuclear conventional war had become 400 to 700 percent more lethal and intense as it had been in World War II depending, of course, on the battle scenario. The increases in conventional killing power have been enormous, and far greater and more rapid than in any other period in man's history. The artillery firepower of a maneuver battalion, for example, has doubled since World War II while the "casualty effect" of modern artillery guns has increased 400 percent. Range has increased, on average, by 60 percent, and the "zone of destruction" of battalion artillery by 350 percent. Advances in metallurgy and the use of new chemical explosives has increased the explosive power of basic caliber artillery by many times. A single round from an 8-inch gun has the same explosive power as a World War II 250 pound bomb. Modern artillery is lighter, stronger, and more mobile than ever before. Computerized fire direction centers can range guns on target in only 15 seconds compared to 6 minutes required in World War II. The rates of fire of these guns are three times what they used to be. So durable are the new artillery guns that they can fire 500 rounds over a 4 hour period without incurring damage to the barrel. Range has increased to the point where the M-110 gun can fire a 203 millimeter shell 25 miles. The self-propelled gun has a travel range of 220 miles at a speed of 35 miles per hour. Area saturation artillery, in its infancy in World War II, has become very lethal. A single Soviet artillery battalion firing 18 BM-21 rocket launchers can place 35 tons of explosive rockets on a target 17 miles away in just 30 seconds. The American Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) is a totally mobile self-contained artillery system that can place 8,000 M-77 explosive rounds on a target the size of six football fields in less than 45 seconds. Air defense guns have developed to where a single M-163 Vulcan cannon can fire 3,000 rounds of explosive 20-millimeter shot per minute with almost 100 percent accuracy within 2 miles of the gun position. Modern antiaircraft guns command 36 times the airspace around their position as they did in World War II.
Tanks have improved in speed, reliability, and firepower. Modern tanks can make 40 miles per hour over a 300 mile range, or three times that of earlier tanks. A tank equipped with modern gunsights and a cannon stabilization system has a probability of scoring a first round hit of 98 percent, 13 times greater than World War II tanks. Modern battletanks, unlike any earlier variety, can also fire while on the move. Their probability of hitting the target while moving is almost 10 times greater than the probability of a World War II tank firing from a stabilized position. New propellants and ammunition design have increased the lethality of the modern tank. During the Iraqi-U.S. war in 1991, Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) rounds moving at 5,467 feet per second pierced 4 feet of sand in bunkered berms and still destroyed enemy tanks. Tank gunsights, lasers connected to computers, can locate a target in the dark, smoke, rain, or snow at 2,000 yards.
The armed combat helicopter has produced a revolution in tank and armor killing power available to the combat commander. These weapons can be configured to kill either troops or tanks, and are truly awesome weapons. The Apache gunship carries 16 Hellfire antitank missiles that need only minimal further direction after they are fired to home in on the target. New sights allow the helicopter to acquire its target from more than 5 miles away. The helicopter has added new mobility and stealth to the battlefield permitting a division commander to strike with troops or antitank weapons 60 miles to his front, four times the range in World War II. The infantry, too, has increased its range, mobility, and firepower with new armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles. Infantry can also bring to bear shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles and Jeep and Hummer mounted TOW antitank missiles with devastating results.
The modern battlefield is a lethal place indeed. To place the increased intensity of the modern non-nuclear conventional battlefield in perspective, one need only remember that, in World War II, heavy combat was defined as 2-4 combat pulses a day. Modern combat divisions are configured to routinely deliver 12-14 combat pulses a day and to fight around the clock by night operations. A modern U.S. or Soviet motorized division can deliver three times as much firepower at 10 times the rate as each could in World War II. By these and any other historical (or human) standard, even conventional weapons have in a very real sense become quite unconventional.