Chapter 5 - The Emergence of Modern War
The concentration of sheer destructive power in the hands of modern armies is, in itself, a truly significant change in the nature of warfare. However, perhaps more important than the exponential change in the tools of war is the manner in which modern wars are fought. In this regard two characteristics of modern war are so significantly different from the nature of past wars as to be regarded as substantial qualitative revolutions.
The first qualitative revolution in modern war is the ability of the technology of target acquistion to literally destroy any target that ventures upon the battlefield. Modern military forces are equipped with a wide range of electronic, laser, infrared, satellite, and optical devices that can turn the nighttime battlefield into day. Modern tank sights can easily locate a target in complete darkness at 3,500 yards. Even when the target cannot be seen by optical enhancing devices, its silhouette can be discerned by infrared and laser sights. Further, modern armies are now in their third generation of "smart munitions" which make it possible to virtually guarantee that if a target can be located it can be killed with alarming certainty and rapidity. One major result of these technological developments has been the disruption of the historical nexus between the size of combatants and their lethality. Now, for the first time in history, the size of an army is far less important to its ability to achieve victory than the degree of killing technology that it can bring to the battlefield. If the 1991 Gulf War proved anything, it was the demonstration of this proposition.
A second qualitative revolution in the conduct of war is the manner in which it is fought. Modern war is a war of speed, mobility, penetration, encirclement, envelopment, and, ultimately, of force annihilation. World War II was a linear war in which combat occurred along a generally well-defined front line with usually safe rear areas. World War II was also a tactical war in which most of the fighting was accomplished by units of division strength or less. The conventional war of the future presents a far different set of circumstances.
In modern conventional war, linear tactics are replaced by "swirling tactics." The combat reach of modern armies is so long and the mobility of combat vehicles -- both air and ground vehicles -- so great that armies must now plan to fight three battles at once. Combat doctrines require that units be able to fight the "direct" battle -- that is, to engage units directly to their front. But doctrine also requires that armies be able to simultaneously fight the "deep" battle, to reach out and strike deeply behind the enemy's lines with large combat forces to disrupt timetables, supplies, and reinforcements. Of course, one side's deep battle is the other side's "rear" battle so that armies must plan to deal with sizeable enemy forces engaged in attacking the rear. Some idea of the ferocity of these "rear" battles can be gained from the fact that the units attacking the enemy's rear are of division size or larger. Simultaneously, attack aircraft and helicopters roam hundreds of miles behind the lines wreaking havoc with their weapons.
Accordingly, the entire battlefield is highly unstable, a war not of fixed lines, but of swirling combat in which units will be expected to fight isolated from parent units. Units will be trapped, decimated, bypassed, isolated, and often expected to fight until they can no longer do so. In short, modern war is not a war of offense and defense as in World War II, but a war of meeting engagements in which all units are expected to conduct a continuous offensive.
Modern conventional war is no longer a tactical war in which most of the fighting is done by relatively small units of division size or less. Instead, modern war is an operational level war in which the scope of command and control moves back from the line divisions to the corps and theater commands. Larger units are simultaneously committed for objectives of greater scope. The operational level of war produces far more intense and destructive battles ranging over greater areas often, paradoxically, over shorter periods of time. These battles require the total integration of all combat resources within the theatre of operations to maximize the application of force. Modern battles are fought around the clock until objectives are achieved. The fall of night, historically the respite of the combat soldier, will come no more.
Taken together, then, it is fair to say that the qualitative revolutions in the technology of target acquisition and destruction when coupled with the qualitative revolution in the manner in which wars must be fought on the modern battlefield combine to produce a style of warfare that is itself qualitatively different from almost all war that has gone before. The challenging task for the modern officer is how to master these new circumstances.