Weapons  and  Tactics

Columnist Brig (Retd) ZA KHAN gives an overview of the changing concepts over the years.

Weapons and Tactics’ is a history of weapons, the organisations of armies and the tactics that have been employed in the 4000 years of recorded military history.

Fighting is as old as mankind, it requires weapons and tactics; a weapon is an instrument used for inflicting bodily harm and tactics is the art of employing men armed with weapons in battle. In periods of time, in the past, the same weapons have been available but different people have used them in different ways. When a weapon has been used successfully in certain way the method has invariably been copied and for long periods of time the methods have not changed but, inevitably, some minds have devised a way defeating the traditional and accepted methods.

Starting with the earliest battle whose records exist, the early weapons and tactics are discussed, the organisation and tactics of the early Egyptians, the improvements by the Assyrians, the clash between the Persian organisation and tactics with the Greek military system which produced the phalanx, which with its fearsome array of spear points, dominated the battlefields for a long period of time.

The phalanx was defeated by the Roman legion, a flexible organisation that took advantage of the inflexibility of the phalanx. The organisations, traditions and the discipline of the Romans influenced military organisation and thought in Europe, “Re De Militari” the book on the military institutions of the Romans, written by Vegetius with his advice “victory in war does not depend entirely on numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will ensure it” and the “Strategion” of the Emperor Maurice (582-602 AD) remained the military bibles of the rulers of Europe up to the time of Napolean.   

Included in the earlier military history is the Indian military organisation and philosophy of ‘open’ and ‘treacherous’ war as advocated in the “Athrashastra”, which was written by Kautilya, the adviser and minister of Chandragupta, the first emperor of the Maurya line.

The military systems of the early civilisations differed; nearly all civilisations created a backbone of a regular cadre of an elite warrior class and depended on compulsory military service or called a levy from population at the time of war. Civilisations that required compulsory military service developed excellent military organisations, doctrine and training.

The invention of the stirrup, which gave a horseman a stable seat on a horse from which he could wield a weapon without falling off the horse led to the domination of the battlefield by cavalry and the cavalry became the decisive arm. The horse mounted fighting men who brought about the defeat of the Roman legion, started the ‘cavalry era’ which lasted for over 1500 years. In this era the Muslims, fighting mounted, conquered vast territories in Asia and Africa and made inroads into Europe; the ‘cavalry era’ included the Mongol conquests in Asia and Europe.  The domination of the battlefield by horsemen led to the innovation of weapons to stop the cavalry, the crossbow, the long bow, the pike and the halberd.

The advent of firearms finished the age of valour and began the age of technology. Firearms were initially used in the form of cannons to reduce fortresses and they replaced the ancient battering rams and scaling of fortress walls. The next use of the firearms was on the battlefield, for a long time bows and arrows out ranged the musket and had a far greater rate of fire, the musketeer also required protection from charging cavalry hence pikemen and halberdiers had to be employed for their protection.

The field artillery came to the battlefield when guns became lighter and movable, early field artillery was not part of the army, guns were manned by contractors men and because of their short ranges and flat trajectory they were deployed ahead of the front rank of the infantry, it was in the mid-seventeenth century that the devastating effect of field artillery was employed by Gustavus Adolphus, the father of modern war, this eventually resulted in the famous dictum ‘war is made with artillery’.  

The introduction of the bayonet, in the mid-17th Century, is regarded as the end of medieval war and the beginning of modern war. The musketeer, with his complicated system of loading and firing and vulnerability to cavalry and assaulting troops, required pikemen and halberdiers for his defence and was almost useless after discharging his musket in the attack. With the socket bayonet fitted on the musket, the pikeman and the halberdiers were no longer required and these disappeared from the battlefield, the musketeer with fixed bayonet became effective in the attack and the disappearance of the pike and halberd simplified the battlefield deployment. The increased musketeers and field artillery increased firepower but cavalry remained the decisive arm. The revolution in war, at the beginning of the 18th Century put to an end the calling up of feudal levies by kings to settle their disputes, armies hereafter had to be raised, equipped with weapons, trained and paid; the pay of armies came from taxes and created national debts. 

The ‘Mansabdari System’ of the Moghals describes the military system, which developed in India in the 17th Century. Insulated by geographical features from all sides, a military system grew in India which had no military doctrine or method, it was able to meet the local needs but when it clashed with the system that had developed in Europe it failed against troops recruited locally but trained on European methods and commanded by Europeans.

By requisitioning the services of all Frenchmen in 1793, the ruling body of the French Revolution made war unlimited, the conscription improved the quality of manpower because men from all classes of society were conscripted; the order also mobilised all national resources for the defence of the country. The French conscription increased the French armies from about a quarter million to over a million, an order in 1794 grouped divisions into self-contained corps of all arms, this enabled armies to move as separate corps spread over distances of 30 miles to make the best use of roads and supplies, the handling of an army now required the skill of keeping the separated corps under control within mutual supporting distances and concentrating them at the decisive moment; the genius of Napoleon and the staff work of his Imperial Headquarters controlled these widely separated troops, brought them to battle and dazzled the world with victory after victory. 

The change from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy, starting in mid-18th Century, changed maritime and land communications and inventions weapons and their destructiveness. The rifled breech loading cannon, the Shrapnel shell, the Congreve rocket, breech loading rifle, the machine gun, all forced changes on the battlefield, for centuries armies had stood shoulder to shoulder facing their enemies in full sight a few hundred yards away, the new weapons emptied the battlefield, soldiers now began hiding behind cover and digging trenches. The spreading out of troops and the use of cover led to the problem of controlling the troops, individual and collective initiative required good junior officers and non-commissioned officers.

In the field of communications, where for centuries messages had been carried by hand or word of mouth, the Chapman optical telegraph and later the electric telegraph connected the major cities of Europe. The invention of the locomotive and the laying of the railway lines made it possible to move large armies over long distances and concentrate them. Moving men, weapons and supplies by trains and the administration of large armies involved work that required officers with special training this created the requirement for the ‘General Staff’.

The economic revolution in Europe and America which started at the beginning of the 18th Century accelerated rapidly and because of the rapid growth of population in these countries new sources of food and raw materials were sought which led to the rapid colonisation of Africa and the large part of Asia. Wars were waged against Red Indians, Africans, and Asians who did not have the military capability to resist the onslaught of the industrialised countries.

By the end of the 19th Century significant advances had been made in weapons, bolt action rifles with magazines and smokeless powder allowed riflemen to remain concealed and hit targets at great distances, machine guns provided a tremendous increase in firepower and recoil absorbing guns allowed artillery to fire explosive shells over long distances. At Plevna, the Turks effectively stopped the attacking Russian infantry and at St. Privat the French infantry brought an end of the domination of the battlefield by cavalry.

The increase in firepower, demonstrated by the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, where tens of thousands of soldiers faced each other yet none were visible, where the air was full of bullets and shrapnel made the spade an essential part of the soldiers accoutrement and required soldiers would obey, think, survive and fight not for hours, as in the past, but days on end.

In the forty years before the First World War, military theories were put forward on the effect battlefield of the industrial and technical development that had taken place; the theorists thought that trench warfare, as it had occurred in the Russo-Japanese war would not take place in Europe, that artillery and ‘elan’ would get the better of the defensive power of the rifle and the machine gun. The Germans tried outflanking in the initial stages of the war, the artillery with gas, the British tried artillery and later succeeded by using tanks.

The industrialisation of war, which started at the beginning of the 18th century, culminated in the mechanisation of war in the 20th Century. The First and the Second World Wars were fought with almost the same weapons; those of the Second World War were improved in quality and mechanically. The Second World War started with two military doctrines; the British and the French did not see the tank as a decisive weapon on the battlefield and considered it a weapon to support the infantry. Restrained by limitations imposed by the Versailles Treaty the Germans studied the exploitation of motorization to create new hard hitting, fast moving troops to penetrate to depths beyond the enemy’s reserve to dislocate the enemy physically and shatter the enemy commanders psychologically; the Blitzkrieg in May 1940, in which armoured forces supported by the German air forces, defeated the British and the French forces, was the crowning success of this doctrine.

In the Second World War, the battles fought in North Africa were truly battles between mechanised armies and as in Europe demonstrated the increasing importance of the effect of air power on land combat. It also brought out the vulnerability of open flanks, the difficulty of breaking through prepared defences. The Desert battles also showed the importance of logistics and the mechanical maintenance of mechanised forces.

The Second World War ended dramatically with the use of the atomic bomb, the closing stages also saw the introduction of the “multiple launch rocket system” which could blanket a vast area with exploding rockets, the “V1 flying bomb”, the forerunner of the cruise missile and the “V2 rocket” on which the present day long range missiles are modelled.

After the end of Second World War there have been about 65 wars, most of them have been fought to throw off the colonial yoke that was imposed in the 19th Century and all the industrialised countries tanks and aircraft could not retain control over the areas they had colonised. This period has seen the ability of a determined people with simple weapons to fight a protracted war, where conventional time and space are not important but the control of the will of the people is the battle winning factor. 

The end of the century has also seen the dream of the air power advocates come true, the land battle is dominated to a great extent by air power which the ground forces have to neutralise, the ground to air missile is affecting this domination but in the near future it is not likely to change this.

The dynamic nature of modern military technology makes the prediction of future land warfare difficult. Tactics are the technique of employing the resources that are available, countries with advanced technology will base their tactics on their technology and countries that lack advanced technology will have to plan to counter the advanced technology of their opponent.

In military thinking the minds of soldiers are influenced by habit and tradition than reason, there are always interests at stake and the army hierarchy, like other hierarchies, believes that ‘wisdom comes with seniority’. A country’s military doctrine is influenced by factors of manpower, industrial production, the national temperament, and the geo-political situation in relation to its enemies. Qualitative and quantitative superiority in equipment enhances the chances of success but seemingly inadequate resources, properly utilised, have repeatedly proved successful. The thought of man is the best weapon and thinking men constitute the best war machine.