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Fighting the Last War?

By Robert M. Citino
1/6/2010 • Fire for Effect

A few weeks ago I was pretty hard on U.S. air power advocates in the interwar era.  Inventing a new form of war out of whole cloth, they came up with some pretty specious concepts like “precision daylight bombing” that failed to survive the test of real-world operations.  “As always,” I wrote then, “it was the men at the point of the spear–the bomber crews–who paid the price when doctrine clashed with reality” (Wild Blue Yonder II, Sunday, November 1st, 2009).

But the more I thought about that post, the more I came to see that it was a bit unfair.  Indeed, the disconnect between doctrine for how wars are supposed to be fought and they are actually fought was present in spades within the U.S. Army as well.  Not only that, it was present to an astonishing degree in ALL the military establishments that found themselves at war after 1939.

The U.S. Army, for example, came up with a unique armored doctrine that envisioned tanks actually avoiding tank-to-tank combat on the battlefield.  Beating enemy armor was the job of another vehicle altogether, the “tank destroyer”–big gun, lightly armored, sometimes open-topped.  The U.S. would abandon this concept after the war, and no one else copied it–for good reason.  The British army came into the war enamored of light armor, “tankettes”, and independent “jock columns,” all of which were unable to stand up to the pounding inherent in modern combat.  The French intended to fight a rigidly controlled “methodical battle,” and instead found themselves in a maneuver contest with the Wehrmacht in 1940.  It went badly.  The Soviet Army had a well formulated and ambitious interwar doctrine called “deep battle”–and indeed it did spend the better part of the first two campaigning seasons moving deeply.  Unfortunately all the movement was in reverse.  The Imperial Japanese Army devised perhaps the most mistaken idea of all:  that the “warrior spirit” of their officers and men would make up for a clear inferiority in material and technology.  Their casualty statistics–even in places like Guadalcanal, where the numerical odds were fairly even–were staggering.

Even the Germans, usually pegged as the ones who “got it right” in the interwar era, came up empty.  They trained and equipped their army to fight short, sharp campaigns of maneuver and destruction that would–eventually, at some future point, who knew when?–force their enemies to sue for peace.  They had some success, up to a point.  And then, of course, they wound up fighting a war of attrition on a global scale.

We often excoriate armies for getting ready to “fight the last war.”  In some sense, they all do that.  It’s unavoidable.  The real problem, however, is that they train based on mistaken notions of what the next war will be like.  And they always will, until someone devises a way to peer into the future.

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