Why War Studies? – An Interview with A Graduate

University of Birmingham Graduate Zoë Vince on War Studies at Birmingham.

– What are the main advantages of a degree in War Studies? How would you try to convince someone considering this option?

War Studies is an extremely diverse, engaging and highly flexible subject to study at undergraduate level, offering a range of thematic and detailed modular options throughout three years of study.  I would recommend that anyone interested in the subjects of politics, sociology and history and their respective links to either past or present conflicts should consider the merits of a War Studies qualification.  I would also urge those interested in such a path to thoroughly research the alternative War Studies programmes in other universities than Birmingham, such as King’s College London (KCL), because each programme, due to institutional tradition, preferences and teaching staff, offers a different focus on the study of warfare.

Studying for a War Studies degree facilitates the development of sought-after transferable skills, as traditionally found with subjects such as history and English.  More than this, however, War Studies offers the opportunity to study a multidisciplinary subject, demonstrating to prospective employers a willingness to engage with diverse material and develop a broad, not merely detailed, knowledge base.  War Studies is a ‘stand-out’ degree; unlike more common subjects, answering the question “what did/do you study?” with “War Studies” will always be greeted with genuine interest.  Finally, I would posit that War Studies is a genuinely enjoyable subject and is always interesting and challenging.

– What are the differences and similarities with a history degree?

The War Studies department at the University of Birmingham is based in the School of History and Cultures, whereas KCL’s is part of the School of Social Science and Public Policy, meaning that Birmingham’s programme is more, although not exclusively, centred on historical conflicts.  The modular course structure affords a significant degree of flexibility, which results in War Studies and history students attending many of the same classes, depending on individual interests.  Indeed, I have found that many history students, having been unaware of the opportunity to study War Studies, have come to prefer War Studies-led modules and even express regret that they chose single honours history.

The main difference between War Studies and history at Birmingham is the core War Studies modules, of which there is one in first and third year, and two in second year.  These modules are: War, Armed Forces and Society (1st year), Strategy and Operational Art, Rise of Modern Warfare (2nd year) and Writing the History of Warfare (3rd year).  These War Studies modules cover many multifaceted topics, concerning conflicts from the ancient world up to the present.

By way of assessment, students are permitted to choose their preferred essay questions, allowing independent research into a topic of interest.  For example, I chose such subjects as Thucydides’ continued influence amongst Anglo-American historians and political scientists, the reasons behind Frederick the Great’s operational successes, and a comparative study of Blitzkrieg and Deep Battle theory.  Students then build on this by choosing more specific, elective modules, which are also attended by history students; some, however, believe that going back into a mixed class can dilute the quality of debate, the War Studies students having had the benefit of specialist teaching.

In short, history and War Studies at Birmingham are closely linked, but War Studies students will fiercely argue that they are presented with the opportunity to become truly knowledgeable in a broad field, compared with the history student’s command of often a (relatively) short period.

 What general skills, not directly related to the subject but in demand in the labour market, are best developed by students in this area?

As previously mentioned, War Studies students develop all of the best traits of those reading Arts degrees.  Employers commonly require evidence of verbal and written communication skills, presentation skills and independent research skills.  Time management, organisational skills and analytical skills are equally sought after.  Reading for Arts degrees, which have notoriously short contact hours and a high level of independence, and which require a series of long and detailed assessments, therefore provides students with an excellent foundation of skills for later employment.

With regards to War Studies specifically, there is a focus on subjects related to decision making and leadership, and the exploration of organisational structures and operational successes which can easily be applied to the workplace, our graduates having more of a detailed grasp on logical processes and the requirements of a successful organisation.  This would translate well to employers, in comparison with a history degree which largely addresses themes and theories.

What do War Studies graduates usually do after their first degree?

A large proportion of War Studies graduates go on to further study.  Some choose to complete Law conversion courses, while a small number go on to train as teachers.  Many apply to read conflict related postgraduate degrees, either at Birmingham in areas such as the world wars or religious warfare, or at KCL, for example, where more contemporary,  policy based MAs and PhDs can be studied.

For those continuing directly into employment there are a wide variety of paths to consider. Public service is a popular choice, with graduates working for the Civil Service FastStream, the management training programme, or research and development organisations such as MoD trading fund Dstl. Some graduates prefer literary careers, working for think tanks or journals as writers or researchers, or for publishing and editing companies; some of our undergraduates have completed internships with a locally based military book publisher, for example.  Legal careers at lower levels also appeal to some, and additionally we have graduates in areas such as social media, demonstrating the diversity of the degree.

As might be expected, a large percentage of War Studies graduates go on to successful careers in the Armed Forces, particularly the Army, for which Birmingham has a highly commended Officer Training Corps. Generally speaking, academic and military careers are the most popular for our graduates.

 Do you expect the coming centenary of the First World War to prompt more interest among students in applying for such degrees?

I am not sure if school-leavers will be more likely to choose War Studies, as many of our undergraduates are attracted to the broader phenomenon of war, rather than a specific conflict.  There may well be a surge in interest for universities which offer courses related to the subject, but this has to be weighed up with the hugely rising cost of undergraduate degrees and the relative merits of Arts degrees compared to their scientific and technical counterparts.

I do think, however, that the centenary will have a positive impact on those pursuing further study, or returning to study, by taking advantage of Birmingham’s specialism in the First World War and our excellent teaching staff, and undertaking a postgraduate qualification, at master’s or doctoral level.  It must be noted though, that the public perception of the First World War, which is likely to be enhanced by the government’s programme for commemorating the centenary, is noticeably incompatible with the university’s programme of revisionist study.  It is for this reason that I think that Birmingham will continue to attract only those genuinely interested in the thorough, detailed study of the conflict.

 What are the main strengths of Birmingham University in this area?

The University of Birmingham contains the highly regarded Centre for First World War Studies, founded by Dr John Bourne, which has benefited from the teachings of Gary Sheffield, Jonathan Boff, Spencer Jones, Maj. Gen. David Zabecki (U.S. Army, ret.), Pierre Purseigle and the late Bob Bushaway. These scholars and others have contributed a huge amount of research into a range of aspects of the Great War, which have been largely characterised by the revisionist ‘side’ of the debate over ‘Lions led by Donkeys’.  Birmingham can certainly offer those interested in studying the First World War a thoroughly enjoyable and highly regarded qualification in the subject.  The current First World War Studies Master’s degree is a part time course, taught through monthly Saturday schools across two years, and is therefore greatly suited those fascinated by the subject but unable to commit to full time study.

 How does the War Studies Society at Birmingham contribute to students’ learning?

The War Studies Society, founded by undergraduate students in 2009, largely served as an undergraduate social group and mediating body between students and staff, concerning academic matters, until late 2011.  Since then, the Society has embraced postgraduate students and broadened its focus to include careers opportunities and community work.  I would say that the Society contributes to students’ learning by offering students from all levels opportunities to interact and discuss their work, encouraging debate and a reinforcement of material learned through formal academic study.  Some postgraduates in particular, having been out of academia for a sometimes significant number of years, find it useful to discuss their methods and techniques for assessment with younger students.  Fostering this community of likeminded individuals really aids the learning process and also builds friendships and networking links.

Could you tell us a bit about some of the events and activities which the Society organised last year?

Last year we organised a range of activities, including social events like day trips, notably to Bletchley Park, as well as meals, pub crawls and quizzes.  A particular success has been the monthly postgraduate dinner, which gives the master’s students an opportunity, after their monthly day school, to socialise with undergraduates and occasionally professors.

In late November 2012 the Society held its first fundraising event, which raised £320 for the Armed Forces’ wing at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.  The event involved a First World War-themed football match, emulating the Christmas 1914 truce between British and German soldiers.  All participants dressed up and there was a fantastic raffle, talks by the Western Front Association, authentic Edwardian cakes and period music by a live brass band.

Another first was the careers event held in Spring 2012, which hosted presentations from Jaguar Land Rover armoured vehicles, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), Helion military publishers and RUSI journal, as well as speakers with information about Law conversions, War Studies postgraduate courses and Birmingham’s accredited employability course.

Which one was your favourite?

My favourite was definitely the careers event, which I presented myself to over forty undergraduates.  Given that there are only 75 War Studies undergraduates in total, and that a percentage already have a career in mind, this was a very good turn-out.  A common complaint within the department is that information about related careers is scarce, with any History and Cultures careers events focusing on the heritage sector and academic pathways.  The War Studies Society thus filled a gap in the market, so to speak, by holding this event, and provided much desired information to students who were unaware that War Studies can be applicable to so many diverse careers.  I was particularly pleased to see students talking with the representatives, some signing up for internships, and even the representatives themselves exchanging details.  I am hoping that this careers focus will be continued, as it is clearly sought after by undergraduates.

Interview by Alex Calvo, WWII MA student at Birmingham University


Between Shackleton and Chamberlain: Japanese options concerning the Senkaku Islands

The Falkland Islands: A lesson missed?

Thirty years and hundreds of books and articles after the 1982 Falklands War in the South Atlantic, not to mention films, documentaries, and academic conferences, it may not be unreasonable to expect that the lessons of the conflict had been learned. Foremost among those lessons would be that the failure to develop the economy of a contested territory sends a signal to would-be aggressors indicating that it will not be defended, thus inviting foreign powers to use force. This is what happened when successive British governments failed to invest in the Falkland Islands, insisting instead on forcing the local inhabitants to “cooperate” with Argentina in the hope that growing trade and investment links would pave the way to an orderly transfer of sovereignty. In the words of a minister to his Argentine counterparts, it was matter of “seduction, not rape.”

Not content with forcing the locals to accept an Argentine presence in key sectors such as air transportation, London commissioned a report by a committee headed by Lord Shackleton (son of the great explorer) with the thinly disguised intention of proving once and for all that the Falklands were an economic ‘dead end’ and not worthy of any attention. The move backfired, however, with the resulting text reaching the opposite conclusion that they did have a future as long as certain essential changes and investments took place. This advice, however, was not heeded even though it succeeded in convincing some in Argentina that British investors were about to intervene, creating the need for Argentina to act promptly to preempt Britain.

The Senkakus – History repeating itself?

The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, though, not history whose lessons have been learned in countries such as Japan. There, the government keeps blocking the economic development of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims under the name “Diaoyu”, with Beijing orchestrating a constant string of incidents.  Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the islands, with Beijing and Chinese nationalists in Taiwan not too secretly hoping that this overlapping claim will help bring about the latter’s Anschluss.

Why is Tokyo still insisting on keeping the islands out of bounds for ordinary Japanese citizens? The issue is now under the spotlight following a string of incidents this summer and the proposal by Tokyo Governor Ishihara to buy three of the islands from their private owners with a view to their economic development. Ishihara later offered to desist in exchange for the Japanese Government building a fishing harbour in the area.

Bureaucrats at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, however, are still trying to achieve peace in our time with China and the government has moved to buy these islands, not to develop them as Governor Ishihara wanted, but to reinforce the policy of freezing them from any meaningful development of presence of Japanese citizens. Not surprisingly, this has been interpreted by China as a sign of weakness, and scenting blood the regime has authorized a number of demonstrations over recent months, many of which have turned violent. In addition to some attacks on Japanese citizens in China, a number of business facilities owned by Japan or somehow connected to the country have been set on fire or otherwise damaged.

Thousands of Anti-Japan protesters march in Shenzhen, Southern China

In spite of this, many mainstream newspapers are supporting the view that it is endless talks, instead of a firm posture, that will reduce the chances of war. Their reaction to the widespread riots has just been to ask for more talks, more dialogue, more peace initiatives, in other words more appeasement. They seem to have forgotten the lesson of the long years of talks between London and Buenos Aires, leaving the Falklands starved of much needed investment, and they are suggesting the same approach: talks without development.

How has such an important lesson in inviting aggression by a continental power bent on maritime expansion been forgotten? Should not the events leading to the 1982 Argentine invasion have acted as a warning to the well-meaning Japanese voices calling for talks instead of the economic development of the Senkaku? Unfortunately two traits in human nature militate against this: the expectation that by being reasonable so will be one’s adversaries, and that elusive but seemingly natural and superficially attractive search for “peace”.

After decades of keeping the Senkaku Islands “frozen”, as a token of good intentions and in a bid not to “provoke” Beijing, there is not the slightest thread of evidence that the policy has succeeded in moderating China’s claims or the options to which she may be ready to resort to secure her objectives. Furthermore, Japanese weakness is not only whetting Chinese appetites but offering them an opening to undermine Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty and ‘real’ democracy. Needless to say, preventing the island becoming part of China once more is a major Japanese national security imperative. We could even say that the value of the Senkaku Islands themselves lies to a great extent in their proximity to Taiwan, to a Taiwan out of China’s grasp. If Beijing came to dominate or even ‘Finlandize’ the island, Japan would see her Southern flank and some vital SLOCs (sea lines of communication) cut off anyway, regardless of the fate of the Senkaku.

Thus Japan has two options, just like Great Britain in the 1970s: the Shackleton approach, defended by Governor Ishihara, or that of the Foreign Office, still dominant in political circles. Although history rarely repeats itself exactly, those advocating the latter course would do well to examine some troubling historical precedents.


Alex Calvo is a student at the MA in WWII Studies, University of Birmingham

The man behind the Schlieffen plan and his strategic vision


Alfred Graf von Schlieffen

Schlieffen’s strategic vision was dominated by his conviction that a bold, swift, offensive attack on France using a wide outflanking manoeuvre would be the only solution to breaking Germany’s geopolitical encirclement.  France would have to be beaten quickly before Russia could fully mobilise and attack in the east.  Schlieffen’s work as Chief of the General Staff focused almost single-mindedly on this particular strategy, from building up the armed forces, through technological advancement to staff officer training, with the aim of preparing for a possible pre-emptive strike in the early 1900s.  Schlieffen’s strategic views owe in part to the works of firstly Clausewitz, and also in more practical terms to the elder Moltke, whom he succeeded as Chief of the General Staff.  However, it is interesting to note that despite Citino’s claim that German strategy shows continuity on the strategic and operational level from the age of Bismarck to that of Ludendorff and even to Hitler, Schlieffen’s strategic planning deviates from his predecessors somewhat.  His arrival at these views must also, in part, be due to his particular character and position, aloof and withdrawn from political and diplomatic circles, he no doubt suffered in the key areas of ‘statecraft’ as he considered his own role to be concerned mainly with the tactical and operational levels.  Schlieffen’s work is characterised out of necessity by the geopolitical and technological developments and limitations of his time.  In summary, the bold manoeuvre style of war planning for which Schlieffen is so famous was influenced mainly by the specific problems encountered by Germany as a newly powerful state in the centre of Europe, as well as the growing diplomatic developments bringing Germany’s enemies closer together.  Schlieffen devised a solution to this particular problem, however his numerous and notable omissions for example in the areas of politics and logistics, led to his ‘plan’ being eventually altered and discredited in its final form.

It is important to place Schlieffen’s strategic vision in the context of his peers’.  Rothenberg makes it clear that “Schlieffen’s strategic practices, if not his basic concepts, were a break in continuity from Clausewitz and Moltke”.  The main principles of Schlieffen’s strategic views were as follows: offensive, maneuver, mass, and economy of force, put to use with the aim of outflanking and destroying the enemy forces.  In addition to this, Schlieffen greatly underestimated Clausewitz’s insistence on friction, or the ‘fog of war’.  The elder Moltke in particular designed his command system with this in mind, reasoning that “no plan survives contact with the enemy’s main body” (Citino), resulting in his flexible ‘Auftragstaktik’, or mission tactics.  In sharp contrast, Schlieffen’s strategic planning has been labelled as manoeuvre á priori, reducing the reliance on army commanders’ own initiative in favour of a strictly pre-determined course of events.

Schlieffen maintained that new technologies such as the telegraph enabled the commander to act as a “modern Alexander” (in his own words) and as such, localised initiative had no place in ‘modern’ warfare.  Returning to overall strategy, it is clear that Schlieffen favoured a more daring offensive manoeuvre than either Moltke or Waldersee had contemplated.  His predecessors, likewise aware of the danger of a two-front war, had favoured defensive-offensive operations, basically advancing to pre-determined defensible lines and holding them until diplomacy could bring the war to an acceptable conclusion.  Although by 1888 the elder Moltke had turned to France as the more immediately dangerous opponent, and decided to split Germany’s previously balanced forces more heavily on the western side, his proposed deployment of troops to France was nowhere near the scale of Schlieffen’s.  This was an age in which there were, according to Rothenberg, “mounting odds against offensive warfare”, in addition to technological advancement, one had now to also consider national morale, social stability, and economic resources, as was shown to devastating effect during the American Civil War.  Schlieffen however, focusing almost exclusively on military capabilities, argued instead that while a direct offensive would result in static warfare, Germany’s best and perhaps only chance at victory in a two-fronted war would be to employ a swift, broad outflanking manoeuvre in the West to overpower France before turning to her eastern enemies.


A simplified image of the Schlieffen Plan

It has been suggested that Schlieffen’s own personal characteristics were important in development of his strategic vision.  Rather than, as with the elder Moltke, having a broader sense of the political and diplomatic levels of strategy, Schlieffen chose to concentrate on the military objective almost in isolation to other, related areas.  Annika Mombauer suggests that the role of Chief of the General Staff changed with each ‘Chief’s’ personality, and how far each was able to interact with above all the Kaiser.  Considering Moltke the Younger’s friendly relationship with Wilhelm II, it can be seen how closer interaction between the military and government was achieved in this period compared to Schlieffen’s comparative isolation.  With this in mind, Schlieffen regarded his role requirements as Chief of the General Staff as “planning, improving combat doctrine and capabilities” (Rothenberg); he did not try to influence German policy in any way, perhaps due to his predecessor Waldersee’s dismissal because of a policy disagreement with the Kaiser.

Wilhelm II and his General Staff

This disregard for political influence is crucial to an understanding of Schlieffen’s strategic planning, if only because of the main reason that the violation of the neutrality of Belgium was key to his invasion of France, something that the Ministry of War and the Chancellor were only made fully aware of in December 1912.  Mombauer comments that, “the General Staff cultivated the secrecy that Schlieffen had initiated.”  This ‘secrecy’ was not necessarily a creation of Schlieffen’s, the German state allowed its army a great deal of independence in comparison with the other European powers, and this was compounded by the divisive nature of the various ministries.  Schlieffen was under no obligation, for example, to share elements of his planning with the foreign ministry, and as Rothenberg claims “the division of jurisdictions resulted in a serious, possibly fatal, overreliance on military schemes alone”.  It is therefore evident that Schlieffen’s strategic views, with few political limitations imposed within the planning process, were prone to a degree of unrealistic optimism.  Hew Strachan cites politics as the main issue with Schlieffen’s ‘plan’, commenting that “its besetting sin was its political naivety”.

Yet political issues were not the only omissions in Schlieffen’s planning.  Another notable neglected area, according to Gordon Martel, was that of logistics, presumably due to Schlieffen’s rejection of the idea of protracted war.  He did not consult the public or private sectors, or even the related government ministry about possible economic war planning, and chose to favour improvisation of operational supply once within France.  It was only under the younger Moltke that economic mobilisation was considered.  Schlieffen’s personal interests and opinions were therefore extremely important in shaping his strategic planning.  Colin Gray outlines ideal strategic aims, stating that “strategy is neither policy nor armed combat; rather it is the bridge between them. […] The strategist must relate military power (strategic effect) to the goals of policy.”  It is therefore of vital importance to remember Clausewitz’s insistence that “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means”, when undertaking strategic planning.  Although Schlieffen was no doubt familiar with Clausewitz’s theories, as were the great majority of his contemporaries, it seems that he adopted only the instruction that “[strategic planning] determines when, where and with what forces an engagement is to be fought”, choosing to prioritise these more operationally focused tasks.


Europe pre-WWI

Another contributing factor to consider when analysing Schlieffen’s views is geopolitics.  As Gray states, “the problems and opportunities posed by the newly united Germany’s central location in Europe dominated the structure of German strategic planning from 1871 until 1914.”  The German ‘fear’ of encirclement by Schlieffen’s time was well established, with the elder Moltke and Bismarck having considered a war against multiple enemies as early as 1870, although they largely turned to diplomacy to avert any imminent crises.  The threat of future war led to concerns that Germany, without superior numerical force, could not hope to win an attritional war on two fronts and would have to seek decisive battle at the outset.  These views no doubt influenced Schlieffen, and as stated above, he responded to the situation with a different strategic plan to Moltke.  Although they both agreed that Germany’s geo-strategic position demanded “operations culminating in a battle of annihilation” (Rothenberg), Schlieffen’s solution was bolder and contained more risk.  It was recognised that once in motion, military plans were difficult, maybe impossible, to change, and although some have claimed that Schlieffen’s manoeuvre in its original form would have actually defeated France, it was deemed too dangerous by the younger Moltke, who rightly or wrongly altered the deployment of troops, reducing the huge difference in strength between the left and right wings (Mombauer, 2005).

Another criticism of Schlieffen was his reluctance to change his plans in response to external events or developments.  Although in response to Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war and the Revolution of 1905 Schlieffen downgraded a possible eastern attack and assigned 75% of full strength to the Verdun-Lille line, he failed to consider changes in the light of the Balkan crises of 1908-9 and 1912, or in response to rapid Russian military recovery.  Schlieffen’s strategic views therefore were heavily influenced by the geopolitical restraints imposed on Germany, leading him to create a plan to break out of the ‘encirclement’.

In summary, it may be argued that Schlieffen arrived at his strategic views due to a combination of interpretation of earlier theories and strategies; his personal working style and inter-personal relationships; and finally the wider geo-political context in which he had to base his work.  Schlieffen was an ‘exponent of strategic envelopment’ and believed that outflanking manoeuvres could negate numerical superiority, and moreover prevent a war of attrition through one decisive campaign.  His command style also favoured inflexible commands rather than directions in warfare, and as Rothenberg states, “he was a specialist who favoured concrete calculations over abstract speculations”.  His personality shows through at various points of this analysis, highlighting his reluctance to co-operate with government ministries and his conscious exclusion of non-military matters from General Staff work, as well as his estrangement from the Kaiser, leading to his replacement in 1906.  As a final point to consider, moving away from the comparisons of Schlieffen to other German commanders, Rothenberg has likened Schlieffen’s boldness and decisive application of manoeuvre to Napoleon’s method of seeking prompt decision by engaging and destroying the enemy force.  Although the debate on the existence of a formative ‘plan’ written by Schlieffen rages on, his strategic views are clear and whether potentially successful or not, have certainly influenced manoeuvre strategy ever since.

The author would like to acknowledge this article’s dependence on only a few sources, and would welcome any comments with further or newer research/information.

Lessons from the Falklands applied to the South China Sea


Guest piece written by Alex Calvo, MA student at the University of Birmingham, specialising in WWII.

Tuesday 2nd October marks the beginning of UoB’s War Studies seminar programme, weekly seminars by guest speakers on a wide range of topics.  Fittingly, this year’s programme begins with an anniversary piece on “2 PARA Falklands – 30 Years On”, by Colonel (Ret’d) David Benest.

At first glance this topic seems to be of most benefit to those in the history and military spheres, however I would argue that this lecture would also be of interest to students pursuing degrees in other fields.  There are a number of strong reasons why students interested in international relations, geopolitics and defence and security, particularly in relation to East Asia, should pay attention to lessons learned in the Falklands conflict.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the successful liberation of the Falkland Islands after their invasion and brief occupation.  It is therefore an excellent occasion not only to thank the troops who took part in Operation Corporate, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but also to reflect on some of the lessons from the war both at the military and at the political-diplomatic levels.  Although relatively short, the conflict was complex in many ways and even today there is ample scope for further research.

Flag left behind by 2 Para after the battle for Goose Green

As students of war we are not only interested in the past, although that by itself is often a powerful motivation to pursue our discipline, we are also keen to identify lessons to prevent, or if necessary to prevail in, future conflicts.  In the words of Mahan, “the great warrior must study history”. Although no two actual or potential conflicts are identical and as a result comparison and analysis must be approached with caution, the study of past wars provides a solid foundation to interpret current and future conflicts.

This brings us to East Asia, a region far away from the South Atlantic but which has this summer been regularly on the news due to a number of incidents and a high degree of tension, which at present shows no sign of abating.


The question I would like to address is as follows:  Are there any areas in which the study of the 1982 Falklands War may help us shed some light on the current developments in East Asia?  The following three points show instances where lessons from the Falklands may be applied to current events.

1.- The dangers of appeasement.  In the 1970s, successive British administrations sought to negotiate with Argentina while coercing the islanders to admit closer links with that country.  The Shackleton report, which made clear that the economy of the Falklands could thrive if some key investments took place, went unheeded.  In addition to this, many islanders were deprived of full British citizenship and it was announced that the only permanent naval presence, HMS Endurance, would be withdrawn.  Buenos Aires took all of this as a sign of diminished interest and evidence of weakness.  It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that the original code name for the invasion was “Goa”.

In the case of the Senkaku Islands, successive Japanese governments have banned their own citizens not only from settling on the land but even from visiting.  Calls to build basic infrastructure such as lighthouses and fishermen’s shelters have also been rejected.  This year Tokyo Governor Ishihara proposed to buy three of the islets from their private owner in a bid to develop them, but the national government preempted his move and purchased them.  However, their proposed policy of keeping the islands undeveloped in an attempt to appease Chinese popular opinion, backfired.  Beijing viewed this deliberate inaction as a sign of weakness, and a wave of popular unrest has followed.

2.- The key role of other powers. In the case of the Falklands, the Argentine decision to invade rested significantly on the assumption that Washington would press London not to react.  Similarly in East Asia one of the key issues being considered by Beijing is Washington’s reaction to a shooting war in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, a landing on Taiwan or a blockade of the islands.  In the South Atlantic, the United Kingdom had Chile as an ally, whereas in East Asia most countries are at odds with China, including India, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  Security and defence alliances among maritime democracies are gradually becoming stronger but they still suffer, in the cases of New Delhi and Tokyo, from the failure of these two countries to conclude a civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

3.- The growing significance of asymmetric maritime warfare. Although it was HMS Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor, both sunk by air-launched Exocet missiles, which attracted the most attention at the time and remain widely known, the case of HMS Glamorgan, hit by an Exocet fired from the shore, provides us with a powerful reminder of the scope for small, mobile, camouflaged vehicle-mounted cruise missiles.  Although the enemy improvised its launch from a fixed position, current technology makes it easy to deploy these systems in a way which makes it difficult to detect and destroy them.  As Taiwan becomes increasingly unable to keep up with Chinese military modernisation, a number of experts are advising Taipei not to try to compete head on with Beijing but rather to develop systems able to withstand a massive initial air attack.  These systems would ‘survive to fight another day’ and would be capable of inflicting significant damage on an invading or blockading force while awaiting the anticipated international response.


It is therefore clear that there are parallels between the two situations, and it is important to bear these in mind when looking at Japan, Taiwan and China’s options in the coming months.  Another piece relating to the topic by Alex will also be published in the next week.


Which are your favourite wars or periods to study?


As you all seemed to enjoy our last poll so much, especially with it provoking debate and fierce defence of certain individuals, here’s another one!

The categories below cover most conflicts, admittedly with a Euro-centric bias.  Let us know if there is a war we have missed completely, and please feel free to share with us your preferred period of study.

The poll is multiple choice this time, so enjoy!


Why the comparison of AirLand Battle with Blitzkrieg is flawed.

By Z.C. Vince @zcvince on Twitter

AirLand Battle was a doctrinal concept developed as part of the US army’s FM 100-5 Operations 1982in response to the Cold War and the challenges of the anticipated Central European clash between the large-scale mechanised conventional armies of the USA and her allies and the USSR and Warsaw Pact

The 1982 Field Manual was centred on Cold War operations

countries.  As such, this doctrine was relatively short lived, having replaced the post-Vietnam War ‘Active Defense’ policy in 1982 but being swiftly superseded in 1993 by a post-Cold War field manual aimed more specifically at non-conventional and low-intensity conflicts.  In contrast, Blitzkrieg was not doctrinal at least in any official sense, being a “German phenomenon based on the traditions and heritage of German military history”(Citino, 2004).  Although AirLand Battle shares common characteristics with Blitzkrieg, it must be stressed that the Blitzkrieg campaigns for example in Poland, France and the Soviet Union were essentially pre-emptive strikes against poorly prepared opponents.  In 1982 the US army was seeking an alternative to the positional and therefore highly attritional style of warfare they had prepared for in previous field manuals, a situation similar to that of the Red Army facing the Wehrmacht after the Battle of Stalingrad.  Because of this, AirLand Battle instead owes more, ironically, to the Soviet doctrinal concept of Deep Battle/Operations, with both focusing on the importance of manoeuvre, attacking in depth and immobilising the enemy.

The rapid outflanking manoeuvre style of warfare which has become

An example of Frederick the Great’s manoeuvring at Leuthen.

known as Blitzkrieg is rooted in Prusso-German military history, going as far back as Frederick the Great’s victories at Rossbach and Leuthen (Citino, 2005), through von Moltke the Elder’s demonstrations of the battle of encirclement or Kesselschlacht in 1866 and 1870, and on to von Schlieffen’s theories of strategic envelopment, culminating in the ‘Schlieffen Plan’, prior to the First World War.  Citino argues that while Blitzkrieg itself was not a formalised doctrine, it was based on three “classical doctrinal traditions”.  These were as follows: flexible doctrine of command, or Auftragstaktik (the ‘mission command’ of today); a focus on operational-level warfare, either campaigns of position or of movement; and an avoidance of Einseitigkeit or one-sidedness, resulting in a broader reliance on combined arms rather than the supremacy of one arm over the others.

AirLand Battle did share these characteristics with Blitzkrieg.  FM 100-5 Operations 1982 stated that, “electronic warfare, vulnerability of command and control facilities and mobile combat will demand initiative in subordinate commanders”.  This move away from a static, attritional style of warfare to a focus on manoeuvre and high tempo operations required a higher standard of training and leadership (Lock-Pullan, 2005) similar to von Moltke’s nineteenth century expansion of the Prussian General Staff in part to deal with independent convergent manoeuvres such as his use of concentric exterior lines before the battle of Sadowa.  In the case of AirLand Battle and modern communications technology, ‘mission-type’ orders required “unambiguous political aims to be outlined prior to engagement”, so that subordinate commanders could react with initiative whilst remaining in accordance with the standard ‘intent’ toward the enemy.  It is clear that lower-level resourcefulness was a key point to AirLand Battle, with the doctrine stating that “decentralization converts initiative into agility, allowing rapid reaction to capture fleeting opportunities”.

This more fluid style of command owed partly to the shift in focus to the operational level of war from the tactically-oriented attritional ‘Active Defense’ doctrine.  FM 100-5/1982shows great divergence from its 1976 counterpart in that instead of advocating frontal assaults aimed at the enemy’s leading formations, it favours operational manoeuvre and attacks on critical enemy units from “unexpected directions”.  The rejection of tactically focused doctrine is shown by the great emphasis on the simultaneous and rapid use of firepower and manoeuvre.  Finally, parallels with Blitzkrieg may be made with

Close air support with Stuka dive bombers was the key to Nazi combined operations.

regard to the use of combined arms.  Just as in the inter-war period Germany emphasised the role of armoured and mechanised forces to be used in conjunction with air power, AirLand Battle doctrine emphasises the role of ‘integrated battle’, comprising joint operations, combined arms and the potential usage of chemical and tactical nuclear weapons.  Acknowledging that in modern war elements of the armed forces can rarely act truly independently, AirLand Battle requires manoeuvre, synchronisation and firepower to all be integrated in pursuit of the ‘political’ aim.

The most widely known example of AirLand Battle doctrine in practice was Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  Although the Iraqis possessed conventional, mechanised forces, they were a fraction of the scale of the Soviet forces against which AirLand Battle doctrine was fundamentally aimed.  The annexation of Kuwait by Iraq presented a singular opportunity to “test […] how well the forces created and trained to fight the Third World War would have performed”.

The ‘Highway of Death’ is a popular depiction of US air superiority during Gulf War I

Badsey goes so far as to suggest that in the Gulf War, the US forces were “disregarding the small point that the enemy was actually Iraq [and not the USSR, for example]”, showing just how crucial victory was to an America ‘haunted’ by Vietnam.  The keys to victory in the Gulf War were combined and co-ordinated assaults in depth, operational manoeuvre and deception.  A large contributor to the coalition victory in the Gulf War was the air superiority enjoyed by America and her allies, Cordesman and Wagner give the ratio of 3.6:1 in aircraft in favour of the coalition.  This clear air superiority allowed a level of deception of the enemy that was invaluable to the overall campaign, as the coalition was able to move 255,000 soldiers plus vehicles up to 300 miles to the west, “one of the most complicated force deployments in history”.  What followed on ‘G-Day’ was the beginning of a double envelopment of Iraqi forces by VII and XVIII corps with close air support and attack helicopters, meeting sporadic and relatively easily overwhelmed opposition.  Air power played an important role in Desert Storm, with 1,997 air strikes carried out in direct support of the ground troops, reducing casualties and depriving any Iraqi attempts at counterattacking and representing the superiority of allied combined arms operations.

Desert Storm may be compared with Case White, the Nazi invasion of Poland, as an example of operational manoeuvre aimed at an inferior opponent.  The Wehrmacht deployed in two widely separate army groups advancing respectively from Pomerania and Silesia, and East Prussia and Slovakia, thus trapping most of the Polish army in a textbook Kesselschlacht or ‘cauldron’ battle.  Similarly to with Desert Storm, air power played a large role, the German ‘Close Battle Division’ of 160 Stuka dive-bombers facilitating the destruction of the Modlin fortification outside Warsaw and speeding up the ground advance.  The superior operational mobility of the Wehrmacht, coupled with lower-level initiative and swift, brief orders enabled the Germans to exploit advantages as well as wheeling 180 degrees “effortlessly” twice in one week and change direction as necessary.  In this direct comparison with an example of successfully applied Blitzkrieg ‘principles’, it is clear that there are similarities between Blitzkrieg and AirLand Battle, not least the use of combined arms, mission-style command systems, the supremacy of operational manoeuvre and use of technology.  In this sense, AirLand Battle was a ‘hi-tech’ version of Blitzkrieg.

Despite this, it must be remembered that AirLand Battle doctrine was created during the Cold War for the main purpose of directing the US army in large-scale conventional warfare against the Soviet Union.  Assessing whether Operation Desert Storm was an example of Blitzkrieg does not necessarily correspond to Blitzkrieg’s relationship to AirLand Battle as a doctrine.  FM 100-5/1982stated that “the US army will face an enemy who expects to sustain rapid movement during the offense and who will probably use every weapon at his disposal”.

The mighty Soviet Union was the US’ assumed opponent for AirLand Battle

Having outlined the characteristics of the Gulf War, it is clear that the Iraqi force did not fit this description, and this is why it is the US army’s attitude toward Soviet Russia that is of most importance when assessing AirLand Battle as a doctrine.

The Soviet field regulation of 1936 summarises ‘Deep Battle’ theory as follows: “tanks, artillery, aviation, and mechanized units in large scale use provide the option of simultaneously attacking the entire depth of the enemy battle formation with the objective isolating, encircling, and destroying the enemy”.  As a direct comparison, FM 100-5/1982 states that, “the AirLand Battle will be dominated by the force that retains the initiative and, with deep attack and decisive maneuver, destroys its opponent’s abilities to fight and to organize in depth”.  The similarities between the two are clearly evident, both focusing on the role of operational art, the use of combined, mechanised arms and perhaps most importantly the ‘deep’ attack.  The Soviet emphasis on the operational level of war emerged in response to the failures during the First World War and focused on the need for consecutive series of operations in order to prevent losing the initiative and provoking an enemy counterattack.  In addition, the realisation that echeloned attacks were required in order to exploit any breakthroughs in the enemy line resulted in the formation of operational-manoeuvre groups whose task was to carry out such exploitation and carry the attack throughout the operational depth of the opposition (Kagan, 1997).  Eventual Soviet application of these theories to operations on the Eastern Front in 1944-45 earned the USSR successes and a reputation for operational excellence which the Americans sought to emulate in the 1980s.

The four key tenets of AirLand Battle were Initiative, Depth, Agility and Synchronisation.  Depth, of course, is central to Deep Battle theory; agility and initiative too were pivotal to the fourth stage of Deep Battle: Exploitation.  Synchronisation, the use of combined arms and the planning of consecutive staggered operations, is characteristic of both the Red Army in 1944 and the coalition forces in the Gulf War.  One particular area in which AirLand Battle built upon its Soviet counterpart was in the area of mission-style command.  Although initiative was encouraged in the Red Army, it was made clear in PU-36 that superior officers had to be consulted before action.  In this respect at least, the Prusso-German tradition of Auftragstaktik triumphed over Soviet methodology.

To conclude, AirLand Battle was a product of its time, a direct response to the Soviet threat of conventional warfare on a hitherto unseen scale.  The doctrine which was developed in 1982 “owed a huge debt to the Soviets” and there are clear parallels to be seen with regard to the use of combined arms, operational manoeuvre, attacking in depth, and exploiting breakthroughs.  Blitzkrieg in contrast was an opportunistically applied operational method which saw success in Poland, France and the early stages of Barbarossa, but which ultimately failed to comprehensively destroy Germany’s opponents in depth, something which Deep Battle, and subsequently AirLand Battle, focused heavily on.

Who is the greatest military commander of all time?

Just a bit of fun to begin the academic year! Feel free to add your own ideas, or leave a comment to explain your reasoning.

If you select ‘other’, please leave a comment to tell us who you chose!

(P.S. click on the speech bubble above to view comments)

The Syrian Maelstrom

By Dan Challacombe

All views are the author’s own.

Assad pictured here with General Dawoud Rajha, Defence Minister, killed in Wednesday’s bombing.

The 18th of July 2012 proved to be a momentous day for Syria, with fighting intensifying across the country.  Report after report came in detailing the events as they happened throughout the day.  The very heart of Bashar al-Assad’s government was struck by an attack, allegedly a suicide bombing, which targeted a meeting of some the Syrian regime’s most senior figures and claimed the lives of the Minister of Defence and Minister of the Interior, among others. Within an hour more news came through of another explosion, this time targeting the headquarters of the Syrian Arab Army’s main garrison unit in the city of Damascus. Throughout the afternoon Syrian state television broadcast pictures of government forces engaged in fierce street battles with unseen and unidentified enemies, while reports flooded into Western news agencies detailing the shelling of civilian neighbourhoods, the collapse of military units and more high-profile defections from Assad’s regime. Many have today asked what the future holds for Syria, and questions are also being asked about how the International Community can, or perhaps more realistically will, respond to a change in government.

Map showing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Perhaps more serious, however, is the greater concern over Syria’s remaining capabilities. Despite the fact that large parts of the country are out of the government’s control, the Syrian State still packs a punch fearsome enough to discourage its rivals from intervening in its affairs. Most obviously, American pressure on the Al-Assad regime has been met with increased Syrian hostility towards Israel. The Assad government has long bankrolled and equipped Hezbollah, the Islamist movement which controls much of Southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah is now arguably better placed to strike at Israel than Syria’s regular army, not least since, according to unverified reports circulating since the afternoon of the 18th of July, the Syrian Army has pulled most of its forces out of the highly militarised Golan Heights to reinforce Damascus.  Despite the ferocious campaign mounted by Israel in the summer of 2006 to weaken the movement, Hezbollah maintains a fearsome arsenal of long-range rocket artillery and a sizeable ground force, and should Assad give the command, has the potential to cause Israel considerable problems.  It is worth noting that even in the darkest days of the Israeli invasion in 2006 Hezbollah was still holding back from using its most capable weapons.

In addition Assad can still fall back on his extensive chemical arsenal, reputed to contain the nerve agents Sarin, VX and Tabun. The chemical aspect, alongside those elements of the Syrian conventional arsenal as yet unaffected by the internal strife such as air defence installations and long-range artillery could prove extremely problematic should an external power attempt to use direct action to support the Free Syrian Army. The existing support for the Free Syrian Army from outside,  for example the supply of arms by Qatar and the logistical aid from Turkey and allegedly also the US and the UK  has already caused tension and been used as a pretext for Russia and Iran to make gestures in support of the Syrians.

Russia remains Syria’s strongest Western ally, vetoing UN sanctions for the third time on Thursday.

It has been alleged, without confirmation or independent proof of course, that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is actively involved in fighting the Free Syrian Army, and that a strong force of Russian Naval Infantry are ensuring that the neighbourhood of their base at Tartus remains quiet. Even if these allegations prove to be untrue, Russian support for Assad is still considerable enough to prevent the UN from acting decisively against him. Although Assad’s military has suffered considerably over the course of the uprising and Syria’s economy has effectively been shattered by fighting and limited sanctions, international condemnation alone, it seems, cannot shift Assad from his position of power.

A further concern to those watching developments in Syria will surely be whether the Syria that emerges from the dust will be an open, democratic country or not. Already there have been rumours of Jihadist involvement in the civil war, although it is unclear who they might be fighting for. Pessimists in the West fear that the fall of Assad will open the way for a radicalization of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and the creation of a new failed state in the heart of the Middle East. Others cite the outpouring of religious sentiment that comes with every turn of the savage conflict as being the beginning of a vicious sectarian battle which may threaten to consume Syria’s minority Christian, Alawite and Druze communities. Certainly, some factions within the Free Syrian Army use the terminology and methods of the extremist militants who fought tenaciously against the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in Iraq. However, the extent to which there is really a religious element to the war is difficult to gauge. After all, similar religious fervour was expressed during the intense fighting of the Libyan Civil War in 2011, but the successor government to the Colonel Gaddafi’s Jamahiryya has so far proven to be moderate and democratic. Likewise, despite Western fear-mongering, there has not been a collapse in Egypt, despite the election of many moderate religious figures in the first ever truly free elections there. Indeed, the few Syrian voices which have been heard in the West seem to be committed to fair elections and the end of the repressive Ba’athist system.

Regardless of the path Syria chooses on the road to recovery from this devastating conflict, however, one thing is clear. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been dealt a grave blow in recent days. It still retains formidable power over the lives of millions of innocent people, and it has proved that it is unafraid of employing methods of terror and brutality in crushing its opponents. Now it only remains for the UN to decide on the cost of Syria’s freedom; let us hope that a decision can be reached before that cost becomes too high.

Editor’s Note:  Since Wednesday 18th July, Free Syrian Army forces have taken border posts on the Iraqi and Turkish borders, creating hugely valuable ‘safe zones’ through which arms may be transported into Syria.  In addition, the FSA has begun to move into Damascus itself, with fierce fighting raging through the streets, and thousands fleeing their homes.  The conflict has reached a crucial point, with one historian labelling current FSA actions as a ‘guerrilla war’.  We shall be watching with great interest the developments of the coming weeks.  Are Assad’s days now truly numbered?

Winning the Battle of the Atlantic: 1943

By Zoë C. Vince

This article aims to explore the various contributing factors to Allied successes in March to May of 1943.  Although the Atlantic continued to be a major theatre of operations until the end of the Second World War, it may be argued that the threat posed by German U-Boats had been greatly diminished by Allied efforts in the spring of 1943.

This author will argue that despite a variety of elements of the anti U-boat war, from intelligence to technology, combining to facilitate the withdrawal of U-boats from the North Atlantic in May 1943, it was in particular the developments in training and organisation of the Allied convoy system which can be most directly linked to German failures in this period.


The successful application of Allied tactical and technological advancements to anti-submarine warfare, culminating in the spring of 1943, lead to a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic.  Combating the U-boat threat required close co-operation between the Allies, integrated inter-service training and command, and co-ordination of tactics, procedures and technologies.  Although there are a number of factors which contributed to Dönitz’s withdrawal of the U-boats in May 1943, it was the organisation of the convoys, support and escort groups by Admiral Sir Max Horton, and the training of crews specifically in anti-submarine warfare which provided the cohesion and professionalism required to both prevent U-boats sinking ships in convoy and simultaneously destroy a comparatively high number of submarines.  The superior standard of efficiency achieved by the Allies, in all aspects of the anti-submarine battle, ensured that the German U-boats ceased to pose a serious threat in the Atlantic.  It is clear, therefore, that training and organisation was an extremely important factor.

While addressing this subject, it would be impossible to list and discuss Allied training and organisational developments in isolation without acknowledging closely related elements of the anti-submarine campaign such as technology, signals intelligence and air power.  This article will seek to argue that while these complementary factors contributed to the Battle of the Atlantic to varying degrees, it was the improvements in training and organisation of the convoy system which enabled the effective co-ordination and optimum usage of all related developments.

The Atlantic theatre of naval operations remained important throughout the war, indeed a contemporary naval officer stated that without Allied success in this theatre “the grand conception for the liberation of Europe might never have materialised”.  Among historians there is a consensus that May 1943 marked a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic.  Earlier historiography including the British and US naval histories described a crisis occurring in March 1943, with communications from the old world to the new coming under severe threat, followed by the sudden and unexpected collapse in May of the U-boat campaign.  Revisionist research into this subject, while acknowledging the importance of May 1943 as a pivotal month in the Battle of the Atlantic, has generally disputed the traditional view of crisis, stressing that while certain Allied convoys suffered great losses in March and April many others suffered none.  Referring to Admiralty reports, Duncan Redford states that only thirty one per cent of all ocean convoys were attacked in March, furthermore between August 1942 and May 1943 there were eight months in which the Allies suffered higher percentage losses than March.  This indicates, rather than the ‘sudden collapse’ of the U-boat war in May, a more gradual development with successful practical application of improved Allied anti-submarine tactics and technologies.  Similar revisionist research also focuses on the absence of German optimism in this period of supposed Allied crisis, consulting statistics which clearly show an increase in non-productive U-boat patrols between January and April 1943, and stating that as early as February Dönitz had reported to Hitler that the North Atlantic run campaign was not succeeding.

This reversal in fortunes can be attributed to a number of different developments which ran parallel with the progression of training and organisation. Improvements in technology in particular played an essential role in both Allied and Axis naval operations, with both sides seeking to improve on the other’s advancements.  One example of this was the German capture in 1942 of a long range Vickers Wellington bomber fitted with Air to Surface Vessel (ASV) Mark II airborne radar, and the subsequent German invention of a listening receiver as a countermeasure to ASV.  There were also improvements made to the means of engaging U-boats i.e. weapons such as the ‘hedgehog’ mortar or the improved Air Ministry and Admiralty depth charges.  It may be argued, however, that the more influential development was that of radar and direction finder technology, aimed at locating U-boats.

An example of ‘Huff-Duff’ equipment.

By its nature, the submarine was “a weapon of position and surprise”, and so the ability to locate U-boats through the use of High Frequency Definition Finders (HF/DF) and 10cm airborne radar (ASV Mark III), both fitted in the first few months of 1943, effectively removed the element of surprise and severely hindered U-boat operations.  Burns supports this by citing Dönitz in a report to Hitler, writing in May 1943 that “the enemy, by means of location devices, makes fighting impossible”.

‘Bombes’ like these were used to simulate the action of the German Enigma rotors.

In addition to technology, any discussion of the training and organisation of anti-submarine warfare in the Battle of the Atlantic also requires acknowledgement of the work carried out by British signals intelligence at Bletchley Park in breaking the German Enigma cipher.  Post-war historians had claimed that the cryptographers at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) had shortened the war and that breaking the Enigma had been a huge success.  More recently however, Ferris has denounced the tendency for historians to over-emphasise the role of signals intelligence, stressing that while its contribution was ‘notable’, the correlation between GC&CS’ successes and the overall Allied seizure of initiative in late 1942 was complementary rather than causal.  With this in mind, although on the thirteenth of December 1942 GC&CS had broken the ‘Shark’ Enigma through the use of a four-rotor electronic ‘Bombe’, complete understanding and rapid deciphering of German signals was not fully achieved until August 1943, after the U-boats had been withdrawn.  In addition by February 1943 B-Dienst, German signals intelligence, had broken the British Naval Cypher No. 3 used for convoys, providing Dönitz with a “presen[ce] in British operations rooms”.  With both combatants therefore by 1943 possessing intelligence on the other’s routes and positions, and with direction-finding technology allowing clearer location of enemy vessels, it may be argued that signals intelligence in comparison played an important, but not crucial role in May 1943.

Training and organisation in contrast was integral to the growing successes of the escort and support groups, with several different elements combining to optimise anti-U-boat operations.  Operational Research scientists under Professor Blackett contributed to the Battle of the Atlantic by engendering a “revolution in organization”; their findings contributing to Horton’s re-organisation of the anti-submarine effort through scientific calculation and research.  From 1941 onward, Blackett and his staff applied scientific findings to naval operations, helping to devise theatre-level stratagems and also solve problems such as the optimum allocation of resources to the production of merchant shipping vis-á-vis anti-submarine escorts.  Arguably Operational Research’s most influential breakthrough, however, was the analysis of shipping losses in relation to convoy size.  This investigation, carried out during 1941 and 1942, concluded that the number of losses was independent of the size of the convoys, with larger convoys being attacked by ‘wolfpacks’ no more often than smaller ones.  It was calculated that by increasing the size of individual convoys and thereby reducing the number of convoys open to attack at any one time, there could be a reduction in losses of up to 56 per cent.  As well as achieving reduced losses, the decision taken to increase convoy size had the secondary effect of freeing up escorts for more proactive work as part of the new support groups, greatly aiding the offensive campaign.

As a result Operational Research contributed greatly to Horton’s organisational reforms of Western Approaches Command and to the way the anti-submarine campaign was conducted.  Operational Research’s findings have been dubbed “quantitative common sense”, however their collation and analysis lead to measurable successes.  The incorporation of civilian scientists so closely into high level naval command structures, reporting directly to the Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff at the Admiralty, demonstrated flexibility and innovation at the highest levels, features notably absent in the German counterpart.

The establishment of support groups marked the progression of the Allied anti-U-boat campaign from defensive to offensive actions.  The average support group comprised destroyers, sloops and frigates, which were faster and had greater range than the corvettes widely used earlier in the war.  The United States’ naval operations historian Samuel Morison recognised Horton’s reorganisation of available resources as a “tactical innovation”, highlighting the ability of the support groups to aid ‘harassed’ convoys at short notice and thus alter the outcome of many such engagements.    Availability of escort destroyers and aircraft carriers and allocation of resources to the North Atlantic had previously been a large problem, delaying the formation of support groups until March 1943 and preventing adequate defence of convoys passing through the mid-Atlantic ‘Black Gap’.  During mid to late April, in contrast, an example of the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre’s reports stated that “support groups have been invaluable this week and skilful handling has produced them in the right place at the moment when they are needed”.

Inter-service co-operation was crucial to success in the Atlantic

Airpower too was to play a vital role in convoy defence, and therefore availability was crucial.  The United States’ Navy was undergoing changes in organisation itself with regard to inter-service co-operation with the Army Air Force, but by the end of 1942 it was able to send two squadrons of very-long-range (VLR) B-24 Liberator heavy bombers to aid RAF Coastal Command.

One of the first Allied aircraft carriers used in escort groups: HMS Biter.

The development of different types of aircraft carriers had also been delayed by production problems and their allocation to the North Atlantic postponed due to the prioritisation of other operations, namely ‘Husky’ and ‘Torch’, but the first escort carriers HMS Biter and USS Bogue joined support groups between March and May 1943.  Redford emphasises the reluctance of both the US and British command to divert bombers away from the strategic bombing offensive, however the eventual allocation of air power to Coastal Command support groups especially alongside the newly arrived aircraft carriers was hugely successful.  A study carried out in the summer of 1943, centred on the successes of support groups in May 1943, found that their use in operations raised the number of U-boat ‘kills’ by 45 per cent, with most U-boats being sunk in close proximity to convoys.  In summary it may be argued that rather than as an isolated arm, the contribution of air power to anti-submarine operations was most successful when employed as part of support groups, coordinating with surface vessels.

It is clear that superior organisation of shipping and available aircraft was the key to effectively combating the U-boat threat through the co-ordination of available technology, intelligence and resources, but it was the intensive training and valuable experience of the anti-submarine escort and support groups which optimised efficiency and contributed to improved success rates.  Chalmers claimed “whatever the weapon and whatever the counter, training was the keystone of Horton’s regime”.

The Western Approaches Tactical Unit, Liverpool.

Horton ‘inherited’ the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) in November 1942 which gave synthetic training to escort captains and group commanders in the tactics of convoy battles.  In January 1943 Horton added practical ship-based training on HMS Philante, based at Larne in Northern Ireland, complete with training submarines.  Horton’s emphasis on training was also shown by his decision to increase time in harbour for individual crews for the purpose of intensive training.  By the end of the war, over 5,000 officers had completed a 6-day course in anti-U-boat tactics at WATU.  The diaries of A.F.C. Layard, although not directly applicable to the pre-May 1943 period, provide a favourable first-hand account of Horton’s training programme, Whitby commenting that “one of the great lessons of the Battle of the Atlantic was the importance of continual group training”.  This focus on training was not restricted to escort groups, with improved co-operation between the Royal Navy and RAF at Derby House allowing combined training exercises leading in turn to the adoption of the same signal codes and synchronised navigation, thus optimising the support groups’ effectiveness.  Improved defence of ships in convoy was the key to overcoming the U-boat threat.  The establishment and training of support groups therefore clearly aided the anti-submarine effort far more than any single technological invention or intelligence breakthrough.

To conclude, the organisation of convoy size and structure, the introduction of support groups and Horton’s insistence on widespread, practical training had resulted in a greatly improved and efficient convoy defence system.  By April 1943, Syrett claims, the Allies were fighting and beginning to defeat the Germans with the tools of “aircraft and electronic warfare”.  The word ‘tools’ here is significant.  It is clear that HF/DF, 10cm radar and the ‘hedgehog’, as well as the signals intelligence breakthroughs and aircraft support facilitated greater successes in the location of and engagement with U-boats.  Despite this, it is unlikely that these tools could have been used to optimum effect without the proper experience, training and synchronisation of all elements of the anti-submarine battle.  The development of the support groups represented the transformation of operations from broadly defensive to offensive, and therefore it could also be suggested that Horton’s support groups personified, so to speak, the turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic.  The training and organisation of the convoy system was the key to optimising all other advances made, and therefore was hugely important to Allied success in the Atlantic.

The author may be contacted on Twitter @zcvince

Revolutionary Thinking: the ‘Military Revolution’, ‘Military-Technical Revolution’ and ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’.

By Louis E.H. Reynolds and Zoë C. Vince

A note on historiographical bias

The historiography currently available to us regarding these topics has traditionally been written from a Western, particularly Anglo-US, perspective.  Because of this inherent bias, we would like to emphasise the predisposition of the historians we have used to highlight Anglo-US sources contributions over other arguably more influential sources, in this case particularly from the USSR.  This is due mostly to cultural and linguistic factors.

While it is unreasonable to expect historians to be fluent in all relevant languages to their subject area, and to have full cultural and social awareness or experience of these countries, it would be equally unreasonable to ignore the influence of these factors in the Anglicisation and Americanisation of the defence and military history books and articles we as students use most often, and thus the effect of this bias on our understanding of War Studies as a whole. Understanding the origins of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA) as part of Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov’s ‘Military Technical Revolution’ (MTR), for example, is critical to any review of the modern misunderstandings and misapplications of the RMA concept.


All three theories have a range of often nebulous and irregular definitions. For the purpose of this article we have chosen to define the concepts as follows:

Military Revolution: A term to describe a period in history which has witnessed widespread and irreversible development in the areas of doctrine, technology, organisation and society, leading to decisive victories on the part of the army or country employing these new methods.  The adoption of such influential new techniques and technology is then emulated by all rivals and neighbours where practicable.

Military Technical Revolution: The precursor to the RMA, focusing specifically on the relationship between advancements in technology and success on the ‘battlefield’.  The RMA slightly expanded this concept to encapsulate the broader doctrinal and organisational changes occurring in the US army of the late twentieth century.

Revolution in Military Affairs: A current and ongoing ‘revolution’ in doctrine and organisation beginning in the 1970s and focusing on the role of technology, in particular information systems and air power.  Please note, however, that some historians have applied the RMA concept to ‘revolutions’ earlier in history.

Origins and development of the Military Revolution debate

The Military Revolution as a concept was originally defined by historian Michael Roberts in his 1955 inaugural lecture at Queen’s University of Belfast, entitled ‘Military Revolution 1560-1660’.  The term Military Revolution was used to explain the victories of Gustavus Adolphusof Sweden over the

Gustavus Adolphus

Imperial and Spanish armies during the Thirty Years War.  Roberts believed that Swedish military success in the early 17th century was due to organisational, tactical and doctrinal changes within the Swedish army.  Developments in this period included the introduction of superior drill (the counter-march) and the professionalisation of the troops and linear tactics rather than the widely used tercio, coupled with the necessary high proportion of NCOs and junior officers.  Reaching further back, the roots of these changes can be found with Maurice of Nassau and his late 16thcentury reforms of the Dutch armies. Maurice’s deep understanding of Roman military theory, particularly of the author

Maurice of Nassau

Aelian, and his application of drill, entrenchments, and other classically-inspired improvements led, Roberts argued, to a more proficient military machine.  The work of Gustavus Adolphus was therefore closely related to this, with the broader structural reforms of the army and formations complemented by technological advancements such as the use of three-pounder infantry support guns attached to modular infantry units, and tactical improvements like the employment of offensive shock action by his cavalry.

It is clear that the comprehensive and successfully applied changes to the existing military system were certainly impactive, one might say to the point of being revolutionary.  The developments introduced by Gustavus Adolphus were organisational, technological and doctrinal.  Gustavus Adolphus’ effective use of supply magazines, linear tactics and use of lighter artillery and firearms were steadily adopted by all the European powers.  The organisation of the Swedish army with its smaller unit sizes and higher numbers of NCOs and junior officers also became the standard model for Europe.  One area which is perhaps lacking from a ‘revolutionary’ perspective is the effect on society.  The widely accepted revolutions of history, the French and the Industrial Revolutions, had huge effects on the demographic, social reform and people as individuals.  Because we must avoid the study of war as a phenomenon in isolation, the social factor must not be ignored.  With the exception of the high casualty and mortality rate which was true of all combatants in the Thirty Years’ War, Gustavus Adolphus’ reforms had a negligible impact on the Swedish people.

Geoffrey Parker responded to Roberts’ argument by emphasising earlier developments which Roberts had neglected, such as the 15th century improvement of gunpowder artillery, and the critical subsequent development in the early 1500s of the trace italienne, in what was later characterised by

Clifford J. Rogers as an ‘artillery fortress revolution’. This development reversed the superiority of the offensive that had existed since the 1430s, and strategically the emphasis returned to the defensive, focusing on entrenchment on the battlefield and the use of the new fortifications which partially negated the effectiveness of early artillery. Certainly, this alternative earlier Military Revolution is also worthy of further study, as the social, economic and military changes it wrought on early modern Europe was similarly significant.   It must be stressed however, that as David Parrott pointed out, Parker was merely moving the revolution into his own specialism, namely 16th century warfare with particular respect to siege warfare.  Nevertheless, the Military Revolution debate was enhanced, with Roberts’ narrow view of European warfare added to by Parker’s acknowledgement of the importance of siege warfare and the primacy of the defence.

Clifford J. Rogers also redefined the Military Revolution, again with solid justification, and again by moving it further into the past into his own area of speciality, in this case the Hundred Years’ War.  For Rogers there were two ‘revolutions’, which he defined as the ‘Infantry Revolution’ and the ‘Artillery Revolution.’ According to him the ‘Infantry Revolution’ began with the adoption by the English under Edward III of a combined formation consisting of longbowmen and dismounted men-at-arms fighting in tactically defensive positions.  Other contributing developments included the Flemish, Swiss and Scottish use of pike in the 14th and 15th centuries, which reduced the previous dominance of the mounted feudal aristocracy on the battlefield.  Through these developments, Rogers argued that this Military Revolution began the process of transforming medieval, feudal military structures in Europe into more recognisably modern professional armies.

The second part of Rogers’ contribution to the debate begins in the 15thcentury, when technological developments in gunpowder weaponry between 1420 and 1430 led to the ‘Artillery Revolution’.  The result of this ‘revolution’ was the increased redundancy of traditional high walled towns and castles, as powerful artillery quickly became proficient at creating assailable breaches.  To give a comparative example, Henry V’s siege of Harfleur in 1415 lasted

Henry V at Harfleur

many months, whereas in 1449 when the French recaptured it, the sieges lasted a mere 17 days.  Understandably this effective use of artillery led to great social and economic changes as populations came under attack in their towns.  A further related development, Rogers argues, was the expansion and consolidation of the larger European states as they alone could afford the high price of siege warfare and the logistics involved.   Quickly the futility of static, castle based defence, due to the potency of artillery, became clear and the emphasis shifted to the offensive use of large armies on the battlefield.  Again, the financial burden of campaigning increased as only the large states with more sophisticated and centralised taxation systems could finance the large armies required.  A consequence of increased state centralisation was the absorption of weaker states by their larger neighbours, for example in this manner the Spanish drove the Moors from Spain, and the French re-conquered Normandy and the semi-independent region of Brittany.

Rogers’ argument is detailed and sensible, the consequences and importance of the early developments of infantry and artillery cannot be understated, and his description of the two parallel developments as ‘revolutions’ is understandable.  This earlier period witnessed broad changes in military conduct, as well as economic, social and political developments which had wide-reaching consequences.

But still the debate continued, with Jeremy Black further adding to the debate by highlighting the importance of the years 1660 to 1710 and overall expanding Roberts’ original period to 1550-1800.  Black argued that rather than in the early 17th century, the real structural and tactical changes in European armies occurred in the following hundred years, one of his examples being the military advancements made by Louis XIV alongside his political and structural centralisation.

The development of the Military Revolution debate has therefore resulted in a potential ‘revolutionary’ period of up to 500 years, from Rogers’ 14th century developments to those cited by Black, going right up to 1800.  Each historian has largely agreed with Roberts’ main principles of ‘revolution’, but rejected their narrow geographical and chronological application.  For the purpose of promoting their own areas of interest, each newcomer to the debate has loosely applied the arguments to alternative periods in history.  As a result, there remains a confused and divisive account of what actually constitutes a Military Revolution.

Origins and development of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’

In the late 1970s, low ranking Soviet officers began to argue that computers, space surveillance (satellites), long range missiles, communications systems

A typical 1970s US satellite

and information technology, as well as their integration into conventional forces, was changing the balance of power.  In other words the Soviet armies, and their doctrine and technology, were becoming obsolete when viewed in direct comparison with the US coordinated multi-arm forces with their superior communication and information systems.

This new understanding led to Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov (1917-1994) outlining in a series of papers and lectures what he described as a ‘Military Technical Revolution’ (MTR).  This MTR involved the ‘revolutionary’ synthesis of new technology, military systems and organisational and operational adaptation to create a new ‘way’ of waging war.  Due to the constraints of the declining Soviet economy and lack of political will to engage in another military-technological arms race with the West, the Soviet armed forces only implemented limited reforms in response to Ogarkov’s research.

The reaction to the MTR in the West was minimal, being largely dismissed as propaganda; however Andrew W. Marshall, Head of the US Department of Defense Office of Net Assessment and Strategic Planning, saw its merits and referred to the MTR in his analysis of the military balance between the US and the USSR.  He too, like Ogarkov, believed that change lay in sensors and information systems.

Due to the primarily technological nature of the MTR, it may be possible to apply it to previous examples of military-technological change, which range from the invention of the stirrup to that of the tank. The central idea of the MTR, being that technological innovation can drive military change, is a concept which has been familiar throughout history and because of this can be closely compared to the Military Revolution theory.

Marshall rebranded the MTR concept as the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, and developed its details. The development of the RMA concept by Marshall was followed closely by modern military organisations across the globe, not least the People’s Liberation Army of China, who “translated every word that Marshall wrote.”

This change in terminology was accompanied by little actual change in the concept, except for the expansion of the idea to incorporate more up-to-date technological innovations contemporary to Marshall, and to slightly change the direction of the concept specifically towards the future planning of the US military. Many academics use the terms MTR and RMA interchangeably, while others refer to an MTR as a generalised military-technological advance applicable to other periods in history, and in comparison view the RMA concept as being more focused on military-technological development from 1985 to the present day.

The historiography of the RMA debate has expanded greatly in recent years.  Having established and largely accepted the current information-technology RMA, historians are now attempting to project the concept back in time, and by doing so explain other instances of technological change leading organisational and doctrinal reform.  One such example is the applicationof the RMA idea to ‘Blitzkrieg’, particularly the Fall of France in 1940.  Unfortunately there are numerous problems with this.  Firstly it has been comprehensively proven that Germany did not possess vastly superior technology, despite isolated technological strengths.  In addition, ‘Blitzkrieg’ was not a formal doctrine, and as a result the direct effects of technological advancement cannot be proven.  The Fall of France was to a large extent aided

The Fall of France 1940

by French incompetence and mistakes, and additionally any analysis of Blitzkrieg is incomplete without reference to the Eastern Front, where it ultimately failed due to a variety of logistical, tactical and strategic reasons.  It is clear that this approach is flawed.

Taking examples from history and by doing so applying the lessons of past wars to modern conflicts is a core part of contemporary academic analysis.  However, projecting modern concepts and metaphysical structures onto past events risks both historical ‘cherry picking’ in the style of Mahan, as well as often cripplingly subjective analysis, which distorts historical truth.

Can these terms really be applied? 

Due to the historian’s penchant for applying theories and definitions to alternative periods in history, it is possible to find terms like the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ or the Military Revolution appearing in studies ranging throughout the whole spectrum of military history, often interchangeably.  To a certain extent, although the debate surrounding the Military Revolution is by no means over, this term has been worn-out, over used and over applied.  The RMA however is only just being properly explored, and applied to other periods of great military change.  Historians have projected the Revolution in Military Affairs back to German ‘Blitzkrieg’ and the First World War, for example.  These studies promote analysis and evaluation of the RMA when applied to other areas, but take the original concept completely out of context.

The Military Revolution debate is centred on which period of history it may or may not be applied to.  As a result of numerous historians’ studies and debates, academics in the field of warfare are presented with many different sides of the same argument; an argument which is inherently flawed.  By extending and editing the original framework to fit their own areas of interest, the key historians engaged in this debate have negated any plausibility attached to the ‘revolutionary’ label, not least through the advocacy of a revolution lasting more than one hundred years, a concept proposed by more than one academic.  The RMA, being ‘younger’, has yet to be fully understood and applied in this way.

The boundaries between the different terms are largely indistinct and by removing the original limitations of time and space, the RMA being specifically aimed at the 1980s onward, the resulting ‘revolution’, encapsulating technology, doctrine and organisation would overlap heavily with the Military Revolution.

It is also important to remember provenance when assessing any of these terms.  The Military Revolution was conceived by an early modern historian 400 years after the events, while the MTR and RMA concepts were created by contemporaneous military thinkers to explain developments in the modern world.  Understanding the geneses of these concepts therefore helps to differentiate between the two.

Consequently, the question is not necessarily can these terms be applied, but is perhaps ‘should they be applied?’.  The Military Revolution concept lends itself to a range of periods in history, but has as a result been over applied, stretched and warped.  The RMA was developed from the original MTR idea to address advancements in technology, and their effects on the military, specifically in the US in the 70s, 80s and later decades.  It is thus by definition a concept that can only be applied to the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and because of this it is clearly inappropriate to superimpose the RMA onto any other period in time.

Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution Theory

Clifford J. Rogers, perhaps aware that his paper on the multiple military revolutions of the Hundred Years’ War was stretching Roberts’ already crumbling conceptual framework to breaking point, proposed the adoption in military history of a biological term first used in the 1970s in reference to evolutionary biology, ‘Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution’. Rogers saw this idea as a series of small, periodic bursts of change in military history, punctuated by relative stability.  This translates as, for example, an important new technological development, followed by relative inaction while the technology delivers an impact and then the widespread adoption of the technology and acceptance of the social, economic and political consequences related to it.

This theory goes further than the Military Revolution debate to explain why Europe experienced continuous ‘revolutions’ throughout a period of over 500 years.  By viewing the developments as short bursts of activity in an otherwise stagnant and reactionary military environment, it is possible to identify important technological, doctrinal, organisational and social changes without having to impose the ‘revolution’ label on them.  This idea therefore has much to offer, but for it to be any more relevant, and in order to emerge from beneath the Military Revolution theory it requires tighter definition and further study.

Summary and Conclusion

An MTR is an RMA is not quite a Military Revolution.  A Military Revolution implies that the military-technical development (MTR/RMA) is accompanied by broader social, economic, political or cultural change.  This is as close to a qualitative definition as one can expose without breaking the concepts at their core.

Indeed, there is clearly no quantitative measurement.  For example, while Clifford J. Rogers speculated that perhaps a revolution “lasts for no more than one lifespan”, Jeremy Black’s revolution lasts for over 200 years, and Roberts a full 100 years.  The Military Revolutions of Rogers, Black, Roberts and Parker (to name but a few examples) are all well argued, and all fit the general definition of a Military Revolution.  Yet they extend from 1302 with the genesis of Rogers’ ‘Infantry Revolution’ to around 1430 with the ‘Artillery Revolution’, then 1500 and the beginning of trace italienne, followed by the 1630s and Gustavus Adolphus’ application of linear tactics, to the late 17th century and the inception of the bayonet, being drawn by Black all the way to 1800 in his work ‘A Military Revolution? Military Change and European Society 1550-1800’.  Developments such as these, with similar characteristics and occurring over long periods of time, appeared with such frequency during the last millennium that surely they cannot be regarded as revolutionary at all.

A lack of capacity for any real quantitative measurement is not on its own a fatal blow to the Military Revolution concept, but in combination with the lack of consistency in its application by various academics and the sheer volume of time periods referred to as military revolutions, it must be concluded that the term clearly has no value.

The main problem with the RMA in comparison is not that it has been over-applied, although restraint must now be used to prevent this happening, but that it has not been properly defined.  The Revolution in Military Affairs is a modern concept for the modern military, and as such must not be projected back in time to historical periods more suited to alternative explanations.  In addition to this, an ‘end’ to the current RMA must be found.  This RMA began in the 1970s with the increasing military use of information systems and smart technology, continuing through the development and increasingly widespread use of the internet, up to the present day.  Without clear definition this RMA could therefore continue infinitely, if one considers the rate of technological development we are now experiencing.  The RMA concept as a result of this runs the risk of becoming, like the Military Revolution, too broad to succeed as a workable term.

We would argue that while ‘military affairs’ have been irreversibly transformed by post-1970 technological developments, this transformation cannot be

New technology has changed the conduct and organisation of modern armed forces

viewed as a revolution.  Without knowing the conclusion to the current RMA, it is impossible to know whether the US and the West are experiencing a revolutionary or evolutionary process.  Because of this, we would direct interested parties to the Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution Theory, which has many merits and may be applied successfully to much of history due to having a more sensible and all-encompassing approach.  Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution however does require more study and application to historical subjects before it may be totally adopted by historians.

The military historian Cyril Falls once noted that people throughout history have had a tendency to view their own period of time as revolutionary in a way that separates them conceptually from the past, a subjective flaw we perhaps still suffer from. We would argue that this is the same for military historians and analysts, with a tendency for each to see their own period of study as the most significant. It is not coincidental that each of the historians discussed in this article have found their own specialism the most noteworthy period in military history.

It is perhaps both the linear academic view of history, a product of the Enlightenment, and our own psychological requirements as pattern seeking mammals that motivate us to attempt to draw a straight line through history, and to view the entire subcategory of military history on the sliding scale of a single concept, be it ‘Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution’, ‘RMA’, ‘MTR’ or ‘Military Revolution’. Similarly, perhaps none of these approaches is appropriate. What is clear is that the Military Revolution, RMA and MTR concepts are so loosely defined, subjective, over applied and misunderstood that if they originally provided analytical value, they no longer do so.

The authors of this article can be contacted via Twitter at: @L_EH_Reynolds and @zcvince