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  His arrival at these views must also, in part, be due to his particular character and position, aloof and withdrawn from political and diplomatic circles, he no doubt suffered in the key areas of ‘statecraft’ as he considered his own role to be concerned mainly with the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.

The problem with Assad’s aerial strategy…

Assad this week.


With attack helicopters and Russian fighter jets plummeting to the ground around Syria, it could be suggested that President Assad’s air campaign is faltering. In June, Defence IQ published an article called ‘What do Russian attack helicopters say about Syrian strategy?’ Three months on we ask: what has changed – and why?…

Three months ago Syria was denied a shipment of Russian MI-35 attack helicopters, which was a significant blow to the regime.

As suggested in the original article:

If the attack helicopters had arrived, it would have significantly increased the Syrian Arab Army’s capacity to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations, enabling it to root out rebels embedded deep within cities and providing aggressive cover to its own authorities on the ground.

The failure to obtain new hardware has meant that Assad has been relying on an increasingly decrepit armoury. A tweet from FSA leader, Riad al Assad, said:

Reports coming in saying 50% of Assad’s hind attack helicopters may be grounded due to lack of spare parts loyal pilots and poor maintenance.

This will be of concern to President Assad. His strategy has only occasionally launched air strikes from fixed-wing jets, but instead tends to rely on helicopters for air strikes in urban areas.

The most recent images of a helicopter being shot down will do nothing to inspire confidence in his strategy.

When fighting in COIN operations, losing control of the skies has historically marked the beginning of the end for many governments against insurgent forces, from Afghanistan to Libya. Whilst it would be bold to suggest that President Assad no longer has an aerial advantage, it is becoming apparent that he is losing his monopoly in aerial supremacy.

There are several explanations for why this could be, they are as follows::

The kit

The equipment that the Syrian army has is poorly maintained and out of date, thus making them prone to malfunction. For example, the MiG Jet that the regime claims crashed due to a technical fault rather than the skill or will of the enemy. Speaking of which…

The will of the enemy

The capabilities that the FSA have may be underestimated. As with any force that has employed guerrilla methods, the insurgent will find a weakness and then exploit it with any and all available resources. There is an obvious corollary between the growth and variety of the insurgent’s resources, and the vulnerabilities the enemy faces.

For the FSA, a significant boost to their armoury has been the introduction of (admittedly, crude but nonetheless dangerous) SA-7 anti-aircraft systems. These are handheld, heat-seeking SAMs developed during the cold war and are a genesis of the Stinger launchers used by American forces.

Social media

How can social media impact upon COIN aerial strategy? The answer is not obvious – Facebook can not shoot down a jet (…yet). However, what social media does provide is a platform to influence, convince and indoctrinate on a level previously impossible.

The FSA have learnt from other insurgent campaigns around the world and are using social media to shape the battlefield. Take Hezbollah for example; its media campaign has seen them even producing their own TV channel. In a similar way, the FSA are using platforms such as YouTube to broadcast anything that may be of strategic advantage, which is then amplified as it spreads to a global audience.

Therefore, regardless of whether or not you are cynical of the videos of jets and helicopters being ‘shot down’, their presence on global media platforms gives the impression that the Assad regime is weakening, whilst the FSA is becoming stronger and more capable. The impact that this has is not restricted to our living rooms, but has a direct impact on the battlefield, causing fear and doubt to spread. Logic would dictate that if a regime cannot maintain its instruments of control it will inevitably crumble. This is why presenting these instruments as inadequate is of such importance.


An alternative reason for why President Assad’s air force looks vulnerable may be because he is attempting to conserve the most valuable air warfare assets in case of a foreign intervention. If true, this decision resides in the grey space between the bold and the foolhardy. If operations in Libya are anything to go by then it is unlikely that trying to preserve some of his better, yet still old kit, will make much of a difference in preventing no-fly zones being implemented.  More than half of the planes are understood to be 30-year-old MiG-21s and MiG-23s; only 40 or so MiG-29s can be described as modern. More valuable is his ground-to-air assets that overshadow those of Gaddafi and have since caused hesitation among NATO forces where intervention is concerned. But how long can these be preserved from the rebel mob – or indeed kept in operation by a dwindling ground force?

What seems apparent from these points is that President Assad lacks the resources and the nous to implement an effective aerial COIN strategy; he and his leaders have B-grade equipment and are not using it to optimal capability. This equipment and those operating it are bending under the pressure, leading inevitably to mistakes and defections. There are certainly smarter ways to use airpower for COIN.

Many commentators agree that the Assad regime will fall eventually, with the dissection of the state now beyond the point of no return. That prediction should be taken with a degree of pessimism; with the removal of President Assad, he will of course leave behind a power vacuum. And those who fill that gap may not be as opposed to using chemical weapons as Assad has so far been.

In a recent Defence IQ article, James Farwell discusses this issue in more depth:

Potential loss of control over WMDs may pose a threat, considering the terror groups that would like to get their hands on them. Col. Riad al-As’ad, head of the opposition Free Syrian Army, says al-Qaeda is not operating in Syria. But al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has reportedly ordered followers to infiltrate the Syrian opposition. Sunni radicals associated with the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes al-Qaeda, have urged fighters to go to Syria. And one should not doubt al-Qaeda’s determination to acquire WMDs – Osama bin Laden once professed that acquiring chemical or nuclear weapons is “a religious duty.”

WMDs could be smuggled into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank or elsewhere. In the past, Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have all attempted to acquire chemical or biological weapons. In a sign of precisely how destabilizing some view this threat, Israeli officials have warned that Syria transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah would constitute a declaration of war.

The introduction of rogue chemical weapons would indeed be a game changer, and would have a huge impact on the likelihood of a quick resolution.

The use of such weapons will not bring the war to an abrupt end, but will instead expand into a far more lethal and long-term conflict. If we take Iraq as an example; the consequences of Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons against the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War 1980 to August 1988 are still being felt today. In fact, lest we forget, the fear that Saddam possessed WMDs was premise for invasion by US and allied forces in 2003. Arguably, the lack of evidence post-invasion of these assets has in itself limited the strategic options now available in the Syria scenario.

While Assad may be slipping from power, he is still holding cards tightly to his chest. Whether he tips his hand or the rebels call his bluff remains a waiting game

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!

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The ‘Alternative’ Olympic Games 2012

With Olympics over and the Paralympics round the corner I came up with the idea of comparing some of London 2012’s greatest athletes and events to their military counterparts.


100m sprint

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive and technologically advanced aircraft in the world and as the years roll on, the aviation-loving public continue to wait with bated breath as to whether this modern maverick lives up to expectations.

Akin to…

No event captures an Olympic audience imagination like the 100 metres final and, like the field of air combat, the event can put on a decisive and explosive spectacle. Headlining this year is “fastest man who has ever lived” Jamaican runner Usain Bolt, who is hoping to defend his crown. Both Bolt and the F-35 programme are commanding a huge amount of money and both have been criticised recently by some that would say they are not taking their development seriously enough, while others have questioned their ability to take off. As of 2012, doubts have surfaced about their performance capabilities, but the truth will remain a mystery until the Big Day.


The powerhouse strategic airlift jet is the Ukrainian Antov A124, which can carry a massive payload of 150,000 kg. Built during the Cold War years, this soviet craft need not worry of any doping controversies that plagued Olympic athletes from the eastern bloc; it’s a mechanical brute.

Akin to…

Nicknamed “The Iranian Hercules”, Hossein Rezazadeh is an incredibly strong Olympic specimen. With the world record in the Clean and Jerk, he can lift 263.5 kg (580.9 lbs). Both man and machine hail from the East, are unusually big in size among their peers, and you wouldn’t want to see either one of them barrelling towards you down a dark alley.


The Soviet Alfa (Lira) Class was a class of nuclear powered hunter/killer submarines. With a top speed of 41 knots (47 mph, 76 km/h) was a pure speedster – and in fact, that was all it was designed for despite being an “attack sub” with the Northern Fleet from 1977 to 1996.

Akin to…

Despite the urge to mention Michael Phelps, defending aquatic champion and winner of the most Olympic medals ever, we’re taking the low-brow road and making the very obvious reference to Ian “Thorpedo” Thorpe.  Like the Alfa-class, both athlete and boat are now permanently retired, and neither used their skills for anything more practical than sheer exhibition of power. Innovative and energy-efficient for its time, the Alfa has since lost its spotlight to sleeker US models.


Above the surface, it’s the battle of the warship, with the fastest being the US-built Iowa Class, clocking in a maximum speed of 31 knots (36 mph; 57 km/h).

Akin to…

Rowing world records are broken regularly; in 1936 the single sculls gold medal winner Dan Barratt of the USA rowed a time of 7:30.5 minutes but today the record stands at just under a minute quicker. It’s held by New Zealander Mahé Drysdale who, like the Iowa Class, cut his teeth in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Whilst newer and more powerful ships and boats have been developed, so has their weight, meaning speed has remained relative.


With an effective range of 2,500m, the FGM-148 Javelin anti-armour missile commands a fire and forget tandem warhead which is a High explosive anti-tank (HEAT) type model. With a cost of $40,000 (£25,500) for the missile alone, the weapon represents an expensive but effective weapon capable of destroying enemy targets worth significantly more value.

Akin to…

Erm…the javelin..? In fact, it’s a closer comparison than we perhaps care to remember. Though a sophisticated Olympic sport event, the javelin was first employed as a devastating weapon thousands of years ago by the Greeks and Romans, effectively making it the earliest form of long-range offensive projectile.


The weapons a soldier use are his and her tools, and only ever as good as the person carrying them. With the Olympics being held in London the versatility of the British Armed Forces has also been on display, taking soldiers from the mud tracks in Afghanistan to the streets of the capital in security roles at venues across the UK.

Akin to…

Quick history lesson: the modern pentathlon was inspired by the pentathlon event in the Ancient Olympic Games, which was itself modelled after the skills of the ideal soldier at the time. The modern variant seeks to replicate this with testing the skills required of a 19th century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines: he/she must ride an unfamiliar horse, fight with pistol and sword, swim, and run. Britain’s Mhairi Spence contends at this year’s Games following European and World titles.


The popular P-8 Poseidon, the manned Maritime Patrol Aircraft from Boeing, is being teamed with an unmanned Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system for the U.S. Navy, which will see 40 UAVs working in conjunction with the P-8 to circle the skies without rest. Even without that team support, each UAV has an individual endurance of 30 hours.

Akin to…

Frequently the favourites in the marathon, the Kenyan team is this year fielding Wilson Kipsang, who won the London Marathon in April in just 2:04:44. Like the BAE Nimrod MRA4, Britain’s number one marathon runner Paula Radcliffe has limped out of the competition before the chance to properly prove herself on the world stage, while world record holder Patrick Makau didn’t even make the squad.


The Apache helicopter has the sort of firepower, precision, and armour that can disperse most insurgents simply by appearing over the horizon. It has become a staple of military air power and recently proved effective during the Libya campaign, not to mention Afghanistan and other irregular warfare environments.

Akin to…

Olympic gymnasts have to be agile, strong and flexible; ready to compete in any environment and prepared to tackle a number of obstacles. Just like facing-off against the Apache, when Japan’s Kohei Uchimura turns up in his leotard to the arena of conflict, the opposing forces take a deep breath and wish they’d stayed at home.

Beach volleyball

The increasing cyber threat is becoming more prevalent for government, the military and industry everyday as thousands of cyber attackers attempt to breach security barriers and firewalls. The recent announcement of another super-virus, called the Flame, has reignited fears that our national and military secrets are vulnerable to digital assailants. This summer, all eyes will be on the cyber domain.

Akin to…

In beach volleyball there’s a huge net (firewall) that each side needs to overcome if it is to break down the defences of the opposition. Both are growing activities and ones that are getting a great deal of media attention of late. And finally, the terms ‘cyber security’ and ‘beach volleyball’ are also both very, well, dare we say ‘sexy’, to their respective parties (that is in their own, very different ways).

An interview about robotic snake arms

An interview with Bristol based OC Robotics who produce robotic snake arms. Conducted at Farnborough Air Show.

Hi Tim, would you mind telling our readers about who your company is and what you do?

OC Robotics small company Bristol and we make snake arm robots, that is our core business. Robots for confined spaces, spaces where it’s difficult or dangerous for a human to get in to. You can use a snake arm robot, which is a very flexible robot to get inside, and take tools to do whatever process you need doing.

You have been around for ten years now, so you are still relatively new.  What do you think have been the biggest challenges your company has faced in that time?

The biggest challenge is money as ever.

Our first 5 years were R&D, working out how to best make and control these snake arms. Whilst in the last 5 years we have been taking these snake arms and working out how other sectors would use them and their best uses.

And the challenge is money, it is getting money to do projects with the big companies, it is challenging for a small company to get in with big companies and do some useful work.

What industries have shown the most interest in Snake Arms?

It was the aerospace industry but then the recession hit and the industry locked down its R&D budgets.

Since then, it has been in the nuclear industry, not the UK abroad, but actually it has been from abroad. Abroad they seem to take more risks in buying this equipment!

Companies have bought them and they are being used at the moment during power outages in nuclear power plants

What do you find particularly interesting/exciting about the program?

It is a unique technology, we are only company in world, and no one else does this.

We are still a small company and its fun to work in a small company with very clever people who are making this work.

What developments do you think will happen to the program over the next 10-20 years?

We see there being more nuclear applications and working closer with aerospace as well. We want to get the Snake Arm used on assembly floors on the legacy aircraft and the new design and build aircraft.

Are there any military applications for the Snake Arm?

Absolutely! We have worked with MOD and DOD on large and small Snake Arms, which is on-going

The main application is surveillance; you can use the Snake Arm to look inside suspect things.  For the MOD we made quite a large snake arm that went on to long cress vehicle sort of a small tank. The tank was used to drive up to vehicles and the snake was used to snake in through windows and under the car to search it.

What has the feedback been like?

It has been very good; we are still in contact and still talking to them on different projects

Could you provide some statistics on what the Snake Arm is capable of doing?

The Snake Arms you see here are for aerospace and have capacity of 5 kg they can carry.  The ones made for the mod were designed to pull a car! Once it suspected the car if it found it didn’t like it could hook onto the car and pull it away!

Other arms we are making are 4 half meters long with a capacity of 20 kg. But it is important to remember that the design depends on where you are using the arms, such as if using them under water or in the air.

What is the biggest arm you have made?

The largest is 4 and half meters long, 150 ml diameter, with a 20 kilo payload; it is a bit of a monster!

How can you control the arm?

There are 3 ways using it. The first is manually. You control the tip and direction, which draws a path 3D space. The rest of the arm will follow where the snake has been. So if you avoid an obstacle with a tip the rest will follow.

The middle method is teach and repeat. So you teach it manually and it will repeat that manoeuvre.

The third way is completely script driven. So you write a script in your virtual environment upload it into the snake arm program and it can move based on that.

Which way would you say is the best?

Certainly for the military it is definitely manual; as every environment is different. There is no way you could script for all eventualities.

Like the design for controlling UAV’s you use a Games controller to work the arm, why is this?

We use an Xbox controller if I am allowed to talk about brands! The reason is they cost £20 from Argos! If we were to develop our own controller it would cost us tens of thousands of pounds for something Microsoft have already done for us, they have done the ergonomics they’ve stress tested these things. Gamers throw these things around their rooms when they get frustrated! So they are very good pieces of kit and they work.

For more information please check their website out.




An interview with someone in the know on Apache Attack Helicopters

Afraid I’m not permitted to reveal my source (which is  quite cool for a novice writer!). This is an interview I had whilst working at DefenceIQ.

Thoughts and comments welcome.

What makes the Apache unique?

Although the Apache was designed in the 1970s as a tank killer, when that threat vanished, Apache operators learned it was capable to perform more missions than originally visioned. So the Apache is able to perform missions along all spectrums of conflict.

Iit runs the gamut of reconnaissance and surveillance to attack modes. It is a very successful design and over the past 25-30 years the aircraft has continued to be upgraded with current technologies. And new technologies as they are available are put in block form.

A very efficient development process was established early, which is really amazing when you think about its development over more than 30 years. The A model has evolved into the D model.  The Cobra has had a long life but it has gone through the alphabet and now is up to Z – Zulu.

The Apache started at A and went directly to D — no B or C designation, which is interesting.

The fully integrated capability, the ability to use its radar to scan the battlefield, to be able to communicate and eliminate the need for voice chats – all these things give the Apache unique advantages on the battlefield. Its performance, the ability to be maintained in the field and the ability to survive attacks are its key attributes.

If you go back and look at some of the stories from the Desert Storm through current Operations you can learn a lot about the Apache and how it has been deployed.

There is one story of a battalion of Apaches, more than 20 helicopters, which flew across Iraq in the middle of the night. Local residents were on their cell phones telling soldiers that the helicopters were coming. When the helicopters arrived, the situation was not as they expected and the aircraft turned around and headed back.But they flew through a gauntlet of enemy fire that damaged the aircraft but did not bring them down. Every one of the helicopters made it back safely even though they had been shot up.

The aircraft is capable of taking hits, and it’s capable of surviving.

All of these factors make the Apache unrivalled in combat.  Its ability to perform is what makes it unique.

What are its specific strengths?

Well its lethality is the main thing.  And survivability it critically important too.

The ability to shoot targets without being seen.

The ability to fire missiles from extended ranges so that the enemy doesn’t even know its coming.

It’s the kind of thing that the enemy is afraid of – it makes them not want to go out to work that day! They don’t know if they’ll come back.

That’s how bad Apache is!

When you look at the videos that have leaked out over the years, you understand that when you are a target you are in trouble.

Does the Apache have an advantage over other attack helicopters?

The Apache has the ability to see further and can effectively deploy weapons at greater ranges than other attack helicopters   These and other technolgies make the Apache stand out as unique.

The prevailing message seems to be that the Apache has many competitors, but no competition.

The bottom line is that the Apache has proven it can perform and that it can be efficiently maintained.

One documented fact that is valuable is looking at the number of flight hours the Apache has logged – more than 3.5 million. It has been in constant use in very dangerous and unfriendly environments.

Until another helicopter has matching data, it’s hard to compare Apache to anything.

One other thing that Apache does better than anyone else is modernization through what is called the “technology roadmap.”

‘A’ models were still being produced when testing was begun to incorporate digital capabilities.

As the US Army was fielding thethe first ‘D’ models, designers and engineers were already looking at the next generationApache.  Though its evolution the aircraft has transformed from black and white monotone screens to full colour moving map displays, eliminating the need for radio conversation to collect data and communicate with forces on the ground.

As Apache has added capabilities, the helicopter has become more effective and setting itself apart from the competition.

What are the key upgrades?

Today’s AH-64D Apache Block III, first delivered in October 2012,features increased flight performace with  an improved drive system which provides the ability to use more power from its  engines, and composit rotor blades.

It has increased the situational awareness with cognitive decision-aiding and fused sensor information resulting in improved survivability and targeting

System-level diagnostics,  upgrade to the fuselage –  strengthening it – is part of the aircraft’s improved sustainability.

The upgrades to the computer processing – the Apache has a modular structure – open archtecture design —  enables new software to be uploaded  without having to requalify the whole aircraft.

These are the more significant aircraft enhancements.

Could you explain the UAV Synergy?

The new Block III Apache features Level 4 UAV control.  That means being able to direct a UAV’s flight path and the control it’s sensors.  It extends the crewmember’s vision, allowing them to seemiles ahead and seeing whether or not that’s the route they want to take or that’s the target they must go after.

Considering the targeting capabilities of the Apache, if the crew can see several miles ahead then they will be able to address the threat without even getting close enough to put themselves in danger.

Where can it be used?

The missions of the helicopter are the choice and decision of the battlefield commanderss.

The Apache has capabilities to be used in day/night operations, used in search and rescue, command and control.

If you put these capabilities in to the equation and a defence force can apply it to a wide range of threats.

Where is the Apache going to be in 10 years?

The question really comes down to technology. If a new technology or capability is coming online then you can speculate.

There are a few articles published that talk about potential upgrades and capabilities.