On horses and history

One problem with public debate about defence is that we must live with a steady diet of half-truths. Consider this from Britain’s CGS.

I agree  strongly with some of his views, that a prepared military this century must be able to tackle a range of complex phenomena like IEDs and cyber attacks. And that the ability of countries like Britain to fight interstate and major wars will depend on the combined capacity of coalitions, so that we must think harder about collectivising a defence and sharing burdens.

But there are also some historical remarks that ring alarm bells:

Indeed in the 1920s, as an example, Basil Liddell Hart and ‘Boney’ Fuller struggled to persuade soldiers everywhere that the era of the horse had been replaced by that of the tank and aircraft, even though both had been in service for a number of years. It was during this period, as CGS reminded us recently, that Liddell Hart noted ruefully that ‘there is only one thing harder then getting a new idea into the military’s mind and that is getting an old one out’! We must be determined that we do not fall into that trap.

Its true that the armour revolution was a major technological and doctrinal innovation in modern warfare. But there’s much more to it.

Actually the horse was never ‘replaced’ so straightfowardly. In the mythologised ‘Blitzkrieg’ conquests in 1939-40, only a small part of the Wehrmacht was mechanised. In the invasion of Poland, many vehicles actually broke down on the plains, while most of the Wehrmacht moved on foot, and supplies were often transported in horsedrawn wagons. In fact, the Wehrmacht, probably the most lethal land force of the century, was heavily reliant upon horses.

Horses remain vital. Who could forget our own special forces in Afghanistan in 2001-2, on horseback with laptops? That photo above was taken at that time, and is a warning against glib historical assumptions. The horse is not a premodern relic, but in some contexts, a remarkably effective vehicle.

The historical view of the horse as an obsolete tool of direct battlefield offensive is simplistic. Competent medieval commanders knew that a direct cavalry charge on a well-prepared and dense enemy line could be disastrous. The value of cavalry never fully rested on their ability to make direct assaults on enemy lines. They did many other valuable things. In combat, they were a tool of exploitation, thrust into a disorganised or fleeing enemy to hammer home success. Outside it, they were used for reconnaisance and supply. The Wehrmacht relied upon them extensively on the Eastern Front of World War Two, where mechanised units ran into many enviromental problems of their own, like extreme weather, primitive roads and stretched supply lines.

Liddell Hart’s own intellectual record on the issue is murkier than Richards allows. He was a prophet of tanks, but his ambitious vision of armour as a single, self-sufficient instrument was very wrong. As more cautious interwar experts argued, tanks were only effective when used as part of a combined arms system.

Ironically, one of the reasons that the interwar British did not fully embrace armour to Liddell Hart and Richards’ satisfaction was not because of intellectual backwardness or a fetish for cavalry, but because there were simply too many competing demands on scarce resources, including the job of policing its empire. This meant that heavy tanks lost out to other things, such as  light armoured vehicles and colonial constabularies. The task of fighting  ‘wars amongst the people’ that Richards believes the UK must prioritise now came at the expense of preparing for armoured and mechanised warfare. Britain was under-prepared to fight a continental war partly because of its investment in small wars. I hope we never have to re-live that shortfall…

Finally, there is the issue of change more generally. As Richards puts it, success hinges on the will and ability to change faster than one’s opponent. But as Stephen Biddle argues in his rigorous study of modern military power, martial effectiveness rests as much upon continuity as change. New technologies do not necessarily transform warfare in paradigm-shifting ways:

…predictions of revolutionary change lying just around the next bend are commonplace in military history. Alfred Nobel thought dynamite was such a radical change from the past that it would render armed conflict impossibly costly and lead to the end of war. Ivan Bloch thought the same for the machine gun…navalists in France thought the development of torpedo-wielding light surface vehicles would sweep the capital ship from the waves in the 1880’s and lead to a whole new era of naval warfare. Prior to World War I, airpower visionaries looked at the new technology of the airplane and reasoned that this changed everything: land warfare would become impossible in the face of bomber fleets attacking attacking cities directly from the air…After the war, US Army and Air Force concluded that the atom bomb would revolutionize warfare and make traditional continental operations impossible; both organisations abandoned their conventional methods and restructured to fight the atomic wars of the future. For the Air Force, this cost lives in subsequent nonnuclear land wars in Korea and Vietnam; for the Army, it resulted in the ignominous abandonment of the atomic-optimised Pentomic Division structure by 1961.

All of these cases show forward-looking thinkers who saw the technological change of their own day as so explosive as to imply military revolution; all were wrong. The better-known counterexamples of reactionary battleship admirals, cavalry generals, or business executives who thought radio or computers were just a flash in the pan can easily lead to an assumption that the real danger is to underestimate the effects of technological change. Yet this fails to consider the many instances of forecasters overestimating the effects of change in the face of apparently exponential growth in key enabling technologies, and it fails to account for the real costs of those overestimates. Technological change that looks very rapid has been a constant throughout modern history. It has often failed to bring the revolutionary military changes that many have expected in the past, and it is not in itself a sufficient reason to expect an RMA now either.

Applying this logic to the future, what of an energy-depleted, resource-poor and overpopulated world, ravaged by a nuclear or climatic disaster, where we lack the means to power technology? Horses might become, again, coveted weapons and the symbols of imperial ambition:

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