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Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Steve Cole's thoughts on several incidents in military history that no one outside of the military remembers today.
1. During the Kuwait War [1991, also known as the First Gulf War, the Second Gulf War (Iran vs. Iraq being the First), and as Desert Storm] a brigade of the 2nd Armored Division was operating as the third brigade of the 1st Mechanized Division (replacing a brigade that wasn't available for war). On the third day of the ground campaign, this brigade slammed into a major Iraqi defensive position manned by Republican Guard troops. Rather than surrender when attacked, the Republican Guard units fought fanatically, continuing to fight after their positions were overrun. They were very good about sneaking around and firing rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs, think bazookas) into American vehicles. These did no serious damage to the tanks and only rarely did they seriously damage a Bradley (infantry carrier). The problem was that (in the thermal night sights used by the American army) the impact of an RPG on the side of a vehicle looked like the firing of a main tank cannon. This created serious confusion, and in a two-hour battle the US lost five tanks and five Bradleys -- all of them to American tanks that saw an RPG impact and thought that the vehicle hit was an Iraqi tank firing its cannon at the Americans. Fortunately, good vehicle design limited casualties to a dozen killed or wounded.
2. Remember the Tonkin Gulf battles back in 1964 in which Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked US destroyers, inspiring Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and start the Vietnam War? There is a story behind that. The CIA was using small boats to smuggle guns up the Vietnamese coast into North Vietnam for us by US-based rebels trying to overthrow the communist government. The North Vietnamese, unhappy with this flow of arms, used their navy (a few torpedo boats) to stop the small CIA boats. The US Navy then sent groups of destroyers on sweeps into the Gulf to drive the torpedo boats away and allow the CIA boats to go forward. The Vietnamese torpedo boats stood their ground (that is, their water) and fought back. (It also happens that one of the US destroyers had a defective rudder and heard "torpedoes" in the water every time they turned left.)
3. It is a meme of the Korean War that the US troops were stuck on the roads while the clever Chinese "volunteers" scrambled along mountain trails to get behind them, trap them, and destroy them. It's a little more complicated than that. The Chinese did have excellent infantry that was accustomed to long fast marches. They were light infantry because they simply didn't own much in the way of heavier weapons like artillery. They did indeed use a good strategy to sneak down those trails to get behind American units. At that point, other Chinese troops would use human wave attacks (as they had no supporting artillery) to get the front-line US units to retreat down roads that had lots of Chinese ambushes waiting. Those ambushes cost a lot of American lives and captured a lot of vehicles and weapons, but in almost every case the heavier-armed Americans broke through the trap and escaped because trucks on a road are faster than infantry on a mountain trail. The Chinese tactic only worked when the Americans didn't know there was about to be a battle. Once the Americans were actually fighting, they out-gunned and out maneuvered the Chinese almost every time.
4. Rocket artillery has the advantage of being easy to move (the launcher is lighter than a cannon as it does not have to contain the explosion of the fuel) and able to fire a lot more rounds in less time than a battery of gun artillery. This means it can really put a lot of explosives into a small spot very quickly. A conventional cannon bombardment gets started slowly and the enemy has time to take cover or move. The disadvantages are that each rocket weighs a lot more than one cannon shell (as the fuel isn't contained when ignited so the rocket uses a lot more) and rockets are not that accurate (until GPS made them super-accurate). The normal use for modern GPS rocket artillery is counter-artillery, in that once a radar determines where the enemy cannon are, the rocket launcher can smash anything in that spot. Since there are fewer counter-artillery missions than other types of artillery missions, the ammunition weight isn't that big a problem. Modern artillery is taught to move to a new spot, fire a few shots, then move before the enemy can hit back. Rocket artillery responds so quickly that this tactic is nullified.
 5. It was the destruction of the Spanish Navy at Trafalgar in 1805 that triggered the wave of independence that swept Latin America. The French (with a larger fleet) lost more ships but suffered less of a long-lasting effect. It was the largely undamaged and victorious British fleet that enforced the famous Monroe Doctrine (the US proclamation that no European power, i.e., Spain, had the right to dominate or control trade with Latin America).