MACHINES THAT WILL FIGHT THE Next War (Oct, 1934)
MACHINES THAT WILL FIGHT THE Next War
By Arthur Grahame
MANY writers have painted grim and lurid word pictures of the next warâ€”pictures of mighty cities blown into reeking ruin by a hail of bombs from out of the sky; of the merciless slaughter of combatants and noncombatants alike with gases a hundred times more deadly than the mustard and phosgene of 1918, and with the stealthily sowed germs of malignant diseases; of gigantic tanks, land battleships that will crush thousands beneath their grinding tracks. They have drawn pictures of air armadas so mighty that they will decide the issue before ever a soldier marches across a frontier; of robots that will do the front-line fighting in place of flesh-and-blood men; of strange electrical weapons that will send dreadnaughts plunging to destruction and wipe out armies before they can fire a shot in defense; of war so terrible and so devastating that it will annihilate our civilization.
Will the dreaded, but prepared-for, next war, when and if it comes, really be like that?
Few of our military experts on duty at the War Department in Washington think so, but they do think future wars will be vastly different from the World War. They expect the next war to be a war of speed, surprise, and shock, rather than another 1914-1918 trench deadlock to be broken only by slow attrition. They expect the armies of the future to be considerably smaller than those of the recent past, but more highly trained, and provided by science with implements and weapons that will give them great speed of movement and terrific hitting power.
On the part that the airplane is likely to play in future wars, American military opinion is sharply divided. The General Staff opinion is that the airplane is an important and highly valuable weapon, but merely one of many weapons, and like all other weapons it will be used principally to help the infantry advance and conquer. Air Corps officers, however, are firmly convinced that the rapid development of the airplane has changed the entire aspect of warfare, and made armies and navies of decidedly minor importance and that it will be air power, and air power alone, that will decide the wars of the future.
Air-minded American military men have been profoundly impressed, as have the air-minded of all other nations, by the theories of air warfare advanced by General Gulio Douhet, an Italian soldier-scientist who died in 1930.
While the airplane was still in its experimental stage, Douhet realized that it would become an important factor in future wars. After the World War he became the prophet of the independent air force. The aviation forces, he preached, should not be under control of either military or naval commanders. At the very beginning of a war all of a nation’s air power should be massed and used to win the mastery of the air at the earliest possible moment. Bombing planes should be armed so that they could defend themselves successfully against attackers, but enemy air power should be destroyed by bombing its hangars and factories out of existence, rather than by seeking combat with its planes. The mastery of the air won, it should be used to bomb cities and strategic points on transportation routes, so as to break down the morale of the enemy civilian population and make it unwilling to continue the war.
While no nation has gone the whole way in accepting Douhet’s theories, Italy, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Germany have adopted his idea of the independent air force. The United States and Japan are the only top-flight military nations that still divide their air forces between the army and the navy.
News from many countries shows that their military authorities are really fearful of air attacks on their great cities. Somewhere deep under Londonâ€”the exact location is a carefully guarded secretâ€”work has been started on an immense bomb-proof and gas-proof subterranean chamber designed to be the nerve center of the British capital’s defense against air attack. In Tokyo and other Japanese cities, military and municipal authorities are adopting measures intended to safeguard electric power plants, water works, and other vital public utilities from danger from the skies. France is working out an elaborate system for protecting her population against attacks by planes.
Air Corps officers are convinced that large-scale air attacks on great cities will be a development of the very early days of the next war. They emphasize the fact that Paris, Berlin, London, Rome, and Tokyo all are within easy striking distance of the air bases of possible enemies.
An air attack on a large city probably will not be an attempt to demolish the entire city with a rain of high-explosive bombs. The areas attacked will be limited in size in proportion to the number of planes available for the attack, and will be carefully selected for their strategic value. Air attacks of this character on two or three well-separated areas of a city such as New York or London would, Air Corps officers insist, result in the complete demoralization of its inhabitants. It is quite possible that they might result in the destruction of the entire city by fire.
No military expert doubts that in many cases massed air attacks on important cities will be possible, and few doubt that they will be made. But many students of modern war doubt that they will be anywhere nearly so destructive as the proponents of air power think, or that they will have a sufficiently strong effect on civilian morale to make them worth while. World War air raids were severe enough to prove that civilians don’t scare easily.
Air bombs, however, have increased greatly in size since the World War. The largest that were dropped on London and Paris weighed 660 pounds. Today ordnance experts are experimenting with a two-ton bomb, and one-ton bombs are considered standard. One of these missiles, exploding on striking the ground, makes a crater fifty-seven feet in diameter and nineteen feet deep. But it would not penetrate very far into a modern steel-and-concrete building. If it struck the Empire State Building it would wreck two or three of the upper floors, and its terrific blast probably would kill everyone on them, but it would not destroy the building. It is certain that at present no nation has anything like enough planes to carry the number of explosive bombs that would be necessary to destroy a large city.
Incendiary bombs, especially thermite bombs, would be much more damaging. Thermite is a mixture of aluminum powder and oxide of iron. When a small part of the bomb’s charge is raised to a high temperature by a primer, a violent reaction is set up which causes metallic iron to flow out as an incandescent liquid. When thermite is mixed with a high explosive, its driven drops will penetrate steel. Planes dropping 100-pound thermite bombs on a city, especially on a windy day, could start so many fires that the fire department might be unable to control them.
Although the use of poison gas in warfare has been outlawed by international agreement, it is so valuable a weapon that it probably will play an important part in future wars. But, valuable as it is, it is not nearly so effective as most of the next war writers have made it out to be. Our military experts say that no new gas has been invented since the end of the World War, and that mustard gas still is the most effective chemical-warfare weapon.
Undoubtedly, mustard gas will be used in air attacks on cities. A single plane could carry enough of it to kill every person in New Yorkâ€”provided each person was obliging enough to inhale a whiff of it. But they wouldn’t be! Twelve thousand tons of mustard gas was used in the World War. It caused 350,000 casualties, and killed about 6,000 men. So it really takes about two tons of the most effective gas now known to kill a single soldier.
If the people of a city were trained to keep cool during an air attackâ€”and the people of European cities are receiving such trainingâ€”mustard gas released from bombs would cause few casualties. The civilians could take refuge on the second floors of their homesâ€”mustard gas always stays close to the groundâ€”and be perfectly safe from it until firemen and emergency crews wearing masks and protective clothing washed it down the sewers with streams of water.
Another bogey often trotted out by writers on future war is that of attack with disease germs scattered by airplanes. Army medical men who have studied the subject carefully say that there is little danger that any nation ever will attempt to use this biologic weapon. Bacteria are easily destroyed by heat, and so can not be used in bombs or shells. Modern sanitation probably would be able to keep the transmitted diseases under control.
And if the diseases did become epidemic they would be almost certain to have a boomerang effect, for it would be impossible to keep them from spreading to the forces of the nation that had unleashed them. Germs make no distinctions between uniforms.
It has been said that planes could drop deadly poisons on enemy cities. They could. Botulinus toxin is one of the deadliest of poisons. A single scout plane could carry enough of it to kill everyone in the worldâ€”provided that its lethal load could be administered directly to the prospective victims. But in warfare it couldn’t be so administered, and released at random over a city it would have only a slight effect.
Separated by 3,000 miles of Atlantic and 6,000 miles of Pacific salt water from the nearest nations that could become formidable enemies, the United States has a much simpler air defense problem than have nations whose potential foes are within two or three hours’ flying time of their capitals and industrial centers.
Although some Air Corps officers think that aircraft with a flying range of 7,000 miles while carrying a ton of bombs will be built in the near future, the present extreme radius of airplane action under war conditions is about 900 miles. Under existing conditions an Asiatic or European enemy attacking us from the air would have to launch his planes from sea carriers stationed off our coast.
To do that with any degree of safety he would first have to destroy or effectively bottle up our fleet. Air strategists suggest the possibility that the Panama Canal might be put out of operation by a sea-and-air attack before a formal declaration of war, leaving our navy helpless in the wrong ocean. If that ever should happen, our cities on and near the opposite coast would be in real danger of air attack.
WHAT we should have, Air Corps officers insist, is a third department of national defenseâ€”an Air Department. Air warfare, they say, is more different from land warfare than sea warfare is different from land warfare. Infantry can march three miles an hour. Even motorized infantry can’t move more than ten times that fast. Specifications of the new attack planes now being built for the Air Corps call for a top speed of 250 miles per hour and a maximum endurance of eight hours of flying at a speed of 220 miles an hour. The air-minded contend that making the airplane a member of the old army team of infantry, cavalry, .and artillery is like putting a mounted polo player on a football team, and making him play according to football rules.
An independent land-based air force of 640 bombers, 640 patrol planes, and 200 heavily armed air cruisers with ten-man crews, on each coast, Air Corps officers say, would make us impregnable against attack from the air, and against invasion by a land army. The first cost of this huge air armada, with its necessary land facilities, would not exceed a half billion dollars, about one quarter of the first cost of our present navy, or of the amount we have spent on our land coast defenses, most of which are now of doubtful value.
While airmen are rather contemptuous of ground defense against air attack, land-force soldiers are confident that the improved anti-aircraft artillery developed during the past few years will bring down many a plane if it ever is fired against live targets.
The most modern three-inch antiaircraft guns have a vertical range of 9,000 yards and a horizontal range of 10,000 yards. Four guns, mounted in a battery and controlled by a robot fire director, can put up a barrage of 100 mechanical-fuse twenty-six-pound shells a minute. Any plane within fifty yards of the burst of one of these shells is likely to be put out of action. The guns are aimed electrically by the remote-control director, which is a stereoscopic instrument of high precision with which observers follow the course of the fast-flying planes across the sky. All the gunners have to do is to set their fuses and load their guns. At night tremendously powerful searchlights make it possible for the observers to sight aircraft flying at altitudes as great as 15,000 feet.
Listening devices enable anti-aircraft troops to hear the sound of approaching planes while they are about ten miles away, and so give searchlight operators and gunners time to prepare to repel their attack. Large-caliber machine guns are provided for defense against low-flying planes.
MODERN anti-aircraft artillery undoubtedly will prove more effective than did the archies of the World War, which registered one hit to about 6,000 shots. But no matter how effective it may prove to be, no nation will have enough anti-aircraft artillery to use it in defense of every city in danger of attack. Most of it will be devoted to the defense of important air bases and other vital strategic points.
A war between strong nations is almost certain to begin with a tremendous struggle for the mastery of the air. If one side wins that mastery, the next step will be violent bombing attacks on the enemy’s airdromes, munition plants and transportation arteries and, perhaps, on his cities. If the rival air forces develop about equal strength, the initial air battle probably will end in a stand-off, and the job of fighting the war to its finish will pass on to the ground forces.
Army officers who feel no sympathy at all with the airman’s desire for an independent air force have a strong appreciation of the airplane’s value as an auxiliary of the ground arms, for reconnaisance, spotting artillery fire, low-flying attacks with machine guns and small bombs on ground troops, and for the bombing of vital communication points within 250 miles of the enemy’s front line. No general would be willing to go into battle without having plenty of attack planes, pursuit planes, observation planes, and bombers at his disposal.
It is not only in the air that the gasoline engine has revolutionized warfare. Motorization will make the next war a war of speed. Armies probably won’t be so large as they were in the World War, but they certainly will move faster. Doughboys will be carried close to the battlefield in fast motor trucks. The guns of the artillery will be hauled swiftly into action by motor vehicles. Horse and mule transport will be a memory of the dead past. Even if the cavalryman still rides a horse, which is doubtful, he and his mount will be taken to the jumping off place in a motor truck.
Armies will be able to hit harder than they have in any war of the past. Weapons invented or improved since 1918 will give even small units terrific fire power. For many years our Springfield was the world’s finest military rifle. Now it is practically obsolete. It is capable of fifteen aimed shots a minute, but that isn’t fast enough shooting for present-day fighting. A new arm has been developed for our infantryâ€”the Garand .30-caliber semi-automatic rifle, which is capable of sixty aimed shots a minute. All other nations are arming their foot soldiers with semi-automatics. Efforts are also being made to perfect light air-cooled machine guns to replace the heavy water-cooled guns now in use. A model being tested by our Ordnance Department weighs only nineteen pounds.
In future wars, bringing up the gun will be a less picturesque but much speedier operation than it was in the past. Our standard field gun, the 75-mm., is now being equipped with balloon tires and spring suspensions which make it possible for a truck to tow it over roads at a speed of forty miles an hour without damage to its delicate mechanism. Even fifteen-ton howitzers are being built with mounts that make it possible to tow them at a speed of thirty miles an hour. Prophets who thought that the tank would eventually develop into a sort of nightmare land battleship, were badly mistaken. The first World War tanks weighed thirty-five tons and had a top speed of about three miles an hour. Their tracks broke easily, and more of them were lost through ditching and engine failure than were put out of action by enemy fire. Modern tank> are considerably lighter. Their fire power has been greatly increased, their armor improved, and radio communication makes their tactical control fairly certain. On roads, using wheels, they have a speed of forty miles per hour. Using tracks, which can be attached in a few minutes, they can do twenty-five miles per hour across country. To be of value, tanks must be able to move fast. Direct hits by shells from one-pounder semi-automatic guns, an infantry arm, will put any known tank out of action. Bullets from .50-caliber machine guns, also an infantry-arm, will penetrate their armor. Our army has only a hundred obsolete relics of the World War days, and a mere dozen of the modern tanks. Great Britain, Russia, and France have a great many modern tanks.
Robot warfare remains a dream of the distant future. Probably every important nation is doing secret experimental work in the radio control of ships, planes, and perhaps guns, but it is doubtful if anyone has invented a robot with the quality that the modern fighter most needs, intelligence.
At sea the next war probably will be less changed from previous wars than will the war on land. Aircraft will play a large part in it, but it has yet to be proved in actual warfare that air bombs can sink a warship. Submarines also will play an important part both as commerce destroyers and as fighters. But, so far as anyone knows, the battleship remains the backbone of naval power, even if the danger from submarines and mines makes the battle fleets spend most of their time in strongly defended harbors.
IT IS doubtful if the dreaded next war will be any more deadly than was the World War. It is extremely unlikely that great cities will be destroyed, and their millions of inhabitants slaughtered. The effort of each army will be to defeat the enemy army, and so win the war. The new weapons will be more efficient, and perhaps more deadly, than were the weapons of the past, but they will be no more cruel. Losses aren’t likely to be heavier, for defense has improved as fast and as far as attack. And the next war will have at least one great advantage over the World Warâ€”it is almost certain to be much shorter. But it would be better to be sensible, and not have it.