New Weapons for the Next War (Nov, 1931)
New Weapons for the Next War
by JAY EARLE MILLER
The last war saw the development of tanks, flame throwers, poison gases and airplanes as war weaponsâ€”what will the next war bring forth? Little-known facts about the latest death-dealing weapons and the defenses developed to draw their fangs are set forth by Mr. Miller in this absorbing and authoritative article.
A GERMAN patrol of Uhlans, the sunlight glinting on their polished helmets and the tips of their long lances, rode out of the woods above the Marne and down toward a small copse where a scouting detachment of Algerian cavalry, with drawn sabres, laid in wait for them.
The time is mid-August, 1914, just seventeen years ago, and the description is from a recently published volume of war memoirs by a French cavalry officer. Imagine the sceneâ€”lances against sabers. Here’s another war-volume, “Fighting Fury”, the autobiography of Major James Mc-Cudden, V. C, the famous “Jimmy” McCudden of the British Royal Air Force, who shot down fifty-seven German machines before he lost his life in an accident. Just seventeen years ago today (August 22, 1914) he, with the British air force in France, saw his first German machine. The ground crew turned out to take pot shots at it with rifles while six English planes took off, armed with home-made hand grenades, in an effort to bomb it down.
There was no such thing at that time as an aerial machine gun. There was no interrupter gear to permit a gun to fire through the propeller, and when, two months later, a pair of army rifles was first mounted on an airplane they stuck out at angles of 45 degrees on either side of the fuselage, in order to miss the prop.
When people start talking about the next war it is hard to remember just how unprepared the world was when the last one started, and how much of the marvelous equipment in use toward the end was actually developed during the period of hostilities. Because the United States got into the scrap near the end, when airplanes, tanks, machine guns, bombs, aerial camera, trench mortars, gas equipment, gas masks, artillery and all the other paraphernalia of war had become more or less standardized, there is a widespread impression that unpreparedness is peculiarly an American fault and that all the other nations went into the fight well armed.
Much has been rumored about the strange new weapons being developed abroad, and “scare head” newspaper stories about planes and gases capable of wiping out an entire city, such as New York, have been frequent since the war. Another weapon of which much was said six or eight years ago was the so-called “death ray” capable of either killing at a distance, or of putting an airplane magneto out of commission and so bringing down the plane. Later it was officially said the death ray had proven a failure.
As a matter of fact it was not a failure, but by no means as effective in its destructive power as its inventor first thought. It can kill small animals at short distances and can stop gasoline engines at short distances, but it cannot kill, as yet, human beings at any distance nor stop motors of planes high in the air. Some day it may do both, but there is nothing as yet to indicate that that day is anywhere in the near future.
The Germans are reported to have developed a gas which, when sucked into the â€¢cylinders of gasoline engines, will stop combustion, and so bring them to a halt. As an anti-tank defense that would be ideal. That might be done with carbon monoxide, . the deadly gas left after combustion, and which kilts so many people in closed garages. But carbon monoxide, while a heavy gas and one that clings to the ground, is, like all other gases, a difficult one to maintain in sufficient concentrations as to be effective in the open air.
German chemists also are reported to have developed an artificial fog for screening cities or troops against aerial observation and attack, and this fog gas is said to have the property of neutralizing poison gas. Both these gases are the invention of Professor Karl Hoffman, one of Germany’s most noted scientists. France, too, has been rather active in this field. Only the other day, in a demonstration before officials of the French army, a munitions factory disclosed a self-developed method of creating artificial fogs. In this case, casks of lime were disposed about the corners of the factory, liquid acid poured on themâ€”and in a few moments billowing white clouds had entirely obscured the factory from view.
It is the Germans, too, who have made the greatest strides in rocket experiments. At first thought, rockets seem ineffective as war weapons, yet by filling them with explosives and directing them at definite targets, they can be largely made to supplant cumbersome, heavy artillery. This possibility is by no means fantastic. Already a German experimenter has succeeded in firing a rocket with such accuracy that it landed precisely where he predicted it would. Radio control of rockets, either from the ground or from airplanes, would make them horribly effective, since they could be turned around in mid-air or their courses shifted at the will of the operator.
Recent experiments have shown that the heat caused by firing a rifle bullet is not sufficient to destroy disease germs clinging to the pellet. The simple process of dipping bullets into a culture of deadly germs, therefore, may make certain that all victims of such bullets become hospital casualties. The more wounded men who can be put out of action, the more hospitals that can be filled, taxing the enemy’s resources to care for its stricken soldiers, the better from a military point of view. A soldier killed is out of action, but a soldier wounded is not only out of actionâ€”he’s a positive liability. The advantages of this type of germ warfare, therefore, are obvious.
Other German inventions about which rumors have been heard are an armor piercing explosive bullet capable of penetrating any tank yet built, and a submarine torpedo fifty per cent faster than the Whitehead torpedo, and with the peculiar property of leaving no visible wake. Still another invention, a relative of the much touted “death ray”, is an electric rhythmic wave or ray said to be capable of breaking down the molecular stability of gun powder and so exploding distant munitions depots.
While much was said after the war about returning to the provisions of the old Hague convention and so abolishing poison gas once more, no means has been found to enforce any such an edict. Faced with the fact that in the next war one of the contestants may use gas, just as the Germans did in 1915, all nations are maintaining their chemical warfare services and experimenting both with new gases and with new means of defense. The American chemical warfare service at Edgebrook Arsenal is doing considerable secret development work. Defenders of chemical warfare point out that of all the weapons used in France it proved the most humane.
“Even with the crude means of protection available in the World war, chemical agents cause only one-twelfth as many deaths in proportion to the~ number of casualties produced by them, as was the case with other weapons,” Major General Gilchrist said recently. In other words, twelve times as many gas wounded recovered as did those wounded by bullets, shells and bombs. Also, it is claimed, gas cases who recovered showed no bad after effects, while the hospitals are filled with those crippled by other weapons.
Gas experts laugh at the idea of dropping gas shells on large cities to wipe out the civilian population. Buildings offer too much defense against gas, the gas shells or bombs are too valuable in attacking troop concentrations, and high explosive bombs capable of destroying buildings would cause more damage and more panic in the cities, they claim.
Yet so widespread is the fear of gas and air attack that Soviet Russia has laid plans for the construction of a series of underground cities near large centers of population, such as Moscow and Leningrad, where the people can retire in absolute safety in case of attack. As illustrated elsewhere in this article, such cities are subterranean fortresses with concrete roofs so thick that the most powerful air bombs can not penetrate them. Gas-proof chambers with filtering and ventilating attachments enable people to live in comfort and security ^even when clouds of deadly gases are billowing about a few feet over their heads.
Considerable secrecy surrounds the underground forts with which France is lining the German border. An immense sum is being spent on these underground, cement fortifications, with connecting tunnels and rooms capable of housing an entire army. Heavy artillery is being permanently mounted in the underground forts, and there have been rumors that fixed long range guns, adapted from the plan of the German guns which shelled Paris, are being installed, trained on towns, railroad junctions and important cross-roads fifty miles or more behind the German frontier.
If the reports are true Jules Verne’s famous Columbiad, which fired the shell to the moon in his well-known story, has found a rival. The Columbiad, as Verne described it, was 900 feet long, buried upright in the earth, the barrel being reinforced with walls of masonry and cement many feet thick. For a permanently emplaced gun, trained on a predetermined target, the Verne idea might prove better than that used by the Germans in the war. A fairly light, rifled steel tube, surrounded by several feet of concrete, mounted at an angle of fifty degrees, in a shaft extending down into the earth, would be cheaper and easier to build than one of the German guns. The latter were limited to 120 feet in length because they had to be moved by rail. A permanently emplaced gun could be 200 feet or more long, thereby reducing the high pressure, and the wear and tear on the gun.
The question of the feasibility of such a weapon was submitted to Col. H. W. Miller. “I know of no reason why this can not be and the consequent force on the holding device or carriages, which naturally must rest upon the ground or some type of platform.
“There would, of course, be the problem of carrying off the heat, but this could easily be accomplished as you suggest through the use of copper fins, radiating from the barrel into the concrete sleeve. It would therefore be possible for the French government to install such guns in their new fortifications, train them on some one point in cities of prominence, and fire them with the same degree of accuracy and probable results that the Germans achieved in 1918. The question as to whether this would be worth while from a military standpoint is something else. The effort and the results in 1918 were so vastly out of proportion that I doubt if any nation will be inclined to construct such guns for future use. They have no application except as you are suggesting now, that is, as a part of permanent fortifications on frontiers between countries or under the very peculiar conditions which existed in 1918 when the line between the great forces employed had been stable for so long as to promise to go forward for those who made and were using these guns.”
The fixed gun, encased in concrete in an underground shaft, would, of course, be useless to the enemy if its crew had to retreat, since it could not be turned or moved. The crew, living and working 100 to 200 feet or more underground, would be safe from aerial attack or shell fire, and with proper ventilating equipment at the tunnel mouths could not be gassed out The muzzle could be concealed in a camouflaged shed, which might be equipped with fans to draw off the smoke at the discharge and release it some distance away.
There is plenty of room for the clever inventor to produce new weapons or improve those now in existence. The recent experience of the 2nd bombardment group at Langley Field in trying to sink an old freighter fifty miles off the Virginia coast shows how much remains to be done. In the first attempt the bombers could not find the target, and in the second failed to score sufficient hits to sink the vessel, despite the fact that it was unarmored and at anchor.
The picture of how the last war started has an important bearing on the question of what the next war will be like. For, despite all that science and invention may produce in-the way of improvements and additions in armament and munitions, the next war undoubtedly will start off very much where the last one ended.
Not that the next war will be modeled after the last one, for it is doubtful whether there ever will be another war quite like the struggle of 1914 to 1918. Here’s a pertinent observation from Col. H. W. Miller, who was chief engineer of American railway artillery in France and is author of that fascinating book, “The Paris Gun.” Writing to me the other day, Col. Miller said: “In the past twelve years while we have continued to think of preparedness against another emergency, we have been too prone to have our eyes focused on that peculiar conflict (the World war), seeming not to appreciate that it was a war that can hardly -ever be duplicated. Most of the equipment that attained prominence during that war has gone out of existence and will be preserved only as curiosities.”
Colonel Miller was speaking of the eclipse of his own war specialty, the heavy railway artillery, the great 12, 14 and 16 inch naval rifles, 50 calibres or more in length.
“We laid so much stress,” Col. Miller writes, “on the construction of heavy artillery to be mounted on railway carriages in 1917 and 1918 without realizing how completely this artillery would go out of use as soon as the type of warfare changed from the prevailing Western front warfare of position to that of motion and the usual field strategy. As soon as our artillery got into motion in October, 1918, we found that heavy artillery could not be used to any considerable extent, nor to much advantage.”
General Pershing, in his recent memoirs, has revealed the fact, well known at that time in military circles, that he was almost alone in seeing from the first that the trench warfare was an unnatural condition, which sooner or later must give way, and that soldiers should be trained to fight the same kind of moving battles that had always decided wars in the past.
So it is fairly certain that the next war, when it comes, and whether it comes in ten years, or twenty years or fifty years, will be a war of movement and open battle. If the same nations were to fight again on the same battlefield, it is highly improbable that whichever side has the offensive would permit itself to be lured into trench warfare. The fact that there were sufficient men to form a trench line from Switzerland to the sea, and that a continuous line could not be flanked, led the Germans into giving up their one advantage, a mistake that could hardly be made again.
When the next war comes it will start where the last one left off, plus such improvement as has been made or will be made in weapons and equipment. Airplanes will be better, artillery will be better, tanks and armored cars will be improved, at least a portion of the cavalry will be mounted on iron horsesâ€”motorcycles and armored cars â€”a far larger portion of the infantry will be armed with automatic rifles and submachine guns* Communications will be improved, more and more effective gas shells will be usedâ€”but essentially it will be the same type of war as that fought in the closing days of October, 1918.
At sea there will be faster but possibly lighter armed ships, more airplane carriers, better torpedo and aerial bomb protection, more efficient and deadly submarines, some of them mounting large caliber gunsâ€” virtually submarine cruisersâ€”but in the background will be the fairly slow, heavily armored and heavily armed capital ship as the backbone of the fleet. The same sort of backbone that enabled a British high seas fleet to maintain the mastery of the seas while spending most of its time in port behind a barrier of destroyers and steel nets.
In only two essentials has marked progress been made since the war. One is defensive armament against airplanes, and the other is the development of motorized infantry and cavalry. Down at Fort Eustis, Va., the Mechanized Force, U. S. Army, is experimenting with motorized cavalryâ€”individual cavalrymen riding motorcycles, with fixed sub-machine guns mounted on the handle-barsâ€”light armored cars with machine gun turrets, light and heavy tanks, some of them capable of making sixty miles an hour on the road and twenty to twenty-five miles an hour across country, self-propelled field guns, three to five inch pieces mounted on their own caterpillar tractors.
At coast artillery bases in the east and west and at Fort Sheridan, 111., the antiaircraft units are developing the defense against enemy airplanes, which has progressed amazingly since the Armistice. With present equipment electrical machinery almost human in its performance calculates the height and speed and distance to a target, furnishes the data to lay the guns, not on the target itself, but on the point where the target will be when the shell gets there, and operates the fuse cutter to cut the fuse so the shell will burst when it reaches that pre-determined point.
The fire director, a complicated machine which takes ten men to operate, does the work. Three more men, at a giant binocular, whose object lenses are four meters apart at the end of a long tube, maintain a steady sight on the target, while synchronized motors transmit the information, giving the altitude of the enemy plane into the fire director itself. There the height data is coordinated with all the other factors, and the finished result transmitted by electric cables to each gun, turning pointers driven by synchronized motors. The gun crew turn their controls and keep their pointers in step with those driven by the director, and as long as that is done the gun is bearing on the target and the fuse cutter set properly. The system is a marvel of ingenuity, but there is still room for clever inventive brains to improve it. For one thing, the gun crew can not tell whether its shells are bursting short of or beyond the target. They can see whether they burst in front of or behind it, or above or below it. For another thing, it is possible to have target practice only by firing at a sleeve target towed 1500 to 1800 feet behind an airplane, and to tow the target the plane must maintain level flight. It can not stunt, can not dive, zoom, roll, loop, or do any of the things an enemy plane would do to throw the gunners off their aim.