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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

STRATFOR: The Dawn of the Armored Fighting Vehicle, September 15, 2016

The Dawn of the Armored Fighting Vehicle


On the morning of Sept. 15, 1916, soldiers of the German 1st Army rushed to their defensive positions between Flers and Courcelette, on the Western Front. The lifting of the Allied artillery barrage typically presaged an infantry charge, and the defenders made their machine guns ready to cut down advancing British and French troops. But this time, instead of onrushing infantry, from the smoke and mist emerged grinding mechanical contraptions, spewing bullets and shells. The Germans poured machine-gun fire onto the strange, new vehicles lumbering across the ragged mud and wire of no man's land, but the bullets had little effect. The day of the tank — a concept that would go on to define land warfare in the 20th century — had arrived.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette was part of the ongoing Battle of the Somme in France and the first time that modern armored fighting vehicles were deployed in combat. Yet despite triumphant claims in the British press of a new weapon that would turn the tide of war by breaking the impermeable German lines, the tank's initial deployment was largely inauspicious. Those first tanks were rushed into service and woefully underpowered for the terrain they would encounter while saddled with the weight of armor. Riddled with developmental problems and manned by crews with almost no training, of the 49 original Mark I tanks deployed to France 100 years ago, 36 set off from the British line of departure Sept. 15. Only 27 made it as far as German forward positions, and a meager six trundled as far as the secondary and tertiary objectives. Mechanical failure plagued the new invention, but the concept had been proved, and successive generations of tanks and tank tactics would turn a "mobile pillbox" into a battle-winning asset.
The Evolution of the Tank 
The appalling conditions of static trench warfare in World War I made life miserable for the fighting troops, and the incessant mud and rain also presented severe logistical problems. Moving large amounts of men and materiel by sea and rail was efficient. But getting ammunition, supplies or replacement troops from the railhead or port to the front lines was not. The constant passage of foot traffic and light vehicles made the largely unpaved roads and dirt tracks impassable. The wheeled vehicles of the time were inadequate for the conditions. Engines lacked the power to cope with broken terrain, and wheels simply sank into the muck. As a result, most armies continued to use horses and horse-drawn artillery for the duration of the war. 
Innovators of the industrial age prided themselves on finding mechanical solutions to man's problems, and the answer to moving heavy supplies to the front lines was continuous track technology — already prevalent in agriculture. That innovation was initially ignored by the British military establishment, but worsening battlefield conditions eventually resulted in trials of vehicles such as the Holt Caterpillar tractor, which was deemed suitable for hauling heavy artillery — but little else. 
In a conflict known for its technological innovation and rapid prototyping, it is somewhat ironic that the inception of the tank was such a fraught and painful process. Early designs for armored fighting vehicles failed to capture the interest of the British or French hierarchy, and it fell to the Royal Navy to nurture the imaginatively titled "landships" project. At the insistence of Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, the Landships Committee sought to develop an armored fighting vehicle prototype. The aptly named "Little Willie" was tested Dec. 3, 1915, but was found insufficient for the breaching and crossing tasks envisaged. This led to the development of the now-classic rhomboidal tank design, which serves to this day as the insignia of the British Royal Tank Regiment. Following a successful demonstration during which the fledgling Mark I (christened "Mother") defeated a number of typical Western Front obstacles, including low wire entanglements, cratered ground, trench systems and parapets, an initial order of 100 vehicles was made… 
Tactical Analysis
The tank was originally conceived as an infantry support platform and moved at walking pace. Able to traverse trenches and breach wire obstacles, tanks relied on intimate support from ground troops. The steel armor offered some degree of protection from small arms, and the tanks' weapons were effective in knocking out German gun positions. Successive generations of tanks, most notably the Mark V, sought to rectify the mechanical problems that plagued the early designs. Even so, tanks remained prone to mechanical failure throughout World War I. Crew comfort was an afterthought, and conditions inside the first tanks were infamously bad. It was not uncommon for a tank to stop midattack because its crew had passed out from internal fumes. 
In September's Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the Allies gained substantially more ground with about half the casualties than in a similar attack that they had staged in July. Though the addition of tanks to the attack was one factor in increasing their success, a general revision of battlefield tactics was underway, and other technologies were having a larger impact on the war. Better integration between infantry and artillery, aided by aerial spotters, was to prove pivotal. A more decentralized approach to command and improved liaison between formations also improved operational effectiveness on the ground. And in terms of troop tactics, the first major update to prewar methodology had been disseminated in May 1915. This paved the way for an updated training manual in February 1917 that effectively did away with "traditional" infantry tactics — namely, forming up in an extended line and advancing slowly toward the enemy. Several techniques from the revised manual are still employed by modern infantry platoons. 
The infantry support tank served its purpose, and massed assaults combining armor and infantry continued. Spurred on by French and British innovations, the German army proceeded to make its own heavy tank. But it was the advent of the "cruiser" tank by the British in the 1930s that best illustrated where the future of armored warfare lay. Cruisers were lighter and faster than heavy tanks (often at the expense of protection and firepower) and operated more like traditional cavalry — exploiting battlefield gains and pursuing fleeing troops. Lighter tanks also proved useful for reconnaissance, and the British continued to experiment with tank design and tactics in the postwar years. Though the Allies led in the field of tank design in World War I, after the war, the Germans and the Russians recognized the untapped potential of armored warfare and invested heavily in design and employment. 
The holy grail of tank design is a highly mobile platform with excellent protection and formidable armament, embodied by the German Tiger series of World War II. Tank technology and battlefield tactics matured during the years between the two wars, but the masterstroke was to fully utilize radio communications as an aid to command and control, leading to more effective maneuver and shock action. The German high command in World War II realized that an integrated force comprising infantry, armor, artillery and air assets operating in concert was devastating on the battlefield.
The impact of the tank on the World War I battlefield was very localized and, while they contributed to tactical success, tanks were not independently responsible for it. Still, where infantry proved vulnerable, the tank plowed on regardless, cleaving a path for skirmishers to follow. That in itself was revolutionary, and the advantage of defense held by the entrenched German army took a critical blow as a result.

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