A lot seems to have been revealed about modern weaponry in the recent conflicts in the Middle East, the South Atlantic and the Persian Gulf. We asked Col. Alford, who is deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic studies in London, for a preliminary assessment of what these wats have shown.
It may be distasteful but it seems inevitable that the vultures gather when there are wars. Weapons makers and weapons users do not, mercifully, have frequent opportunities to see whether billion-dollar investments are useless junk or highly cost-effective. It follows that whenever and wherever weapons are used in combat, the audience at the show will be large and attentive.
There are great dangers in making hasty judgments based on incomplete knowledge of the circumstances. However, we ought to be able to make at least some cautious and tentative judgments about weapon interactions and defense planning on the basis of the two conflicts in the Middle East (Iran-Iraq and Israel-PLO) and the recently ended one in the South Atlantic. What do we know that we didn't know before those battles took place?
The first observation is unexpected. Land battles are not very different. Iranian success seems to have had almost nothing to do with the manipulation of high technology and everything to do with a determination to carry the day in close combat accepting, if necessary, considerable casualties. In the Falkland Islands, too, the battle on land (and even the landings themselves) bears a very close resemblance to the familiar accounts of combat in World War II.
The second tentative judgment comes from the South Atlantic. It, too, may be a forgotten lesson. Britain could not have mounted an operation to regain the Falkland Islands without the impressment of passenger liners, container ships, roll-on roll-off ferries, tugs and trawlers.
The lesson I take from this is that all nations possess a large inventory of civil resources that need not be a burden on the defense budget but whose "planned" requisitioning at a time of need can greatly assist in the prosecution of a war.
Turning to the higher levels of technology, most analysts have sensed for many years that electronic warfare will determine outcomes. It seems that Syrian SA6 missiles in the Bekaa Valley were destroyed by air-to-surface missiles homing on the radiations of the missile batteries themselves. That may prove less significant than the fact that the Israelis had to collect the intelligence on the radar frequencies of the SA6 and did so by flying drones, trailing their coats, as it were, over the Bekaa.
What I learn from this is that electronic intelligence collection takes time and that you need to know these things before conflict begins. Gathering this kind of electronic intelligence can be expensive and there is little glamor to it, but unless you have it, you will lose the electronic war. Furthermore, electronic characteristics are not fixed. You must be prepared to change those characteristics rapidly in the face of electronic counter-measures.
In the South Atlantic, a preliminary conclusion would be that the British have been quite successful in jamming older radar equipment but have failed to blind the most modern U.S. ground-based air defense radars, particularly the AN/TPS-43 recently supplied to Argentina.
All weapon-exporting nations should reflect more carefully than they do that they may one day face the weapons they have sold. France may face its own Exocets. Only because the Argentinian navy did not challenge the Royal Navy did Britain not face its own ships and weapon systems.
Dumb bombs and determined pilots have caused more damage than anti-shipping missiles in the South Atlantic, albeit at great cost. Nevertheless, the British task force there suffered badly from over-the- horizon sea-skimming missiles. Many have advanced the argument that the sea-skimming missile has made the surface ship obsolete.
Actually what Britain lacked was airborne early- warning and long-range air defense fighters at least as much as close-in or point defense. No doubt the anti-carrier lobby in the United States will point to the vulnerability of all surface platforms, but logic would seem to be on the side of those who say that only the large carrier with its large and varied complement of aircraft can extend a protective bubble over the fleet.
However this is extremely expensive and, for those maritime nations that cannot afford to tie up enormous funds in one system, the concept of the smaller carrier with VSTOL (vertical or short take-off and landing) aircraft has been validated in the South Atlantic with that one exception--lack of airborne early warning. If the VSTOL concept is to work, it must either operate under cover of land-based airborne-early-warning aircraft or it must carry its own and that will prove a difficult but perhaps not insoluble problem.
The harrier, poor man's F14 though it may be, has undoubtedly proved itself, even in this rather primitive version, to be genuinely multi-role and extremely flexible. It has consistently outmaneuveured aircraft of higher absolute performance. It has been used for ground attack and close support; it has been used for bombing missions; it has been used for reconnaissance. It has been operated off the carriers, off pads and off grass strips. It has been ferried nonstop from the United Kingdom to the South Atlantic and it has been carried in a container ship and flown off it to HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes.
As we pay tribute to the performance of a very limited number of harriers, the old truth should not be obscured that to sail the fleet--any fleet -- into the range of land-based air power and there to attempt an amphibious landing is to run a very high risk. By most standards Argentina deployed a relatively modest and far from modern air force and it was operating at extreme limits of range almost all the time, and yet there were moments of great anxiety for the fleet. Perhaps with only a little extra luck at critical moments, the Argentinian air force could have forced Britain to abort the expedition.
In Lebanon, mainly American equipment and Israeli pilots have once more seemed more than a match for Syrian pilots and Soviet aircraft. But before rejoicing it is worth noting that the Syrians do not appear to have put up a serious challenge in the skies over Lebanon, preferring to hold their air power back for the defense of Syria. At this early date, the evidence appears to show that the Syrian aircraft used were mostly rather elderly MiG21s rather than modern MiG23s or MiG25s.
On the ground, the new Israeli Merkava seems to have been effective in combat, but again caution would counsel against Israeli elation because the Syrians appear not to have wished for major battles with Israel, and the PLO were hardly in a position to offer an effective anti-tank defense in depth.
In the Iran-Iraq war, both sides seem to have had very great difficulty in coordinating their complex weapon systems. It was not so much that they could not fly and maintain their aircraft or operate their tanks or fire their guns that was in question as an apparent inability to integrate these in an operational context. At the most fundamental level, there were serious inter-service rivalries and much jealousy. In short, it doesn't make much difference what you have if you cannot make it work together.
Let me return finally to the sea. There has been much recent concern, all of it justified, about the flammability of ships. In an effort to balance conflicting requirements, ship designers have been forced to use materials for lightness (especially aluminium) which does not stand up well to heat. More culpably, they have used other material that gives off toxic fumes and there is likely to be a very searching re-examination of methods of ship construction and damage control of ships in war. In the context of the rapid deployment force, the need for an amphibious assault capability, is likely to be reinforced by events in the South Atlantic. The landings at San Carlos were not much different from the series of amphibious operations in World War II. Why they should have been different is not clear to me. To fight your way ashore and establish a beachhead demands techniques (including afloat gunfire support) and calculations that are timeless.
In only one respect has modern technology really changed landings from the sea and that is the use of the transport helicopter to assist in the initial placement of men on the ground well beyond the beaches and in the rapid buildup of men and stores but, unless helicopters are available in very large numbers indeed, the heavy equipment and the bulk of the men and material will come in, as they have always done, over the beaches.
One general conclusion is unexciting: the military art has changed much less than people generally expect.
The second common conclusion is unexciting too but of critical importance: men matter more than machines and there is no substitute for thorough training and determination. The traditional military virtues have been thrown into high relief.
The third is that electronic warfare, the ability to identify targets and act promptly on the basis of that information before that target comes within lethal range, is likely to remain critically important.
The last conclusion is for me that a restless search for the highest levels of military technology at what will be a very high cost can sometimes blind one to the virtues of the adequate, the less sophisticated, even the simple but at the right place at the right time and in sufficient numbers. For me the abiding lesson of the conflict in the South Atlantic is that it need never have taken place if Britain had undertaken some quite marginal reinforcement of the garrison in late March. A stitch in time can save a great many more than nine.