How has warfare changed since WWII?

Imogen Holbrook – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: The New College of Humanities (NCH) organise an annual essay competition open to ambitious and talented students from around the world who are in their penultimate year of secondary education (equivalent to Year 12 in the UK). This is an opportunity to show both academic potential and passion in the humanities and social sciences. As the NCH note, “[o]ur selection of essay titles engages across a broad range of humanities and social sciences topics and we look forward to receiving entries from talented and intellectually curious students who show passion and academic potential in the humanities and social sciences.” Each year, entrants can choose one of the essay titles listed. This informative essay by Imogen Holbrook was written in response to Politics & International Relations: ‘How has warfare changed since WWII?’ CPD

Warfare is defined as armed conflict between two massed enemies, such as armies. In the modern era, warfare has evolved to a level far beyond anything seen in the Second World War. In 1980, a term to describe this modern way of fighting wars was coined by United States analysts: Fourth Generation Warfare. It is characterised by an increased level of conflict between combatants and civilians, and includes almost every war that has included a non-state actor as a major participant, such as against the so-called Islamic State (‘ISIS’).

One of the major changes to warfare since the Second World War is the nature of engagement. This can be seen through the evolution of tactics. Prior to the rise of Fourth Generation Warfare, the Americans fought two major wars, one in Korea (1950-53), and one in Vietnam (1963-75), in which they tested the capacity of helicopters to help keep mortality numbers low. The Korean War saw the beginning of the use of helicopters to evacuate seriously injured casualties back to field hospitals behind the lines, thus reducing the need for surgery to be provided on the battlefield, where conditions were often very unsterile, and increasing the chances of survival, as casualties were treated at hospitals with dedicated intensive care units and other vital facilities. Furthermore, ‘golden-hour theory’, which suggests that the first hour after serious injury is vital for preserving life, backs up the fact that this use of helicopters does, in fact, save lives. The ability of helicopters and their crews to land, load the patient, and take off again quickly was vital.

This speed and manoeuvrability was put to an entirely different purpose in Vietnam, when the Americans used helicopters as an offensive weapon rather than a means to save soldiers’ lives. Although, the concept had been tested during the Korean War, it was in Vietnam where the concept of attack helicopters was really proven. Since then, helicopters have really come into their own, used both to provide protection for troops on the ground and to wreak destruction on the enemy. Helicopters can carry missiles, such as Hellfire missiles (a guided anti-tank missile), which are capable of being used in targeted strikes, as well as to simply destroy an enemy position. This development has been instrumental in the evolution of warfare post-World War II because it decreases the need for large armies on the ground, and therefore, minimises the number of casualties. It has also led to a rise in multi-pronged attacks, with targets being attacked simultaneously from the air and the ground.

Another way the nature of engagement has changed is through the weaponry used. Operation Desert Storm (or the First Gulf War, 1991) saw the effective use of precision weapons, such as the laser-guided bomb, put to the test. These weapons became increasingly accurate, reducing collateral damage, and allowing ever more precise targets to be hit. A military spokesman for the Allied Coalition claimed that less than 1% of these bombs and missiles went astray. Although this claim has never been verified, it does speak volumes for the increased accuracy of laser-guided projectiles, with targets as small as tanks now being vulnerable to attack from precision weapons. This development, once again, helped save the lives of soldiers, and this war was light on casualty numbers compared to previous wars of a similar scale. The advent of precision-guided weaponry meant that marksmanship became more important than with previous methods of saturation, changing methods of warfare for ever. The First Gulf War also marked the end of the use of naval warships for the purpose of bombardment during warfare, as helicopters could now carry out the same role, without creating the same vulnerable target.

Furthermore, the capability of technology has increased greatly since the Second World War. The increased use of surveillance technology has changed the nature of warfare, as when used alongside unmanned combat aerial vehicles (commonly referred to as drones). For example, warfare can now be carried out when not in proximity to the enemy. In addition, it is no longer necessary to launch massive offensives on the ground, incorporating hundreds of soldiers, as a single operator can take down key targets by combining intelligence gleaned from surveillance, both remote and on the ground, whilst remaining far away from any danger. The job of taking the life of an enemy is no longer truly personal, but perpetrated from afar through technology.

The development of drones began in earnest in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, by the Israelis, who continued to develop, and utilise, drones throughout the remainder of the 20th Century. The Americans quickly followed suit, acquiring a number of drones, and made their first kill in 2001 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Spurred-on by this success, the Americans have continued to use drones to lethal effect during the so-called ‘War on Terror’. It would appear that, certainly in terms of military capability, the Americans are the world leader, and, consequently, numerous other nation states have begun to copy, using drones during military operations, for varying purposes, from surveillance to targeted assassinations of rival leaders. It could, perhaps, be argued that, through combining the positives of airborne warfare and precision weapons, drones have had the greatest impact on warfare of any development since the Second World War, with their ability to carry out a massive variety of functions almost wiping out the need for vast numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ altogether.

It would be remiss to discuss the changes in warfare since the Second World War without considering the impact of the change in the nature of the enemy. Post-World War II, there has been a monumental decline in the number of wars fought between nation states. The reason for this decline is the availability of nuclear capability. During the Cold War (1947-91), both America and the USSR acquired the capability to fire a nuclear warhead a long distance, through the medium of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). Of course, should either choose to carry out their threat, the other would undoubtedly retaliate in a similar fashion. This became known as ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD). Since then, many other states have acquired these weapons, despite international efforts to stop them from doing so, and many others are in the process of testing and developing their own nuclear weapons. It is considered a fact that some of these states would not hesitate to use their capability, if provoked, and, therefore, between states with a nuclear capability, war is no longer carried out conventionally, but on the economic and political stage. This will, perhaps, one day be considered actual warfare, but for now, at least, it is not properly included within the definition.

The ‘new’ enemies are non-state actors, often extremist groups, who show no qualms about fighting amongst (or against) civilians, or willingness to adhere to the many codes which seek to protect combatants from mistreatment at the hands of the enemy, which most states do, at least, claim to obey. Therefore, as the aim of the enemy has changed from forcing the opposition to surrender to, ultimately, destroying the Western World, the tactics of warfare have had to change too. The theatre of war is now the streets of towns and cities, soldiers must be aware of not only the threat from declared enemies, but civilians who feel more aligned with the enemy. Snipers and precision weapons have become increasingly more important, in order to try and protect innocent civilians. In addition, with the enemy no longer visible, surveillance is also becoming a vital tactic to work out who the enemy actually is. The American phrase of ‘Hearts and Minds’ sums up the newly emerging side of warfare, as in the wars being fought currently, humanitarian work is a factor in winning, because if the local civilians are not on-side, these wars involving ideologies rather than national interest, can never truly be won.

Warfare is no longer simply a matter of bombarding the other side until they cannot sustain their war effort. Instead, it has become, through the increasing use, and capability, of technology, more remote, and less personal. It is highly unlikely that governments and defence companies have finished finding new ways technology can be harnessed for war. However, warfare cannot always be conducted from a distance, in modern wars, against extremist groups who wish to spread their ideology, simply killing the combatants will not suffice. In these battles, the human side of warfare must be rekindled, as, without soldiers on the ground, even if their prime purpose is to carry out humanitarian work rather than be directly involved in killing the enemy, these wars simply cannot be won because new fighters will just take the place of any fallen enemy combatant. Therefore, the biggest changes in warfare since the Second World War may, in fact, be the role of the troops on the ground and the use of newly developed technology, which must both find their new purpose in the ever-evolving methods of warfare.

Imogen 477809

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