Military Energy Use, Historical Aspects

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According to historian Vaclav Smil, the destructive energy of military weapons has increased by sixteen orders of magnitude over the past five thousand years. The exploitation of inanimate energy sources has also resulted in the increased technical specialization of men-at-arms, with corresponding changes in the relationships between industry, the state, and military forces. Conquests were once limited by the availability of food for the pillaging troops; naval exploits were at the mercy of the winds, tides, and aggregate human energy of rowing crews. The discovery and subsequent harnessing of ever more efficient sources of energy unshackled the militaries of the Western world, but forced soldiers, sailors, and civilians to reexamine and redefine the place of the military in larger society. By the late nineteenth century, Western militaries were highly industrialized and bureaucratized institutions with intricate divisions of labor. Scientific enterprises, the purview of lone investigators and small collectives of enthusiasts before the nineteenth century, increasingly came under the direct control of state authorities.


Organized military aggression was limited to the use of human muscle power for thousands of years. Warfare was a matter of close-quarters combat, much of it hand-to-hand, and the energy expended in this activity was limited to the physical endurance of the participants. Personal kinetic energy weapons—slings, bows, and crossbows—increased slightly the fighting range of the combatants, but again the energy expended to kill others was limited to the strength of the warrior. The use of the horse as a combat mount increased the destructive energy available to the military, as cavalry were used to bear down on unprotected footsoldiers, although special weapons such as the pike, or architectural protections such as obstructions or fort walls, could limit the impact of the mass of the charging horse and rider.

Siege ballistic weapons, the largest of the early kinetic energy weapons, were developed and deployed to counter the protective walls and other stubborn defenses of cities and fortifications. The most dramatic early example of this kind of device was the catapult, invented in 399 B.C.E. in the siege workshops organized by Dionysus I of Syracuse. The early catapult used mechanical elastic energy to hurl projectiles and smash high fortification walls or disrupt formations of men. Although the catapult did not significantly extend the destructive range of the attacker, this device did allow for the use of projectiles of ever greater mass, with a corresponding increase in the destructive kinetic energy applied to an opponent. Other offensive devices employed by Dionysus included the battering ram and siege tower, elements of the so-called "offensive-defensive inventive cycle," a kind of arms race that pitted fortress and city defenders throughout Europe and East Asia against marauding attackers. Although the application of kinetic energy to fortress walls could influence the course of a siege, the availability of biomass energy (food) for the consumption of attackers or defenders often determined the ultimate outcome of these stalemates that were so common in European and Near Eastern warfare before the fifteenth century.

The immediate availability of biomass energy, in the form of forage and food, placed serious constraints on military operations before 1850. Feudal political arrangements in Europe and Asia facilitated the growth of large armies capable of protracted warfare, but only at great human and monetary expense. The long-standing constraints on marching range and military strength were gradually addressed as emerging national governments created more effective systems of taxation and resource allocation to support military forces. Logistics, a system of energy distribution for the benefit of military forces, developed into a kind of science as emerging states recruited large standing armies and engaged in open warfare against other organized political groups. Although troops relied heavily on local food supplies (often with disastrous consequences for the local civilian population, as was the case during the Thirty Years' War in Central Europe from 1618 to 1648), the growth of logistics support institutions in the centuries that followed relieved some of the energy-demand burden from non combatants. The presence of logisticians, either civilian contractors or soldiers consigned to a support role, precipitated wider military reforms and the changing role of the army and navy in society at large.

Harnessing the energies of explosive materials, first in the form of gunpowder, produced a revolution in warfare, albeit a very slow one. Explosive powders were commonplace in Asia before the fifteenth century, although dynastic China did not use this material in an effective military capacity. Early hand-cannons, sometimes made of leather-wrapped iron cylinders, were little more than launch tubes for unrefined (and inaccurate) projectiles. The military firearm evolved slowly, beginning with the invention in the fifteenth century of the matchlock (or arquebus), followed by the invention of the German wheel-lock in 1515. The flintlock, subject to various mechanical improvements until the weapon was eclipsed in the nineteenth century by the breech-loading rifle, was a standard infantry arm by the close of the eighteenth century.

With subsequent improvements of these weapons, the explosive energy released by the combustion of gunpowder was harnessed to yield longer projectile ranges with more accuracy. State interest in firearms technology led to government sponsorship of scientific research into aspects of chemistry and ballistics in an effort to better understand the mechanics of explosive energy. The alignment of guilds and other productive tradesmen with military institutions in the sixteenth century foreshadowed a restructuring of the relationship between armies and industry in the years to come.

Gunpowder technologies heightened the competition between defense and offense, and raised the stakes for sovereign polities. Vauban, a French military engineer in the employ of Louis XIV, devised an innovative fortification system to respond to the threat of new siege techniques developed since 1400. Among these new threats was the increasing power of portable artillery and, more ominously, an improved form of "sapping," a process of undermining the walls of a fortification with explosives deposited by tunneling enemies. In the 1490s, the first portable siege guns were deployed as part of a larger military expedition organized by Charles VIII; within a century, small cannons could be found in the arsenals of every European power, as well as various kingdoms in India and Asia. Vauban's geometric fortifications were designed to maximize the firepower of the defenders with ramparts that would effect devastating cross-fires on any enemy bold enough to approach the high walls. The importance of specialists, such as miners, to the military endeavor stratified armies and increased the costs of warfare, but the effectiveness of new destructive energies made this kind of investment worthwhile.


One of the hallmarks of the industrial revolution, the steam engine, had important military uses. After nearly two centuries of labor-augmenting industrial use, steam power matured into a viable energy source for military applications in the nineteenth century. The same rails that were used to transport goods between the rural border regions and the urban centers of the Western world were also used for the rapid transportation of troops. In India, the "famine and security" lines built with the assistance of the British government in the late nineteenth century linked provincial territories with the administrative centers where military forces were housed. These rail lines were used to move food and other vital supplies to impoverished areas for relief of the population, or to move troops to quell civil unrest. Railroads proved to be important military assets during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the Wars of German Unification (1864–1871); the rails served as arteries of support for the combatants. The rapid mobilization of troops in 1914, which eventually led to the horrors of stalemate on the Western Front, was facilitated by the efficiency of Western European railroads.

Guncotton (nitrocellulose) and nitroglycerine, substances that exponentially increased the explosive energy available to mankind, were developed in 1840. In 1867 Alfred Nobel found that nitroglycerine liquid could safely be absorbed in a clay-like substance called kieselguhr. This solid and relatively safe form of explosive became known as dynamite. In 1875, Nobel mixed nitroglycerine liquid with collodion cotton to make an explosive gelatin with both mining and military applications. These early forms of high explosive were refined into more powerful and destructive substances, including French Poudre B (1884) and ballistite (1888). By the 1880s, nitroglycerine (in various forms) and other nitrated organic compounds were important components of munitions manufacturing in Europe and the United States.

The development of high-energy explosives in the nineteenth century corresponded to a period of great innovation in artillery design and manufacturing, as more powerful and longer-range guns were introduced into the arsenals of the West. The ranges of these weapons increased from about two kilometers in the 1850s to more than thirty kilometers in the 1890s. The production of the steel and powder necessary for the deployment of these weapons required a tremendous amount of energy, most of it derived from fossil fuels.

The expansion of the colonial empires between 1870–1900 involved the deployment of troops and military hardware to the far reaches of the world, and placed enormous energy demands on the economies of the imperial powers. The so-called tools of empire—steamships, the railroads, and canals—were energy-intensive projects with important military uses. The first oceangoing steam-powered naval vessels were commissioned in the 1850s, and were quickly demonstrated as important military tools. During the Crimean War, the British government nationalized a fleet of private steamships to transport men and supplies to the Ottoman Empire, an arrangement made possible by a special "militarization" clause inserted in the charter agreements between the British government and commercial shipping companies. Private and military fleets grew substantially in the decades that followed; during the period from 1870 to 1910, steam vessels became increasingly more energy-efficient and powerful. Around 1880, the triple-expansion steam engine was invented, followed by the introduction of the quadruple-expansion steam engine in the 1890s. These innovations made warships more fuel efficient with longer cruising ranges. This also meant that remote colonial possessions became more strategically important as coal refueling stations for modern naval forces.

The harnessing of electrical energy had a profound effect on the conduct of military operations. Perhaps most importantly electricity revolutionized communications, with consequences for the conduct of military affairs. The British telegraph network of the late nineteenth century connected the vast reaches of the empire to London, and other imperial powers were often beholden to the British system for news and diplomatic correspondence. In 1901, the first trans-Atlantic "wireless" communications system was demonstrated by Guglielmo Marconi, who promptly approached representatives of the American, British, and Italian navies with the hope of selling his invention. Wire-based telegraph and telephone systems, as well as the "wireless" radio, were adopted by the world's armed forces between 1900 and 1914. The defeat of a Russian expeditionary force in Eastern Asia at the hands of the Japanese army (1904–1905) was widely attributed to the latter's decisive use of the telephone and telegraph to coordinate the movement of troops and the distribution of supplies. The availability and proper application of inanimate energy, it seemed, was vital for the correct distribution of biomass during protracted campaigns, a necessary condition for victory.

Despite the obvious implications that new and more efficient inanimate energy resources held for the world's armies and navies, it was some time before military planners began to consider the importance of energy resources and infrastructure. In 1830 revolutionaries in Paris attempted to paralyze the state government by plunging the city into darkness by attacking the gasworks, the principle distribution center for the gas supply that fed the city's street lamps. The growing popularity of central electric plants in the United States and Europe around 1900 raised questions about the vulnerability and strategic importance of these facilities. By 1914, electric power plants, which supplied crucial power to the war industries, were being protected from sabotage by militiamen and professional soldiers. When called upon, military forces were deployed to disrupt the activities of striking coal miners and others who threatened economic stability or national security. In other instances, military forces were sent abroad to protect energy resources from the predations of other states.


Large-scale crude oil exploitation began in the late nineteenth century. Internal combustion engines, which make use of the heat and kinetic energy of controlled explosions in a combustion chamber, were developed at approximately the same time. The pioneers in this field were Nikolaus Otto and Gottleib Daimler. These devices were rapidly adapted to military purposes. Small internal-combustion motors were used to drive dynamos to provide electric power to fortifications in Europe and the United States before the outbreak of World War I. Several armies experimented with automobile transportation before 1914. The growing demand for fossil fuels in the early decades of the twentieth century was exacerbated by the modernizing armies that slowly introduced mechanization into their orders of battle. The traditional companions of the soldier, the horse and mule, were slowly replaced by the armored car and the truck in the early twentieth century.

Internal combustion and electricity wrought a number of changes in naval architecture. Electric power was introduced on warships in the 1880s, allowing for the construction of larger ships, with better light and ventilation, deeper decks, improved artillery fire control, and improved efficiency in handling ammunition and steering the ever-larger gun turrets. Highly energy-efficient oil-burning turbine engines were introduced on naval vessels about 1900. In 1906, the British navy commissioned the Dreadnaught, widely hailed as a revolutionary warship design, powered by turbine engines, equipped with heavy steel plate armor, and fitted with powerful long-range cannons. Twentieth-century battleships dwarfed the steam-powered vessels of the previous century in terms of displacement and destructive power.

Various schemes of powered flight were finally realized at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 when the Wright brothers successfully demonstrated a self-propelling flying machine. The Wright brother's plane was a breakthrough because of its lightweight aluminum internal combustion engine. Within a few years, strategic planners were speculating about the military importance of the airplane, although there was some debate as to whether the machines would ever pose a threat to static fortifications or field armies. Aircraft were used by the belligerents during World War I, ordered to perform reconnaissance and harassing work. Improvements in engine design, metallurgical science, and aerodynamic theory resulted in net increases in the energy efficiency of aircraft. By the mid-1930s, both airships and airplanes could perform a range of military functions, serving as interceptors, bombers, transports, and reconnaissance craft.


The great demand for fossil fuels, a consequence of the rapid industrialization of emerging world powers in the early twentieth century, created political frictions between states vying for energy supplies. The United States, Britain, France, and Russia benefited from direct control of oil- and coal-producing territories, while Germany, Japan, and other modernizing nations were forced to import great quantities of precious energy. Historians have suggested that Japanese expansionism in the 1930s was an expression of energy insecurity; regardless of the causes, Japanese aggression in the Pacific, culminating with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, resulted in a protracted war, during which an unprecedented amount of energy was consumed by the combatants. The importance of energy resources, especially fossil fuels, affected the military strategies of all involved. German campaigns in North Africa were planned with the intention of liberating the Suez Canal from British control and permitting the Nazis access to Middle Eastern oil supplies. Allied bombing raids on Ploetsi, Romania, struck the oilfields of that region, a move designed to deny the Germans and Italians access to that energy. The German army's drive to seize the Caspian oilfields in 1941, an operation that compromised the effectiveness of the siege of Stalingrad, was an attempt to secure energy resources for the war effort. The Japanese invasion of Dutch Indonesia was undertaken to obtain the precious oil reserves found among the islands of the archipelago.

World War II was ultimately a contest between economies, and victories were a direct result of effective resource mobilization. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 released a tremendous amount of energy in the form of heat and radiation; the development of that weapon required a substantial economic and energy investment. After 1945, states went about building up strategic reserves of important natural resources; renewed national environmental and conservation efforts began with concerns about security. In some instances, the interests of the state, the military, and industry aligned, resulting in the execution of energy policies designed to protect the stability and security of the state. In the 1960s, for example, France undertook an aggressive nuclear energy development program in response to the agitations of the domestic coal-mining unions; it was feared that the miners had developed close ties with the French Communist Party. Civil nuclear power was the crossover manifestation of a technology originally developed for military purposes, but adapted for civilian use. Fuel cells and other high-yield, portable power-generation devices, developed in the mid-twentieth century and designed for use in space or other hostile and isolated environments, have both civilian and military applications.

The availability of ever-more-efficient kinds of inanimate energy has made the coordination of men and machines easier. With more efficient and powerful forms of energy generation, the coordination of the movements of man and machines became more effective. Two hundred years ago, soldiers were dependent upon verbal and visual signals for direction; the effective use of electrical communications technologies has resulted in the increased scope and scale of military operations. Digital computer technology, developed in the latter half of the twentieth century, found a ready audience among military officers seeking to maximize their control over subordinates and improve the collection and distribution of intelligence information.

The improvement of human control over inanimate forms of energy, put to use to military ends, has improved the logistics and coordination aspects of armies and navies, and increased the overall destructive capacity of humanity. Energy-efficient propulsion systems have reduced the costs and increased the ranges of various forms of transportation, both military and civilian. For the military, energy is both a blessing and a vulnerability, requiring ever-morespecialized soldiers and more expensive equipment to remain effective in the face of competition from other modern military forces.

Shannon A. Brown

See also: Communications and Energy.


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Military Energy Use, Historical Aspects

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