Though conducted on land, modern land warfare doctrine incorporates the combined capabilities of landpower, seapower, and airpower to achieve operational objectives. Land warfare integrates maneuver of forces and firepower, in coordination with air and naval support, to take advantage of an adversary's weaknesses, avoid his strengths, and defeat him in the accomplishment of assigned campaign objectives with minimum expenditure of resources. Complete victory over an adversary is assured only through land force dominance.
Technology has played a central role in defining how armies fight to win wars. Historically, the application of technology to weaponry, beginning with the bow and later the musket, has allowed combatants to fight at ever‐increasing ranges and with greater lethality. Today, enemy targets can be engaged at ranges where they are seen on an electronic device solely as an item of electromagnetic, infrared, or acoustic data.
Ancient Roots.Land warfare originated in the conflicts of ancient tribes, villages, and city‐states. Early combatants on foot engaged in brutal hand‐to‐hand combat using bare hands and objects within reach, such as stones, to subdue an adversary. To gain some protection by distancing themselves from the dangers of close combat, early fighters used throwing weapons—slings, bows, javelins, and spears. Thus began the cycle of using advancing technology to improve the weapons of war to gain advantage over an enemy.
The Assyrians left one of the earliest records (1000 B.C.) of weaponry, tactics, and battlefield engagements. They were adept at maneuvering military formations to their advantage. Soldiers were armed with bow and arrows, spears and slings; they fought on foot, on horseback, or on horse‐drawn chariots. The military capabilities of the Assyrians were enhanced by the combined effect of firepower and maneuver of forces to overwhelm an adversary and ultimately his will to fight. This approach remains the cornerstone of modern military doctrine.
The Persians further refined the execution of massed firepower and maneuver. In response, the Greeks made use of large formations of well‐disciplined infantry; each soldier in the phalanx was protected by a helmet and a large shield and armed with a lengthy spear. The Greeks used the heavily protected formation to reduce the effects of Persian massed fire. The Romans further improved on the use of combat formations by making them more flexible in size and spaced so that spears could be thrown by soldiers while bearing a large shield for protection. Short swords proved highly effective in hand‐to‐hand combat.
Ancient civilizations have contributed strategists, generals, and great captains who have had lasting effects on the art and science of warfare. Their contributions remain relevant to modern land warfare doctrine, often articulated in principles of war and their application in battle. Current U.S. Army doctrine recognizes nine principles: objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity.
Ancient military thinkers and generals included China's Sun Tzu (ca. 500 B.C.), who defined the fundamentals that underlie modern‐day principles of war; Alexander the Great (ca. 300 b.c.) of Greece, who conquered Persia, Egypt, and India, adapting firepower, movement, and organization to the nuances of his enemies; Hannibal (ca. 200 B.C.), the Carthaginian, who crossed the Alps into Italy, avoiding Rome's major forces, then marched through foreboding terrain to surprise and defeat other Roman legions; and Julius Caesar (ca. 50 B.C.), the Roman who adapted the tactics of the legion to the terrain and enemy, maintained the discipline of soldiers in battle, and attacked at the decisive time and place to defeat tribes of Gaul (France). Other great captains have included Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (seventeenth century); Marlborough of England and the Prussian Frederick the Great (both eighteenth century); and France's Napoleon Bonaparte (nineteenth century). Historians debate who are the great captains of the twentieth century.
Evolution of Land Warfare.The weapons of ancient land warfare that brought about significant changes included the short bow, sling, and javelin. Chariots gave soldiers a mobile, stable platform from which to employ weapons. The soldier wore helmet, breastplate, and shin guards; protection also came from a shield. He was armed with a spear, ax, or sword. City‐states were defended by works of earth and stone. They were besieged by opposing armies using towers, battering rams, catapults, and flame weapons.
In the first millennium A.D., the soldier on horseback used a saddle and stirrup to provide a stable platform and leverage to employ his weapons. The individual mounted soldier replaced the two‐horsed chariot with driver and archer. This saved resources by reducing the number of soldiers per horse and also forage. The long bow and the cross‐bow were used on the battlefield at the start of the second millennium.
The battlefield of the 1400s saw the introduction of gunpowder, cannon, and musket—missile weapons. This gave armies the ability to inflict significant casualties on opposing forces at a distance. The musket also ended the dominance of the armored knights on horseback. During the next four centuries, the increasing improvements and variety of cannon, artillery, and firearms further revolutionized the battlefield. The bullet, more lethal explosives, improved powders, fuse, shrapnel, the accuracy of rifled weapons, artillery that could be breech‐loaded, the repeating rifle, and machine guns beginning in the late nineteenth century increased rates of fire, range, and casualties. With the Industrial Revolution came the means to mass‐produce weapons. Mobility was enhanced first by the locomotive and then by the internal combustion engine. The telegraph gave commanders the ability to control operations from great distances, and the political hierarchy a means to keep rein on field commanders.
More lethal weapons meant ever greater casualties, particularly among the mass conscription armies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was evident in the era of Napoleon, the American Civil War, the Russo‐Japanese War, and in World War I, the last with the extensive use of artillery, the machine gun, and chemical weapons.
The airplane and armored tank were introduced in World War I to overcome the stagnation and attrition of trench warfare. The two systems became the centerpieces of war fighting in World War II and remain so to this day. The breadth and depth of military operations were greatly expanded by these systems; warfare could be extended to the industrial capabilities of the enemy and their civilian populations. Radar, advanced communications, and encryption were added to World War II capabilities.
The mobility inherent in World War II mechanized forces, with their improved firepower, supporting close air support, and artillery preparations, allowed attacking forces to engage an opposing force at its point of greatest vulnerability while avoiding its strengths. This combined arms approach, used initially with great success by the Germans in World War II, was adopted by the Allies and has provided the framework for the weapons, tactics, and doctrine of land armies throughout the Cold War era.
Modern Land Warfare.The information revolution of the post–Cold War period, exemplified by the modern computer and coupled with rapidly expanding technological innovations in materials, propellants, and electronics, is revolutionizing land warfare.
Traditional land war systems now have microminiaturized components. Near real‐time dissemination of information, ground positioning systems, satellites, laser designation of targets, increased lethality and accuracy of laser‐guided warheads, and improved armor protection all are examples of the new generations of technological adaptations, occurring every few years, that define the core process of emerging modern warfare. The twenty‐first century will include information warfare, making the field commander aware of the friendly and enemy situations in real time while thwarting the enemy's attempts to do the same.
The accelerated pace of improvements can be seen in the modern‐day U.S. battle tank. The operational readiness of the U.S. Army M1A1 Main Battle Tank in the Persian Gulf War with Iraq (1991) exceeded 90 percent, even after four days of almost continuous operation. In a night movement across open desert, all tanks—more than 300 of them—arrived at their destinations, demonstrating their excellent reliability. M1A1 tanks that received frontal hits from antitank rounds sustained little or no damage. The special armor was made of depleted uranium. The thermal night sight gave crews the ability to see through smoke; the laser range finder, with gun stabilization on the move, allowed crews to destroy targets at ranges that exceeded 3 kilometers. The 120mm antitank round, using a depleted uranium core, penetrated the earthen berms protecting enemy tanks and destroyed them.
An individual soldier with night‐vision equipment can see at night. The combat soldier can designate targets with lasers for engagement by artillery and armed helicopters, fire antitank “smart” rounds, and use a shoulder‐fired, heat‐seeking antiaircraft missile system against enemy close air support aircraft and helicopters. He can locate his position within a few feet with a hand‐held global plotting device that receives the information from reconnaissance satellites.
Fire support for the soldier includes artillery weapons that fire smart rounds to seek out and destroy tanks from overhead. Artillery projectiles also scatter antipersonnel and antitank mines over terrain the enemy might use. A counterbattery radar system can backtrack the path of enemy projectiles to the launch site and automatically provide location information, telling friendly forces where to fire. Modern ground forces use aircraft in traditional close air support roles. Add to this capability the missile‐armed helicopter, which can maneuver against and engage enemy tanks by day or night; during periods of reduced visibility, using missiles that can hit targets designated by a laser or emitting infrared emissions, it can hit targets otherwise invisible to the naked eye.
Twenty‐first–Century Land Warfare.Since the Gulf War, the international arena has seen few purely military operations; most efforts are humanitarian or for peacekeeping. The United States, with the strategic capabilities to respond promptly, has supported numerous operations, including those in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, and Macedonia.
Weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons, particularly under the control of rogue states and terrorists, pose an additional destructive dimension in land warfare. Compounding this situation, several states are gaining ballistic missile capabilities that can launch these terrifying weapons on the battlefield and elsewhere as terrorist weapons. The challenge is preparing for this diverse, unpredictable future, which will be further complicated by the availability on the world market of relatively inexpensive advanced weapons systems to lesser powers.
Technology will continue to expand and provide exponential improvements to traditional weapons systems. The success of this revolution in land warfare depends on the ability of individuals to use the systems under extreme conditions on the battlefield. Balances of automation, robotics, and the ability to process selective information in order to make good decisions—by the tank gunner to fire at a target or the corps commander to launch a combined arms attack at the right time and place—will have to be continually assessed. Warfare, ancient and modern, still depends on the initiative, tenacity, and competence of the soldiers and generals who do the fighting.
[See also Army, U.S.; Strategy; Land Warfare Strategy; Tactics: Land Warfare Tactics; War.]
Carl von Clausewitz , On War, 1833; repr. 1976.
Basil H. Liddell Hart . The Strategy of Indirect Approach, 1941; repr. 1974.
K. Macksey , The Guinness History of Land Warfare, 1973.
Chris Bellamy , The Future of Land Warfare, 1987.
Archer Jones , The Art of War in the Western World, 1987.
R. A. Gabriel , The Culture of War: Invention and Early Development, 1990.
Victor Davis Hansen , The Western Way of War, 1990.
John Keegan , A History of Warfare, 1993.
James D. Blundell
"Land Warfare." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 12, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/land-warfare
"Land Warfare." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved July 12, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/land-warfare
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