The Evolution of Warfare, the 3 element approach

From the very beginning of our species history we have waged war. Some archaeologists claim the first act of homo sapiens on the world stage was that of genocide with the systematic destruction of the Neanderthals although there is no suggestion of an organised war effort, evidence points to small scale conflict slowly driving the physically stronger Neanderthals into less favourable areas for survival as they were defeated by the homo sapiens who although weaker and less well adapted to the northern European climate could communicate and unite to gain dominance of better settlement areas.

Clearly the in built aggression of our species has been a tremendous driving force in our development and rapid rise to the dominate species on the planet, although countless millions have died in warfare since history began it is also clear that much of our technological and sociological development has come from war. As we enter the 21st century it is also clear that despite what would like to think of as morale and ethical development war is still a key human interaction. Despite the vast technological advances in warfare all armies tend to have 3 elements, Infantry, Shock, and Fire Support. Infantry as the name suggests are normally ground troops who fight on foot even if they may ride into battle, their role has always been to do the bulk of the fighting and to take and hold ground. Shock elements began as chariots and evolved into cavalry the pinnacle of which was the mounted knight and into modern warfare with armoured vehicles and now in the 21st century the air mobile and air cavalry forces. The Fire Support element has gradually grown in importance and technology has allowed it to become more accurate, more mobile and longer ranged, this element has included catapults and ballistae to cannons and guided weapon launch systems such as the modern MLRS.

The first stage of warfare could be classified as the age of chariots here large kingdoms developed and waged war for prestige and to gain land and resources including at times slaves. A good example of this period is that of ancient Egypt and the ancient kingdoms of the middle east such as the Hittites. During this period armies started to develop and the king of the battle was the chariot. The chariot represented the shock element in the armies of the day and was pulled by 2 to 4 horses and normally contained a driver and one or more warriors armed with spears and often some form of projectile weapon such as darts, bows, or javelins. During this period the fire support element was very limited and the shock element the most important on the battle field as illustrated by the battle of Kadesh 1275 BC.

The next stage in the evolution of warfare (400BC-900AD approx) saw the rise of infantry as the dominant force on the battle field, well trained and disciplined infantry could deal with chariots by remaining steady in the face of a charge or opening their ranks to let the chariots through and then attacking them. This period could be termed the legionnaire age because it saw the heavy infantry of Rome come to dominate the battlefield. Infantry became better organised and drilled with heavier armour, the Greeks saw the development of the long spear and pike-like Sarissa and the devastating phalanx formations which were to be echoed over a 1,000 years later with large pikemen formations. The Shock element advanced also with the greater use of cavalry but the stirrup and lance had yet to fully develop so cavalry was yet to realize its full potential. Chariots remained in use in China and in Celtic Britain but there time was past. Elephants also saw use in North Africa in the armies of Rome and Carthage and in the Middle East and India, but after some initial successes infantry soon learnt how to deal with them and elephants often became as much as a danger to their own side as the enemy. In Indian warfare the elephant remained in use longer as a more suitable climate and easy availability made them a more useful battlefield asset rather than a novelty.

The next period can be termed the age of the Knight as the mounted heavily armoured warrior reigned supreme on the battlefield until the introduction of firearms and better infantry tactics. During this period the Shock element was key and many armies neglected or under used their infantry element with the nobles of the period seeing the mounted knight as the only thing of worth on the battlefield. The slow charge of heavy cavalry was the fore runner of later tank battles and although there was the odd upset they were to dominate the battlefields of Europe for centuries. Away from Europe the Mongols were bringing their own brand of manoeuvre warfare to Eastern Europe , China, Japan and the middle east. In the Mongol armies the shock element reigned supreme with infantry and fire support only used if fortifications were encountered, the Mongols shock element was a well armed light horsemen with bow and lance which out manoeuvred its foes until weakened by arrow fire and then smashed them with heavier armoured cavalry, in many respects the ancient fore runner of Blitzkrieg, once more illustrating that only the equipment not the principles of warfare have changed throughout history. The fire support element developed in this period with the greater use of gun powder and the need to improve weaponry as fortifications improved, infantry also gained greater killing range with the development of the crossbow and longbow and eventually firearms which would finally be the death knell for the age of the knight.

The next period to evolve was the age of the musket a period where once more the infantry element dominated thanks to technological advances. The start date of this period is hard to define like many of these periods they are stages of an evolutionary process not a sudden leap but it could be said to last until the outbreak of the American Civil War. The period includes sociological changes as we see during the Napoleonic wars the idea of the Nation in arms, more formal uniforms and training of conscripted troops and nationalism and war cement their relationship. The period is marked by large infantry battles with massed firepower on both sides such as Waterloo and battles in the Crimean war. Camouflage starts to develop in the Napoleonic wars with riflemen, rockets are also used in the West on a large scale for the first time with the Congreve Rockets. The shock element was present in the form of cavalry which was used on a large scale some of which was armoured, but the Fire support element was the one area which developed the most. Napoleonic artillery developed from fairly static siege guns to mobile fire support moved about the battle field by horses. Its important grew as its flexibility increased and the fire support element became a crucial factor in many Napoleonic battles such as Waterloo. Throughout this period the fire support element grew in power with breech loading weapons and newer more powerful explosives. Also a new weapon started to make its appearance the machine gun, it would be the large scale use of this weapon which would dominate the battles of the next age.

The Machine Gun age saw the rise to dominance of the fire support element although vast amounts of infantry died in the battles of the American Civil War and in the First World War. Technological development during this period was very rapid and it is the Fire support element which has always benefited the most from advances in technology closely followed by the Shock element with the infantry element benefiting the least from technological development. With the increase in power of the fire support element defensive warfare became dominate as seen in the trench warfare of the First World War, artillery developed in range and power and the infantry killing machine gun became more portable and flexible. New forms of warfare also developed such as air power which in many regards form part of the fire support element as its origins were in artillery spotting balloons and later with bombers as aerial artillery. Naval warfare saw large scale use of submarines and the beginnings of Naval air operations with the early carriers. The defensive nature of warfare with trenches and barbed wire saw the death of Cavalry as the shock element and generally in the major theatres of war saw the shock element virtually die out. This was not to last as from the ashes of the cavalry rose the seeds of the future of the shock element the beginnings of armoured warfare, the first tanks.

The Second World War marks the start of the Mechanised Warfare age, here a rapid advance in technology saw all three elements develop in power. For Infantry more portable support weapons and greater individual fire power as in the Thompson Sub machine gun together with the use of vehicles to transport infantry saw smaller numbers of infantry cover much wider areas, a platoon could now cover an area the size of the battlefield at Waterloo. Russian troops riding into battle on the backs of tanks was to evolve into the idea of mechanised infantry and Armoured Personnel Carriers as seen in Vietnam and later wars. Despite this technological advancement for the infantry element remains slow the American M-16 is a good example of this still in service in the 21st century many decades after it was first issued. The infantry element is limited by the fact that its main component is a human being who evolves much slower than any technology, the modern day soldier would have much in common with a soldier of the army of Alexander the Great or a British Redcoat at Waterloo.

The Shock element came to dominate the battlefield in this age , determined to avoid the deadlock of the First World Wars trenches much effort was placed in developing fire support and Shock elements. The Main Battle Tank or MBT become the king of the battlefield becoming larger and heavier throughout this period with a modern MBT such as the Challenger 2 weighing in at nearly 70 tonnes. Tactically the shock element also developed with the idea of Blitzkrieg or lightening war as used by the Germans in early World War 2 combining the shock element with air power and other parts of the fire support element and rapidly moving infantry mounted on mechanised transport. As this age came to a close the next phase of the shock element, that of air cavalry and gunships started to emerge on the battlefields of Vietnam.

The Fire Support element also developed rapidly and saw the emergence of air power as a major component of this element. Bomb loads and accuracy rapidly increased from the basic bombers of the Second World War such as the Lancaster and B-17 to the massive B-52 and the development of laser guided bombs and other PGMs during the Vietnam war. Close air support was developed during the Second World War especially during the Pacific campaign and reached its full potential during Vietnam. Vietnam also saw the use of long range artillery to support ground attacks fired from secure 'Fire bases' and the development of sub munitions and specific anti tank weapons to counter the shock element. Finally the B.B.C. warfare age saw the development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as the ultimate fire support weapons but as weapons of war these failed as the risk of escalation made them unusable by all but the most fool hardy of military commanders.

The current age of warfare is what could be termed the post nuclear age. Here the time of huge battles is gone and Western warfare is dominated by projecting power to trouble spots around the world and fighting insurgents. Politically loss of life is virtually unacceptable so the infantry element although important is heavily supported and B.B.C. to reduce casualties. Numbers of infantry deployed have shrunk further and development of very hi tech infantry equipment is under way. Mobility is the key and much of the infantry element is mounted in helicopters or armoured vehicles, yet its role of taking and holding ground especially in the urban battlefields of the Third World remains vital. The shock element is under pressure to become smaller , lighter and more flexible , the days of the 70 tonnes MBT are numbered, with helicopter gunships and air cavalry making up a large part of this element. Fire support is now long ranged and highly accurate not only artillery guns but unmanned aircraft and cruise missiles with the focus on highly accurate strikes and interdiction rather than sheer mass of weapons delivered on target. Air power itself is becoming more unmanned with a clear indication that most air support will be unmanned within the next 50 years. Even Naval warfare is focusing on delivering fire support against targets inland.

What lies in the future is unknown but it is clear that for the Western powers at least technology will give them a greater and greater edge over their enemies and lead to smaller forces deployed at greater speed , with greater fire power than ever before, the fire support element holds dominance for the moment but as warfare develops into terrorist hunting in urban mazes of the Third World how useful will that element remain? Some military analysts talked of an information war with battles on the Internet and communications super highway, such ideas are a dangerous fantasy as September 11th illustrated war has always come down to killing and sadly always will, a computer virus although destructive is not war and despite our reliance on computers no country will ever be brought to its knees by the Internet.

On Future War, Martin Van Creveld, Brassey's, 1991. An examination of war's changing nature in our time looking how the traditional concepts of war being the domain of nation states (Clausewitzian) is now outdated with the growth of liberation movements and terrorism. Note this book was written before September 11th
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War (Oxford Readers), Lawrence Freedman (Editor), Oxford Paperbacks. This is a superb book for the serious student of war in all its forms. That is not to say that this is a heavy read, but a fascinating insight and staggering in its breath of coverage of issues. The book starts with accounts from those who were in the thick of the fighting from the 19th century to present day ethnic cleansing. It covers strategy, ethnics, politics of war and causes with nearly 100 authors contributing to short articles, which wet your appetite for more. Its short punchy style makes its fun to dip into and out of and has been a set textbook on many degree courses for 10 years. It covers wars up to 1992 including the first gulf war.
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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (19 July 2003), The Evolution of Warfare, the 3 element approach, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_evolution.html

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