Military Geography: For Professionals and the Public (I)

I’m currently reading this book by John Collins, ‘a retired U.S. Army colonel and a distinguished visiting research fellow at the National Defense University’, as they describe him here – perhaps other parts of that description are more impressive: He’s also a former ‘chief of the Strategic Research Group at the National War College’ and he was for 24 years ‘the senior specialist in national defense at the Congressional Research Service’. Long story short: It seems as if he knows what he’s talking about. I have encountered a few minor problems/inaccuracies, including this interesting remark: “Viking raiders invaded Ireland in the 6th century A.D” – but they haven’t subtracted much from the coverage. In that specific case I certainly felt compelled to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was a typo, with a ‘9’ turning into a ‘6’; the sixth century is a bit too early – see also this… The very early (supposed) Viking invasion mentioned in that sentence is incidentally completely unrelated to the rest of the coverage in that chapter, so the damage is very minimal anyway. In general it’s a rather neat little book so far.

The author argues in his introduction that military geography is a neglected topic:

“few schools and colleges conduct courses in military geography, none confers a degree, instructional materials seldom emphasize fundamentals, and most service manuals have tunnel vision […] My contacts in the Pentagon and Congress were bemused when I began to write this book, because they had never heard of a discipline called “military geography.””

…and I actually found this really quite interesting, because the kind of stuff covered in this book so far would be precisely the kind of stuff I’d expect any general to know and to have received education in. Things may have changed in the meantime as the book isn’t written yesterday (it’s from 1998, so obviously some aspects of military doctrine have changed since then), but even if things have changed it’s still very interesting to me that that was the state of affairs when the book was written.

Waging war in an optimal manner is a lot more complicated than it looks like in the movies, and this book provides you with a lot of information and details which make the complexity easier to appreciate. Most people know that soldiers who are to be deployed in a desert will require different types of equipment and supplies than will soldiers who are to be deployed in a rainforest, and that fighting conditions in flat terrain and -conditions in hilly terrain will be different from each other, but aside from a few obvious observations in such regards most people probably would be hard pressed to say much about how the environmental constraints affect deployment strategies, optimal supply chain management, fuel consumption, etc. Even an observation as simple as: ‘it is hot in the desert, so soldiers fighting there will need a lot of water’ arguably to some extent eluded German strategists during the North African Campaign, as this quote from the book illustrates:

“Sweat evaporates so rapidly in dry desert heat that humans commonly lose about 1 pint of water per hour even at rest, yet never notice adverse effects or feel thirsty until the deficit reaches four times that amount (2 quarts, or 2 liters), by which time heat prostration may be imminent. Heavy exertion requires much greater intake, but Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the summer of 1942 carried only 15 quarts per day for trucks and tanks as well as personnel. His parched troops made every drop count, yet still ran dry during one offensive and survived only because they captured British water supplies.[58] U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who were much better endowed logistically, consumed approximately 11 gallons per day (42 liters), plus 10 to 12 gallons more per vehicle.” (There’s more on this topic below).

One could also talk about the obvious need for providing soldiers with proper winter clothes if you’re planning on invading Russia (-ll-)… The book goes into a lot of detail about these kinds of things, because the physical environment affects all kinds of aspects of warfare in ways that are actually quite hard to imagine. I’ve added some observations from the book below. I’ve read roughly the first 200 pages and so far I like it.

“This consolidated guide, designed to fill undesirable gaps, has a threefold purpose:

• To provide a textbook for academic use
• To provide a handbook for use by political-military professionals
• To enhance public appreciation for the impact of geography on military affairs.

Parts One and Two, both of which are primers, view physical and cultural geography from military perspectives. Part Three probes the influence of political-military geography on service roles and missions, geographic causes of conflict, and complex factors that affect military areas of responsibility. Part Four describes analytical techniques that relate geography to sensible courses of military action, then puts principles into practice with two dissimilar case studies—one emphasizes geographic influences on combat operations, while the other stresses logistics.”

“Soil conditions and rock affect the performance of many conventional weapons and delivery vehicles. Rocky outcroppings and gravel magnify the lethal radius of conventional munitions, which ricochet on impact and scatter stone splinters like shrapnel, whereas mushy soil smothers high explosives that burrow before they detonate. Even light artillery pieces leave fairly heavy “footprints” in saturated earth, a peculiarity that limits (sometimes eliminates) desirable firing positions. Gunners struggled to keep towed artillery pieces on targets when they worked at or near maximum tube elevations on wet ground in Vietnam where it didn’t take many rounds to drive 155-mm howitzer trails so deeply into the mire that recoil mechanisms malfunctioned. […] Surface conditions likewise amplify or mute nuclear weapon effects. The diameters and depths of craters are less when soil is dry than when soaked, nuclear shock waves transmitted through wet clay are perhaps 50 times more powerful than those through loose sand, and the intensities as well as decay rates of nuclear radiation reflect soil compositions and densities.”

“Legitimate terrors confront warriors in dark woods, where armed forces battle like blindfolded boxers who cannot see their opponents, small-unit actions by foot troops predominate, control is uncertain, and fluid maneuvers are infeasible. State-of-the-art technologies confer few advantages regardless of the day and age:
• Vehicles of any kind are virtually useless, except on beaten paths.
• Tree trunks deflect flat-trajectory projectiles. […]
• Tanks can bulldoze small trees, but the vegetative pileups impede or stop progress.
• The lethal radius of conventional bombs and artillery shells is much less than in open terrain, although the “bonus” effect of flying wood splinters can be considerable.
• Hand grenades bounce aimlessly unless rolled at short ranges that sometimes endanger the senders.
• Napalm burns out rapidly in moist greenery; flares illuminate very little; and dense foliage deadens radio communications.”

“Atmospheric phenomena significantly affect the performance of weapon systems and munitions. Pressure changes and relative humidity alter barometric fusing and arming calculations, dense air reduces maximum effective ranges, gusty crosswinds near Earth’s surface make free rockets and guided missiles wobble erratically, while winds aloft influence ballistic trajectories. Rain-soaked soils deaden artillery rounds, but frozen ground increases fragmentation from contact-fused shells. Dense fog, which degrades visual surveillance and target acquisition capabilities, also makes life difficult for forward observers, whose mission is to adjust artillery fire. Line-of-sight weapons, such as tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) antitank missiles, are worthless where visibility is very limited. Exhaust plumes that follow TOWs moreover form ice fog in cold, damp air, which conceals targets from gunners even on clear days, and reveals firing positions to enemy sharpshooters. Scorching heat makes armored vehicles too hot to touch without gloves, reduces sustained rates of fire for automatic weapons, artillery, and tank guns, and renders white phosphorus ammunition unstable. […] Nuclear weapons respond to weather in several ways, of which winds on the surface and aloft perhaps are most important. […] Low air bursts beneath clouds amplify thermal radiation by reflection, whereas the heat from bursts above cloud blankets bounces back into space. Heavy precipitation raises the temperature at which thermal radiation will ignite given materials and reduces the spread of secondary fires. Detonations after dark increase the range at which flashes from nuclear explosions blind unprotected viewers. Blasts on, beneath, or at low altitudes above Earth’s surface suck enormous amounts of debris up the stems of mushroom clouds that drift downwind. The heaviest, most contaminated chaff falls back near ground zero within a few minutes, but winds aloft waft a deadly mist hundreds or thousands of miles. The size, shape, and potency of resultant radioactive fallout patterns differ with wind speeds and directions, because terrain shadows, crosswinds, and local precipitation sometimes create hot spots and skip zones within each fan. Fallout from one test conducted atop a tower in Nevada, for example, drifted northeast and retained strong radioactive concentrations around ground zero, while a second test from the same tower on a different date featured a “furnace” that was seven times hotter than its immediate surroundings 60 miles (95 kilometers) northwest of the test (figure 18). Such erratic results are hard to predict even under ideal conditions.[35]”

“Dry cold below freezing encourages frostbite among poorly clothed and trained personnel. German Armed Forces in Russia suffered 100,000 casualties from that cause during the winter of 1941-1942, of which 15,000 required amputations. Human breath turned to icicles in that brutal cold, eyelids froze together, flesh that touched metal cold-welded, gasoline accidentally sprayed on bare skin raised blisters the size of golf balls, butchers’ axes rebounded like boomerangs from horse meat as solid as stone, and cooks sliced butter with saws. Dehydration, contrary to popular misconceptions, can be prevalent in frigid weather when personnel exhale bodily moisture with every breath. Low temperatures, which inhibit clotting, cause wounds to bleed more freely, and severe shock due to slow circulation sets in early unless treated expeditiously. […] Armed forces in enervating heat face a different set of difficulties. Water consumption soars to prevent dehydration, since exertions over an 8-hour period in 100 °F (38°C) heat demand about 15 quarts a day (14 liters). Logisticians in the desert are hard pressed to supply huge loads, which amount to 30 pounds per person, or 270 tons for an 18,000-man U.S. armored division. […] Myriad other matters attract concerted attention. […] The rate of gum accumulations in stored gasoline quadruples with each 20°F increase in temperature, which clogs filters and lowers octane ratings when forces deplete stockpiles slowly.”

“Cold clime logistical loads expand prodigiously in response to requirements for more of almost everything from rations, clothing, tents, water heaters, and stoves to whitewash, snow plows, antifreeze, batteries, repair parts, construction materials, and specialized accouterments such as snow shoes and skis. Armed forces in wintry weather burn fuel at outrageous rates. Motor vehicles churning through snow, for example, consume perhaps 25 percent more than on solid ground. It takes 10 gallons (38 liters) of diesel per day to keep a 10-man squad tent habitable when the thermometer registers -20 °F (-29 °C). […] Generous, lightweight, well-balanced, nutritious, and preferably warm rations are essential in very cold weather, especially for troops engaged in strenuous activities. The U.S. Army sets 4,500 calories per day as a goal, although Finnish counterparts with greater practical experience recommend 6,000. Sweets make excellent instant-energy snacks between regular meals. Commanders and cooks must constantly bear in mind that food not in well-insulated containers will freeze in transit between kitchens and consumers. Each individual moreover requires 4 to 6 quarts (liters) of drinking water per day to prevent dehydration in cold weather, although adequate sources are difficult to tap when streams turn to ice. Five-gallon (18-liter) cans as well as canteens freeze fast in subzero temperatures, even when first filled with hot water. […] Combat and support troops engaged in strenuous activities must guard against overdressing, which can be just as injurious as overexposure if excessive perspiration leads to exhaustion or evaporation causes bodies to cool too rapidly. […]

Big maintenance problems begin to develop at about -10°F (-23 °C) and intensify with every degree that thermometers drop thereafter:
• Lubricants stiffen.
• Metals lose tensile strength.
• Rubber loses plasticity.
• Plastics and ceramics become less ductile.
• Battery efficiencies decrease dramatically.
• Fuels vaporize incompletely.
• Glass cracks when suddenly heated.
• Seals are subject to failure.
• Static electricity increases.
• Gauges and dials stick.
Combustion engines are hard to start, partly because battery output at best is far below normal (practically zero at -40 °F and -40 °C).”

“Tropical rain forests, which never are neutral, favor well-prepared forces and penalize military leaders who fail to understand that:
• Small unit actions predominate.
• Overland movement invariably is slow and laborious.
• Troops mounted on horseback and motor vehicles are less mobile than foot soldiers.
• Natural drop zones, landing zones, and potential airstrips are small and scarce.
• Visibility and fields of fire for flat trajectory weapons are severely limited.
• Land navigation requires specialized techniques.
• Tanks, artillery, other heavy weapons, and close air support aircraft are inhibited.
• Command, control, communications, and logistics are especially difficult.
• Special operations forces and defenders enjoy distinctive advantages.
• Quantitative and technological superiority count less than adaptability. […]

Overland travel in jungles averages about ½ mile an hour where the going is good and ½ mile a day where it is not, unless troops follow well-trodden trails that invite adversaries to install mines, booby traps, road blocks, and ambushes. […] Jungles are filled with animate and inanimate objects that bite, sting, and stick, a host of microorganisms that are harmful to humans, fungus infections that troops affectionately call “jungle rot,” and steamy atmosphere that encourages profuse perspiration, body rashes, and heat exhaustion. […] More casualties could be traced to malaria than to hostile fire during World War II campaigns in the South Pacific.”


May 2, 2014 - Posted by | books, Geography

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