Military Geography: For Professionals and the Public (II)

“Portions of this book may be quoted or reprinted without permission, provided that a standard source credit line is included.”

I allow myself to cover Collins’ book in a bit more detail than I do many other books, for the above reason (I shall assume that the link – along with the fact that I actually report the title of the book in the blog post title – corresponds to a ‘standard source credit line’).

I ended my coverage of the book in my first post when I got to chapter 7, although I’d read a bit further than that at that point. Chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 deal with: Inner and outer space, natural resources and raw materials, populations (this chapter is the first in the second part of the book, on cultural geography), urbanization, lines of communication, military bases, and fortresses and field fortifications, respectively. A few minor errors/inaccuracies pop up here and there, but this is to be expected of a book this size written by a single author, and as I’m learning something new in each chapter I don’t mind so much that he occasionally e.g. by mistake adds a zero to his kilometer-conversion of the distances reported in miles (“an area 350 by 250 miles — 5,630 by 3,220 kilometers”) because it’s not hard to tell when a mistake has been made and there aren’t that many of them. Though I have found some topics more interesting to read about than others, in general I’d say I like this book.

Although the chapter on warfare in space is in some sense the ‘least relevant’ chapter included in the book in terms of understanding the kinds of wars humans have engaged in so far, I thought it was a rather interesting chapter, especially as most media portrails take some, liberties, when dealing with such topics that make it hard to appreciate how this kind of stuff might actually play out (and no, I don’t think reading Ender’s Game is quite enough to get a good sense of these things). Here’s some stuff from the chapter:

“Space and the seas are superficially similar, but differences are dramatic:
• Continents bound all five oceans, which are liquid and almost opaque, whereas space has no shape and little substance.
• Earth’s curvature limits sea surface visibility to line-of-sight, whereas visibility as well as maneuver room are virtually limitless in space.
• Acoustics, an antisubmarine warfare staple, play no part in space, because sound cannot survive in a vacuum.
• Space welcomes electromagnetic radiation, whereas water is practically impervious to radio and radar waves.
• Day-night cycles and shock waves, which are prevalent everywhere on Earth, are nonexistent in space.
• Atmospheric phenomena and salt water interfere with light and focused energy rays on Earth, but neither refract in space.
Space moreover has no north, east, south, or west to designate locations and directions. A nonrotating celestial sphere of infinite radius, with its center at Earth’s core, is the reference frame. Declination, the astronomical analog of latitude, is the angular distance north or south of the celestial equator, right ascension is the counterpart of longitude, and the constellation Aries, against which spectators on Earth see the sun when it crosses Earth’s Equator in springtime, defines the prime meridian. Angular positions in space are measured from that celestial counterpart of Greenwich Observatory.”

“Geographic influences on nuclear, directed energy, chemical, biological, and conventional weapon effects are far-reaching and fundamental. Atmospheric interfaces, gravity, and vacuum are the most important factors. […]
Nuclear weapons detonated in Earth’s atmosphere create shock waves, violent winds, and intense heat that inflict severe damage and casualties well beyond ground zero.[13] No such effects would occur in space, because winds never blow in a vacuum, shock waves cannot develop where no air, water, or soil resists compression, and neither fireballs nor superheated atmosphere could develop more than 65 miles (105 kilometers) above Earth’s surface. Consequently, it would take direct hits or near misses to achieve required results with nuclear blast and thermal radiation. […] Self-contained biospheres in space afford a superlative environment for chemical and biological warfare compared with Earth, where weather and terrain virtually dictate delivery times, places, and techniques.[15] Most spacecraft and installations on the Moon, which must rely on closed-circuit life support systems that continuously recirculate air and recycle water, are conceivable targets for special operations forces armed with colorless, odorless, lethal, or incapacitating agents that would be almost impossible to spot before symptoms appear [for some coverage of (marginally?) related topics, see this]. Cumbersome masks and suits could protect individuals only if worn constantly. Sanctuaries comparable to the toxic-free citadels that eat up precious room on some ships would be infeasible for most spacecraft and safeguard only a few selected personnel. Any vehicle or structure victimized by persistent chemicals probably would become permanently uninhabitable, because vast quantities of water and solvents required for decontamination would be unavailable.”

“A one-month supply of oxygen, food, and drinking water just for a crew of three amounts to more than a ton stored at the expense of precious propellant and military payloads. Each crew member in turn would deposit an equal amount of waste in the form of feces, urine, perspiration, internal gases, carbon dioxide, and other exhalation vapors that could quickly reach toxic proportions in a sealed capsule unless quelled, expelled, or sterilized. Life support systems currently dump or stow organic waste on short missions, but such practices do little to alleviate long-term resupply problems. […] Motion sickness, somewhat like an aggravated form of sea sickness, afflicts about half of all space travelers whose responses to medical suppressants are unpredictable. It conceivably might undermine mission proficiency enough during the first few days of each flight to mark the difference between military success and failure”

“Military space forces at the bottom of Earth’s “gravity well” need immense energy to leave launch pads and climb quickly into space. Adversaries at the top, in positions analogous to “high ground,” have far greater maneuver room and freedom of action. Put simply, it is easier to drop objects down a well than to throw them out. […] L4 and L5, the two stable libration points, […] theoretically could dominate Earth and Moon because they look down both gravity wells. No other location is equally commanding.”

One assumption underlying much of the analysis in that chapter is that humans will actually be the ones doing the physical fighting that takes place in space as well – i.e. there’ll be humans in that space shuttle, and the humans will be the ones directing their lasers (or whatever) at the enemy. This is a weakness of the coverage in that chapter, I think, as strategies involving robotics as a key element seem to me an obvious way to try to work around a lot of the constraints imposed on organisms conducting war in space. Humans need a lot of stuff to survive in space, and if you can get machines to do the unpleasant stuff via remote control that seems like a no-brainer; yet that aspect isn’t really covered in the chapter. Humans have used space probes for decades and although we weren’t as far along in 1998 as we are now, we had been making progress for a long time. Humans sent a probe to the moon to pick up some lunar soil and return it to Earth – successfully – almost 30 years before the book was written. However it is just one chapter, and I think I’ve said enough about space for now – despite this shortcoming it’s still an interesting chapter.

Let’s talk a little bit about disease instead. Did you know that in World War II in the year 1944, 67% of U.S. military casualties in Europe were disease casualties? I didn’t. Only 23% were classified as combat casualties, with the last 10% being ‘noncombat casualties’. Presumably some of these were people who went insane – some of them committing suicide, others ‘just’ becoming unable to perform their military duties – because of the psychological strain, so it’s probably debatable to which extent they were all ‘non-combat’. As Fussell observed in his book:

“In war it is not just the weak soldiers, or the sensitive ones, or the highly imaginative or cowardly ones, who will break down. Inevitably, all will break down if in combat long enough […] As medical observers have reported, “There is no such thing as ‘getting used to combat’ … Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their experience.” Thus – and this is unequivocal: ‘Psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare.”

On the other hand the 10% figure probably also includes stuff like accidents and desertions, at least some of which were not ‘battle-related’; the American army incidentally had 19.000 acknowledged deserters during WW2, and less than half of them (9000) had been found by 1948 – I again refer to Fussell’s book, p. 151.

Disease casualties made up an even larger proportion of the US WW2 casualties in the Southwest Pacific (83% disease, 5% combat, 12 percent non-combat) and China-Burma (90% disease, 2% combat, 8% non-combat). It’s perhaps important to keep in mind in this context that ‘casualties’ != ‘soldiers who died’ (it’s rather best thought of as ‘soldiers put out of action’) and that the proportion of dead people in the three groups may well be dissimilar. There’s also some conceptual overlap between the groups (bacterial infections in gunshot wounds) which it’s unclear how the source provided in the book has dealt with. However it’s still thoughtprovoking data. Of course Stevenson covered this kind of stuff as well, and in much greater detail – if you want to know more about these things, that’s a place to start. According to the source in the book, disease casualties incidentally accounted for two-thirds of casualties during the Vietnam War in 1969 (just like in Europe 25 years earlier – combat was 19% and noncombat 14%). Diseases vary a lot and different diseases will call for different prevention strategies; for example Fussell mentions in his book that contracting a sexually transmitted disease during WW2 was actually a punishable offence for US soldiers (p.108).

More quotes from Collins’ book below:

“Urban combat […] disrupts unit cohesion, complicates control, blunts offensive momentum, and causes casualties to soar on both sides.
Most military doctrines the world over consequently advise land force commanders to isolate or bypass built-up areas, but the subjugation of political, industrial, commercial, transportation, and communication centers even so may sometimes decisively affect the outcome of battles, campaigns, even wars. Military commanders in such events face an endless variety of structures and facilities the seizure or control of which demands esoteric plans, programs, and procedures, since no two cities are quite alike.”

“Street fighting ensues whenever armed forces try to wrest urbanized terrain from stubborn defenders. It can be brutal but brief in villages and a lengthy, agonizing struggle between small, isolated units in cities where concrete canyons and culs-de-sac degrade technological advantages, severely limit vehicular mobility, render tactical communications unreliable, complicate intelligence collection, and swallow troops wholesale. Restrictive rules of engagement designed to reduce collateral damage and casualties may further decease benefits obtainable from aerial firepower as well as artillery and magnify dependence on foot soldiers.[22] […] Motorized troops must stick to streets and open spaces, whereas infantrymen fight three-dimensional wars at ground level, on rooftops, and in subterranean structures such as subways, sewers, and cellars, creeping over, under, or around each structure, blasting “mouseholes” through walls, ceilings, and floors when more convenient avenues are unavailable. Mines, booby traps, barbed wire, road blocks, rubble, and other obstacles abound […] Every inner city building becomes a potential strong point, particularly those that overlook key intersections or open spaces.[26] Clear fields of fire for flat-trajectory weapons seldom exceed 200 yards (185 meters) even in suburbs, where ornamental shrubbery and sweeping curves often limit lines-of-sight.”

“Tanks and other armored vehicles inch through inner cities at a snail’s pace, find little room to maneuver on narrow or rubble-clogged streets, cannot turn sharp corners, and are vulnerable beneath enemy-occupied buildings unless they “button up,” which limits visibility and invites ambush. Many lucrative targets remain beyond reach, because most range-finders produce fuzzy images close up, tank turrets cannot swivel freely in cramped quarters, and main guns on level ground can neither elevate nor depress enough to blast upper stories or basements nearby. […] Conventional urban combat consequently calls for few rather than many tanks, mainly to furnish close support for frontline infantry.[28] Exceptions to that rule normally involve opponents in disarray or other special circumstances […] Urban jungles, like their leafy analogs, discourage artillery. […] High-angle artillery fire in urban areas […] is often used mainly to clear rooftops and target troops in the open while mortars, which are more maneuverable and less destructive, handle most close support missions. […] Urban combat inhibits lighter crew-served arms as well. Backblast makes it dangerous to emplace recoilless weapons in small, unvented rooms or other cramped spaces where loose objects, glass, and combustible materials must be covered or removed. Enclosures so amplify explosive sounds that personnel without earplugs become deaf after a few experiences.”

“Low-level U.S. [air] raids against Japan, all at night, slighted high explosives in favor of incendiaries, mainly magnesium, white phosphorus, and jellied gasoline […] Successes destroyed 40 percent of 66 cities, left almost one-third of Japan’s population homeless, and inflicted far more casualties than Japanese Armed Forces suffered during all of World War II. The cataclysmic Tokyo raid of March 9 and 10, 1945, killed 83,000 when high winds among flimsy wooden and rice paper structures whipped up uncontrollable fire storms […] Japanese noncombatants felt shock effects many times greater than those that accompanied urban bombing campaigns against Germany, because attacks were concentrated in a much shorter period.[58]”

“Military requirements determine the number, characteristics, essential service life, and acceptable construction time of airfields in any area of operations. Topography, climatic conditions, vegetation, hydrology, soils, and logistical convenience strongly influence locations. Preferable sites feature the flattest terrain, the clearest weather, the most favorable winds, the fewest obstructions, the freest drainage, and easiest access to prominent land lines of communication but, if that ideal is unattainable for political, military, geographic, or cultural reasons, decisionmakers must compromise.
Primary runways generally parallel the direction of prevailing winds, taking high-velocity cross-currents into account. Runway lengths required by any given type aircraft would be standard everywhere if Planet Earth were a perfectly flat plain at sea level, all thermometers consistently registered any given temperature, the surface never was slick with rain, sleet, or snow, and all pilots were equally competent. Military airfield designers in the real world, however, must extend runways to compensate for increases in altitude and do likewise where temperatures of the warmest month average more than 59 °F (15 °C), because those factors singly or in combination create rarefied air that degrades engine performance and affords less lift. Takeoffs up inclines and landings downhill also require longer runways.”

Yes, there are actually algorithms for how to account for these variables in the field:


“No nation, not even the British Empire at its zenith, deployed armed forces at as many military installations beyond its borders as the United States of America did during the Cold War. They were unusual compared with most bases abroad, being sited on the sovereign territory of allies and other friends with whom the U.S. Government negotiated mutually acceptable Status of Forces Agreements that legally prescribed U.S. rights, privileges, and limitations. All such bases and facilities exploited geographical positions that promoted U.S. security interests, affirmed U.S. global involvement, extended U.S. military reach, and strengthened U.S. alliance systems. They also positioned U.S. Armed Forces to deter Soviet aggression and respond most effectively if required. […] Nearly 1,700 U.S. installations, large and small, eventually circled the Northern Hemisphere in locations selected especially to monitor military activities inside the Soviet Union, ensure early warning if Soviet Armed Forces attacked, and block the most likely land, sea, and air avenues of Soviet advance. […] Eighty-one Distant Early Warning (DEW) Stations, draped 4,000 miles (6,435 kilometers) along the 70th Parallel from the Aleutian Islands to the Atlantic Ocean, watched for enemy bombers in the early 1960s […] Mid-Canada and Pine Tree Lines, augmented by a generous group of gap-filler radars, provided back-ups farther south, but that complex shrank considerably as soon as better technologies became available.”


May 4, 2014 - Posted by | Books, Geography

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