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Alvin M. Saperstein
The United States has had its armed forces in combat for the past decade in intra-nation fighting rather than inter-nation war. The casualties suffered by U.S. troops have been primarily from small-arms fire and improvised roadside bombs, not from high technology weapons. While "high-tech" drones (remotely controlled aircraft) are often featured in the news media and have had major political impacts, it is not clear that they have had decisive impacts in changing the course of war or conflict. Focused on "low-tech" combat within nations, where the conquering of territory is not the main motive, modern readers may have forgotten the role of "high-tech" equipment in wars between states, where the seizing of territory is a paramount objective. The purpose of this commentary is to provide a reminder from recent history of the often-decisive role of science and technology in altering the course of armed conflict. We have no guarantees that the ages of inter-state warfare are over. And the concept of "provocation" – and how it may lead to mutually undesirable conflict - must be kept foremost in mind when considering any potential conflict, intra- or inter- state.
That innovations in science and technology can produce major changes in the course of war and even bring war to conclusion is well known. Examples often cited are the introduction of the English long-bow at the battle of Agincourt in the 15th century – which decimated France's armored chivalry (perhaps forcing the end of the "age of chivalry"); the introduction of the tank in World War I – ending the age of trench warfare; the application of radar in the Battle of Britain and in the Pacific theater of war; the proximity fuse, and, of course, the use of A-bombs against Japan to hasten the end of World War II. In this paper I reflect upon the role of new scientific technology in preventing the outbreak of "Hot War". New science-based personal armament technologies, such as anti-tank rocket launchers which could be stored in ordinary civilian homes and deployed and operated by one or two person teams, made the "non-provocative defense" of Western Europe feasible, thus making possible the end of the Cold War and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union.
The end of the Second World War saw very rapid and extensive demobilization of the western powers, leaving very little military power deployed in Europe between the extended borders of the Soviet Union and the English Channel. Fears were expressed that there was nothing to stop Stalin's vast tank armies from rolling west; many feared that he had the inclination to order them to do so. Presumably, the only thing that prevented the "Soviet hordes" from rolling west was the existence of the A-bomb. The western allies had "the bomb"; the eastern allies did not. The threat of the atomic incineration of Moscow in retaliation for the Soviet overrunning of Berlin (and points west) presumably held the eastern armies in check. The west's atomic defense was cheap and so the west could relax behind its growing atomic shield and concentrate on building its own prosperity.
But by 1949 the Soviets had their own atomic weapons, and the nuclear arms race began. The concept of "Mutually Assured Destruction" took hold. Deliberate initiation of "defensive" nuclear war became unthinkable, and so the inexpensive nuclear barrier against the eastern tank armies was no longer viable. It became vital to match tank against tank, to expensively build up the mechanized armies of the west to match those of the east. Of course, the possible resultant mechanized war in Europe – accompanied by the planned use of tactical and nuclear weapons – would devastate all of Europe. As seen from the west, the massive build-up of western tank armies was purely "defensive" to counter the offensive character of eastern tank armies. (It was commonly said that only a tank could defend against a tank.)
But from a Warsaw Pact perspective, the NATO tanks looked offensive, ready and able to roll eastwards. And so each increase in mechanized arms by one side was matched – and then raised – by the other side. The result was an increasingly expensive –and unstable- conventional arms race, diverting human and material resources from the race for prosperity and frightening many with the prospect of some incident setting off World War III. The resulting dangerously unstable "peace" – called "Cold War" - was the tension between the massive strategic nuclear armaments of both sides and the large provocative conventional armies in Europe.
The west announced that its new tank armies were intended to defend the west on western soil – but as close to the inter-zone border as possible. But tanks are inherently mobile – they can go forward as well as backwards. There is nothing to prevent them, given appropriate orders from higher authorities, from charging across the border to continue, or begin, their defense on their opponent's territory. There is no practical way of distinguishing a defensive mechanized army from an offensive one. A highly mobile army is inherently a highly provocative force, and when stationed near a border it necessarily provokes the creation of a symmetric response force, as the eastern tank armies did provoke the creation of the NATO tank armies.
What was needed was an unsymmetrical response – a non-mobile force, able to defend its territory and people on its own turf but incapable of readily moving on to its opponent's turf. Hence, if the opponent truly had no aggressive intentions, there would be no need to build up its inherently aggressive mobile forces. Such a non-mobile force would be a "non-provocative defense"; its existence would not provoke the opponent to counter it or surpass it. But such a non-provocative defense had to have the potential of being effective. It had to have the capability of stopping the opponent's mobile armies long before they could overrun the defending country. Stopping tanks implies destroying tanks!
Several European nations, for example, Sweden and Switzerland, have a long tradition of maintaining civilian militias. These consist of civilians who maintain light weapons (rifles, machine guns) in their homes, periodically meeting to train to defend their neighborhoods with their light weapons. This is certainly a non-mobile non-provocative defense force. But how could they stop an invading tank army?
Science-based technical developments, starting at the end of WW II, and accelerating afterwards, changed the nature of "light weaponry", making it possible for a home-based militia to be an effective as well as non-provocative defense system. Shaped charges, radar and infra-red guidance systems, laser aiming devices, lighter and more powerful rocket motors, micro-electronic control systems and computers, and enhanced communication systems, made it possible for a dispersed group of well-trained individuals, using hand-held rocket launchers, to destroy attacking tanks and their ground-support aircraft. Instead of pitched battles between groups of mechanized warriors, there would be attrition of the invading tank columns by local civilian launched rockets and mines. Given sufficient attrition, the remaining aggressors could be pushed back by the smaller, non-provocative professional armed defenders. The organization and training of such local civilian based defense forces was not new. The novel "high-tech" weaponry that made them potentially effective against invading "panzer" forces was new, and became generally available in the 1970's.
Thus, during the late 1970's, the possibility of "non-provocative defense" (often referred to as "alternative defense" in the west, as "sufficiency" in Warsaw pact discussions) spread throughout Europe (and to a much lesser extent, in the U.S.) Starting in academia, it spread through military think tanks and soon reached the highest governmental circles in Europe. It was discussed by the West German Foreign Minister in 1986 and by General Secretary Gorbachev of the U.S.S.R. in 1987. (See, for references, Alvin M. Saperstein, "Primer on Non-Provocative Defense", Arms Control, Vol. 9, No. 1, May 1988, and notes therein.) Such thinking influenced military training and procurement as well as political and diplomatic activity, easing tensions and enhancing civil influence over the military. The prospect of worldwide strategic nuclear war initiated by minor provocations frightened everybody, and so strategic nuclear arms limitation started being discussed by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the 1970's. The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, limiting the nuclear weapons that might actually be used in a European war, was negotiated in 1987. Provocative non-nuclear armaments of both sides were significantly limited in Europe by the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty in 1990. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, thus signaling the beginning of the end of the "Cold War", and two years later (1991) the Warsaw Pact, and the Soviet Union itself, dissolved.
Fear of a nuclear Armageddon certainly contributed to the failure of the Cold War to become hot. But a "rational fear" of war will not prevent" incidents" from escalating into war. Provocative defense postures by the two opponents in the Cold War in Europe offered many opportunities for such incidents. It took the spread of non-provocative defense thinking to diminish the probability of such incidents. This new thinking was made possible by the increasing anti-armor effectiveness of personal weapons, which, in turn depended upon the post -WW II evolution of science and technology.
Alvin M. Saperstein
Wayne State University