What to read to understand modern warfare (2023)

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THE WAR in Ukraine is a curious mix of old and new. Soldiers crouch in trenches that would not be out of place in Verdun, were it not for the glimpse of a reconnaissance drone above. Some Ukrainian gunners receive orders via Elon Musk’s Starlink constellation of satellites. Others fire artillery pieces that pre-date the Cuban missile crisis. Chinese-made quadcopters drop 1940s-vintage grenades on unsuspecting Russian tanks. It has the feel of a steampunk novel by Tom Clancy. Making sense of all this can be tricky. Conscription has ebbed away in America and most big European countries, so military matters seem rarefied. The Western wars of the past 30 years have been waged largely against assorted insurgents and guerrillas; the sound of big guns once more pounding out duels within Europe is disorienting. How to understand it all? This selection of five books should help you brush up on modern warfare.

The Face of Battle. By John Keegan. Penguin Books; 384 pages; $18. Bodley Head; £16.99

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A lot of military history is a snoozefest: hagiographies of generals and bloodless accounts of obscure engagements. So when John Keegan, a lecturer at Sandhurst, Britain’s military academy, published “The Face of Battle” in 1976, it was an instant classic. The book examines three seminal battles—Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme—at the level of the individuals who fought them. “Inside every army is a crowd struggling to get out,” writes Keegan, “a human assembly animated not by discipline but by mood”. The line is sometimes barely discernible. In the first world war, entire battalions came into being “when a train load of a thousand volunteers was tipped out on to a rural railway platform in front of a single officer”. In Ukraine, conscripts have been thrown into the meat-grinder with little training. Keegan vividly describes how booze, religion, fatigue, honour, the promise of loot and raw coercion keep soldiers from fleeing. Men in close combat will eventually break, though, in little under a year in the case of the second world war. Modern battles have drones, artificial intelligence and hypersonic missiles. But their aim is the same—“for it is towards the disintegration of human groups that battle is directed”. (We reviewed another of Mr Keegan’s books, on the American civil war, in 2009.)

Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. By Stephen Biddle. Princeton University Press; 352 pages; $39.95 and £30

The battle for Kyiv was a powerful reminder that small armies can, and often do, frustrate larger and richer ones. But why? Stephen Biddle offers a compelling (if, in places, technical) explanation. By 1914 modern weaponry had become so lethal that infantry could not advance without being shredded to pieces. What broke the trench stalemate in 1918 was a complex bundle of new tactics that Biddle calls the “modern system”. The apocalyptic artillery barrages of Passchendaele gave way to shorter, sharper bursts designed to force defenders to hunker down, not obliterate them. Small, dispersed infantry teams, armed with machine guns and grenades, advanced under cover and concealment afforded by the terrain. Powerful armies that neglect these principles get unstuck—or, like Iraq in 1991, wiped out. Small ones that heed them can survive even against a blitz of advanced precision weapons, as al-Qaeda did in the Afghan mountains in the spring of 2002. There are vital lessons for armies, argues Mr Biddle: training and skill are more important than kit, boots on the ground remain vital and infantry will have the edge over heavy armour.

The Tank Debate: Armour and the Anglo-American Military Tradition. By John Stone. Taylor & Francis; 210 pages; $62.95 and £46.99


“Time after time during the past 40 years the highest defence authorities have announced that the tank is dead or dying,” wrote Basil Liddell Hart, the British military theorist, in 1960. “Each time it has risen from the grave to which they have consigned it”. Sure enough, when Egypt hammered Israeli armour in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, many were quick to write off the tank. The Israelis did not. They quickly realised that tanks needed infantry to protect them, and that the enemy squads wielding anti-tank missiles were themselves quite vulnerable. The point, as John Stone explains, is not that technology will make tanks obsolete; technology can help them adapt, too. It is that technology and tactics have to be in tune. Mr Stone argues that the current generation of American and British tanks, the Challenger and Abrams series, were first designed in the 1970s when armies anticipated close-up slugfests rather than the fluid manoeuvre warfare that came into fashion in the 1980s. They therefore prioritised heavy armour and big guns over mobility; Soviet-era tanks, by contrast, are cheap, light and quick. But, as we explained in a recent interactive piece, Russian tank crews in Ukraine proved so inept that these advantages counted for little.

Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. By Paul Scharre. W.W. Norton; 448 pages; $18.95

My previous three suggestions all emphasise continuity in warfare: Keegan’s irreducible clash of human on human, Mr Biddle’s paean to century-old tactics and Mr Stone’s account of why tanks keep staging comebacks. In contrast, Paul Scharre, a former army officer and Pentagon official, considers a rupture: weapons that have increasing freedom to choose their own targets. Their antecedent is the acoustic homing torpedo of 1943, which could latch onto the sound of a ship’s propellers. The mature example is the loitering munition: a drone-missile hybrid, employed by both sides in Ukraine, which can be sent to wander an area until it detects a suitable target. Discussions on this topic are liable to get carried away in speculative visions of Terminator-like sentient weaponry; the value of Mr Scharre’s book, which we reviewed in 2018, is that it is grounded in history as much as futurology. He argues that important lessons might be gleaned from air-defence systems like America’s Patriot missiles and the ship-based Aegis. Such systems have long had to make complex decisions, at superhuman speed, about which incoming targets to engage—and they sometimes get it catastrophically wrong. “Humanity,” he concludes, “is at the threshold of a new technology that could fundamentally change our relationship with war”.

Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. By Martin van Creveld. Cambridge University Press; 328 pages; $39.99 and £29.99

In the first half of the 17th century, writes Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian, an army going to war took with it 100 balls per artillery barrel. No barrel would be expected to fire more than five times a day. On an average day in Ukraine, Russian guns fire 400 times and eat through more than 7,000 rounds, on one estimate. Hauling that much ammo is a herculean task. Logistics is not sexy, but it is vital to modern warfare. Russia’s logistical woes contributed to its quagmire around Kyiv in February and March. Ukraine’s use of American rockets to blow up Russian depots this month is premised on gumming up Russian supplies. “Supplying War” is not the most up-to-date treatment of the topic—opt for “Military Logistics and Strategic Performance” by Thomas Kane if you’re a Russian staff officer trying to make amends—but it is the most readable. “A real revolution,” says Mr van Creveld, “will take place only when soldiers get tired of firing heavy metal projectiles at one another and start using weightless laser beams instead.”

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Our defence editor recently wrote a Technology Quarterly series of articles that assessed how defence tech is changing. (Listen to a podcast version on the same subject). He also has assessed the woeful state of Russia’s army in Ukraine, written in defence of the tank, and on the spread of autonomous weapons.

More from The Economist reads:
Our correspondent in São Paulo recommends six books about Brazil
Five essential books about football
Our Africa editor chooses five books, and one album, about Africa
Our food columnist selects the seven essential cookbooks

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