May 25, 2018

Learning From History - The New Maginot Line

I picked up a copy of the New Maginot Line expecting it to be bad. It's a 1986 book by journalist Jon Connell, a proponent of defense reform, the theory that there's a massive flaw in not only the existing procurement process, but also the concepts behind the weapons we buy. This is not a position I agree with, and I felt like seeing how its conclusions held up today. They did worse than I expected. Jon Connell did not understand military history or contemporary systems, and the intervening 3 decades have not been kind to his thesis. This seems like useful information when judging similar claims made today.

The fun begins in the Introduction. Discussing the Soviet Union, Connell writes "There is a school of thought, of course, that holds that if only we can keep up the pressure by constantly harnessing new developments in technology, we will force the Russians to keep reacting and spending ever larger sums of money simply to 'stay in the game.' In the end, the hope is that their economy will be unable to take the strain and that their political system will collapse, bankrupt, on the scrap heap of history. This rationale is scarcely convincing."

Three years later, the Berlin Wall came down as the Soviet Union ran out of money to pay for its empire.

His grasp of the past isn't much better than his predictions of the future. He attributes the French defeat in 1940 to a focus on the Maginot Line as a panacea. This reflects a common and fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the Maginot Line. In fact, it worked exactly as designed, pushing the German attack into the awful terrain of the Ardennes. Unfortunately for the French, this gamble paid off for the Germans due to serious command problems in the French military. It took several days for information and orders to flow between the front and the high command, and in some cases, the French found out what was going on from the British ambassador.1

Then he starts to examine defense systems. The first one he trots out is Sergeant York. Since it was actually cancelled, figuring out the truth behind the situation isn't easy, and I don't want to do the work required to do so. There were definite problems, but I don't know how much was the normal teething issues and how much was serious. I've certainly never claimed that the system is perfect.

Then he turns his eye on the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. The first paragraph suggests that the Tommy Gun was a good example of mass-produced US weaponry, which sort of sets the tone for the whole section, as the Thompson was famously difficult to build. He suggests that the Bradley is useless, as it's insufficiently armored to be able to survive on the battlefield, and much more expensive than the M113. The Bradley proved itself in Desert Storm, destroying more Iraqi armored vehicles than the M1 Abrams, and has given good service in conflicts since then. Connell doesn't think much of the Abrams, either, another vehicle now widely recognized as world-class.

The rest of the weapons analysis is much the same. There's bashing of the F-15 for being too complex and expensive, a criticism best answered by its record in air-to-air combat of over 100 kills with no losses. The A-10/GAU-8 combination draws praise, while the Maverick, another weapon which has since worked well in combat, draws fire. Then there's the downright bizarre, when the Copperhead laser-guided artillery round is criticized for having a 1 km minimum range, which Connell correctly identifies as well inside the typical range of a tank-on-tank engagement. Of course, as an artillery round, it's not supposed to be used on short-range targets. He finishes the chapter by suggesting that the AH-64 Apache and Hellfire missile are too expensive and won't work. Today, the Apache is considered one of the world's best attack helicopters, and the Hellfire is possibly the most successful air-to-ground missile ever.

And then we come to the chapter on the Navy. I get the feeling that this book and my copy of The US Maritime Strategy should never touch, because they might blow up.2 Connell criticizes the 600-ship navy as unnecessary to counter the Russians, and likely to be ineffective in executing strikes on their flanks. He criticizes Aegis, which has proven to be an amazing system, as likely to be ineffective. And then he claims that the carriers are doomed by the Soviet naval strike groups, but that naval forces are still necessary for sea control. The obvious problem is that the carriers didn't actually call the Backfires into existence, and getting rid of the CVBGs certainly wouldn't have gotten rid of them. Instead, the Backfires would have been sent after convoys, which were much less able to defend themselves. The alternative the US selected was to essentially lure the Backfires into a battle with the CVBG, and destroy them there.

In his campaign against naval power, Connell makes some bizarre arguments based on WWII experience. First, attempting to extrapolate across four decades of major technological change is a risky thing to do. In WWI, aircraft carriers would have been unable to do more than provide minor support to battleships. Over the next two decades, this changed drastically, and the insanity of arguing that because carriers were useless during WWI they would be useless in WWII is obvious. Second, he makes the argument incredibly badly, ignoring important evidence and distorting the data he does use. He starts by focusing on the Norwegian campaign,3 and claiming that the expeditionary force was "cut to pieces" and driven off by air attack,4 suffering four ships sunk and 18 badly damaged, including a battleship and a carrier.

This was confusing, because I couldn't recall a battleship being damaged off Norway, and I really should have remembered if one had. I also didn't remember any carriers being damaged by air attack.5 I first consulted R A Burt's British Battleships 1919-1945, and found nothing under the Battle Damage section of any class from air attack off Norway. I then checked Raven and Roberts, and discovered that both Rodney and Resolution took minor damage off Norway. In neither case was combat efficiency seriously impaired. None of my books mentioned damage from air attack to any carrier, including David Hobbs in his excellent British Aircraft Carriers. I finally found claims on Wikipedia that there was damage from a near-miss to Furious, but the ship remained in combat for several weeks. None of these ships were "badly damaged", and it's hard to see someone claiming in good faith that they were. He then highlights the Kamikaze threat at the end of the war. While the Kamikazes were indeed a serious problem for the fleet, he conveniently ignores battles like the Philippine Sea, where naval air defense completely thwarted a huge Japanese strike. I see no particular reason to assume that the kamikazes are a better model than the conventional battles of 1944.6 He also includes the Falklands, neglecting to mention the lack of British AWACS or long-range missiles, and the fact that most of the British losses took place when the ships were stationary and unloading troops in a confined harbor, making them easy targets and limiting their defenses.

Almost as bad is the use of the phrase "taking Murmansk", which gives the impression that the US was planning to launch an amphibious landing, instead of using strikes on the bases. Connell never explicitly says this is what will happen, but his language is unbelievably sloppy. He's dismissive of the ability of naval air to hit shore targets, and doesn't mention Tomahawk, either. He suggests that the problem is insufficient centralization, and that we would be better served by a politically weaker navy. It's fairly obvious what I think about all of these claims.

Weirdly, he doesn't critique the reactivation of the battleships. I can only assume that he believes anything with a gun is good, except Sergeant York.

Anyway, at this point I got bored. It was a good reminder that the weapons making headlines today for being ineffective and over budget are the ones that will make headlines for winning the wars of tomorrow, and that a lot of defense correspondents don't actually know very much about defense.

1 For a lot more details, see the wonderful A Blunted Sickle, an alternate history about France holding out.

2 Despite my copy of the latter book being signed, I tested this, and nothing happened.

3 In fairness, this was in the context of a defense of Norway in a potential war with the Soviet Union.

4 This wasn't why the Norwegian campaign was abandoned. With the fall of France, and particularly the need for forces in the Med when the Italians entered the war, the cost of keeping the campaign going was simply too high.

5 Glorious was famously sunk by Scharnhorst and Gniesneau.

6 There's actually some reason to assume the opposite, but a full discussion of the history of naval air defense will have to wait.


  1. May 25, 2018Chuck said...

    I kind of want to see this book now. To be so consistently and thoroughly wrong is an achievement only slightly easier than being totally correct. I am also curious, was there any talk about what should be done instead, or what weapons systems would be more effective?

  2. May 25, 2018bean said...

    I'd have to check for specific recommendations, but the whole thing struck me as sort of confused. He definitely liked the M113, and seemed like the sort to favor the F-16. But it was definitely "buy less advanced systems, and buy more of them". I'm not quite sure how he planned to man all this.

    I will admit to sort of cherry-picking the sections which were wrong and interesting, but there wasn't a whole lot right.

  3. May 25, 2018Tony Zbaraschuk said...

    It can be very interesting to read attempts to predict well-known events, and see what people got right and what they got wrong. For instance, reading stuff from the 1920s or the 1930s about the next war is likely to be ... eye-opening, if you're only familiar with how things actually went. I particularly remember a book written by a couple of Italian expatriates in, oh, 1943, about what the US was obviously going to do to Italy after the war, which was remarkably at variance both with what the US was doing at the time and what did happen after the war. People's own theories and worldview can be remarkably confining.

    Another example is that most civilian writers seem to have expected widescale use of poison gas, probably in combination with air bombardment of major cities. (Whereas the artillery guys, as Haber points out in that most excellent book The Poisonous Cloud, had already figured out that an equivalent shell weight of high explosive was actually more effective in suppressing the enemy than gas, and didn't make it so hard for your troops to advance either.) There's a lot of stuff in specialized practical knowledge that never really makes it out to the journalists.

    Of course, there's a lot of specialized officer stuff that turns out to be total bollocks hanging onto the last war, too (consider Hugh Drum and the US cavalry in 1940!) It's easy to mock post-facto, or in cases like Tom Phillips in 1941 in 1941 thinking they can still operate capital ships in range of enemy landbased air with just their own AA fire (not being aware that Japanese torpedo bombers were MUCH-longer ranged than British and could drop torpedoes from a much higher speed and altitude than British torpedo bombers could), but at the risk of being trite, the future can be very surprising sometimes.

  4. May 25, 2018bean said...

    In vague fairness to Connell, nobody saw the collapse of the Soviets coming when it did. And I mean nobody. But it was kind of funny to see him so categorically reject the exact mechanism that brought them down.

    That said, I found a truly hilarious spread from a 1940 Popular Mechanics, which I'm going to be mocking, because the designer got some stuff so hilariously wrong that I suspect the average reader here would be able to pick it up effectively.

    Another example is that most civilian writers seem to have expected widescale use of poison gas, probably in combination with air bombardment of major cities. (Whereas the artillery guys, as Haber points out in that most excellent book The Poisonous Cloud, had already figured out that an equivalent shell weight of high explosive was actually more effective in suppressing the enemy than gas, and didn’t make it so hard for your troops to advance either.) There’s a lot of stuff in specialized practical knowledge that never really makes it out to the journalists.

    These two aren't mutually exclusive. High explosives may be more efficient against troops, but troops are a lot more resistant to chemical weapons than civilians are. They're trained and equipped to deal with it, and they're all adults in decent physical shape.

    It’s easy to mock post-facto, or in cases like Tom Phillips in 1941 thinking they can still operate capital ships in range of enemy landbased air with just their own AA fire

    In fairness to Phillips, he didn't really think that. He wanted air cover, but didn't get any, although that was partially his own fault. The AA doctrine he used had worked pretty well in the Med. But the extra range and skill of the Japanese changed things quite a bit.

  5. May 25, 2018doctorpat said...

    IIRC the American writer P.J.O'Roarke wrote about journalists and how they just can't be knowledgeable about the subjects they write about. He used military journalism as his example.

    To paraphrase: "You get a journalist, and he is allocated to write about defence*. So he sets out to become knowledgable on the subject. He reads up about the Secretary of State, he studies the leadership of the pentagon, he gets to know the structure of the Congressional defence committees... This allows him to report on the news coming out from Washington about what the military is doing, without messing things up and looking like an idiot.
    But he hasn't learned about the military, he has learned about military politics. He only has a week before his first report is due, this is all he can do. As long as he is in washington, reporting on military politics this is mostly sufficient. But then something happens on the actual ground, where you need to know the difference between a M1A1 and a M16. And he is completely lost. "

    I suspect that what happens is that such a journalist can report on military politics for years, quite successfully, and imagines that this means he does actually know about the military. Then he starts to write books on the subject without realising how little he knows.

    The worst thing is that it's kind of impossible to solve. I suspect that nobody actually knows enough about a subject as broad and diverse as modern military to be able to do something like analyse if modern military planning is misguided or not. Which is why the actual military use collaborative teams to work on such things. Hence, the only people who will set out to do the entire subject by themselves, will be those who don't know how ignorant they are.

    *I'll note that P.J.O was writing in those ancient days when news organisations were rich enough to actually have a military expert based in Washington. In today's much more constrained news media things can only be worse.

  6. May 25, 2018bean said...

    That’s not a bad description of part of the problem, although it’s not all of it. Connell wasn’t the only one pushing this view, and some of the people doing so are people who on paper really should have known better. I’ll single out Pierre Sprey for particular shame on this, as he appears to have just been an actual luddite. Well, the real shame is on those who hired him, and continued to treat him as a defense analyst.

    But yes, a lot of it is the size and complexity of the defense world. I don’t think it’s impossible to get a grasp of a lot of the picture, but it takes years. I’ve been a defense enthusiast since grade school, and it often shows in how quickly I understand things at work. But I’ve been doing this for the better part of two decades now, more than a little obsessively. Does this mean that I know better than the US military on everything? Absolutely not. There’s lots of areas I don’t know, and I’ll defer to their judgement on them. There are areas I am willing to challenge the party line on, like the LCS, and I feel I’m on reasonably firm ground there.

  7. May 26, 2018Mike Kozlowski said...

    ...Connell should meet Edward Luttwak, who has been writing on defense matters since 1972, and shows little sign of shutting up anytime soon. His book 'The Pentagon and the Art of War' notably hammered the DOD (and deservedly in some cases) for buying things that didn't work, but he saved his real wrath for three weapons systems that he was convinced would be useless in any actual conflict: the Patriot SAM and the Air/Sea Launched Cruise Missiles.

    As it turned out, he was slightly off the mark.

  8. May 26, 2018bean said...

    but he saved his real wrath for three weapons systems that he was convinced would be useless in any actual conflict: the Patriot SAM and the Air/Sea Launched Cruise Missiles.

    That's pretty hilarious, particularly singling out Tomahawk as one of the systems. I can think of few weapons that he could have picked in that timeframe which would have more convincingly persuaded me to only buy that book to laugh at.

  9. May 29, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    I've seen some indications that the popular misconception that the Maginot Line alone was supposed to make France invincible was started, not by postwar Francophobes, but by prewar French propagandists. If this is true, it fits interestingly with doctorpat's PJ O'Rourke quote--it would suggest that "Look at this big impressive line of fortifications, and just forget about the rest of the border" is a somewhat accurate description of the military politics of the Maginot Line.

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