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Lessons From The Last War – Predicting The Next War

Eado Hecht

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Eado Hecht is a member of Military Operations’ Editorial Advisory Panel.
Hecht, Eado, “Lessons From The Last War – Predicting The Next War”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 2, Fall 2012, pages 23-26.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”
Niels Bohr


One of the most important tools in preparing for war is the development of a theory of how that war will be fought, then the development of a doctrine to teach one’s army how to fight it. This entails two separate but complimentary processes. The first is to study past wars to reveal the inner workings of the phenomenon and how various factors affect the result. Some of these factors are more or less stable; some are dynamic. The second requirement is therefore to predict how the dynamic factors will change in the future, and how these changes will affect the interplay between the relevant factors.

This article will recount, in brief, two tales of rival armies which conducted these processes and reached completely different conclusions; and then fought out those conclusions against each other. In each tale conventional wisdom is that one army got it right and the other got it wrong; one predicted the future, the other tried to fight the last war. I will endeavour to show, in the limited space available, that in each tale the true moral is more elusive.

A Tale Of Two Armies

Germany’s victory over France in May and June 1940 gave birth to a myth. In one corner, the story goes, the progressive military thinkers of the German Army had studied the lessons of the First World War and correctly analyzed the development of emerging technologies. They then gradually dragged their colleagues, albeit screaming and kicking, in the right direction: producing the correct doctrine for future war. In the other corner, the hidebound military thinkers (or non-thinkers) of the French Army had not bothered to do the same, had ignored the sagacious few in their ranks who saw the future clearly, and therefore posited a future war no different than the last. On the victorious side a forward-looking army; on the other an army fighting the last war. The result of the confrontation was, ostensibly, pre-ordained.

The truth is less clear-cut. Both the French and the Germans had trawled the history of the First World War for lessons applicable to the future. Both had studied emerging technologies and attempted to divine their effects on these lessons. Yet each had reached diametrically opposite conclusions.

The French had begun to study the use of armoured vehicles as a possible solution to modern firepower in 1903. They had pioneered the tank design that would become the basis for all tanks to this day, the Renault 1917. They had manufactured more tanks than any other combatant in the First World War, and had successfully operated them in a series of battles. They concluded that the heyday of this weapon was past.[i] This was not because they were fighting the last war. Tanks were considered to have been instrumental to achieving victory in that last war. It was because they were studying emerging anti-tank technologies and had concluded that the race between tanks and anti-tank weapons favoured the latter for the foreseeable future. Firepower had been the arbiter of First World War battles and tanks had provided only temporary relief from this grim fact. So, if tanks could no longer charge through fire-swept battlefields on their own, they, like the infantry before them, needed someone else to protect them as they attacked. The only solution was to lead the way with the huge creeping barrages that had enabled French infantry to cross no-man’s land by suppressing enemy machine-gun fire. The same barrages would now be used to suppress enemy anti-tank gun fire. The ‘fly in the ointment’ was that dependence on artillery firepower meant tying the speed of attack to two factors. The first was the snail’s pace of the rolling barrage during the day, the maximum advance being dictated by the range of the guns. The second was the similarly slow pace of forward displacement of the artillery every night and the clumsy, heavy chain of ammunition supply.

Only after the enemy’s defences had been broken through could the armour and truck-mounted infantry dispense with most of the artillery and accelerate their advance to exploit success. In theory, if the enemy unwittingly left a gap in his defences, French forces could skip the breakthrough phase and go directly to the exploitation. However, given the multi-million armies that would be mobilized for the war, French doctrine developers assumed that such gaps would not exist until late in the war, when one side was worn down by continuous attrition. Alternatively, it would be an anomalous opportunity born of an unpredictable mistake, and therefore not something they could base their doctrine on. French offensive operational and tactical art was therefore deliberately sluggish. It was based on: gradually studying the enemy in order to determine the relative weak points in his defensive deployment (‘relative’ because even these points were expected to be strong); accumulating an overwhelming fire-superiority at those points; and then slowly grinding through the enemy with firepower. The attack, exclaimed French doctrinal manuals, is ‘firepower that advances’[ii] and was possible only if firepower had broken the enemy’s resistance[iii].

In the opposite corner, the German Army, studying the very same information on the last war and emerging technologies, concluded that the arbiter of future warfare would not be firepower but rather speed of manoeuvre. Germany’s only chance of achieving victory against the surrounding military powers was a short war. It could not win a long war of attrition. Breakthrough had been achieved successfully by the German army in 1918 by new tactics: a combination of new infantry assault-group techniques and new artillery techniques, not new technology. The new tactics had not produced an operational-level victory because the Germans had lacked a fast-moving force to exploit the breakthrough towards the enemy’s strategic rear before he had recovered and re-closed the front.[iv] The tank merged the capabilities of the assault-group and the artillery on one platform and provided the missing factor of speed. Anti-tank weapons would be defeated by swamping them numerically with fast-moving tanks firing during short halts. An armoured division would concentrate all its hundreds of tanks in some twenty waves on a front 2 to 4 kilometres wide at most. Given that the effective range of anti-tank guns was approximately only 500 meters the Germans assumed that the small number of guns facing the 300 to 400 tanks in each division would manage to destroy only a few tanks before being overrun. Meanwhile, the air force would delay enemy reinforcements and provide fire support if needed.[v] The armoured divisions would then rush to the enemy’s operational or strategic rear, depending on the situation. They would surround the enemy army in preparation for a modern Cannae or causing its political leadership to ‘throw in the towel’ in order to save its political and economic infrastructure from harm.[vi]

Ostensibly the conquest of France in 1940 proved the Germans right and the French terribly wrong. However, the continuation of the Second World War provides a slightly different picture. The German Army continued to accrue victories until 1942, by which time its opponents had gradually accumulated more and more anti-tank weapons and tanks, and had learned to recognize and plug the weak points that had previously beckoned German thrusts. The French had under-estimated the number of anti-tank guns needed per enemy tanks: they had placed only 2 to 10 anti-tank guns per kilometre of front. In 1943 the Russians placed 30 to 70 anti-tank guns and dug-in tanks per kilometre of front to a depth of some 20 to 30 kilometres. The German ‘Citadel’ offensive reverted into a First World War-style slogging match with Second World War technology: there were 50,000 German and 250,000 Russian casualties in 6 days.[vii] The Germans were not blind to battlefield trends. They tried to neutralize them by manufacturing better-protected tanks and by increasing the proportion of infantry and artillery units to tank units[viii], but strategically it was too late: their offensive strategy had lost steam. They were now locked into a long defensive war against enemies with superior resources. Now it was the turn of their enemies to find a way to pierce the German defences. Their solution looks familiar: fire-power. As long as the Germans managed to maintain continuous well-manned fronts, Allied breakthrough battles at El-Alamein, in Tunisia, in Italy, in Normandy and on the Russian front were all planned and conducted, as the French had predicted, at the pace set by the artillery; though using improved fire techniques and aided by airpower. Gradually, as the French had predicted, the German army was worn down in enormous battles of attrition; breakthrough battles became shorter; gaps were found, and sometimes exploited. A comparison of the tactics employed by the relevant armies with French pre-war doctrine reveals similarities regarding the dependence on firepower and attrition. Of course none of the Allied commanders declared that they were following French concepts, and it is very likely they were not aware of them.[ix]

To summarize this tale, both armies were right and both were wrong. The determining factor was context. The Germans had developed a doctrine suitable for a specific set of circumstances and, when applied in those circumstances, it had prevailed. The French had developed a doctrine suitable for a different set of circumstances, and when this was applied by other armies in those circumstances it had prevailed. It must be emphasized, however, that even when applied in its preferred situation neither doctrine was perfect. Each contained flaws and needed to be improved and updated. One should not allow the brilliant light of success to blind one to the flaws.

A Tale Of Two Other Armies

Let us jump ahead in time to the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) won a spectacular victory over its numerically superior rivals using blitzkrieg-like tactics. As the dust settled the various armies involved began to analyze the actions in order to prepare for the next round.

In 1967 the IDF had been organized in all-arms formations with an overall preponderance in infantry units.[x] Studying the relative involvement of the separate arms in that war convinced the Israelis that increasing the tank component at the expense of the infantry and artillery components of their army would provide a better return for their limited funds and manpower. Tanks had given ‘a bigger bang for the buck’. Six years later, in 1973, the overall number of tank and infantry battalions in the IDF was roughly equal, but the projected participation of infantry and artillery in actual combat was deliberately reduced considerably.[xi] Infantry was to be used mostly on secondary fronts that did not warrant tank participation or in terrain where tanks were technically limited, such as the mountainous Hermon. Israeli artillery, though partially modernized with new weapons (such as self-propelled howitzers) had barely grown at all. In emergency mobilization plans it was accorded the lowest priority for transport. When the tank guns were insufficiently powerful, the IDF expected to receive support from its air force. This was despite Israeli Air Force warnings that such support would be available only after a few days’ struggle for air superiority against rival air force and air defence systems.

The Egyptians had reached dramatically different conclusions. They understood that they were markedly inferior in mobile combat in general, and in tank-to-tank and air-to-air combat in particular. They believed they were incapable of closing those gaps in the foreseeable future. They therefore developed in a completely different direction. First, when preparing for the next war, they planned a limited offensive. It was designed to surprise the Israelis, catch them in a situation of numerical inferiority, advance a short distance and then dig-in behind greatly enhanced anti-tank and air defences based on the latest Russian technology. Their aircraft would be used sparingly in hit-and-run raids. Tanks would be used only in favourable circumstances, and then also cosseted by artillery, infantry and anti-tank units.[xii] In 1967 Egyptian anti-tank guns and tanks were deployed at a density of approximately 25 per kilometre of front to a depth of 4 to 6 kilometres. In 1973 the anti-tank weapons and tanks were deployed at a density of approximately 20 per kilometre to a depth of 3 to 8 kilometres. Ostensibly this was a reduction in anti-tank firepower, but in 1967 the Egyptians had deployed 1945-era weapons against an Israeli mix of post-war tanks, whereas in 1973 the Egyptians deployed 1960s-era weapons against an Israeli arsenal that had grown in size but was technologically the same. The effective range of Egyptian weapons had nearly trebled, so that unengaged weapons located to the flank or farther in the rear could augment those in the path of the Israeli tanks. Furthermore, in 1967 the Egyptians had a very few outdated personal anti-tank rocket launchers. In 1973 they saturated their infantry units with up-to-date RPG-7 launchers, adding another 20 short-range anti-tank weapons per kilometre of front. Additionally, because the new anti-tank guided missiles were more portable than anti-tank guns, they could be moved quickly to concentrate them at the required location.

During the first few days of the 1973 war, Israeli tank units counter-attacking Egyptian forces that had crossed the Suez Canal were decimated. The first armoured division on the scene lost two-thirds of its tanks in the first 18 hours of fighting. Another armoured division, entering the fray on the third day, lost about a third of its tanks within a few hours. The third armoured division, attacking on the fourth day, lost nearly a quarter of its tanks. The Egyptian offensive was delayed but reached most of its initial territorial objectives.[xiii]

As with the Germans and the French, conventional wisdom is that the Egyptians had properly studied the future whereas the Israelis had tried to fight the last war. However, again, a closer look reveals this to be less than accurate. The Israelis were certainly guilty of hubris, expecting the Arab armies to flee when faced by almost any Israeli force, no matter how numerically inferior. In the initial counter-attacks on October 6th 1973, solitary Israeli tank companies attacked entire Egyptian brigades! On October 8th 1973 a single under-strength division was expected to defeat three reinforced Egyptian divisions. However, they did eventually defeat the enemy with a tank-heavy force as they had planned. Minor adjustments to battle drills proved sufficient to regain combat effectiveness. A tank-heavy counter-offensive broke through the Egyptian anti-tank defences, crossed the Suez Canal and forced Egypt to request a ceasefire. It was more a question of recovering from the initial surprise, mobilizing the entire force and conducting operations according to the IDF’s official doctrine, as developed after the 1967 war, rather than requiring a new doctrine. For example, although tank battalions had both organic self-propelled mortar platoons and armoured-infantry companies, battalion commanders tended to ignore them.[xiv] Indeed, if the IDF had been constructed with more infantry units and fewer tank units, as some critics have argued, it is likely that Egyptian gains and Israeli casualties would have been greater. In manpower terms, one more battalion of infantry would have meant three fewer battalions of tanks. This would have entailed a massive reduction in mobility, firepower and area of control for a given number of men. IDF post-war analysis concluded that the days of the tank were not yet numbered, but it required more and closer combined-arms support. From 1973 to 1978 the IDF tank and infantry forces were roughly doubled in size (another lesson of the war was that the IDF was not big enough); but the artillery arm was increased 2 ½ times. Mortar units in the tank battalions were better integrated in training. Tank protection was improved with reactive armour, and the new Israeli Merkava was designed with better protection. All these improvements were tested in the 1982 war in Lebanon. Once again the IDF conducted a tank-heavy operation, even though the terrain in Lebanon is mountainous and densely populated. There were faults and failures, but in general it was proven that even in this terrain the IDF’s doctrine was workable.[xv]


This article has tried to show that indeed, as Niels Bohr argued, it is very difficult to predict the future; and the future is not a single pre-determined path. Therefore even a correct prediction can turn out to be wrong in a particular scenario. This is true especially in war, because the enemy is also predicting the future, studying your predictions and deliberately trying to foil your plans. It has also tried to show that studying the past, though essential for learning lessons and evading past failings (à la Santayana), is fraught with pitfalls. Even assuming that all the relevant information is available, lessons are always contextual and the exact context in which a lesson is relevant must be defined if we are to apply it in the future. So perhaps the true lesson is the need for a flexible doctrine that enables one to prepare for multiple options.[xvi] The problem with this solution is that a jack of all trades is a master of none. No army, not even the richest, can fully prepare for every eventuality. However, an army well-trained in the basics of the military art and well-schooled in the experience of past wars and the writings of the theorists, can, even if it chooses a particular prediction to focus on, respond quicker when theory meets the hard wall of reality. It can adapt itself more rapidly to that reality as it is revealed on the battlefield.


[i] See the French 1937 doctrinal manual: Instruction sur l’emploi tactique des grandes unites, especially pp 17–18, 44–48.
[ii] Ibid, p 69.
[iii] Ibid, p 71. For a detailed account of the development of French doctrine from 1919 to 1939 see: Doughty, R.A., The Seeds of Disaster – The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919 – 1939, Archon Books, 1985.
[iv] Germany’s first post-war Chief of Staff, von Seeckt, thought to use cavalry and motorized troops for this mission. See: Seeckt, H. von, Thoughts of a Soldier, E. Benn Ltd, 1930, pp 81–107.
[v] See: Corum, J., “The Luftwaffe’s Army Support Doctrine 1918 – 1941”, The Journal of Military History January 1995, pp 57, 64; Corum, J., The Roots of Blitzkrieg, University Press of Kansas, 1994, p 154.
[vi] See, for example: Chef der Heeresleitung, Truppenführung – H. Dv. 300/1 (1er Teil) (1933); H. Dv. 300/2 (2te Teil), 1934. For an English version of the previous manuals see: Condell, B. & Zabecki, D.T. (ed & trans.) On the German Art of War: Truppenführung, Lynne Rienner Pub., 2001; Guderian, H., Die Panzertruppen und ihr Zusammenwirken mit den anderen Waffen, 1936; Guderian, H., Achtung Panzer – The Development of Armoured Forces, Their Tactics and Operational Potential, Duffy, C. (trans.), (London, 1992, original German: 1937); Jentz, T.L., Panzertruppen: The Complete Guide to the Creation & Combat Employment of Germany’s Tank Force 1933-1942, Schiffer Military History, 1996; Jentz, T.L, Panzertruppen 2: The Complete Guide to the Creation & Combat Employment of Germany’s Tank Force 1943-1945, Schiffer Military History, 2000.
[vii] Glantz, D. & House, J.M., The Battle of Kursk, University Press of Kansas, 1999.
[viii] Jentz, 1996 and 2000.
[ix] See, for example: Bellamy, C., Red God of War: Soviet Artillery and Rocket Forces, Brassey’s (UK) Ltd, 1986; Bidwell, S., Gunners at War: A Tactical Study of the Royal Artillery in the Twentieth Century, Arms & Armour Press, 1970; Bidwell, S. & Graham, D., Firepower: British Army Weapons and Theories 1904 – 1945, Leo Cooper Ltd, 2004; Ellis, J., Brute Force – Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War, Viking, 1990; Hastings, M., Armageddon – the Battle for Germany 1944 – 45, Pan Books, 2005, especially pp 85-93, 170-171; Perret, B., Through Mud and Blood – Infantry/Tank Operations in World War II, Robert Hale Ltd, 1975.
[x] For the Israeli Order of Battle on June 5th 1967, see: Carta’s Atlas of Israel: The Second Decade 1961 – 1971 (Hebrew), Carta, 1980, p 56.
[xi] For the Israeli Order of Battle in October 1973 on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts see: Carta’s Atlas of Israel: The Third Decade 1971 – 1981 (Hebrew), Carta, 1983, pp 48, 49, 74. The Lebanese and Jordanian fronts were defended exclusively by an undisclosed number of infantry units.
[xii] For more details see: El-Badri, H., El-Magdoub, T., Zohdy, M.D., The Ramadan War 1973, T.N. Dupuy Associates, Inc, 1979; El-Gamasy, A.G., The October War, The American University in Cairo Press, 1993; Shazly, S. el, The Crossing of the Suez, Amer Mideast Research, 1980; Asher, D. The Egyptian Strategy for the Yom Kippur War: an Analysis, Macfarland, 2009.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] For a typical Israeli viewpoint of the tactical conduct of the war and some of the lessons to be learned see: Herzog, C., The War of Atonement, Greenhill Books, 1998. The IDF has not yet released its official histories and analyses of the war to the public.
[xv] For a description of the IDF in Operation ‘Peace for Galilee’ see: Gabriel, R.A., Operation Peace for Galilee, Hill and Wang, 1984.
[xvi] See for example: Finkel, M., On Flexibility: Recovery from Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield, Stanford Security Studies, 2011.