September 02, 2002
Siege Warfare

To an American, perhaps to any person living in a completely industrialized society, war is all about movement. We expect huge set piece battles with massive amounts of hardware decisively determining an outcome. The West has fought wars this way for two hundred years, and most of our strategy involves trying to manipulate the bad guy into one of these massive Ragnarok-style apocalyptic confrontations.

But, taken from a longer perspective, these kinds of fights are extremely rare. And, as time passes and situations change, the time between 1802 and 1945, after the development of a controllable, professional army yet before the creation of nuclear weapons, will be seen in the future as an aberration in the standard methods of warfighting throughout human history... the raid and the siege.

In spite of the perception you get from William Shakespeare and Monty Python, medieval (actually all cultures back to the beginnings of agriculture) battles were almost never about giant gatherings of knights and infantry facing off across a field of clover. You weren't supposed to conquer. You really weren't equipped for it.

If you actually did want to conquer the land, take it from one people to give to yours, you had to resort to the unbelievably expensive strategy of siege. Basically you camped outside the walls of a keep or castle (where everyone with any brains had lit out for as soon as they heard about you and your peeps's plans) until you talked your way in, starved everyone inside, bribed the gatekeeper, or, very rarely, managed to overwhelm the defenses.

The advantage a defender had was both powerful and surprisingly simple: time. Until very recently armies were composed of people who had patently better things to do than sit around in muck and drink from a stream being used as a latrine by the guys in the next tent. This could go on for months, even years at a time. If a defender planned his fortress well, he nearly always had enough food and water to hang on until the bad guys got fed up playing "supporating sore of the week", broke up and went home.

This all changed with the invention of the cannon and the rifle. Walls could be knocked down with relative ease using a big-bore cannon, and it only got better from there. Each subsequent technological development allowed fewer people to wreak greater havoc with unheard of speed. Europeans, being the lucky people to synthesize all of these developments first, effectively ruled the world for about two centuries using tactics and strategies that flowed from the end of a gun.

But a funny thing happened on the way to world domination. By first conquering the world and then using the fruits of that conquest to immolate itself not once but twice, Europe created and then spread enough cheap weapon technology to make the naked conquests of the eighteenth and nineteenth century impossibly expensive to any would-be imperial power of the twentieth.

The abject lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan put every world power on notice that basic mechanized weaponry had become simple and self-contained enough that a small, determined, and wiley opponent could hold back an industrialized juggernaut a thousand times its own size. World conquest was simply too expensive to ever be seriously considered again.

The siege had returned, with a vengeance. Satisfying and decisive setpeice battles had been replaced with unwieldy coalitions, which almost literally encircled an opponent in the hopes of starving or forcing them out. And, as before, a defender's most powerful weapon became time. The Gulf War will prove to be to modern warfare what Agincourt was to its medieval counterpart... a rare alignment of wit, will, and weaponry manipulating an arrogant and headstrong foe into playing the wrong game with the wrong toys.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. By denying industrialized nations the ability to unilaterally impose their will on other peoples by force, by making all forms of warfare too expensive to simply start on a whim, the world will eventually become a much more stable place.

However, the events of 9-11 have revealed in horrifically beautiful detail that this stability also allows psychopaths to claw their way to the top of organizations powerful enough to cause serious trouble yet organized in such a way as to be expensive, even impossible to remove. Unfortunately the modern world cannot simply sit back and wait for the inevitable revolutions (that keep not happening) to remove these maniacs from within.

Because with modern germs and modern bombs, we're not talking about one unwashed nosepicker taking his buds out and making a few hundred peasants' lives a little nastier, more brutal, and shorter than their neighbors's anymore.

Posted by scott at September 02, 2002 09:50 PM

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Interesting read. I disagree however. The reason there are no more Decisive battles isn't because of the proliferation of cheap weapons (This just makes that type of battle more expensive) The lessons of Vietnam (And to a lesser extent Afghanistan) were that Politics and public opinion (In the television age and now the information age) now play a larger role in the fighting and conclusion of any war than strategy and hardware. Korea was the precursor to this. Then Vietnam and the various police actions that we became involved in during the early 80ís. The conclusion to the Gulf war also proves this. Even our involvement in Afghanistan post Sept 11th proves this. At any time during the Vietnam War we could have rolled through and kicked the NVA's ass. Politics wouldn't let us. Saddam is still in power because of politics. The Sept 11th attacks were allowed to happen because of politics (They had attacked us before Sept 11th. We didn't go in and blow the snot out of them because public/world opinion would have been against us.) We had a window of opportunity to do almost anything we wanted to as a result of Sept 11th but we let that opportunity slip away (Had we said on Sept 14th that we believed Iraq was involved in the attacks and rolled over them not a country in the world would have lifted a finger to help Saddam.) But as far as the large set piece battles they can (And probably still will) happen (In third world countries or the middle east) but the only way we will become involved in something like that again is if WWIII breaks out (Our weapons technology cancels out any opponent who doesn't have overwhelming numerical superiority against us. We will still take losses but if anybody tried to take us on in a set piece fight they would have to gain air superiority or risk annihilation before they could reach the battlefield and the only nations that have a chance of doing that against us are First world nations or China.)

Posted by: Jeff on September 3, 2002 10:29 AM

Actually I disagree. While it is common perception that the war in Vietnam was lost due in large part to public opinion, this is incorrect. It was lost because of a determined, well-equipped foe who refused to play by our rules, and the tactics they used. Guerilla insurgencies are effectively impossible to defeat as long as they have the support of the common people.

The proof of this was the USSR/Afghanistan experience. The Soviets had no need for anyone's approval, either within their country or without. The only real rule of engagement was to ensure maximum carnage for minimum cost. And yet they lost in much the same fashion we did.

We won the second Afghan war because the Taliban was such a horrific government that *nobody* wanted them. We were also very careful to ensure the support of the local populace whenever and wherever possible, perhaps to a fault. Without these two factors we would've been stuck in the same quagmire as the Soviets twenty years before, with much the same result.

I did not say that set piece battles would disappear entirely, rather that they would become just as rare as they ever were in history.

I still submit the siege is the most valid, and ironic, model for modern warfare. During the Balkan conflict, the opposing army survived largely intact even through intense air bombardment. By placing troops on the ground we flushed their army out, and destroyed them. This is very much analogous to attacking a secondary fortress to force your opponent to sally out of his own and thereby crush him.

Posted by: scott on September 3, 2002 11:05 AM


Your straying into one of those areas that I have done a lot of research on. If the US had had a sound stratagy (Other than lets bomb them for a few weeks then stop and see if they want to give up. Lets not go after there staging areas because they are in a differant country. Lets try to interdict there supplies in the middle of triple canopy jungle instead of where they come into the country. Once we take ground instead of holding it for a few months then leave. Etc) The war in Vietnam would have had a much differant outcome (Look at what the Korean Tiger Division was able to accomplish in Vietnam.) The USSR was under intense internal and external pressure over Afhganistan.

Posted by: Jeff on September 3, 2002 12:40 PM

There were large battles as described in Shakespeare, although you get the impression that everyone was wearing shiny armour and sitting on a horse, whereas infact almost everyone was on foot. A siege would only happen if the defender didn't think he could win, otherwise he would fight in hopes of defeating his assailant - he still has many advantages over the intruding army.

The cannon didn't obsolete the castle, they were building fortifications right up to the end of the Nineteenth Century. Cannon balls are kinetic energy weapons - their velocity is what causes the damage, so they have to travel on flat trajectories. If is possible to build walls that can take sustained cannon fire, although they look very different to the traditional medieval castle.

The explosive shell killed the castle. Shells can follow plunging trajectories - hiding behind a wall offers no protection from shelling.

The First World War is something of a transition - the vast majority of the fighting happens from fixed trenches, which do provide some protection from shells. It's like the whole country has become the fortress.

What really changed things was the Nazi's invention of the doctrines we now call Combined Arms and Mobile Warfare - they had a snappier name, blitzkrieg - the idea was to use the mobility of armoured units to achieve strategic surprise, breaking through defence lines with concentrated attacks (rather than attacking over a wide front) and then moving rapidly through the poorly defended rear areas to encircle the front line troops before the defenders had time to redeploy. This tactic worked amazingly well for the first summer on the Eastern Front, but then the Russians and later the Americans showed they were even better at it than the Nazis.

Since then large-scale warfare has been completely dominated by airpower. It's a bit of a stretch to call the choice to use airpower rather than ground forces a siege.

You can't overlook the involvement of the Soviet Union and China in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts - a situation that is drastically different for modern conflicts. The Balkans and even the Gulf War are also very different to a classical siege - the goal is no longer conquest, but to change the policies of an encumbent regime.

I would have to say that the prospects of seeing a full-on, tanks rolling across the plains conflict seem remote. Even if it happens in the Gulf, it's likely to be over very quickly.

It is possible that guerilla tactics will still work. And of course, anyone who can avoid attracting the Americans (so anyone in Africa, Asia, South America and most of Central America) can carry on business as usual, but can't afford the expensive hardware you need for a really photogenic war.

Posted by: Robert UK on September 3, 2002 01:09 PM

Actually I don't think airpower-as-trebuchet is much of a stretch at all in the combat of the past fifteen years or so. Both position their weapons in a nearly unreachable position to rain objects down on a nearly helpless defender. In the middle ages it was rocks, today it's metal cases full of RDX. Combined with a ground and naval blockade, it looks a whole lot like a seige to me.

I would also submit that to the defeated "change of regieme" looks an awful lot like "conquest". Our troops still patrol the streets in most Balkan towns.

The development of the smart weapon and the strategies and tactics of war-by-proxy throw a mighty dent into this hypothesis of course, but that's a subject for another essay ;).

Posted by: scott on September 3, 2002 01:21 PM

Air superiority over a whole country is quite different to throwing rocks at defenders huddled in a castle, and the response is different to - disperal and concealment rather than concentration and fortification.

To some extent Iraq has been under siege since the Gulf War, but it's not a siege in the sense that if the defenders falter Iraq won't be invaded by the 'beseiging' forces.

I didn't say 'change of regime', I said 'change of policy'. Saddam is still President of Iraq, although he's rethought his policy of abusing Kuwaities. Milosevic is no longer in power, but he was not removed by American force. And the troops are there by invitation - Americans are keener for them to leave than the locals are.

Posted by: Robert UK on September 3, 2002 02:23 PM

I have read all hese messages on seige warfare.
And have found some mistakes in some of these views and opinuns. The Vietnum War wasent declared therefore it is not a war but a police action. And the bes comparison to make for seige warfare are the mongols they practiclly took over euorope, did take russia and held it for 300 years. They tthrew heads into another town thereby crating psycological warfare. And as the japenese created sound warfare by runningatyou with a katana and yellin banzi.

Posted by: Walter Smih (R.D.F) on March 4, 2004 03:21 PM

After reading everyone's opinions, I have to agree that Scott brings up some very interesting points. Siege warfare did give way to quicker types of warfare - mobility, etc. And given today's weapons, that will likely continue to be the major portion of large scale wars. However, guerilla actions will be different. There definitely is an element of siege built in. However, what we see here is a melding of several types of strategies - political and military. Basically, any guerilla force realizes that its strength is in its ability to blend in to the local populace. This is especially apparent in different ethnic groups. However, it also realizes that it can't truly rule a country this way. Therefore, it tends to move towards the possesion of mechanized machinery. Once enough of these are possessed, then they are able to rule. However, our strength is in mechanized and large scale engagements. We've spent hundreds of years preparing for these sorts of wars. We haven't, during that time, really had to do much serious was against guerillas. Jeff is absolutely correct that the Viet Nam conflict was not successful due to political interference. This didn't happen in Desert Storm. Basically, the military needs to have its objectives and limitations outlined. Specifically, something to the effect of 'destroy their entire army, minimize collateral damage' generally works nowadays. In Viet Nam, every single attack was approved by the White House. This was the failure. During Rolling Thunder I and II, we had the North Vietnamese government paralyzed. They said they wouldn't come to the peace talk tables if we kept this up. We relented (absolute idiocy - that isn't negotiating from strength), and see what happened. We didn't relent in Desert Storm - but the politicians decided to hold out and not take Bagdahd. This still did end up resulting in unconditional surrender, however, which was the desired state - therefore, success was achieved, at a minimum of Coalition soldier casualties (and, in fact, a minimum of Iraqi casualties as well).

Given that, we even refined our strategy more due to the advances in weapons, concealment technology, guidance systems, and surveillance technology. Right now, our overall guerilla strategy is to target just the guerillas; educate, feed and, and care for the local populace - winning us friends and informants; and then stabilize the local government and get the hell out as quickly as possible. As soon as you increase the general standard of living, everyone becomes comfortable. Comfortable people don't want to loose that comfort and are therefore more ameniable to your demands - and they play nice with everyone.

Okay - my discussion might have degenerated there at the end, but I'm tired of typing and I need my Starbucks!


Posted by: Ron on March 6, 2004 10:51 AM

Actually, Saddam's "surrender" was a new tactic in warfare, and could still prove to be immensely successful. By surrendering, but refusing to abide by any of the terms of surrender, he threw all the political systems of western civilization severely off-kilter. It's similar to the diplomatic tactics Hitler used against Britain, but in Saddam's case he actually did it from a position of abject defeat, rather than growing power, and this has apparently magnified the effects. While it's still too early to tell what the final results of this tactic will be, the growing divide between people who were for and against the war in Iraq, primarily as a direct result of Saddam's "surrender," is troublesome.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on March 6, 2004 06:54 PM
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