The Wheel and War

Many people today think of technology as something that has influenced how war is fought only during the last few generations. However, technological advances are as old as man himself, and from the wheel to today’s hypersonic missiles, they have been quickly applied to warfighting.

The wheel was a stunning advance rapidly used for war chariots and on wagons for supply trains. As early as 1800 B.C., the Hittites were using chariots in battle, and the famous Hyksos invasion of Egypt around 1650 B.C. was led by charioteers. The Egyptians learned from that disaster and developed their own chariot force. The chariot wasn’t quite the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, but it was a highly mobile platform for a driver and an archer or two.

Advances in metallurgy radically changed warfighting. Bronze weapons and armor rendered those made of wood, stone, and leather obsolete. New empires rose and old empires fell.

By about 1200 B.C., metallurgy in the Near East had advanced to the point where iron could be smelted, which required a far higher temperature than that needed to create bronze. Weapons made of iron made those of bronze obsolete, and again empires rose and fell. The Hittites were producing iron weapons as early as 1500 B.C., which gave their empire two hundred more years of life and made them a rival of Egypt during the New Kingdom’s peak of power.

In 1274 B.C., the legendary pharaoh Ramesses II assembled a massive army and marched north through Canaan into Syria, intending to push Egyptian borders north to modern-day Turkey. At the Battle of Kadesh, though, in one of the greatest punch-outs in ancient history, the iron-armed Hittites stopped the Egyptian advance and forced Ramesses to withdraw to the southern end of Canaan.

A surprise to most today, the knights of Saxon England didn’t fight on horseback but on foot. Typically, they arrived at the battlefield on horseback but then dismounted. Wearing heavy armor and lacking the stirrup, fighting while mounted was impossible. They were shocked and routed when invading and heavily armored Norman knights, equipped with the latest advance in equestrian technology—the stirrup—could remain firmly planted in the saddle during the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Although the Chinese developed gunpowder during the 10th century, the weapons they produced during the next two hundred years remained primitive, mostly flaming arrows, firebombs launched by hand, and small explosive charges catapulted at the enemy. It wasn’t until the 13th century that gunpowder was used as a propellant. By the end of the century, the Chinese were producing small handheld cannons.

Gunpowder technology arrived in Europe late in the 13th century. Europeans did not take long to invent firearms. The Battle of Crecy in 1346 saw the use of small-caliber handheld firearms and larger primitive cannons. The arquebus, a primitive long gun with a matchlock firing system, came into general use in Europe during the 15th century. Heavy and unwieldy, it was better for defending a position than attacking.

By the early 16th century, the more reliable wheel lock ignition system replaced the matchlock mechanism on firearms. By the middle of the century, the flintlock system was beginning to replace the wheel lock. During these same years, the arquebus was evolving into what would be called a musket. Though its barrel was still smoothbore and fired a round ball of lead, the musket packed enough powder, had a large enough caliber to penetrate armor, and was fairly accurate up to 75 yards. It became the standard firearm for European armies.

In the American colonies, a far more accurate version of the musket was developed when spiral grooves were cut into the inside of the barrel. This rifling caused the ball of lead to spiral out the end of the barrel, resulting in a gyroscopic effect and a more unerring trajectory. Although rifling was invented by the Germans early in the 16th century, this new technology was brought to perfection in the American colonies during the 18th century in what was popularly called the Kentucky Rifle—which was produced not in Kentucky but in Pennsylvania by Pennsylvania Dutch gunsmiths, who were not Dutch but German.

The Kentucky Rifle changed the course of the American War for Independence. Timothy Murphy was the most deadly marksman of all, reared on Pennsylvania’s western frontier in an Irish immigrant family. At the Second Battle of Saratoga, Murphy sniped British Gen. Simon Fraser, who was astride his horse more than 300 yards away and thought safe from American fire. Aide-de-camp Francis Clerke galloped up to call for a retreat, only to be dropped from the saddle by another deadly round courtesy of Murphy. The loss of two commanding officers from two shots fired from a seemingly impossible distance so unnerved the British troops that they broke ranks and began a pell-mell retreat, resulting in a stunning American victory. The unexpected victory caused the French to join the war in support of the Americans, which was critical for the ultimate American triumph.

Technological developments also affected the high seas. By the early 16th century, ships had circumnavigated the globe and sea power had become the wave of the future, one that England would ride to global dominance during the next two centuries.

America found that a strong U.S. Navy was needed for merchants to conduct trade on the high seas, a reality reinforced by Barbary Coast pirates and the War of 1812.

Nonetheless, American leaders were slow to build a world-class navy until Alfred Thayer Mahan made the case in 1890. A highly respected naval geopolitical strategist and the president of the Naval War College, Mahan convincingly argued that England had created an empire by taking advantage of the latest technology for ships and navigation to build a fleet second to none.

An admirer and friend of Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt became an advocate of a powerful navy. He would do everything in his power to implement Mahan’s naval strategy.

Battleships remained critical until World War II, when it became clear during the first year of the war that aircraft technology had advanced to the point where a handful of planes could disable or sink the most powerful of vessels. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942 was the last of the great ship-to-ship punch-outs. Most battles on the Pacific’s high seas would be carrier plane versus carrier plane or carrier plane versus ship.

If ships became vulnerable to airplanes attacking from above, they also became vulnerable to submarines attacking from below. Navy submarines and the torpedoes they fired saw such rapid technological advances during WWII that by the middle of 1945 they had virtually cleared the Pacific of Japanese merchant vessels. Altogether, American subs sank more than 1,100 Japanese merchant ships. The subs also sank over 200 Japanese warships. Airplanes and submarines changed the nature of naval warfighting during that war and were relatively inexpensive to build compared with the ships they destroyed.

We are again in the midst of a sea change in the nature of naval warfighting. The U.S. Navy’s most modern aircraft carrier, Gerald R. Ford, recently completed her shakedown cruise and first deployment. Ford is a magnificent ship. She should be. She cost $18 billion. She may already be obsolete. Despite all of her high-tech electronics and weaponry, the development of hypersonic missiles with highly advanced guidance systems will mean one missile worth $15 million can disable or sink one $18 billion ship. Add billions more in losses of the fighter jets that would typically be aboard, on top of Ford’s complement of 4,500 sailors. One missile: all gone.

Defense against hypersonic missiles is virtually impossible, especially because they can now be launched from submarines. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles are maneuverable and can quickly change course in flight. Even if a ship’s radar identified an incoming hypersonic missile at the limits of the radar’s capability—about 115 miles—that would give the ship no more than 90 seconds to take defensive measures. What if three missiles were launched simultaneously from three submarines and were incoming from three directions?

We know that Russia, China, and the U.S. are all in the hypersonic missile race. Russia invested heavily in hypersonic missile research in the 1980s when it was still the Soviet Union. At the moment, the Russians are winning the race. They have not only equipped ships, submarines, and planes with hypersonic missiles but have also used them in battle. In March, a Russian plane launched a “Kinzhal” hypersonic missile at a weapons storage site in western Ukraine. The missile didn’t have a nuclear warhead, but the Russians have plenty of hypersonic missiles that do.

According to U.S. intelligence sources, China has conducted hundreds of hypersonic missile tests since 2016. The tests have resulted in at least one type of hypersonic missile being added to China’s arsenal of weapons.

America may be ahead of China but is probably behind Russia in hypersonic missile development. The U.S. can already launch hypersonic missiles from the ground and the air, and the Navy is now testing launching them from the deck of a ship.

Like the wheel, bronze, iron, the stirrup, gunpowder, guns, rifling, navigational instruments, airplanes, and submarines, the hypersonic missile is about to change warfighting dramatically, perhaps causing the demise of the Navy’s carrier fleet and its air wing—which is what America has used to project power since WWII. There’s no question that a surface fleet, especially carriers and planes, will still have vital functions to perform, but if it comes to war among major powers with thousands of hypersonic missiles ready to launch, then a pilot lifting off a carrier deck would look anachronistic, like something belonging in the 20th, not the 21st, century.

We may long for the romantic and heroic days when acts of military derring-do were performed by Medal of Honor recipients, but it looks like the future belongs to the ugly, impersonal, and utilitarian high-tech hypersonic missile.

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