Never Say "Never," But "Never Start A Land War In Europe" Sounds Pretty Reasonable Right Now
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"Never fight a land war in Asia” is a weirdly realistic fourth wall–breaking line in William Goldman’s fantasy novel and movie The Princess Bride. It has been attributed to the hard-earned wisdom of Douglas MacArthur, who told President Kennedy, “Anyone wanting to commit ground troops to Asia should have his head examined,” which apparently evolved into the pithier Princess Bride version.

Starting a land war in Europe in the 21st century might seem less daunting because the size of armies has shrunk massively since the 1980s. What’s the worst that can happen in absolute terms when you commit only 190,000 men to an invasion?

On the other hand, in relative terms, the lethality of 2020s war seems high for armored invaders.

The traditional military rule of thumb is that attackers need a three to one advantage over defenders. Occasionally in military history, technological-organization innovations, like the blitzkrieg, allow attackers to wrongfoot defenders through mobility and achieve big advantages and selected breakthroughs.

But is 2022 one of those years?

Consider the anti-tank rocket, which was invented by space rocket pioneer Robert Goddard in 1918. During WWII, U.S. troops used a stovepipe-looking “bazooka” to shoot unguided rockets at tanks. The term “bazooka” was highly popular with small American boys, although the weapon didn’t yet work well enough to have much effect on the war. General Patton saw it as a short-range weapon of last resort to be used by infantry being overrun by tanks.

On the other hand, the Germans captured an American bazooka and refined it into the more effective Panzerschreck. But, still, rockets didn’t play a massive role against tanks in WWII.

As so often the case with 21st century military technologies, it was WWII Germans who first invented guided antitank weapons, but then couldn’t exploit them on a mass scale, what with a war going on.

In the 1950s, France introduced the first effective wire-guided missile: one man shoots a rocket, which unspools behind it a wire, while his partner, using a joystick, guides it by signals via the wire to the target. This second job takes well-trained and brave men willing to risk themselves to cannon or machine-gun fire while facing the enemy tank. But it can have a huge effect, as the Israelis discovered in the first days of the 1973 Yom Kippur war when they lost hundreds of tanks to well-trained and brave Egyptian infantry.

Since the Cold War, fire-and-forget modes have been added, allowing one man to aim, fire and then scuttle away to safety while the robot missile stays locked on to the target. Fire-and-forget mode lets antitank missiles be used effectively by a less well-trained and less brave single infantryman.

Another innovation is for the rocket to be propelled out of the launcher before the main motor launches with a big flame, which gives non-target enemies at angles a harder time figuring out where to shoot back. Also, it allows you to shoot from inside of, say, a building with less risk of setting your structure on fire.

Recent innovations in aiming intelligence include allowing firing without seeing the target at all, with the robot missile flying around until it sees what looks like a tank.

In response, tanks have added better armor, including heavy “reactive” side armor that explodes outward upon contact, disrupting the strike. So some modern missiles have two warheads, a smaller initial one to trigger the reactive armor, then the main shaped charge to do the dirty work.

Some modern weapons, like the Javelin, start out flying level, then rise up to drop down to attack the tank on its more lightly armored top.

Tanks are hardly defenseless against these innovations. For instance, the Russians have developed an Arena active protection system that fires explosive missiles back at anti-tank missiles headed for the tank.

In the future, unmanned drone tanks will likely be introduced.

But, in general, right now it doesn’t seem like a good era to be a man in a tank. At some points in the past, it was not uncommon for most of a tank crew to walk away from a disabling strike. But I don’t have a good feeling about the fates of the three poor bastards inside Russian tanks in 2022.

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