Weapons That Changed the Way War is Fought


Humanity fought its earliest wars using fists, clubs, and rocks. At some unknown point in time, a forward-thinking adversary learned to propel rocks towards the enemy through the use of a sling. Later improvements in military efficiency included edged weapons, and the use of spears, flung with the force of a strong arm. Smaller spear-like projectiles used the flexibility of yew wood and the strength of leather to be launched towards their target. Each advance, as it were, allowed attacks upon the enemy from a greater distance, rather than assault and hand-to-hand combat.

As weapons evolved, so did the means by which they were employed and countered. Bladed weapons were countered with shields and armor. Body armor remains a feature of 21st century combat troops. Strategy and tactics evolved to better take advantage of modern weaponry and to counter its effects on the battlefield. The latter itself changed, expanding to ever increasing areas of conflict. Each advance has been followed by others superior to it, a trend throughout history which continues today. Here are 10 weapons which changed the manner in which war was, and still is, fought around the world.

10. Gunpowder

Ironically, gunpowder first appeared in 9th century China as a formula for medical use. First created by alchemists in the futile search for the elixir of life, medicinal uses of gunpowder were limited. But its use as a weapon was self-evident, as a means of starting fires. During the Song Dynasty, in the early 11th century, the use of gunpowder as an incendiary rather than an explosive appeared, documented in ancient texts of the time. Fire arrows became both an offensive and defensive weapon. About two centuries later, explosives in the form of bombs appeared. By the late 13th century, Chinese hand-held cannons were a feature of the battlefield.

The Mongols introduced the Europeans to gunpowder by deploying their weapons against the them. Quick to learn, by the 14th century the Europeans had improved the quality of gunpowder and safety during its manufacture, by introducing the process of wet grinding the ingredients, then air-drying the mixture. By the onset of the Age of Discovery in the late 15th century gunpowder weapons dominated the battlefields of Europe, and during the Spanish conquest of New Spain they proved invincible against the natives of Mesoamerica. By the way, contrary to popular belief, gunpowder does not detonate as do high explosives. Instead, it burns quickly, a process known as deflagration, generating gases which act as a propellant.

9. Rifles and rifled bullets

For several hundred years, gunpowder weapons forced projectiles down the length of smooth bore barrels. Because the barrel was smooth, and the projectile did not fit snugly within, it bounced about on its journey to the muzzle. This erratic motion continued during flight, and smoothbore weapons were inaccurate beyond relatively short distances. Rifling, the adding of helical grooves to the barrel of a weapon which impart spin upon the projectile, first appeared in the 15th century, invented in Germany. Unfortunately, the corrosive nature of the gunpowder of the day caused early rifles to foul after just one or two shots, a problem which remained for decades.

The increased accuracy offered by rifles did not impress the military brass of the 17th and early 18th century. Their tactics relied on the massed volleys of hundreds of smoothbore muskets, rather than accurate long-range fire. Wars in colonial America and India changed that view. Both artillery and infantry became more deadly when equipped with rifled weapons. Ranges increased, and the penetrating power of rifled guns changed naval warfare. During the American Civil War, the minie ball, a bullet which gripped the sides of a smoothbore musket, imparting spin, proved the deadly effect of rifled weapons in the hands of infantry. Rifles necessitated the need to change tactics on the battlefield on land and sea, changes which occurred slowly as hardened military mindsets ignored science in favor of tradition.

8. Automatic weapons

Gatling guns, repeating rifles, automatic pistols, and the machine gun emerged in the late 19th century, and the generals and admirals commanding troops and ships once again faced the need to change the manner in which battles were fought. The machine gun, embedded in fortified positions, allowed a small team of men to command an area which formerly required scores of men to defend. Massed columns of infantry advancing towards them were at their mercy. The trench warfare of the First World War emerged largely because military commanders at the time were unable to adequately respond to the volume of fire their troops faced in combat. Their solution was to dig in, and the war became a long and bloody stalemate.

Automatic weapons made the advance of infantry in densely packed marching order obsolete. Infantrymen learned to advance in squads or platoons, from shelter to shelter, covered by those following them. They then provided cover for the trailers, who advanced in turn. The step by step approach to eliminate enemy positions dominated ground tactics in the Second World War, and continued in the numerous conflicts which followed. Modern armies equip virtually all of their infantry with fully automatic weapons, creating firepower which dictates the manner in which they engage in combat with their counterparts in the armies of their enemies.

7. The airplane

Aerial observation of the enemy’s movements began in Europe during the French Revolutionary Wars. Balloon observation of enemy positions featured in the American Civil War, the Crimean War, and the Franco-Prussian War. In 1914, a new means of observing the enemy, the airplane, appeared in Europe. It wasn’t long before observers were shooting at each other, with handguns, rifles, and specially mounted machine guns. The introduction of the synchronized interrupter gear converted the airplane to a weapon capable of destroying other airplanes, as well as strafing targets on the ground. Aerial bombs soon added to the aircraft’s repertoire. By 1916 the airplane presented arguably the deadliest weapon on the Western Front.

Before World War II erupted a new term entered the military lexicon. Control of the air became the critical factor concerning military operations, both on land and at sea. Strategic bombing to destroy enemy industry and infrastructure became an important part of military planning. Tactical bombing hindered troop movements, supply, and defensive formations. Fighter aircraft wrestled for control over the skies, considered essential prior to the launch of major operations. Control of the air remains a major concern of military planners, and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future.

6. Radio communications and radio-controlled weapons

Before the advent of radio on the battlefield, commanders relied on messengers to and from combat units to deliver orders and receive reports of conditions at the front. Numerous means of conveying information over distances, such as semaphore signals, often found themselves obscured by heavy smoke. They also had the disadvantage of being seen and read by the enemy. Some armies used carrier pigeons to deliver information, by necessity their messages were short and often cryptic. At sea, signal flags relayed orders between ships. They too, were often obscured by the smoke of battle. Sometimes the angle of the wind rendered them unreadable to some ships of a fleet.

Radio changed that, offering commanders direct and real-time information, and a means of delivering orders to respond to changing conditions. Armies became more flexible in the field, able to respond instantly. Field commanders could request and receive artillery support, air support, or reinforcements. By the end of World War II, experiments with radio-controlled weapons began to deliver on their promise. Radio controlled proximity fuses made anti-aircraft shells and eventually anti-ground artillery more accurate and deadly to the enemy. The radio-controlled artillery fuse received credit from no less than George Patton as the weapon which won the war in Europe.

5. The submarine

At the beginning of World War I, the submarine’s reputation among the world’s naval professionals was dubious at best. Considered as mainly a scouting vessel, suitable for coastal defense, its use as an offensive weapon, particularly during submerged attacks, was considered unseemly. Then the Germans nearly brought England to its knees through its U-boat campaigns. The same occurred during the Second World War. In the Pacific, American submarines sank more than half of all ships lost by the Japanese Empire during the war. By the end of World War II the submarine had gained the reputation of being a primary strike weapon by all the navies of the world.

Submarines continued to evolve during the Cold War, with nuclear power, advanced weaponry, and increased stealth technology. By the 1980s, submarines could launch weapons against targets on land and sea, track enemy movements, monitor communications, and deliver assault teams to shore. Although relatively few navies operate nuclear powered submarines, improvements in batteries and propulsion systems provided alternative technologies to produce submarines which compete against the nuclear fleets. The submarine remains a weapon changing the way war is fought, and will be fought in the future.

4. Remotely piloted vehicles (drones)

The US Army developed the first pilotless flying bomb, the Kettering Bug, during the First World War. Though it flew successfully in experiments, it never reached the battlefield. For one thing, senior Army generals objected to the idea of an unmanned live bomb flying over their heads while en route to the target. Nonetheless, remotely operated vehicles continued to be an area of interest to the militaries of the world, including Hitler’s V-1, and the US Army and Navy’s Operation Aphrodite. Aphrodite was a project designed to deliver explosive packed B-17 and B-24 bombers to targets, with the aircraft operated remotely via radio control. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the elder brother of President John F. Kennedy, died during testing of the Aphrodite concept.

Research into remote controlled vehicles continued during and following the war, by no means limited to aircraft. Undersea submersible drones, ordnance disposal drones, remote-controlled tanks and anti-tank weapons, drones for clearing minefields, and others were developed and deployed. Through advanced communications networks, they can be operated from thousands of miles away, monitored in real time by their operators. Soldiers and sailors participate in combat while nowhere near the front lines, if in fact there are any front lines. Several navies developed remote controlled littoral (inshore) combat vessels, which can enter enemy harbors and attack installations without endangering a crew.

3. Nuclear weapons

The atomic bombs detonated over Japan near the end of World War II changed warfare immediately in one simple way. They gave the United States the most powerful military on earth, capable of smashing any nation in a wave of atomic destruction. When that monopoly ended, the bomb, as it was known at the time, again changed warfare. As more and more nations gained the bomb, including the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, its existence served to limit warfare. The threat of international annihilation through all-out nuclear exchange between the major powers prevented the deterioration of global crises into another world war. It even had a name, Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD.

Nuclear weapons created a new type of war between the USSR and its satellites, and the United States and its allies. It was called the Cold War, and it remained in place from the end of World War II until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Cold War led to huge and expensive arms races, extensive espionage operations, a race to control space exploration, and limited armed conflicts, including wars in Korea and Vietnam. All were held in check by fear of MAD. Today, at least nine nations, including India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel, possess nuclear weapons. They are joined by the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France.

2. Long range ballistic and cruise missiles

The first ballistic missiles to be used in warfare were the V-2 rockets launched by Germany against Great Britain near the end of World War II. Rocket technology and many of the engineers and technicians who developed it came to the United States and the Soviet Union in the years after the war. By the late 1950s, intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads became part of the military arsenal of both countries. In the 1960s such weapons were deployed at sea in submarines, virtually undetectable by enemies. The ability to devastate an enemy in a surprise attack from thousands of miles away presented itself.

Cruise missiles, launched from the ground, from aircraft, from surface ships, and from submarines appeared during the Cold War, and their use in warfare demonstrated how they changed its conduct. Cruise missiles sank or heavily damaged British ships during the Falklands War, devastated targets in Iraq during the Gulf War, and struck targets from hundreds of miles away during the Kosovo War. Cruise missiles offer pinpoint accuracy, delivering a variety of types of warheads, and can be launched by operators far outside the enemy’s range of retaliation. Like drones and similar weapons, cruise missiles deliver considerable punch without endangering the lives of those who maintain and launch them against their targets.

1. Cyberwarfare

Imagine a day during which point of sales systems stopped working. ATMs quit dispensing cash. The electrical distribution system failed. Traffic control lights ceased operating. Trains ran out of control, communications collapsed, dams failed, fuel dispensers refused to operate, and the national financial system suddenly lost track of all money and investments. There was no information to be had beyond rumor, because there was no way to transmit or receive it. Such a day is not the vision of an author of a fictional end of days scenario. It is the goal of cyber warriors, and examples of the possibilities of cyber warfare have already taken place. Cyber attacks have been launched by the United States and Israel against Iran, and by North Korea against the American film industry.

Cyber warfare presents the possibility of destroying an enemy’s industry, infrastructure, conventional defenses, and financial systems through the use of software attacks. It is entirely plausible that any nation could suffer destruction of its society without the use of a single explosive, or any overt military action. Global interconnectivity places all nations at the risk of attack simultaneously by cyber warriors, operating clandestinely. Simply put, computer code is a weapon which has already changed the way wars will be fought and won, now and in the future. The threat of cyberattacks makes cybersecurity a critical aspect of national defense for all nations across the globe, in a war which is already being fought, though largely unseen by the public.

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