2009/06/17

Politically incorrect. Today: Fire

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The employment of fire (flames, not shots) in combat is so much politically incorrect that barely anyone ever dares to talk or write about it.

Flamethrowers (as of the classic definition) are totally out of fashion.

Rightly so, because we can crack pillboxes much easier, quicker and with less risk with bazooka/Panzerfaust-type weapons. There are even dedicated anti-bunker weapons of that kind and a few examples that use an incendiary instead of a blast or shaped charge warhead.


Nevertheless, I'm disappointed that the flamethrower has been so badly distorted in conventional and institutional memory.

The normal image of a flamethrower is what we can see in a few movies; a flame weapon, used by remorseless troops, awfully burning soldiers (at times even its user).

That picture isn't accurate, and this is a tiny piece in our overall neglect of important art of war insights: The flamethrower was less a killing or wounding weapon than a tool.


Flamethrowers were used for several purposes other than inflicting burns:

* smoke
Every burst of flame had a very imperfect combustion and therefore a lot of black smoke (thickened, longer ranged fuel produced less smoke). This was often used to conceal movement because smoke grenades were in quite short supply in both world wars.

* material destruction
Fire can easily ruin material. A flame thrower often replaced explosives for the demolition of broken-down vehicles and other equipment. It was also very practical for the removal of heavy vegetation for better field of view/fire.

* more smoke
It's possible to create a lot of smoke by setting a forest on fire. Again; smoke shells were often in short supply.

* most important: break the enemy's will
That's the purpose of most wars, and the most terrifying weapons are best at it (on the tactical level).
Often times it wasn't necessary to wound or kill anyone. A flame burst OVER a pillbox/bunker was often enough - the occupants surrendered. That's actually MORE humane than blowing them up.
Some are stubborn, of course. Well - the alternative ways of dying in war aren't exactly humane either, after all.


The Russians use the word 'flamethrower' (well, the Russian word for it) for bazooka-type and artillery rocket weapons with incendiary and/or thermobaric warheads. Those still have some psychological impact, but a very different one. They should be considered as something completely different than classic flamethrowers - for technical and tactical reasons.

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The non-physical, morale element - breaking will - is usually neglected.
We should really look much more at these things (what terrifies best?) because terrifying people is better than killing or wounding them - and keeps them from killing or wounding our troops (suppressive fire - also often neglected in discussions about weapons).


Being terrifying to hostiles is GOOD. That's how deterrence works, that's how suppression works - that's how surrender works and that's how you win. Scare them.


Flamethrowers are outdated, but we shouldn't allow that our military loses its scariness. It's supposed to be scary (to hostiles).
Arms limitations are founded on a nice basic idea, but these actions should always take into account that our military needs to scare the shit out of potential and actual hostiles.

Sven Ortmann

edit: I forgot to mention that offensive combat in hilly terrain (like the Sicily campaign) can be made quite easy if you dislodge defenders by burning down the vegetation. Well, this works until the defenders burn the vegetation in advance.
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1 comment:

  1. The point seems good, and I like your 'practical' point of view.
    On a tactical level, of course, unmatched scary or unusual weapons can seriously influence morale of the enemy.
    But for example in WW1, lots of new scaring weapons (flame throwers, poison gases and the first tanks among them) didn't change the shape of trench warfare too much...

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