Self-evident to civilians, still debatable to generals 15 years later

MilPub had a topic on how armies marched into the First World War doctrinally unprepared, despite experiences made with the new smokeless propellant firepower weaponry in the preceding 15 years.

In this light, something else struck me deeply: An ordinary lexicon of technology and its auxiliary sciences published in 1920 featured a summary of artillery experiences made by the German army in the First World War, and concluded

"Für Geschütze der leichten Artillerie, welche in den Nahkampf eingreifen sollen, wird in Zukunft völlige Panzerung und der Kraftzug unbedingt notwendig sein. Dies führt zur Tankartillerie."

("Complete armour and motorisation will be an absolute necessity in the future for guns of the light artillery which shall intervene in close combat. This leads to a tank artillery.")

This basically declared the infantry gun obsolete and declared that assault guns as they appeared in the Second World War would be a necessity.

The author may have had first-hand experience and may actually have been an officer during the war, but he certainly was not an active duty high-ranking officer of the army's artillery branch at the time of the writing.

Yet, despite this civilian's conclusion of 1920, a 1935 memorandum of then-Colonel von Manstein is famous to this day, for he argued for the need to introduce assault guns in it. A later meeting with generals showed that at least one old guard general still believed that horse-drawn infantry guns would suffice.

Eventually, infantry guns proved useful-enough in indirect fires, useful (albeit risky) in some direct fire applications and totally insufficient for keeping  up direct fire HE support for a long or rapid advance in most terrains.

So how could it be that a conclusion that was casually stated in a civilian book (not focused on military affairs) was rehashed 15 years later by an officer corps prodigy and then pushed as an innovative, modern concept that still needed some effort to spread in the army?

I have a hunch that the biggest progress we could make in the sciences in the 21st century could be the discovery of how to make and keep large, old institutions innovative and agile as start-ups. I might be wrong about that, of course. Maybe 22nd century?



  1. When I worked in a start up innovation happened with limited resources to solve problems. Institutions are usually not under similar constrains, but can lobby for additional resources to solve problems in established ways or accept failure if these aren't forthcoming. The difference is not accepting failure despite insufficient means for established approaches. That's a general problem I encountered in all bureaucracies, they have set ways and unlimited means, while start ups see themselves with limited means and unchartered ways. Changing that in practice might require outside pressure that forces to acquire competencies despite meagre resources. Israel or Finland would be prime examples of having a military under such conditions.
    Where do you see a situation that forces Germany to adopt such a mindset?

  2. "So how could it be that a conclusion that was casually stated in a civilian book (not focused on military affairs) was rehashed 15 years later by an officer corps prodigy and then pushed as an innovative, modern concept that still needed some effort to spread in the army?"

    To be fair, you have the same problem in larger civilian organisations or larger companies. Look at some of the large carmakers, producers energy generators....


  3. Capitalists are luddites. Goes to my prejudice I suppose, but especially in military procurement I cant entertain much beyond it. Personal greed on the part of the uniformed rats I suppose, but that is never going to change.

  4. Afterwards every ensign is always a field marshal. But during or before an event, it is much more difficult to foresee what will actually be necessary, even if this seems obvious in retrospect. Before that, it's just not obvious and much more difficult to predict.

    One example could be tanks in general. In the interwar period, infiltration dominated every military-scientific investigation, while tanks did not play such a major role, although their value and their future role were "obvious".

    Same today. It is immensely difficult to come to the right decisions beforehand, not only because you will not use the information available although it is actually obvious (you do not recognize it and/or ignore it), but also because opinions count more than information. This is actually a pretty good continuation of your previous article on opinions (Opinions are worthless). Opinions are not worthless, they are instead of the outmost (negative!) importance.

    People in decision-making positions have a certain opinion. And this alone counts. This applies to start-ups as well as to petrified bureaucracies. So when you ask how you want to be more innovative, the really crucial point is that you have to base your actions on information rather than personal opinion.

    In principle, this is not the case even with start-ups. They are only more innovative because they represent a new opinion and that is precisely why so many start-ups fail (most of them fail) because for them their opinion is more important than the real information in all decision-making processes.

    So we would have to move away from opinions and towards an actual orientation based on valid information. But to do this in practice is immensely difficult, as it goes against the genetically programmed functions of human brains. The brain itself will always prefer opinion as an abbreviation and simplification. That is why nothing will change in the 22nd century. So the one wins who can at least as far as possible suppress decisions based on mere opinions. That won't be us.