Modern war requires not only modern weapons, but modern organization and tactics as well. Soldiers and commanders must be able to not only fight in cohesive units using combined arms, but plan and supply their operations as well.
However, in the Arab world, militaries have yet to understand this reality. In conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq even the best equipped Arab militaries have failed to achieve their goals. Even with hundreds of modern battle tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops, wars between the Arab states are almost without exception, bloody, long, and inconclusive.
This was brought to my attention a few days ago (on Twitter of all places) and the discussion led me to two articles by the Council on Foreign Relations(ArabsatWar_Intro (1) and the Middle East Forum.
While these articles explain the reasons why Arab armies continuously fall short of their western counterparts, they leave out are the implications of these shortcomings. This is what I intend to correct.
In the Arab would, many political and military leaders seek to fragment army leadership in order to prevent any one commander from forming a political power base. This fracturing is also intended to keep various religious and sectarian factions at bay, staving off coups and maintaining the current regime.
Different divisions are also separated between elites and non-elites. The Golden Division in modern Iraq or the Republican Guard in Saddam-era Iraq are good examples.
In war this fragmentation creates problems working across services or even the same divisions not present in western armies. The damage to the military’s effectiveness is severe. Different units simply don’t coordinate well with each other, or even with different combat arms (i.e infantry, artillery, tanks). The more complex the unit, the less effective it is.
These problems are amplified by a fundamental lack of understanding of how modern weapons are supposed to be used. One of the most obvious examples of this is something I like to call “Lonely Tank Syndrome”; the practice of Arab armies using armor alone, without infantry support in a way almost reminiscent of heavy cavalry.
From the tank’s conception it has always been meant to accompany dismounted infantry as a breakthrough and fire support weapon. This combination creates a mutually supporting and protected unit capable of modern fire and maneuver tactics. If the two are broken up they become extremely vulnerable.
This lack of understanding in regard to armor has had devastating consequences on the battlefield in Syria. Despite possessing between 700-1600 T-72s, and thousands of T-55s, T-62s and BMPs at the start of the war, the Syrian Arab Army’s ineptitude resulted in the loss of 1800 armored vehicles in the first two years of the war. By the end of year three, nearly 60% of Assad’s T-72s main battle tanks had been lost.
A Pervasive Problem
These doctrinal failings are not only limited to Syria, but pervasive throughout the Arab world. From the Sinai to Yemen, Egyptian and Saudi armies simply leave tanks out in the open, unsupported. This tactic of using tanks, either as static bunkers or as shock cavalry, was even attempted in Iran-Iraq war,and yielded similar results; as did using unsupported infantry in human wave attacks.
In the Arab world coordination occurs very rarely, not only between tanks and infantry but with other combat arms and branches as well. No coordination between air and ground forces is present at the strategic or tactical level. Close air and artillery support is non-existent. Instead, Arab fire support tends to consist of either a preliminary bombardment (think battle of the Somme) or indiscriminate bombings of civilian populations (think Dresden). This means there is no fire and maneuver at the division or brigade level, with the air force essentially fighting a different campaign than the ground forces altogether.
This was exemplified in the initial offensives against Aleppo in 2015 following the Russian intervention. The Syria troops were unable to coordinate with Russian and regime airstrikes or artillery. Surrounding Aleppo and pushing ISIS out of Palmrya required Russian troops and extensive close air support from Russia helicopters.
In addition to tactics, supply, maintenance and logistical problems also dominate in the Arab world. In many cases, Arab armies neglect these necessities to the extreme. In Iraq and Saudi Arabia, logistics and maintenance is often outsourced to foreign contractors. Supplies are lost to corruption and sometimes never make their way to the troops.
This deficiency results in an inability to wage prolonged or far reaching offensive operations. Take Iraq’s war against ISIS for example. Despite the fact that ISIS frequently abandons villages without fighting, because of the Iraqi army’s logistical incompetence they cannot exploit ISIS’s retreat. The Iraqis take months to build up for offensives. Even then, they can only manage one short attack at once.
Dictatorship, Bad Leadership and Over-centralization
Rigidity and over centralization of command at higher levels is also an issue. As a product of dictatorships, monarchies, and endemic corruption, Arabs commanders follow orders to the tee. Innovation is discouraged and there little ability to react to changes on the battlefield. Politics tends to override military decision making.
Leadership in the lower ranks is sub-par as well. Officers tend to hoard information for the sake of prestige and avoid admitting mistakes out of pride. Non-Commissioned officers are treated and trained poorly and cannot effectively lead units. This means units have a tendency to disintegrate during combat because they lack cohesion and leadership.
In many circumstances the soldiers are poorly educated, and focus on rote learning rather than actually understanding equipment and tactics. At this level too, when the plan fails, there is little will or ability to react and adapt.
This rigidity makes offensive and mission tactics (Auftragstaktik) impossible. Generals and lower level officers simply are not allowed the kind of autonomy, training or logistic support needed to conduct modern mechanized warfare. The troops also lack the competence and training to use such tactics at the company or squad level.
What this means it that while nations in the Arab are procuring some of the most advanced technologies foreigners can sell them, their military organization, doctrine, logistics and culture lag far behind. 1915 Europe is roughly where most Arab states seem to operate militarily, while the political, cultural and logistical situation appears to be closer to 1618.
The results are Arab militaries incapable of fighting modern wars because they don’t understanding of how modern weapon should be utilized. Arab armies then, are incapable of using the modern mission, maneuver, or combined arms tactics that allowed the west to break the stalemate of trench warfare.*
Most Middle East wars quickly turn into slogging matches. Even with advanced technology, states like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Assad’s Syria are incapable of fighting decisive campaigns. Offensives are slow and limited. Even when the number of troops climbs into the hundreds of thousands like in the Iran-Iraq war, it just degenerates into stagnation and slaughter.
Neither can Arab nations supply troops in 200 kilometer offensives like the Americans and Russians. Nor can they maneuver to encircle enemy armies or bypass strong points. What this leaves are head on assaults and sieges as a means to resolve battles. because of this, wars in the Arab world tend be more like limited 17th century, pre-Napoleonic wars of Europe than modern warfare.
This style of war is a product of a culture created by dictatorships and dominated by corruption and pride along with a fundamental misunderstanding of how a modern war should be fought. It is a deep problem that persists throughout the Arab world.
Put this inefficient and ineffective style of war into a region filled with religious, tribal sectarian and national conflicts and you have a recipe for perpetual war in the Middle East.
*This stalemate of course, was created the fast firing artillery and repeating weapons that the Arab nations have been procuring since the the 1940s.