Warfare has been around for as long as recorded history. And those involved in wars have always been on the lookout for weapons or innovations that would give them the edge over the enemy.
In this month’s ‘Top Ten’ we look at ten military innovations that changed the face of warfare. Ten achievements that were game changers.
The critical invention that allowed the construction of light, horse-
The chariot, with a driver and an archer armed with a composite bow, revolutionised warfare after 1700 BC.
A common tactic was for a line of chariots to approach the enemy until they were within archery range. The archers would then fire volleys of arrows at them. If the infantry charged, the chariots could quickly turn and retreat, with the archers still able to fire.
Some armies made use of a scythed chariot. The scythed chariot was a modified war chariot. The blades extended horizontally for about one meter to each side of the wheels. The chariots were normally driven by four horses and had a driver and two warriors for protection. They would charge in an extended line, cutting down the enemy with the scythes.
Chariots were expensive, clumsy and prone to breakdown, yet these weapon systems were used for centuries. They were not replaced by horseback riders until the first millennium BC, making these weapon systems the early foundation for cavalry.
It was Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, that introduced the sarissa, a long spear or pike about 4-
Made from tough and resilient cornel wood, the sarissa was a heavy spear, weighing in the region of 5,5 to 6,5 kg.
It had a sharp iron head shaped like a leaf and a bronze butt-
The bronze material of the butt-
The weapon had to be wielded with both hands due to its sheer size and bulk. This meant that only a 60 cm shield, suspended from the neck, could be used to protect the left shoulder.
Complicated training ensured that the phalanx wielded their sarissas in unison, swinging them vertically to wheel about, then lowering them to the horizontal.
Their tight formation meant that the phalanx created a wall of spears that were so long that there were five rows of them projecting in front of the front rank of men. Even if an enemy managed to get past the first row, there were still four more rows to stop him.
The Macedonian phalanx was considered invulnerable from the front, except against another such phalanx. The only way it was ever generally defeated was by breaking its formation or outflanking it.
The first sailing ships were most likely Egyptian and existed around 3000 BC or earlier. They were used on the River Nile, which was ideal for primitive sailing vessels. The winds on the Nile are usually from the North. So if they wanted to go South they just raised the sails on the double mast. If they wanted to go North they just lowered the sails and drifted with the river’s current. It was through these early sailing ships that the navy was born.
Produced from the 13th to the 18th centuries and commonly used in Northern Europe, Viking longboats were clinker built boats. They were sturdy, long and slender with a large square sail, making them swift and capable of long voyages. By 1200 AD this type of ship was used by militaries throughout Northern Europe. The skeid, which means ‘that which cuts through water, were larger warships, consisting of more than 30 rowing benches.
The technology of the sailing warship developed from 1775 to 1862 and required little extensive research and there were few new developments. Sails, ropes and guns would eventually become the main components of this military weapon system, and timber the most basic and vital component. Timber was available in abundance in most countries.
Once upon a time all you needed was a strong castle with towers and thick walls, surrounded by a moat and a drawbridge, and you were sorted.
Then as early as the 12th century the Chinese went ahead and invented the cannon. Suddenly castle walls were not that safe anymore. By the 1350s the cannon was used extensively in Chinese warfare.
It wasn’t long before the cannon made its appearance in Europe and the cannon took on its classic form at the beginning of the 17th century and remained almost unchanged until the mid 19th century when it was superseded by the breech loading rifle gun.
At first cannons were immobile and it took time before the development of the two-
This development led to the formation of a new service within the military and the artillery joined the ranks of the cavalry and the infantry.
The cannon was a shock weapon that was usually used in mass and its placement was critical.
A volley of cannon fire at charging infantry and cavalry could be devastating. They were vulnerable to cavalry that managed to flank them or charge the from the rear, making their powerful fire useless.
Yet it was the cannon that made the once powerful fortresses and castles obsolete.
Later developments would make artillery a valuable part of any modern-
A machine gun is best described as “a fully automatic firearm that loads, fires and ejects continuously when the trigger is held to the rear until the ammunition is exhausted or pressure on the trigger is released.”
The first successful machine gun designs were developed in the mid 19th century.
The Model 1862 Gatling gun had a relatively high rate of fire and more importantly mechanical loading. The weapon was adopted by the United States Navy.
These early machine guns were still powered by hand. This changed with Hiram Maxim’s idea of harnessing recoil energy to power reloading in his Maxim machine gun.
The Maxim machine gun used the recoil power of the previously fired bullet to reload rather than being hand-
Maxim’s gun was widely adopted, and derivative designs were used on all sides during the First World War. The design required fewer crew and was lighter and more usable than the Nordenfelt and Gatling guns.
First World War combat experience demonstrated the military importance of the machine gun. The United States Army issued four machine guns per regiment in 1912, but that allowance increased to 336 machine guns per regiment by 1919.
Machine guns became categorised into light machine guns (LMG), medium machine guns (MMG), and heavy machine guns (HMG).
Light machine guns act as squad support weapons, require only one man to operate, and can be carried on patrols.
Medium and heavy machine guns are normally crew-
Medium and heavy machine guns can also be mounted on vehicles or aircraft.
Some modern machine guns have come a full circle, going back to the Gatling gun’s use of multiple rotating barrels.
The General Electric M134, commonly known as the Minigun, can fire up to 6,000 rounds per minute without overheating.
If ships were such an innovation, that how about a ship that could travel undetected underwater?
Although experimental submarines had been built before, submarine design only really took off during the 19th century.
Submarines were first widely used during World War I (1914–1918), and now figure in many navies large and small. Today there are 41 countries that make use of submarines as part of their navy.
During World War II, Germany used submarines to devastating effect in the Battle of the Atlantic, where it attempted to cut Britain’s supply routes by sinking more merchant ships than Britain could replace.
By the end of the war, almost 3,000 Allied ships (175 warships, 2,825 merchantmen) had been sunk by U-
Military uses for submarines include attacking enemy surface ships (merchant and military), attacking other submarines, aircraft carrier protection, blockade running, ballistic missile submarines as part of a nuclear strike force, reconnaissance, conventional land attack (for example using a cruise missile), and covert insertion of special forces.
In September 1954 the first nuclear submarine was commissioned and these days a number of navies have nuclear submarines.
Some of these submarines are attack submarines, while others are missile boats capable of launching nuclear missiles.
Perhaps no military weapon system has provided as much flexibility on the battlefield as the employment of paratroopers. Certainly no weapon system has been so spectacular.
Shortly after World War I General Billy Mitchell proposed that parachuting troops into combat from aircraft could be effective on the battlefield.
During a demonstration of his concept at Kenny Field in San Antoine, Texas, six soldiers parachuted from a Martin bomber and safely landed. Less than three minutes after exiting from the aircraft they were on the ground, had their weapons assembled, and were ready for action.
Although US military observers dismissed the concept, not all of the observers came to the same conclusion. The German observers eagerly grasped the idea and their military planners worked quickly to establish a military parachute organisation.
The Germans developed their airborne forces and at the start of World War II they used parachute troops in their spearhead assaults in Holland and Belgium. Spurred by the successful employment of airborne troops by the Germans in the invasion of the Low Countries, US military authorities began an all-
From the paratroopers of Operation Overlord who first secured the flanks of Normandy’s landing beaches, to the mass drops of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne and the British Parachute Regiment that formed part of Operation Market-
The paratrooper can drop into areas inaccessible to regular soldiers. They can thin an enemy’s defences by forcing them to protect areas that would normally be safe by virtue of geography.
On 17 December 1903 a few kilometres south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina the Wright brothers made the first powered flight.
Balloons were one of the first mechanisms used in air warfare. Their role was strictly recognised for reconnaissance purposes. They provided humans with the first available method of elevating themselves well over the battlefield to obtain the proverbial “birds-
The first decisive use of a balloon for aerial observation was performed by the French Aerostatic Corps using the aerostat l’Entreprenant (“The enterprising one”) at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. The following year, during the Siege of Mainz an observation balloon was employed again. However, the French military use of the balloon did not continue uninterrupted, as in 1799 Napoleon disbanded the French balloon corps.
Eleven years after the Wright brothers had made their first flight, the world was at war. And the aircraft would play its role.
At first the aircraft were unarmed and used for aerial reconnaissance and observation. Enemy pilots would pass each other in the sky, often greeting or saluting each other.
Then someone had the bright idea to take a revolver with them and take a few shots at the opposition.
Soon machine guns were being mounted and the aircraft become a weapon system.
The sky became filled with flimsy aircraft performing a fascinating but deadly aerial ballet that became known as ‘dogfights’.
If a pilot managed to shoot down five enemy aircraft they earned the title of ‘ace’.
The Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Flying Corps) had Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, with 80 kills.
The French air force, Aéronautique Militaire, had René Fonck with 75 kills. The United Kingdom’s Royal Flying Corps had Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock with 61 kills.
The aircraft had come into its own.
World War II saw the rapid development of the aircraft as a weapon system. Not only were there fighter aircraft that could reach heights in excess of 12,000 metres and travel at speeds of more than 700 km per hour, there were large four-
Before the end of the war the first jet engine fighters were in service.
During the Korean War between 25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953 jet fighters engaged in combat for the first time.
Aircraft have become a vital component of any modern day military organisation and gaining air supremacy over the battlefield is considered a must.
If both ships and aircraft rated among the top military innovations, then what about a combination of the two?
We’re not talking about a flying ship here, but rather a seagoing airbase. In other words, an aircraft carrier.
Only seven years after the flight of the first heavier-
On 14 November 1910, Eugene Burton Ely took off in a Curtiss pusher airplane from the deck of a United States Navy ship, the cruiser USS Birmingham anchored off Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia.
Two months later, on 18 January 1911, Ely landed his Curtiss pusher airplane on a platform on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay. On 9 May 1912, the first airplane take-
Early in World War I, the Imperial Japanese Navy ship Wakamiya conducted the world’s first successful ship-
The first carrier-
The development of flattop vessels produced the first large fleet ships. In 1918, HMS Argus became the world’s first carrier capable of launching and recovering naval aircraft.
Launched on 24 September 1960, the USS Enterprise (CVN-
Modern day aircraft carriers are typically the capital ship of a fleet, as it allows a naval force to project air power worldwide without depending on local bases for staging aircraft operations.
As of August 2018, there are 41 active aircraft carriers in the world operated by thirteen navies.
No other weapon system has changed the face of warfare more than nuclear weapons.
Building on scientific breakthroughs made during the 1930s, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada collaborated during World War II, in what was called the Manhattan Project, to counter the suspected Nazi German atomic bomb project. In August 1945, two fission bombs were dropped on Japan, standing to date as the only use of nuclear weapons in combat. The Soviet Union started development shortly thereafter with their own atomic bomb project, and not long after that both countries developed even more powerful fusion weapons known as “hydrogen bombs”.
The first test of a fission (“atomic”) bomb released an amount of energy approximately equal to 20,000 tons of TNT. A modern thermonuclear weapon weighing little more than 1,100 kg can release energy equal to more than 1.2 million tons of TNT.
Since the first atomic bomb was tested, over 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted in over a dozen different sites around the world.
While modern nuclear weapons make the atomic bomb look like a firecracker, the atomic bomb makes this list by virtue of the fact that the bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the only two instances of nuclear weapons being used in combat. Let us hope and pray that this remains the case.