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Warfare in the 20th century I

Written by Sakhal

This article summarizes the key aspects that characterized warfare during the 20th century. During that century military technology advanced so much that it can be considered that the 20th century alone produced a higher diversity of warfare elements than the rest of the history up to the ancient ages.

In the waters of the South Atlantic

In the dawn of the 4th May 1982, the British aeronaval force which had as mission the reconquest of the Falkland Islands took positions east of the archipelago in the South Atlantic. Suddenly, some sparkles in the radar screens indicated the presence of non-identified aircraft which were approaching the fleet near supersonic speed and at low altitude. It was a small formation of fighter-bombers Super Etendard, armed with anti-ship missiles Exocet, of French manufacture, like the aircraft themselves. More than 20 kilometers afar from the British ships, these aircraft from the Argentinean Air Force launched the missiles. One of them descended almost to the level of the waves and, flying at an altitude not superior than two meters and half above the sea, it traveled the large distance that separated it from the fleet, until impacting against one of the destroyers that escorted the aircraft carriers: the Sheffield. In a matter of minutes, this modern unit of the Royal Navy suffered a fire that forced her crew to be evacuated and finally destroyed the ship. In the worldwide public opinion, the report of this incident caused many to reflect about the power of the modern weapons and their impressive capability of destruction. It also produced an impact among military experts... but by reasons well different to the ones that the general public could imagine. Some weeks later, it was known that the Exocet had actually failed. A missile is composed of three basic elements: a propulsion system (generally a rocket engine), a guide system (governed by radio, radar, infrared emissions, television camera, cable, etc...) and an explosive charge. The missile that hit the Sheffield had a correct operation regarding direction and propulsion, but the charge did not explode as expected. If despite of that it was able to sink the destroyer, it was because the flames of the propelling rocket caused a fire inside the ship, after perforating its flank due to the energy produced by the speed of the impact and the mass of the missile. The fire found combustible elements that allowed it to extend along the whole ship. The military lesson of this episode mainly pointed to the inadequate design of the destroyers from the Sheffield class and other modern warships, unable to control a fire of such nature originated inside them. Another lesson was the confirmation that a large part of the ships in the modern navies lacked enough armament to defend themselves from anti-ship missiles. The relative success of a missile such as the Exocet which heads towards its target flush with the waves did not constitute, however, a novelty in the modern armed conflicts.

North of Suez

Already 15 years before of the aforementioned incident it had already been fully demonstrated the operativity of this type of weapon - the missile -. This had happened several thousands of kilometers from the South Atlantic, in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, some kilometers north of the access to the Suez Canal, in front of Egypt. The 21st October 1967, barely four months after the Six-Day War in which the Israeli Army humilliated its Arab neighbors, the flagship of the Israeli Navy, the destroyer Eilat, patrolled at a distance of 14.5 knots (26.8 kilometers) from Port Said, an Egyptian port town. Two minutes after five thirty in the evening, an Egyptian patrol boat of the Soviet class Komar, anchored in the dock at Port Said, launched against the Eilat a missile Styx, of Soviet manufacture as well. The radar of the destroyer had not detected anything abnormal, because the small Egyptian ship was located inside the dock. When Israeli officers perceived that a missile had been launched against them, they immediately ordered an evasive maneuver, but it was already late. The missile exploded in the boiler room, leaving the destroyer without electricity and with a water leak that started to heel the ship. Barely two minutes later, a second missile hit the destroyer, increasing the severity of the damage. The Israeli ship was sentenced. The crew started to evacuate the destroyer and the rescue operation was still unfinished when at seven thirty - two hous after the first impact - a third Styx hit the Eilat. The fire and the internal explosions caused by this third impact provoked, in few minutes, the sinking of the destroyer. With the Eilat - which displaced 1710 tonnes - died 47 crew members and another 90 resulted wounded (from a total complement of 199). The notice caused commotion among military experts in the world. Still remained the echoes of the incident when the Israeli military command took two decisions: the Israeli Navy would not have again a large ship that would constitute an easy prey for the new missiles and the Israeli war industry would develop its own missile capable of hitting other ships by traveling at sea level. In the next Arab-Israeli war - the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 -, the Israeli missile was already operative. It was called Gabriel and it demonstrated to be better than the Styx with which still were equipped the Arabs. In 1983, more than 15 years after the loss of the Eilat, the larger surface ship of the Israeli Navy was just a corvette, equipped with four Gabriel.

The missiles from Hitler's Germany

Still, neither was the Eilat the first warship sunk by a missile. Such dubious honor corresponds to the British small escort ship Egret. It was not hit - like the Eilat or the Sheffield - by a missile traveling flush with the waves, albeit - like the Exocet - it was an artifact launched from an aircraft. The event happened the 27th August 1943, when a German twin-engined bomber Dornier Do 217 E-5 launched a missile Henschel Hs 293 A-1 against the British ship, in the Atlantic French coast. From that moment and until the end of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe effectuated hundreds of attacks with air-to-surface missiles, sinking or damaging dozens of Allied ships of every size. Germany was the only of the contenders that in the last two years of the war used missiles in a systematic way. The effort did not suffice for reverting the result of the conflict, despite obtaining so spectacular successes as the sinking of the battleship Roma, a much more significant episode about the capability of the missiles that the sinking of the Sheffield or the Eilat. Not only beacuse of the date, but because the Roma was a battleship that displaced 46215 tonnes at full load, in comparison with the 4100, in identical circumstances, of the British destroyer or the 1710 of the Israeli destroyer. The Roma was sunk the 9th September 1943, when the bulk of the Italian Fleet - in pursuance of the instructions of the armistice signed with the Allies - abandoned the base at La Spezia to head towards Malta. Soon after three o'clock in the afternoon, a dozen of Dornier Do 217 K started an attack against the Italian ships which traveled in formation. In this occasion the Germans used for the first time a new type of missile, the Fritz X, also known as FX-1400. It was a more powerful model than the Hs 293, weighing 1400 kilogrmas instead of 500, and it could be directed via radio link as well. The Dornier overflied the fleet at 5000 meters, out of range for the anti-aircraft artillery, and launched the missiles. At three thirty, a first Fritz X hit the Roma, but the explosion had no serious consequences for the ship. However, a quarter hour later, two new missiles hit the battleship. The first one completely crossed the ship and produced a column of smoke that raised almost 2000 meters. In few minutes exploded, in sequence, the ammunition storages. Twenty-five minutes after the attack, the Roma broke in two parts and sank. Of the 1948 crew members, 1352 died, among them the Commander of the squadron, Admiral Bergamini, and his whole High Staff. Other Italian ships, including the battleship Italia - ex Littorio, twin of the Roma -, suffered serious damages.

Warfare in the 20th century I

Scheme of the FX-1400 missile, in which can be seen the armored piercing ogive and the warhead containing 300 kilograms of Amatol. Unlike modern missiles, the FX-1400 had such strong ogive because it was intended to perforate the thick armor of the battleships.

The new advances

But the perfectioning of modern weapons was not limited to missiles. A nuclear-propelled submarine can remain submerged during entire months and some models are able to navigate at more than 500 meters depth and at speeds near to 100 kilometers/hour. Combat aircraft can fly at Mach 2, above 2000 kilometers/hour, albeit that capability is barely used during combat. During the Vietnam War, the most used combat aircraft in the American side was the F-4 Phantom, whose maximum speed reached 2.2 Mach (about 2400 kilometers/hour) at an altitude of 12000 meters; however, the analysis of combat records shown unexpected results. In all the years of almost daily combats over Vietnam, no American pilot had surpassed with his aircraft the speed of Mach 1.5 (about 1650 kilometers/hour). Only in exceptional circumstances, equivalent to less than one percent of total flight time, it was surpassed Mach 1 (the sound barrier). The pilots felt more comfortable flying at high subsonic speeds (900-1000 kilometers/hour), with which they could maneuver more easily and, above all, avoid an excessive fuel consumption that could pose problems to return to their bases. On the other hand, ground war headed towards the massive usage of helicopters, which were no longer used only for troop transport or ground attack, but also prepared to fight another helicopters. The apparition in the battlefield of light intensifiers - which could multiply by thousands of times the light produced by a natural source, for example the Moon -, substantially altered night combat. If there were not a natural light source available, it could be used instead a system based in infrared rays, which detects the heat sources (particularly humans and moving vehicles). In comparison with the Second World War, the subsequent decades brought a huge technological leap which significantly altered the usage and relation of forces.


The sea occupies two thirds of the surface of the planet and it constitutes the medium through which it flows at least the three fourth parts of the freight. Despite the progress of the aviation, a navy continues being the fundamental instrument to guarantee a maritime dominance that allows the continuation of commerce. Since immemorial time, the peoples that have known the techniques of naval construction - and have dominated the maritime routes - have extended their dominance upon the neighboring or remote peoples, either by pacific means or by the force of arms. The dominance of the sea is the main task of the surface ships, while the submarines are the weapon destined to negate the enemy that dominance. If during the Second World War the survival of Great Britain relied in the maintenance of the routes on the Atlantic despite the threat of the German submarines, a hypotetical European conflict in later period would have posed a similar problem to ensure the American supplies. It was not casual that the Soviet Union became during the Cold War the superpower with a larger number of submarines in service. Hence, the knowledge of submarines, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, fast boats and assault ships is fundamental to have an exact idea of the modern military power as it grew during the 20th century.

Warfare in the 20th century I

The Soviet Union launched four units of the 28000-ton nuclear-powered Kirov-class cruisers, whose primary armament consisted of 20 surface-to-surface SS-N-19 missiles with a range of 500 kilometers. They were created to be the most powerful surface ships in the world "by their own merits", without the usage of an embarked air wing.

Armored forces

The employment of armored vehicles was one of the novelties of modern warfare, from older models - still in use in dozens of countries decades after their inception -, such as the American M-41, the Soviet T-54 or the French AMX-13, to the most modern ones, such as the American M1 Abrams, the Soviet T-80 or the German Leopard 2. Also worthy of interest are the models used by a sole country, such as the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 - the tank without turret -, the Swiss Pz 68 or the Japanese Type 74. And also the variants of the tanks in service, such as the M60A2, the American tank whose cannon could fire either anti-tank missiles or conventional ammunition. Despite the proliferation of the weapons capable of perforate the protection of armored vehicles, the tank continued being one of the fundamental elements of the ground forces. The last models obtained speeds of about 60 kilometers/hour in cross-country, reaching up to 80 in road. The caliber of the cannons reached up to 125 millimeters and the perfection of their systems allowed to aim them without the need to rectify the firing against targets located more than 1000 meters afar (for example, 1400 meters in the French AMX-30 and up to 2000 meters in the Soviet T-72). The modern armored forces include, basically, the following arms: tanks, self-propelled artillery (of the field, anti-tank or anti-aircraft types), armored personnel carriers (moving on wheels or tracks) and armored reconnaissance vehicles.

Warfare in the 20th century I

The M1 Abrams was the first third-generation tank manufactured by United States. It featured novelties like composite armor and turbine engine, and of course, a complete set of electronics and optronics to see first and hit first the enemy.

Warfare in the 20th century I

The Soviet anti-aircraft system ZSU-23-4 "Shilka" demonstrated to be one of the most effective in the world. It consists of a lightly armored vehicle with a rotary turret, armed with four 23-millimeter cannons and equipped with radar fire control.

Combat aviation

The combat for the dominance of the air was the main innovation of the warlike techniques during the 20th century. In little more than 60 years, combat aircraft passed from a maximum speed of 200 kilometers/hour to more than 3000. Dozens of countries in the five continents ended the century with wide air forces, which would make them able to perform, in minutes, devastating attacks against the territory of their adversaries. Albeit they are not many the countries possessing a sufficiently advanced technology to design and produce their own combat aircraft, the diversity of models operating in the late century would render never-ending a detailed analysis of the characteristics and functions of every one of them. As more missions were being added to the air arm (ground strike, interception, naval aviation, anti-submarine war, transport, electronic or visual surveillance, tanker aircraft, anti-partisan war, etc...) its sophistication has been increasing. Here is a summary of well known models:

The French fighters Mirage, used by more than 20 countries in the world; the American fighter-bomber Phantom, of which some more than 5000 exemplars were built, becoming so the combat aircraft produced in highest numbers since the Second World War; the American reconnaissance aircraft SR-71, one of the models developed with the highest secret, which reached a sustained speed of 3519 kilometers/hour, three times and half the speed of sound; the Soviet attack helicopter Mi-24, widely used in Afghanistan and provided with an armor that allows it to withstand the fire from small caliber weapons; or the American transporter C-5 Galaxy, the largest in the world when it was introduced, which can transport up to 120 tonnes (two or three tanks) and take off or land with the maximum load in barely prepared runways. Some of the last models that entered service in the century are: the French fighter-bomber Mirage 2000 and the European fighter-bomber Tornado; the American fighter-bombers F-16 and F-18, the ground-strike aircraft A-10 and the multi-purpose helicopter Black Hawk; the Soviet ground-strike aircraft Su-24, the supersonic bomber Tu-22M - which became one of the biggest threats for West Europe - and the naval short takeoff and landing aircraft Yak-36.

Warfare in the 20th century I

Armed with six missiles Phoenix, which could be simultaneously fired against as many different targets located more than hundred kilometers afar, the naval fighter F-14 Tomcat was the more powerful aircraft embarked in the American carriers.


Since London knew the scourge of the German Fieseler Fi 103 - better known as V-1 or even "flying bomb" - in the late Second World War, the history of war started a new chapter regarding its tactical and strategic aspects: the era of missiles. These increasingly fast, powerful and intelligent weapons constituted in the late 20th century a fundamental element in the arsenal of any army in the world. Albeit the large strategic missiles did not have, fortunately, a chance to be experimented in the practice, they have been tested in many local conflicts other types of missiles. Not in vain the range of missions that these weapons could carry became extremely wide, as the following enumeration shows: tactical surface-to-surface missiles, strategic surface-to-surface missiles, tactical naval surface-to-surface missiles, strategic naval surface-to-surface missiles, tactical air-to-surface missiles, strategic air-to-surface missiles, terrestrial surface-to-air missiles, naval surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles and anti-submarine missiles.

From the small portable anti-tank systems of few kilograms in weight, to the gigantic intercontinental missiles, the 20th century saw every type of size and destructive power. Some examples are: the Soviet intercontinental missiles with a nuclear warhead of 25 megatons, or the last models with a range of more than 12000 kilometers and fitted with up to ten nuclear warheads per missile; the atomic missiles launched from submerged submarines, such as the American Trident, with eight nuclear warheads and a range of 7000 kilometers; the American anti-radar missile Shrike, which detects the radar emissions from the detection systems of anti-aircraft weapons and heads towards them even if the systems are disconnected; the American anti-tank missile Maverick, which can hit a tank from distances higher than 20 kilometers and is guided by means of a television camera installed in its nose; the cruise missiles, some of which can be fired from submerged submarines, capable of flying at very low altitude during thousands of kilometers, following the contour of the terrain or the sea to avoid being detected; the Soviet anti-aircraft missile SA-5, with a range of about 250 kilometers, or the SA-6, fitted with an engine that allows it to use the oxygen of the air as fuel; the impressive Soviet ABM-1B, the largest anti-missile system in the world, which was deployed around Moscow and would be capable of intercepting and detonating the American intercontinental missiles; the British short-range anti-aircraft missile Rapier, which gave an extraordinary result in the Falkland Islands, or the French Exocet, with which in turn the Argentinean Air Force tormented the British Fleet; the American Stinger or the Soviet SA-7, portable missiles - weighing less than 15 kilograms including the launcher - with which an infantryman could shoot down an aircraft; and, finally, the air-to-air missile Phoenix, installed in the naval fighters F-14 Tomcat and which in certain conditions could destroy another aircraft located farther than 200 kilometers.

Warfare in the 20th century I

Cutaway of the air-to-air missile Phoenix. The nose houses the radar antenna and the explosive charge is located in the center of the missile.

Second part of this article: Warfare in the 20th century II

Categories: Events - 20th Century - [General] - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-01-13

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