Warriors rode into the 20th century in the saddles of cavalry horses and flew out in the ejection seats of Mach 2 jets. In between, they raised every weapon ever imagined to technological perfection. Leonardo da Vinci’s fanciful plans for submarines and helicopters became as real as rocks. And even the stones David hurled at Goliath received a high-tech spin, reincarnated as the concrete bombs we drop on Iraqi bunkers to minimize civilian casualties.
Of the thousands of weapons that emerged in the past 100 years, three factors truly transformed war from an art to a science.
In the first half of the century, flight added a third dimension to the classic two-dimensional battlefield. Ground attack fighters rendered set-piece battles obsolete. Bombers made the massive fortifications that defined military power in previous centuries curious relics.
On land, tanks transformed the traditional battlefield. With their introduction toward the end of World War I, the strength of an army became less dependent upon the size of a force than upon its mobility. Hitler’s panzers raced around France’s “impregnable” Maginot Line in the early months of World War II. Half a century later, tanks under American command would rout Iraqis from Kuwait in less than 100 hours.
In the second half of the century, nuclear power would play a similar defining role. By eliminating the need for refueling for years at a time, nuclear reactors enabled aircraft carriers and submarines to apply force thousands of miles beyond American shores. Strategic nuclear weapons unleashed so horrific a fury, the mere threat of their use shielded America and its allies until the virus of Soviet communism had run its course. Tactical nuclear weapons, on the other hand, proved utterly useless. Even though their power could be controlled to within a fraction of a kiloton, and the weapon themselves could be delivered within yards, deadly radioactive fallout treated friend and foe alike. And only now are we learning the true cost of these weapons. In the former Soviet Union, the nuclear detritus of weapons testing and manufacturing contaminated hundreds of square miles of land and seabed. In the United States, secret radiation experiments performed on unwitting subjects who included military draftees, prisoners and mentally retarded children soiled the Constitution and mocked the ghosts of those who had died to defend it.
But looking back on this century, the history of warfare is as much a memoir of self-sacrificing soldiers and brilliant generals as it is a story of magnificent machines.
For an elite group of 19th century soldiers, the idea of rising high above the battlefield was more than a flight of imagination. These men were the artillery spotters who fought the Civil War and Spanish-American War suspended in the wicker baskets of hydrogen-filled balloons. In the early 20th century, a German military officer named Ferdinand Zeppelin, who as a young man had gone aloft in a Union Army balloon, set into motion the age of modern air warfare.
Returning to Europe, Zeppelin perfected the rigid airships that still bear his name. By the end of World War I, some 100 of the light-as-a-cloud airships would have bombed France and England.
In the United States, the military all but ignored Zeppelin’s machines. And other than to purchase a Wright Flyer for the Signal Corps, the Army did little to advance the cause of military aviation until almost the eve of World War II, two decades later. Military historians credit observation aircraft with turning the tide in World War I’s decisive Battle of the Marne. Aviators in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps gathered information on German troop movements. This helped British and French commanders plan the counterattack that stopped the invading German army outside of Paris in September 1914.
Within a year, machine gun-equipped fighters took to the sky. Bombing, which had previously been limited to strategic targets such as submarine bases and cities, now moved to air bases and other tactical targets. By 1916, both the British and Germans were routinely using aircraft to bomb each other’s infantry.
Only one American plane, the ungainly twin-engine Curtiss flying boat, would actually see combat in World War I. The Germans, on the other hand, excelled at aircraft development. The Fokker D VII, which became operational in 1918, was the state-of-the-art single-seat fighter. Powered by a 160-hp Mercedes engine, the biplane had a top speed of 117 mph and attacked its opponents with two machine guns. Both sides quickly realized the need for specialized aircraft for attacking troops. The British armored the cockpit and added a pair of downward-angled machine guns to a Sopwith Camel, creating the Sopwith Salamander trench attack aircraft. Germany equipped its Halberstadt CL II with racks of grenades, with especially devastating effect on British forward and support positions during the Battle of Cambrai in the closing months of 1917.
After World War I, the private sector led the way in aviation, with competitions that spurred the development of trans-Atlantic seaplanes, the variable-pitch propeller, larger liquid-cooled engines, aerodynamic cowlings and a host of other improvements. The 1929 National Air Races proved a turning point for military aviation. When the Curtiss biplanes flown by the U.S. Army and Navy were handily beaten by a monoplane, the Travel Air “R” designed by J. Walter Beech, the military withdrew from air racing, and ordered the first monoplane of its own, a Boeing P-26 fighter. In 1935, tile Hughes H-1 incorporated a radical new design philosophy, unbraced wings with a “stressed-skin” aluminum covering that carried stress loads. This lighter airframe, a 1000-hp Pratt & Whitney engine and aerodynamic improvements including flush-riveting, an enclosed cockpit and internally retractable landing gear, enabled Hughes to set a 352-mph speed record.
Lessons learned in air racing inspired the design of the Grumman F4F Wildcat, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, British Spitfire and Hurricane, German Me 109 and Japanese Zero. Further refinements would increase the distance at which fighters could engage enemy bombers and their firepower. By war’s end, the experience of these early fighters would lead to improved aircraft including the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, Grumman F6F Hellcat, North American P-51 Mustang and Soviet La-5 and 7, and Yak-3 and 9.
Infant radar technology placed aboard the Messerschmitt Bf 110 and the de Havilland Mosquito would convert these aircraft into the first true night fighters. Bomber development followed a similar track. In 1931, the Boeing B-9 became the first operational purpose-built bomber. The all-metal cantilever monoplane featured partially retractable landing gear and variable-pitch propellers mounted on 600-hp engines. Traveling at 188 mph, it left biplane bombers in its dust. It would, however, be the Martin B-10, rolled out in 1932, that would set the new gold standard for aerial bombardment and determine the shape of future bombers with an enclosed cockpit and bomb bay. Together, these improvements would contribute to making the B-10 25 mph faster than the B-9, and faster than any fighter in the sky. In 1935, Boeing responded with the four-engine Model 299, the prototype of the B-17 Flying Fortress. Its name came from the addition of a feature pioneered by the French and later used by the British–gun turrets. They provided the bomber with sufficient firepower to fend off enemy fighters until it reached its target. With the development of the Norden bombsight, bombing from 20,000-ft. altitudes became a reality.
Boeing’s B-29 was the most powerful bomber of World War II. When it was introduced into service in 1944, it was the first bomber with a fully pressurized crew compartment, capable of taking crews to 35,000 ft. And it packed its own protection with as many as a dozen .50-caliber machine guns mounted in pairs in remotely controlled turrets. The plane, however, proved most useful when it was stripped of these components, thus making it possible to carry heavier bomb loads across previously unimaginable distances. It would deliver atomic bombs to Japan. From bases in the Mariana Islands, it could firebomb Tokyo 2000 miles away, each B-29 dropping 12,000 pounds of incendiary explosives. On any given mission, scores of B-29s filled the skies.
In the 1920s, British designer Frank Whittle filed a patent for the machine that would evolve into the modern jet engine. As World War II began, the British and Germans were in a neck-and-neck race to put these high-power engines into operational combat aircraft. A German Heinkel HE 178 made the first jet flight on Aug. 27, 1939, although it would not see combat. The British Gloster Meteor became operational on July 27, 1944, and became very good at shooting down German jet-powered V-1 buzz bombs. Two months later, the Germans introduced the Me 262. Powered by a pair of Jumo engines, it could fly 525 mph and attack Allied bombers with four 30mm cannons and unguided rockets. Luckily, it entered service too late to have an effect on the outcome of the war. In the last months of 1944, the Germans also introduced a jet bomber, the Arado Ar 234.
In the United States, General Electric received a British Whittle jet engine in 1941. A year later, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet made its maiden flight, which proved disappointing because it flew slower than existing piston-engine fighters. Lockheed’s legendary Kelly Johnson set to work developing the first practical American jet, the P-80. Although it officially entered service in the last year of World War II, it would not down an enemy fighter until Korea, then designated the F-80 Shooting Star. By then, the competition to develop better aircraft had shifted to a race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The power and reliability of jet engines would lead to steady increases in the speeds, ceilings and ranges of fighters and bombers. By the 1980s, the last major innovation in military aviation in the 20th century, radar-evading stealth technology, would be introduced by the United States, in the F-117A stealth fighter and B-2 bomber.
When the century opened, it seemed certain that there could be no more powerful force on the ocean than the modern battleship. By century’s end, these floating fortresses were as much relics of the maritime past as sails and riggings. Just as it changed land warfare, air power also altered the weapons, tactics and strategy used in attaining victory at sea. The first step took place in November 1910, when Eugene Ely, a civilian pilot, took off from a platform on the deck of the U.S. cruiser Birmingham, in Hampton Roads, Va. Two months later, this time in San Francisco Bay, he demonstrated he could both land and take off at sea, when he touched down on a platform mortared on the quarterdeck of the battleship Pennsylvania, and then took off.
The first U.S. ship specifically designated an aircraft carrier, a converted collier renamed the Langley, was put to sea in March 1922. But even as its conversion was trader way, naval aviators were searching for a better way to attack ships than to drop torpedoes during shallow approaches, which made them highly vulnerable to surface fire. This led to the development of a new high-altitude target-approach technique–dive bombing.
The feasibility of dive bombing, which was made possible by the invention of airbrakes, or flaps that could be extended to add drag, was demonstrated in the 1920s and led to the 1923 introduction of the Curtiss F8C Helldiver. In 1922, the Japanese introduced the first ship designed from the keel up as an aircraft carrier, the Hosyo.
World War II would begin with two startling demonstrations of just how powerful these new warships were. The first, an attack by British Swordfish torpedo-dropping biplanes, destroyed Italian battleships anchored in Taranto in November 1940. Little more than a year later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The following June, the United States and Japan faced off in the decisive Battle of Midway, the first major naval confrontation in which surface vessels never exchanged a shot. After the war, carriers became larger, more heavily armored and, ultimately in 1960, nuclear-powered with the launch of the American carrier Enterprise.
The 20th century saw two fundamentally different types of submarines. The first, diesel/electric submarines, were essentially surface-going vessels that for periods eventually extending tip to several days could operate beneath the sea. In fact, the first issue of POPULAR MECHANICS in January 1902, carried a cover story reporting on this new technology. The designs progressed slowly but steadily over the first half of the century, but remained constrained by one physical obstacle. Like humans, diesel engines required oxygen to breathe.
True submarines, that is, ships that continually operated beneath the sea rather than diving only during attacks, did not come into being until after the perfection of compact nuclear powerplants. The arrival of these amazing machines made the submarine the most versatile weapon afloat. And although the nuclear sub’s arsenal was far smaller in physical size, it was actually a more powerful weapon than an aircraft carrier.
Nuclear submarines divided themselves into two distinct categories. Strategic submarines, known in the United States as “boomers,” carry arsenals of nuclear-tipped weapons. Attack submarines carry weapons to take out boomers and surface vessels.
Throughout the Cold War, boomers provided the stealthy leg of the nuclear triad that shielded the United States and its allies. If Air Force silos were destroyed before they could launch their missiles and B-52s and B-2 bombers were knocked down as they penetrated Soviet airspace, it was up to the boomers to reduce Mother Russia to a glowing cinder.
The first true strategic submarines in the U.S. fleet, George Washington-class boats, were put to sea in 1959. Each carried 16 Polaris missiles with a range of 1200 nautical miles. Eight years later, in 1967, the Soviets introduced their Yankee-class submarines armed with 16 SS-N-6 missiles, with roughly comparable range. By 1982, the Soviet Union’s submarine technology had advanced to the point where its Typhoon-class boat, measuring nearly the length of two football fields, could carry 20 SS-N-20 missiles. On station in the Atlantic Ocean more than a thousand miles east of New York City, each of these missiles could strike cities on the West Coast of the United States, to a maximum range of 4500 nautical miles.
The improvements to Soviet submarines and missiles triggered two upgrades to the U.S. fleet. The first was the introduction of Lafayette-class submarines in the 1970s. These carried 16 Poseidon missiles with a 2500-nautical-mile range. Then, in 1981, the U.S. Navy commissioned the first Ohio-class submarines, with 24 Trident missiles. By now, Britain, France and China also had strategic submarine capabilities.
To counter the threat posed by strategic submarines, the major powers built attack submarines. Somewhat faster, their mission was to shadow the missile carriers and destroy them before they could unleash their nuclear warheads.
These boats were also equipped to attack surface vessels. The United States was the first to deploy attack submarines, with the Sturgeon class of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Los Angeles and, most recently, Sea Wolf classes. Initially, these boats were equipped with torpedoes and rocket-launched nuclear depth bombs for antisubmarine warfare, and underwater-launched Harpoon missiles for engaging surface ships at 70-nautical-mile distances. Beginning in 1984, both Sturgeon- and Los Angeles-class boats were refitted with longer-range Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of hitting ships at distances of 250 nautical miles. Flying under enemy radar, they could deliver nuclear warheads to targets as far away as 1300 nautical miles.
As with strategic submarines, the Soviets matched U.S. developments. In 1971, they equipped their Charlie-class submarines with the SS-N-7 Star Bright cruise missiles. Launched from underwater, they could knock out ships within a 35-nautical-mile radius. SS-N-19 Shipwreck missiles extended this range to 340 nautical miles. Oscarclass submarines, which entered service in the 1980s, carried two dozen of these weapons. The SS-N-21 cruise missile, which had a range and capability comparable to the Tomahawk’s, began entering the Soviet fleet just as the U.S.S.R. began to break up.
No weapon had a harder time working its way into the world’s arsenal than the tank. Within years of their introduction, aircraft, aircraft carriers and submarines were perfected for combat. Tanks, on the other hand, were repeatedly ignored. Their underlying concept of providing mobile protection and firepower dates to the wheeled siege towers and battering rams used by the Assyrians in the ninth century BCE. In 1484, Leonardo da Vinci sketched out a tank that today’s armored commanders would recognize. In 1855, James Cowen received an English patent for an armed and armored steam-powered tractor.
Forty-five years later, in 1900, John Fowler & Co. of England introduced the first modern self-propelled armored vehicle. Generals in England, France and Austria-Hungary all scoffed at the idea of tracked armored vehicles on the battlefield. But this was before they were introduced to trench warfare. When tanks did appear, it was, oddly, because of the navy, specifically the efforts of Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill. Among his responsibilities was the direction of a working group known as the Admiralty Landships Committee. In September 1915, its efforts produced the first modern tank, Little Willie. Within a year, 100 of its big brothers, Big Willie, or Mark I, tanks, were venturing across the no man’s land between Allied and German forces. On Nov. 20, 1917, 474 British tanks massed for the Battle of Cambrai. At first, they achieved a spectacular breakthrough of the German lines. Then, because they were too slow and had too short an operating range, their efforts faltered.
The next generation of tanks, the British Medium A introduced in 1918, would partially remedy those shortcomings. Capable of traveling at 8 mph, they had an 80-mile range. At the end of World War I, the British had produced more than 2600 of the weapons the generals had so long rejected, and the French nearly 4000. Germany, which would go on to become the master of tank warfare, had a scant 20.
Of the tanks of this era, there was none better than the Renault F.T. Americans liked it so much they copied the design as the U.S. Army’s light tank. In the United States, J.W. Christie pushed the envelope of tank development. By 1928, he had built an experimental model that could race along at 42.5 mph. Another had independent suspension for smoother, faster travel over roads and broken ground. Yet on the eve of World War II, few tanks as we now know them existed. Most were merely armored machine gun platforms. France, which had the most modern, powerful military force in Europe including 2667 tanks, had only 172 tanks armed with large 75mm guns. Mounted machine guns seemed quite logical, since at the time tanks were used principally as infantry support. This changed in World War II, due mostly to the Germans, the late entry in the field of armored warfare.
By 1939, Germany’s paltry force of only 20 tanks had swelled to some 3200. The weapons were formidable, but what made them so valuable was the way they were used. Instead of being divided between infantry and cavalry units, they were massed in formations known as panzer divisions. By the time the United States entered the war, all the combatant nations had reformed their tank forces to follow the German model.
Now began the serious battle of armament, with longer-barreled, larger-caliber cannons and ever-heavier armor. Weighing some 68 tons, Germany’s Tiger would become the heaviest tank used during World War II. The British, who had introduced the tank to combat in World War I, equipped most of their divisions with turretless variants of U.S. M4 Sherman medium tanks. These they armed with a medium-velocity 75mm gun, mounted in the hull because that way it could be put into production more rapidly. Before the war ended, nearly 50,000 M4s were built. The United States also began fielding its M26 Pershing heavy tanks with 90mm guns.
As tanks became more heavily armored, more ingenious methods of piercing their armor were developed. During the Cold War these included the high-explosive antitank shell, a shaped charge with a conical cavity that concentrated its explosive energy into a very high-velocity jet. These were later replaced by an armor-piercing, fin-stabilized, discarding-sabot shell, which bore penetrator cores of tungsten alloy or depleted uranium. Fire control technology kept pace with the development of both armor and antitank rounds. Optical range finders gave way to computer-controlled lasers and thermal imaging.
By the 1970s, armor had also begun to change, away from steel and toward composite materials. In 1982, Israeli tanks first successfully used reactive armor. It consists of a layer of explosive sandwiched between two relatively thin steel plates. When struck, the armor explodes outward, neutralizing the explosive force of a shaped-charge warhead.
The rapid integration of new technology into weapons has led some who are critical of the defense establishment to claim that the military coerced scientists to develop its deadly 20th century arsenals. In truth, the exact opposite occurred. Scientists rushed willingly into the trenches.