The blitzkrieg was a form of military operation developed by an innovative member of the German military - Heinz Guderian - shortly before World War II. It was based on the concept that victory in battle could be achieved with the rapid movement of concentrated mechanized forces supported by close air support as a surrogate for fixed artillery. The blitzkrieg was based on concepts born during but misused in World War I: the tank (panzer), infantry in mechanized troop transports and trucks, mechanized artillery (artillery guns mated with tank chassis), and dive bombers and light bombers for close air support (destruction of front-line enemy troops and vehicles) and interdiction (destruction and disruption of supply lines). Blitzkrieg worked this way: overwhelming mechanized force was concentrated at weak points in the enemy's lines, often with attacking tanks arrayed in a wedge formation. Once through the enemy's main line of resistance (often at several points), the mechanized forces then penetrated deep into the enemy's rear, letting speed and confusion in the enemy's ranks take care of exposed flanks and typically enveloping troop concentrations and urban areas in broad pincer movements. Follow-on forces (non-mechanized infantry) then dealt with reducing the resulting pockets of resistance. Therefore, the blitz attack was less like a boxer throwing bludgeoning blows all over an opponent's body with his fists than it was like slicing deep into an opponent's guts with a sword or two.
Key elements to the blitzkrieg's success were shock and surprise, fluidity of the battlefield environment, initiative and flexibility among junior and senior officers on the battlefield, rapid movement into the enemy's rear echelons (especially at night), tactical air superiority, and limited self-sufficiency of the mechanized units (gas enough for 150-200 kilometers of movement, nine days worth of ammunition and provisions). As some erroneously believe, the blitzkrieg did not depend on superior tanks to win the day. In fact, German tanks on average were inferior to French tanks in 1940 and German forces depended heavily on Czech light tanks in the Polish, French, Russian, and African campaigns. The blitzkrieg was a radical, innovative style of warfare that appealed to the unorthodox mind of Adolf Hitler, who had seen the failure of static trench warfare firsthand in Flanders. It also appealed to German planners for a less well known reason: quick defeat of enemy forces was necessary for an economy that was not yet on a war footing. German war production did not hit its stride until 1942-43; blitzkrieg solved the problem of the lack of industrial capacity and stocks of materiel necessary to fight a prolonged war. The Germans used blitzkrieg tactics to startling effect in Poland (1939), France (1940), Russia (1941), and the Ardennes (1944), although technically speaking, true blitzkrieg ala Guderian was used only in the first two campaigns (Guderian would later be sacked for disagreeing with Hitler's decisions in Russia).
Are coalition forces using blitzkrieg against the Iraqis? Yes and no. For obvious reasons, we no longer call it blitzkrieg. In fact, the modern US version of blitzkrieg was developed by innovators like George S. Patton, Jr. Patton raised mechanized warfare to a level the Germans could only dream of. The Germans never successfully mechanized all of their divisions and most artillery and supply units remained horse-drawn throughout the war. Because of our industrial capacity and the general familiarity of Americans with trucks and automobiles, American ground forces - though slow to develop - would be entirely mechanized (even cavalry units gave up their horses in favor of light tanks and armored cars). Patton put this to good use in training exercises in Louisiana and California that stressed speed of movement and close coordination of armor, mechanized artillery, and air support. With a great sense of irony, Patton borrowed the motto of Hitler's beloved Frederick the Great: "L'audace, L'audace, Toujour L'audace" (Audacity, Audacity, Always Audacity). By the time the breakout from Normandy occurred in August, 1944, Patton's Third Army was ready to unleash the full fury of American-style blitzkrieg on the concept's creators. After Patton's success in the pursuit across France, in the Battle of the Bulge, and in the Saar-Moselle Triangle, it is little wonder that in the Germans' view he was the Allied general most to be feared.
After World War II, American forces did not have an opportunity to fight the kind of battle that Patton had developed. Except for a brief time during the Korean War (after the Inchon landings and the drive to the Yalu River), America would not be in a position to practice blitz-like tactics. However, in response to the Vietnam debacle, the US Army revisited the idea. In the US Army Field Manual FM 100-5, Operations (August, 1982), the doctrine of "AirLand Battle" was born. Based on the lessons of the mechanized warfare learned in World War II, Korea, and the Middle East, the AirLand Battle doctrine is designed to defeat the enemy on the field of battle and destroy his will to resist by using fast, slashing attacks of coordinated, concentrated, and overwhelming land and air forces that will strike not only the enemy's front-line troops but deep into the enemy's rear echelons as well. Like the classic blitzkrieg, the AirLand Battle doctrine stresses initiative, agility, and synchronization on a fluid battlefield. Added to the arsenal are the employment of Naval bombardment (by battleship, cruiser, and destroyer guns and now cruise missiles) and Marine amphibious forces. Using the overwhelming destructive capacity of modern weapons and superior tactics, the AirLand Battle can be unleashed anywhere, anytime, and from any direction. Its goal is nothing less than victory by the devastating and crushing use of force. AirLand Battle is fast and deadly and the weapons available to today's commanders would turn Patton several shades of green with envy. Just about every weapon in our inventory is superior to its counterpart in other armies. The M1A2 Abrams main battle tank is virtually impervious to enemy weapons, can kill from over two miles away in almost all weather conditions - day or night - and is so fast and quiet that Iraqis during Desert Storm called it "Whispering Death." Even outdated systems like the A-10 Thunderbolt - which military planners keep threatening to mothball - has no peer in the air above the modern battlefield. Also, our troops are more mobile than any other force on earth. Before, the "deep operation" was the sole province of air forces; now, most of the systems developed for the AirLand Battle doctrine - such as the modern air cavalry and troop carriers like the M2A3 Bradley - give our Army and Marine forces free range to penetrate deeper behind enemy lines than ever before.
The "Hail Mary" left hook of armored forces during Desert Storm and the present sweep of the 7th Cavalry deep into Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom are classic examples of the AirLand Battle doctrine in action. The 7th Cavalry has swept past significant areas of Iraqi resistance and urban areas and has enveloped them in pockets that will be reduced by infantry and Marine units. When you listen to the battle reports coming out of the embedded press corps, you should not be misled when they say a unit like the 7th Cavalry has "captured" or "taken" this port or that town. They may have "surrounded" or "isolated" such places, but they have as yet to be subdued. The ports of Umm Qasr and al Basrah may be surrounded, but they will not be under our control for several more days and then only after hard urban fighting by American and British units. You also should be aware that blitzkrieg tactics used by the Germans and later by American forces typically resulted in very few casualties until stiff resistance in fixed defensive positions that could not be bypassed was encountered or until it came time to eliminate the trapped pockets of enemy resistance. Air supremacy over the battlefield will make a huge difference in the coming days in Iraq, but the potential for large numbers of casualties has only just begun. Add to that the reality that another armored division (1st Cavalry?) and at least one airborne division (101st "Screaming Eagles"?) probably will be moved in for the final assault on Baghdad and the number of potential battlefield casualties rises considerably. The hope, of course, is that our overwhelming technological, doctrinal, and (let's face it) spiritual superiority will win the day before more coalition troops and considerably more Iraqis die.
Created April 14, 2003