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10 Weapons That Changed War Forever

Technology and warfare have been closely linked since someone picked up a rock to attack his neighbor. Weapons have steadily progressed over the centuries becoming more sophisticated and more deadly. From bows and arrows to nuclear tipped ballistic missiles we can trace a number of weapons that had a dramatic effect on the battlefield. When a military force introduces a new weapon its enemies are forced to develop weapons and tactics to defend against it. and usually seek Wars are breeding grounds for new weapons where the combatants engage in a spiraling arms race to defeat the other side. These weapons made such an impact that they changed war forever.

10. We Will Fight In The Shade

When a Greek soldier fighting at Thermopylae was told the attacking Persians would fill the sky with arrows the doomed man is said to have replied,”then we will fight in the shade.” The Greek infantryman considered the bow to be a less than manly weapon, preferring close quarter combat with swords. The origins of the bow and arrow  are found in our prehistoric past stretching back more than 60,000 years. The bow and arrow was used for both hunting and warfare by most primitive tribes. Bows consist of a flexible stave that is bent into a curved position. A string is attached at each end of the bow. An arrow consisting of a shaft and a head can be fitted to the string. When the archer draws the string back energy builds up in the stave until the string is released sending the arrow down range. Tribal peoples of the Eurasian steppes, such as the Mongols and the Huns, perfected the composite recurved bow. This is a relatively compact bow used very effectively by warriors on horseback. The English long bow stood the height of a man and required a robust physique and years of training to master. In Europe the bow and arrow began to be replaced by gunpowder weapons in the 15th century, although primitive examples of handguns can be found in 13th century China.

9. Stand And Deliver

Gunpowder’s origin is a tale of years of frustrating trial and error. Credit is given to 9th century Chinese monks practicing alchemy until they found just the right combination of ingredients. What they found was that particular proportions of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpetre, also known as sodium nitrate, combine to form a chemical explosive. The Chinese built several different kinds of  primitive hand held firearms starting in the 11th century. The Mongols adopted some of the Chinese technology and possibly used it against European armies in the 13th century. Firearms truly began to change warfare forever near the end of the 14th century when European armies started using hand held weapons on the battlefield. The technology advanced in fits and starts, but by the 17th century Europe’s armies had fully embraced the gunpowder revolution and were equipping their soldiers with matchlock muskets. These smoothbore weapons are not very accurate so soldiers were organized into lines to shoot coordinated volleys at the enemy formations. Barrels with lands and grooves, called rifled barrels, gives a bullet spin as it travels down the barrel. This spin makes the weapon much more accurate than smoothbores weapons.

8. Bring The Boom

Gunpowder’s true potential began to be realized when European armies in the 15th century started forging powerful cannons called bombards to smash stone castles. Previously secure fortifications that withstood classical siege engines like battering rams began to fall to these gunpowder weapons that fired large stones to great effect. This realization led to the decline of traditional stone castles as engineers and architects scrambled to design fortifications that could resist cannon fire. Napoleon Bonaparte began his military career as an officer in an artillery unit and as ruler of France he revolutionized the 19th century battlefield with his aggressive use of cannons to gain tactical advantage over his enemies. Cannons are still an important part of 21st century warfare and modern technology has made these weapons increasingly lethal. The U.S. Army and many of its allies field cannons that fire the M982 Excalibur. This is a 155mm extended range guided artillery shell that uses GPS and folding glide fins that gives the weapon a range of up to 35 miles. Some experts believe stealthy attack aircraft and super sonic missiles could soon make traditional artillery obsolete on future battlefields, but armed forces are convinced cannons, more than ever, are capable of bringing the boom.

7. Welcome To The Machine Gun

Richard Jordan Gatling had worked on different gun designs for years before he decided to assemble a cluster of ten barrels that rotated when cranked by a gunner. He perfected his hand cranked “machine gun” just in time for the American Civil War. This was a frightening weapon that devastated the tightly packed infantry formations of the era. As effective as these early machine guns were, they were almost docile when compared to the World War One weapons that terrorized both sides.  With withering rates of fire as high as 600 rounds per minute mud caked troops were stuck in the trench lines separated by No Man’s Land. Between World War One and World War Two the United States military fielded the M2HB machine, an air cooled .50 caliber weapon. This versatile weapon was embraced by all the branches because it could fill a number of roles. They were installed on tanks, bombers, fighter plans and ships. During the Korean war a modified version of the M2HB was used as a sniper rifle. Soldiers have appreciated this gun’s versatility and firepower and it continues to serve with many armed forces around the world.

6. Slow And Steady

Connecticut inventor David Bushnell came up with an idea for a submersible craft after studying ways to detonate explosives underwater. Bushnell was convinced that such a craft could be used to attach underwater mines to British ships docked at American harbors. Governor Trumbull intervened on behalf of Bushnell and convinced General Washington to fund the project. The result of the project was the Turtle. The peculiarly shaped craft was ten feet long and six feet high, had room for one occupant and could hold about thirty minutes worth of air. The Turtle was set loose in New York Harbor in 1776, but it failed to attach any mines to British ships. Although an ingenious weapon for its day, its quaint wood and brass construction  provided only the faintest glimpse of what submarines would eventually become. By the time World War One started in 1914 submarines had become feared predators stalking commercial freighters and passenger liners. Submarines continued to develop and were even more effective during World War Two. The Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine, departed the naval yard at Groton, Connecticut on 17 January 1955 to begin sea trials. 

5. Little Willie

The British developed the first tank in 1915 to try to break a stalemate that had degenerated into bloody trench warfare. The committee that was set up to develop the weapon was headed by Winston Churchill and used names like “land cruisers” and “land ships” to describe the weapons. “Tank,” as in a water tank, was chosen as a codename to conceal its true nature from the Germans. The project was inspired by the Martian war machines described by H.G. Wells in his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. This heavy duty beast weighed in at more than 16 tons, had a crew of seven and was armed with a 40 mm gun and as many as six machine guns. Although the tanks used in World War One were relatively primitive they demonstrated that armored vehicles could smash through enemy lines. The German army saw the true potential of tanks and between the world wars developed new weapons and tactics to exploit it. The German Blitzkrieg or Lightning War used tanks to quickly breach enemy defenses and clear a path for the follow-on motorized infantry units.

4. Meet The Fokker

At the outbreak of World War One in 1914 the British Army had a handful of biplanes used mostly for reconnaissance missions such as spotting targets for artillery units. In the words of one general “The airplane is useless for the purposes of war.” Not everyone agreed with this visionary general and the rest is history. The history of combat airplanes is defined by a constant struggle to balance the technological demands imposed by the laws of aerodynamics. Issues like thrust to weight ratios help dictate what planes look like, how fast they can climb and how many weapons they can carry. The most primitive biplanes flown During WWI had to follow these principles just as closely as a state of the art F-22 Raptor. Planes were first used in combat to shoot down enemy dirigibles, but their role quickly expanded. Aircraft changed the way wars are conceived and how they are fought. The need for air superiority or air dominance over the battlefield has become axiomatic to military planners. Control of the airspace means protection of ground forces, logistical support and the ability to conduct deadly airstrikes. This reality has driven aircraft technology to impressive heights in a century.

3. Project This

During World War One the British converted several freighters into makeshift aircraft carriers capable of launching and landing planes, but they had really no effect on the war. Between the world wars the United States and Japan spent a lot of money building bigger and more powerful aircraft carriers. The American and Japanese carrier fleets met at the Battle of Midway in 1942. The battle was a disaster for the Japanese Navy which lost four of its carriers to American dive bombers. This battle turned the tide in the pacific with Japan increasingly on the defensive. Carriers with dozens of planes could reach and attack the enemy forces while they were still many miles away. Opposing ships often never caught sight of one another, instead they watched the sky for incoming enemy aircraft. Modern aircraft carriers are very big and very expensive, but the American Navy considers them essential in projecting its power around the world. These formidable ships are essentially mobile air bases that can be parked off the coast of an enemy with little warning. This mobility allows them to project power around the world in a way that changed warfare forever.

2. Doomsday Weapons 

In his 1914 novel, The World Set Free, H.G. Wells described the use of nuclear weapons in a future war. Thirty-one years later science fiction became reality when The United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities to end World War Two. The United States’ effort to build nuclear bombs was called the Manhattan Project and was led by Major General Leslie Groves and a UC Berkley scientist named J. Robert Oppenheimer. The Manhattan Project was the most ambitious industrial undertaking up to that time with facilities spread across thirty sites in the United States and Canada. Their efforts were focused on two types of fission weapons: the first was a uranium based gun-type device (Little Boy) and the second was a plutonium implosion device (Fat Man.) In July 1945 a plutonium bomb was tested in the desert outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. The first detonation of a nuclear bomb caused Dr. Oppenheimer to quote the Bhagava-Gita, an ancient Hindu text: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” On 6 August a Little Boy bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and three days later a Fat man bomb destroyed Nagasaki. More than a 100,000 people were killed in the initial explosions.  WWII was over, but atomic bombs didn’t end war they raised the stakes and changed warfare forever.

1. Rise Of The Machines

Computers and the associated information technologies are an ever growing part of everyday life and and are increasingly important to the way governments plan and prosecute wars. The United States set up USCYBERCOM in 2009 to counter the growing threats posed in cyber space by countries like China, Russia and Iran.  Terrorist groups and international criminal organizations have become a growing concern as well. Recent military doctrine has dictated that operations should usually start with coordinated air strikes to damage air fields, air defenses and command and control infrastructure. This phase is starting to be handled by computer programs instead of bombs and missiles. Cyber Warfare occupies a gray area like a cold war where combatants probe and strike in secret and often without acknowledging responsibility. The computer virus known as STUXNET is believed to have been introduced into the Iranian nuclear weapons program through a joint U.S.-Israeli operation. The program interfered with machinery and other equipment causing serious damage. This is only one example of a type of weapon that is still in its infancy, but promises to change warfare for ever.

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