The Moorish Wanderer

Blitzkrieg in the Desert

Posted in Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Moroccanology, Read & Heard, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on September 18, 2010

Reading “Achtung Panzer” is intellectually very refreshing. Guderian as staff officer, as well as field commander in the trenches, made very good use of all the accounts made of the various -and strangely enough not as rare as one might think- mobile operations in the Western front during the Great War. The result was this book, the very one that provided the theoretical framework for the development of Panzer Divisionen (Armoured Divisions), those that wreaked havoc in Western Europe, Russia and North Africa during World War II. For those with little or no knowledge of Blitzkrieg tactics, or Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, let me go through some preliminary work here. Not so much on the man himself, more of the general framework he set for the Panzers.

General Heinz Guderian, 1888-1954

Guderian has a very unique background. As a cadet, he was assigned to a Jäger Bataillon (10th), Jäger roughly translates to light infantry (like the French Chasseurs, or British Green Jackets), an army corps that bears traditions of stealth, speedy actions and high marksmanship skills, and enjoyed moreover a respectable reputation among the Imperial German Army (The napoleonic Befreiungskrieg of 1813 founded this noble tradition). He then joined the communications troops, both experiences during which he learnt how crucial a condition reliable communications can represent when an armed force is preparing for an organized operation, let alone a decisive offensive. He was not the only one to provided detailed thoughts on mobile warfare at the time: both C. De Gaulle, as well as B. Liddell-Hart also discussed the matter in equally technical terms in the early 1930’s. Anyway, in his book, he describes how a Panzer unit should function: “The characteristics of armoured vehicles ought to correspond to the way we intend to employ them. We will categorize and describe them accordingly:
a) By far the greater number of armoured vehicles should be destined for combat […] We call these machines Panzerkampfwagen (tanks)[…] They are categorized […] more usefully by their primary armament as machine-gun, light, medium or heavy-gun tanks
b) Armoured reconnaissance vehicles (Panzerspähwagen) are used for scouting and they need accordingly have a higher turn of speed than tanks […]
c) Special tasks require appropriately specialized vehicles. This has given rise to amphibious tanks for swimming across water, radio tanks or command vehicles for signals and transmission of orders, bridge laying and mine-plough tanks for engineers” (p.136-137).  This can indeed be found in the pre-1942 standard Panzerdivision. The unit fielded a quite comprehensive aggregate of units:
– 1 Panzer regiment with 3 Armoured squadrons (2 medium Panzer III to each heavy Panzer IV)
– 1 Artillery regiment with three battalions (Regimental Anti-tank weapons, Anti-aircraft and Support artillery)
– 1 Motorized Infantry Brigade made up of 4 Regiments (Panzer Schützen) and a small Motorcycle squad (Kradschützen)
– 1 Assault Engineer battalion
– 1 Division Anti-tank Artillery battalion
– 1 Reconnaissance regiment (Aufklärung)
– 1 Field Hospital Unit
– 1 Replacement Unit

The concentrated attack on a specific (usually weak) point on the enemy front maximizes the likelihood of a breakthrough.

As it were, the Blitzkrieg was well carried out (and WW2 American generals, like the famous G.S. Patton put it well to practise against the Germans prior and after D-Day). Indeed, with a concentrated fire-power, the tanks, with heavy and close air support, could breakthrough the enemy lines, followed closely by the infantry to exploit and secure the push further, all the way to enemy headquarters were communications have already been disrupted and the battle won with minimum cost. The Blitzkrieg also called upon the secrecy of Commando units in order to confuse even more the opposite side and secure strategic points such as bridges or field depots. Units like the Brandburgen battalion were notoriously famous for their behind-enemy lines missions.

After 1945, Desert warfare and contemporary military strategists did apply Blitzkrieg: Indeed, the 1941-1943 Africa front provided the Blitzkrieg with the most “clean” battlefield ever, as well as the harshest logistic problems ever, though it had been carefully recorded for future use. And there it was: the Cold War, beside its nuclear-deterrent aspect, was likely to have a prelude of huge-scale tank battles (Ironically, Germany was to be the battleground): according to declassified US Congress papers, both NATO and Warsaw pact armies maintained large units of mechanized and armoured troops: mid-1970s, the Soviets lined up 168 divisions, 45 of which were armoured, and 115 motorized infantry with 27 battle-ready units stationed in East Germany and Hungary. All in all, the Soviets had at least 70 battle-line divisions on the borders, broadly allocated to the Fulda Gap) NATO also fielded comparable outfits (around 38 Armoured divisions). In the immediate conventional engagements preceding Nuclear War, the units involved would have involved large numbers of tanks, a reciprocate Blitzkrieg as it were. Things changed however, mainly because of the Arab-Israeli wars. Arab armies, supplied with Soviet hardware and heavily influenced by their tactics, built up large stocks of armoured units, but failed to put them to battle, mainly because of the dominant Israeli air force superiority. Even in 1973, when Egyptian tanks moved forward out of AA missiles “umbrella” that protected them so effectively, tank superiority did nothing to prevent Sharon’s task force to infiltrate the Egyptian front, thus trapping their 3rd Army in Sinai. The 1991 Gulf War also proved that large tank units were quite ineffective against an enemy with absolute air superiority. Actually, this was already the case in WW2: during Bocage operations that followed the Normandy landings, and even though German tanks were far superior in quality and fire power to British and American tanks, the Panzers failed to complete their objectives because of the huge damages Allied ground-attack planes inflicted upon them. Tanks however remain a crucial battle component, current strategists tend to confirm their role as spearhead units, but confined to small outfits and to precise objectives, With all the drawbacks and advantages all modern armies could benefit from (including the Forces Armées Royales – FAR). The present wars and military operations are conducted with Cold-War era hardware (the French army, in particular, sees little overseas use for its 50-tons AMX Leclerc) which is not always fit for the new asymmetric warfare. I would also like to venture some thoughts on the present situation in the Sahara, and on the future military capabilities and strategies our Armed Forces might forecast.

As the late King Hassan II said: “[…] sur le plan de la guerre du désert […] l’armée marocaine est actuellement, sinon la meilleure, du moins la seule vraiment opérationnelle” (Jeune Afrique Interview, 1985) the Moroccan Army has a proven record of experience in Desert warfare. Whether with the MLA Sahara raids in 1955-1958, or with the FAR against the Algerian-Polisario units in 1976-1991. For the latter, the Moroccan army suffered painful experiences before it reached the solution of erecting successive defensive walls to prevent Polisario raids, and thus benefiting from the advantages of static warfare. One can always use a bit of historical background on these matters.

Green March and ensuing military actions

After the Green March, General Ahmed Dlimi started moving in FAR units, and the first military clashes with Polisario guerilla occurred as early as February 1976 (meaning just after the Spanish authority over the Western Sahara was De Facto abolished). The FAR were not ready for that sort of warfare, because of many reasons. Their embryonic structure did not allow for large scale operations Indeed the putsch attempts of 1971-1972 led to a severe purge among high-ranking (and usually quite competent) officers that left the Army with virtually no General Staff, and could not, on its own, hold a virtual battlefield of about 170.000 km² (Rio De Oro was controlled by Mauritania until 1979) with a total number of 90.000 soldiers and officers of all branches (1976 figures, IISS). Even when concentrating on vital centres (coastal cities and the phosphate mines in Boukrâa or Guerguarat, the famous “Useful Triangle”), the FAR could not prevent the Polisario from undertaking successful raids, even in non-disputed Moroccan sectors: Tan Tan was reportedly occupied for several hours in January 1979. If anything, the Moroccan army suffered from a costly war (about $1million was daily spent on military operations), even though it was superior in manpower, equipment and training compared to the Polisario, or to the 55.000-strong Algerian Army. Small-scale tank and artillery duels took place -twice in Amgala- between the Moroccan and Algerian forces (Mauritanian forces were involved as well, but Southwards and they quickly pulled out). However, many countries, not only Algeria, supported the Polisario: Libya supplied money and weapons, Cuba and some Warsaw pact countries provided training and hardware as well.

Landrover Mk-1965. One of the main vehicles belligerents used over the war period

However, and until 1983, desert warfare was highly mobile, though not entirely of Blitzkrieg nature. The Polisario, during the early stages of the war, was not organized into a modern-shaped army. It had more common aspects with the late MLA, i.e with Camel-borne infantry, light armament and very few professional military personnel. The Spanish withdrawal provided them with a batch of former Tropas Nomadas NCOs and soldiers, who deserted with modern weapons and considerable field knowledge. The raids were therefore carried out on Jeeps and battle trucks, increasing further their range, autonomy and the inflicted damages on Moroccan strongholds. As a matter of facts, both Morocco and Mauritania hold on to small urban centres, while the Polisario virtually  roamed carefree the desert. The war was therefore fought on the tiny supply lines convoys followed to deliver the much needed hardware and supplies as well as on the bridgeheads both countries were seeking to defend.

In 1979, the FAR sought to capture the initiative, after Mauritania’s withdrawal. A 12.000 men strong Taskforce, Uhud Brigade, was put together. the brigade was heavily mechanized, consisting of MBTs such as M-60s,  T-72, light recce tanks (AMX-13) and Armoured transport (Ratel, M113). This unit, while considerably mobile and well supplied, did not much to prevent any further raids. the Moroccan-style blitzkrieg, because it confined itself to the Mauritanian and Algerian borders, did not achieve satisfactory results because of a number of reasons, among which the imperative of holding the “ground”. Because Morocco has territorial claims, it was politically compelling for them to occupy the whole territory, as a symbol of asserted sovereignty. That meant large numbers of stationed personnel, with all the logistical structure that follows. the Polisario, on the other hand, considered itself to be a liberation movement, and in this case, led an attrition war, the objective of which is to force the FAR to withdraw (like the Mauritanian army in the Rio De Oro mid-1979); Meanwhile, it didnot not need to occupy front-line territory. Things started to change a bit in 1982. Indeed, the first of 6 defensive walls was built, and successive walls brought the war to a static fashion until the ceasefire in 1991. Meanwhile, the Polisario also changed their tactics following the supplies they got: the raids were more like cavalry charges, with T-55 and T-62 tanks that increased further raid ranges, but increased also dependence on oil and fuel (especially with the Algerians and Libyans). Static war, with fixed and continuous fortified positions prevented further raids, and vast minefields left a no man’s land strip in which Polisario troops could no longer threaten FAR positions.

Sucessive Defense Walls, 1982-1987

In a static war, the side with the most numerous troops and the closest to supply lines and depots wins it all, which was the case for Morocco. By 1991, the ceasefire was a de facto field victory for Morocco, though it still continues to pay heavy price in terms of immobilized personnel and monetary cost.

What about now? Is the Moroccan army ready to deliver in a world where all military paradigms have been completely ? Beforehand, let us have a look to their present strength. Before I go on, I must point out that the present data is public; The International Institute for Strategic Studies publishes an “annual report of assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 170 countries world-wide. It is an essential resource for those involved in security policy-making, analysis and research”. the 2010 figures shows the following:
* Forces Armées Royales (ground forces): 175.000
1 Security Light Brigade
12 Independent Armoured Battalions
8 Regiments + 3 Mechanized Brigades
35 Standard Infantry Independent Battalions
1 Mountain Troops Independent Battalions
4 Commandos Independent Units
2 Paratrooper Brigades
11 Artillery Independent Battalions
7 Engineer Independent Battalions
2 Airborne Independent Battalions
1 Air Defence Independent Battalion
1 Battalion + 1 Cavalry squadron Royal Guard
* Marine Royale: 7.800
* Forces Royales Aériennes: 13.000
There are also 20.000 Gendarmerie Royale, and 30.000 Forces Auxiliaires (under the Interior Ministry’s supervision)
a) The ground forces material consists of the following:
Main Battle Tanks (MBT): 40 T-72, 220 M-60A1, 120 M-60A3, around 200 M-48A5 (in store)
Light Tanks: 5 AMX-13, 111 SK-105 Kuerassier
Recon Vehicles: 38 AML-60-7, 190 AML-90, 80 AMX-10RC, 40 EBR-75, 16 Eland, 20 M1114 HMMWV (Humvees)
Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicles: 10 AMX-10P, 30 MK III-20 Ratel-20, 30 MK III-90 Ratel
Armoured Personnel Carriers: 400 M-113A1/A2, 45 VAB VCI and 320 VAB VTT
Selp-Proppelled Guns: 5 105mm Mk 61, 217 155mm, 84 M-109A1/M109A1B, 43 M-109A2, 90 (AMX) Mk F3,  60 203mm M-110
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Drone): R4E-50 Skyeye.

The ground troops, as shown, are relatively well equipped, save perhaps for the Main Battle Tanks, as both M60 and M48 tanks, that make up for 2/3 of the overall tank force, are obsolete tanks, even when retro-fitted. Unless the tanks were needed for home defence, investment spendings should indeed go somewhere else. As a member of the United Nations, Moroccan troops are often required to intervene overseas, such interventions require high levels of training, as well as suitable hardware and individual gears: planes and ships for troops transport, adaptable and standardized sets of weapons and gears for theatres of operations. In 2010, Morocco committed troops in the following locations:
KFOR (Kosovo): 222-strong infantry detachment
MONUC (Democratic Congo): 836-strong Mechanized infantry battalion + Field hospital unit.
UNOCI (Côte D’ivoire): 726-strong Infantry battalion

Overall, Morocco committed the equivalent of a regiment. Official pictures often portray Moroccan soldiers and officers either in Leopard camouflage or standard drab-green outfit, both of which are quite obsolete and battle-ineffective. There is little information on how military allowances are spent, although the report caught a glimpse of some deals: In 2008, Morocco ordered ships and planes from Italy, France, Netherlands and the US.

Moroccan Orders: Transport & Fighter/Ground attack Planes, Fast Frigates & Frigate Helicopter

The recent upgrades the Moroccan army undertook the few past years do not consider ground forces as a priority; indeed, significant investments were made to modernize the sea and air fleets, which only reflects the immediate requirements of Morocco’s security: as a close neighbour of the European Union, Morocco, alongside other North-African countries, are the vanguard border of Schengen community. The fleet needs new type of vessels, those that can operate quickly along the coasts in order to intercept illegal immigrant as well as drug smugglers. the Navy moves therefore from a defensive and purely military paradigm, to that of policing and border-guarding role. Things are a bit tricky for the air force. It seems the recent purchase of F-16  might be construed as an attempt to further air supremacy, a doctrine that proves to be useful when battle is engaged on the ground. I am not a military strategist, but it seems that Morocco has a fair chance against, say Algeria when it comes to air warfare; The Algerian Air Force has 196 operational aircrafts, 134 of them are Ground-attack planes. Morocco, on the other hand, has 89 aircrafts, many of which are quite capable of intercepting the ground attack planes, but surely not enough to provide air cover in case of a major military showdown. The direction in which military investment moves, it seems, is for air supremacy. Air Defence too should be upgraded towards a substantial missile arsenal, rather than AA guns (for reference, Air Defence fields the following equipment:  (119 SAM, 12 Tunguska 2K22M SPAAGM, 37 M-48 Chaparral, 70 portable SA-7 Grail, 60 M-163 Vulcan and radar network).

It is worthy to note that military hardware usually denotes of a preference in strategic thinking. These purchases do reflect that as well. The lack of upgrade in other pieces of equipment, is almost as hinting as the earlier. the Army, by adopting autonomous brigade organization, has the means to move to a more flexible approach in terms of units and inter-arms cooperation. Indeed, one can take a look to the way foreign outfits such as the US Marine Corps, organize arms interoperability. The British Chief of Staff also circulated a paper earlier this year, calling for a radical re-thinking of defence policy, and therefore units’ organization within the Strategic Defence Review. This comes as an echo to an earlier paper circulated in 2003, whereby number of troops should be reduced, but more importantly, the ability to provide “tailored” outfits for specific operations, incorporation of infantry battalions into multi-arms regiments and a switch from armoured to reconnaissance criterion. These of course are not applicable to Morocco, for we still need a comparatively large garrison in the South, but there is also a need for autonomous self-sufficient units that can operate in long range and constant air support. And finally, we need smaller yet more effective units that can be deployed everywhere in the world as part of UN or non-UN peacekeeping missions. That effectively means equipment scrap, and more efficient use of money on defence in fewer but newer and more effective equipment.

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  1. World Wide News Flash said, on September 19, 2010 at 00:19

    Blitzkrieg in the Desert « The Moorish Wanderer…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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