Pondering the Battle of Bicocca

Posted by the chieftain of seir on Mar 10th, 2006


Pondering the Battle of Bicocca


Be careful that victories do not carry the seed of future defeats.
Ralph W. Sockman


When I think about the mercenary Swiss armies of the 15th and 16th centuries it always brings to my mind the post Desert Storm American Air Force. This association is odd, to say the least. The charge of the Swiss pike formations has little resemblance to a dogfight or a bombing campaign. The efforts of the US Air Force to avoid civilian casualties would have been totally alien to the take-no-prisoners Swiss. But the association did not spring to my mind by comparing the tactics and ethos of the Air Forces and the Swiss, but by the effect that they had on their enemies.

Both the Swiss armies and the US Air Force succeeded in overturning conventional wisdom and in establishing a reputation of being invincible. Before Desert Storm, the Thanh Hoa Bridge cost the Americans 10 planes and took over to 800 sorties to take out. After Desert Storm the dying Soviet empire and the Chinese realized that their air forces were completely outclassed. In a similar manner, the Swiss before their defeat of Charles the Bold were just a bunch of rebellious mountain men who had thrown off their masters. After their defeat of Charles the Bold they took on a reputation of invincibility.

What was so shocking about Desert Storm was not that the US won the war but how easy it was for them. The quality of the air frames in the American inventory did not out class those of the rest of world by any significant margin. Many of them were planes that had flown in Vietnam with much less success than they had in Desert Storm. Furthermore, the Iraqis had a very sophisticated air defense system that ranked right up there with anything the Soviets or the Chinese possessed. It wouldn’t ever have occurred to anyone before Desert Storm that the only planes the Americans would lose would be to lucky AAA fire. It never occurred to anyone that the Iraqis would be absolutely helpless to interfere with the American bombing campaign.

The mistake everyone made was paying too much attention to the air frames, and not enough to the improvements that were made to ordinance, command and control, and surveillance. For example, The Thanh Hoa Bridge was finally destroyed by an early laser guided bomb. But that success happened towards the end of the Vietnam War and was over shadowed by the previous failures. But even though nobody noticed, changes like that increased the effectiveness of the US Air Force many times over. In fact, even though American allies were flying the same planes as the US was during the campaign against Yugoslavia, the US Air Force considered their help to be next to worthless. Without ordinance, command and control, or surveillance capabilities that came anywhere near to what the US could do, they were like a little kid trying to help–always getting in the way, but never able to do anything.

The story of the Swiss army is somewhat similar to that of the First Gulf War. Charles the Bold was the duke of Burgundy. He had one of the most modern armies in Europe. Charles’s nominal master, the king of France was afraid of him. In fact, Charles beat Louis XI on the field of battle and compelled him to give more territory to Charles. Not satisfied with that, he picked a fight with Swiss. He made sure that the fight was personal by hanging some Swiss soldiers even though they had surrendered. The Swiss destroyed him in almost the same amount of time it took America to expel Iraq from Kuwait.

Just as no one expected the US Air Forces to be as effective as it was, no one expected the Swiss to utterly thrash Charles. Swiss did not have any weapons that were not commonly available. Nor did they have exceptionally large armies. But their speed, discipline, and skill with their weapons shocked Europe. For forty-odd years after the fall of Charles the Bold, no one could figure out how to beat them. Enemies would often try to bribe them, rather than meet the “invincible Swiss” on the field of battle.

The invincible Swiss did not stay invincible forever. They lost their reputation at the Battle of Bicocca to Fernando de Avalos and some outnumbered Spanish arquebusiers who shot them like the proverbial fish in a barrel. The common explanation for the Swiss defeat at Bicocca is that the Swiss failed to adapt to the rise of gun powder. Certainly, the US Air Force would understand the battle that way. By their reading of history, those who fail to stay on top of the arms race are doomed to lose. People within the US Air Force are at the forefront of those calling for the transformation of the American military, so as to make better use of the latest technology. Technology is considered to be so important that current plans call for cutting the number of troops, in order to pay for programs that “modernize” American armed forces.

But as I ponder the battle of Bicocca and the downfall of the Swiss reputation, I find this explanation to be far too simplistic. Historians say that the Swiss were doomed by their failure to adapt to gunpowder weapons, yet the Swiss where among the earliest adopters of the arguebus. Nor did Charles the Bold’s large train of artillery save him from the Swiss. Many people also claim that Marignano showed that Swiss could not deal with the improving cannon of the early 1500’s. But the Swiss defeat at Marignano had more to do with luck than it did the French cannon. At Marignano, the French outnumbered the Swiss and were fighting on terrain that favored the French. And yet, the French still would have lost if the German mercenaries had not been fighting with the French, if the Italians had not arrived when they did, or if the French King had died on one of the charges he had to make to keep his line from collapsing. To say that even with all of these advantages and strokes of luck the French still would have lost had they not had so much artillery is undoubtedly true. But it hardly proves that the Swiss could not handle the rise of gunpowder. If things had gone just a little bit differently, the French king’s artillery would have been no more effective than the cannon of Charles the Bold.

Ironically, it seems that the Swiss decreased the number of firearms they used as time went on. At Morat in 1476, they had 5 firearms for every 5 pikes. Yet, by the time of Bicocca, the Swiss seemed to have at most 1 firearm for every 4 pikes. The reason for the increasing reliance of the Swiss on the pike was not because they were poor or technologically illiterate, but because they were so successful. Swiss gunmen were useful for softening up the enemy, but they were never clearly superior to their rivals. Swiss pike men, on the other hand, were never matched. Victory after victory taught the Swiss that they could win all battles by pushing their pikes. Therefore, the Swiss began to increasingly rely on a weapon where they had a clear competitive advantage. These victories also led Swiss to rely on only one tactic: the frontal advance in formation at great speed, for which pikes were well suited. They failed to develop any tactics that would make use of the gun powder weapons that they already had. These choices seemed intelligent at the time. They were successful, and people often take what is successful for what is intelligent.

What defeated the Swiss was not the appearance of gunpowder weapons, or even the improvement of gunpowder weapons. Rather, it was a matter of tactics. By focusing so narrowly on their own competitive advantage, the Swiss became the proverbial man who only has a hammer and sees every problem as nail. Fernando de Avalos developed tactics that were based around hoping that someone was fool enough to think his troops were a nail. That is why he was able to defeat the Swiss even though they outnumbered him greatly. Swiss tactical failure at Bicocca was really no different than the tactical failure of the Union forces at Fredericksburg. The main difference was that the Swiss had become a one-trick pony as a result of their constant success. Taking away that trick was a blow from which they never really recovered.

If you can accept that analysis of the fall of the Swiss army, it raises questions about the US Air Forces post-Desert Storm. Is the US Air Force’s success causing it to over-focus? Does the US Air Force understand the proper use of new technologies? Many nations who invented or acquired revolutionary military technologies were defeated by that same technology, because they did not understand how to use it. Just because the Air Force has a large technological edge over its rivals does not mean that they understand how to best use those tools. The Swiss and the Spanish both had guns, but the Spanish knew how to use them. Moreover, it could very well be that the successes that the US Air Force has experienced with certain technologies may cause it to over-rely on them.

It may not seem like the Air Force is overspecializing with the broad array of toys it has, or is developing. But just as looking at air frames did not tell the whole story of how the US Air Forces improved pre-Desert Storm, so, too, you will never see signs of the Air Force overspecializing if you just look at the shapes that are flying around in the air. Rather, it is what you can’t see that reveals the overspecialization. To give but one example, during Desert Storm some people in the Air Force still had to navigate by means other than GPS. Now it is questionable whether anything in the US armed forces can navigate without GPS. This is symptomatic of the increasing reliance on satellite based technology within the Air Force.

In one sense, though, American dependence on satellites is a minor issue. The real issue is that almost all of the systems that Air Force has or is developing presuppose that the Air Force will be able to do whatever it wants with the electromagnetic spectrum. Satellites, JSTAR, AWACS, and SOF guys calling targets all use the electromagnetic spectrum in different ways. If an opponent could seriously challenge the Air Forces control of the spectrum, all of those assets would be useless. The Russians and the Chinese have devoted a lot of thought to that very idea. The ironic thing is that only America has as yet a weapon that has proven effective at controlling the Electromagnetic spectrum. Yet, just as the Swiss devoted little thought to how the firearm might affect their use of the pike, the Air Force seems to have given little thought to how this weapon might affect their own use of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The weapon in question is the AGM-88 Harm. Unlike most methods of electronic warfare, this weapon is a relatively conventional missile. Instead of trying to jam or spoof, this missile simply follows radar emissions back to their source and destroys it. Since radar emissions can be detected at far greater ranges than the radar itself can “see”, planes armed with the AGM-88 can destroy radar at little risk to themselves. Because of this missile, the Air Force can bomb any non-nuclear country with impunity. Since Desert Storm, nobody has been able to use radar against the US Air Force with any degree of success.

Most people do not realize what a revolution this is. During the campaign against Yugoslavia, certain people in the news were acting like it was some kind of crisis that Yugoslavia had turned off its radar systems in an attempt to prevent them from being destroyed. Yet during the Vietnam War, the Air Force could only dream of having the North Vietnamese voluntarily turning off their radars. Without radar, SAM systems don’t work. With radar, SAM systems can be very effective at shooting down planes. Soviet-made SAM’s almost cost Israel the Yom Kippur war. In fact, before Desert Storm, SAM’s were such a great fear that the Air Force’s doctrine called for pilots to fly low to avoided radar, even though this increased their vulnerability to passively guided fire. After Desert Storm, Air Force doctrine called for pilots to fly above 10,000 feet because passive fire was the only real threat they faced.

The natural question is, how long is it going to take before someone comes up with a counter measure for this weapon? No one can answer this question for sure, but it is more likely that the AGM-88, and missiles like it, will do away with radar, than it is that a way will be discovered to protect radar. The reason for this is that radar must give off continued emissions in order to work. The only way to stop an anti-radiation missile from following those emissions right back to the source is by trying to switch frequencies or by starting up decoy emissions. These methods did in fact defeat predecessors to AGM-88. But the increase in computing power has made it possible to create missiles that can differentiate between various emitters. Anyone hoping to change that situation has to bet that they can stay ahead of increasing computing power. Attempting to do that brings to mind the plight of Italian armourers as they tried to improve armor faster than gun powder weapons increased their lethality.

If this is true, then the real question: is what is the US Air Force going to do when this technology becomes more wide spread? What if AWACS could be shot down before they can identify their attacker? What if the American Air forces do not dare turn on the radar it uses for theater defense? What happens to ballistic missile defense if turning on radar is an invitation to be shot? What if communication transmissions that control the unmanned drones enabled a missile to target them or worse, their controllers? It may be a while before the Air Forces has to face these issues. But if radar does go the way of the pike, will the Air Force see it coming given how much they have invested in radar and other electronic emissions?

Will the US Air Forces meet their own de Avalos?

5 Responses

  1. Giulio Douhet Says:

    I am not going to bother to take issue with your Swiss history. It is out of my area of expertise and I fail to see how it is relevant to a discussion of modern air power. But I do have issues with your descriptions of possible vulnerabilities in American air power.

    In all your wild speculations you fall prey to a common problem that afflicts all amateurs when they talk about military matters. You confuse the tactical with the strategic. Calculations of real air power are based in the strategic realm. The tactical stuff is just to impress the viewers of CNN.

    The source of the American Air Forces incredible strength over the last 20 years comes ultimately from American’s superior economic performance vs its potential opponents. The various toys that the Air Forces have to play with are simply an outgrowth of that.

    Why should a nation chase after high-tech solutions for the America threat when they will not seriously dent the real source of American power? At most, mastering the technology behind the Harm would enable a potential opponent to shoot down a few more American jets then they otherwise would. Moreover, American did not perfect the technology behind the Harm until the late 90’s. The rest of the world has a ways to go before they catch up with where the Americans were in 90’s.

    Atomic weapons on the other hand were developed in the 40’s and they do threaten the real sources of American power. An atomic weapon will transform even the saddest of air forces into a strategic force. The mere possibility that an atomic bomb may get through a nation’s air defense is enough to destroy public support for a war. Even taking into account your inflated opinion of the technology behind the Harm; do you really think that it would have the same effect?

    And yet the technology to make the Harm is even harder to come by than the technology to make the Atom bomb.

    The two things to always remember when talking about air power are that the strategic will always trump the tactical; and the bomb will always get through eventually.

    Giulio Douhet

  2. The Ethereal Voice » Pondering the Battle of Bicocca Says:

    […] The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead Pondering the Battle of Bicocca By The Chieftain of Seir | January 13, 2007 – 7:24 pm Posted in Category: Politics Pondering the Battle of Bicocca Be careful that victories do not carry the seed of future defeats. Ralph W. Sockman When I think about the mercenary Swiss armies of the 15th and 16th centuries it always brings to my mind the post Desert Storm American Air Force. This association is odd, to say the least. The charge of Click Here to continue reading. […]

  3. Ape Man » Blog Archive » Says:

    […] The Chief pontificated about this issue awhile ago in his first essay. Though he was not focused on the Chinese…. […]

  4. The Chieftain of Seir » Blog Archive » An Apology Says:

    […] I guess the fact that I have put up three posts can be construed as a success. But it is a discouraging sort of success. Writing Pondering the Battle of Bicocca was hard. That was only to be expected. But I was discouraged to find that finishing the posts only got harder as I went along. I really did not finish The Dangers Of Historical Symbolism in even the loosest sense of the word. I threw it out of the door because I could feel myself losing control of it. I came too close to ideas that were important to me, and the phantoms really went haywire. I probably would not have even put it up if it was not such an important part of the trilogy. But it was only an important part because I can’t seem to help playing to my phantoms. No one else would have noticed that it was a necessary part of the trilogy. […]

  5. Good point….. » The Ethereal Voice Says:

    […] As the Chieftain of Seir argued in this essay, the focus on what worked well for US in the past is setting US up for military defeat. […]

Leave a Comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.