Every General since the inception of organised armed military bodies has looked for the edge over his opponents and thus been faced with two important questions: is there some better weapon I can use to make sure I win and when I get it, how do I best utilise it to make victory certain?

I have been following Defence of the Realm’s dogged persistence over the issue of the right type of armoured vehicle for use in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failure, in the teeth of the evidence, of our part-time Defence Minister and his colleagues to act to procure equipment which will adequately protect our troops. DoR’s position has been satisfyingly vindicated by the announcement made concerning our acquisition of 140 Mastiff armoured vehicles.

I have also been much stimulated by the proposition made concerning the nature of air power in an anti-guerrilla campaign such as that being waged in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

It was thus that I paid more than usual attention to a documentary I watched recently which was an unusually detailed examination of the use of air power in the early days of Air Cavalry by the USA in Vietnam circa 1966/67. In brief terms the action involved a rifle company action in which the infantry were detailed off to intercept a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion that was approaching a firebase from the North which then got into difficulties because of the sudden appearance of a second NVA unit in its rear. The opening stage of the action saw the use of heavy jets, Phantoms, to lay some fairly awesome ordnance onto what were believed to be the NVA positions that were still at some distance from the US but as the US Rifle company came to close quarters with the enemy, however, the Phantoms were withdrawn to harry the rear echelons of the NVA units.

In their place to support the Rifle Company at this stage two new sets of players were introduced: in direct support of the infantry on the ground a mix of helicopter types: gunships, troop carriers and CASEVAC. The air element was now switched to two aircraft. Firstly a Forward Air Controller in the shape of the North American OV-10 Bronco, a twin boom, turbo-prop light attack and observation platform that had the ability to loiter on the battlefield for up to four hours. With a maximum speed of 288 MPH (460 KPH) it was able to operate from roadways, even in jungle and it could carry up to 3,600 pounds of assorted bombs, cannon, machine guns and missiles on five weapon attachment points; plus 1,200 pounds of bombs on two underwing pylons. Wing pylons could also carry missiles or external fuel tanks. Judging from the film it had the ability to turn on a sixpence and as well as its FAC role could supplement the efforts of the second aircraft in the mix with a diverse weapons payload.

This second player was the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a tough propeller-driven relic of the 1950s and a direct descendant of the last propeller-driven aircraft of World War 2. Mounting 4 x 20mm cannon it could carry up to 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) of ordnance on 15 external hardpoints including bombs, torpedoes, mine dispensers, unguided rockets, or gun pods. With a top speed of 320 MPH (520 KPH), it had large straight wings which gave it an excellent low speed manoeuvrability, and enabled it to carry a tremendous amount of ordnance over a considerable combat radius. For its size it had a substantial loiter time, comparable to much heavier subsonic or supersonic jets and was optimised for the ground-attack mission being armoured against ground fire in key locations.

One important point was made concerning the suitability of these two aircraft which was that in a narrow winding valley such as the location of this battle, the last thing one wanted when there were slow helicopters milling about were a lot of fast jets, so the Bronco and the Skyraiders were ideal in terms of speed to complement the Huey, Cobra and Sikorski ‘Jolly Green Giants’ that were occupying the same air space. The second advantage was that because of their slower speeds they could out-manoeuvre the fast jets in a small confined space and thus drop ordnance with pinpoint accuracy within 100 yards of friendly troops.

What was interesting about the film, which as I say was c. 1967, was that a quite sophisticated set of tactics had been swiftly evolved from the inception of Air Cavalry using a mix of old and new equipment, tactics that benefited from being kept reasonably simple. Net result on this occasion: two NVA battalions destroyed in detail for relatively low casualties in the infantry and no aircraft lost.

Having watched the film I found myself persuaded of the case advanced by Defence of the Realm, not least because the much lower costs associated with the propeller and turbo-prop aircraft could give a much greater bang per buck ratio than fiercesomely expensive hi-tech fast jets, which still have a place but only as part of a more layered whole.

The other point raised by DOR was the issue of getting the doctrinal issues sorted out. Perhaps the classical example of how having the right equipment without the right doctrine can still lead to complete defeat is the sad story of how the two opposing sides used armour in France and Flanders in 1940.

German Tank doctrine had been developed in the 1930s by Heinz Guderian who believed in the use of dedicated armoured divisions that would strike through or round enemy positions to emerge in their rear where they would be able both to attack their units from the rear and destroy their line of communications and logistics. In order to do so the armour would be concentrated and accompanied by armoured infantry (panzergrenadiers) who would clear out any problematic pockets of resistance that could impede the armour’s advance.

Following up behind would be the motorised infantry and artillery and horse-drawn transport: brought up as we are to regard ‘blitzkrieg’ as entirely a product of swiftly-moving armour, it comes as a surprise to discover that for most of the war the German Wehrmacht continued to be moved largely by horse. At least one Tank Commander captured in France, being a keen judge of horseflesh, examined the horses of a German horse artillery battery, only to discover that every one of the mounts bore British Army Quarter-Master identification marks: the German Commander explained that they had all been bought at Melton Mowbray before the war when made redundant upon the mechanisation of the British Army!

It was this heady combination which broke through at Sedan and cut through Northern France like a knife through butter, one of the armoured corps, XIX Corps, being led with great élan by one Heinz Guderian.

Another surprise to many is that, in fact, Britain and France had as many tanks as Germany, most of which were technically the equal of or better than German tanks: the French Somua and the Char B1 bis were considered by many the equal of anything Germany had. But British and French doctrine on the use of tanks had not much changed since the Great War and thus were used in small numbers directly to support infantry, individual Troop-sized units being dispersed all over the battle field and not concentrated as German units were. They had plainly not taken to heart the message of Guderian’s seminal book on tank tactics, Achtung Panzer!, which laid out with clarity how the Germans would use armour in the next war, a state of affairs largely confirmed by the Poland campaign had they but studied the reports of that affair. Instead, spread out all over the place as no more than armoured artillery to support the infantry, they were picked off piecemeal. Had they been concentrated into, say, four or five dedicated armoured divisions which were then deployed south of the German line of advance they could have then driven into their lines of communications, composed of a mass of soft-skinned vehicles and horse-drawn transport.

The massacre would have been considerable and the German offensive soundly defeated or at least beaten to a stalemate. It was fear of this which led more conservative German Generals than Guderian such as von Runstedt and Kleist (Guderian’s commander) and Hitler himself to order a series of pauses as the advance to the coast went on and when the coast was reached, to issue a controversial halt order, inter alia to enable the southern flank of the advance to be protected against such an eventuality. But the Allies had already wasted their tanks in penny packets: right equipment, wrong doctrine, defeat.

The fact that we are doing the Afghan war on something of a shoestring means that, if we are close to having the right mix of equipment in theatre, we have to get the doctrine right quickly, preferably first time. And if we do, then we stand the best chance of defeating the Taleban in short order. Get it wrong and we will be mired for ever and a day in an increasingly unpopular war.

I end with another anecdote about horses. When the 14th./20th. King’s Royal Hussars deployed to Bosnia in the 1990s they contrived, as cavalrymen will do, to find an excuse to hire some horses for operational purposes: after all Main Battle Tanks do not mix well with closely-contoured mountains whereas horses are excellent for patrolling such terrain. So The Hussars became the first British units to use horses on active service in this way since the Syrian and Iraq campaigns of 1941. Their saddles and tack were carefully inspected: all of it bore marks identifying it all as having been in use by the German Wehrmacht in 1941-1942, a clear proof of the maxim that what goes around comes around.